Skip to main content

Business of the House

Volume 520: debated on Thursday 16 December 2010

The business for the week commencing 20 December will be:

Monday 20 December—General debate on firearms control. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister plans to make a statement on the European Council.

Tuesday 21 December—Pre-recess Adjournment debate, the format of which has been specified by the Backbench Business Committee.

The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent. The House will meet at 11.30 am and be subject to Wednesday timings should it agree to the motion at the end of today’s business.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 January will include:

Monday 10 January—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.

Tuesday 11 January—Consideration in Committee of the European Union Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 12 January—Remaining stages of the Postal Services Bill.

Thursday 13 January—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

The provisional business for the week commencing 17 January will include:

Monday 17 January—Second Reading of the Localism Bill.

I should also like to remind the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 January and 20 January 2011 will now be:

Thursday 13 January 2011—A debate on the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Thursday 20 January 2011—A general debate on anti-Semitism.

May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy Christmas and new year, and to thank all those who have kept the House running smoothly this year, particularly the security staff, the police, the Serjeant at Arms and the team who have kept the House running without interruption? I should also like to thank the staff involved in providing services and a welcome to new Members following the general election, including the Clerks, the Officers and staff of the House, the Doorkeepers and the cleaners. A merry Christmas to all.

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Following the decision of the deputy Chief Whip this morning to break the convention that the party holding a seat moves the by-election writ in the case of seats declared void after an election, which is what happened in Winchester in 1997, can the Leader of the House confirm that nearly 1,000 students in Oldham East and Saddleworth are likely to be disfranchised in this by-election because they will not have returned to university by 13 January, which is the date that the coalition has picked, whereas they would have returned by 3 February, which is the date that we would have moved? Does this not show that the coalition is running scared of the judgment of students at the ballot box?

Does the Leader of the House have any news on when the Prime Minister will come to the House to explain why, week after week, he is breaking promise after promise? When he does appear, will he also explain something else? All summer long, he and the Chancellor have been telling us triumphantly that everyone supports their economic policy. Well, not any more they don’t! What are we to make of the leak of a memo from the country’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, telling the Prime Minister that in case plan A on the economy does not work, he needs to have a plan B? May we have a debate, therefore, on what plan there is to stop unemployment continuing to rise next year, as people in the public sector—including, as the people of Oldham will see, the 1,387 uniformed police officers in Greater Manchester who are to go—are thrown out of their jobs by the very Government they loyally serve?

Last week, the Justice Secretary, having told us he wants prisoners to have the vote, said that prison is not succeeding. A few days later, the Home Secretary flatly contradicted him when she said that prison works. When will the Prime Minister sort out this squabble? Perhaps he could set up a court—assuming he can find one that is still open—summon them both, hear the evidence and deliver a verdict. I suppose, technically, that would mean making a statement on which of these warring Cabinet Ministers is speaking for the Government.

Last week, the ConservativeHome website reported that there was a pretty difficult meeting of the 1922 committee, with a lot of cross MPs, on the subject of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—I have to say that we all know the feeling. Following last night’s meeting, may we have a statement on what the Government plan to do about IPSA? The grumpiness on the Tory Benches shows that it is not so much the season of good will as seething ill will and loathing. One Tory MP said last night:

“The coalition is an imperial clique”.

I am open to suggestions on who on the Government Benches is Caligula and who is Nero.

The former head of the Prime Minister’s social mobility taskforce, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), talked of sheer hostility towards the coalition leadership. Apparently, he went on to say that it was about a lot of things, including fees and being taken for granted, but especially about the Liberal Democrats being allowed

“to say what they like and do what they like”.

I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but has he only just noticed that about the Lib Dems? They have been doing it for years. Will the Leader of the House therefore assure his Back Benchers that there will now be a debate on how to stop Lib Dem Members getting in the way of Tory Members’ upward ministerial mobility?

