House of Commons
Thursday 3 March 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport was asked—
Creative and Leisure Industries
The creative and leisure industries are vital to our economic growth. For the creative industries we have announced plans to give Britain the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015, and for the leisure industry we have announced a plan to attract 2 million more tourists to the United Kingdom over the coming years.
This week we have seen the benefits of investment in the UK film industry, and the presentation of the Oscar awards. I am sure that we all wish to congratulate the winners. We have also observed this week that many people are concerned about the future of the British television industry following decisions about the future of monopolies in the industry. Will Ministers learn from the experience of the film industry, and consider what could be done through tax breaks to encourage television production in this country?
I echo the hon. Lady’s comments about the Oscars. I know that the whole House will wish to send warm congratulations to Colin Firth, Tom Hooper and all those involved in “The King’s Speech” on their four Oscars, to the visual effects team who worked on “Inception”, and to Christian Bale on his role in “The Fighter”.
I agree with the hon. Lady that the British film industry is a great success story, but the British independent television sector is a huge success story in its own right without the aid of tax breaks. It is the biggest independent television sector in Europe and north America, and possibly in the world. I think that it is doing really well. There are always ways in which we can do better, but this is the first time that I have heard anyone say that such a successful industry needs additional tax breaks.
Local television offers an exciting opportunity to all parts of the United Kingdom, both socially and economically. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that that becomes a reality, especially given that the interleaved licence has already been sold off in Manchester and in Wales?
I thank my hon. Friend not just for his question, but for his sustained interest in the importance of local television, particularly in Wales. I was especially pleased to learn that Tinopolis, a Welsh independent production company, had expressed interest in running a new local television network channel.
The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we must look at the spectrum that is available, and see whether we can find a way of attracting bids for it from a new generation of local television companies. I believe that the local television industry could become a brand-new successful, profitable, dynamic creative industry, creating thousands of jobs for this country.
I think that the Secretary of State is aware that “The King’s Speech” was funded by the Film Council, which he has just abolished.
As the Secretary of State has said, the creative industries are a great British success story: apart from financial services, they are the biggest driver of United Kingdom jobs and growth. He was bullish in serving up cuts to the Treasury. What leadership will he provide to produce a jobs and growth strategy for our creative industries?
First, let me correct something that the hon. Gentleman said. “The King’s Speech” was funded with lottery money. Thanks to the coalition Government’s lottery reforms, lottery money for the film industry will increase by 60% over the period of this Parliament. What we are questioning is whether that money should be distributed by a quango which pays eight people more than £100,000 and three people more than the Prime Minister.
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about a few things that we have done. We have secured an additional £530 million to give Britain the best superfast broadband network in Europe. We have announced plans to make the Olympic park into a new east London tech hub. We have reduced corporation tax, and we have got rid of Labour’s jobs tax. All those things are vital to the creative and digital industries, many of which are small companies.
The Government have increased VAT, which is destroying our tourist industry. The Secretary of State is clearly living on a different planet. Broadband roll-out has been delayed. There has been no progress on the Digital Economy Act 2010. We have a broken promise on tax breaks for the video games industry. BBC cuts will have an impact on original content. All that is happening at a time when other countries are increasing their support for creative industries.
Will the Secretary of State show some leadership in two specific ways? We are willing to work with him if he will bring forward the new communications Act from 2015 to 2012 or 2013 at the latest; and will he establish a cross-Government taskforce, chaired at Cabinet level, to produce a jobs and growth plan in partnership with creative industries over the next 12 months?
Let me tell the hon. Gentleman the leadership I have been showing. His Government safeguarded £200 million for superfast broadband; we have increased that to £830 million. His Government had no strategy for the tourism industry; we persuaded the industry to contribute £50 million of match funding to draw an additional 2 million visitors to the UK. We are also working hard to implement the Digital Economy Act, as we think the principles behind it are important, but it is very difficult to implement because many of its measures did not get proper parliamentary scrutiny as the hon. Gentleman’s discredited Labour Government rushed it through Parliament in their final dying days.
We have made an assessment, and we believe the picture is particularly good. We believe the tourism industry can achieve projected growth of 150,000 new jobs and £34.5 billion extra gross value added by 2020. I intend imminently to publish a statement of Government policy, which will set out how we will work with the industry to support our economic growth objectives.
Last year, tourism was worth £2.8 billion to the Liverpool city region. It is crucial to our region, and it is also a growing sector of our industry. Literature is part of the tourism offer, and as today is world book day and, as I speak, Frank Cottrell Boyce and a team of kids from Merseyside are on their way down to Euston with a local charity, the Reader Organisation, will the Minister extend his gratitude to the charity for the dynamic work that it is doing?
I am delighted and happy to praise both world book day and the Reader Organisation. The role of the creative arts in Liverpool’s regeneration and recent economic growth is undoubted, and the city got off to a brilliant start in 2008, when it was the capital of culture.
One of the greatest tourist attractions in my constituency is the historic woodland of Cannock Chase, which The Times recently ranked as the best forest in the country for mountain biking. The newly created independent panel set up to consider the future of forests can give Cannock Chase the status of “heritage”. Does my hon. Friend agree that such labels are important in encouraging tourists to visit destinations and spend their pounds there?
I do agree. Britain’s heritage of all kinds—including both natural and built environment—is a tremendously important reason why people visit destinations in our country, both from abroad and as internal tourism, and it will only be to our strength and advantage if we can increase that offer still further.
The first annual May day bank holiday is very important to my town of Hastings, as we attract more than 20,000 visitors and £5 million in revenue. We are therefore very concerned about the consultation on moving this bank holiday. Will the Minister accept a petition to consider abandoning the proposal—which already has over 1,000 signatures—from me, together with a few morris men and our Mad Jack from Hastings?
I particularly look forward to meeting the morris men from Hastings, and I will, of course, be delighted to accept the petition. I should just reassure my hon. Friend that any proposals that are produced are not preferred Government outcomes; they are genuinely options for consultation, and the Government have no preconceptions about any potential solution.
Every year at Stafford castle in my constituency there is an excellent outdoor Shakespeare production, which also makes a fair contribution to the local economy. Will the Minister encourage both the national and the new local television stations to make it a priority to bring such productions to a wider audience so that people may be persuaded to come and enjoy live productions?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that, rightly, Ministers cannot direct broadcasters to broadcast particular programmes, although I understand that they are under a duty to include both arts and regional programming. However, I should have thought that it would obviously be a good thing for all concerned, including local performers and the local tourism industry, for such events to be showcased. We have already mentioned some of the benefits enjoyed by places such as Liverpool, and I am sure others will want to share in that success.
If we want tourists to come to Britain, can we give them a slightly better welcome? Arriving at terminals 1 or 3 at Heathrow is like arriving in a third-world slum—it is easier to get into Pakistan or North Korea. There are very surly, disagreeable officials and horrible 1970s collectivist architecture. Can we brighten up this gateway to Britain? Will the Minister talk to the Transport Minister about that?
I will leave aside the Foreign Office’s doubtless immediate response to try to repair relations with the countries that the right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned. I agree, however, that we as a country need to do more to make our entry ports more welcoming to foreign visitors, and to British people returning from abroad, and we are currently actively considering a number of measures.
