Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 14 January 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 14 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Thursday 21 January at Three o’clock (Standing Order No. 20(2)).

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Innovation and Skills

The Minister of State was asked—

Royal Mail

During the dispute before Christmas, we kept in touch with both sides, encouraging an agreement on the modernisation of Royal Mail. Those talks are continuing, and I believe that in the context of falling mail volumes and the greater use of new technology, both Royal Mail and representatives of the work force understand that there are likely to be fewer people working for Royal Mail in the future.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, although I am disappointed that he is perhaps not taking a more active part in the discussions. What does he plan to do about the apparently ever-growing pensions deficit? Do the Government not have something to do on that? Should they not be helping Royal Mail and the Communication Workers Union and its members to ensure that they get a better settlement?

We have certainly helped Royal Mail and its work force by putting considerable finance, on behalf of the taxpayer, into it over the past decade. Just three years ago, we lent the company £1.2 billion to finance its much-needed modernisation. The mediator in the talks taking place now is Roger Poole, with whom I regularly keep in touch. The important thing is that both the work force and management reach an agreement to carry forward the modernisation.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the pension deficit. That is an issue for Royal Mail. We put forward a proposal to deal with it, as part of the Postal Services Bill, but I am afraid that many people were opposed to that package, although we made it clear that it was a package, and not something from which items could be picked out one by one.

Job security for Royal Mail’s employees, and indeed the security of its competitors’ employees, is threatened by the continuing regulatory uncertainty in the sector. Will the Government use the Digital Economy Bill to introduce the regulatory change aspects in the Postal Services Bill, because those particular issues are not related to the wider issues of the future ownership of Royal Mail?

We do not plan to separate out the regulation part of the postal services package that we proposed, as is the case with the pension proposals, which I just mentioned. The priority for Royal Mail now is that the talks succeed in reaching an agreement on the much-needed modernisation, because mail volumes are falling around the world and new technology is not going to go away. That is definitely in the interests of Royal Mail, its work force and the general public.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to postmen and women, certainly in my part of the world, who were pretty valiant in the cold weather, getting the mail through?

The regulatory aspect of the postal service is critical, as the Hooper report made clear. At the moment, Postcomm is in limbo from having half departed but not arrived at its new destination. What are the Government doing to ensure that in the limbo created by abandoning the Bill the regulatory framework will be improved in the way needed?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the valiant work that postmen and women do. They underpin the universal service at the heart of our postal system, and we are determined to preserve that for the future. However, I am afraid that I cannot agree with him that the regulatory system is in limbo. It is true that we had plans to change the regulatory system, but Postcomm is in place, it is the established regulator, it has a job to do, and it should continue to do it.

As the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) have said, Royal Mail requires structural reform if it and its employees are to move forward. However, the unions and Labour Back Benchers have forced a weak Government to pull the Postal Services Bill, so what, other than a Conservative Government, will deliver any action for reform?

We did not proceed with the Postal Services Bill because the market conditions did not allow us to get the best value for money for the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman spoke about his plans, but the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has been clear about those: the Conservatives would privatise the Royal Mail. That is not our proposal and it was not our proposal in the past.

University Centres

As set out in “Higher Ambitions”, we are committed to the enhancement of locally accessible higher education through a new University Challenge initiative. Since 2003, the Higher Education Funding Council England has announced support for 17 new local HE centres. In October last year, the HEFCE announced that six new proposals would be taken forward, including one in Milton Keynes.

The criteria for University Challenge could have been custom written for the University Centre Milton Keynes. We are a city with a large population of young people, but a relatively low participation rate in higher education, and the local centre obviously encourages them to participate. It is based in the heart of our business district and has a proven record. I commend the University Centre Milton Keynes to the Minister and hope that he will ensure that it is at the top of the list for further funding.

I commend my hon. Friend’s continued championing of widening participation in higher education in her constituency. Milton Keynes as a city has perhaps done more than any other in the country to widen participation, being the home of the Open university, as well as the new centre. It is right to say that a strong bid was made, and, having seen the site and the proposed plans for the centre, I certainly welcomed it. My hon. Friend will know that, beyond the next spending review, it is hoped that the bid will come to fruition.

The Government have long had an aspiration for 50 per cent. of young people to go into higher education. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s savage cuts in the university sector, can he tell us in what year he expects to meet that 50 per cent. aspiration and what percentage of young people will be going to university next year?

I am pleased to say that we have more young people at university than ever before in our history, and we will have even more next year. However, if the £610 million of cuts to my Department’s budget were enacted, which was the Conservative proposal 18 months ago, that would mean a reduction of many thousands.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to exercise a degree of caution as the number of universities proliferates? Universities are at the very heart of many of our communities, with the wealth and employment that they bring—Huddersfield university is the biggest employer in my constituency—but we must ensure that we maintain quality wherever we have a university campus.

My hon. Friend is right that we must keep an eye on quality. We must never be complacent about standards in higher education in this country. There is a reason why British universities are among the very best in the world, so while we seek to extend the reach of higher education more deeply into communities that have not experienced it, he is right to keep his eye on standards and quality.

The University Challenge programme was originally launched in rather different economic circumstances from those of today. Is it not the truth that we can now look forward to a period of contraction, limited opportunities for students and, what is more, higher tuition fees after the general election?

It is surprising to hear the hon. Gentleman mention tuition fees in his opening question, given the five positions on that that we have had from the Liberal Democrats over just the past year. I can confirm that there would be severe contraction if it ever came to pass that the Liberal Democrats were in power, because the money that we have seen as a result of our policy would be diminished, and so would the sector.

Has the Minister had an opportunity to read the piece on universities by Lord Mandelson in today’s edition of The Guardian? I am sure that the Minister is familiar with that newspaper’s comments and clarifications section, which we all enjoy. May I invite him to write something to that section correcting the record and setting out the figures showing how much further the unit of resource in universities is going to be cut as a result of the Government’s proposals? As we look at ways of easing pressures on universities, will he consider our proposal? Does he agree that we should not expect researchers and academics carrying out blue-skies research to produce impact statements—invented records of impact—and that the best thing to do would be to delay the research excellence framework until we have had time to work out whether impact can really be measured?

The hon. Gentleman continues his walk on the road to Damascus with this amazing U-turn on policy. I enjoy The Guardian every day, and I enjoy all that is said by the Secretary of State for my Department. I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman got his figures on the unit of resource wrong yesterday. I am surprised, given that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of science, technology and research, that he does not recognise the importance of the public being able to see the impact that that research—paid for by taxpayers’ money—could have. I am also surprised that he is jumping on yet another bandwagon.

Pleural Plaques

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Ministry of Justice on his Department’s potential financial responsibilities for people with pleural plaques. (310577)

I have had no recent discussions with the Ministry of Justice on this subject, but I understand that this is a long-running issue and that hon. Members are keen to see it brought to a conclusion.

I thank the Minister for that response. He must also be aware of the huge support for this matter across the House, as demonstrated by the fact that a private Member’s Bill on the subject was passed almost unanimously here and has gained support in the House of Lords. Also, an attempt by insurers in Scotland last week to prevent the Scottish law from being changed so that people could get compensation was decisively turned down. Surely some financial responsibility must be taken, at least for the people who worked for British Shipbuilders and other previously nationalised organisations. My right hon. Friend’s Department and the MOJ also have a moral responsibility to get together and sort this out.

As I said, I do understand that hon. Members are keen to reach a conclusion on this subject. I also understand that a meeting has been scheduled to take place shortly in which my hon. Friend and others will meet the Secretary of State for Justice and the Prime Minister. The Government are aware that we need to respond not only to this but to issues relating to other respiratory conditions.

