House of Commons
Thursday 26 November 2009
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before questions
Leeds City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill
That the promoters of the Leeds City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill, which were originally introduced in this House in the Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, should have leave to proceed with the bills in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills). —(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2008-09 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House;
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions);
(3) Sittings of the House;
(4) Private Bills and Private Business;
(5) Public Bills;
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders;
(7) European Legislation, etc;
(8) Grand Committees;
(9) Chairmen’s Panel; and
(10) Select Committees.—(The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
I expect the numbers of retirements of parish priests between now and 2015 to be as follows: 224 in 2010, 304 in 2011, 336 in 2012, 310 in 2013, 313 in 2014, and 278 in 2015.
Perhaps that answer reflects the £350 million pension board deficit in the priests’ retirement fund and the consequent need to raise the retirement age to 68. Can my hon. Friend say whether, taking into account deaths and future retirements, the overall trend is for a falling number of stipendiary priests and whether that is balanced out by an increase in the number of non-stipendiaries?
As my hon. Friend will know, as with every other final salary pension scheme the cost of the clergy pension scheme has increased significantly over the past decade because of increased life expectancy, lower investment returns and increased regulation. The Church is committed, however, to ensuring that its clergy receive an adequate income in retirement.
On the second part of my hon. Friend’s question, it is a fact that deaths and retirements mean that the overall number of stipendiary priests has been falling. However, I remind the House of two things: first, the Church is immensely well served by thousands of non-stipendiary clergy; and secondly, it is doing some very good work with vocational events to help people, especially younger people, to explore their calling.
As so many parishes, including my own, are dependent on retired clergy for keeping their services going, is there not a lot to be said for raising the retirement limit and allowing clergy to serve in full post until they are 75?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point, to which at this time I have no answer. However, it is certainly a problem that the Church would like to consider, because we need to deal with it. His suggestion is welcome and I will check it out for him.
We do not keep records of which parishes are rural and which are not. However, I know from the latest edition of “Church Statistics”—the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) will be very aware of this—that there are, on average, 2.1 churches to a benefice, with figures ranging from 1.3 churches per benefice in Portsmouth diocese to 3.6 churches per benefice in Hereford diocese.
Taking that with the hon. Gentleman’s answer to the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), it appears that more parishes are going to be covered by the same stipendiary priests. I know that the Second Church Estates Commissioner has visited Teesdale, where I was brought up, and parishes in North Yorkshire are very similar. Parish priests are extremely hard pressed. What can he do to make their lives a little easier in getting around to administer to parishes?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding us of our last exchange, when I mentioned my visit to Teesdale churches. She asks about stipendiary priests, but I should point out that the Church is also well served by many thousands of others, including non-stipendiary ministers, chaplains and retired clergy. Taking that into account, at the end of 2007 more than 20,000 ministers were licensed by Church of England dioceses—that is one minister for every 2,500 people in England. Is not that a remarkable fact, Mr. Speaker?
I thank my hon. Friend for the information regarding stipendiary and non-stipendiary priests. Does he have a precise figure for how many non-stipendiary priests there are in the Church of England—and may I pay tribute to them? My second late husband, John Hammersley, spent his last four years of working as a Church of England vicar in the Oxford diocese training and preparing for ordination non-stipendiary priests, and he was terribly impressed by their abilities.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the good work that the non-stipendiaries do and how much that work is appreciated in the Church. In response also to the earlier question from the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), the clergy work load is always under review and it is part of the bishops’ pastoral care for the clergy. My hon. Friend’s point is very well made.
Christian Minorities Abroad
Supporting persecuted groups, whether Christian or not, is an integral part of the Church’s work at all levels. Centrally, funds are not separately allocated for that work, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the officers and advisers of the Archbishops Council, together with bishops, dioceses and the officers of the archbishops, provide substantial and continuing support to persecuted Christians abroad.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that positive answer. I know that my own Bishop of Croydon spoke at the international interfaith conference in Kazakhstan a year ago on this matter. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that it is appropriate for the Church to do its very best to draw the attention of the media and Her Majesty’s Government to the persecution of Christians, for example in northern Iraq and in Orissa?
The hon. Gentleman is certainly right about the work that the Church does, which does not get adequate media attention in the age of the 24-hour media, and he refers to his own bishop’s visit. There have recently been killings of Christians in Gojra and tensions in Nigeria, and they are matters of great concern to the Church. The Archbishop of Canterbury has led the response, corresponding with the Pakistani Church and Government, and a delegation led by the Bishop of Bradford will meet Ministers and visit Gojra next month. The idea that we ought to draw the media’s attention to the matter more is positive.
In the past I have travelled to Pakistan and Nigeria with that excellent organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and I must tell my hon. Friend how important Christians abroad view the Anglican Church in this country as being and how much they look to it for leadership. Anything that can be done to increase the budget and our representation in those countries to ensure that they are listened to is vital.
My hon. Friend again draws the attention of the House and the wider world to the excellent work that the Church does in difficult circumstances. He mentions funding, and although the Church Commissioners do not fund that particular work, the Church none the less applies significant resources to it through various budgets, including the expenses budgets of its officers, bishops and archbishops. Clearly, such work takes much time and involves significant travel and other costs, as he is aware, but it is vital work and it is vital that the House is aware of it.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Spending Limits (General Elections)
The Political Parties and Elections Act 2009 has introduced significant changes to the limits on candidates’ spending, including for the first time the concept of a long campaign period during which their spending is regulated. The Electoral Commission issued briefings on the proposals while the Bill was before Parliament, which are available in the Library and on the commission’s website.
The monopoly of political power between the Government and the media threatens not only this place but the grass roots of our politics. Many of us of all parties know of the decline in the membership and activity of local parties. Will the hon. Gentleman make it his aim to extend the ability of the grass roots of our parties to thrive, not least by raising the amount that Members of Parliament can spend on their campaigns locally rather than at national level?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and he has campaigned diligently on the issue over the years. However, as the House has recently considered the matter in some depth as the 2009 Act went through, the Electoral Commission is not currently examining it and sees no opportunity for a review of candidates’ spending before the next general election.
One of the challenges for the Electoral Commission in trying to have a long-term limit on expenditure is not knowing when the general election will be. Has the commission made any representations on, or study of, the benefits of a fixed-term Parliament to making electoral expenditure more predictable?
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
As I told the House on 23 October 2008, Official Report, column 449, the Church provides such advice via the Churchcare and Parish Resources websites. In addition, the lottery providers give specific advice on their own schemes via their websites.
