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Business of the House

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 28 April 2011

The business for the week commending 2 May will be:

Monday 2 May—The House will not be sitting.

Tuesday 3 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 4 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day 2).

Thursday 5 May—General debate on social housing in London. The business has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 May will include:

Monday 9 May—Opposition day [unallotted day] [half day]. There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve an instruction relating to the Welfare Reform Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to trafficking.

Tuesday 10 May—Second Reading of the Energy Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 11 May—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Armed Forces Bill.

Thursday 12 May—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 13 May—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 5, 12 and 19 May will be:

Thursday 5 May—A general debate in which Members may raise any issue. This debate, nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, will follow a similar pattern to the pre-recess Adjournment debates in which Members were able to raise any issue. Members are advised to consult the Order Paper to seek information on how to provide advance notice of the subject they intend to raise. The debate will be responded to by the Deputy Leader of the House.

Thursday 12 May—Subject to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Thursday 19 May—A debate on the Severn crossings toll, followed by a debate on the constitutional implications for Wales of the Government’s proposals for constitutional reform.

Finally, I am sure that the whole House will want to wish Prince William and Kate Middleton the very best for tomorrow and a long and happy life together.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. On behalf of the Opposition, I join him in sending best wishes to the happy couple for tomorrow.

Members welcomed Tuesday’s statement from the Foreign Secretary on Libya and the wider middle east, including the very disturbing developments in Syria, which I am sure those on both sides of the House will wish to condemn. I trust that we will continue to be kept informed.

Will the Leader of the House tell us when he will announce final sitting dates up to the next Queen’s Speech and on what date it will be held? Will he tell us when he expects the Health and Social Care Bill to return to the House following the current pause? As the Public Accounts Committee warned this week that there is no plan to deal with the risks being taken with the health service, and virtually everyone at the Royal College of Nursing conference expressed no confidence in the Secretary of State for Health, even this Government must realise that they have a very big problem on their hands. Mind you, Mr Speaker, the nurses were only taking their lead from the Prime Minister, who lost confidence in the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) quite some time ago. The Health Secretary must be desperately hoping that his famous mantra,

“no decisions about me without me”,

will apply to his own career prospects.

Will the Leader of the House clarify the comments of the Deputy Prime Minister at this week’s listening event on the NHS reforms? He is reported as having said:

“We will make changes, we’ll make significant and substantive changes to the legislation which at the moment is—if you like—it’s suspended in the House of Commons”.

Will the Leader of the House tell us how long this suspension will last, whether there will be an oral statement on the outcome of the listening exercise before Report and when the Prime Minister will finally admit, as the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has now done publicly, that NHS waiting times are rising as a result of these botched plans?

Talking of which, when can we expect a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on university tuition fees, given that for some reason he did not take part in yesterday’s debate? The Government’s promise to students and parents could not have been clearer: fees of £9,000 would be charged only in exceptional circumstances. Now we know that that was another broken promise. Of the 80 universities that have so far revealed their plans, more than two thirds propose to charge the £9,000 maximum fee for some or all of their courses. Such is the incompetence of the Government that it seems never to have occurred to them that that would happen, so as well as qualified applicants losing out on university places this year, in future years universities are likely to face either more reductions in funding or fewer places for students as the Government desperately try to balance the books. When are we going to see the long-promised White Paper on higher education? Does its continued absence not prove the folly of pushing through a policy on fees before having determined a policy on higher education?

May we have a debate on Government policy on placements in Whitehall for those who would not normally get the opportunity to work there? I ask, of course, because a number of Liberal Democrats who have been given work experience as Government Ministers seem to be very unhappy about the way in which they are being treated. Tuesday’s edition of The Times reported that they are being frozen out of decisions within their Departments. One Lib Dem Minister was quoted as saying that he has “no idea” what his boss is doing, a Tory member of the Government has described his Lib Dem colleagues as “yapping dogs” and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has threatened to sue fellow members of the Cabinet. I think the deputy leader of the Lib Dems got it right recently when he admitted:

“The coalition…is not a love affair, or a marriage or even a meeting of minds.”

Whatever it is, it is going horribly wrong.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House could suggest to the Prime Minister, notwithstanding his well-publicised concerns, that he might in this particular case consider taking out a super-injunction to prevent any more of these unseemly revelations and so protect this relationship from further public embarrassment. While he is at it, the Prime Minister could also seek one to cover the news this week that someone is making a musical about the Deputy Prime Minister. I would not wish that breach of privacy on anyone, least of all the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg).

