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Business of the House

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 9 September 2010

The business for the week commencing 13 September will include:

Monday 13 September—Second Reading of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill.

Tuesday 14 September—Second Reading of the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill, followed by motion relating to the House of Commons Commission.

Wednesday 15 September—Motion to approve Ways and Means resolutions on which a Finance Bill will be introduced, followed by remaining stages of the Identity Documents Bill.

Thursday 16 September—General debate on the strategic defence and security review and future of the UK’s armed forces. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 11 October will include:

Monday 11 October—Second Reading of the Finance (No. 2) Bill.

Tuesday 12 October—Proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Day 1).

Wednesday 13 October—Remaining stages of the Superannuation Bill, followed by, the Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 14 October—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

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

Monday 18 October—Proceedings on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill (Day 2).

Colleagues will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Christmas recess on Tuesday 21 December 2010 and return on Monday 10 January 2011.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 September will be:

Thursday 16 September—A debate on the international year of biodiversity.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our condolences to the Prime Minister on the recent death of his father.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business. On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I, too, offer our sincere condolences to the Prime Minister and his family at this very sad time.

As the Leader of the House knows, a number of Ministers made announcements during the recess that should properly have been made in the House, and they have since had to be rather dragged here to explain what they have been up to. We know that the Secretary of State for Education likes quite a few goes at getting his figures right, not least when he is announcing cancelled school building projects, but the Opposition are incredulous that after all the hype and kerfuffle the figures he finally released for free schools and academies were only 16 and 32. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether he has been asked to find time for a statement—maybe two or three statements—so that the Secretary of State for Education can confirm that he has not got into another muddle and that the figures he has come up with are indeed accurate?

Given the speech made by the Deputy Prime Minister this morning, presumably in response to the BBC reporting of the effects of the cuts on the regions, is the Leader of the House expecting a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister so that he can confirm that under the Labour Government £1.5 billion per year was to be made available to the regions through the regional development agencies, whereas under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government the regional growth fund is £1 billion over two years? In anyone’s language this is not extra support for the regions, it is a massive cut, and the Deputy Prime Minister should admit that to the House.

With regard to the allocation of time for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, can the Leader of the House tell us whether he thinks there will be adequate time to put right the abject failure of the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why public inquiries into parliamentary constituency changes are to be abolished? It was fairly clear on Monday that the Deputy Prime Minister has employed the services of the Tory grandee “Sir Gerry Mander” as his special adviser, but surely even he must realise that removing the right of local people to have a say in constituency boundaries is not only wrong in principle, but will lead to endless expensive judicial reviews in the courts.

We now have clear advice from the Clerk of the House that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill is similarly ill thought-out and will also end up being challenged in the courts. Those two Bills are prime examples of the betrayal of the promise of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government to have pre-legislative scrutiny wherever possible. Worse than that, they are in the first case anti-democratic and in the second case unworkable. The only thing the Leader of the House should do is withdraw those Bills, go back to the drawing board and come back with legislation that respects our democracy and respects Parliament. I urge him to do so.

I thank the right hon. Lady for what she said at the beginning of her remarks. I know the Prime Minister will be reassured by what the whole House has said.

On statements, the code that the right hon. Lady refers to says that while the House is sitting statements of major changes in policy should first be made to the House. We propose to adhere to that policy. It does not apply, of course, when the House is not sitting, when the business of government continues. We also went out of our way to bring before Parliament as many statements as we could before the House adjourned for the summer recess. Unlike the previous Government we have brought the House back in September so that we are held properly to account and we do not have the very long recesses she enjoyed when she was a Minister.

On academies, I should hope that the right hon. Lady would congratulate the Government on the swift progress that the Secretary of State for Education has made in getting the Academies Bill through the House and academies up and running. More than 200 schools will become academies this year, and that compares with the four years that it took to open the first 30 academies and the five years that it took to open 15 city technology colleges. More than 200 schools are in the pipeline to become academies, so, far from decrying the slow progress she should welcome the swift, ambitious progress that this Government have made to bring higher standards of education to the nation’s children.

