Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 28 April 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 28 April 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—

Race Course Pitch Tenures

1. What progress he has made in resolving the dispute between race course owners and race course bookmakers on pitch tenures. (52624)

I am sure that the House will remember that in 2009 the previous Government brokered an agreement in principle between race course bookmakers and race courses. It is fair to say that progress since has been stately rather than swift, but I am pleased to report that so far 17 race courses, including Towcester and those owned by Northern Racing and Arena Leisure, have agreed terms of one kind or another.

The Minister is right that some progress has been made, but there is very slow progress, if any at all, with some other race courses. He will be aware that the Select Committee report issued in the previous Parliament found very firmly in favour of race course bookmakers. I hope he will take steps to encourage race courses to give a fair settlement to race course bookmakers who felt that they were buying their pitches in perpetuity.

I am sure that most Members, and people in the racing family more widely, would agree with my hon. Friend. I think that everyone is collectively anxious that this matter should be resolved quickly. I am sure that as a good free marketeer, my hon. Friend will agree that it is better for both sides to agree this between themselves rather than have political interference to push it along. The official form of words is that all options remain open to me. I would say to those involved that they do not want politicians of any stripe turning up to try to do this for them, because the chances are that the result will be less good than one they have brokered for themselves.

I congratulate the Minister on using his powers, because he might have to. Seventeen out of 59 courses have signed up already, but that is not enough. There is a time constraint, and some courses hope that the time will lapse and that they will not have to do anything. I hope that he will keep his eye on the situation and make sure that he reminds them that a deal was about to be done.

That is absolutely right. A deal was agreed in principle and, as I said, all sides in racing expect a solution to be reached. I am keeping a close eye on it, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would expect.

The Minister will be aware that I had a question on the Order Paper about the grand national, which was transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Will he explain why betting on horse races is the responsibility of his Department, but what happens in the race, including horses being ridden to their deaths, is not? Before he says that the welfare of horses is an animal welfare matter, will he explain what would happen if I had asked about the welfare of jockeys?

Order. I am sure that the Minister will not forget the relevance of pitch tenures when answering.

Thank you for that reminder, Mr Speaker.

As the hon. Lady is pursuing the point specifically about animal welfare with DEFRA, I will not go into that. More broadly, matters to do with racing governance generally, which will include health and safety for jockeys, are part of this Department’s responsibilities. The historically close link between racing and gambling is the reason the two areas are linked in the same portfolio.

Sport Participation

3. What assessment he has made of the effect on participation in sport at youth level of the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. (52626)

The comprehensive spending review period started only on 1 April, so no formal assessment has yet been made. However, the increase in lottery funding for sport and the inspirational effect of hosting events such as the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics should encourage more young people to participate in sport.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Without the Newham-Barnsley partnership, London 2012 would be having little impact in my constituency. Will the Minister look at ways of using the example of the Newham-Barnsley partnership as a means of increasing youth participation in sport?

Does the Minister agree that holding the Olympics in London inspires youth participation in sport across the whole country?

Again, the answer is simply yes. Of course, there is not only the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics: in its wake a serious number of major events are coming to this country, including the rugby league world cup, rugby union world cup, cricket world cup and a number of competitions such as the world canoeing championships, which we have just secured. A host of sports events are coming to this country after 2012 that will have exactly that effect.

Will the Minister agree to study carefully the results of the survey that my right hon. Friend the shadow Education Secretary and I have undertaken on the expectations of sports partnership development managers regarding the impact of funding cuts on school sport? Does he share my concern that partnership development managers expect a decrease in the number of competitive events and sports in which children can participate? A significant number of them, some 90%, consider that that there will be a reduction in the number of children taking part in sport. Does he share my concern that if those predictions materialise, it will put at risk the legacy promise of transforming a generation of children through sport?

Yes. As with anything the right hon. Lady says or gives to me, I will consider it extremely carefully. We have to be absolutely clear about the matters to which she refers. They are matters for the Department for Education, not this Department, although clearly we keep a close eye on them. Everybody recognises that we are delivering this against a troubled economic backdrop and that there has to be less money available than there would have been. That would have happened whichever party was in power. Set against that, we have to make the most of the opportunities available to us. I am convinced that by safeguarding the whole sport plan funding and by introducing the schools Olympics, we are doing everything we can against a challenging backdrop to make the most of this fantastic opportunity. However, I will look at what she says carefully.