Young people in Merseyside tell me that they are keen to take up jobs in the tourism, culture and creative sectors. Will the Minister tell me what measures he has asked the Chancellor to include in the Budget to help young people take up apprenticeships and other such opportunities in this fast-growing sector?
I am sure that everybody here will understand that if I did reveal what I have asked to be in the Budget, I would be summarily flayed by people in the Treasury, for rather understandable reasons. What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we regard the building of skills in the tourism industry as of paramount importance. There is an acknowledged shortcoming in some parts of our tourism industry, but there is a huge opportunity to demonstrate to people—if we get it right—what a great career path the industry can offer.
York’s museums and mediaeval buildings draw thousands of tourists to the city. Sadly, last year, York Minster and the national railway museum lost £6 million of Government grants. I understand that the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) is coming to York tomorrow to encourage private sponsorship of our built heritage. I welcome him and wish him well, and I would like to know what plans the Government have to get more private sponsorship of our built heritage.
The £100 million Titanic signature project is nearing completion in Belfast. What conversations has the Minister had with Executive Ministers in Northern Ireland about how best the 2012 anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking can be exploited for tourism when people come to Britain for the Olympics?
It is tremendously important that we use the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase the whole of Britain, rather than just to showcase London for a couple of weeks in the middle of the year, so I completely share the right hon. Gentleman’s aims and ambitions. The main thing that we are doing is to create this £100 million of match funding that the Secretary of State mentioned. That is aimed at marketing the whole of the UK to everybody abroad to showcase what the UK can offer, and not just during the fortnight of the Olympics and during the Paralympics thereafter. We want to create a step-change increase in the number of people visiting in 2013 and the years after.
Tourism (Economic Effects)
As I just mentioned, the tourism industry is a tremendously important part of our economy. It accounts for £90 billion of spend—more than £115 billion if we include the companies that supply the tourism industry and the leisure economy—and for 4.4% of our jobs.
I hope that I can entice you, Mr Speaker, as well as many right hon. and hon. colleagues, to North Yorkshire to sample some of the delights of the market towns, the seaside at Filey, and Castle Howard and other places of historical interest. Will the Minister accept a representation from me today as part of the Government’s consultation on tourism? I can tell him that North Yorkshire will not be helped by being submerged in the dark and the cold during even longer and darker mornings, so I hope that the Government will put an end to the consultation, which will not do anything for tourism in North Yorkshire.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would accept that any change in daylight saving time is the responsibility of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. However, I take her point that the tourism industry has campaigned quite loudly on that. At this point, I can only repeat the Prime Minister’s assurance that no progress will be made without the agreement of all parts of the UK; we do not want to impose anything over the heads of, for example, the Scots or the Northern Irish.
Arts Council (London and Croydon)
Arts Council England is able to supply figures for only the first three quarters of 2010-11, as the financial year is not yet complete. From 1 April 2010 to 1 December 2010, London received total funding, including lottery and grant in aid, of £191.4 million. Croydon received total funding of just over £210,000.
I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that that is a pitiful share of the total London budget for London’s largest borough. Neither the Fairfield Halls arts complex, nor the London Mozart Players, one of our best chamber orchestras, gets any funding. Will he talk to Arts Council England about why it is pursuing a zone 1 policy so beloved of the former Mayor of London?
I hear what my hon. Friend says and I commend him on his work, particularly with the Croydon Art Society. I know that the London director of the Arts Council met the director of culture in Croydon in January, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that the arms-length principle means that Ministers cannot interfere in the Arts Council’s funding decisions.
I went to an event that was sponsored by a number of organisations funded by the Arts Council in London, where I saw the work of a group of young people who, through the future jobs fund, were apprenticing themselves to organisations such as the Royal Opera House and other cultural bodies in London. They are coming to present what they have learned through their experience to the House of Commons in a couple of weeks and I wondered whether the Minister would come and listen to them along with the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, who has already accepted my invitation.
We have already mentioned the £100 million match funding marketing pot that we have created with key firms in the tourism industry. That will be aimed at promoting and marketing the UK abroad to potential inbound visitors.
Returning to the issue of tourists at our airports, for many non-EU nationals the condition of London’s airports and the length of immigration queues in particular can be depressing. What reassurance can the Minister give that action could be taken, particularly for travellers from countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who do not need a visa to enter the UK?
I am delighted to confirm that we are in close discussions with the Home Office and the UK Border Agency about trying to move forward further and faster with measures to improve the queue management for anyone with a chipped passport, which is a relatively new piece of technology that allows us to process people in queues much faster and verify their identity much more quickly, thereby getting them through in a much more timely and welcoming fashion.
Next month, the Turner Contemporary, which is set to become one of Europe’s finest art galleries, is due to open in Margate and we hope that it will attract visitors from all over the world. On the opening weekend, Network Rail is to carry out major engineering works on the line between London and Margate. Could my hon. Friend have a word with the Department for Transport to ensure that it understands the importance of keeping roads and railways open so that visitors can get to the attractions that we wish them to see?
The Olympic Park Legacy Company is responsible for determining the legacy of the Olympic stadium. We have now approved the OPLC board’s recommendation for the preferred bidder, the consortium comprising West Ham United and the London borough of Newham, and contractual negotiations will now proceed to agree acceptable terms of lease.
Now that the decision has been determined, will the Minister meet me, Haringey council and Daniel Levy from Tottenham Hotspur club to ensure that Tottenham Hotspur is able to move forward with its plans for the Northumberland Park development? The Minister will appreciate that there remain real economic concerns in what is the poorest area of London to ensure that the club can maintain its presence in Tottenham as it wants.
The short answer is yes, of course I will. I have met the right hon. Gentleman a number of times during the bidding process and I have also made an offer through the Tottenham board to see whether I can do anything to help. I suspect that my powers in this area will be limited, because I think that the arguments and issues are to do with planning, but if there is anything I can do to help, I will do it.
Will the Minister also take into account the concerns of Barry Hearn, the chairman of Leyton Orient—the finest football club in the country, may I add—about how the redevelopment of the Olympic stadium after the Olympics will affect Leyton Orient football club?
Yes. I should say at the outset that I am absolutely confident that the process carried through by the Olympic Park Legacy Company, in accordance with the criteria laid out, was absolutely fair and transparent and that it was done in absolutely the correct way. I reject any insinuation that the process was in any way corrupt or badly handled. That said, if there is anything I can do to help Leyton Orient, I will do it, in the same way that if there is anything I can do to help Tottenham Hotspur, I will do it.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement and congratulate the Olympic Park Legacy Company on the manner in which this difficult process was handled. May I ask him to ensure that the key elements of the promise on which we won the Olympics in Singapore—a multi-purpose stadium, with a legacy for the community and athletics at its core—are honoured throughout the negotiations about the detailed implementation of the Newham-West Ham bid?
In a word, the answer is yes. The West Ham-Newham offer was clear and backed by UK Athletics. The negotiations about the detailed terms of the lease are now being held, and I will absolutely ensure—as, I am sure, will the OPLC—that the offer that West Ham and Newham made is honoured in that lease.