With all this unhappiness, Mr Speaker, may I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, the Deputy Leader of the House, all hon. Members and all the staff, who serve us so well, a merry Christmas and a happy new year? As for Christmas presents, I hope that everyone gets what they wish for, although I am sorry to say that, for Lib Dem voters, even though their stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hope that St Nicholas would soon be there, they will not be receiving that shiny new tuition fees pledge they were promised, because St Nick has let them down.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response, his Christmas wishes and indeed his Christmas card. Of course, for the Labour party this is always a time of giving. I have been looking through what he has been giving over the past few business questions—he digs deep into his sack each time. He has promised higher spending on child benefit and housing benefit, lower VAT in the new year and more university funding. We all applaud him on his festive generosity, but until the Labour party comes up with a credible way of paying for it all, it will have no more credibility than Santa Claus. I ask him—[Interruption.]People will not believe in the Labour party any more than they believe in Santa Claus unless the Opposition come up with some decent answers.

The right hon. Gentleman could have had a debate on the writ for the by-election. However, the Labour party chose not to do so, so it is a little rich of him to ask me for one now. The Opposition could have had a debate if they had objected an hour ago to the writ being moved. It is astonishing that they do not want the by-election to be held, when their own candidate has said:

“I can’t wait until polling day,”

so what is all the fuss about? The precedent from Winchester quoted by the right hon. Gentleman is simply not accurate. There is a collective loss of memory on the Opposition Benches about what happened in Winchester. The seat was previously held by a Conservative Member of Parliament, and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip moved the writ. Therefore, in the most recent precedent of a seat being declared void, the Chief Whip of the party previously holding the seat did not move the writ.

Moving quickly through the other issues that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, let me say that the Prime Minister is here every week to answer questions, and he will continue to do so.

On the Sentencing (Reform) Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Green Paper published last week was a collective document, published by the Cabinet and the Administration as a whole. In the robust evidence that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave to the Select Committee on Justice, he made it clear that there was not a cigarette paper between him and the Home Secretary.

On plan A and plan B, at least we have a plan A. The Labour party does not even have one coherent strategy on the economy. Indeed, yesterday the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), criticised the Leader of the Opposition for his performance at Prime Minister’s questions, saying that

“we have a huge responsibility to take these arguments to the country but we can’t do that if we are dividing amongst ourselves.”

On unemployment, the shadow Leader of the House will have seen the forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which stated that unemployment is set to fall next year and every year thereafter, and that the fall in employment in the public sector is more than counterbalanced by the rise in employment in the private sector.

Finally, on IPSA, the position is absolutely clear. We had a useful debate on IPSA—I think on 2 December—and the Government abide by the resolution, passed without Division by the House at that time, that IPSA should be given an opportunity to review the regime and come up with an alternative by 1 April.

Order. Many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but there is a statement to follow and then Backbench Business Committee business, so there is a premium on brevity from Back Bench and Front Bench alike.

My right hon. Friend is aware—I have banged on about this enough times—of problems with flooding in my constituency, but we now have a new precedent. The Environment Agency has decided to spend £28 million flooding farmland in order to tick a box for Europe. It is nothing to do with this country; it comes from a European directive. There is now an entire village of people worried that they will be cut off and will have to be removed if the plan fails. This is not the first such case, but things are now getting extremely serious, so may I ask for Government time in which to debate what the Environment Agency is doing?

Of course I understand the seriousness to which my hon. Friend refers and the anxiety in the village concerned. He will have an opportunity on Tuesday to raise the matter in the last debate of the year, but in the meantime, I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and see whether any action can be taken at ministerial level to allay the concerns that he has expressed.

These being the last business questions before Christmas, may I again urge the Leader of the House to allocate more time to Back-Bench business, to compensate for the fact that the Session has been extended to April 2012? While he is working out how many more days to allocate to Back Benchers, can he also look at what days he allocates? The Government are still predominantly giving Back Benchers Thursdays on which to hold their debates, when really we would like a much clearer spread across the parliamentary week.

Finally, may I join the Leader of the House in wishing everybody a very happy Christmas? I would particularly like to wish the Doorkeepers well in the darts world championship, in which our very own House of Commons darts team is taking part. Will he join me in wishing them well on Sunday?

On the first point, the hon. Lady is quite right to say that, because the Session is longer than it would normally be, there are implications for days allocated to private Members’ Bills, Opposition days and Back-Bench business days. Early in the new year, discussions will commence through the usual channels, and also involving the hon. Lady, to allocate more days because the Session is to run until spring 2012. On her point about Thursdays, roughly a third of the days allocated to her Committee have not been Thursdays, but I take her point. So far as the Doorkeepers are concerned, I hope they are as accurate with their arrows as they are in forecasting the time at which the House will rise.