Live Theatre

4. What recent discussions he has had with the chair of Arts Council England on the provision of live theatre in rural locations. (52627)

I regularly meet the chair and chief executive of Arts Council England to discuss a wide range of issues. A number of organisations based in or serving rural communities will receive Arts Council funding. Rural areas will also benefit from the £18 million of lottery income earmarked for touring from April 2012.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the organisations that take theatre to village halls in rural communities are disproportionately hit in the Arts Council review? Many are losing 100% of their funding, including the excellent Northumberland Theatre Company, which is based at Alnwick Playhouse. Is the Arts Council not failing to meet its objective of bringing theatre to new audiences by making that decision in this difficult situation?

I know that the Arts Council carefully considered funding for Northumberland Theatre Company, and it will still have funding next year. It is worth noting that the Maltings centre in Berwick-upon-Tweed received a 300% increase in funding—the fourth largest funding increase; that the Berwick film and media arts festival will become a national portfolio organisation; and that Queen’s Hall Arts and Highlights, which tours in the area, will continue to receive funding.

May I begin by paying tribute to officials in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who have done so much to support the arrangements for tomorrow’s royal wedding, and to the thousands of public service workers, police officers, community support officers and emergency service people who will keep the streets safe so that the occasion can be joyous? Members from all parts of the House wish the royal couple a happy day. Of course, they were not responsible for aspects of the guest list in terms of the DCMS.

Like many arts activities, live theatre in rural communities faces a bleak future. Does the Minister regret the following statement made by the Secretary of State just before the election:

“People have had certain assumptions in the past about Conservative governments…that appeared to say public spending on the arts was something you might want to progressively reduce. That isn’t where the modern Conservative party stands.”?

Is the Secretary of State still in denial when hundreds of arts organisations have suffered cuts, some are going to the wall, others are increasing ticket prices at a time when people’s incomes are being squeezed, and many are scaling back their educational and outreach programmes to the most disadvantaged communities? Is not the modern Conservative party the same old Tories?

Perhaps I, too, may use this opportunity to thank officials in my Department for the hard work they have done on the royal wedding, and to wish Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton great joy on their day? I know that the Secretary of State is looking forward to attending the wedding tomorrow. It remains to be seen whether he will tweet throughout it.

I hear what the shadow Secretary of State says, but I do not regret what the Secretary of State said. We have achieved a fantastic settlement for the arts, with an 11% decrease only and a significant increase in lottery funding of 43%.

Exercise and Fitness (Female Participation)

5. What proportion of sports funding provided by his Department was allocated to promoting exercise and fitness for women at grass-roots level in the latest period for which figures are available. (52628)

Promoting female participation in sport is a key priority for the whole sport plans. In addition, a number of projects have exercise and fitness elements to help create a stepping stone into sport. Examples include British Cycling’s breeze and sky ride programmes, England Athletics’ informal running networks and the Lawn Tennis Association’s cardio tennis.

Despite record investment in governing bodies, women’s participation in sport continues to fall. There are welcome initiatives such as the £10 million active women fund, but they still represent a tiny proportion of sports funding. Should we not switch funding more towards grass-roots initiatives and learn from mass-participation events such as race for life, which this year will see 1 million women walking, jogging and running 5 k?

Yes. I absolutely understand the hon. Lady’s point. About two years ago, the previous Government, supported by the Conservative party, set in place the whole sport plans, which are allowing sport governing bodies to drive up participation. They have now been running for two years, and I think we are starting to see the benefits, although it is like trying to turn a juggernaut around. When the half-time analysis is done, we will ensure that we concentrate on areas in which the plans have not succeeded as well as in others, and that will be one of them.

No one doubts the Minister’s personal commitment to sport, but what assessment has he made of the extent to which opportunities for women, and indeed everybody else, to take part in grass-roots sport will be hugely reduced because sports staff are being made redundant and fees to hire facilities and entry charges to pools, sports halls and leisure centres are being increased? That is a result of cuts to local council budgets that are going too far and too fast, for which both he and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) voted.

The first point about that is the obvious political one. It is pointless to pretend that cuts have been made because the coalition Government are in power and would not have been made had the Labour party been in power. There would have been cuts whoever was in power. We have put in place a series of programmes to ensure that the effect of the cuts is mitigated, including the Places People Play programme and the work that we are doing with the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government on the Localism Bill. That will allow sports clubs to place all sports facilities on which they play on a local community asset register, so that the facilities are offered to them directly before being put on the open market.