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. The fact that over six months he has not really pressed me on the forthcoming business shows, I think, a general level of satisfaction with the way in which the Government are conducting the business of the House.

On the serious issue of keeping the House in the picture, the right hon. Gentleman generously recognised that on Tuesday we had a statement from the Foreign Secretary. On the last day before the recess we found Government time for a debate on north Africa and the middle east. Next Tuesday is Foreign Office questions, and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will want to keep the House in the picture on the disturbing position in north Africa and the middle east.

The dates that the right hon. Gentleman asked for will be given in due course, although it may be some time before we announce the date of the end of the Session. I seem to remember asking my predecessor for the dates of the Easter recess right up until the February before, so for him to press me on the date of the possible Dissolution next spring is perhaps just a little premature.

On the Health and Social Care Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will have seen that we are not planning to have its remaining stages within the next two weeks. There will be adequate time for the House to reflect on any amendments. May I say to him that the building blocks for that Bill were in position under the previous Government—foundation trusts, practice-based commission, patient choice and use of the private sector?

The right hon. Gentleman then asked a number of questions that were also asked in yesterday’s half-day Opposition day debate on higher education. The issues raised by the Opposition spokesman in that debate were replied to by the Minister for Universities and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), and it seems to me entirely appropriate that he should deal with that issue.

On waiting times, I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had an opportunity to look at the 2010 annual report from the Department of Health, but it makes it absolutely clear that for admitted patients,

“The median time waited has been relatively stable around 8 weeks since March 2008, but is subject to seasonality with previous years showing increases in average waiting times in the early part of the calendar year.”

Likewise, for non-admitted patients,

“The median time waited has been relatively stable around 4 weeks since March 2008, but is subject to seasonality with previous years showing increases in average waiting times in the early part of the calendar year.”

The statistics published a fortnight ago for the period up to February confirm that position.

Concerning the coalition, we have a coalition Government with two parties, and it is my view that there is more cohesion in government between those two parties than there was in the previous one-party Government when the two previous Prime Ministers were at war with each other.

I was interested to hear what the shadow Leader of the House was up to during the Easter recess. Like many of us, he was campaigning for local government elections, and I see from the Lincolnshire Echo that he was in Lincoln on 22 April. I am not sure what he was wearing, but the report said:

“The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP visited the city to support Labour’s local election candidates. She joined Birchwood candidate and local campaigner Rosanne Kirk”.

Order. I am not sure that we require any further references to the Lincolnshire Echo or to matters of sartorial taste. What we do need are some questions about the business of the House, and I know that a fine example will be set by Mr Sajid Javid.

In February, I visited Syria in a delegation of MPs and we urged Government Ministers there at every opportunity not to ignore the cries for freedom that are sweeping through the region. Sadly, but predictably, they have resorted to violence against their own people. May I ask the Leader of the House to urge the Foreign Secretary to pursue international sanctions immediately against Syria and to urge our ally Turkey to do more? Also, can we have a debate on it?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will know that the Syrian ambassador’s invitation to the royal wedding has been withdrawn.

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity on Tuesday to ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary about the issue, but he will have seen reports in the press of the discussions that we are having with our allies about the possibility of sanctions against Syria.

I acknowledge that the Foreign Secretary will be asked parliamentary questions when we return on Tuesday, but does the Leader of the House not recognise the need for another debate on the Libyan situation, bearing in mind the general unease about the fact that mission creep and regime change seem to be taking place despite denials by Ministers?

If I heard rightly that the invitation to the Syrian ambassador—the ambassador of that blood-stained regime—has been withdrawn, I very much welcome that.

That invitation has indeed been withdrawn. A statement was made by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at 11 o’clock.

The Government are prepared to find time, where appropriate, for debates on the middle east and north Africa. Indeed, we have already found time for such debates. We want to keep the House informed and to give it opportunities to make its views known, so I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that we will be prepared to find time for a further debate if necessary.

I have reports that in the Balderstone and Kirkholt ward in Rochdale someone is going around collecting postal ballots, opening them, removing and throwing away the Lib Dem local election vote while leaving the AV vote inside, resealing the envelopes with Sellotape and sending them off. Does the Leader of the House recognise that there remain concerns about the integrity of the postal voting process, and should the law be changed to deal with the Electoral Commission’s recommendations?