The hon. Gentleman will know that cathedrals, including Lichfield cathedral, have made several applications to people at, for example, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and have often been successful, but when they are unsuccessful, it has cost the cathedrals tens of thousands of pounds. Large applications have to be made and decided upon down in London. Surely, there is an argument for the Commissioners, who are based in London, to have a relationship with the Heritage Lottery Fund, so that they can advise cathedrals around the country.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and has highlighted an important paradox: cathedrals have never been in better condition, nor better cared for, but might soon be at risk if they cannot carry out their planned repairs. In relation to the specific point, he will recall that we had an exchange about Lichfield cathedral’s application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding for a scheme to improve visitor facilities. Colleagues at Church House supported the application, but unfortunately a ballot was held in which Lichfield cathedral was unsuccessful. However, his point about the centrality was well made, and I shall take it back to Church House.
Public Accounts Commission
The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—
National Audit Office
I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission, which took evidence on 20 October on the National Audit Office’s strategy for 2010-11 to 2012-13. The NAO proposed that its net resource requirement, which was £79.3 million in 2009-10, should remain at that figure for 2010-11, and the commission agreed. The NAO is also committed to cost reductions that will reduce corporate costs by 5 per cent. per year, while streamlined processes and better use of staff resources will reduce the cost of front-line audit and assurance work by 2 per cent.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will agree that that came out of an evidence session; no one sat down at a table and talked about cost reductions in general. Will he relay the fact that the House would like those gentlemen and ladies to sit down, talk and work out how they can save on costs? However, that should be done amicably and everyone should have an equal place at the table.
The NAO reports regularly to the commission on how it proposes to make savings, and we work on a ratio of £10 in Government spending saved for every £1 spent. So far it has been agreed that cost savings will be achieved by reducing expenditure on non-essential, back-office functions, using in-house resources rather than consultants wherever possible, and introducing a standard analytical framework for value-for-money work to use staff resources better. The NAO intends to ensure that quality is maintained through its internal and external quality control processes. We, at the commission, will be keeping a close eye on that.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Vote Counting (General Elections)
The Electoral Commission has received several representations about the timing of counts at the forthcoming UK parliamentary general election. The issue has also been discussed at recent meetings between the commission and individual Members of Parliament and with representatives of the BBC. The commission has written to all returning officers asking for information about when they intend to begin counting in the general election. As of 13 November 2009, it had received responses from 429 out of 650 constituencies, of which 225 will begin their count on polling day and 48 the day after. Some 156 were undecided. Details of responses received by constituency are available on the commission’s website.
I am grateful for that response and glad that the Electoral Commission is considering the matter carefully. The truth is that Parliament and politics are less popular and of less interest than they used to be. If we are to forgo the count on the evening of polling day, people will not even have a Government the next day. We must have a count as soon as possible afterwards, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as a representation.
I do receive that as a representation. My hon. Friend knows that returning officers, whose role is independent in statute, make the final decision about when a count is held. The Electoral Commission’s foremost concern is that the count be accurate and the voters have confidence in the result, but my hon. Friend’s representations are certainly well received.
It is extremely rare that I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), but he refers to part of the tradition of our system. Although it is impractical in a handful of constituencies, will the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) press the Electoral Commission to encourage returning officers to hold counts on the night of the election?
The Electoral Commission does not look to influence the decision of returning officers, and the hon. Gentleman knows that the requirement to check signatures and dates of birth on postal voting statements accompanying postal ballot papers is the issue that has arisen about the forthcoming general election. Naturally, the commission will look at the outcome of the next general election and the processes, and make appropriate representations after that.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
After the House of Lords required the DPP to produce his interim policy for prosecutors on cases of assisted suicide in July, my office was consulted by him, as is appropriate for a superintendent Department. The DPP’s interim policy is now the subject of public consultation and a final policy will be issued next year.
Let me emphasise that all cases alleging assisted suicide are assessed on their facts and merits.
I am grateful for that answer. One of the things that concerns me about the DPP’s interim guidance is that serious disability is one of the factors that he will consider in assessing whether a prosecution is not in the public interest. I wonder about the message that that sends out to people with a disability about the extent to which we want a society that helps them live independently and gives them a good quality of life rather than encourages them to take their own lives.
I cannot for one minute think that any innuendo of that kind could be appropriately drawn. The court asked the DPP effectively to list, as a policy, all the factors that were capable of being taken into account. That is as far as the reference to disability goes. It would probably be odd to leave out disability caused by, for example, life-limiting illness in a case of someone assisting a suicide. The cases are complex and sensitive, but no innuendo such as that suggested by the hon. Gentleman could possibly be drawn. The DPP is consulting publicly to try to get every factor and to balance them. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, it was not the DPP’s wish to produce any guidelines. Let me emphasise again that each such case, when it arises, will be considered carefully on its merits.
The Judicial Committee in the House of Lords put the DPP in an invidious position in asking him to declare the law. That is a matter for Parliament, not the DPP. Do the Government have any plans in the near future to revisit section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961?
The Bribery Bill will no longer require the consent of the Attorney-General or the Solicitor-General before a prosecution for an offence under the measure can start. Instead, it will require the consent of the director of the relevant prosecuting authority. The Bill does not alter the role of the Attorney-General in any other way.
I suppose precedent would be a help because there never has been such behaviour by the Government. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the House of Lords said about the decision. First, it made it clear that the director of the SFO, not any member of the Government, made the decision. It was also clearly stated: that
“It may indeed be doubted whether a responsible decision-maker could, on the facts before the Director, have decided otherwise”.
This is a problem for the Government—and, indeed, for the House and the country. I engaged with the OECD investigation into bribery, in which it said that
“systematic deficiencies… make clear the need to safeguard the independence of the SFO”.
How will that happen if reform of the Attorney-General’s power does not take place?
The only power would be a power to use a direction in a case where national security was at stake. There is a process to go through before that happens. It has not happened for many, many years. Normally what would happen, even in a case where national security was at a premium, is that the director would take it into account when evaluating the public interest.
Does the Solicitor-General believe that the proposed Bribery Bill would deal with the Leader of the Opposition’s promise to make amendments to the inheritance tax regime which will benefit only the people on his Christmas card list?
The Solicitor-General seems to have missed the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) was making—that because all reform of the Attorney-General’s office has been removed from the Constitutional Reform Bill, the power of the Attorney-General to superintend in general the prosecutions put forward by the directors has been left unaffected. Has the Solicitor-General received any guidance, information or assurance from the OECD that it is satisfied with the arrangements that will now be in place, because if she has not, the lack of independence of the directors will continue to be a blot on the reputation of this country and may leave British business in a very difficult position?
The hon. Gentleman really does not live in the real world. He should try telling Richard Alderman or Keir Starmer that they are not independent: they are extremely independent individuals, and rightly so. There is a detailed protocol, which I commend to the hon. Gentleman, so that he can understand this area rather better than he appears to do now. The superintendence function has specifically been cast into a protocol to make its limits very clear. Our current law complies with the OECD convention, which the OECD makes very clear.
So far as I am aware—it is not my Bill, but a Ministry of Justice Bill—the recommendations of the Joint Committee have played a role there. I am obviously answering on behalf of the prosecution departments today, as I always do, but a good deal of note has been taken of what the Joint Committee said, and that was its position.