Public Library Service
The Government are a champion of public libraries as vital hubs of local communities. We drive library improvement, and shortly after coming to office, we set up the future libraries programme, which more than 30 local authorities—[Interruption.] The Film Council was Labour Government policy. The programme supports innovative and efficient models of service delivery. In addition, my Department and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council continue to monitor and work with local authorities on their proposals for their library services.
I thank the Minister for those words, but in Cambridge the Conservative county council is reviewing library provision, resulting in service reductions and the possible closure of such great facilities as Milton road, Arbury Court and Rock road libraries. The Liberal Democrat opposition on the county council proposed a small amount of money to save all those services. What comment does the Minister have in view of his earlier remarks about what the county council ought to be doing?
The county council is, I understand, not only part of the SPINE project, but works with Lincolnshire council under the future libraries programme. I will not comment on the specific proposals that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but I understand that Cambridgeshire county council is considering turning many of its libraries into community hubs and consulting extensively on its proposals.
The improvement of adult literacy is incredibly important, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has secured substantial funding for adult learning. Many library closures are simply proposals, and many local authorities are continuing to consult on them.
Labour-run Bradford council proposes to close Wrose, Denholme and Wilsden libraries in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a Conservative-led Bradford council could afford to keep those libraries open a few years ago, with the same grant as Bradford receives now from the Government, Labour-run Bradford council should be able to afford to do so, too?
The DCMS website says:
“We would be concerned if libraries were closed, or their services disproportionately reduced, just to save money.”
If the policy is not intended to save money, why does the Minister think that councils are proposing to close libraries?
Northamptonshire county council, which happens to be Conservative-led, has reconsidered its proposals to close libraries and is keeping them open. In particular, in my constituency, Councillor Terry Perkins led the campaign to save Irchester library. Does that not show that Conservatives are listening?
Diversity (Film Sector)
The British Film Institute has a long and proud track record of commitment to diversity, both in the workplace and in its cultural programme, including such pioneering work as the London lesbian and gay film festival, the breadth of programming in the BFI London film festival and at BFI Southbank and in its DVD catalogue. It remains committed to ensuring access for all to everything that it does and to reflecting the full diversity of experience in its work.
As we celebrate the BAFTAs and the Oscars, I am sure that the Minister will have noticed that there are very few black and minority ethnic faces in front of the screen, and the work force behind the screen are similarly unrepresentative. Will he use his influence to ensure that when the British Film Institute, which is based on the south bank in my part of the world, takes over responsibilities, it understands the importance of diversity for the whole of the work force, and will he work with me to ensure that that is achieved?
Returning to the Secretary of State’s comments on the funding of “The King’s Speech”, funding did come from the lottery, but the decision to invest it was actually made by the UK Film Council, and that institution has been working very well. Iain Canning, one of the film’s producers, has said that it would not have been made were it not for the UK Film Council. Colin Firth, after receiving his award, said that he thought that the decision to abolish the UK Film Council was short-sighted. Why does the Secretary of State believe that Colin Firth is wrong and he is right on that?
“Plans to merge the UK Film Council… and the British Film Institute… into a single body to support film could benefit both the filmgoing public and the industry… A new, streamlined single body that represents the whole of the film sector will offer a better service for both film makers and film lovers.”
It feels a little like the aftermath of the lord mayor’s show, Mr Speaker.
The Government are committed to encouraging young people to participate in competitive sport, principally through the introduction of the new school games tournament. The school games will roll out this September and give pupils of all abilities the chance to compete regularly against each other in a wide range of sports at local, county and national level. The first national finals will take place in the Olympic park in 2012.
I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome plans for the school games, which should help to provide a lasting sporting legacy for London 2012. Such a lasting legacy was under threat from the previous Government’s constant diversion of national lottery funding away from sport to other pet projects. What have this Government done to prevent that from happening in future?
Is it not the case that opportunities for competitive sport will be cut, because the Government are slashing funding for school sport by 80%, forcing local councils to go too far and too fast with public spending cuts, closing facilities, sacking sports coaches and increasing fees and charges for local community and amateur sports clubs?
That question seems to ignore the economic backdrop that we have inherited. This decision is necessary precisely because the previous Government, of whom the hon. Gentleman was a part, left a financial crisis that sees us paying £120 million in interest charges each and every day. It is against that backdrop that we have increased the amount of money going into sport and made the changes that I outlined in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans). We will continue to do everything we can to drive up participation in sport.
My Department is a strong supporter of community radio and has secured around £450,000 a year to support it. We intend to examine the regulatory regime for community radio as part of the forthcoming communications review.
As I have said, we have secured the funding for this spending round. There are now 185 community radio stations on air, and I know that Hermitage FM is extremely popular in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Ofcom will shortly report on a third round of licensing for community radio.
16. What assessment he has made of the effect on small businesses of the revision of the timetable for the introduction of universal broadband. (43647)
My Department believes that all businesses will benefit from the enhanced availability of superfast broadband. Work carried out by Broadband Delivery UK last summer underpinned the decision to bring together efforts to drive superfast broadband out as far as possible at the same time as delivering universal broadband.
I certainly believe that duct access is part of the solution. Not only are we investing £530 million in the lifetime of this Parliament, but, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree, deregulation—in the sense of removing barriers to investment—is a very important part of the strategy as well.
Removing barriers in the way that the Minister describes is important, but, with the roll-out of superfast broadband, does he not agree that, although urban, city and suburban areas will be fine, the real risk is that really remote rural areas, such as those throughout Wiltshire, will take an awfully long time to be connected? Will he give us his assurance today that he will pay particular attention to rural areas such as mine in the roll-out of superfast broadband?
Regeneration (Seaside Towns)
Culture makes a fantastic contribution to regeneration throughout the country. Earlier this week, I was privileged to attend a reception in the House for the launch of the Turner Contemporary gallery, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in praising Roger de Haan’s work in revitalising Folkestone, even though it is not in her constituency.
I most certainly will, and I know that Tracey Emin was most taken by the Minister on Monday evening. Seaside towns have always been marketed as summer locations. Now we have that internationally renowned gallery in Margate, I hope that he might make representations to the tourism Minister to ensure that seaside towns are marketed all year round. That is how we will secure the most effective regeneration for places such as Margate, Ramsgate, Hastings and, yes, Folkestone as well.
In January I published our local media action plan. I am pleased to announce that, by the deadline of 1 March, we had 30 expressions of interest from people who wanted to run local media services, 21 expressions of interest from people interested in running a new local TV network and five expressions of interest from people interested in running local TV services in the devolved nations.
Absolutely not. I recognise that Creative Partnerships has done some excellent work, and I commend in particular the leadership of Paul Collard, but the decision to remove its funding was directly caused by the enormous budget deficit that we inherited—the economic crisis from which we and the whole country now have to pick up the pieces.