That sounds rather like a criminal offence, and if there is any evidence that it is going on I hope that it will be referred to the police.

May we have an urgent statement next week about the call by France and Italy to reform the operation of the Schengen treaty? Although Britain is not part of Schengen, successive Governments have asked for greater border checks before people reach the UK border. May we have a statement on that very important matter?

I cannot promise a statement next week, but as I said a moment ago, the Foreign Secretary will be answering questions on Tuesday. If the right hon. Gentleman does not have a question down, he may catch your eye, Mr Speaker, during topical questions. I will forewarn the Foreign Secretary that a question on the subject may be forthcoming from the right hon. Gentleman.

With 3.5 million people in the UK—one in 17—suffering from a rare condition at some point in their lives, may we have a debate on how we can support those people and have better care and medical expertise at their disposal in order to help build on the excellent work done by rare disease charities, such as CLIMB in my constituency, which does excellent work on behalf of those with metabolic diseases?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising that subject, which strikes me as an appropriate matter for a debate in Westminster Hall. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to join him in raising the profile of some of the rare diseases that are often ignored within the medical profession and by medical research. Alternatively, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is in her place and will have heard his request, so he may wish to present himself at her salon at 1 o’clock on a Tuesday to bid for such a debate.

Two hundred manufacturing job losses were announced in Darlington yesterday. When can we have a debate on the Chancellor’s understanding of the word “growth”?

I am obviously sorry to hear about the loss of jobs in Darlington, but as the hon. Lady will know, 400,000 new jobs have been created in the private sector over the past 12 months, and the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a net increase in employment of 900,000 over the next five years, so there is evidence that the private sector is replacing the jobs that are lost in the public sector. I believe that the economy is on the right track.

On Good Friday, I had the great pleasure of attending an outstanding performance of the mystery plays at the Playbox theatre in Warwick, which is designed specifically to support young acting talent. It is an excellent example of how theatre can help to engage young people and develop their confidence and other skills, which is extremely valuable for their future careers and contribution to society. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on how we can support and fund such initiatives?

I applaud the Playbox theatre and the work that it is doing. My hon. Friend is right that we need to do more in that area, which is why the Government recently commissioned Darren Henley to lead an independent review of cultural education.

May I thank the Leader of the House for finally getting a Minister to reply to my persistent questions on the disgraceful claim made by Baroness Warsi that the Conservatives failed to win an overall majority at the general election because of electoral fraud, predominantly in the Asian community? The claim was completely refuted by the Electoral Commission, which reported only two prosecutions and one conviction. However, the reply was from not Baroness Warsi but another Minister, and it did not apologise for, defend or mention her outrageous claims. I realise that Baroness Warsi is a serious embarrassment to the Government, but will the Leader of the House arrange for an oral statement from the Government to come clean about this shabby episode?

I reject the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks about my noble Friend. He has had a reply from the Minister responsible for electoral administration, who was the appropriate Minister to reply to the allegations he made. He has received that letter, a copy of which I have in front of me, but if he believes that there are further issues he needs to raise, I am sure that he will reply and get a further answer.

Can we please have a debate about the achievements of Mrs Thatcher, so that we can kindly educate our coalition allies about how she turned Britain into a nation of home owners, restored our place in the world and crushed militant trade unionism?

As someone who played a modest role in Baroness Thatcher’s Administration, with a slight hiatus at one point, I disagree with the reported comments of the president of the Liberal Democrat party. The two reforms that were highlighted in the speech, namely the right to buy and the privatisation of the utilities, were actually continued under the succeeding Labour Government, so they cannot have been all bad.

I would like the Leader of the House to return to the question of Libya and the middle east. I acknowledge that the Government have made a number of statements on the situation in Libya, but it is very obvious that there has been an enormous amount of mission creep, that British military personnel are now involved in Libya and that increased arms supplies are going to what is now termed the transitional government. We need not just statements to the House, but a debate and a Government motion that can be voted on, because what is happening now is clearly a huge extension to the terms of the motion that we voted on a few weeks ago. Can the Leader of the House assure us that there will be such a debate, with a voteable and amendable motion?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government have provided time for a debate on a motion, so our good faith is there for all to see, but, as I said in response to an earlier question, I would not rule out a repetition of such a debate.

