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Commons Chamber

Volume 522: debated on Thursday 3 February 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 3 February 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Mackerel Quota

I have had various discussions about north Atlantic mackerel, including discussions with Maria Damanaki, the EU Fisheries Commissioner, and discussions at Council of Ministers meetings in Brussels in December. Our discussions centred on hugely increased catches by Iceland and the Faroe Islands, and their failure to agree on stock management measures. In the light of that, the EU Commission agreed to table proposals for sanctions against both Iceland and the Faroe Islands if no agreement was possible in the near future.

The Minister will be aware of the Icelandic Government’s comment that the proposal to block Icelandic vessels from landing mackerel in European Union ports is neither surprising nor effective, given that most of their catches are landed at Icelandic ports. Is it not time that the matter was dealt with seriously, and should not Iceland’s accession to the EU be put on hold until the dispute is resolved? It is having a hugely disruptive influence on a core economic interest in Scotland.

I entirely agree. My consultations with Maria Damanaki and others across the Government have centred on the proposition that when a country is seeking to join a club, tearing up the rule book before it even enters is strange behaviour. We aim to ensure that Iceland’s accession is seen in the light of its actions in relation to the fish stock.

I agree that if we are to have quota rules, they must be obeyed. Has the Minister any other views on quotas— specifically in relation to fishermen in the under-10-metre sector—that he might wish to include in his discussions so that we do not experience another crisis in the summer?

We will be consulting the industry shortly about changes in the operation of our domestic fleet and about how we can help it to secure greater sustainability. The issue really comes down to the sustainability of stock. Approximately 1% of the egg survey is in Icelandic waters. There is an obvious way in which the Icelanders can negotiate. I urge them to operate in the way that we do across fisheries—to sit down and talk, rather than acting unilaterally.

Fish Discards

The United Kingdom Government are pursuing a policy of minimising discards through the reform of the common fisheries policy in 2012. Work is also being undertaken domestically with our fishing industry to increase the selectivity of fishing and to improve the utilisation of the remaining unavoidable fish catches. Levels of discards from the UK fleet have been decreasing year on year since 2002. I am committed to taking further action.

Are there any lessons to be learned from countries such as Norway, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, which have managed to replenish their fish stocks and in which the common fisheries policy has completely failed?

It is beyond doubt that the common fisheries policy is broken. It is based on a centralised top-down system, and we must reform it by decentralising it. We must also make the management of our fisheries relevant to the way in which we manage the marine environment as a whole.

We can learn lessons from other countries. As our exchanges on the previous question made clear, they are not repositories of pure virtue, but there are certainly lessons that we can learn about the local and regional sea base and management.

Was the Minister as shocked as I was by a recent television documentary about fish discards? I was appalled by what fishermen who work so hard have to do because of the rules. Will the Minister assure me that he has been working on the issue not just since the public outcry, but since the moment that he was given the job?

I applaud the Fish Fight campaign, which has been conducted very ably by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. My one criticism is of the line that the fight back starts here. I should say in fairness to the previous Government that the fight back started many years ago—and the present Government, too, have worked extremely hard on catch quotas, fishing for the market, and a variety of measures to reduce the number of discards. I am happy to work with anyone. We need to win public support and, in that regard, the programme was a great success.

Speaking as the last Conservative Fisheries Minister in the Major Government, I can tell my hon. Friend that I thought he was considerably better at identifying fish at Billingsgate than I could ever have been.

I believe that the whole House supports my hon. Friend on the need to reform the common fisheries policy. Let me say to those who oppose quotas that reducing fishing and protecting fish stocks by reducing effort is no easier an option, and that we must face the reality that fishermen will not want to keep their boats in port.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. When interviewed at five o’clock in the morning, I would be hard pressed to recognise my own children, let alone fish stocks. I am grateful to my friends and enemies who have sent me fish charts, with which I wiled away the long winter evenings. He rightly says that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem; there are opportunities to increase effort control, but we also have to deal with the problem of quotas. That is a problem in a mixed fishery and it has been part of the driver towards the number of discards, which we are so keen to reduce.

I know that the Minister is well aware of the pioneering efforts made by the Scottish white fish fleet and the Scottish Government in recent years to reduce dramatically the number of discards going into the North sea—the relevant figure is about 30%. People in coastal communities are pleased that the issue is now getting the wider prominence it deserves and has deserved for a long time. I am grateful to him for outlining his Government’s commitment to radical reform of the common fisheries policy, but I still question whether there really is the political will across the European Union to make the kind of changes necessary to tackle discards. We welcome his commitment, but what are the realistic assessments—

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments and I applaud the work of her constituents in trying to ensure that catch quotas work. I am glad that we managed to expand the scheme in the December round. She is right to say that we have to build alliances across the European Union, and I am working extremely hard to do that in the fringes of Council meetings and elsewhere. We are trying to get support at the radical end of the reform spectrum, so that we can achieve the kind of changes that mean that discards are a thing of the past and we can address the concerns raised by her constituents and constituents of all Members, including those representing inland constituencies, by ensuring that sustainability is at the heart of our fisheries management policies.

One of the methods of dealing with the problem of overfishing and depleted fish stocks is the use of marine conservation zones. Will the Minister update the House on what he is doing to ensure that there are more of these zones, not only in British waters, but overseas?

We are progressing with the implementation of the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, which will result in marine protected areas—marine conservation zones—around the coasts. We have four projects up and running, and I am working very hard to ensure that they are properly resourced and working towards the timetable of 2012. I very much hope that they will be able to deliver on that, and I will keep the House informed on progress. At the recent OSPAR talks in Bergen I was able to support a wider proposal in respect of international waters. The work we do on international fisheries and fisheries partnerships is key to ensuring that fishery conservation measures not only apply in our own waters, but are followed up elsewhere.

Does the Minister agree that, as Denmark has shown, further action can be taken by this Government, in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, to cut discard levels this year? Will he seek approval for an increase in the scope of this year’s catch quota trials, which half the Scottish white fish fleet expressed an interest in joining? Will he pledge to incentivise investment in more selective nets and in on-ship CCTV to monitor what stocks are being taken from the sea? Would those measures, together with radical reform of the CFP, not add up to an effective national action plan to end for good this appalling waste of good quality fish?

There were a lot of questions there, but I know that we will hear a pithy response from the Minister.

The UK Government have a very clear strategy to ensure that we reduce the level of discards and do not wait until 2012 to achieve that. Our fishing for the market scheme is addressing the 54% of discards created by the fact that there is no market for those products. We also managed to get an extension of the catch quota trials, and I was extremely pleased about that, because they achieve the virtue of catching less but landing more. That is the holy grail of fisheries management.

Rural Payments Agency

Progress continues to be made in addressing the dire legacy described vividly in the independent review of the RPA published last year. Despite the issues arising from the updating of farmers’ maps and reduced staff numbers, the RPA met its target to pay 85% of 2010 claimants by the end of December. But there is still much to do and it will inevitably take some time to address some very long-standing problems fully.

