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Business of the House

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 25 March 2010

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 29 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 30 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill.

The business for the week commencing 5 April will include:

Tuesday 6 April—Second Reading of the Digital Economy Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Equality Bill.

Wednesday 7 April—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords].

Thursday 8 April—A general debate on international development.

Friday 9 April—The House will not be sitting.

The House is grateful for the forthcoming business.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm the worrying rumour that this is her last business questions? Does she seriously believe that on Thursday 8 April the House will debate international development, important thought that subject is?

Yesterday, why did the Chancellor fail to explain that he was freezing all personal allowances below the level of inflation, leading to a £2.2 billion stealth tax on 30 million people? When the measure was announced in the pre-Budget report, inflation was negative; now it is 3.7 per cent. That will take almost £50 out of the pockets of the lowest paid. Is that what the Government call “A Future Fair for All”?

Next Tuesday, when a Treasury Minister winds up the last day of the Budget debate, will he take the opportunity to explain why the taxman is failing to pick up the telephone? Almost 45 million people failed to get through to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs last year—with many others stuck on hold. Does the right hon. and learned Lady think that that is acceptable?

Once again, will the right hon. and learned Lady correct the record for the Prime Minister? Last week she turned down my offer of an opportunity to apologise for the Prime Minister’s inaccurate use of figures on defence spending. Now he has failed to come to the House to explain why he said on 17 March that 300,000 businesses had been supported through the recession by HMRC’s deferred payment scheme—despite the real figure being cited in a parliamentary answer as 160,000.

Can we also have a statement on freedom of information requests? The Government have done everything in their power to prevent the publication of papers relating to the Prime Minister’s decision to sell our gold reserves, as well as his disastrous raid on pensions. Yesterday, at Question Time, the Prime Minister said:

“It is a matter for the Information Commissioner”.—[Official Report, 24 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 240.]

But it is only a matter for the Information Commissioner because the Treasury has refused to make the papers available. If the Government are so relaxed, why do they not publish all that information today?

Can I press the right hon. and learned Lady again on her plans to implement the Wright Committee’s recommendations on strengthening the House, and to do so before Dissolution? I note she has tabled the Standing Orders, but they do not make it clear that topical debates score as one quarter of a day, as Wright recommended. Will she re-table the Standing Order with that amendment? Will she also sketch out the details of her plan B, which she shared with the House last week? If amendments are tabled to her Standing Orders, as they have been to the other Standing Orders, when will we debate them before Dissolution?

Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady failed to assure the House that all written questions would be answered before Dissolution. According to the parliamentary information service, more than 2,000 questions are still outstanding. Will she make sure that all Ministers respond properly by the end of the Session?

Turning to next week’s business, I note that when we agreed to adjourn next Tuesday after the Budget, we did not know that we would be debating the Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill after all the Budget votes. That Bill is an important piece of legislation, on which the Government suffered several humiliating defeats in the upper House. I note also that we will be sitting earlier that day, but would it not be better to delay the recess by one day and deal with the legislation properly on Wednesday? That would also give the House the opportunity to debate the Easter Adjournment, a debate that the right hon. and learned Lady has denied to Back Benchers, many of whom were hoping to use it as an opportunity for a valedictory speech. That extra day could also be used to debate the Standing Orders in respect of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, and of course we could have another round of Prime Minister’s questions.

Finally, given that this may be the last opportunity to reflect on the high points of this Parliament, does the right hon. and learned Lady recall her victorious deputy leadership campaign? Apparently, this was not as well received as it might have been. According to an eye-witness—one of his aides—when the Prime Minister discovered the result, “his face fell”, but

“he put his hands on my shoulders and said: ‘It will be all right. We’ll make it all right’.”

Has he made it all right?

What I have done today is to announce the business for this week and the provisional business for the week after the recess, and that is the normal way we do things. I do not confirm anything beyond what I say in the business statement.