T2. I know that the Minister is aware of the importance of high-speed broadband to predominantly rural counties, such as Suffolk, and in particular to the small businesses that are the backbone of our economy. Is he encouraged by the fact that in Suffolk we are developing a public-private partnership that will see local authorities committing almost £500,000 to the revenue funding of any future successful broadband bid? (43650)
I am certainly encouraged by what my hon. Friend tells me, and I am further encouraged, having met Suffolk county council with local Conservative MPs, who are taking a strong leadership position on that important issue.
T4. In my relatively short time in the House, what has struck me as being extremely helpful has been the time given to statements. Can the Minister explain why a statement on BSkyB, which has been widely trailed in the press this morning and all over the radio, appears to have been postponed until such a late time in the day? Will he also comment on the statement that placing independent directors on The Times newspaper in the past has proved wholly ineffective? (43652)
You, Mr Speaker, very kindly gave me permission to make my statement to the House at 3 o’clock. I did not have any control over the time. I actually have the statement with me, and I would be happy to deliver it right away, but Mr Speaker has generously given me a slot at 3 o’clock, and that is when I intend to address the issues that the hon. Lady raises.
T3. Is my right hon. Friend as pleased as I am that that great symbol of Cornish culture, the Cornish pasty, has been awarded protected geographical indication status? Will he join me and my Cornish colleagues in wishing my constituents in South East Cornwall, and indeed all the people of Cornwall, a happy St Piran’s day for Saturday? (43651)
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening to my earlier response, he would have heard me say that I have the statement here and am happy to deliver it at any time, but Mr Speaker has generously given me a slot at 3 o’clock, when I will address all the issues that he and other hon. Members wish to raise.
T5. May I add my congratulations to everyone involved in the success of “The King’s Speech”? It has also been a major commercial success, and it was funded partly by lottery funding. Can the Secretary of State give us an idea of how much revenue that will bring in to the UK taxpayer? (43654)
As I understand it, the commercial deal around “The King’s Speech”, which could gross up to £200 million worldwide, means that 34% of the money that it may generate that came from financiers will come back to the UK to invest in future film production, which is an excellent thing.
At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, many exciting new mobile applications and devices were unveiled. However, consumers and businesses across the country are being left behind because of this Government’s delay in making mobile spectrum available. What is the Minister doing to speed up the availability of spectrum for innovative applications?
We expect Ofcom to publish its auction rules towards the end of this month. Any delay was caused by the fact that the previous Government did not bring forward the statutory instrument in time. By the time that they did, substantial changes had taken place in the mobile telecoms landscape that necessitated a review.
T6. My right hon. Friend will be aware of BBC Worldwide’s bid for the remaining stake in “Lonely Planet” travel guides. Will he undertake to have a word with BBC Worldwide about the history sections in some of these travel guides? The one for England, for example, has a rather partial view of the 1980s. It says:“Trade unions archaic? She”—Margaret Thatcher—“smashed them. British industry inefficient? She shut it down. Nationalised companies a mistake? She sold them off”.Can he make sure that there is a slightly more nuanced and balanced section in these travel guides? Having said that, the section ends by saying that“her repeated electoral victories were helped considerably by the Labour Party’s total incompetence”. (43655)
I am a huge fan of the “Lonely Planet” travel guides, but I am not a great fan of its guides to the UK. The most important thing that it needs to update is the fact that there is an outstanding new tourism Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who has taken charge of the British tourism industry and is ringing the changes to make Britain a better tourism destination.
Britain is rightly renowned for the creativity of its independent music sector, but musicians seeking to go and tour in the US face huge bureaucracy and costs when they try to get visas, whereas it is far easier for musicians from the US to come and tour here. May I urge the Minister to take action on this?
As currently drafted, the Localism Bill would allow local development plans to circumvent the existing rules on listed buildings. Does the Minister agree that this could play havoc with our current built heritage? What discussions is he having with the Department for Communities and Local Government to avoid that problem?
I am glad to reassure my hon. Friend that at no stage has any DCLG Minister come to me and said that they wish to drive a coach and horses through the listed buildings regulations; I am sure that he was not implying that anyway. I am happy to reassure him that, as we speak, officials from DCMS are in close consultation on this very issue with the authors of the Localism Bill.
Further to that question, two weekends ago, I spent a very cold evening trying to protect the former EMD cinema in Walthamstow from an illegal rave, during the course of which I discovered that that beautiful listed building had been flooded with water. Similarly, whenever I pass the Walthamstow dog track and see the derelict state it is now in, I fear for its future. Will the Minister agree to an urgent meeting with me to discuss what more can be done to protect such heritage buildings from unscrupulous landlords such as the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and London & Quadrant, given their listed status?
I would of course be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss those issues. I assure her that, by and large, individual structures spend between two and four years on the buildings at risk register. In most cases, solutions are found but there is a small but real nub of cases that have longer-term problems. If the two cases that she describes are part of that nub, I would be delighted to talk them through with her.
Heart radio has more than halved the number of local stations for which it was granted licences. Those lost include the one in Colchester. If Heart is not prepared to reopen that station, surely the frequency should be offered to the local community to run its own radio station—Radio Big Society Colchester.
I welcome the decision by colleagues in the Department for Education to award £82 million to music education. In the past, the cultural sector has worked closely with music education. Will Ministers ensure that that progress continues?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that question. In the spirit in which he asked it, I pay tribute to the work of the previous Government in establishing the music standards fund and taking music education so seriously. The Henley review has enabled the close co-operation between the Department for Education and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to continue.
The Liverpool city region is a cultural hub, and that was cemented when it won the capital of culture. It is imperative that the area has a local television station. Will the Secretary of State work with the city region to ensure that a bid is taken up in this area?
I would be delighted to do so. Liverpool presents a fantastic opportunity and would benefit hugely from having its own TV station. It has a fantastic cultural heritage, an amazing sporting tradition and tremendous civic pride. Not least, I am sure that such a station would be an excellent platform for my hon. Friend to say what a brilliant job she is doing for her constituents.
Leader of the House
The Leader of the House was asked—
Backbench Business Committee
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House meets regularly with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee to discuss a range of issues relating to Back-Bench business. My right hon. Friend and I have attended meetings of what he calls the Backbench Business Committee’s weekly salon. We have been impressed by the work of the Committee and the quality of presentations by hon. Members.
With all the non-legislative debates being transferred to the Backbench Business Committee, does the Deputy Leader of the House recognise that hon. Members will want to make representations for more parliamentary time to be allocated to Back-Bench business, particularly given its popularity since its introduction?
It is important that we get the right balance in the House between legislative business, which is the proper business of the House, and the debates that the Backbench Business Committee organises on behalf of the House. The Wright Committee made clear proposals on how we should allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee, which the Government have followed. The days have been transferred and I think that it is working extremely well.
I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on attending Tuesday’s Backbench Business Committee meeting. Will he make it clear to the House that the Committee can allocate only the time given to it by Her Majesty’s Government, and that the days on which Back-Bench business takes place are decided on entirely by him and the Leader of the House?
Further to that answer, the Deputy Leader of the House is aware that the 35 days allocated to Backbench Business Committee debates at the moment is a minimum number, so given the popularity of those debates, will he increase that number from 35 to many more?
