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Business of the House

Volume 523: debated on Thursday 10 February 2011

The business for the week commencing 14 February will be as follows:

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

Tuesday 15 February—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill.

Wednesday 16 February— Opposition Day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 17 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2011 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2011.

The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.

Colleagues will wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the February recess on Thursday 17 February and return on Monday 28 February.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 February will include:

Monday 28 February—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 and 10 March will be:

Thursday 3 March—A debate on the Public Accounts Committee’s report on tackling inequalities in life expectancy in areas with the worst health and deprivation.

Thursday 10 March—A debate on the Work and Pensions Committee report on changes to housing benefit announced in the June 2010 Budget.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply.

We are due to have the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill at some point. Our clear understanding is that the legislative consent motion from Holyrood will be finalised before we start consideration in Committee. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is still the case?

This week, we learned that more than half the donations to the Tory party have come from City financiers. A party spokesman denied that City donors were influencing policy, but may we have a debate on this?

Scarcely was the magic ink dry on Project Merlin—that was some conjuring trick—than the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman in the other place, the noble Lord Oakeshott, could contain himself no longer. He called the deal “pitiful”, the Treasury negotiators incompetent and arrogant—I wonder who he could have been thinking of—and he then said this about the bonus deal:

“Whether....paid in cash or shares....a multi-million pound bonus is still a multi-million pound bonus whether you have to wait two years to buy the yacht.”

Clearly, this was all too much for the truth deniers on the Treasury Bench, and especially his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who, it seems, sacked him live on television. Does this not all show that when it comes to the Conservatives and the “spivs and gamblers”—not my words, but those of the Business Secretary last September—they certainly are all in it together?

The truth deniers have taken another battering this morning. Some 88 Liberal Democrat council and group leaders have signed an extraordinary letter in The Times attacking their own Government. This is what they say:

“Rather than assist the country’s recovery....the cuts…will do the opposite.”

They accuse Ministers of

“chastising and denigrating local authorities through the media”

and the Communities Secretary of letting them down. May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State so that he can finally admit that getting rid of a few chocolate biscuits and cutting a few salaries is not going to do it, and that the price of his policies will be paid by shut libraries, disappearing Sure Start centres, people losing their jobs and volunteers discovering that there is nowhere left to volunteer? That is why the big society is now in big trouble, and why advisers at No. 10 are trying to blame each other for the mess. So may we have a debate on the deep sense of betrayal that many in the voluntary sector feel, because having been marched up the big society hill, they now discover that on the other side there is not a pot of gold, but a precipice? Is that what Lib Dem MPs really signed up for last May?

To cap what has been a terrible week for Ministers, we heard this morning the sad news that the Deputy Prime Minister has had to cancel his trip to Latin America because the Government have been defeated again in the House of Lords on their gerrymandering Bill. Frankly, I am surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister has not taken the opportunity to flee the country after the battering he received on television last night from angry students. Still, Rio de Janeiro is just about waking up to the news that it will not be enjoying his company next week, and I would not be surprised if the students there try to bring forward the carnival and take to the streets to celebrate.

The House was surprised to discover this week that the Department for International Development gave nearly £2 million of its precious development budget not to vaccinate children or put them into a classroom, but to help pay for the costs of the Pope’s visit to the UK. May we have a debate on this extraordinary use of our development spending, and will the Leader of the House assure us that when the DFID aid reviews are complete they will be reported to the House by the Secretary of State in an oral statement?

Finally, I have been reading the Leader of the House’s blog again and very interesting it is too. I was particularly intrigued to see that he described answering business questions as

“like being in a pub quiz”.

As he invites me, and as almost everyone in the country now accepts that the cuts are being made too fast and are too deep, I will ask a question that is puzzling many people and perhaps he can provide the answer: why on earth should anyone vote Lib Dem in May? And for the bonus question: why should anyone vote Tory either?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. I note that in our exchanges over the past four months he has never actually challenged the business that I have laid before the House. I hope that there is a broad consensus on the way in which the Government are conducting the business and putting it before the House, and that that is commanding support on both sides.