When I introduced my draft International Bribery and Corruption Bill in February 1998, it was opposed by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), who sits on the Conservative Front Bench today, and who described it as “fundamentally naïve”. Has my hon. and learned Friend discussed the Bribery Bill with the Opposition Law Officers and will they now support it?
I do not think there is anything fundamentally naïve about this Bill. At first sight, it looks as if the Bill is going to hit the spot and will be much more modern, clearer and less fragmented than what applies currently. Whether the Opposition will support it, I do not know. It will be introduced in the other place by my noble Friend Lord Bach, and when it comes here it will be dealt with by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who I have no doubt at all will have conversations with the Opposition. May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley), who has had a long-term interest in this issue and has focused primarily on ensuring that bribery and corruption go out of overseas development funding? I hope that he will be pleased with the Bill when it comes through.
Pro Bono Work
Our eighth national pro bono week, which is dedicated to raising awareness of pro bono work, took place two weeks ago. The number of activities increased to 128 from 82 a year before. The Attorney-General and I hold a pro bono reception to showcase such work to MPs, and we have introduced a guide to pro bono, which we have distributed to every MP. That guide informs MPs about sources of pro bono work in their constituencies, so that, if they cannot handle a problem, they can contact a lawyer who can help.
I do not think that it has. I receive the same sort of inquiries, and I can usually find a local lawyer to help if I cannot deal with the matter myself. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the guide to pro bono, he will find many networks that have local membership. Therefore, people can get something pretty close to their needs pretty quickly.
As the processes of the Infrastructure Planning Commission get under way, has my hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Department for Communities and Local Government about ensuring that individuals and communities have access to proper legal advice?
I have not had such discussions, but I understand the nature of the issue. From general knowledge, I am aware that some bodies help with planning applications, so I am sure that citizens will be able to find assistance if they want to be represented.
No, the number of acts of legal assistance has increased significantly through the reorganisation of the legal aid system. For instance, there were 2.5 million acts of assistance in the last year but one, and 2.9 million this year, and they have increased in both the civil and criminal areas. Pro bono is in addition to all the work done under legal aid, and it is an important part of a lawyer’s experience and training. As with most volunteering, it is good not just for the recipient but for the person who does it.
Prosecution Policy (Burglaries)
We have frequent and regular meetings with the DPP, and we discuss a range of issues. If there were particular concerns about prosecutions for burglary—perhaps the hon. Gentleman has some to raise—we would talk to the DPP about them, but under the terms of the protocol to which I have alluded between the Attorney-General and prosecution departments. In 2008-09, the Crown Prosecution Service conviction rate for burglary was 87.1 per cent. nationally, and 91.3 per cent. in Norfolk.
I am pleased to hear that, but does the Solicitor-General share my view that burglaries are invariably incredibly traumatic, and often lead to dreadful scars that last many years and tear families apart? Does she agree that as long as there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, burglaries should always be prosecuted through the courts, and never dealt with by out-of-court procedures such as cautions or penalty notices for disorder?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman completely. I imagine that he refers to dwelling-house burglaries, which can be extremely injurious to the people who suffer them. There is an annexe to the DPP’s guidance on when to use conditional cautions, and burglary is not included among the offences for which they should be used.
Yesterday, I had a meeting with Slough Town Against Crime, which is an alliance of shops, police officers and public bodies. One of the participants suggested that prolific shoplifters who have been barred from shops and have shoplifted again ought to be prosecuted for burglary. Will the Solicitor-General raise that matter with the DPP, as it would be a practical way of tackling the appalling problem of prolific shoplifting, which is blighting Slough town centre?
This is an old, knotty problem in the law. In order to be a burglar, someone must enter as a trespasser. There have been prosecutions when people have gone from the public side of a shop to the private side, behind the counter. That has been deemed to be entering as a trespasser, and I can see an analogy with the case cited by my hon. Friend. I think that the local chief Crown prosecutor would have to examine each case in order to make a sensible decision, but my hon. Friend’s idea does have merit.
I should be very happy to look at that very good early-intervention project, whose aim is to help young children who would otherwise suffer trauma as a result of their experiences of domestic violence.
As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, we continue to work to improve prosecution performance in this area. The number of domestic violence prosecutions undertaken by the Crown Prosecution Service has risen from nearly 35,000 in 2004-05 to nearly 68,000 now, and the proportion of successful cases has risen from 55 per cent. to 72 per cent. over the same period.
The perpetrators of domestic violence include a high percentage of cowards and bullies, even in comparison with the perpetrators of other criminal offences. Those two groups are particularly susceptible to a strong, clear message from Government about the consequences of their actions, but the performance indicators in the local area agreement relating to domestic violence have been dropped, and there has been a resulting drop in detection in the Nottingham area. Will my hon. and learned Friend emphasise once again how important the Government consider this offence, and will she consider again the possibility of restoring the performance indicators?
I cannot emphasise too strongly how important the Government consider prosecuting domestic violence. My hon. Friend was good enough to tell me that he was worried about the removal of the sanction detection count rate, and about the possibility that it had had a bad effect on arrest rates. I have looked into the matter for him, and have established that although sanction detection rates are no longer a target, they are still counted in Nottingham. The figures that I have found do not quite agree with those that he has given. As there is no offence of domestic violence, it is quite difficult to quantify it in the terms to which he has referred. However, if he is not satisfied with my answer, I shall be happy to meet him, and I should also be very pleased to visit Nottingham.
Crown Prosecution Service
Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate assesses the effectiveness of the CPS, and reports on a wide range of operational issues. The Director of Public Prosecutions and the chief executive of the CPS engage in regular area performance reviews with their chief Crown prosecutors, and a series of monitoring and evaluation reports are produced. The CPS performance reports on violence against women and on hate crime are due to be published soon.
Was the Solicitor-General not rather disappointed to read a recent report by Her Majesty’s CPS inspectorate which found that nearly a third of 367 advocacy assessments were rated lacklustre, less than competent or very poor? Has the CPS given her any indication of how it will improve its standards in future?
I do not know how that advocacy compares with other kinds of advocacy. Those ratings apply only to the CPS. They should be compared with those applying to the Bar and to defence lawyers to establish whether they are any less lacklustre. However, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I will keep my eye on the position.
Is the Solicitor-General satisfied that the Crown Prosecution Service—engaging in discussions with the police—can get a grip on the problem of the mistaken use of out-of-court disposals, given the importance of ensuring that the interests of justice and, indeed, the needs of victims are satisfied, and that appropriate measures have been taken?
The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue. I am aware of at least one chief Crown prosecutor who has already started to make representations about what he regards as the overuse of fixed penalty notices when he feels prosecutions would be appropriate. We should perhaps also have regard to the overuse of taking offences into consideration. I am confident that the CPS will play a full role in examination of the position.