Will the Leader of the House be so good as to ensure that time is set aside so that we may debate the Government’s Green Paper on sentencing as soon as possible, and long before the end of the consultation period, please?

I note my hon. Friend’s interest in this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) had a debate on this important subject in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, and the Sentencing (Reform) Bill is going through the House, which will give Members ample opportunity to debate the Government’s proposals. The Green Paper makes it clear that, despite record spending, we are not delivering what really matters, and society has the right to expect the criminal justice system to protect it.

I welcome the written statement this morning about the detention of asylum seekers’ children, but may I express my disappointment that it was a written statement rather than an oral statement? May we have an oral statement or a debate on this matter in the new year? My fear is that, although we are transferring children from the large detention centres, we might simply be transferring them to smaller detention units.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the written ministerial statement. Any Government have to strike a balance between written ministerial statements and oral statements, given the impact that a number of oral statements can have on the business of the House. He makes a strong case for that matter being debated, however. The alternative to Yarl’s Wood, whose closure I am sure he will welcome, has been piloted, and he might have heard Martin Narey of Barnado’s on the “Today” programme welcoming this initiative while recognising that there needs to be some secure accommodation available in the days before deportation. Also, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, might have heard his bid for a debate on the policy.

Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he had any say, as Leader of the House and on behalf of the House, on the routing of the recent demonstrations outside the House? Given that it is possible that Parliament square will be restored under the provisions of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, does he agree that it would be unwise to put large numbers of demonstrators into the restored square?

The answer to the first question is no; that was an operational matter for the police, and I did not have any say. My view is that it would be wrong to allow encampments in Parliament square, and the whole point of the clauses in the Bill is to restore the square to the position it was in when my hon. Friend first joined the House—namely, a square in the middle of an historical capital city surrounded by Westminster abbey, this building and other significant buildings—rather than being despoiled by a shanty town.

I thank the Leader of the House on behalf of all Members for his support throughout the year on a number of issues. He will be aware of the great anxiety surrounding Tuesday’s pre-Adjournment debate, as it is fast approaching becoming a car crash. Will he now, even at this late stage, speak to the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that all Members get genuine answers from the Deputy Leader of the House in that debate, and that it does not become a shambles?

At this moment, the hon. Gentleman is a lot closer, physically, to the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee than I am, and she will have heard his question. What is proposed is a pilot, and the Committee is anxious to hear hon. Members’ views on the proposed format, which will give the Government more certainty about the issues that are being raised, and therefore a better opportunity to respond, although it is slightly less flexible. I very much hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who will be replying to the debate, will have adequate time at the end of the debate to respond to all the issues that have been raised, but that will depend on discipline being exercised during the debate to give him adequate time to address the House at the end.

The 2012 Olympics will be a significant sporting event and, on the back of that, there will undoubtedly be a significant boost to tourism. Will the Leader of the House make a statement telling us how the Government will ensure that the boost to tourism will also benefit the tourism industry in constituencies such as Carlisle?

This Government are very anxious, as were the previous Government, that the benefits of the Olympics should filter out to all parts of the country. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games has established the nations and regions group to ensure UK-wide engagement and to maximise the legacy from London 2012. The group is working directly with representatives from each of the nations—and, indeed, the regions—to realise the sporting, economic and cultural benefits of the 2012 games. My hon. Friend’s constituency and the wider north-west stand to gain from the wide range of opportunities created by the games.

Female genital mutilation affects more than 20,000 women and girls in this country, some of them as young as 12 months old. A brilliant midwife, Alison Burns, has set up a clinic in the west midlands on her own initiative to deal with this matter. May we have an urgent debate on why there has not been a single prosecution, despite the fact that the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes this practice illegal?

The hon. Lady has raised a valid issue, and of course I will raise the matter with the appropriate Secretary of State. I think I am right in saying that she has one of the debates on Tuesday, on women and human rights, at which time she might have an opportunity to touch on that matter, but I will certainly ensure that she gets a reply on that specific issue from whichever Minister replies to that section of the debate.