On regional development, I hope that the right hon. Lady heard what the mayor of Middlesbrough said on the “Today” programme. He made it absolutely clear that over the past 15 years his city had become over-dependent on public expenditure, and he was determined to rebalance the city’s economy. He was not asking for huge sums of Government money; he recognised that it was up to himself and the citizens of Middlesbrough to rebuild the economy so that it was less dependent on public sector expenditure. On top of the £1 billion growth fund, there are the incentives, through the national insurance rebates, for new businesses to relocate to those areas that benefit from the scheme.

On the programme motion, I am astounded that the right hon. Lady says that seven days—seven days!—on the Floor of the House for the boundaries Bill is not adequate. We had one day on the alternative vote under the previous Government; we are giving seven days on AV and boundaries. I am absolutely convinced that, in the five days on Report and the two days on remaining stages, she will have ample time to press the Government on the issues that she raised, such as the timetable for inquiries.

Finally, I welcome the fact that the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is looking at the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, and I, like the right hon. Lady, have seen the evidence that the Clerk of the House gave to the Committee. I assume that the Committee, later on in its inquiry, will invite Ministers also to give evidence, so that they can respond. There will be an opportunity on Monday, when we have the Bill’s Second Reading, for Ministers to respond to the points that have been made, and I just remind the right hon. Lady that Professor Robert Hazell said:

“A related question is whether there could be recourse to the courts to enforce the requirements of a fixed term law. The probability is that they would consider the issue to be non-justiciable; an obligation to be enforced in the political but not the legal sphere.”

This may disappoint the right hon. Lady, but the Government have no intention whatever of withdrawing either Bill. We believe that they are in the long-term interest of the country, and we will get them through both Houses as soon as we can.

Order. There is important Back-Bench business to follow and real pressure on time, so I issue an appeal, beyond the ordinary appeal, for brevity if we are to maximise the number of contributors. A fine example of that brevity is to be provided, first, by Mr Edward Leigh.

Traditionally, Conservative Governments have never programmed constitutional measures, and, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has made clear, there was savage programming during the previous Parliament. He has allowed seven days, but can he give an assurance that the Government will use their best endeavours to ensure that all the most important points are covered, and in particular that there is time to debate and vote on thresholds?

Having allocated seven days for consideration of the Bill, I very much hope that the House will use that time intelligently. It would of course be open to the Government, if that were the wish of the House, to ensure that we reached certain matters by including programme motions. We are reluctant to do that at this stage. We believe that the House will use the seven days intelligently and to best advantage. If there is any sign of mischief and any determined efforts to slow down progress, we will of course have to think again.

The Leader of the House was uncharacteristically dismissive of the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) about the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill, which we will debate on Monday. Does he genuinely, when he is in his more reflective mode, not think that there is a very strong case for the pre-legislative scrutiny of a measure that, at the very least, is controversial and, at worst, might end up placing the fate of any given Parliament in the hands of the judiciary? Surely that cannot be right.

I very much hope that against the background of the timetable that I have outlined, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee will have time to complete its inquiry and report to the House on the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill. I welcome the fact that it is conducting this inquiry, and I am sure that it will inform our debate. I am committed to draft legislation. However, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands that at the beginning of a new Parliament, with a new Government, it is not possible, if one is to make progress, to put everything in draft, particularly when commitments have been made to do certain things by a certain time. Those political imperatives sometimes override the ambition that both he and I have to subject all Bills to draft scrutiny.

During the recess, BBC South East reported on bogus charity collectors operating in my constituency. Given the growing, serious and organised nature of this crime, which deprives charities of millions of pounds a year, may I draw the Leader of House’s attention to early-day motion 689?

