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Business of the House

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010

The business for the week commencing 11 January will be:

Monday 11 January—Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

Tuesday 12 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Personal Care at Home Bill.

Wednesday 13 January—Opposition day [2nd allotted day]. There will be a debate on education, skills and training opportunities for young people in the recession followed by a debate on energy security. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 14 January—Topical debate, subject to be announced. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 January will include:

Monday 18 January—Second Reading of the Crime and Security Bill.

Tuesday 19 January—Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 3).

Wednesday 20 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill.

Thursday 21 January—If necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments to the Video Recordings Bill. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed Private Business for consideration.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 14 and 21 January will be:

Thursday 14 January—A debate on supporting young people in the recession.

Thursday 21 January—A debate on violence against women.

You, Mr. Speaker, have paid tribute, on behalf of the House, to David Taylor, as did the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Opposition parties yesterday. I should like to add my tribute as Leader of the House. There is an empty space up on that Back Bench today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We will miss his contributions, not least at this time every Thursday. The good that he did as an MP will endure in the improved lives of the many, many constituents he personally helped. More widely, the good that he did in this House will endure—for example, his private Member’s Bill, the Management of Dementia in Care Homes Bill, laid the basis for, and lives on in, our national dementia strategy. He is a big loss to his family and also to the House.

May I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for next week’s business, and also for what she said about David Taylor, which I strongly endorse? In an age in which the standing of the Chamber has diminished, and in which the Chamber lies empty for much of the day, he was often assiduous in his attendance and he was an independent contributor to our debates, including, of course, in his regular appearance at business questions. He was a good parliamentarian and will be much missed.

May I thank the staff of the House for ensuring that this place has continued to run smoothly despite the bad weather that is continuing to disrupt the whole country?

Now, when will the right hon. and learned Lady give us the dates of the Easter recess? Those who work in the Palace of Westminster can take a holiday only when we are not sitting, and they need to make their plans for the months ahead. I have been asking for the dates almost every week since October. When will she announce them?

Can the Leader of the House untangle the Government’s muddle about the Budget? In a television interview on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe there’ll be a Budget this spring”.

Given yesterday’s devastating report from the Treasury Committee, which eviscerates the Government’s current plans to reduce the deficit, will she confirm that there will be a Labour Budget in March, and that it will spell out the details of how the Government intend to deal with the financial crisis? Hopefully that will generate more interest among Government Back Benchers than the Second Reading of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill on Tuesday, during which not one Labour MP spoke in support.

When will the House debate the report from the Commons reform Committee? As we saw yesterday during the debate on private Members’ Bills, the House is impatient to discuss these issues. During the recent debate in Westminster Hall both main Opposition parties set out their position, but we had no such transparency from the Government. When will the Leader of the House set out the Government’s position, and will she now confirm that the debate will be held on a substantive motion ending in a vote?

If the Government intend to amend the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which is due to be debated next week, to implement proposals from the Kelly report, and, as some newspapers have suggested, to include a provision for a referendum on voting reform, will the right hon. and learned Lady give the House an extra day in Committee to consider what is already a large and sprawling piece of legislation?

May I repeat my call, and that of many colleagues throughout the House, for a proper debate in Government time on Afghanistan? The conference on the future of Afghanistan has been scheduled for the end of the month in London. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that Members should have their chance to debate the matter in full before that conference, so that they can bring to Ministers the thoughts of their constituents ahead of it?

Finally, looking at the weeks ahead, does the Leader of the House agree with me, and indeed with some of her right hon. Friends, that we cannot go on like this? The right hon. and learned Lady, who is the deputy leader of the Labour party, finally issued a statement of support for the Prime Minister at 6 o’clock last night, saying that Ministers were getting on with the business of government. She was so involved in her own business that she could not even vote yesterday afternoon for a House motion that was tabled in her own name. Is not the truth that instead of a secret ballot of Labour MPs for a new leader, what the country really needs is a ballot of the whole country for a new Government?