Minimum Wage (Tipping)

4. What estimate he has made of the number of people who are likely to be affected by regulations governing the use of tips to make up levels of pay to the national minimum wage rate. (310578)

The Government estimate that just over 60,000 workers could benefit from the change to the minimum wage regulations. This will prevent tips from being counted towards the national minimum wage. Customers do not expect the tips that they leave to be used to make up the minimum wage, and the changes that we have introduced mean that tips can no longer be used in that way.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I welcome the new regulations. For many young people, waiting in restaurants is their first engagement with the world of work, and it is very disillusioning for them to have the rewards for their hard work taken by unscrupulous employers. Will he ensure that, following the introduction of the regulations, the situation is monitored and that any unscrupulous employers are exposed as a result?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Alongside the change in the law that we have made, we need proper enforcement and proper transparency in regard to what happens to tips. The public have a right to know what happens to the money that they voluntarily leave to reward the service they receive. The Government have also toughened up the law on the enforcement of the minimum wage, and there are now better arrears systems for employees who are not paid the minimum wage and tougher penalties for the minority of employers who do not pay it. We have also brought together the helplines for different rights at work to form a single pay and work rights helpline, which will make it easier for people to report abuses. The number is 0800 9172368.

My daughter recently worked in a restaurant, which had an optional service charge of 12.5 per cent., but none of that went to the staff. Is that not scandalous?

That is precisely why, alongside the change in the law to make sure that tips and gratuities cannot be used to make up the minimum wage, we want the industry to promote a code of transparency to ensure that the customer knows exactly what happens to the money they give. If I went into a restaurant and thought that the staff were not receiving anything of the tip, why would I leave one? I want to reward for the service we receive, and that is what the customer wants. That is why we have changed the law and want to see more transparency in addition to it.

NEETs

5. What recent estimate he has made of the number of young people in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England who are not in employment, education or training. (310579)

In the third quarter of 2009, there were 1,082,000, or 18 per cent., of 16 to 24-year-olds who were not in education, employment or training. That estimate comes from the labour force survey. The latest information for Northamptonshire is from the 2008 annual population survey, which estimates that there were 12,000, or 14 per cent., of people in that age group who were NEETs. However, those figures are not directly comparable with the England figure; the sample sizes are too small to give a constituency estimate.

In many ways, the severity of the recession has had its hardest impact on young people trying to enter the job market. I know from my own constituents the difficulties that many families across the Kettering parliamentary constituency are facing. What are the Government going to do to get our young people into work so that they can start their careers in gainful employment? If they cannot do that for young people, what training and education opportunities are the Government going to provide?

We have, of course, introduced the September guarantee, which means that every 16 or 17-year-old is offered a suitable place in education and training. We have rebuilt apprenticeships and we have signalled our commitment to apprenticeships for young people with the £2,500 golden hello for employers to provide up to 5,000 new places for 16 and 17-year-olds. The Government are doing a great deal to help young people who find themselves out of work, although I should say that the NEETs figures include many people who are not in that position, as only about 37 per cent. are actually seeking work or training.

When we debated this issue yesterday, the Government appeared totally complacent. With more than 1 million young people not in education, employment or training and with the second highest level of youth unemployment in Europe, this Government have let down a generation of young people. Is the Minister not ashamed? As we face another looming crisis this year on university applications, will he take up our proposals, which have been fully costed and funded, for an additional 10,000 university places?

We are neither ashamed nor complacent, and we will not take up that proposal for the reason I set out in yesterday’s debate—because it is not properly funded. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the key issue is how quickly young people move out of unemployment and into work. Six month-plus 18-to-24 unemployment is currently 108,800; in 1997, it was 169,000; in 1993, it was 415,000; and in 1985, during the last Conservative Government, it was 600,000—six times as many people in that age group unemployed for six months or more. That is the difference between us and them.

Science Education (Universities)

I met university vice-chancellors on Tuesday and I reaffirm the Department’s commitment, made in “Higher Ambitions”, to science and engineering.

On 3 November, the Minister denounced as a caricature that he did not recognise the question I put to him here on the disconnection between school and university science, which was leading to remedial courses for undergraduates who were inadequately prepared at school for university. Has he since had a chance to see the remarks of Dr. Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, who has made this far from novel or original point yet again, concluding with the phrase:

“Until we get to grips with this fiasco… this country risks sliding down the road to mediocrity”?

If the Minister will not recognise my description of the problem, perhaps he will recognise Dr. Pike’s.

What I recognise are the figures published today, which confirm that there has been a 12 per cent. rise in A-level entries for maths and further maths and a 3.8 per cent. rise for physics, as well as a 3 per cent. rise in undergraduates taking science subjects and a 7 per cent. rise in postgraduates doing so. I suggest the hon. Gentleman goes back to the very foundation of science: the evidence. He should look at the figures for what young people are doing and recognise that there have been massive advances for science subjects as a result of funding from this Government.

When vice-chancellors are under financial pressure, they find that the greatest savings in universities can be made by closing science and engineering departments. That is what has happened in the past, and that is what is beginning to happen this year. Will my right hon. Friend keep a very close eye on the way in which vice-chancellors make their savings?

I hope my hon. Friend recognises that we have sought to ensure that the money is in place, particularly to prioritise science, technology, engineering and maths. We set that out most recently in “Higher Ambitions”. Our university science departments are key to our “New industry, new jobs” agenda for sectors such as the life sciences, biotechnology and advanced manufacturing, which will have to be centre stage to our economic recovery. I recognise that this is an important issue, therefore, notwithstanding the research and assessment exercise results, which might lead some vice-chancellors to decide to withdraw from certain areas and prioritise others.

The largest research council, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, has already been forced to cut research grants by 10 per cent. and fellowships by 25 per cent. and to withdraw from 27 significant projects. The Government have allocated no money whatever to their ring-fenced science budget beyond this year, yet last night the science Minister confirmed—this has been confirmed again here this morning—that £600 million will be cut from the science budget over the next two years. Can the Minister explain how a specific sum—this £600 million—can be cut from a budget that has nothing in it?

The hon. Gentleman has got his facts wrong, which is unusual. It is not £600 million from the science budget; it is £600 million up to 2013 from the entirety of the just under £13 billion higher education budget from which we have asked savings to be found. We are committed to the science ring fence and the 10-year framework for science, and it is wrong to caricature the STFC, to which we gave £40 million just last year, in that way.

Unionlearn

7. What estimate he has made of the number of people who have completed training courses under the unionlearn programme since 2006; and if he will make a statement. (310581)

Since 2006, trade unions, supported by unionlearn, have helped over 570,000 workers access a training course, including over 80,000 with poor basic literacy and numeracy skills. Detailed information on completions is not collated centrally, but Leeds university business school is currently undertaking a comprehensive analysis of learner outcomes, which will provide robust evidence of the percentage completing courses.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that those 500,000-plus learners through unionlearn include many people who would not have accessed skills training without it, which is why it is so popular with employers—it is in the national interest and the interest of companies? Also, has he received representations from other parties about whether they are prepared to commit to unionlearn?

I can confirm my hon. Friend’s first point. Interestingly, in yesterday’s debate, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said he was very much in favour of unionlearn because it was so cost-effective. I do not know whether that is a pledge, but one thing is clear: this is a Labour Government policy that the Conservative party opposed, but which is now endorsed by its Front-Bench team as very good value for money.

Student Maintenance Support

8. What plans he has for the future of student maintenance support; and if he will make a statement. (310583)

The independent review of higher education funding and student finance will analyse the challenges facing, and opportunities for, higher education and their implications for student financing and support. It will make recommendations to Government on the future balance of financial contributions by taxpayers, students, graduates and employers, and the Government will not pre-empt the outcome of the review.

May I direct the Minister to the issue of maintenance allowances, which is the subject of my question? Is he at all satisfied with the future direction, given that 28,000 students are not receiving their maintenance allowances, including several hundred in Stockport, who, even after Christmas, are stranded without the money they deserve?

That is why I set up the independent review led by Sir Deian Hopkin. I think that we all recognise that serious issues have arisen in relation to the Student Loans Company’s performance this year. Its chair and chief executive have apologised, and I am pleased that it has now dealt with the backlog. Many thousands of applications continue to come in, as many students have been delaying seeking their finance. What is important is for next year’s process to be far better than this year’s, and that is the undertaking that the chair and chief executive have made.

Forty-three per cent. of students in higher education are part-time students, and future growth will largely come from part-time and mature students. Is there not a powerful argument for raising the cap on full-time undergraduate fees in order to develop a unified system, giving part-time students the same access to financial support that full-time students enjoy?