I ask the Minister to recognise the work of the Farm Crisis Network, particularly the work of Suzie Wilkinson, the FCN’s co-ordinator in Somerset, and the pastoral and practical support it gives to farmers working under stress. In Somerset, there were 12 new cases in January, 10 of whom are owed something like £295,000. Farmers face eviction by banks, are unable to pay for feed and some may have to sell their stock because of TB problems. Will the Minister ensure that the RPA accelerates the cases of Somerset farmers, such as Bob Pether, whose payments have been incorrect every year since—

I have huge admiration for the work of the Farm Crisis Network, which I have visited and met on a number of occasions. The hon. Lady is right to say that it supports some very hard-pressed farmers, particularly small farmers, for whom the single farm payment is a major part of their income and without which they would be in desperate straits. I am determined that the RPA should find a way forward to get some cash into the hands of those people as soon as possible. If she would like to write to me about particular cases, I would be happy to pursue them.

Will the Minister tell us how many staff will be cut from the RPA as a result of the 30% departmental spending cuts? Will he also explain how that will speed up payments to farmers?

The hon. Lady assumes that the RPA was working efficiently, but it certainly was not, as the previous question demonstrates. Yes, the reduction in overall public expenditure means that the RPA is having to take a reduction in staff alongside all other arm’s length bodies, but at the same time it is becoming far more efficient, with better work practices and a new chief executive who started a fortnight ago. I am convinced we can do better with less.

Forests

The public forest estate consultation explores a range of models for the ownership and management of the estate and how important public benefits such as access can be maintained. An example would be how lease conditions could be used to ensure that access and other public benefits are protected.

In addition to established legal rights of way and Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 access rights, will the Secretary of State ensure that there are robust additional protections for access rights that are currently permitted access only, and will she safeguard existing access for bikes and horses?

We had a lengthy debate last night in which I made it clear, at length, that permissive access rights are very limited in number and are on land that the public forest estate does not own.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House the projected figures for the next 10 years for the revenue that will come from the public forest estate? Will that revenue be offset by the benefit to the Exchequer from the sale of such land?

Different types of forest are subject to different proposals in our consultation document, which is a genuine consultation. The planned sales—a continuation of the previous Government’s programme—are expected to raise £100 million over the spending review period. That will be part of DEFRA’s overall provision within that period.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s genuine consultation over the next 11 weeks—12 weeks in all. When will she make a statement to the House after the consultation has finished?

First, we need to make it absolutely clear that this is a genuine consultation, unlike a lot of the consultations that I experienced under the previous Government. We want as many people to take part as possible. There is a statutory three-month period; Ministers will reflect on relevant considerations and bring to the House our considered view in a timely fashion.

Public access is absolutely vital to local communities. The Secretary of State talks about her consultation period, but before that period is over, the Government will start selling off 10,000 hectares of public forest land. That is more than was sold in Labour’s entire period in office. I should like to know what right communities will have to bid for that land. How long will they have to raise the money? Will it be sold as leasehold, and is it correct that the selection for this year deliberately avoids woodlands that give public benefits because the Government want to maximise the capital raised from assets?

The criteria for the planned sales are set out in the public domain on the Forestry Commission website. They are a continuation of a programme of sales that have taken place over the past three decades. As the hon. Lady knows, her party’s Government sold off 25,000 acres—[Interruption]—without the protection that this Government will provide.

Hon. Members cry “Shame,” but we sold that off to reinvest the money in the forest; this money is to be reinvested in flood defence schemes. The land will be sold with no higher rights of public access. Government Members should think very carefully about what is happening. Is it not the case that, on the public forest, the Secretary of State does not know what she is doing, does not know why she is doing it, and nobody wants her to do it? Is it not time to stop and think again?

I think the hon. Lady was not listening clearly last night. Ministers have repeatedly given assurances in this House that access and other public benefits will be protected. However, many of the pieces of land that fit the criteria the Forestry Commission has set out do not have access attached to them at present. She should reflect carefully on our public consultation document and gain a better understanding of what happened when Rigg wood was sold off under the conditions set by her party’s Government in their contract: without protection, access is now denied.

Ivory Trade

The UK supports the global ban on the international trade in raw ivory imposed in 1989. While occasional one-off sales have been permitted in the past, we are working to ensure that no further sales of ivory take place without firm evidence that such sales will reduce poaching. In the UK, we employ stricter domestic measures than those required under the convention on international trade in endangered species concerning the trade in ivory.

I think the Government are doing a good job, building on the work of the previous Government, but there is still a great deal of concern that we are not tackling where the exchange takes place: on the internet. Do the Government have any plans to try to stop the sale of ivory through internet transactions?

My hon. Friend is right to point to that development in the illegal trade in ivory. For that reason, it is important that we continue to support schemes that give us evidence: for example, MIKE, the monitoring of illegal killing of elephants; and—dealing precisely with his point—ETIS, the elephant trade information system. We support those international efforts to make sure that we understand the problem and that we in this country have our house in order. I am impressed by the expertise found in a variety of agencies and shall continue to ensure that we play our part.

Common Agricultural Policy

The Government have recently responded to the European Commission’s communication, “The CAP towards 2020”. Our response calls for ambitious reform of the CAP that will enable farmers to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The second pillar of the CAP provides essential support to farmers to deliver environmental public goods. Which of the European Commission’s proposed options for reform does she think best balances the need to maintain landscape and diversity with food production and the protection of consumers and taxpayers?

The whole of the Commission’s proposed reform of the CAP should address the twin challenges that the hon. Lady describes. Obviously, it is the combination of direct payments and the payments under pillar two—in particular, in this country, the way we use agri-environment stewardship schemes—that balances best the environmental benefits with food production. That is why the coalition Government are committed to increasing by 80% higher level stewardship.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the unease among farmers in Wales and the Welsh Government about the UK Government’s current position on CAP reform. Will she inform the House what progress she is making in developing a joint negotiating position?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State and I took the opportunity to invite the Welsh Minister for Agriculture to meet the Commissioner with us as early as June last year. We have had successive meetings with all the devolved Administrations and will continue to do so, as the reform process is likely to take a great deal of time. I find that we have much in common with the Welsh Assembly’s position and believe that there is much that we can do as we negotiate the reform to ensure that we get a good deal for farmers in Wales.

I ought to declare an interest as one of the few practising farmers in this country. [Interruption.] In this Parliament.

Will the Secretary of State, when considering the reform of the CAP, consider that Europe will have an important place in enabling agriculture to feed the world? Will she move away from the CAP’s structural faults, such as the growing of tobacco that is of such poor quality that no one wants to use it, and ensure that those practices are stopped?

It is of the utmost importance that farmers in Europe are encouraged to produce more food and to do so sustainably. When we look at the threat to our society globally in relation to food security, it is clear that the nations that have the capacity to increase production sustainably are the ones that we should be fully behind.

I mean the Secretary of State no harm, but as the second closet European in the Cabinet, does she agree that if we are to reform the CAP it is no use agreeing only across this Chamber? We have to convince our Irish, Spanish, French and Italian friends. The isolation of her party from the main centre-right conservative parties in Europe does not help.

I have some good news for the right hon. Gentleman: the coalition agreement states clearly that we desire to be a “positive participant” in Europe. My colleagues and I have set about building alliances in order to secure the reforms that will benefit taxpayers, farmers, consumers and the environment. I am pleased to report that he will find that the position of our traditional friends—the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands—and that of the German, English and Welsh farming unions is very close. That is the kind of alliance that brings about changes.

Bees

10. What recent progress has been made on reducing the incidence of diseases in the bee population; and if she will make a statement. (37804)

I am pleased to report that there has been a significant reduction in the number of colonies lost from all causes. For example, losses over the 2009-10 winter were 16%, compared with 30% in 2007-08, and cases of foulbrood disease have decreased steadily since 2008. It is clearly too early to know the results for the current winter, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the national bee unit has lost only two out of 180 units.

