House of Commons
Thursday 21 January 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
General Election Counts
The Electoral Commission informs me that it had discussions with the BBC about the timing of election counts in September 2009. The commission further informs me that the timing of election counts was discussed with representatives of the political parties who attended the October 2009 meeting of the parliamentary parties panel.
Recalling my re-election to Parliament in 1992, when the count was completed within an hour of the close of poll—I am advised that the result indicated that there would be the re-election of a Conservative Government, and financial stability—does my hon. Friend agree that we should continue with the tradition of counting immediately after the close of poll, in order to bring financial stability and reduce the possibility of electoral fraud?
That is, of course, my personal opinion, but as the House knows full well, whether to count votes on Thursday or Friday is a matter for individual returning officers; that has been our law for more than 100 years. However, the law does require returning officers to count votes as soon as is practicable after the election. The Electoral Commission website indicates which returning officers have so far decided to count on the Friday or are undecided, and I encourage hon. Members in those areas to enter into a dialogue with the returning officer to discuss whether their decision meets that criterion.
We all welcomed your statement on this issue, Mr. Speaker, and I completely agree with what has been said from the Opposition Benches—but will not the real story of election night be the fact that possibly up to 50 seats will have been bought by Lord Ashcroft’s money, and what—
As the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) said, the key words are as far as “is practicable”. There are constituencies where this is not practicable for geographical reasons, and sometimes simply because of historical practice. What an individual returning officer should not do, however, is delay the count simply because he thinks that verifying or counting postal votes might be a little bit difficult. That is the message the Electoral Commission needs to send out to returning officers.
The hon. Gentleman is right. Throughout our history, several seats at every general election have counted on a Friday; I am sure colleagues on the Opposition Benches will be interested to know that in 1979 121 seats counted on a Friday. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and the Electoral Commission has encouraged returning officers to be clear about why they are making this decision, and be able to justify it to their local community.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Wireless Audio Equipment
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to refer to David Taylor. As you know, he was an assiduous attender at our Question Time. He put pertinent and important questions before the House and assisted our Ecclesiastical Committee, and he will be greatly missed. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I can tell the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) that the Church of England has joined an industry-led campaign to press the Government for compensation for affected groups. We are encouraging churches to contact their installation companies for advice and to seek a compensation package.
The Government are making hundreds of millions of pounds out of the spectrum auctions, and as the hon. Gentleman has said, some compensation has been promised. This affects not only churches, cathedrals and voluntary organisations, but organisations right across the creative arts. Should not any compensation include not only the residual value of equipment but replacement value, as churches have been forced off those frequencies by the Government?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. The compensation package takes into account the full cost of the significant disruption, particularly to larger churches that use a number of wireless microphones. I estimate that about one in eight churches will need to retune or replace their equipment, at an average cost of about £500. The Government agree with Ofcom that compensation is due, but the level, and eligibility, still need to be agreed.
May I tell the hon. Gentleman how much I welcomed support from the Church of England this week for early-day motion 323, in my name and those of 131 other Members? I urge him to use all the resources of the Church Commissioners to put the maximum possible pressure on the Treasury and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that justice is done in this very important matter.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I have read his early-day motion 323 on the Save our Sound UK campaign. I agree with his point. The Government recognise the importance of churches in our communities, and I am sure they will recognise that this is an unfortunate anomaly, as they did in relation to our unfair surface water charges last year. I urged the Government to respond robustly then, and I do so now, with the support of the House.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
General Election Counts
The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for commencing the count at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January returning officers for 586 out of the 650 constituencies had provided information. Of those, returning officers in 330 constituencies plan to start counting on polling day, a further 17 will commence counting on polling day unless the general election is combined with local authority elections, 52 have decided to count on the Friday and 187 were still undecided.
Unfortunately, one of the constituencies that plans to count on Friday is Wellingborough. Could my hon. Friend recommend to the Speaker’s Committee that the law be changed, so that counts have to be made on a Thursday unless there are exceptional circumstances and tin-pot, upstart little town clerks cannot change things?
I wish my hon. Friend would say what he really feels! When the Electoral Commission was set up the House did not give it the power to direct returning officers, and of course, if the law is to be changed that is a matter for this House, not for the Electoral Commission. As we know, returning officers are usually the chief executives of local authorities, and Members of Parliament and councillors up and down the land are usually not without influence in working alongside these hard-working and respectable individuals.
The New Forest constituencies will be doing the right thing, but I hope that the only present occupant of the Treasury Bench, the duty Whip, will have noted the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone). We all appear to be in agreement that either we are going to do something about this or we are not, and we are just going to hope. Perhaps someone on the Treasury Bench could give some instruction as to the meaning of the law: what does “as soon as is practicable” actually mean?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. It is to be hoped that the guidance that has been given from this House in recent days, including your own very powerful statement on this matter, Mr. Speaker, will influence the 187 returning officers who have not yet decided to take the view that counting on Thursday is the right thing to do. This is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.
My understanding is that if a question contains a reference to an organisation—[Interruption.] No, no, let me ask my question first, and Mr. Speaker may then rule me out of order. May I ask the hon. Member representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission what conversations he has had with the Electoral Commission, not only on the counting of votes, which is so essential, but on the counting of the money that will be used to buy those votes?
Order. I say to the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter)—I think he can guess what I am going to say—that although he will not want to ask me for a ruling on this matter, I shall give him one anyway: he cannot be expected to answer that which is not part of the question. I think that we have dealt with the matter, and the right hon. Gentleman had a go. I call Mr. Andrew Mackay.
I am obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, because I wish to return to the question. Does the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) agree that the real problem is that, as he has pointed out, most of the returning officers are the chief executives of councils? Understandably, their first priority is to keep costs down and offer good value to council tax payers, so they are choosing to count on Friday, whereas they had previously counted on Thursday. We need an absolute instruction from this House that that should not happen, except in exceptional circumstances. Without such an instruction all too many seats will count on a Friday, which will be—
It is worth reiterating that returning officers are independent under the law of this land, and have been for 100 years and more. Of course the Electoral Commission can and does issue guidance to returning officers, but its primary concern is about accuracy and ensuring public confidence in the outcome of any count that is held.
Electoral Register (Britons Abroad)
The Electoral Commission informs me that although it has not made such an estimate itself, the Office for National Statistics collects and publishes annual electoral registration data. The most recent figures are for the electoral registers of 1 December 2008, and they show that there were 13,695 entries for overseas voters on UK electoral registers. The ONS is due to publish figures for the 1 December 2009 electoral registers next month.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us those figures, which appear at first sight to reflect a decline of some 2,000 since the previous year. Does he agree that this is a disgraceful performance, and what can he recommend that the Electoral Commission can do to give recommendations to any incoming Government to improve the ability of overseas expatriate citizens to participate in our national election?
It is a matter for the Government and for this House whether the law on how people can register and vote from overseas is changed. The Electoral Commission is committed to increasing the number of eligible people who are registered to vote, and has recently conducted a campaign that resulted in nearly 7,400 overseas voter registration forms being downloaded from the commission’s website. The commission plans to run further activity in advance of the general election targeting British citizens living abroad.
We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those answers. First, will he encourage the Electoral Commission to continue to work and to do more, because there are huge numbers of people in all categories, including overseas voters, who are clearly eligible to vote but are not yet on the list? Will he suggest that colleagues from all parties might like an urgent meeting with the commission to discuss maximising activity, and therefore the number of people who are on the register, and therefore eligible to vote in the elections that we know will happen this spring?
I am sure that the Electoral Commission is amenable to such a meeting. It plans to spend a further £189,500 targeting overseas voters in this financial year, and is committed to ensuring that the number of overseas voters who take part in our elections increases.
Order. I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is a case of third time unlucky. He cannot expect me to help him out again. I call Mr. Hugh Bayley—[Interruption.] I have to say to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) that the length of time for which he lived abroad is neither here nor there when it comes to the selection of who asks questions—[Interruption.] With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman will hear this. He had two opportunities and I am not obliged to offer him a third.
The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Fires and Fire Safety
I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Speaker. This is a matter for individual churches and cathedrals, and the figures are not held centrally. I know, however, that many churches and cathedrals have undertaken work on fire prevention, detection and containment.
After Christmas there was a fire in York minster’s stone yard, where the cathedral’s greatest window is being stored while it undergoes a £25 million restoration. The window was saved by firemen and minster staff, who carried it to safety. It is a work of art as important as the Sistine chapel ceiling. Will my hon. Friend ask the Church Commissioners to press the Government to protect such works of art from fire and other risks, just as they protect works of art in our national galleries and museums?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter. Fortunately no people were harmed in the fire, and the panels of the incomparable great east window were saved. The Church welcomes the recommendation by the Public Accounts Committee that cathedrals should receive direct funding from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that for specialised properties, bodies such as the National Farmers Union have created their own insurance companies. Have the Church Commissioners given any thought, given the nature of churches, to the idea that there should perhaps be a central insurance company to insure more effectively against the risk of fire?