May we have a debate on the Department for Work and Pensions contract for cashing benefit cheques? The contract is currently held by the Post Office and, whereas other competitors might be able to put in cheaper bids, they cannot possibly match the Post Office on quality. Paypoint, for example, has no outlets on many of the islands or anywhere in rural north Argyll. In the recent terrible weather, the Post Office made a big extra effort to keep its branches supplied with cash, and it deserves to keep this contract.

I commend my hon. Friend on raising this issue, and I have seen his early-day motion on the subject. As he probably knows, the Government have yet to announce the contract, but I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

May we have a debate as soon as possible on the conventions of this House? Conflict is inevitable in Parliament—even the geography of the Chamber reflects that—but we have rules and conventions to keep it within manageable limits. If, however, political parties gratuitously break those conventions for short-term party political advantage, as the Lib Dems have done today, that has serious implications for Parliament, and that matter needs to be examined in greater detail, rather than in the cavalier manner that it was dealt with today.

I reject the accusation that anything has been done in a cavalier manner. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the convention that has been followed in this case exactly replicates the convention that was followed the last time a seat was declared void, which was in the constituency of Winchester.

Following the recession, many over-50s in my constituency are, regrettably, finding it very difficult to get back into work, and I know that that issue extends across the country. I would be grateful if time could be found for a debate on encouraging employers to look kindly on re-employing those who find themselves out of work over the age of 50.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will know that we are introducing a new Work programme from early next year, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is anxious to ensure that job seekers of all ages get the tailored and personalised support that they need to get back to work. I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Last week, during the tuition fees debate, the Minister for Universities and Science, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) probably inadvertently misled the House when he said that there were more Scottish university students studying in England than there were English university students studying in Scotland. According to the latest figures, 11,805 Scottish students were studying in English universities, while in the same academic year, some 22,510 English students were studying in Scottish universities. I know that the Leader of the House takes these matters very seriously. Can we now expect a statement from the Minister to put that right?

It is certainly the case that, if a Minister has inadvertently given inaccurate information to the House, the appropriate action should be taken and the record should be set straight. If one of my hon. Friends did indeed give the wrong information, that will happen, and I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the appropriate Minister.

Will the Leader of the House allow us a debate on the local government finance settlement, which was announced earlier this week, now that councils have had time to digest the news? There is real concern in my constituency about the way in which the transitional grant has been calculated. The calculation of Pendle’s revenue spending power for 2010-11 is significantly understated. It does not include several amounts that were included in revenue grants received last year. If those amounts were included, the transitional grant would be boosted by more than £1 million.

As a former local government Minister, I know that there is no way of coming up with a draft settlement that satisfies every single local authority. As my hon. Friend will know, we are consulting on the proposals announced on Monday, and if he or members of his local authority have comments to make about the settlement, they should make them. There will be an opportunity to debate the final settlement when it is laid before the House next year.

Will the Leader of the House invite the Home Secretary to come to the House again to correct comments that she made about public order policing in her statement last Monday? She informed the House then that protesters

“who remained peaceful and wished to leave via Whitehall were able to do so.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 643, c. 665.]

When I pressed her on that, she confirmed it. Since then an e-mail has been passed to me by, among others, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), which reports that peaceful protesters spent hours trying to leave and being prevented from doing so by police. Although the police told them that they could leave, they actually prevented that from happening. Will the Home Secretary come and tell us the truth about the policing of the demonstration?

The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary during the next session of Home Office questions. In the meantime, I will of course draw her remarks to my right hon. Friend’s attention and establish whether she wishes to respond to them.

Will my right hon. Friend allow Government time for a debate on the provision of health and education for children with special needs, who are some of the most vulnerable children in our society?

I commend the work that my hon. Friend has been doing on this issue for many years. The Government believe that the most vulnerable children deserve the highest quality of care. We expect a Green Paper on special educational needs to be published very soon, and we would welcome his comments on it.

