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Business of the House

Volume 524: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

The business for the week commencing 14 March will be:

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.

The provisional business for the week commencing 21 March will include:

Monday 21 March—Remaining stages of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords], followed by motion relating to Members’ salaries.

Tuesday 22 March—Remaining stages of the Scotland Bill.

Wednesday 23 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

Thursday 24 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 24 March 2011 will be a debate on the future of the coastguard service.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. Has he seen today’s news of the killing of civilians in Zawiyal and of the arrest and torture of three BBC journalists? Will he join me in condemning that action and in expressing support for those standing up against oppression and those who are bringing us the truth in their reports? These are voices that Colonel Gaddafi is desperate to silence.

When may we expect to have a statement on Lord Hutton’s pensions report? Why will the Report stage of the Scotland Bill be on 22 March, given that the Government have made it clear they will introduce a new clause, one that was not part of the Calman recommendations and on which consultation does not close until 13 May? Should not this House consider it first?

Last week, the role of prayers at the start of our proceedings was raised, and the Leader of the House will, of course, be familiar with Matthew, chapter 25, verse 35:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in”.

While we reflect on helping those in need, may we have an urgent statement from the Communities Secretary, because it seems that his Department is supporting Westminster city council’s plan to make it an offence to feed homeless people in one part of central London? Under its proposed byelaw entitled, with an Orwellian lack of irony, “Good Rule and Government (No. 3)”, anyone found offering free refreshments—that is, soup, bread and water—to homeless people will be liable to a fine of up to £500. Westminster city council also wants to outlaw the act of lying down or sleeping in a public place. When this was first reported, many people refused point blank to believe that it was true, myself included. We thought, “This has to be a joke. Isn’t helping the homeless what the big society is meant to be all about?” But it is not a joke. It is, in fact, the shocking face of 21st-century Tories in the richest borough in the country, supported by the Communities Secretary. Their big society hides a big, nasty, spiteful stick. Does the Leader of the House agree that those who thought of this should be ashamed of themselves?

Last week, the Leader of the House was asked by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) who would take over if the Prime Minister was incapacitated. I would be surprised if it was the Foreign Secretary, but we were all rather puzzled that the Leader of the House seemed so unwilling to answer. I have with me the Government list and it is pretty clear: listed under the Prime Minister’s name is that of the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) as the Deputy Prime Minister. Surely if the Prime Minister cannot act, his deputy will take over. Yet, on reflection, and after recent events, I think that every one of us in the Chamber can sympathise with the Leader of the House’s evident reluctance to say that that is the case. Does he have an answer for us today by any chance?

Has the Deputy Prime Minister given the Leader of the House an indication that he is planning to make a statement about the size of the election deposit? I ask because concerns have been expressed in the past week that losing £500 might have a big financial effect on small parties that are finding it very difficult to attract votes, such as the Liberal Democrats. Before Conservative Members laugh, I should remind them that the Tories came behind the UK Independence party in the by-election.

Finally, may we expect a statement from the Transport Secretary on whether he thinks the cost of a return rail ticket from Sheffield to Barnsley is too expensive? I ask because presumably the difficulty in raising the considerable sum of £5.40 was the reason why the Deputy Prime Minister was unable to make the 15-mile journey to support his candidate in the by-election—not that it would have done any good. Or was it because the Lib Dem candidate spoke the truth last weekend when he said that

“in towns like Barnsley, where the Lib Dems once harvested votes as a party of protest, they now attract derision as a party of government”?

How true, and how like a Liberal Democrat to tell us what he really thinks only once the ballot box has closed.

May I begin by agreeing with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the BBC journalists? I watched the BBC news last night, and what they went through was horrendous. We should never underestimate the risks that many people take in order to bring this country, and indeed the rest of the world, the truth about what is happening in countries such as Libya. I am sure that the whole House will agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said.

Lord Hutton’s report was published today and I suspect that something might be said about it in the Budget, which would be an appropriate time to respond.