At the moment, the hon. Lady’s Committee has 15 days of the allotted 35 days left, so we have not yet reached the allocation. There would not be a need for a change to Standing Orders to allocate more if it seemed appropriate to do so, but I stress again that for the system to work—I think it is working very well—we have to get the right balance between legislative time and time for other debates. We often hear calls for more time for Committee and Report stages of Bills, and we have to be aware that that takes time as well. If we restrict the number of days available for scrutiny of Bills, it restricts the opportunity for Back-Bench Members to have their say on legislation that is passing through the House.
Given the level of interest in Back-Bench business, does the Deputy Leader of the House think that the time has now come to allow Members to make representations in public by having questions to the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee on the Floor of the House? Does he agree that that would have two advantages? It would raise the Committee’s profile with the public, who may well have issues that they would like to see debated, and it would allow the Leader of the House to concentrate on requests for the use of Government time instead of having to refer many bids to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), as he does at present.
As I said earlier, the public sessions that the Committee holds are extremely effective. As I heard on Tuesday, when the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) was unfortunately not chairing the session—it was elegantly chaired by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone)—they give people the opportunity to expand on the case that they wish to put. We are going to move to having a Committee for all business of the House, and we will then need to consider seriously the arrangements for the business statement and how we deal with business sessions, to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to bid for time in an effective way.
Committee of Selection
I have occasional discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) on the work of his Committee. The House’s arrangements for the appointment of Select Committee members and Chairs have been significantly strengthened by changes introduced at the beginning of this Parliament.
Having spent the last month doing my best to scrutinise the Localism Bill, I find it quite remarkable that hon. Members with specific expertise or knowledge can be prevented from serving on particular Bill Committees by the Committee of Selection. In May 2009, the Prime Minister said:
“There are far too many laws being pushed through, with far too little genuine scrutiny from MPs.”
Does the Leader of the House agree with those comments, and will he explore ways to make the Committee stage of Bills more open and effective?
I welcome the important work that the hon. Lady is doing on the Localism Bill. It quite often happens that there are more people wishing to serve on a Public Bill Committee than there are places available, and the Committee of Selection then has to make difficult choices. In light of the exchange that took place at business questions a few weeks ago, it has revisited its procedure and believes that it was correctly followed in the case in question. I believe that the Committee and its Chairman will always be open to discussing how it works with Members of all parties.
If my hon. Friend was going to say that there is not enough medical expertise on that Public Bill Committee, I say to him that I have looked at its membership and seen that my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is on it, who is a specialist registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology. The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) is a public health expert and a former chair of Rochdale primary care trust, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) served as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps, so it seems to me that there is adequate medical expertise on that Public Bill Committee. Indeed, if anyone on the Committee were feeling unwell, they would be in very good hands.
Given how the Committee of Selection was used in recent Parliaments by the previous Labour Government as a means for keeping Select Committees in what is euphemistically known as “a safe pair of hands”, has the Leader of the House made an assessment of the functioning of those Committees under this Government, when members and Chairs are elected and not selected?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I was a member of the Committee of Selection when the Labour Whips tried to deselect Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson from the Select Committees that they had chaired with magnificent independence. It was partly because of that outrageous performance that this Government moved towards the Wright Committee recommendations. I am delighted to say that the new procedure is working very well, and that Chairs of Select Committees have an independence that they did not have before.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has received no specific representations on this issue, but he and I are happy to receive such representations from Members. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Procedure Committee is looking at the issue of sitting hours, and he may wish to contribute to that inquiry in due course.
I am a firm believer that Question Time and statements should be in prime time, and that Committees should not meet at the same time. We have a classic example of that not happening today. We will have a statement at 3 o’clock despite the fact that the Order Paper states that “Ministerial Statements (if any)” will take place after 11.30 am. Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain why people such as me—I am serving on the Education Bill Committee today at 3 o’clock, on a three-line Whip—will be unable to come here to participate? Why has that happened?
First, Committees as a rule do not meet during Question Time in the Chamber, but obviously, it is not always possible to avoid a clash with statements. However, the same applies to consideration of Bills and all other business. Hon. Members sometimes have to make difficult choices on their priorities.
On the timing of business today, it is very important that, on one of the rare occasions when one of the minority parties has an Opposition day, we do not take up all the time available to it with a statement. That is why you, Mr Speaker, chose 3 o’clock today as an opportunity for that statement.
Voting Advice (Publication)
I am devastated to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the Government have no plans to do so.
In virtually every Division in the House of Commons, Members of Parliament do not make up their own minds how to vote, but are instructed by dark forces. The Deputy Leader of the House is a great parliamentarian who believes in transparency. I urge him—no: I beg him—not to go over to the dark side. Let us throw light on that advice and publish it.
I know that the business managers sometimes give advice on voting, and that they sometimes express a degree of eagerness that hon. Members might attend on a particular day and vote in a particular way. It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman has never felt desperately constrained by that, although I am impressed that on no fewer than eight out of 10 occasions during this Parliament, he has supported the Government, which may come as some surprise to those on the Treasury Bench. He obviously takes very seriously the advice he receives, but I am not sure that placing such matters on the Order Paper adds value to it.
Information extracted from the House’s Parliamentary Information Management Services database indicates that a total of 46 oral questions have been transferred this Session.
Will the Deputy Leader of the House look at a particular oral question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) for answer by the Minister for Women and Equality? He asked about the equality impact of pensions policy and how men and women are treated differently in that respect. The question was selected for oral answer and was transferred to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. However, the equalities impact element of the question has, as far as I can see, never been answered.
I am obviously concerned if the hon. Lady feels that a question has not been answered. It is for Ministers and Departments to determine which Department has responsibility for a particular question. As she knows, the transfer of questions has happened for a very long time. It is important that when a question is transferred, it is done promptly—an oral question should be transferred within 24 hours of it appearing in the notice paper, not of the day for answer, and it is a discourtesy to the House and hon. Members if they are not notified of that transfer. However, if she would like to give me further details of a question that she feels has simply not been answered, I will happily look into it.
The holding of daily Prayers is primarily a matter for the House. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House responded to a question for written answer from the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) on 10 February, and the hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson) raised the matter during a debate in Westminster Hall on parliamentary reform on 3 February.
It has been suggested in debate that Prayers should either be abolished or moved from the main Chamber on the grounds that they take up a valuable three minutes of our time. Will the Deputy Leader of the House reject this notion, and say that, whatever one’s religious views—or lack thereof—apart from the fact that they are beautiful poetry, what is wrong with meditating on things other than politics for three minutes a day? Anyway, our wonderful Chaplain does them very beautifully.
I know that many right hon. and hon. Members value the few moments that the House spends in prayer at the beginning of each daily sitting. I repeat that I do not think that it is a matter for the Government; it is for the House. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you will have heard the point made by the hon. Gentleman.
House of Commons Commission
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
House of Commons Nursery
The nursery opened on 1 September last year and was inspected by Ofsted on 1 February, and achieved an overall assessment of “good”. Ofsted rated it as “outstanding” for the effectiveness of the setting’s engagement with parents and carers. The nursery has 40 places and is planned to reach its break-even point of 28 places within three years. Currently, 12 places are filled, and a further eight children are registered to start within six months, making a total of 20.