I thank the Minister for that response. The previous Government’s promises to fund research into bee diseases created a buzz of anticipation, so can I take it that the coalition have a proper plan “Bee”?

The previous Government committed £4.3 million to research on bee health, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, and I am happy to pay tribute to them for that. Of that sum, £2 million was for the insect pollinators initiative, and £2.3 million was for the healthy bees plan, and we hope that those resources will deliver results. I must say, however, that that was the result of a massive campaign by Back Benchers on both sides of the House, which forced the previous Government to commit those resources.

Flood Defences

11. When she plans to make an announcement on funding for individual flood defence schemes during the comprehensive spending review period. (37806)

The Environment Agency has been consulting regional flood defence committees on the programme for 2011-12. The agency’s board will be deciding the allocation of funding to each region shortly. Information on individual schemes will be published as soon as possible. Decisions on funding for future years depend on the outcome of DEFRA’s consultation on the way schemes are funded.

People in the north-east whose homes were devastated by the floods in 2008 have learned that planned flood defences have now been deferred. What message does the Minister have for those people who, as well as living with the worry of future floods, have the added financial concern of losing all insurance cover because those defences are not guaranteed to go ahead?

First, those schemes have not been rejected; they will be looked at again to ensure that they can provide good value for money for the taxpayer. Secondly, we are consulting on a payment-for-outcomes scheme, which for the first time will ensure transparency in flood funding, allowing local communities to understand where they are in the pecking order and how they can assist in ensuring that their flood schemes come forward. On insurance, we are working closely with the Association of British Insurers, so that we can ensure future cover after the statement of principles ends.

Everyone realises that money is tight, but will the Minister look again at the importance of the Leeds flood alleviation scheme on the River Aire? In 2007, the city centre was centimetres away from flooding, with £500 million of damage to 3,000 properties projected. It is an incredibly important scheme that cannot simply be left to gather dust.

I am conscious of the scheme’s importance to the people of Leeds, and much work can be done to ensure that parts of it are certainly brought forward in a viable form. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues and she will be happy, as I will, to discuss the intricacies of the scheme. At the moment, it will cost roughly £250,000 per property, which is a difficult sum to get around in terms of value for money. Many other schemes provide much better benefit, but I very much hope that we can work with the local authority and with hon. Members to ensure that, in time, we bring forward elements of it.

It is a matter of fact that the Government have decided to cut flood defence spending by 27%. Those cuts mean that the Environment Agency has had to change the way in which it allocates resources through its outcome-measure assessments, and that has already had an effect upon flood defence schemes throughout the country. Will the Secretary of State today give a guarantee—not assurances, but a guarantee—that her cuts will not prejudice flood defence schemes in rural areas and other less populated areas, where the economies of scale for flood defence spending are very different from schemes in more urban areas?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that proposals under the payment-for-outcomes scheme, on which we are consulting, will make things easier for communities that have traditionally missed out on flood funding, such as those he describes in rural areas, and that funding allocation will be clear. I shall just correct him, however. On a direct comparison of funding, we are spending approximately 8% less than the previous Government over the same period. One year ago, his party announced 50% capital cuts, and if he were sitting on the Government Benches and intending to favour flood funding, he would have to explain where else he was going to make cuts.

Forests

12. What recent representations she has received on the sale of land managed by the Forestry Commission in England. (37807)

Since the beginning of October, we have received 4,200 representations on the sale of the public forest estate, but most of those were in response to press coverage, not to the real consultation document, which was published on 27 January.

Should it not be clear even to this Government that selling off our forests is a bad idea that has no public support? Will the Minister abandon the policy before she is forced to do so because of public pressure?

The hon. Gentleman was perhaps not in the House last night, so allow me just to remind him that, in the last few months before the general election, the party of which he is a member published when in government an operational efficiency programme setting out the case for long-term leases of the public forest estate and for getting

“greater commercial benefit from the public forest estate”.

I have had more representations on this issue than on any other since I was elected—probably about 500 so far. If I send them on to the consultation with a covering letter, can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that they will all be counted as individual submissions?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. All hon. Members should actively encourage their constituents to read the genuine consultation document. There has been an awful lot of mythology in the press, and we would welcome responses to the genuine consultation.

Given that 60% of private English forests outside the public forest estate are under-managed, and that only 16% of them meet Forestry Stewardship Council standards, compared with 100% of Forestry Commission woodland, are not the public absolutely right to oppose this sell-off, which puts high levels of access and biodiversity at risk?

I do not accept that it puts biodiversity at risk. That is something that I am particularly committed to enhancing and improving, as is set out in the proposals. The hon. Lady’s point will remind everybody that the public forest estate covers only 18% of woodland. Under the reforms that we propose, the Forestry Commission would continue in a regulatory role, and I would expect it to help us to achieve even higher standards of maintenance in both the public and the private forest.

Bearing in mind the Secretary of State’s concerns about public perception of the consultation proposals, does she agree that now may be the time to provide greater clarity about the conditions governing how the 40,000 hectares announced in the comprehensive spending review will be disposed of?

I am happy to provide clarity. The criteria for the continuing sales of land as part of the CSR planned release are published and in the public domain on the Forestry Commission website. They look principally for sites that are less accessible and have a large requirement for expenditure. The criteria are set out in the public domain, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can help to point people to the right place.

I have read the consultation paper. I have also read the impact assessment, which shows that the selling of our forests and dismantling of the Forestry Commission has nothing to do with the costs or the benefits. We know that the Government are not listening to the big society or the community, because community groups are desperately worried about having to take on responsibility for their woods and forests. I note that today, as yesterday, the Secretary of State has not even mentioned her phoney argument about regulation, because it is so weak. At the heart of this, one question remains: just why is the Secretary of State determined to sell off our precious woods and forests?

That was part of last night’s debate. It is clear that the Opposition do not want community groups and charities to be able to take ownership and management. That is clearly a divide between our parties. This is not primarily about cost and benefit. The point about regulation still stands. The Forestry Commission is both the regulator and the largest seller of timber in the market that it regulates. In this day and age, that kind of conflict of interest cannot continue.

Rural Payments Agency

13. What progress has been made in resolving the single payment scheme difficulties experienced by Mr Peter Philpot. (37809)

I apologise very much for the unacceptably long delay in resolving the issues on Mr Philpot’s single payment scheme claims. For the House’s information, I should declare that I know Mr Philpot personally. This is one example of the dire legacy at the Rural Payments Agency. I understand that Mr Philpot is due top-up payments for the 2007 and 2008 scheme years, and these will be made by the end of this month. Resolving the underlying problems will take longer, but I am committed to seeing that permanent solutions are found.

The Minister kindly acknowledges that the RPA has failed my constituent over a long period. Will he detail in writing what has held up the claims so far, and which entitlements are causing the problem, in time for a meeting on 15 February between the National Farmers Union and Mr Philpot?

To be honest, I am not sure that I can write to my hon. Friend detailing which particular transfers or entitlements are wrong. The problem is the computer system, which is completely inadequate for its purpose. It was commissioned, of course, by the previous Government, and it is not fit for purpose, especially in very complex cases such as Mr Philpot’s, where a large number of transfers of entitlements have had to be brought into play.

Has the Minister considered the merits of outsourcing the agency’s payments process to improve performance and efficiency?