Given that the number of children’s heart surgery units will be reduced from 11 to six or seven, and that an NHS consultation document places Southampton in the top two of those 11 for quality ratings, can we have a statement from a Conservative Minister—an appropriate Minister—about why only one of four options being put forward includes the continuation of Southampton’s children’s surgery unit for heart problems? We would not want—would we?—a competition in which the people who won were actually declared the losers, in this field any more than in the general election.

Like my hon. Friend, I have a constituency interest in Southampton general hospital and I have received a number of letters about the review of children’s heart surgery. Clinical experts consider that one of the core standards for improving care is to undertake a minimum of 400 child heart operations per year and an optimum of 500, and there is uncertainty about whether the Southampton centre can meet that key criterion. The review team is taking evidence about whether Southampton can achieve that in collaboration with the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, and at this stage it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of individual centres.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House has noticed this, but around the back of the Cabinet Office there is a bit of a whiff as the bonfire of the quangos smoulders on. Occasionally, a few things are dragged off and raked from the embers, but serious issues are starting to emerge as a result of some of the quangos that are being absorbed back into Government, given their statutory duties to provide independent advice to the Government. I have had representations from several people from several organisations, including the Health Protection Agency, stating a lack of clarity about how the Government are going to deal with the matter. Can we have an urgent debate about that important issue? I believe that the integrity of scientific advice, in particular, could be jeopardised if we do not have the correct formula.

In one sense we can have an urgent debate, because we will shortly have the Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill, currently in another place, in which the “bonfire of the quangos” to which the hon. Gentleman refers is taking place. There will be an opportunity to debate our proposals for public bodies and to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place.

Can we have a debate about the performance of the retail sector? The high streets in places such as Halesowen, Blackheath, Cradley Heath and Old Hill in my constituency are vital to the local economy, and I am not aware that we have been able to hold a specific debate about the retail sector.

I welcome the information yesterday that retail sales in volume have increased by 1.3% over the past 12 months and in value by 4.5%. That is some evidence of the recovery to which the Prime Minister referred yesterday, and I should welcome such a debate. There will be a debate on the Finance Bill next week, and there may be an opportunity to debate some of the Government’s measures to promote economic recovery.

The New Art Gallery Walsall, in my constituency, has an amazing collection that was started by Jacob Epstein and his family. The gallery is now closed on Sundays, the very day when people can visit, but it costs only £35,000 for it to open then. I have asked the relevant Minister to intervene, but he has refused, so can we have an urgent debate about what powers the Minister has to keep that vital resource open?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was present during Culture, Media and Sport questions, but it strikes me that that would have been an appropriate question to have put during that session. I will pass her suggestions on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and see whether there is any role for him, the local authority, the Arts Council or some other funding body to play.

Can we have a debate about local government finance? My local councils, including Staffordshire county council, have succeeded in freezing the council tax while protecting front-line services, yet people throughout the country are rightly concerned about those councils—and we know which party runs them—that are cutting public services while sitting on a huge cash reserve.

I agree that the purpose of reserves that local authorities hold is to see them through difficult and challenging times such as these. I have noticed that authorities such as Manchester and Liverpool have been cutting services while sitting on very substantial reserves, but I commend the performance of my hon. Friend’s local authority.

Can we have a debate about the effects of the Chancellor’s Budget on social and working men’s clubs? Clubs such as the TA club in Guisborough in my constituency provide an affordable venue for working people who need a meeting or reception space for christenings and weddings, and for other community groups. The 20% rate of VAT and the added duty on alcohol have had a severe effect on how much profit the club can bring in to keep that community space open, so can we please have a debate on the Floor of the House about the issue?

We have just had a very substantial debate about the Budget, and we will deal with parts of the Finance Bill next week, so it might be appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to raise those subjects then. I commend the work done by the working clubs in his constituency.

Small and medium-sized businesses play a major role in the economy of Great Yarmouth, particularly with reference to the importance of tourism, and I welcome the Government’s work to target the sector, recognising that it can drive growth. We can do more, however, particularly with regard to regulations, so can we have a debate in the House about the specific needs of SMEs?

I commend the SMEs in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which are doing such heroic work, and measures have been announced in the Budget. A new capital fund is being set up to help SMEs to access capital, as identified by the Rowlands review; we have announced a moratorium exempting micro-businesses and start-ups from new domestic regulations for three years from 2011; and we are going to drop proposals for specific regulations that would have cost £350 million a year to implement. I am sure that SMEs in my hon. Friend’s constituency will welcome that.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the Government’s programme to reduce regulations on business, but the Government’s consultative Red Tape Challenge website asks the public whether the Equalities Act 2010, which is primary legislation, should be scrapped. Can we have an urgent statement in the House if that is the Government’s intention?