May we have a debate on the Olympic legacy? It has become clear that one of the bids involves a complete dismantling of the legacy to athletics, and that is important to the House. Moreover, much that Legacy Trust UK is doing is being done behind closed doors, in secrecy. It is of grave concern that one bid involves the building of a supermarket on the Olympic site: that cannot be right. We need a debate to discuss the legacy for the young people of this country.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Of course we need a legacy for young people after the Olympics. I cannot promise an early debate, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. The matter might also be a worthy subject for an Adjournment debate.

Many of us look forward not only to the royal wedding, but to finding out what title will be bestowed on Prince William. Will the Leader of the House remind the Privy Council that the dukedom of Monmouth has been vacant since 1685, for reasons best glossed over? I am sure that the residents of that county would be delighted to be associated with the royal wedding in any way possible.

My hon. Friend risks opening a bidding war in the Chamber among other hon. Members who wish their constituencies to be recognised in the same manner. Let me simply say that, although I note his remarks, the issue is way, way above my pay grade.

May we have another early debate on the funding of universities? As the Leader of the House will know, in Wales—my area—the Welsh Assembly Government are not applying fees. Next week the Scottish Government will probably decide not to do so either, as will the Northern Ireland Government. Why are the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government picking on English students?

I honestly think that the House has had adequate opportunities to debate tuition fees this month. There has been an Opposition day debate on the subject, as well as a full day’s debate on the order and the regulation last week. The discrepancy between what happens to English students and what happens to other students flows from the devolution settlement.

Ghana, one of the most stable democracies in Africa, is about to pump its first commercial oil, worth $400 million a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that wealth needs to be passed to the whole country, and that the Parliament of Ghana needs to work together to ensure that legislation and regulation are in place to ensure that that happens?

Like my hon. Friend, I welcome the commencement of oil production in Ghana. I hope very much that the revenue will be used for the benefit of all the citizens of that country, and will be managed with a view to Ghana’s future prosperity.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to disfranchise students in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Will he join me in encouraging the relevant Secretary of State to make a statement to the House today, so that, before the Christmas holidays, students are made aware that they can register for postal votes in that by-election?

If the hon. Gentleman was worried about the timing of the by-election, he could have registered his objection an hour ago when he had an opportunity to do so. He did not, and we heard earlier that Labour Members wanted to “bring it on”. No one has been disfranchised.

I am very concerned about the possible impact on service personnel at RAF Marham in my constituency. Given the level of speculation about air bases this week, given that the economic and military case has been made in favour of RAF Marham and given that that appears to be the view of the Ministry of Defence, may we have a statement so that we can have some certainty on the issue?

I understand my hon. Friend’s anxiety. She says that something may be “the view of the Ministry of Defence”, but my understanding is that no decision has been made. Some consequences of the strategic defence and security review, which was published in October, have implications for a number of bases, including the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I understand that no decision will be made until the spring, when of course the House will be informed. However, the strong case that my hon. Friend has made repeatedly in the Chamber on behalf of RAF Marham will have been heard.

May we have an urgent statement from the Business Secretary on the disgraceful situation in Scotland, where TNT, DHL and other delivery companies are currently refusing to make deliveries? RL Engineering Services in my constituency contacted me this morning because it needs a part in order to rescue a Ministry of Defence tug stuck in the Kyle of Lochalsh, but the companies are refusing to deliver it. Can the Business Secretary take some action to ensure that the situation does not continue?

If the matter is indeed not devolved but retained, I will of course draw it to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who is responsible for postal affairs, and establish whether he can take any action to ensure that deliveries get through.

The Leader of the House may be aware that hauliers are to be penalised by the European Union, which is considering introducing a 4-metre height limit on new trailers. I have been lobbied by several hauliers in my constituency, not least Mr Robin Allen, who fears that that is much lower than the current limit and that hauliers will not be able to carry the same amount of goods, which means that there will be more lorries. The bridges do not need to be made any higher, because the trailers are already being driven under them. Will the Leader of the House refer the matter to the relevant Minister?

I am all in favour of fewer lorries on our roads. I think that it would be best for the Secretary of State for Transport to have a dialogue with the Road Haulage Association, establish whether those anxieties are reflected more broadly throughout the industry, and then establish whether we can take action to minimise any loss of trade carried on the larger trailers.

Given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is on record as having said in the House that this year’s grant settlement would not hit the poorest communities hardest, and given that that is exactly what it has done, may we have an urgent debate on the matter?