I am grateful for the opportunity to reassure the hon. Gentleman. I can tell him that advice on managing the risk of fire is available from Church House, from dioceses and from the Ecclesiastical insurance group, which insures most Church of England churches.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for South-West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
General Election Counts
The Electoral Commission informs me that it has asked all returning officers to provide information about their current plans for counting ballot papers at the next UK parliamentary general election. This information has been made available in the House of Commons Library. In summary, as of 7 January, returning officers for 586 out of 650 constituencies had provided information. Of these, 52 do not plan to count ballot papers on the evening of polling day at the general election. A further 17 have indicated that they may defer counting if the general election is combined with local authority elections, and 187 were still undecided.
I congratulate my hon. Friend. In 2001 the count in my constituency started at 10 o’clock at night and continued until after 5 o’clock in the morning. It was recommenced at noon the next day, and I did not get my result until well into the afternoon. I should point out that there was only one count. Is he aware that already the count may not be completed on election day, even without the extra day?
My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I am pleased to see that his constituency has decided to continue to count on polling day itself even though, as he said, that may take some time. As we all know, some returning officers have decided to count on Friday because of the extra time and people required to check postal votes taken by hand to polling stations on polling day.
The Solicitor-General was asked—
Householders (Protection of Property)
The Solicitor-General must be aware that hardly a week goes by without some sort of report of a victim of burglary bizarrely being prosecuted. There is certainly a feeling of great injustice in the country, so will she give clearer guidance to the CPS when it considers prosecution?
I do not accept that hardly a week goes by, although obviously I am well aware of the cases that hit the headlines recently and some years ago. As a consequence of the earlier case in 2005, a joint statement was issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the CPS that made it very clear that a person is entitled to use force to resist a burglar. The current case has brought the matter forward again, but it has not really impacted on the very good advice contained in that statement.
A survey of prosecutions shows that in the 15 years between 1989 and 2004, only 11 people were charged with responding in any way violently to being burgled. As the hon. Gentleman says, such cases clearly occur more frequently than that, which suggests that the law is right overall, and deals with them sympathetically. In his judgment yesterday on the most recent case, the Lord Chief Justice said that it was not at all about a person defending himself after a burglary, as the burglary was long over before the violence that gave rise to the sentence took place.
Certainly, an appeal against conviction in the current case was refused. There is no suggestion in the thorough judgment from the Lord Chief Justice that he considers there to be anything wrong with the law. The barrister who defended this family also defended Tony Martin, and he said on the radio this morning that he thought that the law was right. To avoid doubt, I emphasise that the law allows for what was referred to in the case as a “moment of unexpected anguish”, when a person honestly and reasonably thinks that they are doing what is necessary. Members of the jury have to try to put themselves in that person’s position, and evaluate how high their feelings would be. Even then, they must ask whether, taking all that emotion into account, the response was reasonable. I suspect that the law is pretty accurate, and that juries have every opportunity to give as much credit as they want to the incredibly tense situations that people can find themselves in.
Given that the courts have shown that they can defend householders and understand the situations that arise, will the Solicitor-General continue to resist those siren voices who want the law rewritten? We have had enough criminal justice legislation as it is.
Some of the criminal justice legislation that has gone through the House has been extremely good. It has benefited victims of domestic violence and rape and improved conviction rates enormously, so one cannot sweep all sorts of criminal justice law up together and say that it is all a bad thing. However, I agree that we should resist any calls to change the law. That is simply not necessary, as I think that the courts deal with such cases quite properly.
Is it not absolute nonsense to suggest that the current law, which has been in existence for so long, is soft on burglars? The law is quite clear, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, and if one believes in the rule of law one should not try to change the existing position.
Yes, I do agree. The case of Palmer, which essentially set out in common law the principles that are now in statute, has been working since 1971 with very little complaint. In the two cases that have given the most cause for concern, the courts have made it clear—in both instances—that the violence happened after the burglary was over, and we do not allow that. That is breaking the rule of law, itself; it is revenge, not self-defence.
One aspect of the Hussain case that has escaped public attention is the way in which the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and before that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, badly restricted the discretion of the sentencer. Judge Reddihough would have been more able to produce the sentence that the Court of Appeal produced yesterday had he not been hogtied by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, or the Sentencing Council. Will the Solicitor-General please discuss with her Government colleagues getting rid of the Sentencing Council, so that judges can sentence on the facts before them, rather than having to follow a template issued by other people elsewhere?
There is no template, as the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows. The judiciary have a discretion and they rightly exercise it, because they, at first instance, are the people who see the dramatis personae before them, and who can make a proper assessment of the absolute detail and the nature of the person. Judges have plenty of discretion, and in the judgment that I have read, the trial judge made no suggestion that he found himself hogtied—and the Lord Chief Justice certainly did not, either.
The Crown Prosecution Service is responsible for charging in about 35 per cent. of criminal cases. There is no separate guidance on time, but the principle is to charge as soon as possible, and there are obviously controls over the situation when people are remanded in custody. The hon. Gentleman made a freedom of information request about the average time between the police reporting to the CPS and a charge, and he received the answer 8.3 days. I do not know whether he found that helpful, because some cases are dealt with very quickly and others require a forensic report before there can be a charge. However, that is the average.
The longer it takes the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to charge somebody, the longer very serious criminals could be out on the streets on police bail committing further crimes. The average time that the CPS spends making a decision ranges from three days in Cumbria to an astonishing 20 days in Northamptonshire. What is the Solicitor-General doing to address that?
It is hard to pinpoint the hon. Gentleman’s complaint. I do not know the nature of endemic offending in the two parts of the country to which he refers; there may be significant differences. However, people are not automatically on bail pending charge; some are remanded in custody. Then a charge becomes urgent, and the CPS respond accordingly. There have been vast improvements through statutory charging, and its efficacy has been praised in no less than four recent reports.
Defendants’ Health (Prosecutions)
The evidence that a defendant has a significant physical or mental illness may mean that the Crown Prosecution Service decides that the public interest does not always require a prosecution. However, the defendant’s health must be balanced with the seriousness of the offence and the need to safeguard the public.
Is the Solicitor-General willing to see me about a case in which the charge has just been dropped at the second review by the CPS? It relates to a constituent of mine, whose son, a member of our staff, has worked for us in this building. It was clearly inappropriate, for a domestic matter that occurred at home, with no support from the victim—another member of the family—and where the evidence was clear from the beginning, to prosecute a seriously mentally ill individual.
I know the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, because we looked into why the hon. Gentleman was asking the question. Of course I shall meet him, and it is better if we talk about it privately, as it were, because it is a family matter. However, my general understanding is that there was a mental health issue, and that the CPS received information early that the condition could be controlled, but had not been at the time. That raised the question of whether, if the man in question again did not take his medication, there would be a further threat to someone else. Later medical evidence has, I think, helped to put the matter to rest, but I am certainly very happy to discuss the case with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that nothing that I have said here upsets the family further. There are clearly issues to discuss.
The Government have assessed that there are occasions when the fight against serious crime, the protection of national security or the safety of the armed forces may require the authorities concerned to offer financial or other kinds of inducement in order to carry out their functions effectively. The extent to which such conduct occurs has not been quantified, as far as I am aware, but the Government are satisfied as to the need for the defence in general.
Can the Minister explain why the Government have felt it necessary to give the police and the Army a licence to bribe, given that the draft Bribery Bill covered only the security services, and that the Joint Committee on the draft Bill said that it had received no persuasive evidence that even that was necessary?
The Bill is in the House of Lords, is it not? I understand that those responsible for the Government’s business there have accepted that the Bill’s current definition of who may be covered by this is too wide, and that it would probably be better to specify a list. Perhaps there would then be arguments about who was on the list, but that approach would significantly narrow the present terminology, which is pretty general.
There is a specific exclusion from clause 12 to match the OECD treaty, which prohibits bribery of a foreign public official. The services are not going to be allowed to bribe, except in very particular cases. It will be a defence, which would have to be raised if somebody were prosecuted for bribery, and the burden would be on them to raise it. The matter is still being debated in the House of Lords, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues are putting forward full frontal attacks. It seems to us, however, that we must not hamstring the security services.
Obviously, the Bribery Bill is very welcome. However, can the Solicitor-General confirm that this particular proposal allows not only the giving, but the receiving, of bribes by the armed forces, the police and the intelligence services? Can she also confirm what appeared to be said in the House of Lords—that in the view of Ministers the purposes for which this can be done include not only national security and suppression of crime but the furtherance of national economic purposes, which would not be consonant with our international obligations?
It is very hard to give somebody a defence for giving a bribe if he has not given one already. Of course, the people to whom he has given it are ultimately likely to be involved in far more serious charges themselves. I have not understood economic advantage to have the remotest connection with it. This is about security, and it is intended to be used within a very narrow ambit.