My hon. Friend puts his point forcefully. I shall not be drawn on the outcome of the review, but I can say that he is right to underline the position of part-time students and to call for better equity. That is why we have asked Lord Browne to examine the position of part-time students, in particular.

Grocery Ombudsman

9. What plans he has to respond to the Competition Commission’s recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman. (310584)

My Department published the Government’s response to the Competition Competition’s recommendation for the creation of a grocery supply chain ombudsman yesterday. The Government have accepted the need for independent enforcement of the grocery supply code of practice, and we will consult on the detail of the body and its powers.

As I chair the grocery market action group, perhaps I should declare an interest. I have been campaigning for this for the best part of 10 years. Therefore, I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement yesterday—I have to say, it was not before time. What timetable does he envisage for the implementation of this vital recommendation, bearing in mind that although the grocery supply code of practice will be unenforced, it will be implemented on 4 February?

On the time taken, the Competition Commission made its formal request to the Government only last August. In the meantime, I have met the hon. Gentleman and his group, the British Retail Consortium, the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, Consumer Focus, Divine Chocolate and the Office of Fair Trading, so a proper consultation has been taking place. The formal consultation will start shortly after the code comes into force on 4 February. How quickly we can implement the measures depends on the solution and whether or not it needs legislation, and that will ultimately depend on the design of the body.

Of course we welcome movement on this from the Government, but we need real teeth and real power. The power of the supermarkets puts pressure on the farmers, and we want fair farm-gate prices and a purchasing policy for local communities. That would provide the teeth and the power we need. We need that commitment from the Minister.

Of course the purpose of the enforcement body is to enforce the code, which has been broadly welcomed by everyone as having the teeth necessary. We just need to ensure that it is independently enforced, and we have accepted the case for that. Ultimately, we accepted it on the grounds that the Competition Commission made it clear that it believed that in the long term this was in the interests of shoppers and consumers, because it would provide the kind of certainty in the supply chain that will produce better prices and choices for them.

Does the Minister regard the appointment and powers of this ombudsman to be complementary to or in addition to the existing powers of the OFT and the Competition Commission, which, as he will know, have held almost continuous inquiries into the supermarket sector over the past decade or so?

The powers of those bodies remain as they were previously in the event of there being matters that they need to investigate. The job of the independent ombudsman will principally be to enforce the code, but we are also consulting, as part of how we design the body, on exactly what the powers will be.

Agency Workers

10. What plans he has for legislation on the regulation of agency workers; and if he will make a statement. (310585)

The Government want to get the legislation to implement the agency workers directive on to the statute book by the end of this Parliament. We will shortly table the relevant regulations and publish the Government’s response to the recent consultation.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, but it is a pity that this has been left until so late in the day. How confident is he that the matter will be dealt with before Dissolution?

That is the aim. My hon. Friend says that it has been left until late in the day, but if he looks across Europe he will see that we are legislating ahead of many other countries. I do not accept that there has been an unacceptable delay, but it is our aim to get this provision on the statute book by the end of the Parliament. As I have said, we will be publishing the relevant regulations shortly.

In October, the Government announced that this regulation would not come into force until 2011 to avoid harming Britain’s recovery after the recession. Here we are, however, rushing it through Parliament just weeks before a general election. A cynic might wonder whether this is anything to do with the Labour party’s pressing need for election funds from its trade union paymasters, who demanded this measure as part of the infamous Warwick agreement. Will the Minister take this opportunity to reassure those cynics that nothing could be further from the Government’s mind and that they would never put short-term, grubby party political interests ahead of doing the right thing for the country?

Our aim in bringing forward these regulations is to abide by the agreement that we reached in Europe to ensure fairness for agency workers and flexibility for employers. That was the basis of the TUC-CBI agreement, and it stands in stark contrast to the Opposition’s pledge to downgrade the employment rights that have been agreed in Europe. There will be a very clear choice on this matter when it comes to the election.

Does the Minister accept that this change has long been campaigned for? There have been two series of consultation and there is now no impediment to ensuring that agency and temporary workers get the justice for which they have been calling for so many years.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this has been under discussion for some time. It took a long time to get agreement in Europe. We were able to reach agreement on the basis of an agreement in the UK between the TUC and the CBI. We then successfully negotiated for that to be reflected in the European directive. That was something we could do only because this country, under this Government, is properly engaged with our European allies. I dread to think how we would negotiate in Europe if the Opposition, who are isolated in Europe, were trying to negotiate with 27 other countries.

Libel Laws (Science Sector)

11. What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on the effects on the science sector of libel laws. (310586)

Ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have held no recent discussions with ministerial colleagues on the effects of libel laws on the science sector. The Justice Secretary leads on the issue of libel law. Professor Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, and officials are in discussions with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice to ensure that science and engineering receive appropriate attention in their consideration of libel law.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that Professor Beddington has set out his concerns and will, I hope, be feeding them into the Government review. However, does the Minister accept that there is genuine concern among publishers of medical journals, for example, about the chilling effect of the threat of libel actions? Would he, or one of his colleagues—perhaps the Minister for Science and Innovation—be willing to meet a delegation of scientists so that they can effectively feed in scientists’ concerns to the Ministry of Justice?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The Department is aware of the concern in the scientific community relating to the chilling effect to which he refers. As I said in my response, the Ministry of Justice leads on this matter. I shall refer his remarks to it, and I undertake to ensure that its Ministers are aware of what he has had to say today. I shall keep in touch with him on this matter.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that he as a Minister should have an early meeting with the Justice Ministers on this issue? It directly affects his Department because these wretched libel laws will restrict the publication of scientific research, which will have an effect on research and development and, in particular, on manufacturing in our economy, which is his responsibility.

I fully accept that science, innovation and manufacturing are at the heart of this Department’s agenda. This is a very important issue: it is important that we have responsible, intelligent and creative scientific debate, and the review is taking place under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice because we want to ensure that we have the correct legal environment for that debate to happen.

Venture Capital

12. When he next expects to meet small business organisations to discuss Government funding for venture capital projects. (310587)

The Minister for Trade, Investment and Small Business and the City Minister regularly meet the Small Business Finance Forum, which brings together the banks, small business representative organisations and the Government to discuss the economic situation and the availability of finance.

Will the Minister turn her attention to the Capital for Enterprise Fund, which made its first investments in May last year? Will she confirm that her Department has put up £50 million in total, and that annual management and administration costs will come to £2.5 million? In other words, over 10 years, the fees to the City and advisers will swallow up half of the Government’s total contribution. Has she secured a good deal, or has she been taken for a ride?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that he would rather that there was no Capital for Enterprise Fund. Since 2000, this Government have committed £400 million to a range of venture capital funds, which has attracted £551 million of private sector investment. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he does not want such measures to be taken? Does he not want the new measures that will arise from the 2009 pre-Budget report? If we followed the advice of the Opposition, none of these funds would be available to help small business in these difficult times.

Capital Expenditure

13. What estimate he has made of the level of capital expenditure by further education colleges in (a) south Bedfordshire and (b) England in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (310588)

In the financial year 2009-10, the Learning and Skills Council will invest £800 million in the development of 66 further education college capital projects across England. They will cost a total of £2.45 billion, and will receive just under £1.8 billion of Government investment in this and the next spending review. The Bedfordshire and Luton area has benefited from £52.8 million in LSC capital grant support since 2001, although in the last 12 months there has been no capital expenditure in South-West Bedfordshire.

I am glad that the Minister made the last point, that central Bedfordshire got nothing. Also, the college took on 250 extra students in September for whom it has no funding. I spoke to the principal this morning, and she told me she believes that she is expected to implement the January guarantee with no money. The local learning and skills council thinks that there is some money, but does not know how to access it. Can the Minister help?

I shall certainly be happy to look into that. I know that the hon. Gentleman’s local college, which has changed its name, has received £740,000 in support for the capital project development costs that it was not able to go ahead with as a result of the programme. However, I am certainly happy to look into the point that he makes about the January guarantee.

University Funding

14. What his policy is on the future level of funding of universities; and if he will make a statement. (310590)

The Government have presided over huge investment in higher education. Spending has risen by some 25 per cent. since 1997, which has significantly increased income and variable fees. Next year, my Department will allocate some £13 billion to higher education, taking into account spend on institutions and students.