There will indeed be an urgent debate on the matter, because the settlement must be approved by the House before the local authorities get their money. As the Secretary of State said on Monday, it is a progressive settlement that reflects the requirements of the parts of the country that need the resources most.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that time is found between now and the end of the consultation period for a debate on the Floor of the House about the legal aid Green Paper? We had a stimulating debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, when Members on both sides of the House made suggestions about what needed to be done in this vital regard, but a debate on the Floor of the House would allow more Members more time in which to amplify their concerns.

As my hon. Friend said, there was a well-attended debate on legal aid in Westminster Hall earlier this week. Any change to legal aid will require legislation of course, and I anticipate that there will be a Bill on that this Session. Our proposals represent a radical, wide-ranging and ambitious programme of reform that reflects our commitment to ensuring that legal aid is available to those who need it most. We estimate that it will deliver savings of about £350 million by 2014-15, but the exact figure will be subject to what final package of proposals we decide to implement following the consultation to which my hon. Friend referred.

To return to an issue I raised at a previous business questions, the Government have announced that they will change the way in which the police’s use of stop-and-search and stop-and-account powers are recorded, and I think that change will make it impossible to check properly whether their use is proportionate and non-discriminatory. In a Westminster Hall debate on 1 December, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said this change would save 450,000 hours of police time, but that figure is strongly disputed by the StopWatch action group and others. May we have a debate to discuss the reality of the situation?

It is important that we seek a consensus on what the impact of the changes will be. I cannot promise an early debate, but a meeting between the relevant Home Office Minister and the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers might represent the right way forward.

Christmas is just around the corner, and many people will receive a gift of a personalised number plate for their car. That provides valuable income to the Exchequer—about £1.3 billion since 1989. However, many of these plates are illegal by virtue of their character, position and appearance and by the addition of bolts in order to create a name or word. That has serious implications for the identification of vehicles used in criminal activity, particularly where the police are using automatic number plate recognition systems. Will the Leader of the House make time for this matter to be considered?

My hon. Friend must move in very important circles given that he says that many people will receive this gift. As a cyclist, I do not, of course, need such a number plate myself. He refers to number plate recognition, and I will draw that aspect of his remarks to the attention of Home Office Ministers.

I am grateful for the Leader of the House’s remark that the Prime Minister is likely on Monday afternoon to make a statement on the outcome of the European Council meeting. We did not have a debate ahead of that meeting even though that would have given the House an opportunity to express its views on some treaty changes that may well have been debated at the weekend. In an earlier answer, it seemed to be suggested that the Backbench Business Committee and the Leader of the House will negotiate about extra days for debates, so will the two sides come to an agreement in order to restore, in whatever shape or form, a pre-Council debate in this House, because it is vital that we have that?

I think the hon. Lady knows what I am about to say to her: in setting up its Backbench Business Committee, the House gave that Committee responsibility for deciding whether there is to be a fisheries debate, for instance, a European Council debate or four days of debate on defence, or whether debates should be held on other subjects. The responsibility for deciding whether there is to be a pre-Christmas European Council debate now rests with the Backbench Business Committee, so the hon. Lady should address her question to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), not the Leader of the House.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the performance of the Student Loans Company, so that the House can examine whether it is operating as efficiently as students and their families are entitled to expect?

It was because we believed the SLC was not being operated efficiently that we replaced the chairman and the chief executive within one month of our taking office earlier this year. In respect of recent applications managed by the SLC, the Public Accounts Committee report published last week showed that by the end of October over half a million students had received their funding at the start of term, of which 72% were fully processed, and that 69% of new applicants were also fully processed. There must be continued improvement in the SLC’s performance however, so that students receive the level of service to which they are entitled.

After the extraordinary revelations in The Times about the disastrous performance of Ministry of Defence procurement, may we have an early debate on the subject? The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Colombo is reported by The Times as saying that the revelations refer only to the Labour Government, but they go back to the 1990s and 1980s. Does the Leader of the House also agree that we need a complete ban on any Whitehall mandarin or armed services senior officer—or, indeed, any Minister—joining any part of the defence industry establishment on a paid basis for 10 years after they leave office, as we must shut this revolving door?