Rape Cases (Prosecution)
Steps that we have already taken have led to reports of rape to the police more than doubling in the past 10 years, and there has been a 50 per cent. increase in the number of convictions. We have set up a cross-governmental rape monitoring group, and there is a body continually going around areas of criminal justice to spread best practice from one place through all the others. We have commissioned Baroness Stern specifically to review the response of public authorities to rape, and she will report in February.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that very useful reply; we are clearly moving in the right direction. However, I think she will agree that at the end of the day there are too few successful prosecutions in rape cases, which could be because too many women are withdrawing. What are the Crown Prosecution Service and various police forces doing to support women so that they do not withdraw? Is anyone explaining to such women that when they do withdraw, the person concerned—the rapist—could well go on to rape and rape again, as in the recent “black cab” case?
My hon. Friend hits on a very important point that needs to be made much more regularly, which is that much rape is serial offending. When women do not complain or when they withdraw a complaint, they are not just making a decision on their own behalf; in many cases they are potentially putting other people at risk. I do not want to put any more pressure on rape complainants than there already is, but there is a clear and emerging position that much rape is serial offending.
Almost all sexual offence complainants are now given an independent sexual violence adviser who stays with them as a befriender and supporter from complaint to at least the end of the criminal proceedings and who helps them into counselling after that. That is a great support that is helping more women to be ready to come forward and to sustain a complaint when they do.
Although it is true that the interests of complainants are very high in importance, so too are the interests of defendants. May I say that we must do nothing to dilute the principles that require a case to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and ensure that the burden rests on the Crown?
Wise words with which I totally agree. We are not seeking to do that and have not done anything that will. What is important is to support complainants so that the pressures of having to talk in front of a court about something extremely intimate, distressing and traumatising are not so overwhelming that people will not come forward and ensure that justice is done. That is what we have been trying to do.
The Government accepted almost all of Baroness Corston’s recommendations and are committed to diverting from custody vulnerable women who are not dangerous or serious offenders by strengthening services in the community that can tackle the complex needs of such women, who are frequently convicted of a lot of low-level offending. There have been 31 grants to such organisations, including Together Women and the Cardiff-based women’s turnaround project, which is hosted by Safer Wales and offers practical support so that women can manage their lives better and do not fall into offending. My hon. Friend has been a great champion of the turnaround project.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend and congratulate the Government on the progress made on the Corston report and on the fact that the number of women in prison is now falling. I am particularly pleased about the Cardiff project. Does she agree that many women offenders are, or have been, victims of abuse to a disproportionate level? What more can the Law Officers’ Department do to help women who have been abused as either children or adults when they present as offenders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I chaired the Fawcett commission on women and criminal justice, the evidence made it plain that a disproportionate number of women in custody for low-level, non-dangerous offending had either been sexually abused or suffered domestic violence, and through the chaos that followed that treatment had declined into crime. Because at that stage we were not intervening as quickly and as well as we do now in cases of either domestic violence or sexual abuse, we were, in a sense, punishing them twice—by not helping them early enough to prevent them from descending into offending and then by putting them in custody when they offended. We are now trying to tackle the problem, and it is notable that organisations such as the turnaround project and Together Women deal with women not just after they have they have been convicted but after they have been abused, when their lives are becoming chaotic, to try to save them from ever descending into criminality at all.
Snow and Ice Clearing
I appreciate that the Solicitor-General might have been trying to clarify the fact that clearing is not subject to criminal action, and if that was what she intended to say, I am grateful to her. However, she will be aware of the considerable concern among householders in recent weeks that they are potentially liable to prosecution either from local authorities or in civil cases. It would be helpful if she could get clarification from colleagues, perhaps in the Ministry of Justice, that that is not likely to occur.
When I saw that the hon. Gentleman’s question was about prosecution, which is our responsibility as Law Officers, I sent back to the Crown Prosecution Service to ask it to scour the four corners of jurisprudence to look for anything that looked like a possible prosecution for snow clearing with some bad effect, but we could not find anything, whether relating to local authorities or anything else. Between us, the hon. Gentleman and I can probably rule out prosecution for clearing snow. Civil liability is a different thing. It looks very remote to me, but I am not going to give free legal advice.
Youth Matters (Expenditure)
The hon. Gentleman asks in general terms how much was spent on youth matters. Reducing youth crime and improving the criminal justice system for young people is a central part of the Government’s effort to build safer communities, and action is planned for that.
However, if he is asking about such things as the Law Officers’ youth network, which encourages understanding and respect for the rule of law and the criminal justice system, I can tell him that in the past 12 months, it has cost just over £4,500. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service has spent almost £86,000 on a national schools project, with a similar information motive.
The hon. Gentleman would be asking me only for a view about that, because the police are not my responsibility. My constituency engagement tells me that police are very usefully involved in talking in schools, and they are sometimes even posted at schools for a while and have regular liaison with them, but I doubt they go beyond the four corners of their responsibilities and try to give people counselling and advice. I am not sure anything is going wrong, but he should take the matter up with the Home Office if he is worried.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Reform of the House of Commons Committee
The Government firmly believe in strengthening the role of the House of Commons, and making Parliament more effective is an essential part of restoring public trust in our political system. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the Government propose to accept a large number of the recommendations of the Wright Committee’s report, including the election of Chairmen and members of Select Committees, a House Committee for scheduling non-Government businesses, and allowing Back Benchers to initiate debates on motions that will be voted on by the House. We intend to bring the matter to the House for debate and decision on 23 February.
I thank the Leader of the House for that response, and particularly for giving us the date, for which we have all been waiting, on which we will be able to discuss and vote on the Wright Committee proposals. I welcome the fact that the Government are minded to accept many of the proposals, although I would imagine that we are talking about House business, and therefore a free vote, and that it would not be for the Government to accept or reject the proposals. If the Government are accepting most of the proposals, which will she personally be rejecting?
There will be a free vote on this—of course, this is House business—but the hon. Lady will be aware that it is for the Government to table the motions. We take the Wright Committee’s argument that that needs to be done with two characteristics: first, we need to seek consensus in order to take the matter forward, which is certainly what our approach will be, and I look forward to working with her and other hon. Members; and secondly, we need to make progress bit by bit. We will be making a good start and, I hope, a substantive and major start, with four key areas that I have outlined for debate and, I hope, decision by the House on 23 February.
So now we know, after months of prevarication, that the full recommendations of the Wright Committee are not to be put before the House, that the House is not to be trusted to vote on all the recommendations, that the Government will choose those they accept, and that those will be the only ones put before the House. May I suggest to the right hon. and learned Lady that that is simply not right? It is not what was anticipated when the Wright Committee was set up, and it will be a grave disappointment to those who want genuine reform of this House.
I do not think it acceptable to suggest that what we have done is prevaricate. I think the Wright Committee worked with expedition and on a wide-ranging area of complex issues. The Committee itself said that the matter needed to be dealt with bit by bit and that further work was needed on some proposals. The hon. Gentleman has a choice. Either he can seek to work with us to make progress, or he can get in a huff about the process. It is down to him to choose.
The Wright Committee did indeed work with expedition, as the Leader of the House has just said, which is more than the Government have done—23 February is a long way off the eight weeks that the Wright Committee proposed for a response. Further to the question posed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), can she confirm that, whatever the House decides on 23 February, those recommendations will be implemented before the Dissolution of Parliament?
Indeed, we intend to give the House an opportunity to decide on a series of motions that will go beyond being an endorsement in principle and actually give to recommendations. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reflect on his attempt to suggest that we are dragging our feet on this issue. We want to ensure that we work together to bring forward changes that are comprehensively agreed.
The convention is that, after a Select Committee report, the Government have two months in which to make a response. It is 21 January today and the two months is up on 24 January, and I am giving the Government’s response here. The response is that we will have a debate on 23 February and suggest that we go forward in four key areas. Rather than a written response that can be debated generally outside the House, we think that it is better for the Government to give the House the opportunity to debate and decide these issues. Again, I put to the right hon. Gentleman the point that I made to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). He can either get tangled up in an argument about the process or he can accept my suggestion that we work together to make substantive progress on four key areas of the Wright Committee’s proposals.
Having campaigned for the handing back of authority from the Executive to the House for more than a decade—certainly while I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee and as a member of the Modernisation Committee—may I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House, which was signalled yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions? The Leader of the House has chosen the important and fundamental issues that will give greater authority to Back Benchers. As long as the motions will be decided on a free vote, I warmly welcome what she has said in answer to this question, and I look forward to the House having more authority by the time that I leave it at the general election.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Responsibility for environmental matters in the House rests with the Director General of Facilities. In the last 12 months, four Members have written in with proposals for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions on the parliamentary estate. Such correspondence is viewed as confidential, so it would not be right to name them. The number does not include Members who made requests for the Commons to participate in environmental campaigns, and several proposals were made orally or through parliamentary questions—[Interruption.]
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. On 19 October, all members of the House of Commons Commission, from all parties, agreed that the House of Commons was not in a position to sign up to the 10:10 commitment. Two days later, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) proposed a motion committing the House to 10:10. Did the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) tell his party leader that the House of Commons Commission had considered the matter and decided that it was not practical and that he personally would not vote for that motion?