On the Budget debate, the right hon. Gentleman will have heard that this is a Budget that helps to secure the recovery, helps to invest in industry and new jobs, helps to protect front-line public services, and helps the many, not the few. He will not have seen in the Budget an announcement that there would be cuts in inheritance tax for the top 2,000 richest families; instead, he will have seen an increase in the minimum wage and a continued commitment to tax credits. We do not need any lessons from the Opposition about fairness.

As for improving the services of HMRC, the Public Accounts Committee report came out today, and obviously we will reflect on that.

On the question of the number of businesses that have been helped by being allowed to defer paying their taxes, giving them more time to pay, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I thought that more than 200,000 businesses had been able to approach HMRC and ask to defer any of their taxes so that they could stay in business through the recession. Irrespective of the final figures—I will ensure that I give him an accurate version and place a copy in the Library—I would say very strongly that this has been part of the Government’s help to small, medium-sized and larger businesses, all of which has resulted in revenue not going into the Treasury; that has been partly why the deficit and public borrowing have increased, which was necessary to sustain businesses through the recession. Whatever the figure is, whether it is 200,000 or 300,000, it represents businesses that have been saved and jobs that have not gone down the pan, and all those things would not have happened if the Opposition were in government, because they opposed these measures.

On the Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposals, we have put on the Order Paper the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, and we will bring those forward for approval by the House on Monday. Those Standing Orders do no more, and no less, than what the House agreed to in its resolutions of 4 March, so they sit absolutely on all fours with those resolutions. Because the Standing Orders will give effect to resolutions that were agreed by the House after debates of some 10 hours—they simply put into effect the express will of the House—it is my expectation that they will be agreed without dissent. I hope that that will happen on Monday.

As regards parliamentary questions, we expect all written parliamentary questions to be answered, and we are liaising with Departments about that.

On the Personal Care at Home Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has drawn to the House’s attention the fact that, yes, there is a motion on the Order Paper for the House to sit at 11.30 am on that day rather than at the normal time. We have a short recess this time. I have set out the business on the basis that we will be coming back on the Tuesday after bank holiday Monday, which is quite an early return.

May I ask the Leader of the House when she decided to adjust the timing of next Tuesday’s sitting? Some prior consultation would have been extremely helpful, not only with other parties, but with Officers of the House and others who have to make the arrangements. It is not easy suddenly—on a whim—to change the timing of events.

I hear what the right hon. and learned Lady said about the inaccuracies in the Prime Minister’s statements. I agree with her—it was a good thing to have arrangements to help businesses through the recession, but an impressionistic, “This is a good thing” does not excuse the Prime Minister’s saying that 300,000 businesses were helped when the actual number was barely half—160,000. It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to give the House inaccurate figures. Clearly, double counting was involved, and the number of events rather than businesses was given, but let us correct the figure—let us have an opportunity to put it right.

I obviously listened carefully to the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday and I heard him announce the people’s bank proposals and say that everyone can have a basic bank account. While we are considering double counting, I wonder whether we can find time to contrast yesterday’s announcement with that by the Chancellor’s predecessor, the current Prime Minister, in the Budget speech in 2000. Following the Cruickshank review, he said that he would

“offer this basic banking service to all”.—[Official Report, 21 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 868.]

The words are almost the same, but there is an interval of 10 years between the two announcements. Can we please not have re-announcements of policies without subsequent activity?

Last week, I mentioned two important private Members’ Bills, which have a great deal of support from Members of all parties: the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, which deals with so-called vulture funds, and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. I add to that the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which is remarkable because we found an hour and a half to debate the Ways and Means motion and the money resolution on it only this week. If the Government can find time for those resolutions, surely they can make clear their intentions about providing time for those Bills to complete their passage in the House. Why must we be kept in the dark about that? Why cannot the Leader of the House tell us whether, if the Government support the measures, they will complete their progress in this House and go to another place in time for Second Reading and to be included in the wash-up?