[That this House condemns the activities of fraudulent charity clothing bag collectors who abuse the goodwill of those who donate clothes for good causes; recognises that this organised crime is becoming a nationwide issue; expresses concern that these activities undermine the valuable work of genuine charities, depriving them of millions of pounds worth of donations per annum; and calls on the Government to ensure that local police authorities tackle the criminal gangs responsible and facilitate the strict enforcement of the House to House Collection Act 1939 and punishment of those found in breach of the Act.]

Will the Leader of the House consider allocating parliamentary time for an urgent debate on this issue?

I commend my hon. Friend on her initiative in tabling this EDM and drawing to the wider public attention the activities of criminal gangs who are not only defrauding legitimate charities of income but casting a question mark over the authenticity of genuine collections because of the bogus ones. The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee will have heard her plea for parliamentary time. In the meantime, I hope that the police and local authorities’ trading standards officers will give this activity the attention it deserves.

Further to the announcement of the next slot of Back-Bench business on 14 October, is the Leader of the House aware that, for the first time as a Backbench Business Committee, we will be taking representations from Back Benchers directly and in public on Wednesday 15 September—next Wednesday—at 5 pm? May I take this opportunity to urge all Members to make direct representations to the Committee so that we can determine what topic is most suitable for debate on that day?

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, who is acting as a lightning conductor for the many bids that I get to find time for debates. I welcome this initiative. I hope that she can write to hon. Members as well as making that statement in the House. I congratulate her on the innovative way in which she is chairing her Committee and broadening to a wider public the discussion about what issues should be debated.

Although the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill seeks to determine the length of future Parliaments, will the Leader of the House please confirm that if the Bill is passed the ensuing Act will have no special status and could in fact be repealed by a future Parliament?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. No Parliament can bind its successor, and it would be open to any new Parliament to repeal legislation that had been passed by this one.

In view of the impact of spending cuts on boroughs like mine, which was mentioned on the wireless today arising from a survey which had been undertaken—[Laughter.] There is nothing amusing about imposing spending cuts on those with the lowest incomes and the impact that it is having not only in my borough but throughout the west midlands. Would it not be right to have a debate as quickly as possible on this subject? Once again, a Tory Government are attacking the very people with the lowest incomes. It is disgraceful, and the spending cuts should certainly be reconsidered.

Of course I understand the strong feelings that the hon. Gentleman expresses. The Government are determined to protect the most vulnerable from the difficult decisions that we are going to have to take—decisions made necessary by the activities of a Government whom he supported.

Mrs Ashtiani is still languishing, four years on, in a jail in Iran. She has endured 99 lashes. Will the Leader of the House give us time for a debate to discuss her plight in the wake of the excellent motion in the European Parliament, which was carried 668 to nil in support of Mrs Ashtiani? Can we have a debate to discuss her plight and human rights in Iran more generally?

The hon. Gentleman draws a very serious issue to the House’s attention. He may have seen the Foreign Secretary’s statement, which made it absolutely clear that we deplore the actions of the Iranian Government in proposing to execute that lady. I hope that there may be time, through either the Backbench Business Committee, questions or the activity of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to add weight to the representations that have already been made, and I know that everybody in the House hopes that the life of that lady may be spared.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the continuing problems that parents with care have in obtaining child maintenance from some absent parents who are self-employed or company directors and are able to reduce their income artificially. May we have a debate on what more can be done to tackle that problem, and particularly on what changes are necessary to the application and determination procedure in the Child Support (Variations) Regulations 2000?

I think every hon. Member hears cases at their advice bureau in which an absent parent is accused of under-declaring their income, and if they are self-employed it is very difficult for the Child Support Agency or its successor organisation to verify that. That results in real hardship for the parent with the children. One possible way forward is that the new Select Committee on Work and Pensions may wish to revisit the subject. Alternatively, if the Backbench Business Committee receives sufficient representations, it may wish to find time for a debate. The subject for 14 October has not yet been allocated. I agree entirely that the issue needs to be addressed, because it comes up in all our advice bureaux.