I would like to add to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments thanking the staff of the House. The House did not rise until about 11 o’clock on Tuesday, which left it very late for Officers and staff of the House to get home. We ought to pay tribute to them for the fact that the House has continued to operate, not least so that we could hear the urgent question answered today about the efforts that need to be taken to help people carry on with their work as usual during the cold weather.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the announcements about the recess, which will be made in the usual way. He also asked about the management of the economy. There will be a pre-Budget report debate after business questions, and there will be further stages of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, allowing all such issues to be debated. We heard the Prime Minister reassure the country again at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday that we would ensure that we have a secure recovery, that we do not pull the plugs on the recovery, that we tackle the deficit by having fair tax measures and that we make sensible and fair choices about public spending. The public can be reassured that that is the Government’s position, even though there is something of a muddle about the matter on the Tory Benches.

As far as the Wright Committee report is concerned, the Prime Minister said yesterday that he welcomed it and that there would be an opportunity for the House to debate and decide on the issues in question. As the right hon. Gentleman reminded the House, we have already had a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall on 15 December, in which 17 colleagues participated. We made some progress in the motion that the House adopted last night, which he mentioned. We have not stood still, and the direction of travel is clear. It was I who tabled the motion to take the matter forward on behalf of the Government. It is a complex matter on which the Government will have to take views, but it is not for us to dictate to the House on it. It is for us to facilitate progress on a consensual basis, which is what we will do. We want further progress to be made.

As far as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill is concerned, we will have to consider whether extra measures should be brought forward to ensure that the House has enough time to debate it on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the important issue of Afghanistan. I said before Christmas, and reiterate today, that we want to be absolutely sure that the House can hold Ministers to account and that there can be debates so that views can be put forward. A lot of concern was raised in business questions in December about the need to have a substantive debate on Afghanistan in January. Although I have not been able to announce it today, I am aware of the time scale that the shadow Leader of the House pointed out. I reassure colleagues that I am determined that we will have a substantive debate on Afghanistan before the end of the month.

One of the Members of Parliament who participated in the debate in Westminster Hall that the Leader of the House mentioned was David Taylor. He intervened when I was making my comments, and within a few moments of having made his intervention he passed me a note thanking me for allowing him to contribute. That was typical of the courtesy of the man and his ever-presence and value to the House. He will be very much missed.

On the Wright Committee report, this simply will not do. There is only one thing that the Government have to do: take the page of the report that contains the draft motion and put it on the Order Paper. Nothing else is needed. The Leader of the House says that she is facilitating matters, but she is doing so exceedingly slowly. I ask her to hurry up and simply put that motion before the House, and then I hope we can make progress.

When can we expect a debate on the special report from the Information Commissioner following the veto by the Secretary of State for Justice of the release of Government papers, in contravention of the Information Commissioner’s decision and prior to a tribunal hearing? That is unprecedented, and it is necessary for that report, which is to the House, not the Government, to be debated, and for the Secretary of State to justify his actions. When will that happen?

May we have a statement from the Health Secretary on the intention from the beginning of the next financial year to consolidate the assets of hospital charities into the general NHS budget? That is very much resented by those who work tirelessly to raise funds in support of their local hospital. It cannot be right that it is going to happen, and I hope that the House will have the opportunity to express an opinion on it.

May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in due course on the supervisory review of the failed banks by the Financial Services Authority? There is some suggestion that it will not even published, which I hope is not the case. I hope that the Government can assure the House that it will be published and that a statement will be made in the House about its contents, because it is of absolute importance that we understand why the banks got this country into the mess that it is in and that we can assign responsibility appropriately.

Lastly, may we have a statement in due course on bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Iceland, because there is clearly a full-scale constitutional crisis in that country as well as an economic one? That has huge ramifications for the United Kingdom, not least for the £830 million of taxpayers’ money from local authorities that is still to be recovered from that small country with its enormous debts. May we have a clarification from the Government as to what the position is at the earliest opportunity and an opportunity to debate the matter?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have the shadow Leader of the House, that we intend to make progress on the Wright Committee’s report. I reiterate that that Committee’s work was not foisted on us: we actually welcomed the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to set up the Committee and swiftly brought forward the resolution to establish it. We are grateful for the work that it did, including over the summer recess, and we want to ensure that it is built upon and taken forward.

As far as the freedom of information request and the veto is concerned, there was a full statement on that by the Justice Secretary on—I think—10 December.