On the legislative consent motion, it is indeed our intention to secure that before we reach the appropriate stage in proceedings on the Scotland Bill, and I will contact my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to confirm that. We would be more than happy to debate party funding and draw attention to the fact that some 80% of the Labour party’s funding comes from the trade unions, whereas my party has a much broader base. Any notion that we are over-influenced by any donations we may get from the City might have been destroyed by the statement on Wednesday, when £800 million was extracted from the banks in the City. I hope that will put an end to that particular myth.

On the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, it was the Labour party that gave a substantial sum of money to the banks and got absolutely nothing in return. By contrast, as the right hon. Gentleman will have seen from the statement that we made yesterday, we secured substantial concessions from the banks—on lower bonuses, on more support, and on money for the big society bank. He needs to contrast the deal that we got with the deal that his party totally failed to secure.

I have indeed read the letter in The Times today from the Liberal Democrat councillors, and let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman of what it said:

“Local government has made efficiency savings of 3% in each of the past eight years—in stark contrast to the runaway spending of central government under the previous administration. We’ve also been planning for further saving since the true state of the economy became apparent six months ago.”

So that is where they are coming from.

On the next issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised about local government, we had a substantial debate yesterday about local government. The fact is that we are borrowing an extra £400 million every day to plug the gap between spending and income, and that means tough decisions for all Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government. The right thing to do is now to sort out the deficit and end Whitehall domination of local government.

On local government funding and closures, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said when she was Culture Minister? She published a libraries consultation paper, in which she said:

“I don’t think Government should prevent authorities from taking local decisions to close libraries if that makes sense locally and the needs of the community are taken into account”.

We hope that local authorities will respond to the challenges that face them and that they will have a comprehensive and efficient library service, which is what they are required to do by statute.

On the Deputy Prime Minister’s movements, the Bill on which we are debating Lords amendments next week is a Bill that he is sponsoring and it is entirely appropriate that he should be here to support it in the House. On the Department for International Development, the Catholic Church does a fantastic amount in terms of aid to underdeveloped countries and it seems entirely right that we should have recognised that in the support we gave to the Pope’s visit. Finally, we look forward to the local government elections and we are confident of not only retaining the seats we have, but winning even more seats from the Opposition, who are still in total denial about the problems that they have left this country with.

Order. As usual a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate people as best I can, but the House will be conscious of the fact that an important and very heavily subscribed debate is taking place afterwards under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, for which I must provide adequate time. So the emphasis is on short questions and short answers.

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the middle east given that the Foreign Secretary will return, over the weekend, from an extremely important visit to some of our very important allies, and given that events taking place in Egypt and possibly elsewhere are of the first importance to the House and the country?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that the Foreign Secretary is making a key visit to the middle east, and the Government will want to keep the House informed. We have had a debate on middle eastern matters in Back-Bench business time, but the Government have reserved the right, if necessary, to have debates in Government time on issues such as the one he refers to.

I thank the Leader of the House for listening to Back Benchers and allocating the next Back-Bench business slot in the Chamber to Monday 28 February. The leader is always very generous on a Thursday in pointing Back Benchers in the direction of the Backbench Business Committee when they demand debates in Government time. Will he emphasise that all non-Government business is legitimate Back-Bench business and that the Backbench Business Committee welcomes representations with open arms every Tuesday at 1 pm? Given the obvious and necessary conventions during statements and questions, will he meet me to discuss how I can make my public service announcements without thinly veiling them as rather convoluted questions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. We did indeed listen to the representations that she and others made that Back-Bench business should not take place exclusively on Thursdays and, as she has generously recognised, we now have a Back-Bench debate on a Monday. I am a keen supporter of the Wright recommendations, which worked out the allocations for what the Government and her Committee ought to do, and we are anxious to abide by those. I welcome her public service announcements in the middle of business questions. In due course, we will move to a new regime, when we have a House business Committee, and there might then be an opportunity for her and other hon. Members to make such announcements in a different format.

May we have a debate on the increasing threat to endangered wildlife throughout the world? Is my right hon. Friend aware that growing demand for ivory in China is causing endangered African elephants to be butchered in ever-increasing numbers? If we cannot have a debate, will the Government at least tell the Chinese that all civilised countries in the world want to see an end to this sickening, barbaric and illegal trade?

I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend says and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Foreign Secretary, who will then want to respond in appropriate diplomatic language to the Chinese. On the broader point, it will be possible for the Backbench Business Committee to listen to his representations that the House should debate this crucial matter and I hope that on a Tuesday, at the appropriate time, he might present himself to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and her Committee.