On the Back-Bench business committee, I am told that I have a suspicious mind—I think that the right hon. and learned Lady said last week that I had problems with trust. For heaven’s sake, I trusted the Leader of the House to do what she said: consult the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and me about the content of the motions. No consultation happened. I trusted her to table them in good time to enable debate to happen in good time, yet they have finally been tabled only today. She said that they will be on the Order Paper below the line on Monday. If there is an objection on Monday, will she tell us, without prevarication, when she will allocate one and a half hours to debate them? There is no reference in what she has put on the Order Paper or in her explanatory memorandum to the House’s major decision to establish not just a Back-Bench business committee, but a House business committee. There is a motion from the Wright Committee to that effect on the Order Paper. Will the Leader of the House provide time for that?

In the past couple of years, business questions have been characterised by complaints from Opposition parties about misinformation, double counting, recycled announcements and business organised for the benefit of the Government, not the House. I hope that we can do better in the next Parliament.

The Personal Care at Home Bill, which has been through the Lords, is important, and it is right that it should come back to the House of Commons so that we can ensure that those with the greatest needs get free care in their own home. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the opportunity for the House to consider the Lords amendments.

As far as businesses are concerned, the Treasury briefing that I have here says:

“Over 200,000 businesses”—

I will get the precise figure, but it is not half of what the Prime Minister said, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested—

“employing over 1.4 million people have been helped with cash flow by spreading payment of over £5 billion in tax bills.”

That is important. I would say that the hon. Gentleman should be supporting us in allowing the deficit to rise to help businesses so that they do not go out of business. Obviously, it is important that we settle the issue of the figures, but the substantive point is that we have been helping businesses through the recession.

We have been helping not only businesses, but home owners—financial support and advice has helped 330,000 to stay in their homes. In addition to the time to pay scheme from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the car scrappage scheme, numerous other schemes have helped businesses through the recession. The Prime Minister’s record on this, bearing in mind what happened to the economy when there was an unprecedented global financial shock, is that he took action to support businesses, to support jobs, and to support people staying in their own home. Instead of carping about what the absolutely precise figure is, the hon. Gentleman should be welcoming the support that was given to businesses in his constituency and around the country. We do care about the figures, and I will get accurate figures to him, but let us just focus on the substance.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill. I reiterate what I said last week at business questions. We strongly support that Bill—there is no doubt about that—and we also strongly support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. However, for a Bill to succeed, it not only has to complete its passage in this House, but to have made some progress in the House of Lords. He knows that at this point in the Session—especially given that although we have some rudimentary control over business in this House, the Government have no control over the House of Lords and there are no timetabling procedures there—he should focus his attention, as we are, on seeking the support of the official Opposition. If they stopped their blocking of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, we could get it through—[Interruption.] They are protesting, but they objected on Third Reading, and it was the Chair of the Public Bill Committee that considered the Bill who called, “Object.” I ask the official Opposition to get their Members to stop blocking the Bill. If it is the official Opposition’s position, they should unblock the Bill.

As for the proposals from the Wright Committee—the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons—if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome thinks there is something about the Standing Orders that we have drafted and that have been on the Order Paper for a number of days—[Interruption.] It is a consultation, because it is actually on the Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman can look at it, and if he thinks that the Standing Orders do not reflect the will of the House—if he thinks they go further or do less than that—he can come and ask me to re-table them in the form that he believes will accurately express that. However, I do not think that he will do so, because the Standing Orders have been drafted exactly to express the will of the House.

The point is that we are not having further decision making on this; we are having enactment. Therefore, we have made it clear what we are doing. If there are any technical objections that we have not done enough or that we have done too much, that is fine, but I do not think that that will be case. We have tried completely and faithfully to put into Standing Orders the resolutions of the House. They will be going forward, but not until Monday, at which point the House should approve them. The hon. Gentleman should be directing his attention to working to ensure that this House seizes the opportunity of completing the process of reform by getting the Standing Orders agreed on Monday.

Order. Twenty-six 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, brevity must be the order of the day.

It is obvious that we are not going to have time to give the normal scrutiny that we should to the Digital Economy Bill on Second Reading. As someone who is broadly supportive of that Bill, may I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I am concerned that it will be rushed through—it involves some very complex issues—on the basis of a deal between Front Benchers?