Universities face total budget cuts of £2.5 billion, and the Business Secretary has said that he will slash funding next year by £535 million. How will those savage cuts affect the quality of teaching and research? In addition—

Order. I think that one question will do. I am extraordinarily grateful, but we need to make progress.

I think that “savage cuts” were the 38 per cent. fall in the unit of resource between 1991 and 1997, which left universities in this country on their knees. What the Government proposed in the grant letter to universities just before Christmas was in fact a saving of 1 per cent.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming today’s launch of the Centre for Low Carbon Futures at the universities of York, Sheffield, Leeds and Hull? Will he look at the £49 million of Research Councils UK money that those universities have received in the past three years for work in this field, and then write to me to let me know what sort of support the research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and the European Commission could give the centre over the next five years or so?

I am very happy to confirm that I will do that. My colleague the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber will be there. This is a fantastic example of collaboration that cuts to the heart of the future of our economy. I congratulate everyone in the region who is involved, and I undertake to come back to my hon. Friend on what further we can do to support it.

A number of us were present with principals and vice-chancellors when the Minister spoke to the all-party university group. He spoke about the need for universities to search for cheaper models in the current financial constraints. One principal described that as a potential assault on quality. Will the Minister be mindful of the distinct Scottish ancient universities component, with the four-year honours degree and the three-year ordinary masters degree, in relation to whatever financial constraints are now going to be upon that sector?

I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s particular expertise as rector of Glasgow university—a very good university—and all that he does to champion higher education. When I spoke to the vice- chancellors, I think I was referring to the excellent progress that we have made on, for example, foundation degrees as a route into higher education and on part-time higher education courses, which have been mentioned already. We must continue to make progress in this area, especially against a backdrop of tighter fiscal spending.

Topical Questions

Last week the Department published a growth paper setting out what we needed to do to drive forward economic recovery. The priorities included promoting enterprise, better access to finance, securing much-needed infrastructure investment and making the most of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Those are the priorities as we come out of the recession that will ensure that the recovery is sustained in the long term.

Can a member of the ministerial team reassure me that today’s important round-table discussions with institutional investors about how to vote their shares during hostile takeover bids are not just a flash-in-the-pan response to the hostile bid by Kraft for Cadbury, which is unwelcome, but will be the start of an important debate about how institutional investors behave, which is not always in the long-term interests of the UK?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the meeting today between the Secretary of State and institutional investors. We should not see the meeting purely through the lens of a single takeover battle. It is important for the long-term health of the economy that we have long-term commitment from institutional investors. That will be at the heart of the discussions that take place today.

Ceres Power in my constituency is developing a fuel cell that reduces our reliance on carbon by 50 per cent., but it needs to know that the Government are supporting it. Can my hon. Friend the Minister assure me that proper provisions are in place to ensure at this critical stage that the development progresses and we move forward such excellent technologies?

It is always difficult to comment on one case on the hoof, but with the Department of Energy and Climate Change we have published a low- carbon economic strategy. We have put considerable Government resources behind that, a significant part of which is support for the development and manufacture of low-carbon vehicles here in the UK. Low-carbon industries are an essential part of our economic future, and that is why we have put in resources behind them.

T4. What assessment has the Department made of the impact on small businesses of a recent decision of the Payments Council representing the high street banks to phase out the use of cheques? Is he aware that that move is opposed by the Federation of Small Businesses? Does he agree that a large number— (310603)

Order. We are in topical questions. May I appeal for short questions and short answers? I want to get through as many colleagues as possible.

It is time for a confession: I am a cheque user. If that is old-fashioned, I am afraid that I cannot make an apology for it. I understand that cheque use has declined more widely, but I certainly hope the transition is managed as sensitively and as carefully as possible—for small businesses and for us cheque users.

T3. The development of electrical vehicles in the north-east has been a huge boost for manufacturers such as Tegrel, which is producing a charging station in my constituency. Will the Minister assure me that the Government and the regional development agency One NorthEast will continue to support such work; and that we will support RDAs, unlike the Opposition? (310602)

The north-east is a real hub of low-carbon technology development in the automotive sector. Nissan and Smith Electric Vehicles, which I have already visited, are at the forefront, and the investment at Nissan’s battery factory is going ahead. I should be very interested in seeing the company to which my hon. Friend refers.

Will the Minister of State confirm that manufacturing, as a proportion of total GDP in this country, has declined by no less than 9 per cent. during this Government’s period in office? That is the fastest rate of decline in our history. How can the Government’s new industrial strategy, and their claim that they will revive this country’s manufacturing capacity, be taken seriously when they have scandalously neglected the subject and the whole sector for their entire period in office?

Manufacturing is still immensely important to the UK economy and to the region that I have the honour of representing. In the past 18 months alone, we have given significant support to the aerospace sector, to new nuclear and to other low-carbon manufacturing industries. It is sad that that support, through the strategic investment fund, was described by the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s colleague, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), as a disgrace. We do not think it is a disgrace; we think it is essential, and that is why we are committed to supporting manufacturing in this country.

Now that the Scottish Parliament has taken steps to overturn the October 2007 ruling on pleural plaques, can we have a guarantee that we will do the same thing here, for the rest of the British Isles, as speedily as possible and before the election?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was present when my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) asked me about that matter a short time ago, but I appreciate that hon. Members wish to see a solution to it. I understand that a meeting involving hon. Members, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Justice will take place in the near future, and I am sure that they will have heard the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

T5. I attended the fifth anniversary breakfast of the Givers Gain business networking organisation this morning. The small and medium-sized enterprises there said that they are being crippled by red tape. What plans does the Secretary of State have to reduce the regulatory burden on SMEs? (310604)

For the first time, this Government have published the forward regulatory programme—the regulations that the Government will bring forward. The process with this Government, unlike any previous one, has been open, so our engagement with small businesses and the bodies that represent them has been very close indeed. We are always open to hear from businesses about particular regulations, and I always listen to what they have to say.

An increasing number of sub-postmasters face action for the misappropriation of funds that, they believe, is based on shortcomings in the Horizon computer system. Given those numbers, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the Post Office to review those cases and that system so that sub-postmasters can be confident that the computer systems that are put in place are there to support them, not to put their livelihoods at risk?

I have received representations about that issue from hon. Members on behalf of sub-postmasters in their constituencies. The Post Office tells me that it has looked into all those complaints, and says that it has faith in the integrity of the Horizon system. However, I am sure that if there are further complaints, the Post Office will properly examine them, as it should do.

T6. Myerscough college in my constituency is an excellent mixed FE and HE college that awards degrees by third-party universities. In the light of the current financial situation and the fact that the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been supportive, yet unable to fund the HE capacity, will the Minister consider a review of HE funding in FE colleges to ensure that money gets to the front line as quickly and efficiently as possible? (310605)

We have increased funding by 25 per cent. In “Higher Ambitions” we set out the importance of HE provision in FE colleges, which extends the reach of higher education to those from non-traditional backgrounds and, often, poorer socio-economic groups. I am happy to look into the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s college, but the Government’s commitment in this area is clear.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to put an end to the exploitation of and discrimination against young people at work who are under 22 and who, if they are earning the minimum wage, earn almost a full pound less than their adult counterparts? For me, and surely for him, this has to be an issue of equal pay for equal work.

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government decide the minimum wage rates on the basis of recommendations from the independent Low Pay Commission, which has on it representatives of employers and employees, as well as independent experts. The commission has recommended that youth rates are justified for the minimum wage. We, too, want to see maximum employment chances for young people. I can tell my hon. Friend that this year the commission recommended that the adult rate for the minimum wage kick in at the age of 21 rather than 22. That recommendation has been accepted by the Government, and it will come into force in October.

T7. The Government have scandalously neglected manufacturing in Wellingborough, which has resulted in unemployment increasing from 1,407 to more than 3,000—an increase of 114 per cent. Would any of the Ministers like to come to the Dispatch Box and apologise to the people of Wellingborough? (310606)

As I said, we are giving considerable support to manufacturing; this was set out in the paper on growth that we published last week. I have to say that there is a stark contrast between our commitments on aerospace, on low-carbon vehicles and on advanced engineering and the utter silence and utter absence of a manufacturing or an industrial policy from the Conservative party.

