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Business of the House

Volume 506: debated on Thursday 4 March 2010

The business for next week will be as follows.

Monday 8 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Security Bill.

Tuesday 9 March—Opposition Day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on NHS London, followed by a debate on access to higher education. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 10 March—Estimates Day (2nd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on alcohol, followed by a debate on taxes—

Taxes—and charges on road users. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows:

Department of Health in so far as it relates to alcohol: 1st Report from the Health Committee, HC 151.]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 11 March—A topical debate on International Women’s Day—Women’s Representation, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords].

Friday 12 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 March will include:

Monday 15 March—General debate on defence in the world.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady.

May I begin by adding my own voice to the many tributes that have been paid to Michael Foot? He was a former Leader of the House, and one of our greatest parliamentarians. I remember him as the man whose brief it was, during my second Parliament, to hold together a legislative programme in a Government with no majority, which he handled with tact and ingenuity—although one day he had to introduce five guillotine motions. As an orator, he was one of the few who could fill the Chamber. He was a brilliant and at times unpredictable force, instilling terror in his civil servants by speaking on industrial relations legislation without notes for 30 minutes, and, equally memorably, winding up the motion of no confidence in the Labour Government in 1979. On that occasion, even his flights of rhetoric were not enough to save them from defeat by one vote. He was a man of great courage, courtesy and integrity, and from these Benches we salute him.

I note that although the Leader of the House said that later we would debate motions relating to the Procedure Committee’s report on the election of the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, only one of those motions appears on today’s Order Paper. What has happened to the others, and when will they be debated?

May we have a statement from the Justice Secretary on the decision to return one of the killers of Jamie Bulger to jail? Does the Leader of the House agree with me—and, apparently, the Home Secretary—that unless there are very good reasons for keeping the information secret, it is in the public interest to know why Jon Venables has been sent back to prison?

Last week I was rebuffed by the right hon. and learned Lady when I asked for two days on Report for the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. As I predicted, the Bill has now been sent to the other place with many groups of amendments not debated. Given that the Bill will not receive its Second Reading in the Lords until 24 March, what hope does she have that the Government’s flagship constitutional Bill will make it on to the statute book before the election?

Can we have a debate on the devastating report from the Public Accounts Committee today on the establishment of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission? Given that the right hon. and learned Lady was responsible for this, I hope she will find the time to explain the situation to the House.

Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady gave what she called a “strong hint” that next week’s topical debate would be on international women’s day. Does not she think it somewhat illogical to announce a topical debate two weeks in advance, and is she not in fact using a topical debate to escape from the Government’s commitment to give the House one set-piece debate on this subject?

On timings, can the right hon. and learned Lady explain why the business in the Lords up until 26 March has been announced and published on the internet, but today she has given us the business only until 15 March? It would be unfortunate if the business question were added to that long list of questions the Government are unable to answer.

On the date of the Budget, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said on Tuesday that it would be announced

“if there is to be a Budget.”

Will the right hon. and learned Lady clarify whether there will be a Budget, or have relations between the Prime Minister and his Chancellor now rendered that impossible?

Finally, can the right hon. and learned Lady give us the dates of the Easter recess? Last week the Leader of the House of Lords said that there were four and a half weeks before the Easter recess. If the Leader of the Lords can announce it in another place, why cannot MPs be told—or are we second-class citizens?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his tribute to Michael Foot, who was, as he said, a great parliamentarian, orator and Leader of the House between 1976 and 1979. He was a passionate socialist. Everyone has commented that he was not only incredibly clever, but highly principled. I have very warm personal memories of him joining me in my by-election campaign in 1982. He went down a storm on the Walworth road, where he is fondly remembered to this day. We all miss him. His intelligence and commitment remained sharp right up until his death.

On the motions relating to the Deputy Speaker and Speaker, I have made it clear that Mr. Speaker has asked that we look into having elections for Deputy Speakers. I have made that undertaking and we can debate the motions on that subject this afternoon.

On the killers of Jamie Bulger, the court order requires anonymity and the processes have to be in compliance with that order.