The Ministers responsible for the Bill are well aware of the concerns that have been raised, not least on many occasions in business questions. They are well aware of the importance of the measure. It is my responsibility at this point simply to announce that Second Reading will be on 6 April, but I can assure my hon. Friend and hon. Members that Ministers are aware of the points that are being made.

It is widely reported that the sudden, tragic death of 24-year-old Lois Waters from Norton-on-Derwent in my constituency may be linked to that young woman taking this terrible drug, mephedrone. I am sure the House would want to join me in sending condolences to her family and friends. If, because of lack of time, we cannot have a statement on the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—I understand that such a report is about to be presented to Ministers—can the Leader of the House ensure that the advice of Professor Iversen and the council is published, so that voters will know which political party is going to take action on that appalling drug?

I join the hon. Gentleman in sending my condolences to the family of his constituent. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, just because something has yet to be banned does not make it safe. It is very important that the warning goes out to all young people that they should not be taking mephedrone. As far as the advice is concerned, it is being brought forward expeditiously. The Government will consider it expeditiously and make our decision clear soon, but I think it is important in the meantime for us all to be warning young people that just because mephedrone is yet to be banned does not mean it is safe.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Sure Start children’s centres have been one of the most transformational aspects of policy in recent years? There are now 3,500 in this country. The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families will publish a report on this very subject next week. Is there a way for us to have a short debate to focus on that, because I think that people in this country ought to know what the attitudes of all the political parties are to the maintenance of such a wonderfully transformational policy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that the Select Committee that he leads has been doing on Sure Start children’s centres and the emphasis that it has put—for a long period of time—on early years. Not only are there clear educational benefits from good early-years provision, which is what Sure Start children’s centres provide, but they are absolutely what parents want. They want to see their children happy, safe and developing well in the children’s centres. On the conclusion of the Budget debate on Tuesday 30 March, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will be speaking, and there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to speak in that debate or to intervene on the Secretary of State.

However, I would say this to my hon. Friend: whatever the Conservatives say about Sure Start children’s centres—especially in the run-up to an election—I would not trust them as far as I could throw them on the question of protecting children. When they were in government, they did nothing for child care. They have all the way moaned that it is about political correctness and that it is undermining the traditional wife-at-home scenario. They have never supported this agenda, but they have been caught out because it is what the public want. The Conservatives cannot be trusted on this.

Notwithstanding Government spin, does not the Leader of the House accept that the freezing of personal allowances will hit the poorest and the low earners the hardest?

I think that what really matters to people are tax credits, the minimum wage, the opportunity to have and keep a job, and that we make sure that this economy keeps growing and that we tackle unemployment. All those things will help people, unlike the only tax commitment from the official Opposition, which is to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest together with cutting tax credits and cutting child trust funds.

May we have an early debate on the expenses of Members of the European Parliament, because Mr. Nick Griffin, the well known racist and anti-Semite, has already trousered several hundred thousand pounds, which have disappeared we know not where, to promote his noxious creed, and because the £2 million that Mr. Nigel Farage boasted on television about claiming in expenses last year are still totally unaccounted for? We need transparency, and certainly in the case of Mr. Farage we need a full investigation and audit so that we can know where some of our taxpayers’ money has disappeared to.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This is all public money and the public should be concerned if it is being misused. I will take the opportunity to get the relevant Minister to write to him, and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library. No doubt my right hon. Friend will place it in the public domain.

Why can we not have a proper day on Tuesday, sit on Wednesday and have the Adjournment, and thus give proper time to the Personal Care at Home Bill? That would be entirely in accord with the wishes of most Members.

Well, on Tuesday, we have the conclusion of the Budget debate, which will be opened by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and closed by the Chief Secretary. After that, we will have time for consideration of Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill, and that is a good form for business before the House rises for the recess.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill is down for consideration today with an amendment that the sponsoring Member has tried to withdraw—although it was not selected for consideration in any case? Will that count as an objection and prevent the Bill from going into wash-up? If so, will she have urgent discussions with the Opposition business managers to ensure that the Bill can reach the statute book before the election? That would go a long way to restore the confidence of much of the public not just in one party or another, but in the proper working of this Parliament.