The right hon. Gentleman may have seen the exchange of correspondence on the Scotland Bill between the Secretary of State for Scotland and the shadow Secretary of State, which says that in dealing with the Bill we are following a process that has been supported by the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative party leaders in Holyrood. The motion that they have promoted states that they look

“forward to considering any amendments made to the Bill with a view to debating them in a further legislative consent motion before the Bill is passed for Royal Assent.”

As regards Westminster city council, it is 20 years since the rough sleeping initiative was started—in fact, I was Housing Minister at the time. Enormous progress has been made in reaching out to rough sleepers and I applaud the successor Government for what they did to roll out that initiative and apply it to other parts of the country. The debate is ongoing about whether those who generously supply food should be encouraged to do so in buildings, where people have access to help and support and to the housing and training they need, or whether they should continue to operate in a more unstructured way. The issue is slightly more complicated than the right hon. Gentleman has just implied, but I hope that Westminster city council will work with voluntary organisations and those who are trying to help the homeless in a way that not only reaches out to people but encourages them to abandon a lifestyle that is not in their best interests and to access those who can help them into training and jobs.

I thought the issue of succession might come up again. The practice is the same now as it has been under successive Administrations: the Prime Minister remains Prime Minister at all times but arrangements appropriate at the time will be put in place as necessary. That procedure has been adopted under successive Administrations.

Finally, let me turn to the subject of by-elections. The right hon. Gentleman may want to have a look at how well his party did in the Henley by-election before he and his colleagues draw too many conclusions about the loss of deposits. I welcome the new hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and congratulate him on achieving a more respectable turnout than the shadow Leader of the House managed when he was first elected in 1999 on a turnout of 19.9%. The BBC dropped all pretence of impartiality and ran the story, “Benn limps in after dismal vote”.

Order. As usual, a large number of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but there are important debates to follow under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. If I am to accommodate the level of interest in this session, brevity from Back-Bench and Front-Bench Members alike is vital.

In the light of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s remarks about the massive amount of paperwork heaped on the shoulders of the police, and given that in 2009 the previous Labour Government issued some 4,000 diktats and 6,500 pages of guidelines, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House about savings in the police force?

I hear Opposition Members shouting yes. Of course, I have announced an Opposition day and if they want to debate police matters, we are ready to debate them next Wednesday. What has struck me—I am sure that it has struck my hon. Friend too—is the number of chief constables who have come forward and identified ways in which economies can be made by sharing back-office functions and opting for joint procurement without impacting on front-line policing. As my hon. Friend knows, only 11% of police are visible and available to the public. I hope that all police authorities will look for economies that preserve the effectiveness of front-line policing and that they will do so in the back-office areas, where I believe such economies can be secured.

The Leader of the House will no doubt have scrutinised the Scotland Bill and will be aware that much of the success of that Bill relies on good, effective working relationships between this House and the Scottish Parliament. Can he not see that to proceed to consider the Bill further on 22 March, before the consultation period is over, sends the wrong message to the Scottish Parliament?

The Scottish Parliament has been advised by its Scotland Bill Committee to welcome and support the Bill, and I hope that it will do so. The procedure I outlined a few moments ago has been agreed by the three parties in the Scottish Parliament, which have written to commend that procedure.

Will the Leader of the House guarantee that if a no-fly zone is to be imposed, there will be a vote in the House of Commons? Such action would definitely be military action and not risk-free because of the established Libyan air defence systems, which might explain America’s reluctance. May we definitely have a vote before there is any military action?

A convention has developed in the House that before troops are committed, the House should have an opportunity to debate the matter. We propose to observe that convention except when there is an emergency and such action would not be appropriate. As with the Iraq war and other events, we propose to give the House the opportunity to debate the matter before troops are committed.

May we have a debate as part of the consultation on the Government’s Green Paper on special educational needs and disabilities? There is widespread concern that the cuts imposed by the coalition on local authorities will reduce the money available to parents to control budgets. If there is no money in the budgets, there is no control for parents and that will be nothing but a con trick on them. We need to have a debate in the House so we can represent our constituents’ views.