I had a discussion with my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who was, I think, moving the motion to which the hon. Member for City of York (Hugh Bayley) alludes. I had a discussion with my hon. Friend and explained why the Commission, much as it would have wished to sign up to the 10:10 campaign, did not feel able to do so.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I keep the quality and timeliness of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review. Following recommendations by the Procedure Committee and discussions with my right hon. and learned Friend, the Prime Minister has recently written to Cabinet colleagues reminding them of the importance of answering written and parliamentary questions in a timely way and to an acceptable quality. We are, of course, always happy to make representations to Ministers on behalf of Members.
I have not reviewed that recently, but I am perfectly happy to look into it. Of course, both the Leader of the House and I, and the Procedure Committee, are aware that the number of written questions keeps climbing, and sometimes very large numbers of written parliamentary questions are tabled to Ministers and Departments on the same day. However, if there is interest in checking the accuracy figures, I am certainly happy to do that.
Obviously, I am sure that the deputy Leader of the House will agree that there seems to be a growing problem with Ministers taking the easy option and saying that they do not have the information available. That could be on the salary of chief executives in the north-west or ambulance times, or even a basic question on Monitor. MPs are being denied such information because Ministers are taking the easy line. Will she do something about this?
I am very happy to take up individual examples. The best response to such issues is to say that if Members give me examples of where they have had issues, I will be happy to write to Ministers and have meetings with them and officials, which I have done quite recently.
When it recommended the introduction of topical questions, the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee concluded that Members should not have to choose between the two types of question. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the Procedure Committee might have to consider the matter further based on the number of Members called on both substantive and topical questions at the same Question Time.
Under the old system, for an hour’s Question Time to a particular Department, each Member of the House got one chance to ask a question. Under the present procedures, some Members get to ask two questions, while others are frozen out altogether. Given the interest of the deputy Leader of the House and her boss in issues of equality, would she be kind enough to look seriously at that?
It would be for the hon. Gentleman to make representations to the Procedure Committee if he wanted to have a change. Members feel that topical questions are quite a good opportunity to raise a question without notice, and they have proved to be one of the most popular innovations, so the issue is difficult. The Leader of the House is not responsible for the fairness of the shuffle, but this issue might be something for the Procedure Committee to look at.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Severe Weather (Staffing)
It is not possible to identify separately the additional hours worked by staff as a result of the recent severe weather, but I am sure that I speak for all Members of the House when I say that we are very grateful to the staff of the House for their commitment and flexibility in ensuring that services to the House and its Committees continued as usual.
The hon. Gentleman has stolen my thunder, because I was going to ask him if he would join me, and indeed the whole House, in praising the valuable work undertaken at a very difficult time by members of staff who came in, in very bad weather, worked quite late on occasions to replace those who were unable to come in, and enabled a functioning democratic process, such as that in our House of Commons, to continue despite the appalling weather conditions.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We are grateful to those members of staff who battled in against the weather conditions and to those who worked extra hours. The House takes business continuity very seriously and has done everything possible to learn the lessons of last winter.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
In relation to those recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that were identified as requiring legislation, a written ministerial statement was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on 10 December 2009 detailing the Government’s proposals for legislation. The House will have the opportunity to debate those proposals shortly.
We have now got a real dog’s breakfast from Sir Ian Kennedy, who has come up with a series of proposals that totally contradict Sir Christopher Kelly. Kennedy clearly does not understand the role of an MP—how he perceives it is more than 30 years out of date. Why are we not implementing Kelly’s thought-through proposals in full, so that we can move beyond the problem of MPs’ expenses?
MPs did decide not to decide on their own allowances. We have legislated to make the Parliamentary Standards Authority independent, and that body is consulting. I note my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on the issue, but that body is two or three weeks into its consultation. If he has strong concerns, which he clearly does, I would urge him and other right hon. and hon. Members to get involved in that consultation and tell the independent authority what they believe should be happening.
Does the deputy Leader of the House agree that if we are to build on the progress that we have made over 25 years in enabling women in particular to live with their families both in London as Members of Parliament and in their constituencies, it is vital that we should have an allowance system that facilitates that? Moving to a system whereby new Members would be forced to live in tiny state-run flats in London would not help families to stay together in London and their constituencies.
As I have just pointed out, Members have opinions and comments that they want to make, and it is important that they should do so. Sir Ian Kennedy and some of the other IPSA board members were here for a meeting with Members on Monday. They are due to have three other meetings as part of their consultation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to make his points in one of those meetings or in writing, whichever he prefers.
I want to add my voice to the concerns expressed about weakening Christopher Kelly’s proposals, which were welcomed by every person in this House—well, most people. The proposals outlined by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority weaken his proposals on travel, employing relatives and the capital gains allowance. My hon. Friend really must keep an eye on the proposals coming out of IPSA, because they are deeply concerning to everybody.
Can the deputy Leader of the House explain to some of her colleagues that if Sir Christopher Kelly does not hold a proper consultation, any decision that he makes thereafter will be at risk of being challenged by judicial review? It is therefore in everyone’s interest that, for future certainty, there should be a proper consultation, so that whatever proposals emerge are not vulnerable to being struck down by judicial review.
Yes, indeed. The consultation process that is being embarked upon is statutory. The Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 says which Members are to be consulted, but in addition to the specific consultees who are listed, for the first time there will also be a substantial consultation with the public. The public can express their views, Members can and should express theirs, and I urge people to take part in that consultation.
Private Bills enable individual local authorities to obtain legal powers that are additional to those generally given to them. Reducing the number of private Bills would mean denying that facility to local authorities or other bodies. Private Bills are also needed to deal with those bodies that are established under private Acts such as the Crossrail Act 2008 and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which can be amended only by private Bills. I therefore have no plans to bring forward changes to Standing Orders.
I regret the response of the deputy Leader of the House. She is quite correct that large-scale projects such as the channel tunnel should be dealt with through private Bills. However, a lot of cities are currently trying to change the law on pedlars through private Bills, which is wasting parliamentary time. This afternoon we will spend another three hours on such Bills. Their number should be limited.
I have figures for the length of time that was spent on private Bills in the 2007-08 Session: it was less than 0.5 per cent. of our sitting time. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman cannot see the benefits of a localised approach that gives specific powers when they are needed. There tend to be only three or four private Bills each year, and they do help local authorities when they have specific issues.
Exchange Rate Movements (FCO)
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a brief statement. The total Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget comes in at roughly £2 billion, of which only £830 million is discretionary spend, as £1.1 billion is spent on subscriptions to international organisations, peacekeeping and counter-conflict funding, the BBC World Service and the British Council. There are significant challenges to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, not least because 50 per cent. of it is spent in foreign currency, and exchange rate volatility has made it difficult for the Foreign Office.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said in a reply to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on 7 December 2009 that the estimated impact, including that relating to the overseas pricing mechanism, comes to over £100 million in the financial year 2009-10. There has been quite a lot of speculation about what this means for counter-terrorism. The FCO’s overseas counter-terrorism budget has increased significantly in recent years. In 2008-09, it was £35 million; in 2009-10, we will be spending £36.9 million, and we are projected to spend around £38 million in 2010-11.
What the Minister failed to confirm—I hope he will do so in a moment—was that his noble Friend Baroness Kinnock explained to the House of Lords yesterday that the Foreign Office was cutting its expenditure on counter-terrorism programmes in Pakistan and on anti-narcotics programmes in Afghanistan, not through any reassessment of strategic priorities but because of the movement of exchange rates and the Government’s overall debt crisis. That is not the way to run an effective foreign policy. It is appalling that, yesterday, we had the spectacle of the Prime Minister standing in the House of Commons talking about fighting terrorism, while at the same time in the House of Lords, his Minister was admitting that debt and exchange rate problems meant that the Government were cutting the very counter-terrorist programmes to which they attach such importance in their public statements. That suggests that we have a Government—and, in particular, a Prime Minister—who are indifferent to the point of negligence towards the global interests of the United Kingdom.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, can he explain how the Government got themselves into this mess? We know that the problem started with the decision to end the overseas price mechanism and to transfer exchange rate risk from the Treasury to the Foreign Office. Did Ministers not understand what harm might be done to Britain’s international interests as a consequence of that decision, and why did the present Foreign Secretary allow it to happen on his watch?
Secondly, what is the scale of the damage done so far? Can the Minister confirm the figure given to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee by his permanent secretary—namely, that the cost to the FCO in 2008-09 was £60 million, and Baroness Kinnock’s statement yesterday that the shortfall has risen to £110 million in the current financial year and is set to rise further in 2010-11? Will the Minister also confirm that that figure adds up to about a quarter of the budget for the FCO’s core activities, once the ring-fenced budgets for the British Council and the BBC World Service have been stripped out?