We strongly support that private Member’s Bill, but without the support of the Opposition we cannot get it through this House and the Lords. If they will give that support, we will do everything that we can to give it a fair wind. I would support my hon. Friend’s efforts to ensure that the Opposition are put on the spot as they hold the key to unblocking the progress of this Bill.

May I ask the next Leader of the Opposition whether we may have a statement next week on the failure of the Chancellor to freeze personal tax allowances, which is the biggest rise in the Budget—although he did not mention that—and will affect the poorest people in our society? May I suggest that that statement is entitled “We can’t go on like this: it’s time for change”?

The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to amplify all these points as the Budget debate proceeds, not only this afternoon—led by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions—but on Monday and Tuesday next week.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing forward the order on the Back-Bench business committee. I also thank her for her general role in enabling this process to be carried forward to a successful conclusion. This has not been a happy Parliament, but we can at least claim that we have laid the foundation for a slightly happier one next time.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there will be an opportunity for some consultation on the detail of what she proposes? Will the House have an opportunity to come to a decision on this on Monday?

It is my intention that the House should have an opportunity to agree the Standing Orders on Monday. I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the precise form of the Standing Orders. I have tabled a written ministerial statement today, and my hon. Friend has tabled a motion on the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders that I have tabled differ from his in respect of the process for the election of Members to the committee, the process for the adoption of the agenda, the number of allotted days, topical debates, Westminster Hall and private Members’ Bills, but I have set out in my statement why the Standing Orders that I have tabled give effect to the resolution of the House, whereas his motion would differ from and go beyond it. It is fine for him to table such a motion, but not for me, and I hope that we will obtain the House’s approval on Monday.

I thank my hon. Friend for his role in bringing this forward. I am confident that we will make further progress on Monday, but even without doing so, we have already made a great deal of progress. I thank him and the members of his Committee for that.

Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on counter-terrorism policy and human rights? Does she note that it calls for a fundamental parliamentary review of counter-terrorism laws passed since 2001, and does she agree that it is not a review that is needed but the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, and a re-evaluation of the European convention on human rights, to protect the British people from terrorist acts and so that we have British laws for British judges? If necessary, we should abolish the Committee that produced this report.

We strongly support the Human Rights Act which we introduced and which gives legal rights to people in this country if their rights under the European convention on human rights—to which we have signed up—are breached, and it allows them to go to court. That is a reassurance that when this House decides that it needs to pass laws to ensure that people are protected from terrorism, those laws do not breach individuals’ human rights. That is what the Act guarantees. We always consider legislation carefully, but we also have the failsafe of matching it against the Act. Indeed, on many occasions, laws that we have passed have been subject to scrutiny in the courts for compliance with the Act. In addition, Lord Carlile reviews terrorism laws on an ongoing basis. We have to respect people’s rights, but also ensure that this country is safe.

Following my right hon. and learned Friend’s positive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, can she say whether she has received any approach from the shadow Leader of the House, whose garrulous ramblings failed significantly and deplorably even to refer to the Bill, to say that the Opposition—a member of whom blocked the Bill—will now co-operate in both Houses to make this desirable legislation law by the Dissolution?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. It is not good enough for the shadow Leader of the House to nod that he supports the Bill: he needs to sort the situation out on his side. The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill are important Bills. The Opposition say that they support them, so they should get their act together and stop these Bills being blocked.

The UK Border Agency kindly has a hotline for Members of Parliament and their staff to use to take up cases. May I write to the right hon. and learned Lady to demonstrate that, increasingly, when we telephone the hotline, staff just say that they cannot help us? An ever-increasing number of immigration cases therefore end up in permanent limbo in the system. That is very cruel to the constituents concerned and very frustrating for their parliamentary representatives who cannot do more for them.