I welcome yesterday’s publication of the consultation document. The consultation will take place over four months. I emphasise that it is not a cost-cutting exercise; it is about having a much better regime for children who need support in schools and about giving parents more of a say. Crucially, it is about bringing together health, education and care in one package and, we hope, having a more user-friendly, streamlined approach than we have at the moment. I would welcome a debate on the SEN statement. That might be an appropriate issue for the Backbench Business Committee to consider or for debate in Westminster Hall. Yesterday’s announcement was warmly welcomed by those who take an interest in this issue and recognise the need for reform.

Could we have a debate on the wisdom of crowds or perhaps on the operation of the hive mind? At Tuesday’s Health questions, hon. Members managed to match the feat of 17 February in questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, when there were eight almost identical questions on the Order Paper. One can only wonder how many more “inspired” questions were submitted but not drawn for that day.

This is interesting territory. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman has been in opposition in the House, but he will know that hon. Members are sometimes informally encouraged to table questions, which I understand is wholly within the proceedings of the House. However, I hope there might be a little more ingenuity in future in coming up with different questions, rather than the same ones.

In my constituency, 90% of all bus routes are run by Arriva. As we now have five big bus companies dominating and running two thirds of UK bus routes, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House to call on the Office of Fair Trading to reconsider the concentration of bus company dominance?

We have just had Transport questions. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to raise that issue then, but if he did not I will certainly raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Is the Leader of the House aware that many Members would like to debate our sitting hours? Does he agree, however, that such a debate would be premature while the Select Committee on Procedure is preparing a report on the matter? Will he urge all Members, including Ministers, to complete the questionnaire that the Committee recently circulated?

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend’s Committee. I completed my questionnaire yesterday and sent it back and I have today written to my ministerial colleagues urging them to fill it in so that a balanced response can be available to the Procedure Committee. I welcome the Committee’s work and I look forward to seeing the options that I hope will be put before the House later this year.

The Leader of the House will know that a legislative consent motion on the Scotland Bill is being considered today in the Scottish Parliament. Of course, we will have to wait to see precisely what it says, but if the Government intend to bring forward amendments to match the LCM, they will be considered on Report and cannot therefore be tabled until after 10 pm next Tuesday. If those amendments are financial ones, they would go a very long way towards informing the technical debates we are likely to have on Monday and Tuesday. Does the Leader of the House have any power to have such Government amendments published, if not tabled, quickly so that we may have a proper, considered debate on Monday and Tuesday, knowing the Government’s intentions?

We are determined to observe the conventions to make sure that the House has an opportunity, as the Bill passes through both Houses, to consider amendments necessary following the LCM. I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the hon. Gentleman’s specific question on whether we can table amendments even if we may not be able to debate them.

May we have a debate on health care? Despite a rising health care budget, in Milton Keynes there is growing local concern that the primary care trust seems determined to cut services while protecting its own administrative function. Is it right that an organisation that will soon play no part in health care is allowed to behave in such a way?

As my hon. Friend knows, PCTs are due to be wound up, so I hope they will consider carefully whether any increased costs they may be planning are really necessary as they pass their responsibilities to GP-led commissioning organisations. I will raise the question with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

With every child in Kingston upon Hull losing £70 in the funding that has been allocated, compared with a child in Kingston upon Thames who will lose £30, may we have a debate on the coalition Government’s redistribution of moneys away from the most deprived communities, and also on the fact that Lib Dem-controlled Hull city council has not protected the early years? Nor has it protected children’s centres and Sure Start.

We had a debate on local authority funding last month when we discussed the revenue support grant settlement. That was an opportunity to debate the issues. It is the contention of the coalition Government that the RSG settlement was redistributive in that it directed resources more to areas in need than to those in less need, so I reject the assertion on which the hon. Lady based her question.

There are specific commitments in the coalition agreement to establish commissions to address the West Lothian question and the Bill of Rights. When might we have a statement in the House confirming that those commissions will be established, and when will we be given a date by which they have to report?