Does the Solicitor-General not share my concern, which is also shared by the Justice Secretary, that there are too many out-of-court settlements and fixed penalty notices for the crime of shoplifting? I might also ask why the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) did not support my Bill in the previous Parliament, as it would have benefited her constituency.
I cannot comment on the use of out-of-court settlements in particular cases, but I know that the hon. Lady has been very concerned about this matter for some time. Clearly, systematic shoplifting should be prosecuted, although perhaps the occasional instance should not. I know that the hon. Lady agrees that there needs to be a proper balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has raised a very interesting point that would add gravity to this: the threat of prosecuting systematic shoplifters for the higher-sentence offence of burglary, rather than for theft.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Modernisation of the House is taken forward in a number of ways. The parliamentary reform Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is the most recent development, and it has now reported. The Procedure Committee also looks at ways of reforming the House. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that all that is important work.
What the House of Commons desperately needs is sensible and considered reform. When this Government came into office in 1997, they set up the Modernisation Committee, under the cloak of which they have severely restricted the ability of the House of Commons to hold the Executive to account and, furthermore, have stopped us scrutinising legislation properly. Will the Government now scrap the Modernisation Committee, which has not met for over a year, and give us a proper opportunity, through making time available in the House of Commons, to debate the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report that has just been published?
Yes, topical debates. For Select Committees, there has been the introduction of core tasks and the creation of the Scrutiny Unit. For oral parliamentary questions, notice has been reduced so that they are more topical. There are also earlier sittings, the carry-over of Bills, the connecting of Parliament with the public and Public Bill Committee evidence-taking. I rest my case.
A Justice Department Bill is due to come before the House in early January. Can my hon. Friend give me a commitment that the compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Sharm el-Sheikh, Bali and other terrorist incidents, which was promised by the Prime Minister and other colleagues and which the Government were supposed to put in the Queen’s Speech, will be included in the Bill?
As the longest-serving member of the Modernisation Committee in this House, and as a past Chairman of the Procedure Committee, may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether she thinks it is time for the Modernisation Committee to meet again, not least to discuss the proposals in the Reform of the House of Commons Committee report, bearing in mind that many of them originated in the Modernisation Committee under the inspired leadership of the late Mr. Cook?
The hon. Gentleman put a question to me on this matter some weeks ago. As he has said, there is a continuum of modernisation. On that earlier occasion, I said that we would bring forward our proposals to establish a new Committee on parliamentary reform. It was established, it has reported, and we are now considering its proposals.
Does my hon. Friend agree, however, that we need to discuss the report of the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and that we also need quickly to secure cross-party agreement to introduce the reforms before the next election? We must do this quickly.
The Minister has acknowledged that although the Modernisation Committee has not met for some time, the process continues. Can we therefore have an early opportunity to make a decision on the Procedure Committee’s report on the principle of electing our Deputy Speakers?
Having served on the Modernisation Committee, the Procedure Committee and, more recently, the parliamentary reform Committee, may I say that it makes eminent sense for the Modernisation Committee to be rolled into the Procedure Committee and for us to bolster the powers of that Select Committee, which has done valiant work and could do so even more?
That is very disappointing, because a lack of urgency is being shown by those on the Government Benches, given just how little time is left to make these reforms stick before the end of this Parliament. The Modernisation Committee was a great betrayal, because it was meant to bring forward reforms to improve the accountability of Parliament. The promise was that we would get proper management of the business throughout the year in return for the programming of Bills, but instead we have just had guillotines by the back door. Many of the reforms that the Minister talked about have come from the Procedure Committee. It should be left to get on with reforming the procedures of this House and the Government should make clear how much urgency will go into ensuring that these reforms are introduced.
I have said that we are expecting to have a debate and to come to decisions about any changes on which we need to proceed. A great deal of work is going on in this place; I have read out a number of the things for which the Modernisation Committee was responsible, and a great deal of consideration is being given at the moment to reform.
Expenses and Allowances
The Government have accepted the recommendations in the Committee’s report and will bring forward any legislation that may be necessary to implement them.
I note that answer, but it is rather unspecific. The Kelly report contains specific proposals that require primary legislation, so can the Deputy Leader of the House give us any more detail about when those specific measures will be brought forward, given that relatively few sitting days are left before the end of this Parliament and therefore it will not be able to introduce some of those measures if she does not get a move on?
We are in discussion with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Committee on Standards in Public Life about what legislation is necessary. When we reach agreement as a result of that discussion, we will introduce the necessary measures.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has today responded to the Procedure Committee report on written parliamentary questions. That response sets out how the Government plan to improve the quality and timeliness of answers to written parliamentary questions.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about a very recent meeting with a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions. As it took place only very recently, we would not be expecting that quick a recovery to have been made, but we hope for an improvement.
The Government have accepted the following recommendations: that there should be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the answering period of five days; that better guidance should be provided for Ministers and officials on answering questions; and that further work should be done by the Procedure Committee on challenging unsatisfactory answers. It certainly is a good idea to list performance by Department so that people can see that.
As well as the admonishment referred to by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), are the Government considering any sanctions that would deal with the issue of questions that are not answered in a timely or substantive way?
It is a question of transparency monitoring and reminders at this stage. We have also recently published guidance on answering written questions in a guide to parliamentary work that is published on the Cabinet Office website. There has been a great amount of activity in guidance, monitoring and transparency and we hope that that will do the trick.
In June, I raised the issue of inadequate answers to written questions, because the practice was simply to refer to information being available in the House Library. The then Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), said that he would write to every Minister to ensure that that practice did not continue. However, since then matters have not changed, as Members on both sides of the House will confirm. In fact, I have received five replies that conform to the old practice.
For example, a reply on carer’s allowance on 7 July from the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), simply said:
“The information has been placed in the Library.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 740W.]
Again, a reply on 12 October from the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin), simply said:
“A set of tables containing the information requested has been placed in the House Library.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 356W.]
That is not acceptable. Rather than simply going to a Committee and giving evidence, as she has just mentioned, will the Deputy Leader of the House have stern words with her colleagues and ensure that we receive the proper information, particularly on behalf of members of the public who do not have the easy access to the Library that Members have?
It was not me who gave the evidence to the Committee, but my predecessor. I have quite recently had a meeting with an individual Minister and officials, when I used very stern words; I am prepared to do that. I am always happy to consider individual cases. If the guidance that my predecessor set out has not been followed, I would be very happy to take up the cases that the shadow Deputy Leader of the House has raised. Let me reiterate that the Government’s recent response to the Procedure Committee’s report supports further work on challenging unsatisfactory answers. I shall take that forward and I hope the Procedure Committee will decide to do so, too.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
The Commission is very sympathetic to the requirements of Members who are unable to stand when addressing the House and whose words might therefore not be heard fully. I have therefore asked the relevant officials to investigate having microphone coverage throughout the Chamber. From the information available, I understand that the improvement sought by the hon. Gentleman should be possible, although significant physical work might be needed in the Chamber. I shall of course inform him and the House when the full investigation is complete.