Could we have a debate on the efficiency of the Cabinet Office, which appears to have got a bit rusty since my day? It has double-booked the Deputy Prime Minister—he has an important piece of legislation next week and he has cancelled a trip to Brazil. How much has that cost?

The reason we are debating the Bill next week rather than earlier is because of the performance of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in another place, who have taken much longer to process the Bill than they needed to. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would expect, putting the House first next week.

May we have a debate, led by the Leader of the House, on the conduct of Members in the Chamber? This follows the revelations that a Member who happens to have a disability was subject to mimicry, face-pulling and jeering. The response given was that had some of those Members known about that Member’s disability, they would not have done that, but the inference is that they still feel that mimicry, face-pulling and jeering is acceptable, but it is not. Let us stamp it out.

I think I am verging on to your responsibilities, Mr Speaker, in commenting on the performance of Members in the House, but I am sure that Members on both sides will condemn the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) was treated when he made that speech on child trust funds. I very much hope that there will be no recurrence of that incident. On the general point about behaviour in the Chamber, responsibility for that happily rests with you, Mr Speaker, and not with me.

Last week in Munich, the Prime Minister made a very important speech about the need to tackle extremist Islamist ideology. At the same time, I hear that there have been significant cuts to the organisation Quilliam, which is a very effective counter-extremist organisation. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for us to have a debate about how we can tackle these extremely important, complex and difficult issues, and particularly about the role of Quilliam in being very brave on that agenda?

I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to the Quilliam Foundation, which does heroic work in that important area and continues to receive six-figure funding from the Government. I will draw her comments to the attention of the Home Secretary. I hope there will be broad endorsement of what the Prime Minister said in his speech on multiculturalism about the need to tackle extremism in all its forms. We cannot allow extremists to propagate their message unchallenged and we need less of the passive tolerance of recent years and more active, muscular liberalism. I would welcome a debate on that subject.

May I ask my right hon. Friend if we could find time for a short debate about the role of the Committee of Selection? Will he confirm that he is aware that one of our hon. Friends, who was elected to this House to major on the health service, was apparently asked by a Whip and a Minister to decline from tabling any amendments or speaking in the Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee, otherwise she would not be appointed to that Committee? I understand that she has not been appointed to that Committee. We are all grown-ups; we know that whipping happens, but are there not limits to how much Whips and Ministers should be seeking to influence the scrutiny process, and does not this make the case for making the Committee of Selection elected rather than full of people appointed by the usual channels?

I heard the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made in Westminster Hall last Thursday in the debate on parliamentary reform, when she shared with those there her disappointment at not being appointed to that Public Bill Committee. I served on the Committee of Selection probably for longer than anyone else in this Chamber as a non-Whip, and there was a Bateman cartoon moment when I called a Division, which apparently had not been done in the Committee of Selection for a very long time.

Speaking personally, I think that every hon. Member should have the right to put their case to the Committee of Selection that they should be considered for service on a Public Bill Committee, and then it is a matter for the Committee of Selection to decide. I personally would welcome the presence on the Committee of Selection of not just business managers but representatives of Back Benchers.

I am sure the whole House will join with me in extending our sympathy to those who have been killed this morning in the crash of the Belfast-Cork flight and extend our best wishes for the early recovery of those injured.

May we have a debate in Government time, before the Budget, on the high price of fuel in Northern Ireland—the price of domestic heating oil and the prices at the pump for diesel and petrol, which are the highest in the UK?

I am sure the whole House will share the sentiments that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed about the casualties in the aircraft at Cork and want to send our good wishes for the survivors.

We had a debate last night on precisely the subject that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned—the high price of domestic heating oil—which was answered by the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). I will indeed see, perhaps in conjunction with the Backbench Business Committee, whether there are any other opportunities for debate; the right hon. Gentleman might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or another debate on the Adjournment, which might focus on the specific situation in Northern Ireland.

In Warwickshire, the number of people employed in manufacturing has fallen from 34,000 in 2001 to just over 26,000 in 2009—a fall of nearly 25%. As the latest Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, “Trade and Investment for Growth”, made clear, boosting manufacturing is vital not only to increase employment but to rebalance our economy. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on how we can achieve the manufacturing growth that is so essential to our economy?