I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon—he is right that it was a written ministerial statement. I think I remember that that statement contained the information that there were something like 16,000 routine FOI requests, of which only two have been vetoed, so it was a very exceptional occurrence, which is why things were spelt out in a written ministerial statement. The framework that is set down by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was followed as part of that process.[Official Report, 13 January 2010, Vol. 503, c. 7-8MC.]

As for charities, resources and the health service, there are Health questions next week, so the hon. Gentleman could look for an opportunity to raise that issue. If his question goes wider to include the funding of charities as part of the contribution to our health services, he might find an opportunity to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye in the debate on the pre-Budget report, which will happen immediately after business questions.

On financial regulation, the hon. Gentleman will know that the House has devoted a considerable amount of time—and rightly so—to the question of the regulation of financial services since the global credit crisis was precipitated in the United States. That has meant more work to toughen up the regime of the Financial Services Authority, the Financial Services Bill and international action so that we can work with other countries to ensure that this contagion of a lack of confidence in financial services does not spread with such devastating consequences as it did before. He will know that such things are constantly on the Treasury’s agenda, the business Department’s agenda and the House’s agenda.

On the UK and Iceland—as it happens, the Netherlands is also involved—the UK Government stepped in. That was part of the action that we have taken so that people have not been left to sink or swim during the recession. Just as we have taken action to protect people who are at risk of losing their jobs, protected small businesses and protected people from losing their homes, we have taken action to protect people with deposits in Icelandic banks. That is all part of the action that has necessarily resulted in an increase in the deficit. Who would say that it was not worth increasing the deficit to make sure that we protect not only people’s deposits in Icelandic banks, but confidence in financial services by the action that this Government have taken? All those things are part of what has built up the deficit. The next time anybody says that we should not have allowed public debt to rise, they should say where they think we should not have taken the action that has been so important. We will carry on with our bilateral work between not only ourselves and Iceland, but our European colleagues, to make sure that Iceland plays its part in paying back what it owes to the Government and people in this country.

Order. Twenty-five right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to be able to accommodate everybody, but short questions and short answers will be required if there is any chance of doing so.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen early-day motion 72, on A1 Techsol Ltd, Stockport Road, Manchester, standing in my name and the names of a number of other hon. Gentlemen?

[That this House condemns A1 Techsol Ltd, Stockport Road, Manchester, for having failed to return to a constituent of the right hon. Member for Gorton his UK passport, driving licence, bank statements, security officer's badge and photographs, which they required from him on taking up employment with them, and for ignoring repeated requests from the right hon. Member to return this material to his constituent; regards A1 Techsol's retention of this material as both theft and a breach of employment legislation; calls on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the police to investigate; and meanwhile calls on the public to have nothing whatever to do with A1 Techsol, either as employees or in any other way.]

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Work and Pensions Secretary to investigate the employment practices of that rogue company, and the police to investigate it for possible larceny?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising this issue, which is obviously of importance in his constituency. I will do as he suggests and raise the matter with the Work and Pensions Secretary, but he will no doubt have the opportunity to refer it to the police.

Over the Christmas recess, the Yorkshire Post reported that the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, Sir Norman Bettison, criticised the fact that burglars were being released from prison early owing to the lack of prison places. May we have an urgent debate about sentencing for burglars and prison places, given that it is causing West Yorkshire police lots of trouble that they otherwise would not have had, and completely unnecessarily creating extra victims of crime, owing to the incompetence of this Government?

There has actually been a fall in the level of crime since this Government came to office and an increase in the number of offenders brought to justice. No one is released from prison on the basis of a lack of prison places. We have increased the number of prison places—[Interruption.] Actually, we have done that with finance that the party to which the hon. Gentleman belongs would have opposed. I will not raise his points with the Home Secretary or the Justice Secretary because I think they are ill-founded.

Returning to the Wright Committee, do we take it that when the Leader of House says that the House will have the opportunity to decide on its report, she is saying that there will definitely be a substantive motion on which the House will have the opportunity to vote? I hope that that substantive motion will be, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, on the draft resolution in the back of that excellent report. My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right that the Government can take credit for introducing the Committee, but we now want to see its report put into action.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said:

“We are now discussing these issues and they will form the subject of a debate and decisions by this House.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 170.]