BBC Expenditure

In September last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster) announced full access for the National Audit Office to the BBC accounts, and I am confident that plans will be in place to allow that to happen by November this year in accordance with our departmental business plan.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. At the moment, funding for the World Service comes from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget, as a result of which it is subject to scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee. When funding for the World Service transfers to the BBC, how will he ensure that those arrangements remain in place?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and that is exactly why it is important that the National Audit Office has full, unrestricted access to the BBC’s accounts, including the ability to examine its spending on the BBC World Service. I have a meeting with the incoming chairman of the BBC Trust on 9 May, and I will discuss that very point with him then.

Before the election, the Secretary of State said that it would be perverse for local television to receive public subsidy, yet he is forcing the BBC to provide £25 million of licence fee payers’ money to subsidise local TV. Does he not agree that it is perverse, at a time when he is promoting local TV, that the BBC is considering cutting local radio, which is so vibrant and so central to the heart of many of our communities? Can we try to achieve cross-party consensus and have a dialogue with the BBC about the importance of BBC local radio to many of our communities?

The question is about value for money and how the BBC spends the licence fee, and I am very confident that the agreement that I secured with the BBC last autumn will lead to efficiency savings and better use of licence fee payers’ money, but should not lead to reductions in core BBC services. I would be very concerned if any plans announced by the BBC were to lead to any such reductions.

Although I welcome the moves to increase the NAO’s access to the accounts of the BBC, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General has written to him to say that he will still not have the ability to decide what to do and when to do it. Does he agree that that ability is essential if the NAO is to have the genuinely unfettered access that he has promised?

I agree that the NAO should have unfettered access to the BBC accounts. I take heart from the comments that the incoming chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, made to my hon. Friend’s Committee, when he said that he wanted the NAO to have full, unrestricted access and to be able to go where it wished to ensure and scrutinise value for money at the BBC.

Women’s Football

I spoke at the launch of the new FA women’s super league at Wembley on 11 April to show my support for the new league. My Department also remains committed to investing in all levels of the women’s game. Of the £25.5 million funding allocated to the Football Association to grow the grass roots, £2.4 million is exclusively for the development of girls and women’s football over the four-year period 2009-13.

Given the successful launch of the FA women’s super league and the positive impact it is already having on the women’s game, does the Minister share my frustration that, as it stands, there will be no mainstream broadcast coverage of this year’s women’s world cup in Germany? Will he do all he can to secure an agreement between those involved in broadcast negotiations, so that that situation can be rectified as soon as possible?

The simple answer to that is yes, of course I will. There are two very important elements to that: first, the establishment of the women’s super league; and, secondly, ensuring it receives the necessary profile. Now that the league is established, I hope that the profile, and very soon in its wake a broadcaster, will follow.

Public Libraries

8. What plans he has for the future of the statutory duty on local authorities to make adequate provision for public libraries. (52634)

By encouraging reading, providing access to information and representing a focus for community activity, public library services contribute significantly to the national cultural landscape. They deserve statutory protection. There are no proposals to remove the duty on local authorities to provide a comprehensive and efficient public library service.

Many older people in Makerfield who signed petitions to save their libraries told me that their introduction to the internet, and indeed their subsequent use of it, was at their local library. How will the Government ensure that library closures and cuts to the library service do not adversely affect people who otherwise do not have access to the internet?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. People access internet services in the library, and I hope that local authorities take that into account when they consider changes to public library services. Of course, UK Online centres and many other community services also provide access to the internet.

Is the Minister aware that prudent, Conservative-controlled councils such as Wiltshire county council—my council—are, far from cutting library services in these difficult times, expanding them, and expanding the hours for which libraries are open?

I am aware of Wiltshire county council’s effective stewardship of its library services, and indeed of its ambitious plans for broadband, if I may combine the two points made by the hon. Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue). Local authorities of every political persuasion up and down the country are keeping their libraries open, and understand what an effective public library service can bring to their community.