We know from the permanent secretary’s evidence that, as a consequence of this, the FCO has now “stopped most training” and put some staff on involuntary unpaid leave or four-day weeks. We know from what Baroness Kinnock said yesterday that there have been reductions in conflict prevention work in Africa and in climate change programmes—again those to which Ministers have said publicly that they attach great importance. Is it not time for the Government to come clean about what they are doing and to make public a full list of the cuts they are imposing as a result of the debacle of their exchange rate policy?
Thirdly, what are Ministers’ intentions for the future? I have seen an internal FCO memorandum from December last year that says
“further cuts could and should not be achieved by salami slicing”,
but instead by stopping activity, closing posts and reducing staff numbers. Officials have apparently been instructed to work up contingency plans for substantial cuts, which
“could be implemented soon after the election”.
As always, the difficult decisions are postponed.
The memorandum also states that this plan was discussed with the Foreign Secretary and his ministerial team on 21 December 2009. Did the Minister and his colleagues approve this strategy? In particular, how far has work now proceeded on a contingency list of British posts overseas that now face closure? How many of our embassies face the axe because of the Government’s decisions on exchange rate risk, and when will Ministers finally come clean to the House and to the British people about what they are planning?
I shall respond first to the hon. Gentleman’s questions about counter-terrorism, which I think is accepted by all Members as the overriding and single most important element of the work we have to do. The total amount of money we are spending on counter-terrorism is rising each year and the percentage of the amount we are spending on Pakistan has increased. Pakistan now receives 28 per cent. of the total amount of counter-terrorism spending; Afghanistan 13 per cent.; Saudi Arabia 7 per cent.; east Africa 7 per cent.; and Yemen 5 per cent. We believe that those are the appropriate priorities.
The total spend on Pakistan has therefore gone up from £3.7 million in 2007-08 to £6.2 million in 2008-09, £8.3 million in 2009-10 and we project it to be somewhere between £9 million and £9.5 million in 2010-11. I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that we have been able to increase that funding because we have taken the right economic decisions for this country. I have never heard from any shadow Treasury Ministers that they would even protect the Foreign Office budget, let alone increase it as we have over the last few years.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the overseas pricing mechanism. We have been completely open about the existence of a problem here, and I think that the hon. Gentleman must have written his comments before he heard what I said. I said quite clearly that the Foreign Secretary had replied to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, to whom I presume the hon. Gentleman occasionally talks. My right hon. Friend wrote to the right hon. Gentleman in December last year, saying that “the estimated impact” was going to be more than £100 million in 2009-10. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office spoke openly and clearly on this matter when questioned by the Foreign Affairs Committee. At no point has there been any element of trying to obfuscate or hide the situation we face from the House or the public. No final decisions have been made about next year’s budget. There are ongoing discussions with the Treasury and I hope that they will be fruitful.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether there is a list of posts that are going to be closed, whether some embassies are not protected and whether some work is going to come to an end. No, we believe it is vital to maintain our presence in the world, with Britain, as a great nation, making a significant difference around the world. We also believe that the overseas aid budget is an important part of the work we do in Pakistan. We are the second largest donor in the world, and will give £665 million over the period from 2009 to 2013. The hon. Gentleman can huff and puff as much as he wants about this, but unless he is prepared to make commitments about the Conservative party’s funding after a general election, I do not think that anybody will take him seriously.
How does the Minister square what he has told the House with what his ministerial colleague Baroness Kinnock said in the House of Lords yesterday? She said:
“Counternarcotics programmes in Afghanistan, capacity building to help conflict prevention in Africa, and counterterrorism and counter-radicalisation in Pakistan have all been cut”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 January 2010; Vol. 716, c. 992.]
In the light of the figures that have been given, is it not the case that the budget for counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation in Pakistan was much higher at the beginning of this financial year? Why did the Foreign Secretary not demand that the Chancellor and Prime Minister make good any funding gap to secure such important programmes?
What representations have the British Government received from the United States or other allies in Europe and beyond about the impact of such dramatic cuts on our diplomatic efforts with them? If beating terrorism is the Government’s top priority, they are clearly too shambolic to be trusted with the task. The country is at war to make Britain safe from terrorists. To do that, every military, political and diplomatic sinew should be strained. Our troops are risking their lives. If we do not put in the investment to counter the terrorist threat in Pakistan, we betray their efforts.
The hon. Gentleman mischaracterises the situation. As I have made clear—[Interruption.] He can point to House of Lords Hansard as often as he wants, but it will not make any difference to the facts. As I have articulated already, total counter-terrorism spending on Pakistan was £3.7 million in 2007-08, £6.2 million in 2008-09, £8.3 million in 2009-10, and we project next year’s spending to be between £9 million and £9.5 million.
The hon. Gentleman is right in one sense: of course we would like to be more ambitious, but we have had to curtail our ambitions in this field. On burden sharing in counter-terrorism, the work that we do in Afghanistan and the work that we have done in Iraq, the truth is that this country bears a substantial burden. We have received no representations or criticism from other countries in that regard.
I find it a bit difficult to accept the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the protection of people in this country, because his party has systematically opposed every measure that we felt necessary in that respect.
As the Minister knows, Lord West, the counter-terrorism Minister, has said that the budget for the security services has increased to £3.5 billion, a 250 per cent. increase. What concerns me about Baroness Kinnock’s comments is the possible impact on the joint visa operation between FCO and Home Office staff. Abdulmutallab was denied a visa to come to this country to attend a bogus college because of the good work of our entry clearance operation. Will the Minister assure the House that that will not be affected by suggestions concerning changes in the rate of exchange, as it is an important way of preventing from coming to this country people who should not be here?
My right hon. Friend is right to say that the Foreign Office budget, and the £2 billion under discussion, is not the only budget that affects our relations with different countries. The UK Border Agency budget and the overseas development funding to Pakistan are also significant. We want to ensure that such funds are protected for aid and development, and are not siphoned off, as other parties have suggested, to deal with security issues. The figure does not include the funding of the Secret Intelligence Service, which is protected.
As I have said to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), Baroness Kinnock was right that the amount of money that we have spent on counter-terrorism in Pakistan has increased and will increase next year. There is not a cut; we will not spend less next year. However, we will be spending less than we had an ambition to spend.
Is this not an artificial hullaballoo? Obviously if the exchange rate goes down, things will cost more abroad—every one of our constituents finds that out after taking the Eurostar to Paris. During my eight years as parliamentary private secretary and a Minister, we were constantly closing and opening posts and reallocating budgets.
I was shocked to learn that the actual real spend of the Foreign Office, as announced today, is £830 million, less than 1 per cent. of Government income. I think we should be spending more. However, the Conservatives have an answer: if they win power, they will shut everything down by isolating us from Europe and the rest of the world.
My right hon. Friend is right. Ultimately, overall spending on our Foreign Office budget and, for that matter, all the budgets that affect our relations with other countries—including the budget of the Department for International Development—is a question for the whole of Government; and given the Conservatives’ deliberate intention to cut budgets now, I do not think they have a leg to stand on.
The Minister has now acknowledged that we are going to spend less than was intended. Let me remind him what the Prime Minister said yesterday:
“The action that we are taking to counter terrorism at its source in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and elsewhere is a central part of our wider counter-terrorist strategy.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 303.]
May I ask the Minister why he did not include the information that there would be a real-terms cut in spending because of the exchange rate problem?
I applaud my hon. Friend’s robust answers to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington).
It is obvious that when our currency depreciates overseas costs go up, but does my hon. Friend agree that we must retain that degree of flexibility in our currency for broader economic reasons? Had we been stuck in the euro, we would now be in a disastrous situation, rather like that of Ireland. The Prime Minister must be congratulated on keeping us out of the euro all those years ago.
I had a sneaking suspicion that my hon. Friend might refer to this matter. I know from conversations with my counterparts in other Ministries of Foreign Affairs that they are experiencing similar difficult circumstances, because their currencies also vary in relation to other currencies in the world. The exchange rate between the US dollar and the euro has fluctuated significantly over the last two years, which has made things difficult for foreign affairs departments in other countries as well.
Is not this matter another example of the Prime Minister’s lack of candour? Yesterday he said:
“We and our allies are still clear that the crucible of terrorism on the Afghan-Pakistan border remains the No. 1 security threat to the west.” —[Official Report, 20 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 305.]
He went on to detail what he was seeking to do, but what he omitted to say was that projected spending—anticipated and desired spending—on that very matter was to be cut, as Lady Kinnock has now made plain. Why did the Prime Minister fail to give the House that information?
I reject that charge. We have been very open throughout the process. The Foreign Secretary answered questions before the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the permanent under-secretary answered specifically on the issue of the overseas pricing mechanism.
No final decisions have yet been made about next year’s budget, but we are engaged in discussions with the Treasury, which has been immensely helpful in trying to examine the issues with us. We want to ensure not only that we meet our absolute priorities, but that all our spending is clearly devoted to those priorities. That is what we are focusing on.