May we have a debate on houses in multiple occupation? Three years ago, in a debate in Westminster Hall, I expressed my concern about the potential for fire in such properties, and sadly last weekend my worst fears were realised when a mother and her three-year-old daughter burned to death in my constituency. From 1 October, the Government intend to give local authorities greater latitude in granting such properties. Can the Leader of the House reassure me and the House that, when that is done, there will be no compromise on safety?

I was very sorry to hear of the loss of life in Milton Keynes over the weekend. There will be housing legislation, which may provide an opportunity to revisit the issue. In the meantime, as a former Housing Minister, I would say that we do not want to do anything that makes life in HMOs more dangerous.

I, too, listened this morning to the BBC’s announcement of the findings of its study carried out by Experian, on my digital radio. I was extremely concerned about the impact of those findings and should like to add weight to the request for the Leader of the House to make time for an extremely important and urgent debate on the issue, because the study showed clearly that the Government’s programme of cuts will have a disparate impact on regions such as my own, the north-east.

I understand the hon. Lady’s strong feelings about her constituency. The best response I can give is that there will be a statement on 20 October on the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, and I imagine that there will be a debate on it. That will provide the right opportunity for her to share her concerns with the House and for the Government to respond to them, when we have the facts before us on exactly which programmes are being maintained and which are being reduced.

Will my right hon. Friend see what can be done to have a debate to discuss the serious problems of doctors’ hours and of the training programmes for nurses, teachers and many others, which are clearly not satisfactory?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. He may have seen a series of articles in The Times that have vividly illustrated the problems that face us. We are well aware of the concern about the effect on postgraduate medical training of implementing the European working time directive, and in the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to limiting the application of the EWTD in the UK. Negotiations will start early next year, and the Department of Health and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will adopt a robust negotiating position.

May we have a debate on what is now known as the Cyprus problem? The Prime Minister met the Turkish authorities recently and spoke warmly about their ambition to join the European Union, but he forgot to mention Turkey’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus. A debate would provide an ideal opportunity to remind both our own Government and the Turkish Government of their responsibilities should they wish to join the EU.

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. I do not know whether he will have an opportunity to raise it at Foreign Office questions, but I am sure that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee will have heard his bid for a debate on that serious issue.

Many new Members have entered the House since the climate change talks in Copenhagen. When may we have a debate on proposals for the Mexico conference later this year, so that the Government’s negotiations can be informed by Members at an early stage?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really serious point and an important bid. If he is not doing anything on Wednesday at 5 o’clock, he might like to present himself to the Committee of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and repeat his eloquent plea for a debate well in time before that conference takes place.

Throughout the general election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister campaigned against the irresponsibly swift and deep public spending cuts that his Government are now pursuing. In June, he said that he had changed his mind as the result of a conversation with the Governor of the Bank of England after the general election, but during the recess it transpired in a BBC documentary that he had in fact changed his mind before the general election. May we have a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister to explain why he did not think the electorate were entitled to know his change of position before the general election?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s allegation that the Deputy Prime Minister misled anybody in any way during the election campaign. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister explain that the events in Greece, for example, changed his perception of the right thing to do for the UK economy. In any case, he appears regularly at the Dispatch Box and I am sure he would be only too anxious to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.

Will the Leader of the House consider a fuller debate on covert surveillance, following my early-day motion 697?

[That this House is concerned by the moral hazard involved in covert surveillance by local councils; regrets that this was enabled and encouraged by the previous Labour Government’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000; notes that freedom of information requests by the organisation BigBrotherWatch have revealed that in the last two years alone, local councils have carried out over 8,500 separate covert surveillance operations under this legislation, which is equal to over 11 new surveillance operations every day; further notes that the previous Labour Government encouraged this through deliberate policy, and thereby created a culture of surveillance, where an individual's right to privacy was significantly eroded; and therefore welcomes the new Government as it stands firm in restoring Britain's ancient freedoms and civil liberties.]