If the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill goes into the wash-up and does not complete its stages in the House of Lords, it will be for the Opposition parties to negotiate with the Government so that we can get through a great deal of what was in the Bill, much of which arose out of the Kelly proposals and pertain to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. There are many things in the Bill that the House wants to see get through. If the Bill cannot find its way through the Lords, we will make sure at the wash-up that the provisions that the public want get through.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Equality and Human Rights Commission. That subject could be raised during the debate next week on international women’s day. As it turns out, I was correct in anticipating that that would be a topical debate; it is going to be topical.

On the business of the House, I announce the business for the following week each Thursday; that is all I do. [Interruption.] No, anything after that is provisional. The business for next week is firm, so hon. Members can be clear and know what they are doing next week, but after that it is only provisional.

The Leader of the House—[Interruption.] Oh dear, I am going to have to get this right: the shadow Leader of the House made a point about the relations between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. I would like to raise a point about the relations between the shadow Leader of the House and his party leader, however, because how on earth is he still prepared to serve under a leader of his party who, when he spoke the truth about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status—

Order. I must ask the Leader of the House to focus her remarks exclusively on the business for next week. [Interruption.] As she is indicating that she has finished her answer, I call the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath).

The entire Government are sounding a little provisional at the moment.

May I join in the tributes to Michael Foot? He was a member of a west-country radical family of some note, and came from a political age when it was felt important that Members of Parliament might have read a few books, as well as be able to grin inanely at a camera. He will be remembered with great affection.

We get used to people being appointed tsar of this and champion of that, but we actually have a rather important post of that kind: the Rural Advocate. The current Rural Advocate is Dr. Stuart Burgess, and his post is important because each year he can send a report about what is happening in our rural areas directly to the Prime Minister. He has done so today, and he has pointed out that, as a consequence of rural areas having no services, phones, internet or transport, they are losing young people, who are finding that they have to move away in order to have any hope of getting jobs. In rural areas, 40 per cent. of those aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed. I want to know what happens to these reports once they have gone to the Prime Minister, because I do not hear him talking about rural issues. I would like this House to do so, however, so may we have a debate on rural issues in the near future?

I have just listened to Business, Innovation and Skills questions, and there is clearly great concern about the difficulties facing small businesses and the opportunities open to them, so may we have a debate on small businesses? We might include in it a discussion of the future of the cheque book—a subject raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter)—because that issue also means a great deal to small businesses.

I note that there will be a debate on alcohol on 10 March, and hon. Members rightly feel very strongly about alcohol abuse. Some would argue that there is a case for hugely increasing the duty payable on alcohol, but may I ask—this is special pleading on behalf of my constituency—that artisan cider-makers are not forgotten in any such discussion, because they will be put out of business if there is a substantial increase in alcohol duty? Perhaps we could address that issue in our debate.

Yesterday during Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Leader of the House managed to cause a great deal of excitement in the House every time she mentioned a certain Member of another place, which she did with great frequency. May I suggest today—in a rather quieter, more sensible and less hyperbolic way—that the issues to do with that have been conflated? There are, in fact, two issues, one of which is the quite extraordinary sums of money being given to political parties and then being spent in marginal constituencies. We have yet to grapple effectively with that issue, so may we have a debate on it?

The second issue is to do with appointments to this Parliament: commitments that are given, the way in which people are appointed to the House of Lords, and the proper principle that people should not make laws for this country if they do not pay taxes in this country. Can we have a separate debate on that? Perhaps we could tighten things up so that we do not have, as The Daily Telegraph put it today, the shadow Foreign Secretary being

“kept in the dark…for 10 years”.

That is not the right way to manage a commitment given.

The shadow Leader of the House said that he had been “rebuffed” on an issue. I was not rebuffed but ignored by the Leader of the House last week when I raised what I thought was a perfectly proper matter. I am referring to one of the Prime Minister’s ideas, which he set out in the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper as follows:

“The Government believes that the convention should be changed so that the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the Monarch for a dissolution.”

I am sure the Prime Minister would not say that if he did not mean it, and he would not mean it and then not do anything to bring it into effect, so when are we going to have the debate? When is the Leader of the House going to table the motion? When are we going to have the vote for the dissolution of this pretty awful Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the Rural Advocate. Department for Communities and Local Government questions will take place next week, at which he will have the opportunity, if he so wishes, to raise the question of housing. It is very important to have affordable housing in rural areas, and it is important that planning authorities—not just Tory councils, but Lib Dem councils—ensure that they allow the planning of housing only if it includes affordable housing. Everybody should look closely at their own party’s policies on that.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have pressed forward on good health provision in, and on improving education in, rural areas, and that one of the reasons why we brought forward our “Digital Britain” paper was precisely to ensure that enterprise and economic initiative can go into rural areas, with high-speed broadband covering all areas. So there are further opportunities to debate that issue.