This year the cost of the nursery will be approximately £50,000, but it is on track to break even ahead of schedule, and thereafter, as was planned by the Commission in bringing forward the nursery project, it will have no impact on the public purse—indeed, it will be a very modest net contributor to the House’s funds.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 7 March will be:
Monday 7 March—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Day 1).
Tuesday 8 March—Remaining stages of the European Union Bill.
Wednesday 9 March—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.
Thursday 10 March—There will be a general debate on the future of the coastguard service, followed by a debate on a motion relating to UN women. Both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the week commencing 14 March will include:
Monday 14 March—Consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Day 2).
Tuesday 15 March—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Scotland Bill (Day 3).
Wednesday 16 March—Opposition Day [13th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a document relating to section 6 of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008.
Thursday 17 March—General debate on north Africa and the middle east.
Friday 18 March—Private Members’ Bills.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. Given that the Government must have known that they wished to make a statement today, can he explain why a motion was not tabled yesterday to protect the time for today’s Opposition day debate, so as to allow the statement to be made at the normal moment?
I welcome the Back-Bench debate—I asked the right hon. Gentleman for one before the recess—on the momentous changes that we are seeing in the wider middle east and the hopes that we all have for the people of Libya at this difficult time. We look forward to the participation of the Foreign Secretary and the Development Secretary. We acknowledge the efforts now being made to help those affected in Libya, but can we have a commitment that there will be an oral statement following the inquiry that is under way into what went wrong at the beginning with the rescue of British citizens from Libya? There is a great deal to learn.
When the Deputy Prime Minister was asked whether he was in charge while the Prime Minister was away in the middle east last week, he replied:
“Yeah, I suppose I am. I forgot about that.”
Although we would love to forget that too, perhaps that explains why British oil workers in the desert were also forgotten about, until one of them managed to phone the “Today” programme last Wednesday morning to describe their plight. What is the point in the Deputy Prime Minister being in charge if he does not know it, and if neither he nor the Prime Minister could manage the simple task of convening a timely meeting of Cobra given that British citizens were at risk?
Will the statement also cover the Prime Minister’s strange excuse on Monday that if the UK had sent in planes earlier, the scheduled airlines might have stopped flying? In case he did not notice, they stopped flying anyway. While the Turks, the French, the Germans and the Belgians—and Belgium does not even have a Government—managed to fly their citizens out, the UK Government’s aircraft was still stuck on the runway at Gatwick in a no-fly zone all of its own. Will the statement also deal with why the Prime Minister decided yesterday to confirm that facilitation payments were made to help the evacuation? I make no criticism of those payments if that is what it took to get our people out, but I am surprised that the Prime Minister should say this publicly, because all he has done is advertise to others that in future they can demand money of us.
There is a pattern when it comes to handling crises: a Security Minister who did not tell the Prime Minister for six whole hours that a bomb had been found on a plane at East Midlands airport; a Defence Secretary who sacks RAF personnel days after the daring rescue in the Libyan desert; a Deputy Prime Minister who does not even know what his job is; and a Prime Minister who was caught napping and who could not bring himself to repeat to the House the apology that he made to the press about this mess. There is one word that sums this up: incompetence.
Can we have a statement on what has happened on compensation for the relatives of British citizens killed or injured in terrorist attacks abroad? As the Leader of the House knows, the Labour Government put that on to the statute book and the coalition promised to implement it, but as the months pass, people are asking: when will the Government keep their word?
Can we have urgent clarification from the Health Secretary that family doctors will not be able to make profits from GP commissioning, and that GP practices will not be partially floated on the stock exchange? The latest poll shows that 89% of doctors think that competition will lead to services being fragmented, while two thirds fear that competition between providers will reduce the quality of patient care. Government Members should be very worried as more is revealed about what the Health Secretary has in store for the NHS. They will know the feeling—whispered conversations in the corridors: “Why are we doing this?”, “Doesn’t sound right to me. It’s pretty unpopular”—only this time it is not trees; it is people needing medical care.
Finally, has the Leader of the House seen the Minimum Wage (Amendment) Bill being proposed by five of his Conservative colleagues, which is down for debate this Friday? Its purpose is to allow the protection of the national minimum wage to be removed in certain parts of the country. Remembering that under the last Conservative Government there was no law to prevent jobs from being advertised at £1.50 an hour, we are reminded by this Bill what the Conservatives really stand for. They will not repeat the bankers’ bonus tax on people getting millions, but some of their Members seem determined to cut the wages of people who earn £5.93 an hour. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in condemning this outrageous proposal?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, and congratulate him on his new appointment as Labour’s new regional champion for the east midlands. Perhaps he can deploy the eloquence that he has just displayed in the House to persuade Nottingham city council to do what every other local authority has done—namely, to open up its finances to public scrutiny. I hope that he will be a champion for openness and taxpayers, and not for secrecy and waste.
On BSkyB, this was a market-sensitive announcement taken by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. We could have made an announcement after business questions, but that would have done injury to the Democratic Unionist party and, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons explained, we want to respect the rights of minority parties. The statement is therefore being made at 3 o’clock, which is not an unusual time for statements to be made during the week.
On the question of Libya, our first priority was to get British nationals out. The right hon. Gentleman will have noticed that HMS Cumberland and the Hercules aircraft took out not only British nationals but nationals of other countries, after we had been told by Opposition Members that we were lagging behind other countries in evacuating our personnel. Significant numbers of other nationals were still left behind, and they were taken out by British ships and planes. We want to step up the international pressure on the regime and deal with the worsening humanitarian situation, as well as planning for every eventuality. I reject the right hon. Gentleman’s accusations about the performance of either the Prime Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister, both of whom answered questions at the Dispatch Box, on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Of course we will want to keep the House informed, and the Government felt it right—as I think the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged—that we should debate north Africa and the middle east in Government time.
I will make inquiries into the question of compensation for terrorist attacks, and I will update the right hon. Gentleman on where we are on that.
On the NHS reforms, I do not know whether he listened to the “Today” programme and heard the Secretary of State for Health rebut the allegation that GPs would be able to transfer into their own pockets any surpluses that they might make on the commissioning side. He will also be aware that the building blocks for our health reforms were in place under his Administration. They included GP-based commissioning, foundation trusts and patient choice, and we are developing many of the reforms that were already under way.
Finally, on the Minimum Wage (Amendment) Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the Government will be opposing it.
May we have a debate on the mislabelling of food? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a recent survey by local government regulation inspectors discovered that a fifth of all food on sale labelled as “local” was no such thing at all? Does he not agree that such dishonesty in food labelling is not only misleading consumers but undermining the viability of many genuine local food producers?
My right hon. Friend raises a key point. Many British consumers want to support British farmers, but they can do so only if the food in the supermarkets and other shops is correctly labelled. I will raise his concerns with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ask her to write to him outlining the steps that we are taking to provide for honest labelling of British products.
Does the Leader of the House think that, at a time of major international crisis, it is appropriate for Ministers to indulge in petty political point scoring rather than focusing on their faltering response to events in Libya?