Olympics (Economic Effects)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the economic effects of the London 2012 Olympics on the regions of England other than London and the south-east. (52635)

The whole of the UK stands to gain from the wide range of opportunities created by the London 2012 Olympics. The Olympic Delivery Authority has 53 suppliers in the north-west alone, including Broughton Controls Ltd just outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which supplies CCTV systems in the park. Many more form part of an extensive supply chain. However, opportunities extend beyond that. So far, six national Olympic and Paralympic committees have signed contracts to train in the north-west, including the Australian swimming team and the USA basketball team, so the north-west is making a massive and important contribution to London 2012.

I am sure that the Minister is right on those specifics, but the previous Administration commissioned a report by Dr Adam Blake of Nottingham university that showed that overall there would be a net negative impact on the English regions of £4 billion—the look on the Minister’s face tells me that he has never heard of the report.

The report was produced at a time of prosperity. Is it not time that the Minister had it updated so that the Government can take action to right that undoubted economic wrong?

I have been rumbled—I was looking at the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) in the hope that she might help me out, but she is looking pretty blank. The best thing I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I will dig the report out. It was not part of the handover brief that I received. Anybody who suggests that Manchester and the area around it is anything other than a vital part of the sporting infrastructure of this country is talking nonsense. The north-west, and particularly Manchester, will be at the centre of this great national sporting celebration.

Efficiency Savings

My Department has one of the most ambitious plans for efficiency savings in Whitehall, having committed to reduce our costs by 50%. By doing that, we have been able to reduce our cuts to the majority of front-line cultural and sporting organisations to just 15%.

Is it the Secretary of State’s ambition to make his the most efficient Whitehall Department and, if so, how confident is he that he will achieve it?

It is absolutely my objective, and I wish to pay tribute to the officials in my correspondence department who have managed to increase the proportion of correspondence replied to within 48 hours to more than 60%, which is incredibly impressive. My hon. Friend sets an example for all of us with his own frugality and Labour Members who were Ministers in the previous Government should perhaps pause and reflect on the way in which they used taxpayers’ money. In this Department they spent more than £300,000 on ministerial cars: we spent just £8,000 on minicabs. They spent more than £100,000 on hospitality: we halved it—

Order. The Secretary of State must resume his seat. The general point has been explicitly made. Question time must not be abused and I know that the Secretary of State, who takes Parliament seriously, will not try that with me.


11. What discussions he has had with the BBC Trust on the contribution of the BBC to the provision of high speed broadband. (52637)

Following discussions at official level with the BBC and BBC Trust, the BBC agreement is being amended to reflect its new funding obligations arising from the television licence fee settlement, including the obligations related to support for broadband roll-out. The draft text of the amended agreement is currently with my Secretary of State for approval.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate all the staff who have worked so hard to help to ensure that tomorrow will be a great day for the royal family, especially the royal couple, as well as a great boost to UK tourism? Does the Minister agree that, with only 1% of households currently having high-speed broadband, if we are to achieve our target of being the best in Europe by 2015, we have to drive up demand? Does it therefore make sense for the BBC to use some of its ring-fenced licence fee money for that very purpose?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an effective point. May I also take this opportunity to thank the many people I met in Bath for making my visit to his constituency at the beginning of the month so enjoyable? As he knows, Martha Lane Fox is leading the Race Online 2012 campaign to encourage as many people as possible to get online. Public libraries, through the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, have set a target of getting 500,000 people online, and I know that the BBC is pushing forward interesting initiatives to encourage people to get online, which I discuss with it regularly.

The Government have abandoned the commitment to universal broadband by 2012 and instead trumpet their achievements in rolling out superfast broadband. However, in recent correspondence, I was told that the only way to monitor the progress of the delivery of superfast broadband was to check the website regularly. Will the Minister explain how progress on the delivery of superfast broadband can be monitored, and how it is being publicised?

We will regularly monitor progress on superfast broadband on several fronts, including cost, access, take-up and speed. British Telecom deserves to be congratulated as it is now rolling out superfast broadband to 90,000 homes a week, which I think is the fastest roll-out anywhere in the world. I hear what the hon. Lady says, and I hope that she will soon be able to have a meeting with Broadband Delivery UK to raise these issues directly.

Rugby League World Cup

12. What financial support the Government plan to provide for the 2013 rugby league world cup; and if he will make a statement. (52638)

I met with the executive chairman and chief executive of the rugby football league on 7 April to discuss the 2013 world cup. I am keeping the funding situation under review pending the decision by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which is due by the end of May.