The short answer is yes—which my hon. Friend might be happy to settle for. I should emphasise, however, that that was one of the recommendations in the report that we published last year. We are pursuing it, but we have to ensure that we get the existing stuff working so that we do not interrupt payments even more while we look at the whole process of outsourcing.

Fish Discards

I listened to the Minister’s earlier answers. Fish, like forests, are of as much interest in Bermondsey and Southwark as anywhere else in Britain. What is he doing not only to deal with the common fisheries policy, but to ensure that people at home understand the benefits of eating more fish, particularly sustainably caught fish, so that they can both be healthier and help to solve this Europe-wide failure?

The Fishing for the Market project, which is being carried out by DEFRA, analyses the 54% of discards that are created because there is no market for those fish. Some of them are perfectly edible delicious fish, such as dab. We must also ensure that the public ask for Marine Stewardship Council accredited fish, which can be bought at the fishmonger and the supermarket. Supermarkets are the key to driving forward this agenda.

The common fisheries policy is probably the most unmitigated disaster in EU history—and that is up against some pretty stiff competition. The doctrine of common resource has been a disaster from the beginning. The Minister says that the common fisheries policy is broken, so why is he talking in terms of reform. Why does he not just abolish it?

I could spend all my energy trying to unpick the common fisheries policy from various treaties, probably going back to the treaty of Rome. However, I am dealing with an industry in crisis, and with people’s jobs. They want me to push at a door that is open. I urge the hon. Gentleman to read the Commission’s paper and position statement, because for the first time there is an opportunity to decentralise this matter and to get back more local control. That is what the industry wants, and what we all want.

Dangerous Dogs

16. When she plans to announce proposals arising from her Department’s consultation on the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. (37812)

We are working closely with the Home Office, and we expect an announcement shortly regarding antisocial behaviour, in which the issue of dogs will be included.

Members from across the House who have had serious dog attacks in their constituencies will welcome that answer. There are, however, serious concerns about the ability to implement any changes that come from the consultation, given the serious and deep cuts to the Department for Communities and Local Government and to neighbourhood policing. I would like the Minister to respond to that.

I cannot pre-empt the announcements that the Home Office will make shortly. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the plan is not for massive additional public expenditure in dealing with this issue. He will have to await the proposals that will be published shortly.

We are all concerned about dangerous dogs—of course we are—and about the antisocial element among ordinary dogs. None the less, does the Minister agree that there is a risk that perfectly normal dogs that bark might suddenly find themselves captured in all-encompassing anti-dog regulations? Will he be cautious in addressing the problems raised by the hon. Member for Luton South (Gavin Shuker)?

My hon. Friend is right to urge caution. There are two slightly different perceptions. One is of the dogs that people use as fashion accessories, such as the pit bull-type dogs used by the louts that we sometimes see walking about the streets. However, the tragedies often involve household pets that, for some reason, have gone wrong. We have to bear that in mind and look at the whole picture.

Farm Incomes

The latest forecasts of farm incomes were published on 27 January. They indicate that average incomes are likely to show a marked increase in 2010-11 on arable farms, but to fall on livestock farms. I am sorry to say that the current price for grain is likely to increase that differential.

Is the Minister aware that incomes are expected to drop by 60% for pig farms, 30% for sheep farms, 48% for farms with grazing livestock and 24% for dairy farms, and that the increase for arable farmers that he referred to is due only to the single farm payment? In the context of common agricultural policy reform, will he assure the House, and farmers, that the emphasis will remain on farm production and on ensuring a fair return to our producers?

I do not think that my hon. Friend is right to attribute the rise in arable income to the single farm payment. It is because the price of wheat today is more than double what it was a year ago. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, our approach to the common agricultural policy is about trying to drive up productivity and competitiveness and to stop wasting money in areas in which it should not be spent. That is why we want to see a greater proportion of the funding spent on pillar two, in which we can actually aid competitiveness.

Can the Minister tell us what talks he has had with Treasury colleagues about encouraging the banks to lend more to farmers? Farmers in my constituency are suffering considerable difficulties and finding that banks are changing terms and conditions and refusing to accommodate their needs in any way.

The hon. Lady is not alone in having constituents with those problems, and of course they are not restricted to farmers. As she will know, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already made a number of statements on the subject, including about ways in which he can press the banks to be more open with their lending and perhaps charge less for it.

CITES

18. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the convention on international trade in endangered species; and if she will make a statement. (37814)

DEFRA has not undertaken any recent assessment of the effectiveness of CITES. The next opportunity to examine the extent to which the convention is delivering the objectives of its strategic plan will be the CITES standing committee in August.

The Minister may be aware of the recent cross-border crackdown on illegal wildlife smuggling in central Africa, which led to arrests and the seizure of 150 kg of ivory, 1,000 African grey parrots, 17 turtle shells, seven leopard skins, two lion skins and a rather grisly haul of ape heads. That successful operation was co-ordinated by Last Great Ape, a dedicated non-governmental organisation. What is DEFRA doing with ministerial colleagues to ensure that such civil society organisations, which are vital to that work, are supported by Department for International Development funding and backed up by ambassadors in making it clear that our endangered species must be protected?

I applaud my hon. Friend for her commitment to this matter. I will certainly work with colleagues in Departments such as DFID to ensure that we co-ordinate the great deal of work that we are doing to sponsor schemes that crack down on poaching, such as the one that I described earlier. We have to understand that the real problem is the end user. We can have our house in order here, and our wildlife crime unit does wonderful work supporting endeavours such as those that she mentions, but ultimately we have to deal with those who believe that the products in question are useful in medicine, and those who use ivory in ornaments. That is where the problem really comes from.

The Minister will be aware that if we are to enforce the convention in Britain, we need to ensure that we have at our airports and seaports the customs officers who are needed to do the work. Can he assure us that there will be no diminution in the effort put in to ensure that endangered species and other animal products are not introduced to this country?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am working very closely with Home Office colleagues on their consultation on the new border regime. I have visited the animal reception centre at Heathrow and seen the expertise there, and we want to keep that skill base active across the country.

Topical Questions

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In that context, I am sure that Members of all parties will join me in welcoming the publication of Foresight’s latest report, “Global Food and Farming Futures”. That excellent body of work, co-funded by my Department, is a searching and rigorous assessment of the global food challenges between now and 2050, and I urge all Members to read it.

Why can my right hon. Friend not give an unequivocal guarantee that in any sale of Forestry Commission land, existing public rights of access will be maintained exactly as they are at the moment, whether on or foot, by bicycle or on horseback? The failure of her colleague in the other place to give an unequivocal answer to that question yesterday has increased, not allayed, public suspicion on that subject.

The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), gave precisely that undertaking in the debate last night, and I believe that he has reiterated it today.

The Campaign for Better Transport today launched a “Save Our Buses” campaign. Its research shows that Cambridgeshire county council is proposing to phase out all council bus services, and that Northamptonshire county council plans to cancel all existing rural services. Can the Minister tell the House what advice he has given the Department for Transport, or what advice has been sought, about the impact of those bus cuts on rural communities and economies?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am working closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to ensure that a variety of solutions are found in respect of rural bus services. One problem is that such services are extremely expensive, and the vast majority of the buses go around the countryside transporting nothing but air. We need more customer-responsive local solutions. The Government can assist those in a variety of ways.