This issue is kept under continuous review by Ministers in the Home Office. Indeed, as a constituency MP I have much experience myself of the Members’ hotline and I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s depiction of it. There has been a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to determine cases. No one wants constituents to be left in limbo and subject to uncertainty. The time taken has been dramatically reduced, and I pay tribute to the helpline whose staff do everything they can to help us to help our constituents.

It now seems likely that the two Opposition Front-Bench teams will have as much influence on the outcome of the Digital Economy Bill as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. If they allow their shadow Ministers to collude with the music industry to bounce through complex copyright proposals in the wash-up, they will be enabling a democratic impropriety to take place. Will she work with business managers to bang some heads together in Departments?

My hon. Friend has aired concerns that have been aired by other hon. Friends and across the House. I am sure that they will have been heard by Ministers, but if they have not, I will bring them to their attention.

May I be very gracious, speaking from the Opposition Benches, and thank the right hon. and learned Lady for honouring her response to me last week when I asked her a question about the Falkland Islands? The Minister responsible at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has seen me and said that a letter is on its way to me.

My question to the Leader of the House is a very simple one: she has announced the business, including a debate the week after next on international development. Will she try to ensure that it goes ahead, not just for those of us who are leaving the House, but because it will give me an opportunity to raise matters relating to the continuing problems in Zimbabwe, for which this country is uniquely responsible?

As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, I announced the provisional business for the week commencing 5 April, including a general debate on international development. Over the past five or 10 years, this has been a commitment at the heart of the Government, from having created a Department for International Development—there was not one when we entered government—to doubling aid and putting the question of development, particularly of Africa, at the heart of the international political agenda. I hope that we will have our debate on Thursday 8 April. That aside, however, a great deal has been done on international development, and I pay tribute to the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that respect.

May we have an early statement on the suspension by Justice Ministers of the Cartel claims handling company, which has milked about £20 million off the public and done very little work for it? It has refused to refund most of the money that it has taken. In particular, will the question about whether there should be an investigation into possible fraudulent activity by Carl Wright, the managing director, and his associates be part of that statement?

Any allegations of fraudulent activity will obviously be a matter for investigation by the police. However, it is important that the Ministry of Justice, in its scrutiny of claims handling, can ensure that we protect claimants from bogus claims-handling services and that we can also protect those against whom spurious claims are made.

May we have an early debate entitled “The Wash-up Period”? That would enable right hon. and hon. Members to express the view that during the wash-up period, we should not be enacting legislation that has not been fully discussed in both Houses.

The wash-up period allows there to be agreement between the Government and the Opposition. With those Bills that have been agreed on in the House of Commons, which have gone through their first, or all their stages in the Lords, and which have had their first-level agreement in the House of Commons, the choice remains of whether they should be left by the wayside or whether agreement can be reached to make progress on them. That is the process undergone. It is a very exceptional process that happens only at the end of the Parliament. I cannot really add further to that.

May we have a debate on benefits for pensioners throughout the UK? One of the many achievements of this Government has been free bus travel for pensioners, but I am reliably informed that if the Opposition ever get into power, they will refuse to retain that service.

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The truth is that the Opposition seem to find plenty of money to give tax cuts to the wealthiest, but have never been interested in free bus travel for pensioners. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that he will continue with the winter fuel payment for another year. That will be very important to my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine, and to pensioners throughout the country.

I had always assumed that the Leader of the House was in favour of our freedom of information legislation, so why did she not answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and say that the relevant Departments will now no longer block the requests concerning the selling of the gold and the effect on pensioners of taxation under the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will she give an absolute guarantee that those Departments will now withdraw their objections and stop blocking our freedom of information requests?

The Prime Minister answered that question at the Dispatch Box yesterday. On pensions, however, I would like to say that when we came into government we had to deal with the massive problem of pensioner poverty. Since we have been in government, pensioners have no longer been what they used to be—most likely to be the poorest members of society. Along with tackling child poverty, we have done a great deal to tackle pensioner poverty. Indeed, for pensions of the future, we have ensured that there is an opportunity for employees to pay in, as well as requirements and obligations on employers to pay.