I thank my hon. Friend for confirming that the counter-terrorism spending of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has risen and will continue to do so, especially its spending on Pakistan. Does he agree that the current events are occurring in the context of the largest ever spend by this country—domestic and foreign—on the intelligence and security services, and the largest ever significant spend on developmental and military activities in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, at a time when the Pakistan Government are themselves finally getting to grips with counter-terrorism? In the narrow field of counter-terrorism, at least, the Opposition’s charges are irresponsible partisan drivel.
My right hon. Friend is right. Elements of the work we have done have not been as effective as we would have liked, and of course we constantly review the question of which are the right things to do. However, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that much of DFID’s work in its overall £665 million spend in Pakistan has been focused on education programmes and support for better economic management in Governments, which, I would argue, has had an effect on counter-terrorism as well.
I am sure the Minister would agree that anxiety has been caused by the apparent contradictions between Baroness Kinnock’s statement, his statement today on rising budgets, and the reported shortfall of £110 million. However, he did say that he wishes to be open, so can he arrange for a root-and-branch review to be carried out of the FCO’s foreign currency exchange operations, including a very close look at how—and, indeed, whether—they hedge against losses? It seems ridiculous to me that a Government the size of this one cannot take the necessary simple steps to minimise the losses from foreign exchange movements.
Significant elements of Government spend have, in fact, been assisted by the fluctuation in the value of the pound—my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) referred to that. It has also made it much cheaper for foreign visitors to come to the UK. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to suggest that we have to keep this process under constant review. We must also make sure we get the best value for money around the world by balancing how many UK staff we have in different overseas posts, and how many locally employed staff we have, while still maintaining a core team effort across the whole of our presence.
I appreciate that there are sensitivities in providing detailed information on the impact of exchange rate fluctuations on British expenditure on counter-intelligence and security measures. However, will the Minister undertake to provide a full list of other areas where exchange rates have an impact, such as staffing? Will he place such a list in the Library for everybody to look at, detailing which countries, embassies and high commissions will be affected?
To be honest, I think that would be very burdensome to produce, and it would be a constantly changing document anyway. I am more than happy to be open with the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that what he suggests would be helpful. A lot of the British Council’s spend is also overseas, so it has faced a difficult time in relation to currency fluctuation as well, whereas the World Service, the vast majority of whose spending is in this country, has not met these problems.
There is also the important question of the hedging of the risk. Can the Minister tell us whether any hedging has taken place since the abolition of the mechanism in 2007, and if so, how much of the 50 per cent. foreign exchange expenditure has indeed been hedged and how it has been hedged? If it has been hedged properly, the gains on the hedge should offset the losses outlined by Baroness Kinnock yesterday.
As the Minister knows, some of the programmes in Pakistan are anti-radicalisation programmes; they are essentially extensions of the Prevent programme here. Has an assessment been made of the effectiveness of these programmes, and whether or not that is the case, will they be cut?
We always have to review the success of such projects. One of the difficulties is that some of the elements of them deliver outcomes only over a sustained period. Consequently, it is difficult at one snapshot moment to assess the precise value and the impact they are having, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that that is one of the things we need to do, and if elements of the programme do not work, we should cut them back and find other ways of engaging that are more effective.
Will the Minister respond to his Front-Bench counterpart in respect of the description of the exchange policy as a debacle? It is, in fact, especially well timed to have a devaluation when there is excess capacity, as we get low inflation. Also, if there has indeed been hedging, as the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), does he not accept that it is his responsibility to ensure that money is recouped into this budget and is fully protected?
In the Foreign Office, we also have to do a bit of good housekeeping. We are reviewing, and discussing with trade unions, the allowances paid to UK staff based abroad and those working for the Foreign Office in the UK. Where savings can be made that are consonant with ensuring there is a high level of morale in the Foreign Office and we deliver value for money, we will make them.
As the Minister will know, the debates on fiscal responsibility that took place in the last few days have demonstrated the fiscal irresponsibility of what he describes as a great nation. He and his Government have brought this country to its knees.
In the context of the issue before us now, the results of setting up European embassies, and also Europol, in Afghanistan, which were discussed in the European Scrutiny Committee only a couple of days ago, are part of this problem. There has been a failure there because we are putting money in the wrong places. We should be using British money for British purposes, and not spending money on completely pointless operations that are not working effectively.
As much as I like the hon. Gentleman, I completely and utterly disagree with him. I believe that if we had not taken the necessary financial steps that we took over the last 18 months, and instead had taken his advice and that of his political party, this country and others that have followed similar routes would have ended up in a slump or a depression. I believe the decisions we have made have put us in a stronger position for the future, and I think we will be seeing precisely that over the coming days. I should just say, too, that across the whole of Government, spending on counter-terrorism in Pakistan increased by 50 per cent. from the last financial year to this one.
Can the Minister confirm whether in times past, when exchange rates were the other way round, the Treasury clawed back any surplus? If it did so, does that not go straight to the heart of the argument and suggest that the Treasury should come to the rescue this time?
Well, it does not quite work like that, but the way it does work was set out by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in a letter to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, and I think it would help the whole House if I were to lay a copy of that letter in the Library of the House.
Business of the House
The provisional business for next week is as follows:
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 dementia services and care of the elderly, followed by a debate on out-of-hours care. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.
Thursday 28 January—Topical debate: Subject to be announced; to follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.
Friday 29 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 1 February will include:
Monday 1 February—Remaining stages of the Flood and Water Management Bill.
Tuesday 2 February—Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 5).
Wednesday 3 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 4 February—Remaining stages of the Corporation Tax Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Taxation (International and Other Provisions) Bill.
Friday 5 February—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 4 February will be:
Thursday 4 February—A debate from the Joint Committee on Human Rights entitled “Demonstrating Respect for Rights? A Human Rights Approach to Policing Protest”.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. Further to the exchanges that have just taken place, which she might have heard, it struck me that a number of issues were left hanging in the air, so I think it might be helpful to have a debate in Government time on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget.
May I repeat my request for a debate on Haiti? The tragic events there have been the most terrifying humanitarian disaster witnessed in recent years, and apart from a very short exchange at Department for International Development questions yesterday, the House has not had an opportunity properly to debate it, so will she take this as a suggestion, yet again, for next week’s topical debate?
Further to the exchange of a few moments ago about the Wright report, may I say that I am delighted that at long last the Government have belatedly accepted some of our arguments for strengthening and reforming Parliament, and that we welcome them to the table? The Leader of the House announced that there would be a debate on 23 February, but what really matters is not what the Government have decided—she told us what that was—but what the House decides. She has denied the House an opportunity to debate this until 23 February, some three months after the Wright Committee reported, and there is no good reason for that delay.
May I again press the Leader of the House for a clear commitment on the question that I asked a few moments ago? If, for the sake of argument, the House agrees on 23 February to the setting up of a Back-Bench business committee—I hope that it will agree to such a committee—can she assure the House that all the necessary changes to Standing Orders will be made before Dissolution, so that at the beginning of the next Parliament, irrespective of who has won, we can establish a Back-Bench business committee? I hope that she can give me and the House that clear commitment.
Mr. Speaker, may we play another round of the popular panel game that the Leader of the House hosts each week, “Guess the date of the Easter recess”, which still awaits a winner? I have asked seven times why she has been unable to supply the date in the usual way and, although she does not pause and she does not hesitate, she is extremely repetitive. Can she give us the Easter countdown today? Can she also tell the House when the Chancellor will present his Budget?
Can the right hon. and learned Lady clarify what is going on with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? She has announced two more days for consideration, but there is confusion about whether one of those days will be wasted on debating the alternative vote, when we might be debating the Wright report. Yesterday, the Prime Minister appeared to embrace voting reform, but only three days ago it was reported that the parliamentary Labour party was split down the middle, with the Schools Secretary lobbying against any amendment to the Bill. What is going on? Are we going to debate it? On what side of that dividing line does she lie?
May we have a statement on the Government’s nutrition action plan? This was promised by December 2008, but we are now in 2010 and that report has still not been published. All the evidence shows that the incidence of malnutrition in our hospitals is getting worse, not better, so when can the House expect to debate that report? May we also have a debate on the performance of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs? According to the National Audit Office, the department failed to answer 44 million calls last year, with just one in three inquiries being responded to at busy times, such as when tax credits need to be renewed. Vulnerable people cannot afford to be put on hold, so when can we have a debate about that?
Finally, may we have a debate on the speech on inequality that the right hon. and learned Lady is due to make tomorrow? The whole country will be bewildered by the total confusion in the Government’s strategy on this. One week we are told that the Prime Minister wants to soak the rich, the next week, following a conversation with Lord Mandelson, he is promising support for middle Britain and now the right hon. and learned Lady is promising to open up a new front in the class war. Is this confusion due to the Labour party manifesto being dreamt up on the hockey fields of St. Paul’s?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in acknowledging the great importance of the international effort to tackle the appalling suffering that has followed the earthquake in Haiti. I wish to pay tribute to the search and rescue teams that have gone out from this country and to say how important the Department for International Development aid contribution is, not only in terms of the search and rescue effort, but of the assessment of and contribution towards the reconstruction that will be required. I should also say how important the incredible generosity of the British public is. I believe that about £20 million of additional aid has been pledged immediately by DFID, but that about £26 million has come from donations by individual members of the public, not only those who have relatives and friends in Haiti, but other good-hearted people who want to help do their part in alleviating the suffering. Not everything good that happens is done by government.