He was obviously right to talk in the plural because, as the Committee itself acknowledges, a number of decisions will need to be taken by the House. Some proposals require further work before they can be brought to the House, but there will be a number of decisions, and we expect to make progress on them and, indeed, the work that came within the remit of the Wright Committee, which arose originally from the work of the Procedure Committee on the election of Deputy Speakers and the introduction of term limits for Mr. Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Those were passed by a resolution of the House yesterday. We will make progress on this matter—not in one big bang, but we will establish the direction of travel on a consensus within this House. Steps will be taken, and the House will vote to see them put into action.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House to make a statement on “Food 2030”, which was published by the Government on Tuesday morning? It is not available even in the Vote Office, let alone to Members by a statement. Quite apart from that discourtesy to the House, surely we should have a discussion in this Chamber about the document, which talks about the future of farming, food production and the food chain. When so many of our farmers are clearly in real difficulty with the current weather, perhaps we should use the topical debate next Thursday to discuss the document, and the Environment Secretary can answer some questions on it.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in what is a very important report. I will discuss with the Secretary of State whether he thinks there should be an opportunity to bring it to the House to debate. I certainly think it raises some very important issues that probably could benefit from wider debate in the House.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the prime area in which Ministers are held to account is here, in the House of Commons? Does she therefore agree that the failure by the Department for Communities and Local Government to field a Minister for last night’s Adjournment debate was a basic failure in accountability? As the debate was about discrimination against minority faiths, the lack of a departmental Minister made the point forcefully. What steps will she take to ensure that Departments understand that private discussions in meetings are no substitute for proper parliamentary accountability here on the Floor of the House?

I agree: if something has gone wrong, Ministers should offer a meeting with the hon. Member concerned—and I understand that that has happened in this case—but that is not sufficient. There is something unique about accountability on the Floor of the House, and that is what a Back Bencher seeks when initiating an Adjournment debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for taking that debate so ably on behalf of the Government. She is committed to those issues, but she is not the accountable Minister, and that is why I will take this up with the Secretary of State. It should not have happened and we need to ensure that it does not happen again.

May I thank the Leader of the House for what she said about David Taylor, who was such an outstanding Back Bencher?

In the light of Sir Ian Kennedy’s comments yesterday, would it not be sensible for the House to make its views known on his proposals so that we do not put the cart before the horse and vote on some Kelly recommendations that Sir Ian may not wish to endorse, bearing in mind that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is now in control?

There are some residual issues from Sir Christopher Kelly’s report that require legislation to fix them firmly in place. We have agreed to bring those forward in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. As for Sir Ian Kennedy’s document on establishing the new scheme for Members’ allowances, the framework for it was laid down in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which requires consultation with the Speaker and Members of the House, and I understand that Sir Ian has announced a wider five-week consultation with the public on the document through a website. It is now the responsibility of IPSA to take that forward independently. Individual Members can respond to the consultation and we can put forward our views, but Professor Sir Ian Kennedy is responsible for proposing the scheme as chairman of IPSA, and that is what he will do under the framework that has been laid down.

Will the Government table their own amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to ban non-doms from serving in Parliament, or will Ministers rely on my amendment?

That is an important issue, although I was not aware that my hon. Friend had tabled such an amendment. It sounds like a very good idea and I thank him for bringing it to the attention of the House. If he gets the chance to move his amendment, perhaps it will provide an opportunity for those on the Opposition Benches to say whether the deputy chair of the Tory party is actually resident for tax purposes.

I very much welcome the Leader of the House’s warm words about the Wright Committee proposals for reform of the House of Commons, and in particular her suggestion that we will need to go even further and build on them. That is an excellent and necessary idea. As a first step, will she place the Committee’s draft motion on the Order Paper for a free vote in this House—yes or no?

We are consulting the Opposition parties to ensure that the motion that we table has the broadest possible agreement across the House. Of course it will be a free vote, as it is House business, not Government business.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the Government’s overseas aid policy? She will be aware that a wind of vicious homophobic oppression is blowing through large parts of Africa, including in countries to which we contribute significant sums of aid development money. Other than the routine expressions of outrage that we make in diplomatic circles, can she enlighten us as to what actual leverage we have with some of these countries, such as Uganda and Malawi, that will demonstrate to them the complete unacceptability of the course of action on which they have embarked, as it will see innocent men and women sentenced to life imprisonment or to death just for being gay?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. This is a fundamental, basic human rights issue of great concern to the Government and the international community. I will raise his points about overseas aid in that specific respect with the Secretary of State for International Development.