My hon. Friend is quite right. There is a commitment in the coalition agreement to establishing a human rights commission, to see whether there are better ways to protect our rights and liberties in this country. I anticipate that an announcement will be made about that shortly. At the same time, we want to look at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and when we have the chair of the appropriate Council in November we propose to make it a top priority to make sure that subsidiarity is at the heart of the Court’s functions.

On the West Lothian question, there is a commitment to look at issues arising from Scottish devolution. An announcement about that will follow the one I have just mentioned.

The Leader of the House will, like me, acknowledge the importance of the university sector to our towns and cities and to the future of our country. Is he aware that since Lord Browne’s report on the funding of universities, and the Government’s response, there has been a breakdown of confidence in the university sector and a meltdown of confidence in what is happening in the higher education sector generally? May we have an early debate on what on earth the Government’s policy is and how it is working through the university sector?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that there has been a breakdown in confidence in the way he outlined. As he knows, earlier this week the director of the Office for Fair Access published new guidance and his expectations of what English universities will need to do if they want to charge more than £6,000 for their full-time courses. I am sure there is constructive dialogue between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the universities, but I will share with my right hon. Friend the concern that the hon. Gentleman has just expressed.

In a secret hearing, Fred Goodwin has obtained a super-injunction preventing him from being identified as a banker. Will the Government hold a debate, or make a statement, on freedom of speech, and whether there is one law for the rich, such as Fred Goodwin, and another for the poor, such as Lee Gilliland who has had his mental capacity removed on the basis of a report from his GP that he is not allowed to see?

I know that in a week’s time my hon. Friend will have a debate in Westminster Hall which may impinge on some of these issues. I will raise with the appropriate Minister the matter that he has just raised, but it seems to impinge on the responsibility of the courts and any Minister would be cautious about commenting on that.

The Leader of the House indicated that the Government might respond to the Hutton report in the Budget debate. Could he ask the relevant Minister to take into consideration the grotesque paradox whereby the Hutton report recommends raising the retirement age for uniformed personnel, yet a local paper, the Sandwell Chronicle, reports that West Midlands police, under Home Office diktat, are forcibly retiring Chief Superintendent Steve Dugmore, a first-class crime fighter, because rule A19 allows them to sack people after 30 years’ service? Is that not absolutely absurd and don’t they need to get their act together?

I am very happy to raise the right hon. Gentleman’s final point with the Home Secretary. On the first issue, the Hutton report made it clear that if we do not make changes we are heading for the rocks—another example of the difficulties that the coalition Government are having to deal with following the outgoing Labour Government.

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on links between middle eastern dictators and our universities, following my early-day motions 1562 and 1563?

[That this House believes that there should be a real financial incentive for British universities not to accept donations from foreign dictatorships, especially regimes in the Middle East with a poor record on human rights; and therefore calls on the Government to introduce a mechanism whereby for every £1 that a university receives in donations from a totalitarian or despotic regime, such a Libya, £1 shall be withdrawn from that university in public subsidy.]

As well as the London School of Economics case, it has emerged that Durham university has done deals with the Iranian regime and that the Muslim research centre at my former university, Exeter, was funded by the Muslim Brotherhood. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if a university takes blood money it should lose an equivalent amount of public subsidy?

As I said to my hon. Friend last week, universities are autonomous organisations and accountable for what they do. I will draw his comments to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at BIS. As he knows, we will have a debate on the middle east at this time next week, when he may want to amplify his remarks.

May we have a statement on the impact of the Department of Health’s any willing provider policy on specialisms such as speech therapy? Such services transform lives, but they could be at risk in the new commissioning marketplace.

The Health and Social Care Bill is in Committee and will be coming back to the Floor of the House for Report, which may be an appropriate time for the hon. Gentleman to table amendments and secure a debate.

May we please have a debate on how we can both reduce the cost and speed up the process of removing squatters, to help hard-working home owners who discover that their properties are being illegally occupied?

We all recognise the distress that can be caused by squatters, and we understand the difficulties that many people find in regaining occupation of their own home. The Ministry of Justice is considering options for strengthening the criminal law, but is yet to reach firm conclusions.