I endorse the sentiments that my hon. Friend expresses. Next Thursday there will be an opportunity to raise the matter with BIS Ministers, who will be at the Dispatch Box. We have acted to improve the environment for manufacturers, both nationally and in the midlands, with lower and simpler business taxes, investment in apprenticeships, wider access to finance and the Government-wide commitment to boosting exports—plus, of course, the regional growth fund, for which my hon. Friend’s constituents will be eligible to bid.

Early-day motion 1367 has received support from over 100 MPs in just 10 days.

[That this House recognises and honours the immense courage and patriotism shown by UK armed service personnel and their dependants; commits to providing them with the highest levels of support and reward; notes with concern the Government’s proposed permanent switch to the consumer prices index from the retail prices index for the annual indexation of benefits and pensions since this represents a year-on-year reduction which will impact when the economy has returned to growth; further notes the cumulative financial loss this will cause service personnel and their dependants, including war widows and those serving in Afghanistan now; warns that a double amputee 28 year old corporal will lose £587,000 by the age of 70 and a 34 year old widow of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan will lose almost £750,000 over the course of her lifetime; and urges the Government to commit to making this switch temporary so that as soon as the fiscal climate allows and the deficit has been paid off our forces and their dependants receive that higher rate of pensions and benefits they deserve.]

It calls on the Government to honour the military covenant and give our disabled soldiers and war widows RPI rather than CPI increases on their pensions. Our servicemen have done their duty for our country, and are being let down when their need is greatest. Will the Leader of the House please agree to a debate on this important matter, so that the Government can hear the views of MPs who want a fair deal for our armed services families?

I pay tribute to the work of our armed forces. We will soon publish a new tri-service armed forces covenant, which will be the first of its kind, setting out the relationship between the armed forces community, the Government and the nation. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Armed Forces Bill, which is currently going through the House, places on the Secretary of State a commitment to lay before Parliament every year a report on what is being done to live up to the covenant, and he will have heard the Prime Minister yesterday, at this Dispatch Box, outlining the steps we have taken to support our armed forces.

With co-ordinated strike action being planned by the paymasters of the Opposition—the trade union movement—will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a debate on reform of trade union laws?

If my hon. Friend looks at the Queen’s Speech, she will realise that we are not planning any reform of trade union law in this Session of Parliament, which is already fairly congested. However, I would welcome a debate, perhaps in Back-Bench time, on the relationship between the trade unions and this House and the trade unions and society generally, and I hope that in that debate the moderate elements within the trade unions will put their case forward and see off some of the hotheads.

Last August, I received information that DFID Ministers had plans to cut 165 jobs at DFID in East Kilbride. At that time I was accused by Ministers of scaremongering and putting information into the public domain that was wholly inaccurate. At 10.30 this morning, the staff at DFID were told that more than 140 jobs will be lost in that office. Will the Leader of the House confirm to me, therefore, that DFID Ministers will make an oral statement to the House, explaining why these job losses are taking place, explaining the impact on both the multilateral and the bilateral aid reviews, and finally, apologising to the staff of DFID at East Kilbride and me for misleading them last year?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the loss of jobs in his constituency. Next Wednesday, there is half an hour of questions to DFID Ministers, where there will be an opportunity for him to raise the subject. I will let my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State know that he is likely to be in his place to raise that important issue.

May I endorse what the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said about the cuts to the grant to the Quilliam Foundation, and call for a statement specifically on that? While I welcome the Leader of the House’s response to her, may I point out to him that there is a great difference between a six-figure sum of about £124,000 and a six-figure sum in excess of £800,000? The right hon. Lady did very important work on this matter when she was a Cabinet Minister and her views deserve to be listened to very attentively.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I repeat what I said to the right hon. Lady. The Home Office receives a wide range of bids for funding from many organisations, and as with other areas of public spending that funding is subject to value-for-money and effectiveness assessment, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of the very strong views in the House on that grant.

In response to the question that the shadow Leader of the House asked about the Scotland Bill, the Leader of the House said it was the Government’s intention not to proceed until they had secured the legislative consent motion. Notwithstanding that this Government cannot secure any such thing—that is a matter for the Scottish Parliament—can we have a guarantee that the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill will not proceed until the Scottish Parliament has finished its deliberations and the LCM has been voted for?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I prefer to rest on the answer that I gave to the shadow Leader of the House. It is our intention to secure the LCM before we proceed with the Committee stage of the Bill.