T2. Does the Secretary of State agree that the new National forest, which covers much of my constituency, is a model of what can be achieved by the private sector and the third sector in delivering excellent access to, and enjoyment of, the amenities of our woodlands? (37821)

I certainly do. I met representatives of the National Forest Company this week. It is a wonderful model of what can be achieved. It involves schools and volunteers and has achieved a lot of regeneration on former industrial sites.

T3. Does the Minister agree with the Country Landowners Association that pillar one of the common agricultural policy should increasingly deliver public and environmental goods, or does he agree with the National Farmers Union, which thinks that that would increase costs for farmers, and therefore opposes the idea? (37822)

The Government, as has been published in our reply to the Commission’s proposal, believe that pillar two is the better vehicle for the delivery of public goods, which is why we believe that pillar one should gradually be phased out over a long period. We can then concentrate resources on transparent payments to farmers for delivering access, environmental benefits and a range of other public goods, including farming competitiveness.

T4. My constituency is extremely fortunate to have Delamere forest, the largest woodland in Cheshire. Can the Secretary of State assure me, and my constituents, that this Government will always protect public access rights to Delamere forest? (37823)

I would be very disappointed, and so would my constituents, if the forests and woodland question was diverted into a question of access. It is a question not of access, but of ownership. Deep in the DNA of English people is that for years and years they have been fed up because they have been told, “You can come, by our grace and favour, and walk on our land, but you can’t own it.”

It is a question of both ownership and access. As I explained to the House yesterday, when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, it also looked at both ownership and access.

T5. People in Northumberland will never forget the devastating impact of floods on communities such as Rothbury, Warkworth and Morpeth. Will the Minister therefore assure me that he will take a personal interest in the Morpeth flood relief scheme? It is obviously impossible for all flood relief schemes to proceed at the same time, but the impact on Morpeth, which was visited by leaders from all political parties, was devastating. (37824)

I am more than aware of the impact of those floods on the people of Morpeth, and of the fantastic community spirit that came out at the time. The community wants to ensure resilience against flooding in future. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I will meet him, and them, at any time to ensure that we can carry that forward.

Morpeth is actually in my constituency. The townsfolk are absolutely livid—and devastated—that the Morpeth alleviation scheme is being deferred. Will the Minister agree to meet me as a matter of urgency to discuss the Morpeth project?

I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and members of the lead local flood authority to discuss that with him, if he can arrange a time with my office.

T6. I am sure that, like me and many other hon. Members, my right hon. Friend the Minister has received many representations on the future of public forests. I have more than 3,000 acres of Forestry Commission land in my constituency. Public rights of way will be protected by law, but will he give me a cast-iron guarantee that permissive access rights will also be protected, maintained and freely available under any future management agreements? (37825)

I am glad that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because it allows me to emphasise that there is a difference between dedicated rights and permissive access. Dedicated rights apply to more than 90% of the forest estate that we own. They cannot be taken away or removed; they are there in perpetuity. However, a lot of people confuse those rights with permissive rights. The only places in the forest estate where there are such rights are land that we do not own, but have by leasehold—mainly on 999-year leases. We cannot dedicate such land because the original leases prevent us from doing so, but all Forestry Commission-owned land has dedicated access, which is permanent.

We hear today that farmers and many others are not able to get hold of grants from the banks to further their causes. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State tell the banks that under no circumstances will they be able to buy forests?

We have made it perfectly clear that the Forestry Commission has a duty and a responsibility, with any of the planned sales of the public forest estate, to satisfy itself that those who wish to buy are qualified to do so and have the necessary expertise to safeguard the high standards of protection of the environment and its biodiversity, public access and other public benefits.

T7. In my constituency we are delighted that our work against dangerous dogs and their owners has been recognised by DEFRA, and that the borough of Ealing has been selected to pilot the dog ASBOs—or “dogbos”. Can the Minister give us further details on how those are intended to work? (37826)

I admire my hon. Friend’s doggedness in pursuing this subject, and she is right to do so. I congratulate Ealing on applying to take part in the pilot scheme and we welcome its interest, but no final decisions have been taken.

The Secretary of State earlier used warm tones in promising future positive engagement with the devolved Administrations on the future of the CAP. Will that engagement be on the basis of DEFRA continuing to ignore the deeply held views of the devolved Administrations on the future of pillar one?

We have been proactive in our engagement with all the devolved Administrations, and recognise the importance of direct payments to farmers. It is that assurance that the devolved Administrations are seeking, and I confirm that Ministers understand the challenges of farming in less favoured areas and will defend those interests.

T8. Can the Minister offer any help and support to the monks of Caldey island off the south Pembrokeshire coast in their attempts to introduce the red squirrel to their island? (37827)

I applaud the monks, and their Member of Parliament, for their support for this scheme. Like me, they have seen what has happened in Anglesey and the eradication of the grey squirrel there, which has almost been achieved. That will bring benefits for the regeneration of the red squirrel, and we are looking at it closely in connection with our project in the north of England.

Last week I had more representations from constituents who are saddled with the problem of unadopted drains and sewers. Can the Minister give me an update on what progress has been made since the consultation finished at the end of last year?

We will make an announcement very shortly. I understand the fears and concerns of the hon. Lady’s constituents, and we are determined to take forward that very important part of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. I will be in touch with her shortly.

T9. Recently in Wolverhampton we had a serious incident involving a dangerous dog. Does the Minister agree that police officers need adequate training to deal with dangerous dogs and the skills necessary to handle such situations? (37828)

I have huge sympathy with those affected by what happened in Wolverhampton, which was a huge tragedy. A well-meaning family took in a stray dog, which then turned on their child; it could not have been a worse situation. Wolverhampton city council has rightly advised that if people find stray dogs, they should tell the council rather than taking them in. My hon. Friend is right to refer to police training. Some forces have put a great deal of resources into training their officers to deal properly with such incidents, and the rest should follow that example.

Yesterday in Victoria Tower gardens there was a photo opportunity for MPs, organised by Animal Defenders International, with an inflatable elephant. It was as surreal as it sounds. The event was to highlight the fact that DEFRA has yet to arrive at conclusions on the public consultation on the banning of wild animals in circuses. Can the Minister of State tell us when we may expect that announcement?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the decision is imminent. This is very important. We are well aware of the work that he started on this subject, and will make an announcement shortly.

Will the Minister please give us more detail on exactly what will happen with IT management and mapping to speed up payments, particularly for small farmers?

The Rural Payments Agency has been very involved over the past six or nine months with the providers of our IT system in introducing what they apparently term a number of “fixes” to the system to try to overcome many of the problems, and they are now working through, and enabling us to get through, some of the backlog. I suspect that we will shortly be making a decision on making manual payments, to ensure that more farmers, especially small farmers, receive their money.

Kielder forest, which will provide the bulk of the income under the Government’s plans to sell off our national heritage, is home to 31 sites of special scientific interest, as well as red squirrels and ospreys, yet the Government consultation classifies it simply as “commercial”. What guarantees can the Secretary of State give us that the public interest and conservation interests will be met in perpetuity, given that the forest is classified as commercial?

We need to be perfectly clear that Kielder forest is predominantly commercial, but that it retains within it sites of special scientific interest and other recreational amenities that will be protected by the conditions set in the leases—in addition to the legislation that protects such things—if that is the outcome that arises from the proposals under consultation.

Following the very important recommendations laid out in last week’s Foresight report on the role of agricultural research in tackling climate change and promoting food security, what representations can the Secretary of State make to our European colleagues to ensure that we have a regime in Europe that encourages agricultural innovation?