Like so many others on this side of the House, I welcome the decision on pleural plaques reached in the Scottish courts. However, we need a UK-wide response to this, because it would be absolutely ridiculous if we found that people living in one part of the country who may have contracted this condition in another part of the country fall foul of different compensation schemes.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. There is not much to add to what I said earlier. The Government understand the desire for a response to these issues, not only on pleural plaques but on wider respiratory conditions.

The pay package for the chief executive of Royal Mail last year was £1.3 million; for the managing director of the letters business, it was £849,000. If the Government really believe in redistribution of wealth, how about starting with those two salaries?

The rewards are indeed high; the hon. Gentleman is quite fair in saying that. The transformation and modernisation task at Royal Mail is enormous, and for those rewards we want to see modernisation carried through—delivered—to give us the healthy, efficient and modern Royal Mail service that we need in order to maintain the universal service that is at the heart of our postal system.

I am encouraged by what the Minister says about pleural plaques, but can he be categorical? I know that his Department has inherited some of the liabilities from the previously nationalised industries. Can he say that his Department would not object to a change in the law that would overturn the decision on pleural plaques that was made in the House of Lords on 17 October 2007?

These decisions will be taken across Government. As I said, I understand that hon. Members are looking for a response soon. A meeting will take place soon involving the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Justice, which leads on this issue.

T8. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), and given the strain on public finances, will the Minister confirm that excellent colleges, such as the college of West Anglia in King’s Lynn and City college in Norwich, will continue to have the flexibility to respond to local needs and priorities? (310607)

Yes. In fact, we are introducing more flexibilities for colleges as a result of our skills strategy, including, for “good” and “excellent” colleges, the ability to do so via cross-budgets, in a way that was not available before.

It is pleasing to see that the Government have accepted the idea of the ombudsman for the grocery trade and I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on all he has done to push that forward. Will the Government now just accept the private Member’s Bill of our hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen)?

Of course, that is ultimately a matter for the House, but the consultation will take place following the introduction of the code on 4 February. That consultation is on not only one model but whether the ombudsman or enforcer will be housed within an existing institution, so at this point I cannot commit to my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

T9. This is a further comment from the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry:“evidence gathered recently by the science community has identified entire” GCSE “science papers with no underlying mathematics, and science questions with no science.” Is the Minister entirely uninterested in this problem of the connection between science at school and the quality of science at university, or does he simply believe that so long as people are going to university, that is all right? (310608)

It really is a disservice to our students and teachers to talk down science teaching in that way, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the £140 million we have made available to improve teaching in science across the country.

In the very week when the Crown Estate has given out the biggest contracts for wind power, would the Minister be surprised to learn that I have received a letter saying that there is no course in Scotland for training in that industry and no demand for people to be trained? Will he do something about that so we do not have people from outside the UK building those wind farms?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the huge investment, employment and industrial potential of those industries. He is also absolutely right to say that if we want to maximise the opportunities presented by the transition to a lower-carbon economy, we have to give young people the skills to do the jobs that that will bring.

T10. Ministers should be aware of the current financial difficulties at the university of Gloucestershire, which have come about despite its success in attracting applicants. Are they prepared to meet me and my constituents from the university to discuss the crisis and whether the flat-rate nature of the cap on student numbers is unfair to popular universities such as Gloucestershire university? (310609)

The cap on student numbers affects all universities in the country. It is important not only that we grow participation but that we fund students, often with grants, when they are at university. That is why we have the cap. The hon. Gentleman’s views on the university of Gloucestershire are best directed to the funding council if he thinks there is a problem.

Given the priority my right hon. Friend says he attaches to the new green economy, can he tell the House what new European money there is for the west midlands, in order that we can innovate?

I can tell my hon. Friend that altogether, following announcements from across the Government, there is some £500 million-plus for low-carbon industries. That is significant backing for a range of low-carbon industries, many of which we have mentioned in our answers today.

Reading college has suffered from a lack of investment over the years and Thames Valley university is now pulling out. It has been announced that Oxford and Cherwell is going to be the preferred bidder, but I have significant concerns about the bid process and the due diligence that has taken place. Please will the Minister take a significant interest in this matter, because young people in my constituency deserve a high-quality education?

I am very happy to look into any real concerns the hon. Gentleman has. I am not aware of any concerns about due diligence with the process—of course, Oxford and Cherwell college won the bid in a consortium with another organisation. I know he has written to me, but if has any particular concerns, I would be happy to look into them. I understand that he is meeting the consortium soon, and I hope that that helps to alleviate any concerns he has.

A number of measures such as advanced technology and manufacturing and low-carbon fuel vehicles have made a significant difference, but what can Ministers do to assist manufacturing companies that are still struggling with credit insurance? Several local companies have approached me to say that they are still struggling with that scheme. If Ministers can make some suggestions about how they can assist, that would be very helpful.

This has been a significant issue during the recession. I agree with my hon. Friend and many companies have reported problems. It appears to me that there are flaws in a product that is insurance only for good times. After all, we want insurance for good and for bad times. The flaw in the product has been exposed during the recession, and I suggest that we need a better system in the future that helps businesses in bad times and good.

Does the Minister accept that manufacturing industry, which I have supported for almost four decades in this House, is the only source of non-inflationary economic growth and should be supported by whichever Government are in power and that Departments should err on the side of buying British?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of manufacturing. That is why we have given it support, and why I am so disappointed that the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) described that support as a disgrace. I disagree with those on his Front Bench, and I am glad that he does too.

Last, but not least.

Does the Minister agree with the view that the Lisbon treaty was a package of modest and necessary reforms, and that EU-wide co-operation was necessary to produce an efficient regulatory system? That is the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), as articulated to the Japanese chamber of commerce.

It is the case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is reported to have told the Japanese chamber of commerce that the Lisbon treaty was a modest and sensible set of reforms. I am only sad that the rest of those on the Opposition Front Bench disagree. As on several other occasions, the right hon. and learned Gentleman shows considerable wisdom that is sadly not shared by the rest of his party.

Order. I hope Members will agree that topical questions are a valuable and valued part of our proceedings. I am keen always to accommodate as many Members as possible, but we could improve in terms of pithiness of question and answer to get everybody in within time.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 18 January will be:

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–Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments to the Video Recordings Bill. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 January will include:

Monday 25 January–Remaining stages of the Financial Services Bill.

Tuesday 26 January–Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 4).

Wednesday 27 January–Opposition Day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 28 January–Topical debate, subject to be announced; to follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Friday 29 January–Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House about business in Westminster Hall.

Thursday 28 January–A debate from the Environmental Audit Committee on carbon capture and storage.

The House is grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for telling us next week’s business.

The whole country will be haunted by the traumatic images that are emerging from Haiti as the devastating scale of the disaster there becomes clearer. Many British non-governmental organisations are now mobilising disaster appeals. Given that in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, millions of people donated hundreds of millions of pounds to the relief fund, I am sure that the British people will again respond with generosity. I am also sure that all colleagues will want to support fundraising events in their constituencies over the weekend. We welcome yesterday’s statement from the International Development Secretary, and we hope that he will continue to keep the House informed over coming weeks. In addition, might he consider this issue as a subject for next week’s topical debate?

Where is the debate on the Wright report? It has not yet appeared on the parliamentary radar. The Government’s handling of the report makes the case, more effectively even than the report put it, for their relinquishing their iron grip on the business of the House. They dithered for five weeks at the beginning of the process, before the Wright Committee was set up, and now they are dithering at the end. The Committee set the lowest of all possible hurdles at the beginning of the course by asking for a debate within eight weeks, but the Government have totally failed to clear that hurdle. It is not just the House that is impatient for change, but the whole country, so when will the Government hold a debate on the Wright report, and will there be a decision at the end of it?

Following today’s report from the National Audit Office, may we have a debate on the Government’s dementia strategy? The strategy was launched with much fanfare earlier last year, but we now learn from the NAO that Ministers have failed to make the disease a priority, that they show no signs of fulfilling their pledge to provide memory clinics across the UK and that they are unable to prove that the money set aside for the strategy is even reaching those who need it. So, may we have a debate on that crucial report?