May we have a debate on benefit entitlement? We learnt yesterday that Anjem Choudary, the putative leader of Islam4UK which plans a despicable march through Wootton Bassett, is in receipt of £25,000 of benefits, compared with the average wage of our brave soldiers in Afghanistan of £17,000. My constituents do not understand that distorted sense of priorities in our benefit system. Does the Leader of the House agree that we need an urgent debate to talk about such issues?

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the benefit system has been misapplied in this case, he can bring it to the attention of the relevant authorities. If it is a question of the structure of the benefit system, I suggest that he seeks an opportunity to raise it at Work and Pensions questions and makes his own proposals on how the benefit system should be changed.

My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that during the festive period a major holiday provider in Scotland, Flyglobespan, went into receivership, resulting in hundreds of job losses and thousands of families losing their holidays. Will she use her good offices to facilitate an investigation into the circumstances surrounding that company so that we may explore what lessons can be learned and, just as importantly, ensure that the workers’ interests are taken into account and the families receive compensation?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will be concerned to investigate the circumstances surrounding the receivership of that company. I join my hon. Friend in expressing sympathy to the thousands of families affected and the employees whose livelihoods have been so devastatingly affected.

May we have an early debate on the situation in Gaza? There is growing concern on both sides of the House about the desperate and deteriorating humanitarian situation, and a debate would allow Ministers from the Foreign Office to explain what they are doing to bring about a change of mind on the part of Egypt, which is currently blocking a humanitarian convoy.

I am aware of the general intensification of concern about this issue, not least as reflected by the hon. Gentleman and by questions to the Prime Minister yesterday. I shall perhaps discuss with the Foreign Secretary the best way to ensure that the concerns of the House are properly aired and debated, so that he has a chance to respond and the way forward is made clear.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) leads an impressive campaign for fashion magazines clearly to label doctored and airbrushed images of professional models. I support that campaign and, after the pre-election launches this week, I think that it should be extended to political propaganda. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in the new age of parliamentary transparency there should be no role for Ken Barbie doll politicians?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I fully support the hon. Lady’s excellent campaign. There is nothing wrong with older women, and we do not need airbrushing. I also agree that no amount of airbrushing will conceal the truth behind the Tory tax muddle. It might be a new, airbrushed face, but it is still the same old Tories.

It would be particularly appropriate at this time to have a topical debate on the Met Office, which costs taxpayers about £200 million a year. Surely it is time to stop treating the serial inaccuracy of the Met Office’s forecasts as just a joke. It has become a scandal; it looks as if it has been hijacked by the climate change lobby. May we have a topical debate very soon on the subject?

The problem is not the Met Office but the challenge of climate change. There is a micro-climatic problem on the Tory Back Benches, which perhaps I could refer to the Tory Front Benchers.

On Monday, the Leader of the Opposition paid a visit to the Stroud constituency—a fine place to come to, if I may say so. When asked by a journalist what difference a Conservative MP would make to the people of Stroud and Gloucester, he was quoted as saying:

“They will make a big difference. They’ll do what they say. The problem with the current MPs is they say they’re going to defend the Post Office but they go to Parliament and vote against it, they say they’re going to defend community health services but they go to Parliament and vote the other way…you would have a bunch of”—


“MPs committed to this area.”

Given that my right hon. and learned Friend protects the rights of Back Benchers, may I suggest that she tell the Opposition, in the nicest possible way, to get some decent researchers? They could have looked at my voting record. More particularly, would she support my demand for a retraction, so that we can get some honesty back into politics and get people who are straight with the electorate for once?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. It sounds like he is suggesting something like “Ofpol” to monitor the Opposition. They say different things in different parts of the country and different things to the newspapers from what they say in the House. The one consistent thing is that none of it adds up.