On small businesses, we have, as the hon. Gentleman said, just had Department for Business, Innovation and Skills questions. He will have an opportunity to raise the issue of artisan cider-makers again in next week’s debate about alcohol.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to be less hyperbolic about the question of Ashcroft—[Hon. Members: “Lord.”] He asked me to be less hyperbolic about Lord Ashcroft and his breach of his assurances on tax. May I say, Mr. Speaker, that I welcome the decision announced this morning by the Public Administration Committee that it will carry out an inquiry into this matter? I am afraid that I cannot offer to tone down my views on this, because the truth is that this is sleaze on a multi-million pound scale and the—

Order. I absolutely understand that the right hon. and learned Lady does not want, in any way, to qualify or compromise her views, but I should make two points. First, we are making references to a Member of another place and that has to be done with considerable care. Secondly, from now on—the right hon. and learned Lady has said what she has said—we must focus our remarks on the business of the House.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—[Hon. Members: “Withdraw it.”] No, I am not going to withdraw it. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked me a question about this. I am entitled to answer that question and I am entitled to put forward my views. I hope that when the Select Committee holds its investigation it will call the shadow Foreign Secretary, and I hope he will be more honest and forthcoming with the Committee than he has been over the past eight years.

Order. A particularly large number of Members—more than 40—are seeking to catch my eye today. The record shows over a period of many months that ordinarily I have sought to accommodate and been successful in accommodating everybody. I would like to be so again, but I think that it is extremely unlikely when more than 40 Members wish to contribute. The requirement for short questions and short answers is greater than ever. I call Celia Barlow.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My Tory opponent in Hove and Portslade has boasted in Brighton’s The Argus that:

“We are on the target list. Lord Ashcroft is a supporter of target seats”.

In addition to the Select Committee investigation, will the Government carry out an investigation and report, so that Members with marginal seats can work out exactly how much of the £15 million of central American money has been spent in each seat?

I did not hear a request for a debate or a statement, but I assume that the hon. Lady is asking for one. I call the Leader of the House.

I think that what my hon. Friend has shown is that there is deep disquiet about this—about the fact that the Conservative party has completely sacrificed its integrity for money and is trying to buy seats with the Belize dollar. I think we are entitled to feel that that is not acceptable.

Whatever the strength of views of the Leader of the House on any particular issue, does she not accept that, as the Leader of the House, she has a particular duty to observe the long-standing conventions of the House, and that one does not accuse another Member—either of this House or of another House—of an offence where, if the accusation were made outside this House, it would undoubtedly lead to an action for slander? Will she take this opportunity to withdraw the allegation that she made against the noble Lord?

Order. The hon. Gentleman entered the House first in 1959 and has served without interruption in his present constituency since 1966, so he will know that business questions is the occasion to ask a question requesting either a statement or a debate the following week. That did not quite happen, but if the Leader of the House wants—[Interruption.] Order. I require no help from Back-Bench Members. If the Leader of the House wants briefly to respond to what has been asked, that is fine but thereafter I would ask that we move on and, in particular, that questions and answers relate to the business of the House next week.

Questions on the business of the House is also an occasion to discuss what is going on in the House of Lords and in Select Committees—I am sure you would acknowledge that, Mr. Speaker. This morning, the Public Administration Committee announced that it is going to look into this issue. I have not said anything in this House that I can say only in this House under cover of parliamentary privilege—what I have said is fact. It is actually a fact that Lord Ashcroft was only allowed to be in the House of Lords because he gave an assurance—that is, is it not, a fact? Is it not also a fact that it is now clear that he broke that assurance? That is a fact, and—

Order. Let me just say to the Leader of the House and to all Members of the House that criticism of Members of the other place should be on a substantive motion. The points that have been made have been made extremely clearly, but I think it is reasonable and proper for me now—[Interruption.] Order. It is reasonable and proper for me now to ask hon., right hon. and right hon. and learned Members to focus on the business of the House next week. The Leader of the House has responded and I am grateful to her.