May we also have a statement on minimum pricing for alcohol? For months, the Government have said that that idea is, in the words of the Home Secretary, a “non-runner”, but an article in yesterday’s edition of The Daily Telegraph stated that a scheme led by the Health Secretary will fix prices for alcohol units in order to crack down on supermarkets selling cheap drink. Is that a Government U-turn?

Again, may I ask when we will get the dates for the Easter recess? Last week, the Leader of the House claimed that she would publish them “in the usual way”, but the usual way is to publish all the recess dates for the year ahead, once, in October. When is she going to end this state of uncertainty?

Is the right hon. and learned Lady any clearer about whether she will give additional time to debate the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? There is an important new clause on implementing the Kelly measures, and, if the Government have resolved their internal differences, on voting reform of the House. The House will want to scrutinise both those elements, so will she guarantee an extra two days in Committee for the Bill?

Finally, may we have a statement on the election night count? A number of senior figures, including yourself, Mr. Speaker, have said that it would be, in your words, “a travesty” for the count to be delayed by local authorities until the next day. Yesterday, no less a figure than the Government Chief Whip told his local paper that delaying the count would increase the risk of electoral fraud. Is there any doubt that having a Thursday night count is the right thing to do?

I fully support the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the devastation and tragedy unfolding in Haiti. He will remember that the Secretary of State for International Development answered an urgent question about it yesterday. Indeed, the subject of Haiti and of British Government and international support for Haitians at this time was dealt with by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions. I can tell the House that our search and rescue teams, who are recognised throughout the world as having great expertise and experience, have landed in the Dominican Republic and will shortly arrive in Haiti. They will be working on search and rescue, but Department for International Development humanitarian assessment work will also be done, so that, as the search and rescue carries on, the further needs for shelter, water supplies, medicine and food will be assessed. The work of the disaster assessment and co-ordination team is under way, and it will continue to keep the House updated regularly. Of course, we all support such voluntary work, as well as charitable donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee fund.

I said to the House last week that there will be an opportunity for it to debate the Wright Committee report and to make decisions. We strongly believe in strengthening the role of the House of Commons and that making it more effective is essential to restoring public trust in our political system. That is why the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Wright Committee last summer and why I brought to the House the motion to establish it and got the House’s support.

We have already had a 90-minute debate on the report in Westminster Hall last month-in which 17 colleagues participated, and an opportunity to debate and approve the principle of the election of Deputy Speakers by ballot, which was a Wright Committee recommendation. However, this is a complex matter on which the Government will have to take a view about what it is right to bring to the House. The report was not unanimous in all respects, and there are some complex issues to consider. We want to ensure that we offer the House the right opportunity and that we do not dictate to the House on the matter.

I do not want anybody to misunderstand the right hon. Gentleman’s comments as somehow meaning that the Government have stood still on improving how the House works. We have already introduced major reforms to modernise the House, including evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills, greater resources and core tasks for Select Committees, Regional Committees, topical questions, which we have just heard, and topical debates. We have not stood still, but we do have further to go and the Wright Committee will be an important step forward when we bring its issues to the House. I can confirm that the House will have an opportunity to debate the report and decide on its recommendations.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the important question of dementia and the National Audit Office report. He will remember that it was just a year ago that we established the first national dementia strategy, which is on track. It is very important work that is fundamental to work in primary care, in the community, in hospital-based health care and in social care. It is work across the piece and we fully accept that it will not be completed in one year, but it is under way and it is a priority. We will obviously look in detail at the NAO report.

As far as the recess is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman is already complaining about the announcement of the Easter recess when we have not yet even got to the February recess. Again, I would not want him to create the wrong impression, and he knows that although Members of Parliament work in the House, we also work in our constituencies. We work in two places at once, and I would not want him to curry favour with those people who would like to imply that when we are not here in this House we are on holiday. That is not the case.

As far as progress on the Queen’s Speech programme is concerned, we have had 13 Second Readings since the Queen’s Speech and we are well under way. We will consider what amount of time needs to be given to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when we bring forward the new clauses to implement Kelly, on which there have been talks with all the party leaders.

I have two concerns about election night. The first is that the count should be announced as soon as the people have voted, and the second is that it should be the right result.

The Wright Committee produced a draft motion for the House two months ago and it is still not on the Order Paper. The Leader of the House says that she is keen to facilitate it. I hope that she will tell us when she is keen not to facilitate something, because it will be a long time coming.

Last February, the Prime Minister said:

“The old short-term bonus culture is gone. No rewards for failure…the old bonus culture removed”.

I seem to have read this week that it is expected that about £40 billion will be paid out in bonuses this year, so may we have regular updates on that clearly very successful policy?

To renew a request from last week, may we have a debate on agriculture in the light of the Government’s proposals for its future, the welcome announcement yesterday of the supply chain ombudsman and the ongoing difficulties faced on an everyday basis by people in rural areas, such as farm crime and fly-tipping? It is time that we had a proper debate on agriculture, so will the Leader of the House find time for it?

May we have a debate on public performance rights and music copyright licences? I do not know how well it is known that a new scheme that is to come into place in April will mean that anyone who switches on a radio or plays music in any bed and breakfast, pub, office, charity or carnival float, indeed any public place, will need a licence. I am the first to defend the right of musicians to receive proper recompense for their work, but that is an over-onerous burden to place on people across the country who will not be expecting it. We should debate that requirement, because it seems excessive.

Finally, the Leader of the House committed a heinous crime against the English language this week when she coined the word “wellderly”, meaning well and elderly. Although some old people are well and elderly, may we concentrate on the “illderly” and the “poorderly”? May we have a debate on the fact that millions of pensioners in this country will not receive severe weather payments, after the cold weather of the past few weeks, simply because, although they are eligible for pension tax credits, they do not claim them, and so do not qualify for those severe weather payments? Given the extreme conditions, we should be worried about that, and I think that the House should have an opportunity to debate it.

I have answered fully the question about the Wright Committee in response to the shadow Leader of the House, and I do not want to detain the House further on that because a number of hon. Members want to get in. I therefore have nothing further to add to what I said a couple of minutes ago when I responded to the shadow Leader of the House.

We believe that people find it objectionable that people get big bonuses, particularly when they appear not to have contributed but actually to have made matters worse. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will know that we have taken action through the Financial Services Authority, and in many other respects, to curb the risk-taking bonus culture. He will also know that we are looking to tackle the deficit through a tax on the pool that companies set aside for bonuses. He will also know that we want to have a new tight rein on public sector bonuses, which is especially important for the highly paid given that we are looking to reduce the deficit by half over the next four years. He will know that the Treasury Select Committee has been hearing from Ministers on the great range of measures being taken to deal with soar-away bonuses in the private sector and to encourage proper restraint in public sector bonuses.

The hon. Gentleman asked about food and agriculture, and I agree that we need to look for an opportunity to debate those things. Matters for consideration include not just food production and the food 2030 programme of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but the rural economy and the interaction between supermarkets and consumer protection, so we might look to find time to debate that. On music copyright, Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions are next week, and it would probably be better for him to try to raise that question then.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the elderly, on whom we have debates relatively frequently—the last one was before we rose for the summer recess. He says that some people are well and elderly, but I would say that he has stressed the wrong emphasis. There is a new cohort—it represents a massive demographic change—of a large number of people who are over 65 but healthy, well, active and energetic and who have a great deal to contribute to their families, local communities and the economy. They are well and elderly, but we need the appropriate focus to be on the frail and elderly—those who are vulnerable, dependent and who have dementia. Actually, however, in this day and age, the overwhelming majority of elderly people are not like that, and it is about time that public policy recognised that fact. And if he can think of a better word than “wellderly”, I would like to hear it.

Order. Thirty-one right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and the House will be conscious that there is a statement to follow. I would like to be able to accommodate everybody who wants to take part, but short questions and answers will be required if I am to have any realistic chance of doing so.

May we have a debate on the Government’s immigration policy. My right hon. and learned Friend might be aware of a recent BBC investigation into the exploitation of European women by non-European men paying them to enter into sham marriages so that they can get access to this country. That is clearly a loophole in immigration policy, and it should be closed. I hope that she can do something to facilitate that.