In the early days of this bout of bad weather, when the channel tunnel was closed because the trains could not run, Operation Stack was applied. That means that the M20 is closed and used as a lorry park. It happens regularly, and it does not just mean misery for my constituents and others in Kent; it cuts the most important freight route in the country. Given that, could the right hon. and learned Lady arrange for the Department for Transport to come to the House and make a statement? The regular application of Operation Stack is not just a local and regional problem, but a national and serious economic one. For various reasons, it is happening more and more often, and it is time for national Government to take some responsibility for this long-running problem.

I can see that the issue has national implications, but it might be a good idea for the hon. Gentleman and a group of MPs for the constituencies most directly affected to get together with the responsible Transport and Business Ministers and discuss whether the framework needs to be changed. No doubt the regional development agency would also need to be involved. I suggest that he takes that forward. However, if he wants to make another suggestion, perhaps he can make it to me and I can follow it up.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend urgently arrange for lessons in GCSE geography to be made available to certain Members of the House who do not appear to be aware that when the planet warms up, warm air moves to the poles, pushing cold air down into areas such as ours? Global warming, therefore, produces extremes of weather, both hot and cold. Does she agree that the problem of global warming requires global leadership, and will she assure the House that the Prime Minister will continue to provide that leadership undeterred by recent events?

We are able to play our part in the global effort to focus on climate change—obviously it has to be tackled nationally as well as globally—only because the Prime Minister and the Government are absolutely clear that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the planet, that we understand the science that lies underneath it, and that we are determined to take action to tackle it. I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.

You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there was a statement in the House this week on aviation and border security. It included a section on the risk of radicalisation and extremism in our universities. The statement made it clear that

“the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has published guidance on managing the risk of violent extremism”—[Official Report, 5 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 30.]

in higher education. However, it is not clear when that guidance was published. This is a dynamic subject; the risks and intelligence change, and the guidance needs to change too. May we have a statement ensuring that the guidance is updated and published so that Members can see that it is relevant and fit for purpose?

The Prevent programme, preventing radical extremism, is important not only in the Department for Communities and Local Government but, as the hon. Gentleman said, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, given that it involves issues of further and higher education. There are Business, Innovation and Skills questions next Thursday. Perhaps he will seek an opportunity to raise the issue directly with Business Ministers.

Order. May I point out that questions are starting to get a bit long? I want to try to get everybody in. We have an important debate to follow, so I hope that colleagues will be as helpful as possible.

May I draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend to my early-day motion 259 on the east coast main line franchise?

[That this House notes with concern the timetable the Government has set for the refranchising of East Coast main line services; and calls on the Government to maintain the East Coast main line in public ownership so that the quality, effectiveness and competitiveness of public ownership can be fully demonstrated.]

May we have an early debate on the subject so that we can get a better understanding of why the Government remain wedded to the idiotic and fanciful privatisation of the railways bequeathed to us by the Conservative party? Many of us hoped that the east coast main line could be a public service comparator, so that we can judge other companies.

We remain concerned to continue to improve our rail services, including the east coast main line, and I will draw my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Concern has been raised across the House about whether the Government actually support the recommendations of the Wright Committee report. The right hon. and learned Lady sought to reassure the House today, which I welcome. On that constructive note, may I ask whether she would be willing to meet a delegation of Wright Committee members to discuss where she feels that the recommendations need building on, so that there is no misunderstanding and to ensure that her motives, and those of the Government, are not misinterpreted in the way that she feels that they have been? Perhaps a meeting next week would suffice.

The Select Committee recognised that some of the proposals needed more work to take them forward. Above all, I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will facilitate proposals for debate and decision in the House, but there is no way we expect this to become a Government issue. It is a House issue, and we will ensure that we facilitate its ability to look across the piece and make progress on those issues.

My constituents are extremely concerned about the quality and speed of communication between major Departments. Yesterday, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for the message to go from the Prime Minister to the Foreign Secretary, “Get out there and say something.” In view of concerns about what would happen were there a greater national calamity, can the Leader of the House assure us that communication will be rather quicker in the future?

The Foreign Secretary is getting out there and doing his job, which is what the Prime Minister, and indeed the whole country, would expect him to do. That is exactly what he is doing.

The Leader of the House will be aware of my early-day motion 529 on the proposed march by Islamic extremists through Wootton Bassett.