In a busy week, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for the Prime Minister to come to the House to make a statement on the principles of universal jurisdiction and, in particular, to explain the serious and, indeed, colossal error contained in the article that he wrote in today’s edition of The Daily Telegraph, where he maintains that arrest warrants for crimes against humanity and for war crimes may be obtained on the “slightest of evidence”? Nobody knows better than my right hon. and learned Friend that a district judge must find a good prima facie case for such crimes, as indeed happened in the case of Tzipi Livni. This is an important issue, so will she find time for such a statement?

No one should be in any doubt about the fact that we remain strongly committed to the universal jurisdiction for the enforcement of international war crimes. The only question at issue is what the gateway to enforcement of those issues is and whether they should be able to be enforced by a member of the public, or whether enforcement should be carried out on the basis of a motion brought to the court by the public prosecution service. Let no one be in any doubt about the fact that we strongly support the universal jurisdiction—the question is just about the gateway to its enforcement.

Because we are taking forward, in this afternoon’s business of the House, issues that were raised by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). If we can agree by the end of the day on the election of the Chairs and members of Select Committees and on a new Committee of the whole House to agree not only Back-Bench business but Government business, and if we can, in addition, improve the procedure for getting Deputy Speakers, we will have taken great steps forward. We changed the rules when we elected our Speaker, which was the first election by secret ballot, so we have recently addressed that issue by introducing a new procedure for electing the Speaker.

The teaching of English as a foreign language is a vital business activity in my constituency, but it is under threat because of proposed changes to visa rules, which mean that students who want to upgrade their language skills before going to university would have to return home and apply for another visa to come back again. Can we debate this matter? Failing that, will my right hon. and learned Friend nudge her colleagues in the Home Office and ask them to rethink those proposals?

I will ask my colleagues in the Home Office to write to my hon. Friend about this matter. Obviously, foreign students are very important not only for the revenue that they bring into this country but because they increase and foster our global connections, which are important for our trade in a globalised economy. However, we have to make sure that the visa system, particularly the student visa system, is not abused and that people do not come here intending not to study but to work and to be students only as a secondary activity. That has to be cleared up, and that is what the Home Office is doing.

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the scandalous amount of money being paid in medical negligence claims across our country? I have requested such a debate before, but it is vital, at this time, that we look into the scandalous amounts of money being paid, which have totalled £250 million in London in the past three years.

If the hon. Gentleman, a member of his family or one of his constituents were the victim of medical negligence and suffered as a result, they would expect to be compensated for their pain, suffering and loss of earnings. The important thing is to improve patient safety. Certainly, if there is negligence, the NHS should settle to avoid paying high lawyers’ fees. I do not think that we can say that people should put up with medical negligence, which can cause terrible pain and suffering, and that it should not be compensated. The answer is to improve patient safety, not to clamp down on litigation.

Having spent a great deal of time trying to clean up Parliament—I am in favour of the reforms and changes that have taken place—is it not important to have a statement early next week on the position regarding Lord Ashcroft, how he got his peerage, what promises were made on his behalf and what promises he made about paying UK tax in full? Could all the documentation on his peerage—correspondence and the rest of it—be placed in the Library as quickly as possible?

I think that everybody would like to see the documentation relating to this matter. It is the responsibility of those who assert that Lord Ashcroft was given approval to go back on his assurance to put evidence in the public domain that that was the case. I will think about whether there is some way of making a statement that will allow this issue to be aired in the House, but the problem is that this is not actually a matter for government. The Government do not dictate who goes into the House of Lords: that was done through an independent process, but it involved assurances given by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is now the shadow Foreign Secretary. As I have said, a statement in the House is not needed for those who have the documentation to put it in the public domain, which they have signally failed to do.

May we have a debate on the effectiveness of youth intervention programmes such as the one in Teignmouth, which saw a 40 per cent. reduction in antisocial behaviour? Perhaps we could then get an explanation as to why the new Tory county council has cut the funding for that programme.