UK manufacturing is vital to the rebalancing of our economy, and that is important to my constituents and the wider west midlands in particular. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on Government strategies to support manufacturing?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for manufacturing. Earlier this week, he might have seen some important information about increased manufacturing output and investment, which I know he will welcome. Later this month we shall have the Budget, which we shall debate for a number of days afterwards. That will provide an opportunity for us to discuss further the steps that the Government are taking to promote a recovery in manufacturing.
May we have an early debate on the relationship between democracy and the media? Is the Leader of the House not worried that the ambition of the Murdoch empire to expand its monopoly and run down the BBC is on course and doing very well? Is that good for democracy?
I concur with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) when he said that many MPs cherish the three minutes of prayer and reflection at the start of each parliamentary day. Given that MPs come from many different Christian denominations, different religions and, indeed, none, is it time to reconsider the House practice whereby the only way to reserve a seat in the Chamber makes it mandatory to attend Church of England prayers?
That is primarily a matter for the House rather than the Government, and you, Mr Speaker, will have heard the hon. Lady’s request. One can also put in a pink card in certain circumstances and reserve a seat if one serves on a Committee, so there are other ways of reserving a place in the Chamber.
Given that hospital waiting lists are increasing as a result of the abolition of a maximum waiting time target for hospitals, may we have an urgent debate so that the Secretary of State for Health can apologise to the sick people who now have to wait longer for treatment?
A debate on the Health Bill will take place in due course on Report, but the Conservative party and this coalition Government are committed to investing more in the NHS than the outgoing Labour Government invested, so there is no reason at all why waiting lists should be higher under this Government than they would have been if the hon. Gentleman’s party had been returned.
On the subject of Prayers, since we have a coalition Government, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will remember that Mr Gladstone said that Prayers were by far the most important business that the House ever conducted.
I do not remember that, although my hon. Friend may do. It is important to put our proceedings in context by a short period of reflection and prayer before we commence the parliamentary day, during which we are sometimes less than courteous to each other.
Will the Leader of the House please have a word with the millionaire Transport Secretary about his decision earlier this week on the extension of the electrification of the Great Western line to Swansea? There is still a great deal of controversy about the business case on which that decision was ostensibly predicated, so we would be grateful to know more about that business case by having an early debate on the extension of the line through to Swansea, which is so needed for the west Wales economy.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a very welcome statement on Tuesday announcing the electrification of the Great Western railway to Bristol, Cardiff and, indeed, the south Wales valleys, and at the same time he announced new rolling stock. He made it absolutely clear that even if electrification were carried through to Swansea, it would not affect the time already saved in travelling from London and the hon. Gentleman will already get a 20-minute saving anyway. I therefore very much hope that he will be slightly more enthusiastic about the Government’s announcement and about the reduction of the time it will take him to get home on a Thursday evening.
May we have a statement in which a Minister can condemn the outrageous targeting of vulnerable elderly people in Keighley and Ilkley by the Bradford Labour mayor-elect, who last Thursday increased the cost of meals on wheels for my elderly constituents by 88%?
I hope that any local authority or mayor who has to balance the books will look very hard at the options available before pursuing the sort of decision that my hon. Friend has outlined. He will have heard during Monday’s questions to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the steps taken by many local authorities to protect front-line services by pooling chief executives, pooling services and joint procurement. I very much hope that, even at this late stage, some of those options might be looked at in my hon. Friend’s constituency.
We are now in March, yet we have had no clarity about how the enhanced discretionary learner support award that is replacing the educational maintenance allowance will operate. That is totally unfair on young people in years 11 and 12, while also being unfair on the schools and colleges that are trying to provide information, advice and guidance to allow young people to plan their futures. Can we have an urgent statement next week on the replacement of EMA so that we can find out how these young people are going to be supported?
The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point: those who are continuing their education will want to know how they will be supported. We are committed to ensuring that young people from low-income households can enter learning. We are considering the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who is advising us on access to education for the poorest young people. The Department for Education plans to allocate the new funds in early spring.
In view of a report this morning that many vocational training courses are not fit for purpose, and media reports that nearly half a million teenagers are involved in academic courses that will not help them secure a job, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate about how we can equip our young people with the skills and the technology necessary to compete in the global economy in the 21st century?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He may have seen our response, in a written ministerial statement out today, to the Wolf review of vocational education, and we will immediately accept four recommendations of that key report. I would welcome a debate, and he might like to approach the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on vocational education or apply for a debate in Westminster Hall.
On 7 February, the Department for Education refused to put up a Minister on the “Today” programme to discuss capital expenditure on free schools. On the same day, I submitted a written question to the Department for Education asking how much it would allocate to capital expenditure on free schools. The reply I received on 10 February stated:
“I will reply to the hon. Member as soon as possible.”
Is the Department for Education trying to hide something? When will we get clarity on this important issue and whether it will have an impact on the Building Schools for the Future programme? May we have an urgent statement on the matter?
This week I learned that Ashiana, a charitable voluntary organisation in my constituency, is having its grant completely withdrawn. Harrow Carers’ grant is also being slashed by 30%, and every other voluntary organisation is being decimated by the Labour-run council. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has gone on record suggesting that he will take reserve powers to force councils to release money to voluntary organisations. May we have an urgent statement on what powers he is taking to protect such voluntary organisations from Labour-run councils?
I understand the concerns of voluntary organisations in my hon. Friend’s constituency about the decisions taken. At Monday’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local government outlined a number of local authorities that had coped with the settlement without reducing grants to voluntary organisations. Indeed, I think he mentioned one that had increased its grants to voluntary organisations, so it can be done. I will raise with him the reserved powers to which my hon. Friend refers, and find out in what circumstances he might be invited to use them.
On the ongoing discussions about the Government’s proposals on disability living allowance, may I invite the Leader of the House to consider the view expressed by the statutory body funded by the Department for Work and Pensions:
“We consider that the proposal to remove the mobility component from people in residential care should not go ahead. This measure will substantially reduce the independence of disabled people who are being cared for in residential accommodation, which goes against the stated aim of the reform of DLA to support disabled people to lead independent and active lives”.
That is a crucial intervention. May we have a debate as soon as possible?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation has just ended on the reform of DLA, and the Government propose gradually to replace DLA from 2013 with a personal independence payment. Work is continuing on the exact structure of that payment, but our intention is to maintain mobility for those who genuinely need it, and to ensure that people do not miss out on the change from one regime to another.
Micro-businesses, which employ up to five people and have a turnover of less than £250,000, constitute the largest number of business units in the UK, but often their owners are not motivated to increase the size of their business. If each micro-business in my constituency took on just one extra employee, however, there would be nobody looking for work in the constituency. Will the Leader of the House make time to consider the role of such businesses in the economy and in stimulating growth?
May we have a debate on the future of the Forensic Science Service? I recently the visited the northern firearms unit in Manchester to see the work of one of my constituents and his colleague. Significant concerns exist that the impartiality, quality and round-the-clock coverage provided by that unit will be lost under the Government’s hasty closure plans.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern. As we run down the service to which he refers and look to alternative providers to replace it, I will raise his concerns with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and ask her to write to him on the matter.