We regularly raise these issues with a number of European Commissioners, not just with the Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. I have often commended the work of the report to European Agricultural Commissioners for the warning that it gives to the food, farming and research community of the twin challenges of environmental change and food security that mean that we have to use all our endeavours to build the capacity in European agriculture to produce more food sustainably for a hungry world.

The consultation on the dangerous dogs legislation posed the possibility of extending the law relating to public land to private property, as supported by postal workers unions. Will the Government make that commitment when they announce the outcome to the consultation to protect workers such as doctors, midwives and postmen and women?

The hon. Lady is right that the consultation posed that question. We believe that existing legislation might be slightly inadequate, but does cover what we might call the curtilage of property—the footpath to the door, or whatever—as well as open public space. However, there was very little support in the result of the consultation for extending the legislation inside the door and into people’s private property—which, as I intimated earlier, is, sadly, where a lot of the attacks happen.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 7 February will be:

Monday 7 February—Opposition day (un-allotted day) [half-day] [first part]. There will be a half-day debate on Government policy on the cost of fuel. This debate will arise on a Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru motion, followed by motions relating to the 10th report from the Standards and Privileges Committee on the registration of income from employment and the eighth report of session 2008-09 from the Standards and Privileges Committee on all-party groups.

Tuesday 8 February—Second Reading of the Education Bill.

Wednesday 9 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 10 February—Motion relating to voting by prisoners. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 11 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 14 February will include:

Monday 14 February—Second Reading of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords].

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 17 February will be a debate on a Transport Committee report: Priorities for investment in the railways.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. On his submission to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority review, which has been published this morning in a written statement, may I welcome what it says about the need for fundamental reform? That view is forcefully shared right across the House, and we all hope that IPSA will listen.

On counter-terrorism, the shadow Home Secretary has offered cross-party talks to draft emergency legislation, but it is still not in the Library. The Government said in their review last week that using a statutory instrument would be very difficult in the event of a major incident. May we have an update?

Last night, we saw just how unpopular the plan is to sell off our woodlands and forests, with several Members on the Government Benches voting against the Government. Lib Dems will have noticed that they do not have a single Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I pity them, having to reply to all those e-mails to explain why they voted for a policy that they must, in their hearts, loathe. At least their president, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), had the courage to speak out and vote with us on that. May we have a detailed statement from the Environment Secretary on the extraordinary claim she made this week, which was repeated by the Prime Minister yesterday, that the reason for the sale is an apparent conflict of interest between the Forestry Commission’s roles as a regulator and as a seller of timber? As a former Environment Secretary, may I tell the Leader of the House that, in my three years in the job, not a single person raised this matter with me? The House is entitled to know what the Secretary of State has discovered in just nine months that none of her predecessors worried about in the 90 years since the Forestry Commission was founded. This is a bad policy looking for an excuse.

I must hand it to the Government, however, and give them credit where it is due. Given that the proposal might not even save any money, it takes a special kind of genius to unite just about everyone else against it. The truth is that people do not agree with it and they do not want it; even No. 10 is now briefing that it does not think it has been very well presented. So not for the first time I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the Government are going to have to change their mind.

Talking of which, there has been much comment this week about the Prime Minister having to come to the rescue of the Health and Social Care Bill because it, too, has been poorly presented. Will the Prime Minister come to the House to explain whether he blames himself for that, given the revelation this week that he is having trouble persuading his own brother-in-law, an NHS cardiologist, that the upheaval is a good idea? His brother-in-law is apparently worried that hospitals will be disadvantaged. If the Prime Minister cannot even reassure his own family about the proposals—and the Health Secretary certainly cannot persuade the House—is it any wonder that the public are not buying them? Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have enough time in Committee properly to consider the Bill, because, to judge from the Second Reading debate, there are still far more questions than there are answers?

May we have a debate on one of the greatest achievements of the previous Labour Government: Sure Start? [Interruption.] It is interesting to hear Conservative Members jeering Sure Start. Before the election, the Prime Minister went up and down the country—we have certainly heard that one before—saying that he was strongly committed to it. He promised that he would back it. He even had the nerve to criticise my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) for trying to frighten people about this; and his right-hand man, who is now the Education Secretary, said:

“On Sure Start, we won’t cut funding”.

It could not have been clearer. Except that we now learn that the budget is going to be cut. A survey by the Daycare Trust and 4Children shows that 250 Sure Start centres are expected to close in the next 12 months, and six of them are going to be chopped by the Tories’ own flagship borough, Hammersmith and Fulham. It is no wonder that parents are worried sick. Another week, another betrayal. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why anyone should now trust any promise made by the Prime Minister before 6 May?

Finally, I have not only been reading the Leader of the House’s submission to IPSA; I have also been reading his blog. Musing on hard times, he wrote:

“I predict that The Times list of the most popular girls’ names in the year may include a new one—Austerity.”

May I predict in return that, when it comes to boys’ names this year, Dave, George and Nick are not going to be very popular? If the right hon. Gentleman is looking for alternatives, may I suggest Complacency, Incompetency and, as for the Deputy Prime Minister, that is a really easy one: Duplicity? What is in a name? A lot!

I think I will take the last observation as a joke, but in any other context the use of the word “duplicity” would not be appropriate. I am sure, however, that good humour is what was intended by the shadow Leader of the House.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman’s punchline did not work.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about IPSA. I am absolutely clear in my own mind that we must adhere to the principle of the independent setting of our allowances; we cannot go back to the bad old days. I am equally clear that we must stick with the principle of transparency. On the other hand, IPSA must recognise that the allowances are meant to support us in the job we were sent here to do: fighting for our constituents, holding the Government to account, and scrutinising legislation. In many respects, the current administration and structure of allowances get in the way of our doing that job. I therefore very much hope that IPSA is able to respond to the representations I have made, and to those which I hope other colleagues will also make, and that it will come up with a revised system that enables us to get on with the job we were sent here to do.

On control orders, I welcome the opportunity of cross-party talks, and I will certainly pursue with the Home Secretary the issue the right hon. Gentleman raised.

We had an extensive debate on forests yesterday, and a lot of the exchanges today were also focused on the forests, so I cannot promise time for an extra debate. I welcome yesterday’s debate however, in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs dismissed many of the myths surrounding our proposals, explained that this was an opportunity to improve the levels of public benefit from our woodlands, and drew attention to the fact that the previous Government sold off 25,000 acres of woodland with a bare minimum of protection. There will be no further debate on that subject for the time being therefore, but we are, of course, consulting and listening, as both the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said yesterday.

On the health reforms, we are simply carrying out the policy of the previous Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown). This is what he said to the Liaison Committee a few years ago:

“We have been asking in people from the private sector to review what we can do to give them a better chance to compete for contracts…so the independent sector increases its role, will continue to increase its role and, in a wider and broader range of areas, will have a bigger role in the years to come.”

He went on to say:

“The test at the end of the day is not private versus public, it is value for money, and it is not dogmatic to support one against the other.”

I therefore hope the Opposition will support what we are doing: driving forward the agenda set out by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

On Sure Start, there are sufficient resources in the programme to maintain the existing structure of Sure Start children’s centres, so I reject the accusation that was made.

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) asked for more time for the Health and Social Care Bill. The Opposition did not vote against the programme motion setting out the time available for the Bill, so it is astonishing that he should raise that subject now.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, perhaps Prudence would have been a more appropriate name.