I am grateful for that answer. We have at least two colleagues in this Chamber who find it impossible or difficult to stand. They speak with clarity of mind and voice, yet listeners and viewers at home often cannot hear them clearly because of the positioning of the microphones. We all look forward to receiving an update on precisely when that information, and the microphones, will be provided.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
All parts of a Bill are subject to parliamentary scrutiny at all stages of its passage. In many cases, Bills also undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. Elements of a Bill that are not debated in detail at one stage may clearly be considered at another stage and, in any event, may be divided on. It is therefore difficult to say with certainty which clauses of a Bill were not considered at all as a result of programming, but in Public Bill Committees no clauses were not reached for debate.
Will the hon. Lady give thought to the suggestion from the noble Lord Rooker that, when a Bill has been inadequately discussed or not discussed at all in this place, a certificate should accompany it when it is sent to the other place? In that way, the other place can know which parts of the Bill have not been discussed or need to be discussed more fully.
Many of the things that we are talking about this morning in respect of reforming how Bills progress through the House are under consideration at the moment, but I do not think that there is anything specific on that particular recommendation. However, the other place knows how much debate on a Bill there has been here, so the process that has been described does tend to happen anyway.
The Deputy Leader of the House should know that Government new clauses and amendments are not discussed in Public Bill Committees—clearly they cannot be, because they are moved after that stage. The Library has told me that, on four Bills alone, nearly 200 amendments, including 50 Government new clauses and amendments, were not scrutinised. Does she accept that we cannot go on like this? The Wright Committee has set out a way to avoid the problem so that we do not have to demonise Government and the Government do not have to infantilise Members of this House.
Select Committee Reports
The Government have already created additional opportunities for debating Select Committee reports by establishing sittings in Westminster Hall. That provided an extra 52 hours of debating time for Select Committee reports in 2008-09. I should like to remind the House that the Government will always consider requests from Select Committees for a tag on the Order Paper for any Government business that may be relevant to their work.
The Minister knows perfectly well that, since we have had a Labour Government, it has been practically impossible to scrutinise anything other than through the Select Committee procedure. Will she now agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and give more time to debating Select Committee reports on the Floor of the House?
It is always open to the Chairs of Select Committees to ask for a topical debate when they produce a report, given that such reports are often topical. That would be a way to give more time to Select Committee reports, over and above the extra sitting hours and days that arise from debating them in Westminster Hall.
When Select Committee reports come before Westminster Hall, they are very often timetabled in a way that makes proper debate impossible. The most recent Health Committee report came before us right on the edge of Prorogation: instead of having a proper three-hour debate on inequalities in health, we had to try to work out when the House was going to rise. We lost half of our debate because of Prorogation and we did not have enough time, so is it possible to bring the report back for further consideration?
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Energy Efficiency (House of Commons)
In the last 18 months, the House service has reconfigured building management systems and installed new remote energy meters and kitchen ventilation and lighting controls, as well as energy-efficient lighting and movement sensors. It has also initiated an IT upgrade and a server virtualisation programme, and begun an insulation trial as part of the cast-iron roof project. An estate-wide environmental assessment is currently under way to identify future options, which include further building management system changes, voltage optimisation, draught-proofing and behaviour-change programmes. That will allow for a challenging but realistic environmental target, supported by an action plan to be set before the House in 2010.
Like hundreds of colleagues, for nine years I have had the pleasure and privilege of working in the superb surroundings of our fine and iconic building, Portcullis House. Sadly, it has the lowest possible band G energy performance rating of 203. What is the Commission doing to ensure that buildings on the parliamentary estate rise up league tables to become public sector exemplars to the commercial and industrial sectors?
The Management Board recognised in 2007-08 that there was a need for improvement in the House’s environmental performance. A new post of head of environment was filled on 31 December 2008, and the aim since then has been to lay foundations for Parliament to make an improvement, and a good-practice gap analysis has been undertaken. As I said, that will result in a comprehensive plan being brought before the House in 2010.
Notwithstanding the comprehensive list that the hon. Gentleman has just read out, it seems to many of us in the Palace of Westminster that when the weather is uncharacteristically warm outside it becomes even hotter inside. Most of us have something in our homes called a thermostatic control. Could that not happen here, and save the taxpayer a lot of money?
A few weeks ago when the House of Commons Commission considered the proposal of the 10:10 campaign that the House should cut its carbon emissions by 10 per cent. in 2010, it was decided—sadly—that it was impractical. Was that decision taken by consensus among all members of the Commission from all parties, and did the Commission receive any representations from the right hon. Members for Witney (Mr. Cameron) or for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), who proposed to the House two days later that 10:10 should be supported?
The Commission received a variety of representations but felt that it was not possible honourably to commit the House to doing something in the course of 2010 that we could not be confident of achieving. As I have already indicated, we are determined to make improvements way beyond that, but we cannot guarantee doing so during the calendar year 2010.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 30 November—Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill.
Tuesday 1 December—Motion to approve European documents relating to financial services, followed by a general debate on fisheries.
Wednesday 2 December—Remaining stages of the Equality Bill.
Thursday 3 December—A general debate on European affairs.
The provisional business for the week commencing 7 December will include:
Monday 7 December—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.
Tuesday 8 December—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 9 December—Statement on the pre-Budget report, followed by remaining stages of the Child Poverty Bill.
Thursday 10 December—Estimates Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on students and universities and a debate on the relationship between central and local government. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Students and universities; 11th Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee of Session 2008-09 HC 170; Government Response—8th Special Report of Session 2008-09, HC 991. The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government; 6th Report form the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2008-09, HC33; Government Response—Cm 7712.]
At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 December will be:
Thursday 10 December—A debate from the Work and Pensions Committee on tackling pensioner poverty.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.
Today there is a written statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the local government finance settlement for next year. Last year, as in most years, there was an oral statement on the Floor of the House, allowing us to question the Minister on behalf of hard-pressed council tax payers in our constituencies. Why has that convention been broken for the last settlement before an election?
Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a debate after the pre-Budget report on 9 December? Given the delicate state of the UK economy, does she not think that the House has a right to debate the Chancellor’s plans?
Pursuant to the answers we have just heard, will the Leader of the House give a clear indication of when she expects to find time for the House to debate and vote on the recommendations of the Wright Committee—the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons? Unlike the right hon. and learned Lady, I welcomed the report when it was published, particularly since many of the ideas reflected what the Opposition had already proposed. In written evidence to the Committee in July, she said that she wanted a quick report
“so that the proposed reforms can be considered for implementation early in the next Session.”
I share that enthusiasm, so can we expect to have a debate and votes on the proposals before the end of January?