The Minister will be aware that funding from the Northwest Regional Development Agency is in jeopardy. If that funding does not materialise, can the Minister assure the House that he will stand behind the coalition agreement and continue to support the world cup from his Department?

Broadly speaking, the answer is yes. At the meeting we discussed the various options that would be available. At the moment, I want to concentrate on getting the funding that was promised, and committed to, by the Northwest Regional Development Agency for the rugby league world cup—[Interruption.] No, it has the funding to cover the world cup, if it chooses to do so, and I hope that it will because of the benefit to that region.

When I raised this matter in October, the Minister, as I recall, promised me that he would treat both codes equally when allocating funding for the two world cups. Will he pledge to stick to that promise, and will he ensure that towns such as Warrington benefit from the world cup by hosting some of the matches?

Absolutely. I made the commitment to the hon. Lady, and I have stuck by it. I followed it up with a letter to the rugby football league. It has been down to see me, and there is no question of our treating the two codes differently. The issue here arises from a tranche of funding that was promised by the Northwest Regional Development Agency, but which it has now threatened to withdraw. Clearly I want to get that money out of it, and we will do everything possible to bring this home.

Local Radio

16. If he will discuss with representatives of the BBC Trust future provision of daytime local radio services; and if he will make a statement. (52642)

No discussions have been held with the BBC Trust on the future of local radio, and nor are we planning any such discussions. However, this issue was the subject of a recent lengthy debate in the House, and we urge the BBC to take account of the views raised by many hon. Members.

It is absolutely right that BBC operational independence remains, but the BBC Trust needs to understand that when so much money is spent on over-inflated BBC manager and presenter salaries, particularly those imposing super-injunctions, cutting excellent local radio stations, such as BBC Stoke, which are so vital to community identity, is simply not acceptable.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. Had that statement been made by a Conservative, it would have been seen as an unwarranted attack on the BBC. However, I am glad that there is cross-party agreement on concerns about the level of BBC salaries, even if he has ruled out further appearances on the Andrew Marr programme.

Of the 40 BBC local radio stations, BBC Radio Merseyside is the most listened to outside London. We know that the Secretary of State has shown his passion for local media in his promotion of local television. What are he and the Minister doing specifically to ensure that 24-hour BBC radio programming continues?

This is the second time this month that the hon. Lady has praised BBC Radio Merseyside in the House. I hope that she is reaping the benefits as a result. As I have said, it is not for the Government to tell the BBC what to do. However, my understanding is that some of these reforms, which are only proposals—and I genuinely think that the BBC does listen to hon. Members’ views—are driven more by concerns about content than concerns about saving money.

Is the Minister saying that Coventry and Warwickshire radio, which provides a valuable local service in the Coventry area, will not be amalgamated with Radio 5 Live? Can I take it from his answer that that is what he is saying?

What the hon. Gentleman can take from my answer is that the BBC is making a series of proposals that would need to be approved by the BBC Trust, and that I know from my own campaigning to save 6Music that the views of hon. Members can have some influence on BBC decisions.

I understand what the Minister is saying about it being for the BBC Trust to make decisions about how to cut and organise services, but will he send out a message loud and clear to the BBC Trust that it should not be cutting BBC local radio, which is listened to in Cornwall by more people than listen to BBC Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 or Radio 4?

I think that my hon. Friend, in her inimitable way, has sent out a message loud and clear to the BBC Trust.

We did, indeed, have an excellent debate in Westminster Hall on this subject the other week. Does the Minister agree that in Corsham, Melksham, Winsley, Holt and across rural Wiltshire people appreciate that in BBC local radio they have programming that gets out of the cities and reflects the varied interests of people in the countryside of our fine country?

My hon. Friend made similar points in the debate at the beginning of April, and again I hope that he has reaped the rewards. That debate was also an important opportunity to congratulate him on his then forthcoming nuptials, although I am not on top of them enough to know whether they have now occurred—[Laughter.]

Youth Development (Football)

14. What steps his Department is taking to support youth development in professional football clubs. (52640)

Why is it me who has to follow that answer from my hon. Friend? I am not on top of anything!

My Department’s priority is to continue to invest significant sums in grass-roots football—very important as it is—and between 2009 and 2013 we will invest £25.5 million via the Football Association’s whole sport plan and £47 million in the Football Foundation. This funding will help to strengthen youth development programmes.