Baroness Deech gave a lecture last week on the negative impact on children born of first cousin marriages, so would now not be an appropriate time to have a full and frank debate on the subject, which might encourage health authorities to publicise their genetic screening and counselling facilities?

There has been a lot of debate on this subject, and my hon. Friend has played a leading part in that. There are Health questions next week, which no doubt will be an opportunity for her to air the matter with the Secretary of State for Health.

Will the Leader of the House agree, in light of yesterday’s Budget debate, and given the important responsibilities of the House, that Members might be aided by having access to a Bloomberg terminal, bearing in mind the financial analytics, comprehensive news service and ease of access to economic figures that it provides?

I understand that the director general of information services has written to the hon. Gentleman regarding that issue and said, in that letter, that the

“Department of Information Services subscribes to a wide range of electronic services to support the House and individual Members in the conduct of their parliamentary duties”.

Although there are no current plans to introduce Bloomberg, staff in the Library are always happy to help hon. Members with requests for specific information.

In my right hon. and learned Friend’s role as one of the primary defenders of the democracy of the House, would she personally be content if the highly controversial Digital Economy Bill, much influenced by lobbyists during its passage through another place, were to be rushed through this elected House of Commons on Easter Tuesday—a day, my sources tell me, when hon. Members might well have other things on their minds—and then rushed through all its final stages in a couple of hours the following day, without proper scrutiny?

I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend: obviously we want proper scrutiny when passing Bills that have a level of technical complexity, such as the Digital Economy Bill. However, I know that he will agree that it is very important that we have the right sort of regulation for an industry that is important not only to lobbyists, but to the music, film and other creative industries. There are digital issues more widely, and others relating to access to fast broadband—all those issues about the economy of the future—and this Bill will play a part in ensuring that we have the right framework for those jobs in the future.

The Leader of the House will be aware that I have been championing in the House, for many years, the cause of men’s health and, in particular, prostate cancer care. I was assured in 1998 that the Government were committed to seeking to provide equal access to high-quality services in this area. Does she agree that the Government have failed to deliver on this and that the opportunity has been wasted to put prostate cancer care on a par with that for other cancers?

There has been a massive effort to improve cancer treatment, and mortality in respect of cancer has fallen. We are building on that with a guarantee for every individual for the period after they see their GP, but before they get to see a specialist oncologist. As well as the investment that we are putting into the health service, those guarantees for people who suspect that they have cancer—guarantees that the official Opposition would abolish—will be very important indeed. I recognise the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in raising awareness, and improving diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, and I suggest that he raise the issue with the Secretary of State for Health on Monday in Health questions.

Can we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Given that paediatric services, and accident and emergency services at the Princess Royal hospital remain under threat, why did the Government announce yesterday that they were taking £4 billion out of the NHS budget? Is it not now clear for everybody to see that the NHS is not safe in Labour’s hands?

Hon. Members, and indeed everybody in the public, will have heard our absolute commitment to primary health care, hospital services and community health care. We have transformed the NHS since we have been in government, and people will know that they can judge us on our record. People will also remember what the NHS was like when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government. Indeed, I can remember visiting Guy’s hospital and talking to a cardiac surgeon, who showed me an operating list on the wall, with names and addresses of my constituents on it, and told me, “20 per cent. of those people will die before they’re operated on, because there’s not enough investment in the NHS.” That does not happen anymore. We will of course continue to improve the NHS, but one thing that could never help it is the election of a Conservative Government.

The Leader of the House will have seen my early-day motions in 2007-08 and 2008-09 that sought to stop MPs abusing their expenses and second jobs. Even now, can we plan to meet in the House on 31 March to debate the matter and press forward on the remaining, much-needed changes to the House? [Interruption.] As the Conservative party is shouting out at me, can we also include party political funding and Belize in that debate?

I gave a statement on that issue on Monday, and there has been much debate in this House about Lord Ashcroft and the apparent failure to abide by the reassurances that he gave in order to get into the House of Lords. However, I am afraid that this is not a matter for me; it is a matter of unanswered questions by the leadership of the Conservative party.