I see in the future business set out in today’s Order Paper that the right hon. and learned Lady has tabled a motion on the appointment of the chairman and other members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Given the speed with which we need to move if we are to get the authority up and running, will she give time next week for that debate?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady give a statement on the timetabling of her Equality Bill? Yesterday, on a point of order, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) noted that her Bill will have only one day on Report, despite the size of the legislation and the number of amendments, excluding Government amendments, that have already been tabled. The right hon. and learned Lady has given several promises to the House that her Bill will provide an exemplar of good scrutiny; we would expect nothing less from the parliamentarian of the year. Will she give an assurance that she will translate her fine words into action?
May I repeat my call for a stand-alone debate in Government time on Afghanistan? Yesterday, the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, accused the Prime Minister of
“squeezing the defence budget for approximately eight years.”
The right hon. and learned Lady has said on several occasions that she recognises the need to find time for a debate on Afghanistan. As Downing street has briefed that a decision from President Obama on troop levels is imminent, will she promise to ensure that the House has an early opportunity to discuss the implications of that decision for our forces on the ground?
Finally, may I ask once again when the right hon. and learned Lady will give us the date of the Easter recess? She said last week that it would be announced “in the usual way”. If that is the case, why did she not do it in the usual way when she gave us the date of the Christmas and February recesses more than four weeks ago? Is her reluctance to announce the date in any way related to the careless whisper from the Home Secretary, who this week betrayed his fears that next year’s poll would be
“a watershed election, à la 1945, à la 1979, more so than 1997”?
Does the right hon. and learned Lady share those anxieties, or is she made of tougher stuff than the Home Secretary?
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the written ministerial statement on the local government settlement. He will know that I have announced the date of the pre-Budget report; all the issues can be raised when the Chancellor is at the Dispatch Box on the occasion of the pre-Budget report.
The right hon. Gentleman asked when the pre-Budget report, which will be the subject of a statement, can be debated. I know that the House is concerned to ensure that we have a weekly opportunity to discuss the important issues of the economy and the public spending that is needed to support the economy as it comes out of recession and into recovery. I judge that the fiscal responsibility Bill, which will shortly have its Second Reading, will offer an opportunity to debate all the issues that arise on the pre-Budget report.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Wright Committee. I pay tribute to and thank all the hon. Members who have served on that Committee; they have done a very good and thorough job. Of course the House will need to debate the report. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was we who brought a motion before the House that enabled it to agree to set up the Committee.
The House will need to debate the report and come to a decision on any changes arising from it. It was published only two days ago, and the Government respect its complexity and its reach. We will give it full consideration and tell the House how we propose to proceed, but I want to allay any concerns that somehow nothing has happened since 1997, and that everything remains to be done. There has been a continuous process of reform and modernisation of the House; we have brought proposals to the House, and they have been put into effect. The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that the normal time within which a debate is held in the House after such a report is two months, which would take us to the end of January.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the appointment of the chair and board members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. We strongly agree with him that IPSA needs to be able to get on with its work as soon as possible. There is a chair-designate and an acting chief executive; the board members have been identified by the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; a motion has been laid before the House, and we expect to debate it next week so that IPSA can get on with its very important work.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of parliamentary scrutiny of the Equality Bill. Following hon. Members’ references to that issue on a number of occasions, I have looked very carefully into it. I would say that the Bill has received unprecedented scrutiny by the House—and rightly so. It was the subject of a report not only by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but also by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. There was a Public Bill Committee, in which evidence was taken from the public, and there were also many hours of debate. To make the Bill an exemplar of good practice my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, the lead Minister on the Bill, has already tabled all the amendments and new clauses that we seek to put before the House on Report. That was done yesterday, so the House has been given much more notice than usual of the issues that will come back to it for debate on Report.
It was not possible to debate in Committee one particular issue, so it will be put before the House on Report. That is the question of extending to Scotland clause 1, which gives public authorities a statutory obligation to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It covers England and was extended, by agreement, to Wales; I have had discussions with the Scottish Executive and they have now, I am glad to say, agreed that it should apply to devolved authorities as well as to reserved authorities. That is a late agreement, but with the agreement of the House we have proposed it in a new clause for discussion on Report, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with us and understand why it was not possible to introduce it in Committee.
The rest of the amendments are about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on issues about which there is no quarrel; they are just technical issues. There is an ongoing discussion about religion, freedom of speech and sexual orientation, and there have been many hours of debate on those subjects. Indeed, I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) participated in that debate. There is no final agreement on the issue, but I am satisfied that the Equality Bill will be properly scrutinised, then go to the House of Lords and, I hope, pass into law.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of Afghanistan, and President Obama’s statement is expected next week. I know that the House will have an early opportunity to make its comments known and to raise issues on the Floor of the House after the President’s statement next week.
The Leader of the House said that the House would have an opportunity to debate the President’s statement on Afghanistan, but as she sat down she did not quite make it clear how or when that opportunity will come. It would be extremely helpful if she could clarify that point.
It should be totally unnecessary for the Opposition to ask for a debate on the pre-Budget report. The fact that other financial matters are before the House does not mean that it should not scrutinise the PBR properly.
On programming and the Equality Bill, it is the Leader of the House who introduced the new scope, involving Scotland, and the House will need to debate that. As for the chances of dealing with all the other amendments, she may think that those involve dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but it is up to this House, when scrutinising the Bill, to decide whether the i’s and t’s have been dotted or crossed. Will she therefore ensure that the Bill receives the proper scrutiny that she promised?
The Leader of the House says that the Energy Bill will come before the House, but why has she scheduled House business that requires the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to be here when he should be in Copenhagen setting the agenda for a climate change conference deal? Why has that business been set to clash so that the Secretary of State has to be in two places at once?
Will the Leader of the House tell the House when the Flood and Water Management Bill will receive its Second Reading? My constituents experienced flooding in Stonehaven, and I know from that just how serious the situation is, but many constituencies in England have now experienced dramatic flooding, so the Bill will be an important step in trying to respond to the crisis.
Finally, will the Leader of the House show more enthusiasm for the Wright Committee’s report, and more willingness to take forward its agenda and ensure that this Parliament, in its dying days, delivers that reform to the people of this country?
I have not been able to announce anything specific about the opportunity for the House to raise points following the announcement by the President of the United States on Afghanistan, but I am “signalling”, as it is described in the newspapers, that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the matter. However, hon. Members know that oral statements are not announced in advance—[Interruption.] We do not usually announce them in advance. Anyway, I am not doing so today; I am signalling that there will be an opportunity. We all know that every week in this House we need an opportunity to raise questions about Afghanistan, and we will ensure that next week, on the important occasion of the President of the United States making his comments, we will be consistent on the matter and ensure the House has the opportunity it needs.
As for the debate on the pre-Budget report, the point here is the substance, not the form. The question is this: will the House have a chance to debate the issues raised on the pre-Budget report? The question is not about what form that will take, but about the substance, and I would say that it will be possible to raise the substance on Second Reading of the fiscal responsibility Bill. I have looked at these issues carefully and I am satisfied that that will be the case.