That is a warning to people about what would happen if the Tories ever got back into government—we would see very important projects that are important to local communities being cut. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of antisocial behaviour in business questions. No doubt, he can raise it in questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government next week. However, I note that antisocial behaviour orders, which I am afraid that his party voted against, are also important in this area.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider scheduling a debate on the effects of public service cuts on local communities? As well as cutting meals on wheels, Tory-controlled Dudley council voted on Monday night to cut children’s services, including those for children with disabilities, and drug rehabilitation services. The Conservative party is always asking us to judge it on how it treats the most vulnerable and how it runs its councils, and such a debate would allow us to make that judgment.

My hon. Friend raises important issues for people in her constituency and in Dudley—meals on wheels, children’s services and drug rehabilitation services. The evidence coming forth from Conservative councils is that the Conservatives just cannot be trusted with vital public services. Indeed, they seek to use the undeniable need to pay back the public deficit as an excuse to cut services. We would make sure that we paid back the deficit by halving it over four years, but while protecting front-line services.

Many people feel that the Government’s slavish obedience to the United States has corroded and undermined the special relationship. Can the Foreign Secretary make a statement to the House next week on the special relationship, given the unwelcome intervention of Secretary of State Clinton, with whom he wishes to have a special relationship, in the affairs of the United Kingdom regarding Argentina and the Falkland Islands?

I do not think that the Foreign Secretary needs to return to the House on this issue. He made the position absolutely clear only this week regarding the Falklands and the right to self-determination. There is no question about their remaining part of the United Kingdom. I made that clear yesterday, and he has made it clear this week that they will remain in charge of their self-determination. There is no need to clarify the issue because it is absolutely clear.

As my right hon. and learned Friend has mentioned, it is international women’s day on Monday 8 March. Will she take that opportunity to make a statement about the tremendous support that Labour Governments have given since 1997 to women and hard-working families?

I will accept that suggestion. I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of women in her constituency and this country. We should all remember that it is international women’s day, and we currently have a very big opportunity to press forward the establishment of the new UN women’s agency that will bring together the four parts of the UN that deal with women’s issues so that we will have a single UN women’s agency. That would be a great step forward this year.

The Leader of the House still has not satisfactorily explained why she has cherry-picked from the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Why are we being allowed to debate today only part of those recommendations, all of which appear on the Order Paper, with the remaining matters in the remaining orders? Why did she table all the recommendations, but move only half of them above the line cutting off matters for debate today? It seems to me that, by her actions, she has made an unanswerable case for a House business committee, so that never again can this sort of gerrymandering take place.

I actually agree that there is an unanswerable case for a House business committee. That is why we have tabled a motion that will lead to the establishment of such a committee, and that is why I will vote for the amendment that would extend its remit to Government business. We have had the process for electing the Speaker, and I hope that we will move forward to agree a similar process for the election of Deputy Speakers.

The Leader of the House has referred to next week’s debate on the Transport Committee’s report “Taxes and charges on road users”. It is very important that a Treasury Minister as well as a Transport Minister is present to answer questions on that report, yet the Treasury has refused that request. Does she share my concern, and will she investigate this important matter?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s leadership of the Transport Committee, and to the very important work that it has undertaken. As far “Taxes and charges on road users” is concerned, I am sure that the Transport Minister will be fully co-ordinated with the Treasury when he or she comes to answer the debate next Wednesday and that they will be able to respond on behalf of the Government as a whole.

The right hon. and learned Lady will understand the importance of certainty for the operation of financial markets but, in not responding to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the Budget date, she has created more uncertainty about how the Government will deal with our record deficit. With effectively only three weeks to the end of March, will she explain why she cannot tell us today when the Budget will take place?

It is my responsibility to announce the business for next week, and the right hon. Gentleman will see that that does not include the Budget. He will just have to wait and see when it is announced in the usual way. Meanwhile, the important thing is that we get on with ensuring that we do not pull the plug on the economy, as would happen if his party were in government. We must continue to support the economy through public investment and active intervention, and by making sure that we do everything that we can to protect people, and particularly the younger generation, from unemployment.

May we have a debate about companies that are deliberately and specifically set up as non-trading and loss-making, such as Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd? The debate could perhaps explore whether our tax regime allows such company losses to be used to offset other tax liabilities that might be due to the Exchequer.