A recent e-mail to Members from the Stop HS2 campaign was riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions. The high-speed rail link between London and Manchester is absolutely essential for promoting investment in northern constituencies such as mine, but unfortunately a ragtag alliance of luddites and nimbys appears to be making ludicrous arguments against the plans. May we have a debate on high-speed rail so that these falsehoods can be tackled head on?

The Attorney-General will have heard the robust language used by my hon. Friend to describe other hon. Members. I think that I am right in saying that there is a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on HS2, and I hope that that will be an opportunity to debate the matter further. I remind my hon. Friend that, as he knows, it is the Government’s policy to proceed with this investment.

May we have a debate on the big society and the yawning gap between the Prime Minister’s warm words and the reality? Home-Start is a wonderful charity, working with the most vulnerable families in your constituency, Mr. Speaker, and that of the Leader of the House, and it has been repeatedly praised by the Prime Minister, yet funding is being completely withdrawn from 70 of its branches, including mine in Exeter, many of which are closing. Is that really what he means by the big society?

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that some 3 million people in this country want to volunteer but at the moment are not doing so and that there is an untapped potential that we want to unlock through our big society initiative. There is a good tradition of volunteering in this country and it is right for the Government to try to develop that.

May we have a debate on the financial code on bonuses, which was introduced on 1 January? The Chancellor has introduced the toughest such code of any financial centre of any size in the world, but, most importantly, it should encourage behaviour that creates value by bonuses being deferred for at least three years, being linked to performance and being taken in shares, which can go down as well as up.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He may have heard the statement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday when he contrasted the previous Government’s lack of success in getting a number of banks to sign up to the code with the large number that we have persuaded to sign up to it, which, as he said, is one of the toughest in Europe.

May I add my voice to a call for a debate on the Prime Minister’s important speech at the weekend, so that we can discuss in the House how we can build a much stronger sense of what it means to be British, based on the contribution that people are prepared to make, whether they want to work hard, play by the rules, pay their way, whether they are prepared to speak English, because that is the only way to play a full role in British society, and their commitment to the great British values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance?

I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, which is very much in the same vein as that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I would welcome such a debate, for which I think there is an appetite in the House. We should be absolutely clear what is meant by my right hon. Friend differentiating Islamist extremism, which is a political ideology, from Islam. As I said, we need a genuinely liberal country such as this one, which believes in certain values, and we should do more actively to promote them.

Greenfield sites in my constituency and across Leeds are being lost to development at appeals, despite their being turned down by local councillors. May we have an urgent debate on how to prevent and preserve these sites, and reintroduce a sequential approach to planning, particularly during this interim period while the Localism Bill goes through the Parliament?

My hon. Friend will welcome the provisions in the Localism Bill, which will give much greater weight to the views of local people than the present top-down arrangement. He raises a key issue about what happens before the Bill kicks in, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

In view of recent events in Sudan, most of them positive, but still in a challenging context, does the Leader of the House agree that there should be a debate on the Floor of the House so that the many Members who are interested in this very important issue can participate?

I understand what the right hon. Gentleman says, which reinforces a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) that there is an appetite in the House to debate the middle east. I would like to reflect on what he says and see whether we can find an appropriate opportunity for the House to share its views on these important issues.

As a proud trade union member, not affiliated to the Labour party, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the safety of NHS workers.

[That this House is concerned by the risks and threats posed to nurses when working alone, especially when working late shifts in the evenings and at night-time, especially in Harlow or the surrounding villages; notes that nurses are not always supplied with panic alarms or torches, and that many are affected by lone working policies, where they do not have organised chaperones or a buddy system, even very late at night; further notes that this is almost never the case for a GP or doctor; regrets that mobile telephone signals are not wholly reliable in some areas for emergency contact; and therefore calls on the Government to look at what urgent steps might be taken to protect NHS nurses on the frontline.]

As I highlighted in my early-day motion 1409, many nurses in my constituency of Harlow and the nearby villages work alone late into the night. They are not always given safety equipment, such as panic alarms and torches, and they are not allowed travelling companions. Will the right hon. Gentleman write to the Health Secretary to raise this issue?

Like my hon. Friend, I am a non-trade union member. I was expelled from the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs in the 1970s and described as a “pin-striped bovver boy”.