The PAC report referred predominantly to the performance of the last Labour Government; I do not think it went back to a significant degree to 1997 and beyond. There are existing rules and restraints on what jobs former Ministers are allowed to take, and there is a period of quarantine. I am very happy to look into this matter again however, and I think it goes wider than just former Government Ministers. I think the House would have an interest in this matter.

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on costs to small businesses? Two of my Harlow constituents— Mr Raymond Patten and his daughter—have a small business outside Harlow. Their business costs have increased severely this year, with business rates up by 50% and licensing costs trebling. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while this Government are doing many excellent things to help businesses, we must not give with one hand and take away with the other?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I see that there is a debate scheduled for Tuesday on support for businesses, which he may like to attend. He will have read the Government’s Green Paper, “Financing a private sector recovery”, which lists a range of measures the Government are taking to support small and medium-sized enterprises, such as a business growth fund of £1.5 billion, £200 million for the enterprise capital funds and support for the enterprise finance guarantee, as well as supporting SMEs through growth hubs. I will, of course, draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

A written ministerial statement today announced the closure of 10 of Britain’s 19 coastguard stations. There is serious concern about that proposal. Surely the announcement should have been made by way of an oral statement. Will the Leader of the House find a way for this matter to be debated on the Floor of the House?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern but, as she says, this is a matter on which the Government have reported to the House and, as I have said, we have to strike a balance between written and oral ministerial statements in order to protect the business of the House. The matter she raises might be a subject for a debate in Westminster Hall at the beginning of the new year.

Will the Leader of the House make time for an early debate in Government time on the impact of the cuts in police numbers, especially as we have already heard that 1,387 uniformed police officers are to lose their jobs in Greater Manchester?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. There will be an opportunity to debate the police grant order early next year. It so happens that I have just received a briefing note from my chief constable in Hampshire. It cites the director of finance and resources saying of Monday’s announcement:

“These figures are very close to the force’s predictions and plans are already in place so that we can continue to operate effectively and efficiently within a reduced budget.”

The briefing note cites comments from others too, such as:

“While we do not underestimate the difficult time we will go through over the coming months, there are also real opportunities for us to do things better…we are in the process of identifying ways of improving what we do as a force.”

I hope that approach is also being adopted in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Merry Christmas to you and your family, Mr Speaker, and to other Members of the House.

Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a debate on the impact of the following decisions, particularly on rural—and especially rural coastal—constituencies? My constituents in Felixstowe and places such as Orford and Aldeburgh are reeling from recent decisions on removing fire provision and extending the time they can expect to wait before receiving angioplasty treatment. This is unacceptable, and I hope the Government will find time for a debate on these matters.

There will be an opportunity to debate many of these matters when we produce our proposals for reforming the health service. I understand there are still opportunities for Members who want to do so to intervene in next Tuesday’s debate on the Adjournment, and my hon. Friend may find that that will provide an opportunity to raise these concerns with the appropriate Minister.

Further to the comments of some of my hon. Friends, the news that Greater Manchester police is to lose a quarter of its entire work force, including over 1,000 front-line officers, is causing real concern in my constituency. We will shortly find out what the public think of this policy at the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, but will the Leader of the House help Members representing Greater Manchester constituencies to get a debate on this issue? He might be satisfied with the news about his local force, but Greater Manchester Members are not.

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but the former Home Secretary made it clear before the last election that if his party had been returned, it could not guarantee that there would not be a reduction in police numbers.

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on our industrial heritage? On 21 December 1910, my community was devastated by the loss of 344 men and boys in the Pretoria pit disaster, the third largest such disaster in British history. I hope that he will join me in congratulating the communities of Westhoughton and Atherton on the efforts that they have made over a number of years to commemorate the centenary of the disaster next Tuesday and in sending sympathy to the many families who still remember their relatives and coal mining heritage with pride?

I welcome the initiative taken by the hon. Lady and those in her community, who recognise the tragic disaster that took place at the Pretoria pit 100 years ago. It is right that we should recognise that many sacrifices were made in building the industrial strength of this country and the initiative that she has mentioned will be widely applauded in her constituency.