Order. A great many hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but there is a ministerial statement to follow and then two heavily subscribed debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, time for which it is my responsibility to protect. There is therefore a premium today on single, short supplementary questions and the Leader of the House’s characteristically pithy replies. Even allowing for that, I am afraid that many Members will be disappointed today.

May we please have a statement on the future of the maternity department at Fairfield hospital in Bury, following yesterday’s decision by NHS officials to confirm the closure decision that was made by the last Government?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the decision taken on 2 February by the NHS North West board on the reconfiguration of maternity services in the north-west, which followed a period of consultation. I will, of course, draw his concern to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

The Leader of the House will be aware of today’s very important Westminster Hall debate on parliamentary reform, led by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Will he join me in encouraging as many newly elected Members in particular to take part in the debate to offer their ideas for making this place work better, and will he show his ongoing support for parliamentary reform by attending in person?

Also, the Government have set a grown-up precedent in allowing a free vote on next week’s Backbench Business Committee motion on prisoner voting rights. Will the Leader of the House now ensure that votes on all Backbench Business Committee motions will be unwhipped, to ensure that any outcome this House comes to can truly be said to represent the will of the House?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I do hope to attend the debate on parliamentary reform later today in Westminster Hall, a debate to which my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be replying. He shares my commitment to and appetite for more parliamentary reform.

On the hon. Lady’s second point, I welcome the opportunity that this Government have given the Backbench Business Committee not just to propose subjects but to table motions. If a motion is tabled that causes difficulties for the Government, the Government may have to take a view, as we did with the debate on contaminated blood, so, with my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip sitting a few feet away from me, it would be rash to make any commitment about unwhipped votes.

May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on representation on local enterprise partnerships? My constituency has no representation on the Leeds city region LEP, so we are having to rely on a Bradford-based, Bradford-centric, soon-to-be-imposed shadow mayor.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I would be more than happy to raise the structure of the LEP in his constituency with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, to see whether we can get a broader base of representation.

May we have an urgent debate on the devastating impact of the Government’s policies on bus services, in the light of today’s report showing that Devon would be among the worst affected parts of the country, losing services in Exeter and the rural areas, thereby reversing the great progress made under the Labour Government on improving bus services?

The right hon. Gentleman may have an opportunity to raise that subject in Wednesday’s debate on the revenue support grant for local government. Some 80% of bus services outside London are commercially run, and so do not depend on direct funding from councils. There has been no cut in the financial support that we provide for those services, and we have protected the statutory concessionary travel schemes.

May we have a debate on record-keeping at the UK Border Agency? Hon. Members will be aware that we recently debated the successor to control orders, but we are also routinely told that it is not possible to provide information on how many individuals are using articles 3 and 8 of the European convention on human rights to avoid deportation when they should be removed from this country. Will the Leader of the House have a word with our colleagues in the Home Office to investigate this unsatisfactory situation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I wonder whether he would be able to get the information about the numbers that he quite rightly seeks by tabling parliamentary questions, but in any event I shall raise the matter with the Home Secretary.

In yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate, which I secured, on the future of children’s centres, it became increasingly clear that many local authorities are unable to afford to maintain the current network of Sure Start children’s centres. Given that concern and the recent reports from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) on early intervention, will the Leader of the House think again about providing Government time for a debate on this issue which is incredibly important for the future not just of our children, but of the country?

The Government are committed to the policy to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. There will be an opportunity to pursue the matter further on Monday, when Education Ministers will be before the House, and I will tell my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education that the hon. Gentleman may be in his place to do just that.

On the subject of names, I wonder how many boys born this year would welcome their parents calling them Hilary.

May we have a debate in Government time on the worrying practice that the new Labour Government did nothing about, namely the finger-printing of our children in schools without parental permission? I am delighted that the Government have made plans to deal with that practice, but may we have a debate in Government time to talk about whether it should happen at all?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I will raise the matter with the Home Secretary or the Secretary of State for Education, whichever is the most appropriate, to clarify exactly what the coalition Government’s response is to the procedure to which he has referred.

Recent events in Egypt have demonstrated the importance of the BBC World Service and its interpretation of events. The cuts in the service that were announced recently mean that Voice of America will be the only real international broadcaster left. Will the Leader of the House allocate time for a serious debate on the future of the BBC World Service and how it can return to being the world’s international broadcaster?

I am not sure that the assertion that the Americans have a monopoly on the broadcasting of what is going on Egypt is correct.

The Foreign Secretary made an extensive statement on the World Service last week, which was followed by a series of questions and answers. I cannot promise a debate on the subject, but the next session of Foreign Office questions will provide another opportunity for it to be raised.

Following the right hon. Gentleman’s exchange with the Chairwoman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), may I point out that I have voted for the Government more times than the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer added together?

If the Government must whip, would it not be useful for the details to be on the Order Paper so that we know which votes are whipped and which are not?

Let me put my hon. Friend’s observation into context by saying that I suspect he has also voted against the Government more often than the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister.

I am sure that my hon. Friend receives the same communication that I receive, indicating just how keen the Chief Whip might be on his attendance in relation to particular issues. I am not sure that it would be sensible to put the information on the Order Paper.

Replying to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the Prime Minister said that the previous Government had planned to phase out Remploy workers. That does not appear to be accurate. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the record is corrected?

I understand that a programme has been introduced by Remploy. It is now in the third year of a five-year modernisation plan agreed with the last Government, which involved the merging or closing of 29 factories and the setting of challenging targets for a huge increase in the number of disabled people helped into work. We are totally committed to supporting disabled people in employment. We confirmed as part of the spending review that the five-year £555 million operational budget and status of Remploy would remain unchanged—and we did that at a time of financial constraint.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House why the windows of some Government buildings in Parliament square are still boarded up following the students’ demonstration? The Ministry of Justice managed to fix the windows of the Supreme Court next day, but it seems that the Treasury cannot do the same for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

I am sure that funds are available for that purpose somewhere in the Treasury.

The 41 damaged window panels were removed from the site on 22 January. Replacement work will begin on 12 February and will be completed by the end of the month. Orders were placed by the contractor following clarification and agreement on costs with the loss adjuster.

According to the police, Wind street in Swansea has the second highest level of recorded crime in Britain. May I ask the Leader of the House whether he is free on Saturday night to take a stroll down Wind street with me and to witness at first hand the outstanding work of the police in apprehending criminals? They made 48 arrests in December. Observing their work would help to inform the right hon. Gentleman in advance of the forthcoming debate on the police grant, as it demonstrates that cutting police numbers will endanger the safety of the public.

The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), made it clear that had his party been re-elected, there could have been no guarantee that police numbers would not fall.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous invitation, but I am otherwise engaged on Saturday night.

Will my right hon. Friend consider allocating time for a debate on the role of the voluntary sector? My constituency contains the excellent Erewash council for voluntary service and other voluntary organisations, and a Derbyshire voluntary, community and independent sector volunteering passport scheme has been introduced. Such a debate would provide an excellent opportunity to discuss successful schemes throughout the United Kingdom and the sharing of best practice.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I was pleased to hear about the excellent work being done in her constituency, which is an example of the big society in action. I encourage her either to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or, with other Members, to approach the Backbench Business Committee to establish whether time can be found for a debate on this important and serious issue.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Prime Minister’s pet project, the so-called big society? Phil Redmond, the chair of National Museums Liverpool and a television producer who has been lauded by the Prime Minister, said today that he

“went along with it all because I thought it would be a good way of getting things going, but it’s been impossible to get any traction because of the cuts”.