Last week, we made a statement on Haiti and this week, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we had DFID questions and the issue was also addressed in Prime Minister’s questions. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to keep the House updated on Government and international action, and we need an opportunity for Members to contribute. I shall look for an opportunity, in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week.
On the Wright Committee, yes, of course, what is important is what the House decides. Although I think that it is perfectly right and proper that we place before the people at the general election a big choice of an alternative view as to how Britain goes forward, with the Tories on one side and us on the other—and the other parties in the fray too—when it comes to the way this House operates, we should surely be able to work together, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said earlier, to try to make progress. I shall offer to have plenty of fights with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on many issues and on many occasions, but can we just try to work together sensibly on this, because on 23 February we might be able to make some progress? Rather than spending a lot of time saying, “Why is it on 23 February, rather than 23 January?”, let us get on with working together to ensure that we make our 23 February debate an opportunity to make progress. If we make progress then, we will, as I said earlier in questions to the Leader of the House, be able to pass resolutions that put into effect the proposals from the Wright Committee, so that they can begin in operation before the House rises.
As far as Easter is concerned, it is on 4 April.
On the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill—I shall call it the CRAG Bill, as I keep getting the name wrong—we have had a full day on Second Reading and three days on the Floor of the House for the Committee stage already. We have two further days on the Floor of the House, thus making five days in Committee. We have a day on Report and Third Reading, which makes seven days in all. A number of Committees have looked at this Bill, including a Committee of both Houses that looked at the draft Bill, so this House will have given it thorough scrutiny, and the proposals that will be introduced by way of Government amendments or new clauses will be brought forward in the normal way.
On HMRC and tax credits, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we are pledged to continue to improve tax credits, which make a very big difference to families on middle and modest incomes. We want to support those who are working, and working hard, by topping up their income with tax credits, and we will continue to support the way that that is distributed.
On equality, it is clear from reading the statement that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made just before last week on race and socio-economic inequality or the Government response via the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Milburn report on access to the professions, as well as the Department of Health’s report on health inequalities—the Marmot report—that will be considered soon or the very important report from the National Equality Panel, which is chaired by Sir John Hills, which will be published next week, that this Government is in no doubt that this country ought to be a place where everyone, no matter what their family background, no matter whether they are a man or a women and no matter what their ethnic origin, can achieve their full potential. We should have a fair society where everyone can fulfil their aspirations, not one held back by prejudice or discrimination. The Hills report will show that we have halted the inequality that increased so badly in the ’80s and ’90s, but we have to take more action to eradicate it, for the sake of not only every individual, but of having a prosperous economy and a peaceful society.
May I welcome the indication that the Leader of the House gave that there would be a debate on Haiti? In her response on that issue, she mentioned the exchanges at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions. May I say that it was hugely welcome that the Prime Minister made a short statement on Haiti, and did so in considerable detail? However may I put it to the Leader of the House that there is a growing tendency for Ministers and, in particular, the Prime Minister to use short Question Times to make what are, in effect, statements, and that that is not helpful to Back Benchers who want to put questions? If there is a statement to be made, will the right hon. and learned Lady encourage her right hon. Friends to make it as a statement rather than using Question Time to do so?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was also asked a very pertinent question, it seemed to me, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) about the takeover of Cadbury. The Prime Minister’s answer was—how can I put it—a little bit “Curly Wurly”, and possibly even “Flake-y”. May we have a statement from the relevant Department on the role of the Royal Bank of Scotland—a bank owned by the British people—in providing the finance for a takeover of a British company by an American conglomerate? That issue must be answered.
May I welcome the additional day that has now been provided—I had a bit to say about this when we debated the programme motion on Tuesday—for consideration of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? However, the right hon. and learned Lady has still not answered the question put by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the shadow Leader of the House. Will she simply say, without equivocation, whether a Government amendment on the reform of our electoral system will be tabled for debate in Committee? Yes or no? She must have decided by now, surely; it has been fought over for weeks. Will she tell us whether there will be such a Government amendment?
May we have a debate on the continuing problem, which I know affects a lot of Members on both sides of the House, of funding in further education and the activities of the Learning and Skills Council? After the fiasco of last year, a huge number of decisions are waiting on a backlog of schemes that were given provisional support but on which the funding has not been confirmed. That delay affects a college in my constituency, Frome community college, and the college is now desperate to know whether the scheme, which is supposed to be going ahead this year, can go ahead and whether the funding will be provided. May we have a debate on that?
May I return to a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire? The Leader of the House has answered, very helpfully, with the date of Easter. I am personally not terribly interested in the dates of the Easter recess, but I am very interested to know when the Budget will be. Will she tell us what the date of the Budget will be?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned statements and the question of Haiti. As I have said, we had a full statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on Haiti and I think that it was important for the Prime Minister to update the House yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. It is important not just that we hear from the Secretary of State but that the Prime Minister has the opportunity to update the House. The Prime Minister has made an unprecedented number of statements in the House on a range of issues and we will continue to keep the House informed on action in Haiti.
As for the Cadbury’s debate, I would certainly not want to give a “Flake-y” response. Perhaps I can give a “Crunchie” response and tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be an Adjournment debate on the matter on the Floor of the House next week. This is an important issue because people are concerned not only about their pride in this historic brand but, above all, about the work that is generated for 5,500 people in factories up and down the country. It will be debated on the Floor of the House next week.
On the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the Secretary of State for Justice will bring forward amendments and new clauses in the normal way. This is not an occasion for the announcement of Government new clauses on individual Bills.
On the Learning and Skills Council, I shall ask Business Ministers to look into the case of Frome community college. We all recognise that despite the fact that there has been a great deal of important extra funding for further and higher education, the LSC presided over mismanagement on that very important programme, which is only just being sorted out. I shall ask Ministers to look into the case of that college but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that Frome community college and all other further and higher education would not prosper if his party had its way and introduced savage cuts.
Order. Twenty-seven right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to be able to accommodate everybody, but if I am to have any chance of doing so, I shall require the help of the House in the form of short questions and short answers.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend can clear something up for me. On 4 January, the Leader of the Opposition said that giving married couples a tax break was
“something we want to do, something we believe we can do”
“something…I’ll definitely hope to do”.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide time on the Floor of the House for a debate on married couple’s allowance so that we can all be enlightened about the difference between a promise, a belief, an aspiration, a pledge and any other word that might describe the Leader of the Opposition’s policy?
I note that the Opposition have not chosen the married couple’s allowance as the topic for their Opposition day debate next week. One thing that my right hon. Friend’s question brings out is the fact that families cannot rely on the Opposition. They can rely on this Government to back them up. We would not penalise women who get divorced and we would not use a tax penalty to penalise men who find themselves divorced. We want to support families in all shapes and sizes, including not only families made up of parents and children but grandparents, who play an important role.
The Leader of the House will know of the work of the Liaison Committee in improving financial scrutiny in this House, which has led to the alignment project in the Treasury, which I welcome. As we will debate increasing the powers of Select Committees on 23 February, will she say that she is at least open-minded—I am not asking for a commitment—about giving Select Committees more resources through the Scrutiny Unit and eventually more powers through substantive motions to control spending in the House of Commons, which was a traditional function of the House of Commons?
May I push my right hon. and learned Friend on the subject of a debate about support for families so that I can raise the concerns of working parents across Redditch—married and unmarried—who fear that they will lose the little bit of help that comes from their tax credit, as well as access to Redditch’s children’s centres, so that funding can be given to an unthought-through and ill-conceived tax break to encourage them up the aisle?
It might well be a good idea to have a debate on this issue. On that occasion, we will ask the Opposition to explain whether they think that any couple has got married thinking, “Well, we weren’t going to get married but we will get married now because we have heard that there will be a tax break.” Relationships do not work like that and there is no evidence that couples can be made to stay happy together simply on the basis of a tax break. The point about the proposed tax break is that it will not work when it comes to making families happy together. However, it will penalise those who find that their marriage has failed and stigmatise children in families who have not stayed together. Such a debate might be a good opportunity to air the subject on the Floor of the House.
May we have a debate on the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on immigration? On Monday, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus reported how the Somali man who hid the killer of PC Sharon Beshenivsky won his appeal against deportation on the grounds of human rights, rightly angering the family of Sharon Beshenivsky and the West Yorkshire police federation. Surely, when the Government passed the Human Rights Act, they did not have it in mind that it would stop Somali nationals who hide the killers of police officers from being deported from the country.