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue about the safety of staff working on their own for the NHS, which has a responsibility to look after its staff. The management service has rolled out an alarm protection service for NHS staff who work alone, and employers can take advantage of the service by providing staff who work alone with alarms. I understand that his PCT has taken advantage of this service.

I think that the business statement implies that on Tuesday we will have a chance to debate the Lords amendment on a threshold before the referendum on AV becomes mandatory. As an electoral reformer myself, I want the referendum to go through and I will vote yes, but it would be difficult to accept that the result could be compulsory on an extremely low turnout. What is the Government’s attitude likely to be towards this on Tuesday?

I think that I am right in saying that when we debated the matter in this House, Opposition Front Benchers were against a threshold, and that certainly remains the position of the Government. But there will be an opportunity on Tuesday, as I said, for the House to debate the Lords amendments, including the one on the threshold.

In the light of the comments by the shadow Chancellor claiming that the UK did not have a structural deficit before the recession, and figures from the House of Commons Library showing that it did in every year from 2000-01 onwards, may we have a debate on facing up to reality?

In a sense, we had that debate on Tuesday, when the Chancellor took the shadow Chancellor to task. For the shadow Chancellor to deny that there was a structural deficit even before the banking crisis is simply to deny reality.

Yesterday, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, launched the Foresight project’s report on global food and farming futures. May we have a debate in Government time to consider the implications of the report and its effects on climate change, biodiversity, poverty, hunger and water shortages throughout the world?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It is an important report. I suggest that he apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, which I am sure would be well attended in view of the importance of the subjects that he has raised.

My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the concern of communities in Norfolk and Suffolk about the effects of coastal erosion. One of the ways of potentially addressing that is by establishing a community solidarity fund to pay for preventive measures. Will he confirm that the Government support that approach, and perhaps help us to arrange for an early debate on the issue?

The Government are very much in favour of the community support that my hon. Friend has just mentioned to tackled coastal erosion. Local authorities already have the necessary powers to raise funds and carry out coastal erosion works, but if there are any barriers to the initiative to which my hon. Friend refers, the Government would be happy to discuss them with him.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the unfairness facing the 500,000 women who were born between 6 October 1953 and 5 April 1955, who will now have to wait for more than one year in order to reach their state retirement age because of the acceleration of the raising of the state retirement age to 66, and particularly the group who were born between 6 May and 5 June 1954, who will have to wait up to two years before they reach state retirement age?

I understand the strong views that the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of those who are caught in the gap to which she refers. There will be Department for Work and Pensions questions on Monday, but, subject to a decision of the Backbench Business Committee, we usually have a debate on international women’s day. I do not want to pre-empt any decision by that Committee, but that would seem an appropriate subject to raise if such a debate took place.

I draw your attention, Mr Speaker, to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a board member of the Social Investment Business. May we have a debate in Government time on yesterday’s fantastic news about £200 million of private sector money going into the big society bank? I am sure that all Members would welcome that and want to attend, particularly the Leader of the Opposition, who tried to get that going in 2007 when he was in the Cabinet Office?

I agree that such a debate would be well supported. My hon. Friend underlines the point that we managed to secure that from the banks, which Opposition Members totally failed to do when in government. The £200 million—a huge sum—will be put to fantastic use by those who believe in the big society.

Given that it is the low-paid and those on low incomes who are paying the highest price for the cuts, that the people who caused those cuts, the bankers, are now bankrolling the Tory party and that those bankers are now enjoying better and higher bonuses and tax cuts, may we have a debate on who is generating this Government’s economic policies—the Government or the bankers?

It is no use going on and on and blaming the bankers. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the position this country was in before the banking crisis, he will see that we were running a huge structural deficit. There is no conviction at all when Opposition Members go on trying to blame the banks, because it is they who are responsible for the difficult decisions we now must take. His party did absolutely nothing about bonuses; they obliged the banks that they supported to go on paying market rate bonuses, whereas we have secured a reduction.

May we have an urgent debate on the performance of Southeastern trains, whose contract is due for extension, so that its performance figures can be fully and thoroughly scrutinised on the Floor of the House, because many of my constituents are receiving a poor service?