Obviously, the point of Report stage of the Equality Bill is not simply to repeat the 30 hours of debate that have already taken place—there has already been careful scrutiny by those who served on the Committee—but to deal with issues that have come forward from Committee. As I have said, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has ensured that the House can see the Government’s proposals for Report. I hope the Bill will have the full backing of the House.
As for the Copenhagen summit and the Energy Bill, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will know that the Prime Minister will be attending Copenhagen—as will President Obama, which is welcome news.
On the subject of the Flood and Water Management Bill, there was a statement in the House last week, and the Prime Minister dealt with the question of the floods. We will be introducing that Bill—and obviously, we pay tribute to all those who are working to protect people in the flood-stricken community in Cumbria.
Order. No fewer than 42 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye—a record in my limited experience to date—and the House will be conscious that the continuation of the Queen’s Speech debate, to which there are lots of willing contributors, will follow, so I appeal again to each right hon. or hon. Member to ask a single short supplementary question, and of course, to the Leader of the House to offer us a pithy reply.
Five young people are alive today because of the tragic death of a wonderful little boy, George Higginson. George was an organ donor. His father feels that it would be beneficial if people had an opportunity to sign up as organ donors while voting at elections, particularly the general election.
It is a desperately sad and difficult decision for all families when a child dies, and it is an incredibly generous thing for them to agree to organ donations that can save other people’s lives. My hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion, and I will talk to the Justice Secretary to see whether cards for signing up for organ donation could be made available in polling stations.
May we have a statement on a wider review of student visas? Only seven months after the rules were changed, all the language schools, particularly those in Bournemouth and Poole, are very upset about some of the proposals, which could mean their closure. That would be devastating for the local economy.
May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the threat to 200 very successful jobs in Llanishen in my constituency? The jobs are in Pelican Healthcare and Great Bear Healthcare, which make disposable medical products for the whole of the UK. Those jobs are at risk because of the differences in electronic prescribing practices between Wales and the rest of the UK. May we have a debate on the anomalies that are threatening those jobs in my constituency?
May we have an urgent debate on climate change and civil liberties, and in particular, the right of British people to eat beef wherever and whenever they want? Does she agree that trying to stop British people eating beef is like trying to stop the French eating cheese?
I heard what the Leader of the House said about the Equality Bill programme, but what will she do to ensure that we debate the important amendments that would end the scandalous exploitation of seafarers, which happens even when they are sailing on British ships between British ports? This is an issue that needs addressing.
I know that my hon. Friend, as Member of Parliament for Dover, is an outstanding champion for those who work in the ports and seafarers. I understand that he has already arranged a meeting with the Solicitor-General to see what progress can be made on this issue.
May we have a debate on education so that we can discuss the problems faced by Radcliffe school in Milton Keynes, whose future is uncertain because the Secretary of State is refusing to make his mind up about whether it should become an academy?
I will raise that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman. If hon. Members want to raise questions about an individual school with me, they will get a more complete answer if they give me notification in advance. Indeed, following that practice might have saved the Leader of the Opposition yesterday.
May I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for my earlier yellow-card offence?
Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify that the Government intend to table amendments to the Crime and Security Bill, which we will consider in the new year, to introduce a compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Bali, Sharm el-Sheikh and other international terrorist atrocities against British citizens, and to close the loophole that disbars them from compensation? The Government gave a promise. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear today—of all days, as it is the first anniversary of the Mumbai atrocities—that that will be done?
My right hon. Friend is very persistent, and he has shown that in raising this issue for the second time this morning. It is a very serious issue, and we are at an advanced stage in considering the options for including provision in the Crime and Security Bill for a compensation scheme for victims of overseas terrorism. Compensation is available for victims of terrorism in this country, but my right hon. Friend is raising the case of victims of terrorism abroad, and the gap in the system. We are taking steps to deal with that.
In business questions on 16 July the Leader of the House said that the Solicitor-General would discuss how to handle the Equality Bill on Report, and would consult Members. No consultation has taken place and we will have only one day, which is completely inadequate. Members on both sides of the House have tabled amendments that need to be debated. Will the Leader of the House ensure that they are debated?
Amendments and new clauses have been tabled, and I am sure that they will receive sufficient debate. There have been discussions. We do not usually go into what happens through the usual channels, but I am confident that the substance and issues that need to be debated will be, and we can then all focus on putting the contents of the Bill into practice.
Before the introduction of the flagship National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Government set up the Low Pay Commission. May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 191, which is supported by Members on both sides of the House?
[That this House believes that the Government should establish a High Pay Commission to examine the effects of high pay on the economy and society; acknowledges that over the last 30 years median earners have seen incomes increase at less than the average while the super-rich including UK chief executive officers have seen their pay increase to 76 times that of the average worker; notes three main concerns over the effect of high pay in Britain: the link between excessive pay and the financial crash, the questionable link between economic performance and high pay and the social effects of inequality due to the increase of wealth concentrated at the top of society; and calls for a public inquiry to bring all of the facts, evidence and arguments into the public domain.]
I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to provide Government time to debate that issue, to enable us to vote to set up a high pay commission so that we can tackle widening wage inequalities as a matter of urgency.
There will be a debate this afternoon on the Queen’s Speech, to be led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which those issues can be raised. We need to ensure that top pay does not spiral out of control not only in the private sector but in the public sector.
Notwithstanding climate change and beef eating, may we have a general debate on farming? Any change in stocking levels in places such as Exmoor and the levels will be devastating for management, and it will have an impact across the United Kingdom if the Government change their policy on beef eating.
May we look forward to an early and positive response to all the recommendations in the comparatively short and clear report from the Wright Committee, on which it was my privilege to serve? May I urge the parliamentarian of the year to stand firm against the dark forces on both the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench who are already lobbying hard against a Back-Bench business committee, which is vital if this House is to re-establish public respect and control over its own affairs?
We all recognise that, as well as restoring public confidence by dealing with the abuse of expenses by a very few Members, we also need to strengthen the work of the House. The Wright Committee—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for his work on that Committee—will be an important step in improving the way in which the House works, and thereby in restoring and strengthening public confidence.
May I add my support to the calls for a general debate on farming? In 2000 there were 1,144 dairy farms in Lancashire; today there are 634—a drop of 45 per cent. There has been a similar drop in my constituency. The Leader of the House knows how important dairy farming is for food security and the environment. Please may we have an early debate?
I stress the importance of dairy farming and beef farming; I hope that my rather flippant answer earlier will not be taken be amiss. There is no intention to change policy: we strongly support not only healthy eating and tackling climate change, but farming and the countryside.
The impressive Boing Boing website tells us that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is seeking to take delegated powers to allow him to amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. When will the Digital Economy Bill reach this House so that we can make the case for an independent regulator to do that job, and certainly not a politician?