[That this House notes that Anjem Choudary, the UK leader of al-Muhajiroun, plans to stage a march through Wootton Bassett town carrying empty coffins as a protest against Britain's presence in Afghanistan; considers that such a demonstration would be a gross mark of disrespect to the soldiers who have died or been wounded in Afghanistan, their families and those who continue to fight on active service in Afghanistan; believes that such a march would cause great distress to those who have lost loved ones; further notes that the Muslim Council of Britain has described the proposed march as ‘deplorable'; calls on the Home Secretary urgently to investigate the breaching of public order and other related offences; and urges Wootton Bassett Town Council and Wiltshire Police to ensure that any proposed demonstration that breaches the Public Order Act 1986 be rightly refused.]

Would it be possible to have a statement from the Home Secretary about what powers local authorities and police authorities have in relation to such a march? Does she agree that if the march went ahead, it would be a slight against not only the memory of our heroic servicemen and women returning to the United Kingdom, but the great people of Wootton Bassett who turn out in such great numbers to respect our war dead?

I very much understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I understand that the police have not yet received notification of any such procession taking place. If notification is given, there are powers under public order legislation for the police to impose conditions subject to the consent of the Home Secretary, and indeed to deny the opportunity for the march to take place. The Home Secretary has said that he will look sympathetically on any application made by the police in that respect.

Residents and shopkeepers up and down the country are frightened of clearing pavements in front of their properties of snow and ice for fear of being sued should any pedestrians fall over on that section of public pavement. During the urgent question, I asked the Transport Minister if he would look at changing the law to protect residents and shopkeepers in such cases, and he said that he had no power to do so. Will the Leader of the House ask the Justice Secretary to make a statement about how the law could be changed to protect residents and shopkeepers in such circumstances?

The Transport Minister was saying that people should be protected from the unreasonable fear, which is not founded on reality, that if they look to protect the forecourt of their business or help their neighbours they will be sued. The health and safety laws are important for protecting public health—for example, in the E. coli outbreaks that we have seen in city farms and suchlike. Those on the Opposition Benches are quick enough, if the public are not protected, to expect the Government to have effective regulations in place to protect them. However, nobody should go round encouraging the notion that there are nonsensical provisions waiting to entrap people who are using their common sense. There are not. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as the Transport Minister did, that everybody can do what is commonsensical. If it is commonsensical, we can be pretty certain that it will be absolutely within the law.

May we have a debate on the timeliness and clarity of ministerial responses? All Members from time to time have concerns about responses to parliamentary questions or correspondence with Ministers. However, I am thinking in particular of the delay of some hours yesterday among senior Ministers, including the Leader of the House, in responding to the simple question of whether they supported the Prime Minister, and of the equivocal and evasive nature of many of their answers.

All the statements that have been made have been made on numerous occasions, including yesterday. I am going to continue with my view on such questions, which is that I do not respond to them when we are being asked about the business of the House.

Some 2,500 of my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House have been without electricity over the past two days as a result of the adverse weather, and this in a period of sub-zero temperatures. We urgently need a broader statement from the Government on how the severe weather is being handled. Indeed, I find it extraordinary that the Government should have relied on a Conservative urgent question, tabled today, for the problem to be discussed in the House.

I do not think that it matters where an urgent question comes from. If it is an important urgent question, on which Members from all parts of the House want to join in and ask questions, and if it is granted by the Speaker, it can be a positive contribution to debate in the House. It is no skin off anybody’s nose for that to happen. There will be an opportunity next week to discuss energy security on an Opposition day motion. In anticipation of that debate, I can say that the National Grid Company has said that because of the cold weather there is unprecedented demand on our energy supplies, as one would expect, but that it is confident that supplies will be sustained. Indeed, the important work of repairing energy lines that are affected by falling trees cutting energy supplies is also an issue. However, there is no reason why there should not be an opportunity to ask questions in the meantime, and to debate them further next Wednesday.

Does the Leader of the House share my concern that 4,600 households in Shirley, Croydon were without power during this cold period? Unfortunately, the problem is not just weather-related, because there were cuts on Christmas eve and on previous days too, when the weather was clement. Does she think that I will be able to get away with dealing with this Croydon issue in a debate on energy security?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise the issue directly with the relevant Ministers. I will alert them to the fact that he wants to raise the issue on behalf of his constituents and see whether he can deal with it by correspondence, a meeting or further discussion.