Will the Leader of the House remind Ministers that they should tell hon. Members of decisions affecting their constituency? This week, a number of announcements affected my constituency, including the decision not to go ahead with Maghull prison and the cut of two thirds in the budget for Merseytravel. I learned of both by way of media releases forwarded to me and have still to hear from the relevant Minister on either issue. Will the Leader of the House ask Ministers to contact me at the earliest possible opportunity with the details of both those cuts, and will he remind Ministers of their responsibility?

Ministers are quite clear that they should report matters to the House before they report them to the media. The hon. Gentleman should hear about anything that affects his constituency before the media are told about it, and I shall certainly raise that with the relevant Ministers. The transport grant announcement was issued by way of a written ministerial statement, in which case everybody should have received it at the same time.

Last week, I was approached by my constituent, Sharon Martin, who informed me that she had that day sent out a fleece and winter clothing to her son, who is serving in Kabul. He had been advised by the Ministry of Defence that winter clothing would not be available in Afghanistan until February 2011. For the past week, I have tried to get the MOD to respond to this and I was told, “Will you put it in writing? We will respond within 15 working days.” That is clearly not acceptable. Will the Leader of the House therefore try to get a statement made before the Christmas recess, so that we can all have a merry Christmas, including those men and women who are abroad fighting for us?

I applaud what the hon. Gentleman said about our fighting forces. He will get a letter from an MOD Minister before the House rises for the Christmas recess.

Now that the Prime Minister has said that he is taking personal charge of the school sports debacle, can we expect another statement from him on Monday, after he visits the Olympic site, or will an announcement be made in the usual way through the Sunday newspapers?

May I wish a merry Christmas to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House, who is wrong about the Deputy Prime Minister? He is not St Nick, or even the messiah—he is just a very naughty boy.

I have forgotten what the question was. On school partnerships, a further announcement will be made in due course about our proposals to replace the previous regime. I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said about wishing everybody a merry Christmas, and I hope that he included in that the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Leader of the House will have heard the concerns expressed by Members on both sides of the House this morning about the oil supply crisis in their constituencies. Schools and hospitals face shortages, and the old and vulnerable are suffering freezing cold. What provisions are available for an emergency debate next week should the rationing announced by the Minister for Energy this morning create panic buying over the weekend or should the emergency meetings he is having with the industry over the weekend need to be reported back to the House?

I heard the hon. Gentleman share his concerns at Energy and Climate Change questions, when he put a similar question to one of my colleagues and it was adequately answered. At the start of the severe weather spell a number of precautions were taken to deal with salt supplies, the health service, cold weather payments and winter fuel payments. I know that he will be heartened to hear the last bit of my brief, which says that a winter resilience network has been set up and is chaired by the Cabinet Office.

Will it not be appropriate in the new year to debate fully the content of a debate that is taking place this afternoon in order that we can pay tribute to the courage and vision of my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth)? Although hon. Members take various views about drug problems, there is a great deal of unanimity on the fact that the policies that all parties have followed for the past 40 years have resulted in the biggest price for drug treatment in Europe, the harshest laws and the worst outcomes in terms of deaths, drug crime and drug use. There must be a better way. Can we not build on agreement between all parties to do better in future?

The hon. Gentleman has taken a consistent stand on this issue for many years and I applaud that, although I disagree with him. I think that he is rehearsing a speech that he might give later today in Westminster Hall. He will have heard, doubtless with dismay, that the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) was denounced by his party leader.

Four weeks ago, I submitted four written questions on the background analysis done before the decision was taken to end the funding for the school sport partnerships. On 29 November, I received a reply to all four questions stating,

“I will reply as soon as possible.”

Apparently, that time has still not yet come, so will the Leader of the House investigate why it is taking so long to answer such simple questions?

This week, we learned that 25% of all children are recorded as being obese when they go to primary school, and the records show that the figure rises to 33% by the time they leave primary school. Given that the Government have now done away with school sport partnerships funding, will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on childhood obesity and alternative ways through exercise to tackle it?

I think that this goes back to a question put to me earlier. The Government will be coming up with an alternative way of promoting school sports, and it will be a more effective and cost-effective way than the system that we inherited. Obesity—not just child obesity, but adult obesity—is a real issue, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education takes it seriously.