I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with the Home Secretary. We are in no doubt that that practice is a breach of immigration rules and is serious organised crime undertaken by gangs. It is the exploitation of vulnerable women from abroad, and I shall ensure that the Home Secretary keeps the House informed.

Will the Leader of the House please arrange for a statement next week so that hon. Members can familiarise themselves with the proposals and decision to turn Bellamy’s and the Astor Suite into a crèche? Were the Administration Committee, the staff associations, the staff directly involved and those who use the facilities consulted? Why was there a need to close those two establishments to make room for a crèche?

Having nursery facilities for Members, their children and the children of staff and Officers of the House of Commons is a great step forward taken by the Members Estimate Committee. It is long overdue. I would have liked it to have happened when I first entered the House about 25 years ago. On the question about the procedure prior to the decision, I shall look into whether the Members Estimate Committee can place a letter in the House of Commons Library about the detailed process undertaken and how the matter will progress.

Is the Leader of the House aware that £333 million of subcontracts have just been signed for two aircraft carriers? Given that the two Opposition parties have not yet signed up to the aircraft carriers, does she agree that a debate on the future of the Royal Navy is essential?

I will take my hon. Friend’s suggestion into account. He is right about the aircraft carrier orders. They are essential not only to the military but to our manufacturing base, which we are determined to support. Perhaps he would like to know that I am going to Faslane tomorrow.

Many carers up and down the country will be disappointed by the Leader of the House’s refusal to hold a debate on the Government’s dementia strategy. No one expects the entire problem to be solved within a year, but there has been scant progress in better training for GP memory clinics up and down the country and in better patient support. Will the Leader of the House reconsider and have Ministers make a statement to the House to update us on where the dementia strategy is going?

I have already said that there are a number of issues relating to older people, including not only the “wellderly”, but those who are not well and who have dementia, so we might be able to have a debate encompassing dementia. We are determined to make—and are making—progress on the national dementia strategy.

My private Member’s Bill on sunbed regulation is set to receive its Second Reading on 29 January. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that as well as debating the introduction of regulations governing sunbed use, we should debate the huge issue of why so many people, particularly young women, feel under pressure to use sunbeds and to get a tan? Ought the House not to be debating that?

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on picking sunbed regulation as the subject of her private Member’s Bill, and I wish it every success. The need for such a Bill is a sad reflection on the need that women feel to alter their image. However, her Bill also highlights the dangerous health risk that sunbeds pose. I wish it every success.

Given that the Leader of the House was sitting next to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, she will have heard the succinct question from my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) about the Prime Minister’s views on the situation in the western Sahara, and she will know that the Prime Minister became geographically challenged. His reply was confusing and will have caused concern to the Government of Morocco and the people of the western Sahara, because he clearly moved it very far east. May we now have a statement, therefore, on the western Sahara from a Minister who can give a proper answer?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman can ask that question during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next week. Of course, we are concerned about the long-running dispute over the status of western Sahara. It is vital that a political solution to the conflict is found, and we remain committed, as we always have been, to a just, lasting and mutually acceptable political solution in the western Sahara.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that Lord Morris of Manchester’s Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill has just completed an expeditious passage through the other place, with strong and wide support in all parts of that House. Could she indicate when the Bill will come before this House and give an assurance of Government support and time to ensure its passage through this place before the general election?

It is very important that we ensure that those who have suffered from contaminated blood are properly and additionally compensated. I look forward to having an early opportunity to keep the House informed on progress on that.

Is the Leader of the House aware that when most of the country was covered by snow, farmers were warned that if they did not drain the red diesel from their tractors before helping their neighbours by gritting nearby roads, they could be prosecuted? Could the Solicitor-General or a Treasury Minister come to the House and provide a reassurance that they are not living on another planet?

I am sorry, but I shall have to have a “western Sahara moment” on that one and get back to the right hon. Gentleman.

I appreciate that my right hon. and learned Friend might not have any more to say on the Wright proposals, but I do. I appreciate also that they are ultimately a matter for the House, but could the Government show a little more enthusiasm about them? Were we to vote down everything that has been proposed, that would damage the entire political system and us as a class; and the way things are going, I think that we are heading in that direction.

We are absolutely not heading in the direction of voting down all the proposals of the Wright Committee. However, my hon. Friend will recognise that the issues are complex. We want to ensure that we have unanimity and consensus, and that we start from a firm foundation, building on the Wright Committee’s proposals, and that is what we will do.

Owing to the collapse of Avon and Somerset police’s computer system, 30 Indians have been brought in on temporary visas to try to sort the situation out. Given the fact that they need total access to all the records held by Avon and Somerset police to do so and given the world that we live in, could we have time for a debate on the rights and wrongs of bringing in temporary workers in a very high security area?

If the hon. Gentleman cannot get a satisfactory answer on that matter from the police authorities in his area, he should raise it directly with the Home Secretary. However, I would hope and expect that proper security measures have been taken.

The application of stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was found by the European Court of Human Rights earlier this week to be illegal. Although members of the public of course want to know that the police use such powers to protect them, they equally want to be assured that they are not being used by the police to go on fishing expeditions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that we have an opportunity to debate the matter at some length?

These powers are very important indeed to protect our security, and they are only used sparingly. We do not accept the Court’s judgment and we are appealing against it. While we are appealing, as we are perfectly entitled to do, our law stands and the police will continue to have it at their disposal.

The Leader of the House will be aware of my United Kingdom Parliamentary Sovereignty Bill, which is published today, on one sheet of paper and with only five clauses. She will also be aware of the debate that we had on the subject last night in the House. Will she now arrange for the Bill to be enacted by the Government?

Perhaps that is something that the hon. Gentleman can put to the Foreign Secretary at Foreign Office questions next week.

The recent severe weather again underlines the need for reliable and convenient public transport services, yet many of our smaller railway stations remain underused. Tomorrow I will chair another round-table meeting to try to make more use of our local stations, but with so many different bodies involved since privatisation, experience shows that doing so is a bit like wading through treacle. Can we therefore have a debate on the rail network and how we can simplify procedures to allow local decisions on the best solutions for each area?

I will consider the opportunity for debate, but I will also draw the attention of Transport Ministers to the important initiative that my hon. Friend has taken on behalf of his constituents to address their transport needs.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House has had time to study the report published by Professor Sir Patrick Bateson about dog welfare, dangerous dogs, microchipping and all the issues relating to dog crime in this country. Will she ensure that we have a debate on that important matter and that the Government act upon it as quickly as possible?

The United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has asked the Chinese Government to explain themselves after a tech company, Google, revealed that its internal systems had been hacked into with a view to looking at the e-mail accounts of Chinese dissidents. Does my right hon. and learned Friend think that we need a debate on cyber security, so that we can applaud Google’s brave corporate decision to end the censorship of its search results and encourage other tech companies, such as Microsoft, Yahoo! and Apple, to follow suit?

The points made in Google’s statement raise serious allegations in respect of human rights, privacy and freedom of information. Although we are not party to Google’s discussions with the Chinese authorities, we are monitoring the situation very closely indeed. My hon. Friend regularly raises such issues in the House of Commons. We are strongly committed to freedom of speech in China and everywhere else, and the matter is one that could be raised in either Foreign Office questions or Culture, Media and Sport questions next week.

Teachers, head teachers and staff have heroically kept many schools open in Leeds, compared with other areas of the country, yet now those schools and their pupils are to be penalised, because of the attendance records of those pupils who could not get in. That is clearly absurd and needs to be changed. Can we have a statement from the appropriate Minister to say that that will happen?

Nobody will be penalised because pupils could not reach their schools owing to transport problems. However, it is important that we should expect schools to monitor and do everything that they can to ensure that all pupils attend. If pupils do not attend, individual action must be taken to ensure that their attendance is improved, and if the whole school has a poor attendance record, action must also be taken. We must ensure that all pupils can get to school, but we must also ensure that we deal with the problem of truancy and the lack of attendance.