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, or perhaps it should be the Business Secretary, to look into this. Obviously, we all want the maximum transparency, but that is clearly not the case with the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

Labour and the Tories have thrown allegations about peerages at each other, and the police have conducted their cash-for-peerages investigation in Parliament. Given all that, may we have a debate about when we will have the fully elected second Chamber that this House has voted for? At a stroke, it would end the allegations about both Lords Paul and Ashcroft, and allow fully democratic parties such as the Scottish Nationalist party to take part—if, of course, Scotland is not independent before then.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken forward proposals to ensure that we have an elected House of Lords. Indeed, this House has voted to change our constitutional arrangements and have an elected House of Lords. I agree with him on that.

May we have an urgent debate on matters that are before the Electoral Commission? There is concern that some issues of significant public interest—the activities of people such as Lord Ashcroft in trying to influence the general election, and the illegal use of foreign money to finance political parties—might not be reported on until after the general election. A debate would give us an opportunity to stress to the Electoral Commission that these matters are in the public interest and should be reported on before the general election.

There will be an opportunity to put questions about the Electoral Commission at oral questions on Thursday 11 March.

When will the Leader of the House allow the House to vote on the Procedure Committee’s recommendation that the House must decide whether the Speaker is re-elected by secret ballot?

The arrangements for the Speaker were changed recently, and I have brought forward motions to improve in a similar way the arrangements for getting the new Deputy Speakers. Those motions can be debated and voted on in the House this afternoon.

Can we have an early debate on the findings of Sir Roger Singleton when he finalises his report on the treatment of children in madrassahs and other religious, part-time schools?

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask those questions at next week’s Department for Children, Schools and Families Question Time. I pay tribute to her for the concern that she has shown for all the children in her constituency, including those who go to madrassahs.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have an early debate on the processes for re-electing Mr. Speaker? She will know that there are two motions, 69 and 74, in her name on today’s Order Paper. One is in favour of the status quo, and the other is in favour of the secret ballot used for electing the Chairmen and members of Select Committees, and the Deputy Speakers. Why have we got two motions in the right hon. and learned Lady’s name, and when will we be given the opportunity to speak and vote, and to determine the matter one way or another?

The substantive motion on the Order Paper for debate and voting on this afternoon is about the election of Deputy Speakers. It will bring the arrangements into line with those that we have agreed for the election of the Speaker. We have already changed that process: indeed, our current Speaker was elected by a ballot of all hon. Members.

May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to make time available urgently next week to debate the Ashcroftgate affair? We are moving towards a general election, and allegations have been made that really need to be cleared up, as they go to the heart of our democracy. They also go to the heart of a political party that wants to become the Government after the election. It is an important matter, as I am now getting correspondence from constituents asking how a person can spend £120 million and still not pay taxes in this country.

Once again, I will give consideration to the point that my right hon. Friend makes. There is clearly a desire in the House to understand what has gone on, and he is right to say that the affair affects both our democracy and public trust in it. On Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was in favour of transparency, but we discovered on Monday that we have had nine years of smokescreen and secrecy. On Sunday, he said that he was in favour of new politics, but on Monday we discovered that this was the same old sleaze from the Tories.

The Leader of the House will share my concern at reports from service charities and in the press about the plight of ex-Gurkhas. Apparently, they are being offered spurious money advice by unscrupulous organisations in Kathmandu, even though the same service is available free from the Gurkha Settlement Office. Can we have an urgent debate on the matter, and will she raise it urgently with her colleague the Defence Secretary?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will raise it with the Defence Secretary and with Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make sure that information is given to people so that they are not exploited.

In the last Session, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on financial disclosure. It demands that anyone standing for election or placement in another place must provide full financial disclosure, including tax returns. Is that a Bill that the Government might like to introduce, as a matter of urgency, so that we can clean up the mess that we are in?

Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important point, and the Government will have to reflect on it. The assumption has always been that people would play fair and by the rules, with everyone working to shore up confidence and trust in our democracy. I agree that we need to restore confidence: the background to the matter is our deep concern about the money—the tens of millions of pounds—that should have gone to pay taxes, but which has gone to the Conservative party instead.

May we have a debate on the desirability or otherwise of positive discrimination in the workplace? During that debate perhaps the Leader of the House will explain why she is so in favour of all-women shortlists in every single constituency around the country, apart from when her husband is seeking selection, and whether she considers that to be sleaze.