I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend’s constituents are not getting the service to which they are entitled from Southeastern trains. There is a provision in the agreement for a two-year extension, subject to a continuation review where performance is assessed, and the performance data provided for assessment are subject to rigorous audit by performance analysts in the Department for Transport. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport expects to notify the operator of the outcome of this review in due course, and I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to his attention.

Will the Leader of the House allow time to discuss the alarming changes imposed on the terms and conditions of employees of the House and parliamentary staff, including the long service award for 30 years’ service?

As that relates to the employment of House of Commons staff, it might be a matter for the House of Commons Commission to discuss. I am sure that it would be happy to receive a letter from the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to pursue the case further.

May we have a debate to convey the concerns of the House about the plight of Said Musa, who is in prison in Afghanistan and facing execution for being a Christian? Given the urgency and sensitivity of the matter, will the Leader of the House raise it at the highest levels so that we can stop that heinous act?

This is a terrible case of denying the right of freedom of religion. We will continue to remind the Afghan Government of their duty to abide by commitments on freedom of religion and belief and to respect freedom of worship, as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

Many hundreds of pensioners have written to me with concerns about their public sector pensions being increased in future by the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index. May we have an urgent debate on this important issue?

The hon. Gentleman refers to a decision that we announced some time ago that affects all public sector pensions. We will have the Budget next month, and normally the Budget debate provides an opportunity to debate such issues.

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal for a debate on social care, and in particular on the introduction of personal budgets and their impact on the quality and range of providers?

We attach great importance to social care, which is why an extra £1 billion has been found to invest in it. My view is that self-directed support and personal budgets enable a much better tailored service to be provided to receivers of care. It is part of our agenda to drive that forward, move away from the set menu that all too many local authorities offer and have a much more diverse range of providers so that people can get better value for money.

May we have a debate on knife crime, which is a serious concern for my constituents in Dover and Deal? There were more than 100 serious knife crimes a day in 2008-09, and in 80% of cases the perpetrators escaped jail. With the Home Office having taken positive steps and the recent report by knife crime crusader Brook Kinsella, this would be a good time for the House to debate the matter.

I welcome what my hon. Friend says. I cannot promise a debate, but he rightly draws attention to the initiative of Brook Kinsella. The Home Secretary has announced more than £80 million to tackle knife, gun and gang crime, responding to that report. Under Labour, there were more than 100 serious knife crimes a day, and we want to reduce that figure.

May we have an urgent debate on the size of the national debt, and will the Leader of the House please ensure that it is wide enough to look at historical trends in its growth? Those trends will show that when the Leader of the Opposition was born, national debt stood at £612 per person in this country, whereas today it stands at a frightening £22,265 per person.

Opposition Members say that they are concerned that the Government are selling out on the next generation. My hon. Friend reminds the House graphically of the debt that we are passing on to our children and grandchildren. One of the reasons we want to take early action on the deficit is to reduce the burden that we inflict on the next generation.

In order better to facilitate the future business of the House, would my right hon. Friend consider sorting out the wonky queuing system in the voting Lobbies? Those of us among the 245 Members who have to struggle through the G-to-M group have a far tougher time than those going through in his own group, in which there are only 192 Members. I suggest that the answer to the problem is to promote all hon. Members whose surnames begin with “Mc” to his queue, which would still be the smallest, as Divisions would be far less likely to be delayed.

I want to speak up for the minority whose names begin with letters between S and Z. Having a name beginning with Y has been a serious disadvantage in every election I have fought, and a small compensation for that is going through the voting Lobby slightly faster than my hon. Friend. It is an advantage that I am reluctant to forgo.

I, too, feel that with a passion.

Recently, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted that over the past nine years approximately £1 billion of waste was incurred by the Highways Agency on upgrading the M25. At a time of public sector constraint in budgets, and when we need greater infrastructure investment, may we have a debate on the auditing of that important agency?

There will be opportunities to debate PAC reports. We welcome the report to which my hon. Friend refers, which was published on 8 February, on the mishandled M25 project. We are determined to get value for money for taxpayers and want to learn the lessons of the report and act on its recommendations.

Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on financial regulation so that we can examine the failures of the system set up by the shadow Chancellor and move to a system in which banks can be competitive and yet pay their way?

There will be legislation on financial regulation, as we hope to put right the regime that we inherited, which manifestly failed. When that Bill comes forward, in either substantive or draft form, my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to develop his arguments.