The Leader of the House has, certainly until now, enjoyed a justifiable reputation as a parliamentary reformer, but who can doubt that this place still needs to reform its arcane and antediluvian procedures and practices? However, with yet another business statement failing to announce time for a debate and a vote on the Wright report, does she not realise that unless this House gets a specific date and time in the next couple of weeks she is, perhaps unfairly, in danger of being portrayed as a roadblock to reform,?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue of my reputation, but what is important is not my reputation, but that of this House and the fact that we need to make progress to restore public confidence. We have already taken many steps along that road, in sorting out the parliamentary allowance system and reforming how the House does its business, and building on that is very much the next step.

Does the Leader of the House accept that the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons was established to honour a commitment made by the Prime Minister to restore integrity and independence to the Chamber? Is that not a good reason to bring forward the Wright report for a full day’s debate and for decisions by the House on a free vote? We want this House’s integrity and independence to be restored, so that there is power for the Back Benchers in this Chamber.

I refer the House to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. When can we have a debate on the situation in Yemen? The Leader of the House will know that, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Speaker, an urgent question was answered last week. However, since then the date for the conference has been moved, from 28 January to 27 January. The German Foreign Minister has flown to Sana’a and a British hostage is still being held in Yemen. Surely we should have a full debate on that important subject and not just be left to ask questions of the Foreign Secretary in the House.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for raising the urgent question that enabled the House to discuss Yemen as soon as the issue arose. The next opportunity to raise the subject will be next week at Foreign Office questions, but I will look into whether we can have a topical debate on the matter.

May we have a debate next week entitled “Evidence to the Chilcot inquiry”? This would enable right hon. and hon. Members to express the view that the Prime Minister should give evidence to the inquiry before the general election, so that the electorate may know the extent of his personal responsibility for what is clearly an unlawful war and for the underfunding and under-resourcing of British forces when they went to war and in the reconstruction period thereafter?

I would have thought that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would recognise that Chilcot is independent, and that it is not the job of the House to breathe down the neck of an independent inquiry before it has even reported. The time for the House to debate the Chilcot inquiry will be after it has reported.

May we have an early debate on the globalisation of homophobia as politics, the ugliest example of which is in Uganda? Why is DFID sending so much money to countries that promote anti-gay politics? When will our faiths—including the Church of England, the Church of Rome and the Muslim Council of Britain—condemn the new international politics that seeks to oppress gays in many parts of the world?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend that tackling homophobia has to be at the heart of our concern for human rights for every individual in every country in the world. Perhaps he could raise the specific point about DFID at DFID questions next week.

The Calman commission has recommended that certain extra powers be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. There is cross-party agreement on a lot of those powers, including the one relating to the drink-drive limit. We have a problem of deaths caused by people who have drunk too much alcohol, and I believe that tomorrow is the deadline for the Government to make moves towards transferring the powers. Will they do that?

I will ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to write to the hon. Gentleman about that issue.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the free offer scam on health supplements such as the acacia berry free offer, which, unfortunately, involves a company that has its base in Linlithgow in my constituency. Although people cancelled the free offers, they still had money taken from their credit cards for up to four quarters. I am told by the police that a solution would require a change to the banking regulations, because they have no power to deal with such arrangements when people take up these offers using their credit cards. Can the Leader of the House do something about this?

It is very important indeed that consumers are protected from that sort of scam, and I will raise the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Mine is a western Southampton question. Given that the Prime Minister himself said that the people of Southampton and Totton would decide whether their water should be fluoridated, and that both the Labour Southampton MPs, including a member of the Cabinet, have said that it should not be fluoridated—for the time being at least—because of the 72 per cent. opposition to the proposal, may we have a statement from a Health Minister explaining why a health spokesman in the House of Lords said in a written answer on behalf of the Government:

“We continue to support South Central Strategic Health Authority’s decision to fluoridate a large part of Southampton and parts of south-west Hampshire”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 December 2009; Vol. 715, c. WA239.]?

If hon. Members want to make a point in business questions, that is obviously fine, but if they actually want an answer to a specific, detailed question, it is probably best to let me know what they are likely to ask, so that I can give them a better informed answer than the one that I am about to give, which is that I will ask the Health Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman.

May we have an early debate on the long-term effects on our constituencies and our country of foreign takeovers of UK companies? In Yorkshire, we have had Walmart taking over Asda with disastrous results, and Nestlé taking over Rowntree. Now, Cadbury is possibly to be taken over by Kraft or Hershey. These events can have a considerable effect on our constituencies and our country. Let us have a serious debate on the long-term effects of foreign ownership of British companies.

We have just had Business, Innovation and Skills questions, but I would like to assure my hon. Friend that the Government are acutely aware of the strength of feeling generated by the takeover bid in respect of Cadbury, which is a major UK company. Today, Lord Mandelson will be holding a round-table discussion with shareholders and companies to ensure that shareholders play a full part in corporate governance, including by taking a long-term view of their investments. We need to ensure that the work force and British manufacturing are protected.

May I draw the House’s attention to early-day motion 42, which deals with carers?

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

May I ask for a debate on the evidence produced by the Princess Royal Trust for Carers and Crossroads Care, which shows that, in many parts of the country last year, the NHS siphoned off millions of pounds that was meant to have paid for the breaks and other support that carers need? We need to have that debate, so that we can establish whether Ministers have learned the lessons in the first year of having money made available for that purpose, and ensure that all the money—£100 million in the coming year—actually gets to the carers.

Obviously, we have made sure that additional resources are directed to supporting carers. We also want to ensure that the money reaches those who need it. In addition, we are giving greater protection to carers who are also at work, because most carers hold down a job as well as caring for an elderly or disabled relative. There will be new, stronger legal protection in the Equality Bill to protect carers from being discriminated against by their employers.

The Post Office is a much-valued, much used and much loved brand. When can we have a debate to ask the Government to put more services through the Post Office and Royal Mail, to ensure that there are no more closures? Will my right hon. and learned Friend allow us an early debate in order to support the post office network?

I will look for an opportunity for that sort of debate. We have a strong, ongoing commitment to the post office network and we are looking for opportunities to provide new services through post offices.

May I ask the Leader of the House to return to the subject of the national dementia strategy? She said earlier that it was on track, and I hope that she is right. She will know, however, that the National Audit Office this morning suggests that it is not so sure. The Government were right to make dementia care a priority last year, and to produce the dementia strategy. Given what has been said this morning, however, may we have a proper debate—the first in Government time—about the strategy, to ensure that this important priority is being effectively implemented?

Of course we all want to ensure that the strategy is kept on track. It was drawn up following a wide consultation involving primary and hospital care as well as the voluntary sector. I know that the hon. Gentleman chairs the all-party parliamentary group on dementia. The Government are not complacent. We regard this as long overdue action, and we will be taking it and working with Members on both sides of the House to ensure that it happens in every constituency.

May we have a debate on taxi legislation, to discuss the legal loophole that allows some private hire firms to register in one local authority area but operate almost exclusively in another, as is happening in Milton Keynes? They normally do this to avoid the higher charges made by urban authorities and the knowledge exams required. This is bad for business and very bad for customers.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. This is also a question of the standards being enforced equally across different authorities. I will discuss the matter with Transport Ministers and get back to him.

When citizens from other EU countries come to reside in the UK, they are allowed to bring their vehicles with them, and to drive them on British roads for up to six months before getting the necessary MOT and so on. There is no effective mechanism to enforce that six-month rule, however. May we have a statement in the House from the Transport Minister on the measures that the Government intend to introduce to ensure that these vehicles can be appropriately registered and MOT-tested?

A lot of us enjoy watching soccer in the lower leagues of the English league system. What can I do to raise this subject with Ministers in the House? One of my local clubs—Croydon football club—has been having abortive discussions with the council about gaining support. How can I best raise this issue?

I think the hon. Gentleman has done a good job already, but he can reinforce it at Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions next week.

May we have a statement from the Home Secretary about my constituent, Gary McKinnon, who was given the green light yesterday by the High Court to challenge the Home Secretary’s decision to allow his extradition? Surely the Home Secretary should see the writing on the wall from the court’s decision that he was wrong to ignore the compelling medical evidence and wrong to allow the extradition, given my constituent’s perilous mental state.