Earlier this month Cheshire fire and rescue service was crowned fire service of the year at the inaugural emergency services awards. Cheshire has seen a 73% drop in fire-related injuries, a 64% drop in business fires and more than 300,000 home safety assessments completed over the past five years. Can we have a statement on fire service performance from the Minister responsible, allowing me to highlight the hard work and commitment of Cheshire fire and rescue service staff and to congratulate them?

I join my hon. Friend—I am sure all Members in his county will—in commending the work of Cheshire fire and rescue service in bringing down fire-related injuries. I am sure that because of the fantastic work of that particular service there are people who are alive today who might not otherwise have been.

You will recall, Mr Speaker, that I have previously raised with the Government the excellent report on firearms by the Home Affairs Committee. Can I press the Leader of the House to state whether the Government, when they get round to replying to the report, will simply issue a statement or publish a White Paper on firearms?

I commend the work that the Home Affairs Committee has done on this important subject, in which I know the hon. Gentleman has a particular interest. The Government will be responding in full to that report, and I expect that to happen at the end of May or in early June. The response will take the normal form of a publication that will be available, and it might then be up to the Backbench Business Committee to decide whether it wanted a debate on the subject.

Councils and local authorities are working particularly hard to increase recycling rates in their areas. Is the Leader of the House aware that trade waste is not currently included in recycling rates? Can he advise on what measures the Government have to change that anomaly, and may we have a debate on the wider issue of recycling generally?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I will take up the matter with the Secretary of State at the Department for Communities and Local Government to get a detailed response to the proposition that my hon. Friend has shared with the House.

May we have a debate on reforming Prime Minister’s questions? The current Prime Minister sometimes seems to be quite casual—some might even say careless—with the facts at Prime Minister’s questions. If there was a hooter at the Clerk’s desk that sounded every time the Prime Minister made a factual error, that might help to prevent the patronising of people who are just putting him straight with the facts.

But why should the hooter just be confined to the Prime Minister? Why should it not apply equally to Labour Members?

Last Sunday, we heard the very sad news that Sathya Sai Baba had died in India. Sai Baba was a unique Hindu ascetic who was renowned among millions of followers worldwide and hundreds of thousands within the UK. There has been no Government statement issuing an expression of sympathy to the hundreds of thousands of followers in this country who are praying for his soul and for his return. Will my right hon. Friend prevail on the appropriate Government Minister to issue a suitable message of sympathy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would like to share his comments with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is probably the Minister who has responsibility, to see whether an appropriate tribute might be made.

I was recently contacted by my constituent Beryl Wilkinson about the distress caused by the mismanagement by Places for People and Hull city council in dealing with the cuts to the Supporting People grant. May we have a debate on how this coalition cut is hitting councils, housing associations and voluntary groups, but most importantly the vulnerable people whom the grant is supposed to support?

I am sure that the management of the city of Hull is in much better hands than it was under the previous Labour Government, when it was one of the worst administered local authorities in the world—[Interruption]—or rather, in the country. The hon. Lady regularly raises issues about that local authority, but we had a debate on the revenue support grant before the amount was settled, and other local authorities have been able to cope with the allocations that were made without coming to the difficult decisions to which she has referred.

Many patients in my constituency will have been listening to Labour Members’ comments about NHS waiting times with increasing concern. May we therefore have an urgent debate on NHS waiting times so that I can have an opportunity to reassure my constituents and put facts before politics on this most emotive of issues?

I very much hope that the Opposition choose the subject of the NHS for their half-day debate on Monday week. I commend to my hon. Friend’s attention the document I have here—the 2010 annual report—which has the statistics, and the press release that was put out earlier this week which brings waiting times up to date. He will also see in a separate publication that there are more cataract operations and more hip replacement operations, and I hope that his constituents will find that reassuring.

May I urge the Leader of the House seriously to consider having a debate on Libya? The circumstances have changed, as we are now talking about regime change rather than a ceasefire. It would be helpful to the Government to have that debate and to have the support, or otherwise, of the House.

I have listened to the representations that have been made in all parts of the House for a further debate in Government time. Without giving any assurances now, I would like to share that strong feeling in the House with my colleagues and reflect on whether it might be appropriate to have another debate in Government time on Libya and related matters.