The Human Rights Act is a matter for interpretation by the courts, but whenever the Government believe that an interpretation by the courts has crossed the line and interfered with national security, we do not hesitate to take action either to appeal or to amend the substantive law.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate in parliamentary time on the subject of regional spatial strategies and their current status, particularly in the south-west, where we have been waiting for them for quite some time? As we have been waiting, local authorities such as Stroud district council have been working with speculators and developers to dump their entire housing allocations on the end of places such as Tuffley in the Gloucester district area. Clarity, an early debate and early decisions would be very helpful.
I indicated earlier at Question Time that I welcomed the debate on the reform of the House, and that I shall certainly support the motions to be tabled by the Leader of the House. However, will she admit that there is ongoing concern that the House Committee that she has announced will deal only with Back-Bench business and not with the overall business of the House? Does she accept that there has been no mention as yet of the reduction or removal of guillotines—programme motions—on the remaining stages of a Bill? Those stages are very important for Back Benchers who were not part of the Public Bill Committee and were not called to speak in the Second Reading debate.
The Wright Committee made a great many proposals on a wide range of issues, and recognised that they needed to be taken forward step by step. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: what I said in my comments this morning, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday, was that we had identified the need for a House Committee for Back-Bench business to be brought forward. I hope that we can agree that on 23 February. I also hope that those who think that we should have a House Committee for Government business will not make the best the enemy of the good, and that we can achieve a wide range of agreement the next time we debate the matter on 23 February.
I am sure that the Leader of the House remains a committed reformer of Parliament, but the Prime Minister made the incredible commitment yesterday that he would implement all three tranches of the Wright Committee report. Will she assure the House that there will be an immediate vote as well as a full debate on 23 February on the resolution that the Wright Committee prepared, rather than any other device?
Actually, there are four tranches, as follows: the Chairs of Select Committees to be elected by the House, the membership of Select Committees, private Members’ motions that can be brought to the House to be debated and voted on, and the question of the House Committee. We want to take the opportunity to debate those matters and then adopt resolutions to give them effect. If, as I hope and expect, there is consensus in the House on those four areas, we want to get work under way. The point is to make a start on those matters over which there is the widest possible agreement.
The right hon. and learned Lady will have heard the evidence given to the Chilcot inquiry by the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), to the effect that it was the decisions of the present Prime Minister that resulted in British forces going to war in Iraq under-resourced, and in the lack of helicopters in Afghanistan. She will also have heard the Prime Minister’s statement that he is willing to give evidence to the inquiry before the general election. Can we have a debate next week so that the House can encourage Sir John Chilcot to call the Prime Minister to give an account of his activities before the general election?
The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Chilcot inquiry operates under the general procedures that usually govern such inquiries. Sir John Chilcot has said that he will take as much of the evidence in public as he can without risking national security. The Prime Minister has said that he will give evidence as and when requested to do so. We should leave it to the members of the independent Chilcot inquiry to get on with their work, and not constantly breathe down their necks or tell them whom they should call, and when. We should not try to discuss the results of the inquiry before it has even produced a report.
May we have an early debate on a possible conflict of interest in the Office of the Rail Regulator? The ORR has responsibility for both investment and safety, but we now discover that 1,500 front-line workers are to be made redundant by Network Rail. Those people have responsibility for track inspection and maintenance, overhead cabling and signalling, all of which are crucial to the safety of the railways for passengers and rail workers. Could we therefore have a look at this conflict of interest?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of rail users. She has urged that more freight as well as more passengers should go by rail, and she is also a great champion of those who work on the railways. Perhaps I could suggest that she raise the issues that she has brought to the House today with Ministers at Transport questions next week.
The Wright Committee, which was elected by this House, addressed itself to the problems that arise at Report stage, when key groups of amendments go undebated and key decisions on legislation are not even put to the House. In its conclusions, the Committee said that
“we recognise that unless the current problems in this area are resolved, then there will continue to be dissatisfaction and a sense that the House is failing to perform one of its core duties. In those circumstances, we will have failed one of the primary parts of our mission.”
Does the Leader of the House agree?
Well, I agree that we should do everything that we can to make sure that all aspects of a Bill are scrutinised at all stages, but to some extent that is in the hands of the House. One thing that I will never understand is why people who justifiably complain about the lack of time to debate substantive issues use up loads of time on procedural motions. If we used that time to debate the substantive issues, we would reach more conclusions.
This is normally a session for complaints and demands, so may I simply say that I welcome what the Leader of the House has said about a secure date for the House to consider the report from the House of Commons Reform Committee? In addition, I endorse her hope that the House will want to operate on a consensual basis, and that there will be a mechanism enabling it to come to some firm decisions.
I am glad to have the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for his very important work in proposing the Committee. His effective leadership has brought the Committee very quickly to some profound and radical solutions. I think that Members of this House can have major arguments, debates, disagreements and rows about the economy, public services and the sort of society that we want in the future, but I hope that we can at least agree on a non-partisan basis about how to ensure that the House works better in future.
My concern about the Wright report is that the consensus will be between the Executive and the shadow Executive, and that it will not take the views of Back Benchers into account. The consensus must be across the House, and not just between the two Executives.
I hope that we can build a consensus across the whole House based on the proposals made by the Wright Committee, which is a Back-Bench Committee. I do not think that any of its members would say that they were responding to pressure from either the Executive or the shadow Executive, and they would give anyone who suggested that a dusty answer. The Wright Committee is made up of Back Benchers, and we have responded to their proposals by saying, “Fair enough, let’s get on with implementing a great many of them.”
We are determined to make sure that people who are not prepared to be registered as taxpayers domiciled in this country cannot purport to represent taxpayers in constituencies or legislate in the House of Lords in ways that affect taxpayers. The only real question—my hon. Friend has adverted to it—concerns the right vehicle for bringing the matter to the House. We expect to reach a conclusion on that shortly and to bring it to the House.
Notwithstanding the fact that there will be a defence review in the next Parliament, whoever wins the general election, may we have a debate on future defence policy in the light of the thought-provoking speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies by the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir David Richards? We need such a debate not least because of the profound implications for the three services, and for procurement in particular.
I, too, welcome the announcement of a debate on the Wright Committee report on 23 February. Normally, honourable parliamentarians on both sides of the House would share my disdain when changes are introduced to legislation or to the procedures of the House on a nod and a wink and under the cloak of consensus, but that does not apply in this case. I was a member of the Committee and I was not part of that consensus. Will my right hon. and learned Friend guarantee that none of the proposals will be introduced without a full debate on every issue? I do not share the consensus on electing the Chairs and members of Select Committees, or on the establishment of a House business committee. I have deep concerns about those proposals, and I want a full debate on them. I am not part of this consensus.
There will be a full debate, and I hope that there will be reassurances on my hon. Friend’s concerns. I know that she played a full part in the Committee, but following its majority decisions, we would like to see changes made in the four areas that I have identified.
The Infrastructure Planning Commission is about to receive an application from Hinkley Point in Somerset. Everything is going well, and I am very grateful for the Government’s support, but we have hit a snag. The relevant Department also has to do its own consultation, and it is not doing it properly. Can we please have time to debate that? Unless the IPC gets the application right, the application could be knocked back or, worse still, undermine the whole IPC system. Can we have time to discuss that?
May we have an early debate about debt, debt collection and, in particular, the activities of bailiffs? I have received an increasing number of complaints from constituents, many of them young single mums, about the intimidating and bullying behaviour of debt collectors. Although people should pay back their debt, they should not be subject to such behaviour. One of the big issues is that people do not understand their rights in terms of access to their homes, so can we have a debate as soon as possible about that issue?
May we have a statement from the fire services Minister about the tremendously good work that British firefighters, who are specialists in urban search and rescue, are doing in Haiti? I had the privilege of visiting their state-of-the-art training facility at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, and their tremendously good work really should be commended.
There has been a further welcome fall in the unemployment figures for Wales this week, but many of my constituents will suffer from the announcement that Bosch, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), will close with the loss of 900 jobs. When can we have a debate not only about the very welcome measures that the Government have introduced to help people who lose their jobs, but to discuss what more can be done?
We remain very concerned about the jobs question, which is very much at the top of our agenda, and I shall refer to the Business Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the points that my hon. Friend has made. I agree with her about how important it is that, for the first time, unemployment has gone down—based not only on the claimant count, but on the International Labour Organisation unemployment rate. That is in marked contrast with previous recessions, when unemployment went up dramatically and continued to rise long after the economy had returned to growth. That shows, in a reversal of the Tory election slogan, that Labour is working.
The Leader of the House will be aware of increasing public concern at excessive bank charges and the Office of Fair Trading’s decision to throw in the towel. Can we have a debate, in Government time, about the Government’s failure to extract a voluntary agreement? They promised that they would extract one from the banks, but they have so far failed.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need strong regulation and regulatory bodies to protect consumers. We have no doubt about that; it is his party, generally speaking, that regards such measures as the nanny state, as a burden on business and as a surfeit of regulation. However, if he wants to support our stance of leaving no stone unturned to protect consumers and ensure the right regulations, he can work with us to achieve it.