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He may have seen that a case ended, I think, on Monday, and the judge has reserved judgment on action being taken by Westminster city council. I welcome what the council is doing to remove individuals on obstruction grounds. On his specific question, we are talking to the police, the council and the Greater London authority to ensure that the square is in a fit and proper state for the royal wedding.
I very much welcome, as I am sure the whole House does, the fact we now have a timetable for the Scotland Bill for the coming weeks. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that no fewer than 12 new clauses have already been tabled, with, I suspect, many more to come. Will the Leader of the House see whether it is possible to get an extra day in this Session so that all new clauses are adequately debated?
The Government are anxious to ensure that there is adequate time to debate important constitutional Bills. We have allocated, I think, three days for Committee and one day for Report and Third Reading, starting next week. I would like to see how we get on. At the moment, our view is that we have allowed adequate time to debate the important measures in the Bill, as well as new clauses. However, we will keep the matter under review.
The Leader of the Opposition and his shadow Chancellor were both part of the Treasury team that decided to sell off the nation’s gold. That decision, back then, in that economic time, has cost the country to date about £9 billion, the equivalent of 18p off a litre of fuel for an entire year. Given that, and given that the shadow Chancellor has called for a reversal of the VAT increase, may we have an early debate on fuel taxation?
I congratulate the Leader of the House on being an attentive reader of The House magazine and the argument from a right hon. Member for a foreign affairs debate, now granted on 17 March, three months to the day after the self-immolation of the young man in Tunisia that sparked the crisis. Better later than never. Will the Leader of the House assure the House that we might have another international affairs debate before the year is out?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, our response was partly because of the question that he put some time ago, asking for a debate in Government time on the middle east. The Government have reserved the right to have debates on general subjects, notwithstanding the fact that the Backbench Business Committee has access to much of the time. We have used that freedom, as we had a debate on the strategic defence review back in October, and I would not rule out using it again if the need arose.
The Leader of the House will have seen early-day motion 1518 about the terrible murder in Pakistan of Shahbaz Bhatti.
[That this House condemns the assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister for Minorities, who was the only Christian in the cabinet; notes that this comes only days after the government of Pakistan's retention of a minorities representative in the new cabinet and the Ministry for Minorities Affairs as an independent ministry; recognises the significant advances made in the interests of minority rights and interfaith dialogue by the Federal Minister Shahbaz Bhatti through this ministry; expresses concern at the ongoing misuse of the provisions of section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, known as the blasphemy laws, and the threats posed to all who challenge this legislation; and urges the government of Pakistan to reconsider reviewing the blasphemy laws as a matter of urgency.]
As this is the mother of Parliaments, may we take the matter one step further? May we consider having, somewhere in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, a memorial on which, by resolution of the House, we could put the names of those parliamentarians and politicians who are murdered simply for seeking to uphold democratic principles and democratic values elsewhere in the world?
My hon. Friend refers to a callous murder of a democratically elected Government Minister, and the Foreign Secretary made a statement condemning the action of the extremists involved. I am interested in my hon. Friend’s proposal, which, in the first instance, he might like to put to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Essentially, however, the matter would be one for the House rather than the Government.
Will the Leader of the House give a specific answer to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about the timetabled motion on today’s Order Paper and the timing of the statement on BSkyB? As some Members, including me, will be in Committees at the time, the statement will receive less scrutiny than it would have otherwise. Why did the Leader of the House not table a motion allowing the Opposition day debate to continue beyond 3 pm, which it was in his power to do?
Has my right hon. Friend read my early-day motion 1515?
That this House expresses grave concerns about the extent of funding from Middle Eastern dictatorships for UK universities, including the donations to the London School of Economics (LSE) by the Libyan regime; notes that an estimated 75 million was given to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies by 12 Middle Eastern rulers, including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; further notes that 8 million was given to the University of Cambridge by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia, to finance a new research centre for Islamic studies in 2008, and that he gave a further 8 million to Edinburgh University for the same purpose; further notes that 9 million was given to the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the LSE by the United Arab Emirates Foundation, and that 5.7 million was given to the LSE by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, to establish the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States in 2007; and therefore calls on the Government to establish much stricter guidelines around donations to UK universities, and to put a stop immediately to donations from oppressive Middle Eastern dictatorships with a terrible record on human rights.]
My right hon. Friend may also have seen early-day motion 1486, which I tabled.
The motions condemn the extensive financial links between Colonel Gaddafi and at least two British universities, the London School of Economics and Liverpool John Moores, and the links between the progressive left and Gaddafi. Does he not agree that this scandal is akin to that of the aristocrats who appeased and sympathised with fascism in the 1930s, and will he arrange for an urgent statement on, and an independent inquiry into, the funding of British universities by middle eastern despots?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, although I am not sure I would go quite as far as he did in drawing that parallel. Universities, however, are autonomous institutions. As a charity, a university must set its own standards for the acceptance of donations, subject to guidance from the Charity Commission. The LSE has expressed regret at the reputational damage caused by its association with the Gaddafi name, and has announced that the sum received will be used to finance a scholarship fund supporting students from north Africa.
The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, who is responsible for arranging the sequence of debates, will have heard the hon. Lady’s question. I think that it is still open to the Committee, if it so wishes, to reverse the order again between now and next Thursday so that it is as originally proposed.
My constituency contains a large number of road haulage companies, all of which are interested in some form of fuel stabiliser mechanism or, better still from their point of view, an essential users allowance. May I put that interest on the record, notwithstanding the obvious need for fiscal measures to control the economic deficit?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday at the Dispatch Box. We are examining the position to establish whether we can share the benefit of higher oil prices between the motorist and the Treasury. It is difficult to say any more than that in advance of the Budget statement.
May we have an urgent debate on the welfare benefits system? Ordinary decent people in Dudley and elsewhere will have been shocked to discover this morning that while they are having to work harder, pay more tax, receive poorer services and, in some cases, lose child benefit and tax credits, hundreds of thousands of east European migrants will be able to claim hundreds of pounds a week—millions in total—because the Government are not going to renew safeguards introduced by the previous Government.
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has got that absolutely right. There were safeguards, and they expire today under an agreement signed by the previous Government. We are bound by the decisions of the outgoing Government. None the less, we are anxious to ensure that the hospitality of this country is not abused. The Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently going through its stages in the House, contains safeguards to ensure that benefits go only to those who need them.
May I return my right hon. Friend to the question of who is in charge? Obviously, the response to the point made by the Opposition about last week is that the Prime Minister is in charge, but if the Prime Minister had been incapacitated, who would have been in charge? In a written reply that I received from the Deputy Prime Minister, he fudged the issue. It was not clear that he would become acting Prime Minister. May we have a statement next week clarifying who would take over if the Prime Minister were incapacitated?
I am anxious that my hon. Friend should not lose any sleep over this issue. I do not want to give an off-the-cuff answer to his question—I should prefer to reflect on it—but I will say that it is for the Prime Minister to decide what should happen if he could no longer perform his duties.