Research by Big Brother Watch has shown that local councils have authorised more than 8,500 covert surveillance operations in the past two years, using the previous Government’s legislation. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the House is to debate surveillance, we should discuss the major and real threats to our civil liberties?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that. It is important that surveillance powers are used proportionately and for the purposes for which they were designed. The Government are committed to reviewing counter-terrorism and security powers, and later in the Session there will be a so-called freedom Bill, which will provide a proper opportunity to examine how local authorities are using those powers and, if necessary, curtail them.

I am sure the whole House will share my concern about the plans of the Rev. Terry Jones of the Dove World outreach centre in Florida to organise a public burning of the Koran on Saturday. Might we expect a Government statement along the lines of that of the US Government, condemning that action?

I cycled into Parliament this morning only to be greeted by the sight of yet another protester who had breached security and remains, as we speak, on the scaffolding on the side of the building. I then approached the police who were standing underneath and asked why an arrest had not been made. They gave that ubiquitous British justification for inertia—health and safety. I then offered to go up myself and make a citizen’s arrest, and was told to move on or I would be arrested. It is a strange day indeed in Parliament when an MP is threatened with arrest while a protestor sits on our roof having breached security. May we have a statement on the security priorities for this House?

I commend my hon. Friend for his robust response to the constabulary. Had he been arrested, all sorts of issues might have been raised if he was going about his parliamentary duties. I very much regret that there has been another breach of security in the Palace. I understand that the police are doing what they can to remove the placards and protestors, but obviously they want to do so without injury if they can.

Might time be found for a debate, in either Government or Back-Bench time, to raise awareness among all our constituents of the housing benefit reductions, and especially the change coming in next October? Although it might sound like a complex change to move from setting the rate at the 50th percentile of regional rent to the 30th, nearly 6,000 of my constituents will have a sudden cut in their housing benefit, with massive implications for homelessness and disruption.

As a former Housing Minister, I am of course concerned about what the hon. Gentleman says. The fact is that in 2004-05, expenditure on housing benefit was £10 billion. If no action were taken, that would go up to £20 billion within 10 years. That is simply unsustainable, as is the fact that people can claim and are claiming £100,000 a year in housing benefit. At the moment, working families, through their taxes, pay the housing benefit of families who live in better-quality accommodation. That is also unsustainable, which is why we are introducing proposals to restrain the increase in housing benefit, but there will be discretionary payments and transitional arrangements. There will be an opportunity to debate the matter at greater length when legislation is before the House.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the situation in Parliament square? Apart from the protester on the pavement, when will the rest of the square be cleared of demonstrators and when will it be open to the public?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the current position is unsatisfactory. Although the protesters have been moved from the square, they are now encamped on the pavement, which is unacceptable and unsustainable. I accept the right to protest, but we cannot have permanent encampments on the pavement. Legislation will be introduced following discussions with Westminster city council and the Metropolitan police in order to put that right. I hope that the legislation introduced by this Government succeeds where that introduced by the previous Government manifestly failed.

When do the Government intend to proceed with their ridiculous proposal to give away or privatise the whole of Royal Mail? Will he indicate to the House that no statement will be made by any Minister outside the House on such a decision until such time as the House has been informed?

There will be proposals for legislation on Royal Mail. I cannot give a specific guarantee on exactly when those will be made, but of course I will seek to do what I can to ensure that the House is sitting when that happens.

My hon. Friend is aware that one of the biggest infrastructure projects in this country—the Hinkley Point nuclear power station—is about to begin in my constituency. However, there is an anomaly in planning legislation, namely the Government’s ability to help us on planning gain for local communities. We are on phase 2 of the discussions at the moment, and my worry is that unless that is sorted out, when every major infrastructure in this country goes before the Infrastructure Planning Commission, local communities will say, “We don’t want this project because of the anomaly in getting money for the local area.”

My hon. Friend raises an important but rather technical point about the IPC, which I think we are going to abolish. I should like to raise the issue that he mentioned with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and urge the latter to give a swift response.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton), we need an urgent debate on Building Schools for the Future. The problem has been rumbling on for three months, and I have seven cancelled projects in my constituency. This is not a party political issue because it affects those on both sides of the House. I suspect that the Leader of the House, who has always demonstrated a lot of faith in this place, also wants a debate.