Even I am not in favour of 100 per cent. all-women shortlists, although when I see the hon. Gentleman it tempts me to think that I might be mistaken. Unlike the Conservative party, more than half our shortlists are all-women—more than half. With regard to the fewer than half of shortlists that are open shortlists, anyone can apply, both women and men. Indeed, women have been chosen from some of the open shortlists that we have had.

Order. I was probably over-generous in allowing the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to ask that question, which did not obviously relate to the business of the House next week. There have been accusations and counter-accusations of sleaze. I really think that it would be for the benefit of the House and our reputation with the electorate if we were to move on from those matters.

May we have an urgent debate next week on parliamentary language? The Clerks, one of whom I think was present, will confirm to you, Mr. Speaker, that 10 years ago, your predecessor but one accepted as parliamentary language my adumbration to Lord Sleaze of Belize. I will not use that again, but it is clear that we now have a serious problem, because what I raised 10 years ago has turned out to be true, but now the real question is the dissembling and cover-up of leaders of the Conservative party, which deeply shame our democratic parliamentary proceedings.

Order. The Leader of the House, I know, will relate her reply to whether there is a forthcoming statement or debate, or a parliamentary reference of some sort.

Once again, there is evident concern. There are questions to be answered that pertain to our democracy. They are not to be answered by the Government. The Select Committee investigation will be important, but I will think whether there is any way in which we can assist light being shed, because there are genuine concerns and fears.

Is the Leader of the House ashamed of herself for the dissembling way in which she has answered questions about the election of the Speaker following the return of Parliament? She has tabled motion 69 in her name, which is not yet available to be debated in the House. Can she assure the House that she will not withdraw—

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word “dissembling”. I have a matter of seconds ago indicated to the House that we should have seemly exchanges. That word in this context is not seemly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it and to complete his question in parliamentary language. [Interruption.] Order. That is the request, and I expect it to be honoured.

I am saying to you, Mr. Speaker, that, obviously, if you say that the word “dissembling” is non-parliamentary, I will withdraw it, but it does not alter the substance of my question to the Leader of the House. She has put down motion 69 calling for the re-election of the Speaker at the beginning of the Parliament to be with a secret ballot. She is now saying that she has no proposals to debate that or to allow a vote on it. Is she now proposing to withdraw motion 69 from the Order Paper so that we are deprived of the opportunity of voting on the first report of the Procedure Committee? If not, what will she do about it.

The motions on the Order Paper and the amendments to those motions that are for debate and decision this afternoon arise from the Wright report. If we can get on with agreeing not only the election of Deputy Speakers, but with the election of Chairs of Select Committees, the election of members of Select Committees and a new House Committee to decide Back-Bench and non-Government business, we will have done a good days’ work.

Talking about unparliamentary language, I could hear somebody behind me—I think that it might have been my Parliamentary Private Secretary—saying “He’s Chopeless.” I wonder whether that is unparliamentary.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept from me that I would like a debate on Lord Paul? I have been a friend of his and an admirer of what he has done for British business and manufacturing for many years. He has never sought control of the Labour party or influence in marginal seats. I would be happy to see a debate on a motion comparing Lord Paul with Lord Ashcroft, because I think that he would come out damned well.

There is, of course, absolutely no comparison. As I understand it, Lord Ashcroft was a British citizen, who—I will be corrected if I am wrong—left the country for tax purposes, whereas Lord Paul is an industrialist from India who has genuinely global financial interests, who has never made any dissemblance about his tax status and who never gave any assurances. The point about Lord Ashcroft is that he gave assurances in order to get into the House of Lords and then breached those assurances.

Order. We must not go further on these matters. There has been a request for a debate or a statement. That request has been answered. We move on now. I know that the House will want to hear Jo Swinson.

The Leader of the House may have seen today’s distressing reports on the BBC about the increased rate of birth defects in Falluja, which are now 13 times higher than what we see in Europe, and there is a concern that that is as a result of weapons used by the United States during the Iraq war. May we have a debate about this issue, so that we can hear from the Foreign Secretary what representations he is making to his US counterpart about this appalling legacy of the Iraq war?

There will be a debate on Monday week on defence in the world, which might be an opportunity to air those concerns.

In a further request to my right hon. and learned Friend about the need for a debate next week on the Ashcroft affair, may I suggest that if someone is not paying taxes and is giving money to the Tory party all over Britain, in essence the British taxpayer is bankrolling the Conservative party? Secondly, will she ensure that the Leader of the Tory party and the shadow Foreign Secretary are asked the appropriate questions: what did they know and when did they know it?