Knife and gun crime continue to blight inner-city communities such as mine. The trial is ongoing of those accused of murdering 15-year-old Zac Olumegbon in July last year, and just 14 days ago in my constituency, Solomon Sarfo was stabbed and murdered. Will the Home Secretary come to the House to give us an update on what the Government are doing to prevent that needless loss of life in our communities? I ask because I am particularly concerned that many of the third-sector organisations working to prevent such crimes are seeing their funding withdrawn.

I very much regret the loss of life to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and I understand the deep feeling in his constituency. The coalition agreement makes it clear that we want to take a robust approach to those who carry knives, with appropriate penalties to deal with knife crime, but I will pass the hon. Gentleman’s request to the Home Secretary.

In an effort to bring sanity back to our nation’s finances, Bromsgrove district council was told in December that its budget was to be cut by 28%. Since then, through shared services and other efficiencies, it has not only frozen council tax but announced that there will be no cut in any council services. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Bromsgrove district council, and may we have a debate on local government finance?

I would welcome such a debate, and I very much hope that other local authorities will follow the example of Bromsgrove in dealing with the challenges of coping with a reduced grant without affecting front-line services. It is a model of what a local authority ought to be doing.

May we have a debate on why the Government are standing aside and allowing eight energy companies to rip off British gas and fuel customers? Is it not about time the Government got a grip and did something about the escalating costs of fuel in the UK?

We are operating the regime we inherited from the Labour Government, which deals with energy prices by having a regulator who fixes the tariff, but I will of course share the hon. Gentleman’s concern with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

May we have a statement from the Minister with responsibility for public health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), on the future of the Health Protection Agency at Porton Down in my constituency? When the Minister visited Porton Down on 12 October, she indicated that a decision would be made by the end of last year. I am concerned about when the decision will be made, and there is obviously concern in the constituency because jobs are involved.

Many of my constituents, like those of my hon. Friend, who is my parliamentary neighbour, work at Porton Down, where they do vital work developing vaccines and other medicines. We make no apology for taking time to get that decision right, because it is a major programme that requires in-depth analysis and due diligence. The way forward will be decided soon and an announcement will be made at the appropriate time.

In Swansea, the Libyan community will be gathering on Saturday in support of a no-fly zone over Libya to stop the wholesale massacre of unarmed civilians. They also want us to consider the idea of an Arab-led ground force under the United Nations flag. When will we have an opportunity to debate these important issues, which are particularly important for those who have loved ones in Libya who are currently being killed?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have announced a debate for next Thursday on north Africa and the middle east. NATO is considering a range of options, including the establishment of a no-fly zone, and in the UN Security Council we are working closely with partners, on a contingency basis, on elements of a resolution on a no-fly zone.

Subsequent to the demise of the regional development agencies, there is now a £1 million shortfall in the funding for the rugby league world cup. We are having some difficulty establishing whether that is a matter for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Can we have a statement from the Government on that?

There was a clear commitment in the Conservative party manifesto and the coalition agreement to supporting the rugby league world cup. I understand that colleagues in DCMS are talking with the Rugby Football League about support for the event and working with UK support. We are committed to fair treatment for this important event.

Unfortunately, Mr Speaker, I failed to catch your eye this morning during Transport questions, so may I ask the Leader of the House to use his good offices to encourage the Secretary of State for Transport to seek clarity from so-called British Airways on its long-term plans for UK routes? There is genuine concern about British Midland’s recent decision to withdraw its Glasgow-to-Heathrow service, which will have a serious impact on the travelling public and serious consequences for the economy of western Scotland. There is real concern that the Glasgow service will not be the last to go.

The hon. Gentleman takes me back 15 years to the time when I was Transport Secretary and had the answers to such questions. As he recognises, the question is a matter for the Secretary of State for Transport, to whom I will pass on his concern.

Will consideration be given to having a debate on the future of the gift aid tax initiative, with a view to having an opt-out rather than an opt-in to aid greater charitable donations?