The Department of Health keeps under review the amounts paid out by the national health service in medical negligence claims. We want to ensure that patient safety is such that patients are not the victims of medical negligence. That is what the starting point should be. It is not just a question of saving the NHS money; it is a question of protecting the health of patients. The best way to reduce medical negligence pay-outs is to reduce medical negligence, and that is something on which all the professions involved in medicine and the Department of Health work closely.
We read that a News of the World reporter bullied by the then editor, Andy Coulson, won a staggering £800,000 at an employment tribunal this week. May we have an early debate on workplace bullying to underline the fact that it is unacceptable, no matter where it comes from?
Tetley’s ales have been brewed in Leeds since 1822, but now the parent company, Carlsberg, is seeking to close the brewery and brew under licence at another brewery, rumoured to be Black Sheep in Masham. May we have a debate on honesty in product promotion? Tetley’s can only be a Leeds beer if brewed in Leeds with Leeds water: anything else would not be Tetley’s.
May I press my right hon. and learned Friend again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee? She will know that the window of opportunity is narrow and the forces of inertia are great. Can she give the House an assurance that measures to implement the proposals will be introduced before Prorogation?
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that having set up the Committee we are very impressed with the work that is being taken forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We welcome the report. We are pleased by how quickly the Committee has been able to reach its conclusion, by how substantial that report is, about how it has set out the process for how the report should be dealt with, as well as about the substance of the change that the report asks for. It was published only two days ago, and we will bring forward our proposals on how to deal with its consideration. We instigated this report, and we want to see changes brought forward.
Thanks to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, an urgent question about First Capital Connect was answered by the Secretary of State for Transport, who said that he would monitor the situation. Since then, the disruption on its routes has spread and the operation of its timetable is still severely compromised. When can we have a debate on this problem and about the franchises that are causing it?
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the corrosive campaign that is being run against the BBC by the Rupert Murdoch empire of BSkyB and News International, in league with the Conservative party? Can we have an early debate about the independence of the BBC and how important it is not to sell off large chunks of it?
There is a major point of substance in my hon. Friend’s question. We want to defend strongly the BBC and public service broadcasting, and not allow it to be picked apart in order that somebody who does not even live in this country should make a whacking profit.
In The Times this morning, an indication was given that the Government may be trebling the level of their telephone tax in connection with broadband extension, and that the details of this were to be published in a finance Bill scheduled for early in the new year. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether precedent will be broken in that a finance Bill will be published ahead of a Budget, and if so, what does early in the new year mean?
I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer what is obviously a serious point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, so I will have to write to him about it. However, I would say again that if he is going to raise something that I might not be able to predict, will he be able to predict that I cannot predict it and make sure that he tells me in advance?
I wonder whether the Leader of the House would not only support, quite rightly, the Government’s objective in rolling out high-speed broadband for everyone, but an important experiment that is to take place in Swinton, where we are going to have free WiFi. Will she support the provision of free WiFi in the Chorley and South Ribble constituencies as a north versus south experiment, and could we have a debate on that?
I have called for a debate on the 2012 Olympics on many occasions, and each time the Leader of the House fobs me off. Given the astronomical cost of the event and the fact that the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority has said,
“Next year is set to be our toughest yet as activity on site reaches a peak”,
will the Leader of the House give time for this important debate as early as possible so that we can discuss in this Chamber the true cost of that event?
May I support the call by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) for a debate on education so that we can discuss the concept of “hard” and “soft” federations? One of my local schools, Rushey Mead, is the best performing in the city, and it is to be federated with a School that is the worst performing. Does the Leader of the House agree that consultation with parents is absolutely vital in our education system?
In every single previous year, the appropriate Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box to give an oral statement on the local government settlement, and there has been, entirely separately, a pre-Budget report from the Chancellor. Why is that not happening this year, and what have the Government got to hide?
I understand that there has been cross-party discussion on this, and there is an answer. [Interruption.] This is a serious point. This settlement is the final one of the first three-year settlements, and it is unchanged from January 2008. Therefore, following discussions with Opposition Front Benchers, the usual procedure was not seen as necessary. A letter was sent to Opposition spokespeople about this on 12 November, and there have been no objections from Front Benchers. [Interruption.] No, I see that that is not so. Ignore what I have just said—I will look into it.
The peak of UK oil production in the North sea was passed some years ago. In recent weeks, a growing number of international experts have said they believe that the peak of global oil production may already have been passed. There is a growing consensus that in 2012 there will be a crunch in oil supply across the planet, with all the terrifying consequences for global security and national economies. Will the Government give the same kind of international leadership on the issue of oil depletion as they have given on climate change, and can we have a debate in Government time on the economic consequences of oil depletion?
In the light of the recent increase in dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland, the murder bid on a young police officer in Fermanagh, and the bomb planted outside the Policing Board in Belfast, can the Leader of the House find time to have an urgent debate on the security situation in Northern Ireland and the threat that that poses to the peace of the United Kingdom?
The whole House would want to share the hopes for the peace process, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of people on all sides in Northern Ireland. Those who support any party, and those who support none, all support the peace process except a very small minority who should not be allowed to prevail. I will discuss with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he supports the hon. Gentleman’s view that there should be a debate at this stage. Obviously, we want to be able to ensure that the House can scrutinise the work of the Northern Ireland Office and that hon. Members can debate and air their views, but we also want to ensure, above all, that we do what is conducive to the peace process.
In the light of today’s Daily Mirror report, and that of The Independent last week, about the buying of influence in the Caribbean and in Britain, can we have an early debate on that monster from the Caribbean deep, namely Lord Ashcroft, and his influence on politics—[Interruption.]
If “monster” is now an unparliamentary term, Mr. Speaker, then we are limiting our vocabulary.
May we have an early debate on this gentlemen, who forces right hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to dissemble on his tax status and uses gagging writs to intimidate newspapers. It is only in the House of Commons that this man’s corroding and, I believe, corrupt influence on Caribbean and British politics can be debated and explored. [Interruption.]
I am sure that the Leader of the House is ready for me to ask a question about Buncefield, as the fourth anniversary is next week. May we have a debate on the safety of oil depots in this country? I am sure that the House will be surprised that even though the oil depot is completely cleared—it is a clean piece of land apart from the pollution—the control of major accident hazards safety licence still exists, and thus the oil companies can rebuild it any time they wish. May we have a debate on how the safety of our communities is affected by COMAH licences?
I will ask my ministerial colleagues to liaise directly with the hon. Gentleman on his specific point about Buncefield. I know that from his constituency experience, he will have had great reason to thank and pay tribute to the fire services, and I should like to take this opportunity to pay my tribute to them, as they have done a remarkable job in my constituency this morning. More than 150 people had to be evacuated because there was a massive fire, which spread from a derelict site and set fire to a block of flats in which they were asleep in their beds. We are very hopeful that no life will be lost, and if that is the case it will be an absolute tribute to the fire services. I will raise the issue of Buncefield with my ministerial colleagues.