Is it not about time that we debated the big society on the Floor of the House?

As I indicated in my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Jessica Lee), I should welcome a debate on the big society on the Floor of the House. I am aware of the pressures on many voluntary organisations. That is why we set up a £100 million fund to help smaller charities through this difficult time, and to enable them to continue and develop their sound work.

Given the importance of the Health and Social Care Bill, may we have an opportunity to discuss public health, which performs an important function in helping our health services?

The Health and Social Care Bill contains a fairly large section on public health, because it transfers responsibility for that sector from primary care trusts to local authorities. There should be opportunities for discussion of important health issues in Committee, and my hon. Friend will certainly be able to discuss them on Report.

The Leader of the House has expressed his enthusiasm for further parliamentary reform, and he will be attending this afternoon’s debate on the subject in Westminster Hall. Will he bear in mind the fact that the change in our sitting hours which was introduced in 2002 proved pretty disastrous and pretty un-family friendly for those who wanted to take their children on the school run in London? The question is not as simple as some make it out to be.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the question of the sitting hours is not a simple one. As he may know, the Procedure Committee is about to conduct an inquiry, and I am sure that it would be pleased to hear his representations. I understand that it proposes to present the House with some options at the end of its report so that Members can decide if and how they want to change the sitting hours.

Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate on the establishment of academies aimed specifically at children suffering from autism and Asperger’s syndrome?

That is an important subject which the House ought to debate. My hon. Friend could apply for an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall, or he could approach the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. The House might then be able to give the issue the time that it deserves.

This is an old vintage, Mr Speaker. The Information Commissioner has forced the Foreign Office to give me the stock list of the ministerial wine cellar. A debate on the future of the wine cellar might identify some Government savings. There is a Château Latour 1962 in there, valued at £3,600. Can the Leader of the House tell me which Minister deserves to drink it?

I have made some inquiries. The House will be pleased to hear that consumption of wine has fallen by 30% since the coalition Government took over.

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent statement on iEngage, the secretariat of the newly formed all-party parliamentary group on Islamophobia? iEngage has a track record of being aggressively anti-Semitic and homophobic, and has extensive links with terrorism in Tunisia and the middle east. In its capacity as the secretariat, it now has access to the parliamentary estate. Will the Leader of the House raise the issue with the Serjeant at Arms as soon as possible?

The Serjeant at Arms will have heard what my hon. Friend has said. As he knows, I announced a few moments ago that there would be debate on all-party parliamentary groups on Monday evening, and it will provide an appropriate forum for him to develop his case.

British Midland International recently announced the withdrawal of its service between Glasgow and Heathrow. That will result in hundreds of job losses, and will also have an impact on the local economy and the travelling public. May we have a debate on the future of domestic airlines? It appears that the major British companies are opting for the more profitable transatlantic flights and abandoning the domestic routes.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which I am sure is shared by his constituents. I cannot promise a debate, but I will raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Will the Leader of the House ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to make a statement on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and the OECD’s assessment of the structural deficit at the last election, so that the deficit denial of the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), can be exposed for what it is?

It is indeed the case that debt now stands at more than £1 trillion, its highest ever level. The deficit is the largest in the G20 and in our peacetime history, and we have experienced the deepest and longest recession in the G20. The coalition Government would welcome a debate on the economy, and the opportunity to draw attention to our disastrous inheritance from the last Government.

May we have a statement on the future of the 1,500 people employed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs at Queens dock in Liverpool? I understand that a decision has been reached to close the building in which they work, contrary to the information I was given in a written answer only two weeks ago.

Treasury questions will take place on Tuesday, but I say to the hon. Lady that, along with other colleagues, a lot of us lost our local HMRC offices in the previous Parliament under a programme of closures that her party introduced. However, I will of course raise the specific issue with Treasury Ministers.

In the spirit of sober government, may we have a debate on the UK’s competitiveness, because although the manufacturing figures are to be celebrated and praised, Pfizer’s decision to pull out of east Kent highlights the legacy of years of business being overtaxed, overregulated and discouraged?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the encouraging manufacturing figures published earlier this week. The Opposition have been oddly silent on yesterday’s construction figures, which showed the country returning to growth after the Labour party’s recession. We have not heard a peep from the shadow Chancellor on this morning’s good news that the UK’s service sector hit an eight-month high in the same month.

May we have a debate on issues that Liberal Democrats vote for in this House and then oppose in their constituencies? I suggest that we have a fortnight’s debate to make sure that we can get all the issues in.

The hon. Gentleman is treading on dangerous territory, because I recall a campaign on post offices in the previous Parliament when a large number of Labour Members said that they would oppose post office closures, but then voted against the motion that we put before the House.

I have recently received a number of representations from constituents about empty property rates. Will the Leader of the House consider having an urgent debate on the matter?

There may be an opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise that issue on Wednesday when the House debates local government finance. I understand the concern of those who are leaving their property empty not because they want to but because they cannot find any tenants. I will raise that matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether the draft counter-terrorism Bill is ready? If it is not ready, why have a succession of Ministers, including the Home Secretary, told us that it will be in the Library very soon?

No date was given when the relevant Minister made the statement to the House, which I believe was a fortnight ago. The shadow Leader of the House told us that cross-party talks might take place on this issue so, given that background, it might be sensible not to publish a Bill straight away.

Given that the number of managers in the national health service increased five times faster than the number of nurses, does my right hon. Friend think it would be a good idea to have a debate on best management practice in government?

My hon. Friend rightly makes a point that was also made in last week’s debate on the Health and Social Care Bill. I hope that it will be re-emphasised in Committee. It is indeed our policy to reduce the overheads of running the NHS and put the resources saved into front-line care.

May we have a debate in Government time on the tax gap and the contribution that reducing that gap could make to tackling the deficit? Estimates of the gap vary from £20 billion to £100 billion, and we need to clarify the situation. I note that the Government have invested an additional £900 million to gain £7 billion in additional tax. Given that tax offices have closed, would it not be sensible to have a debate so that we can clarify whether we should be investing in this system, rather than reducing it?

As the hon. Gentleman said himself, we are investing in the system. We have put an extra £900 million into tax collection, precisely to reduce the gap. He will have an opportunity on Tuesday to cross-question the Chancellor on this matter.

I read with interest the Leader of the House’s submission to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority today, including his specific point about family-friendly hours. May I recommend, or ask him to consider, a change that would neither cost the taxpayer any money, nor have anything to do with IPSA, which is to bring forward the time of Thursday sitting from 10.30 am to 9 am, so that colleagues in this House who do not live in the home counties can get home to their families in the north and west of England, Wales, Scotland and Shropshire before midnight?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. There are consequences for the House and for Committees if we move the sitting time forward to 9 o’clock. I say to him what I said to the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), which is that the Procedure Committee will hold an inquiry into sitting hours. It awaits, with mounting anticipation, the representations from my hon. Friend.

Such is the enormous concern among those on both sides of the House about the Government’s plans to close many of our coastguard stations that yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate was completely oversubscribed and many hon. Members did not get the opportunity to speak. Given that, can the Leader of the House schedule a longer debate on these plans, which are greatly concerning many of our seaside communities. The plans were described to me by a shipping expert in the following terms:

“I honestly believe this is complete madness and will result in disaster”.