To some extent, the future of that programme is tied up with the comprehensive spending review, but the Select Committee on Education is holding an investigation into BSF. That might be the right vehicle by which the hon. Gentleman can pursue his interest.

There is concern on both sides of the House about human trafficking. Women are trafficked into our country, forced into prostitution and kept like slaves by pimps. It is therefore astonishing and distressing that the Government have refused to opt in to a European directive to combat that horrendous crime. Will the Leader of the House therefore grant a debate on that modern form of slavery?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern, but I think I am right in saying that the Home Secretary responded to exactly that point just a few days ago. She said that what really mattered was the legislation in this country rather than automatically following what the EU has prescribed. She gave a robust response and made it absolutely clear that that activity is unacceptable, and that we will do all we can to stop it.

I am pleased with the appointment of the new trade Minister, Mr Green, and hope that he will focus on exports to the middle east, where there are huge opportunities for British firms. However, may we have a debate specifically on how Parliament, Members of Parliament and the Government can help small and medium-sized businesses to export?

I, too, welcome the appointment of the new trade Minister. I am not sure whether the Government can find time for a debate, but my hon. Friend has had remarkable success—if I may say so—in his bids for debates in Westminster Hall, and he might like to try his luck again on that one.

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the future of the BBC World Service, and in particular on the future of the BBC Russian Service? It has not been above criticism in the past, but if it were to disappear completely, we would never get the frequencies back for broadcasts.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and the World Service is respected throughout the world. I will certainly pass his concerns on to the Foreign Secretary. The issue may well not be resolved until the CSR is finalised.

Does the Leader of the House agree that the House urgently needs to debate the balance of trade in relation to the process industry in the north-east? Also, given that the BBC today reported that areas such as Middlesbrough, Redcar and Stockton are the least resilient to the Government’s potential cuts, is it not paramount that we debate the process industry in, and exports from, that area, particularly in relation to the Government’s plan for a reduction of regional aid?

The hon. Gentleman has, like others, touched on the CSR. We did not want to make those reductions; we inherited the need to implement them. I support his idea of a debate on export opportunities for industries in the north-east. Perhaps the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, can add that to her list. However, if we debate the CSR, the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to make his points on Government policies on those matters.

The Leader of the House might be aware of the immense distress caused to the family of the victims of the Jeremy Bamber murders by the recent media interview he gave, which was allowed by the Ministry of Justice. May we have a debate in Government time on the impact of prisoners and mass murderers such as Bamber, who are serving whole-life tariffs and life imprisonment, being granted access to the media, so that victims of such crimes can be protected?

It cannot be right that those who have been sentenced to imprisonment for serious crimes such as murder should then from prison be allowed to cause distress to the relatives of their victims. I will certainly raise the case to which my hon. Friend refers with the Justice Secretary and ask him to write to her.

While the Leader of the House is talking to the Justice Secretary, will he ask whether he can make an early statement on the Government’s policy on continuing the previous Administration’s effort to divert vulnerable women and girls from custody? So far, we have heard warm words from Justice Ministers, but absolutely no detail on their plans. That silence is beginning to cause concern, so I would be grateful for an early statement.

I hope that the hon. Lady shares her concerns the next time the Ministry of Justice ministerial team come before the House—that seems to be the right vehicle—but certainly there is no question of this Government resiling from the initiatives to which she refers.

I understand that the appointment of the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility is to be approved by the Treasury Committee. Do the Government plan to allow any other important Government appointments to be approved by other Select Committees?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. Under the previous Government, a whole range of public appointments were made subject to the appropriate Select Committee validating or commenting on them—an extra tranche of names was added towards the end of the previous Parliament. We will certainly keep that under review. We are anxious that Select Committees have a role to play in key public appointments.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate or statement on the answering of written parliamentary questions? In July, I tabled a number of named day questions to the Department for Education, but they were not answered before the recess. I returned to Parliament after the recess expecting all of them to be answered on 6 September, but not all were. I would appreciate his help in getting them answered. We know the difficulties that that Department has at the moment, but answering written questions, which gives MPs the information we need to hold the Government to account, is essential.