That is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget statement. I very much support my hon. Friend’s intention, but he must roll the pitch a little if he wants to develop the argument for an opt-out system for CAF giving. It would mean that everyone would have to give a certain amount, presumably fixed by the Chancellor, which would be deducted from their pay packet. I wholly support giving, but the proposal would transform what is currently a predominantly voluntary system to one that people would have to opt out of. I think it requires a little more thought.

The very beneficial reform of Members having to declare all outside interests is now under threat from a European decision that will allow Members to conceal income from farm subsidies, which it is alleged come up to £60,000 and £2 million for two Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. So is it not right that we look at which is supreme: European rules or the rules of this House?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have an independent Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who is responsible for the register. It is for him to decide what does and does not need to go in it.

The report of the recent review on children’s heart units in England contained factual errors about the excellent Leeds unit that the hospital trust was not allowed to correct. Considering the huge importance of that wonderful unit to nearly 14 million people, may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the credibility of the options that have been put forward on the basis of flawed information?

I think that I am right in saying that there was an Adjournment debate on the matter a few days ago, in which my hon. Friend might have had an opportunity to share his concern with the Minister. He is referring to the “Safe and Sustainable” review, which was undertaken after the difficulties in Bristol. Children’s heart surgery is a complex area of clinical care and has been the subject of concern for some 15 years. The review is not about cost cutting, but about high-quality outcomes and service sustainability. No decisions will be taken until the results of the consultation are known later this year. I am sure that he has taken part in the formal consultation process, which closes on 1 July.

May we have a debate on the crippling impact of the VAT rise, particularly on fuel prices? Many of my constituents have contacted me about the rise in fuel prices and pointed to VAT as an important contributor.

We will be having a substantial debate on matters relating to the Budget after my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s statement. The hon. Gentleman will know that his party was unable to give any commitment that VAT would not go up and that Tony Blair advocated an increase in VAT as part of the solution to the country’s difficulties.

I welcome the comments made by the Leader of the House in response to the question by the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) on the special educational needs Green Paper. I remind my right hon. Friend that the current system has been described as not fit for purpose. The Green Paper has been broadly welcomed, but will he make time available for the House to consider it, as it is by its nature a Green Paper and deserves full consultation?

I think that there is an appetite in the House for a debate on the Government’s proposals. There is widespread recognition that we need to change the system, and many Members on both sides of the House will have tried to help parents through the rather complicated process, which seems to take an infinity as meetings are cancelled and local authorities sometimes play for time. There is an appetite for a better system. I suggest that my hon. Friend goes to the Backbench Business Committee on a Tuesday morning and bids for a debate on the subject. I think that he will find that he has a lot of support on both sides of the House.

I welcome the Hutton report’s avoidance of a race to the bottom on public pensions, but it is a package of measures that is not to be cherry-picked. The Government already seem to have pre-empted some of its decisions, so it is not good enough to subsume it within a much more general debate on Budget issues. We have to have a debate on the whole package. Will the right hon. Gentleman make Government time available for such a debate?

I recognise the importance of the Hutton report. It would be appropriate to discuss it during the Budget debate. Lord Hutton has looked not only at the entitlements of those entitled to public sector pensions, but at the obligations on taxpayers. He made it quite clear that the present situation was simply unsustainable. I hope that there will be an opportunity during the three or four days of debate on the Budget for some debate on pensions.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen the recent report from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, which highlights how some councils, such as Great Yarmouth borough council, have been able to freeze council tax while protecting front-line services, which has happened across the country, giving savings of up to almost £300, in contrast to the doubling of council tax under the previous Labour Government. May we have a debate on CIPFA’s report on the Floor of the House?

My hon. Friend reminds the House that for the first time in 18 years there will be a real-terms reduction in the liability to pay council tax, which will be warmly welcomed by council tax payers up and down the country. I pay tribute to the work of those local authorities that have been able to freeze council tax and at the same time protect front-line services.

Will the Leader of the House try to find out what is happening in the Department for Education, as there are currently 563 unanswered written parliamentary questions to the Department, eight of which are in my name? It is well known that the Secretary of State for Education is a poor driver, but he also seems to have lost his way.