Order. I must ask the Leader of the House not to respond to that question. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has put his thoughts clearly on the record, but I am afraid that it is not a business question.

My Macclesfield constituency has a substantial rural area, including hill country. May I support the request made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for a debate on the rural economy and the report of the Rural Advocate? Rural areas are suffering tremendously from the closure of shops and schools, very little public transport and the withdrawal of post office facilities, and this is critical to large areas of the country. May we have a debate on it, please?

I know that the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is wider than just housing—he has mentioned schools, transport, health services and the economy—but there will be an opportunity to raise the question of housing at Communities and Local Government questions next week. One thing that has been important for the rural economy is the minimum wage, which his party opposed, and one thing that is important for the rural economy is the opportunity for people to have affordable housing, and it is often Conservative councils that oppose planning applications for affordable housing by housing associations.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend look again at the request for an early debate on the role of the Electoral Commission? If the public are to retain faith in the probity of our electoral system, we need the Electoral Commission to come under pressure to answer the questions about whether filtering central American money into political parties in this country is legitimate, both legally and morally.

It is urgent that all these points are answered, and there will be an opportunity to raise the matter in questions on the Electoral Commission next Thursday.

Before asking my question, I must point out that the Electoral Commission has just stated that Lord Ashcroft’s donations were legal and permissible.

May we have a debate on the subject of the strategic importance of oil refineries to the United Kingdom? I have just raised that matter at Business, Innovation and Skills questions without having a substantive answer. The renewable heat incentive could destroy the narrow profit margins of all oil refineries in this country. This is a non-partisan request. We all support the principle of the incentive, but we do not wish to see oil refining in this country destroyed.

Well, we have just had an Energy Bill, and that looks across a wide range of those issues. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman sought to introduce amendments or to make that point during the Bill’s proceedings, but he could look out for the next opportunity to do so in Energy and Climate Change questions.

May we have a debate on the rights of people to work after the age of retirement, at 65 years old, if they are fit and wish to do so? My right hon. and learned Friend will agree that it is wrong for employers, including the House authorities, to force people to retire. Supervisors have been telling employees in this House that they cannot work beyond 65, but who has the authority to give the supervisors the right to tell people that they cannot work beyond that age?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and no employer needs to fire people aged 60 or 65; employers can, if they want, employ people after those ages if they are fit and able to do their work. A number of private sector companies do exactly that, and he will know that we are looking into whether we should change the default retirement age, so that people are protected from unfair dismissal beyond the ages of 60 and 65. There will be questions to the House of Commons Commission next Thursday, but in the meantime I shall inquire into the matter with the House authorities. I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter to my attention.

On Monday this week, 170 families in the London borough of Sutton learned that their children will not be obtaining a high school place in the borough. At the same time they learned that 986 children from outside the borough will be taking up places in high schools in the borough. May we have a debate about early-day motion 686, on the Greenwich judgment and school admission policies?

[That this House notes that successive Government’s have rejected calls for a change in the law to reverse the effect of the Greenwich judgment on the operation of local school admission policy; is concerned that as a result of the court judgment admission authorities are not allowed to take into account administrative boundaries when allocating school places; believes that parents and children living in a local authority area should be able to expect to obtain a place at a local school in that area; and calls on the Government either to bring forward its own legislation to grant local admission authorities the discretion to give priority to the school preferences of parents resident within the local authority area or to support provisions of the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam's Fair Access to School (Admissions) Bill.]

Then we can finally ensure that the matter is sorted out. It is unfair to children in my constituency, who cannot go to schools just down the road from where they live.

There are Children, Schools and Families questions next Monday, when I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be able to obtain a specific answer on that.

My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the steel industry faces very difficult times. On Teesside, it is believed that the owner of Corus, Tata, has threatened to close our slab steel mill, which is currently mothballed. Is not it time that the House discussed the steel industry, acknowledging that it is an essential industry that has been the backbone of our manufacturing sector for more than 200 years?

I acknowledge all the points that my hon. Friend makes. She is absolutely right in how she characterises the importance of the steel industry, and I shall look for a further opportunity to debate those issues.