I apologise if there has been any discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman because his questions have not been answered promptly, and I will pursue the issue later today with my colleagues.

Over the summer I met the representatives of several businesses in east Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire who, having survived Labour’s recession, are now in a difficult position in relation to their banks and obtaining loans. One particular allegation put to me by those businesses was that banks were refusing to entertain full applications so that their refusal rates, which are published, were not affected. The lending requests were being refused at the pre-application stage. May we have an urgent debate on that matter so that businesses in my area can be assured that the Government are on their side?

In advance of any debate that we may have on that issue, I wish to draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to see whether those matters can be addressed in the dialogue that they have with the banks. I know that other hon. Members have had the same experience that he has just recounted.

Given the Leader of the House’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) about the regional development fund, the importance of the comprehensive spending review and the BBC’s report today about the biggest cuts since the second world war, is it not the case that we need a debate about how we can protect the most needy and those parts of the country that are at most risk, given the north-south divide? Stoke-on-Trent, for example, was named in the BBC’s report.

The north-south divide that the hon. Lady mentions was inherited, and we seek to address it. I do not know whether she listened later on her radio—as opposed to her wireless—to the robust response from the Deputy Prime Minister, in which he outlined the action that the Government are taking to narrow the north-south divide and ensure that growth is encouraged in those areas that suffered under Labour.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House would consider having a debate on aircraft carriers before the spending review is completed, so that we can ensure that the workers who live in my constituency—and the thousands of people who would suffer the knock-on effects of any reduction—can make their feelings known before the cuts are announced.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern on behalf of his constituents. He will know that there is a strategic defence and security review taking place in parallel with the comprehensive spending review, and I fear that he will have to await the outcome of the processes before he learns of the Government’s decisions.

I was pleased to hear the comments by the Leader of the House about ministerial statements. However, on 29 August, the BBC reported—and the Department of Health confirmed—that the Secretary of State intended to scrap NHS Direct. That resulted in a petition of 14,000 people opposing that move. It now appears this morning that the Secretary of State for Health has said that he never intended to scrap NHS Direct. Will the Leader of the House reiterate to his colleagues how important it is to make clear statements to the House of Commons when Parliament is sitting, not in the middle of the summer recess.

The hon. Lady had an opportunity on Tuesday to take this matter up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of the State for Health. He is continuing the pilots initiated by the last Government to transfer NHS Direct to 111. NHS Direct is not being abolished: the organisation will support the new regime. On her plea for Ministers to make accurate statements to the House, no one is more strongly in support of that than I.

May I congratulate the Leader of the House on his excellent decision to table a debate on the year of international biodiversity in accordance with the suggestion that I made to him before the recess? I offer him another suggestion, which is that he takes more seriously the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), because the devastating impact of the cuts in housing benefit on constituencies up and down the country is something that this House needs to discuss fully in Government time as a matter of urgency.

As I hope I said to the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie), legislation will be needed to make the changes to housing benefit, so there will be ample time for the House to debate those issues.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill will lead to a 25% reduction in Welsh representation in this House. In the light of that, will the Leader of the House support the request made by the shadow Secretary of State for Wales for a special meeting of the Welsh Grand Committee to consider the implications of the Bill for Wales?

I would have thought that that was exactly the sort of issue that could be raised as the Bill goes through the House. Wales will be in exactly the same position as the rest of the country, and I cannot see what is wrong with that.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the House that we need a swift and fair solution to the issue of compensation for the nuclear test ban veterans. Will he ensure that when the Secretary of State for Defence has decided the compensation package, he will make a full statement in the House so that hon. Members can make comments and question him?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about compensation. I cannot give a categorical guarantee of an oral statement, but I will do what I can to ensure that the House is fully informed and has an opportunity to hold Ministers to account for their decisions.