The hon. Gentleman might like to see the report, published yesterday by the Procedure Committee, on parliamentary questions. I shall certainly draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary, who is diligent in attending to his parliamentary duties, the issue of the outstanding parliamentary questions, particularly the eight in the hon. Gentleman’s name, and see whether we can get some prompt responses.

In the context of next Thursday’s foreign affairs debate, will my right hon. Friend table a motion that clearly sets out our obligations under international law to intervene where appropriate to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity? Surely, when the Foreign Secretary and others approach those matters in the UN Security Council, they are entitled to know that they have the unequivocal and total support of this House in ensuring that the UK upholds the best principles of international law; and, so that we do not have any confusion or ambiguity about that, please could the House have an opportunity to make clear our voice by way of a motion, a debate and a vote?

I take note of what my hon. Friend says. The current proposal is to have a general debate, as we have had on previous occasions, on the situation in north Africa and the middle east, but I will certainly pass on to my ministerial colleagues his suggestion that we go a bit further than that and include a substantive motion.

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport comes to the House to make a statement on his extraordinary announcement today about the extension of the consultation on the future of the coastguard service, especially given the interest of Members from every single party in the House? There has not been another opportunity to discuss the matter on the Floor of the House, so will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a statement when Members can have that discussion?

There will be a debate in Westminster Hall on 24 March, when there will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to share his concerns. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was at the Dispatch Box earlier, and there was a question about the coastguards.

The Prime Minister has quite rightly made tackling human trafficking a key priority of his Government, and I say these next words with some trepidation. I urge the Government to opt into the European directive on human trafficking. That would show real leadership to the rest of Europe on trafficking.

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend is doing in that area, taking on the mantle of Anthony Steen, our colleague in the former Parliament. As my hon. Friend knows, last June the Government decided not to opt in at that stage to the directive. We have reserved the right to opt in, now that the directive has been finalised, and he might have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary deal with that on an earlier occasion. We hope to come to a decision quite soon on whether to opt in.

Before budgetary purdah kicks in, will the Leader of the House intervene to ensure the publication of the national ecosystems assessment? He will appreciate that, before the Budget, it is important that we know the clear state of play as to the natural wealth of the country and the environmental resources available to us.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will pass his request on to the appropriate Minister in either the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

With Professor Alison Wolf’s report on vocational training and with the forthcoming budget for growth in mind, may we have a debate about the importance of apprenticeships in order, I hope, to stimulate the appropriate supply of places for apprentices to hold?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who will know that we have found resources for 75,000 more apprenticeships, and I will certainly pass on his suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor as he puts the finishing touches to his Budget.

The Leader of the House will accept that Back Benchers want to see proper scrutiny of the Scotland Bill. I understand that when any amendments are published, there will be a consultation with the legal establishment in Scotland, as well as procedure in the Scottish Parliament, which will need to pass another motion. What is the rush? Surely, we should not proceed with Report on 22 March.

There is not a rush, and we have allocated adequate time. We will have had three days, plus Report, to deal with the Bill, which has the support of the Scottish Parliament, and there will be an opportunity, as the Bill goes through both Houses, to consider amendments from the Scottish Parliament.

This week I had the pleasure of attending the Statutory Instrument Committee on mayoral elections, which will correct the drafting anomaly whereby those people wishing to stand for the Labour and Co-operative parties cannot have a party logo on the ballot paper. Correcting that anomaly for candidates to this House will require primary legislation, but the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) was able to make the commitment that that correction would be forthcoming. Is the Leader of the House willing to reiterate that commitment and, in doing so, earn himself the enduring gratitude of the 28 Labour and Co-operative MPs for upholding this fine socialist tradition?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman enjoyed his time on a Statutory Instrument Committee. The Whips might have taken notice of his enthusiasm, and he could find that the pleasure is repeated on many future occasions. I will raise with the Deputy Prime Minister, who has responsibility for electoral matters, the request that the hon. Gentleman has just made.

I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House and to colleagues, whose pithiness has enabled us a speedy transition to the next business— indeed, to the main business: Back-Bench business, 22nd day.