I am pleased that Sport England is spending £25 million on football youth development, but all the money goes to richer clubs in the Football League. None of it goes to the seven non-league clubs that have professional youth development programmes. In November the Minister advised me and colleagues from all parties representing the other, smaller clubs to raise the matter with Sport England and the Football Association. We have done so, but we are no further forward. Would the Minister be willing to meet a cross-party delegation of MPs representing constituencies covering those clubs to discuss the matter further?

In theory, yes, of course I would. However, the important thing is that these funding decisions are made, very properly, by the sport’s national governing bodies. That was the central point of the whole sport plan: they are given a sum of money that is measured against a set of direct objectives, and it is up to those bodies to decide how to spend it. So in theory, yes, I am prepared to meet the hon. Gentleman, but I would need extraordinarily good evidence to try to contradict a professional judgment made by a sport about where best to spend its money to drive up participation.

Topical Questions

This House has already expressed its good wishes to the royal couple for tomorrow’s events. I know that we would also wish to express our good wishes to the 500,000 people planning to go to street parties who are anxiously looking at the clouds. After my earlier slap on the wrist I hesitate to crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, but as Culture Secretary, I would like to read a couple of lines from the nation’s greatest playwright to honour the happy couple. These come from sonnet 136 by Shakespeare:

“Make but my name thy love, and love that still,

And then thou lovest me for my name is ‘Will’.”

I am not sure that I can follow that quite so elegantly. I understand the argument for controls on ambush marketing in the forthcoming Olympic games, but what assurances can the Secretary of State give the House and the general public that they will be treated sensitively and that people will not be dealt with heavy handedly if they happen to wear clothing with the wrong label, eat food of the wrong brand, or try to pay for things with the wrong credit card?

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will apply the rules sensitively. Everyone wants the Olympics to be a success, as they want the royal wedding tomorrow to be a success. Peer pressure from crowds is one of the best ways of ensuring that people behave sensibly on such occasions, although I fully take on board his points.

When we are cutting spending on everything outside the House of Commons, will the Minister consider freezing spending on the House of Commons and Government art collection for the lifetime of this Parliament? Surely what money there is would be better spent on struggling libraries, theatre groups, galleries and other cultural organisations across Britain that are enjoyed by millions.

We have frozen spending on the Government art collection for two years. However, let me take this opportunity to say that the Government art collection is a great jewel in the crown of this nation, and I would urge the hon. Lady to go and see it. It is inimitably British, and was set up in the 19th century because the Clerk of the Works decided that it was cheaper to buy paintings to cover the damp on the walls than to replace the wallpaper.

T6. What is the Secretary of State’s initial assessment of the success or otherwise of the ticket application process for the London Olympics? (52649)

The ticket application process has been an outstanding success. More than 20 million Olympic tickets have been applied for, with more than 1.8 million people applying.

T3. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that more people have broadband access at home? Thousands of my constituents still do not have access, despite the Government’s warm words. (52646)

I hear what the hon. Lady says. The Government have set aside £530 million of funding to increase the roll-out of broadband. We have four pilots already announced that are up and running, and we have received, I think, 25 applications for a second wave of pilots, which we are due to announce at the end of May.

I am sorry to say that many colleagues and Members may have missed the extraordinary sight of nearly 100 Morris dancers, Green men and Bogies up from Hastings to make the point that we do not want to move our bank holiday, because it is so important to tourism and the commercial reality of Hastings. Does the Minister agree that this strength of feeling demonstrates that he should reflect carefully on whether to move that bank holiday?

I was delighted to accept a petition from the assembled throng of Morris men, Green men and everyone else from Hastings, and I made the point to them at the time that the Government are determinedly neutral on this issue. We want to consult on the various options. The country has not had a proper debate about this for decades, if not longer, and we are therefore consulting from a neutral position, rather than with a preferred option at this point.

T4. The Secretary of State mentioned that the Olympics were going to help the whole country. May I ask what is going to happen to the surplus tickets for Olympic events and suggest that he look towards the state secondary schools, so that children who might not normally have access to such events can have a chance to go to them? This could help with the legacy that he hopes to create. (52647)

Providing tickets for children is a key priority of the ticketing process. There is a pay-your-age scheme, and I tried it myself on Sunday night. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old who will shortly be four, so I paid £4 for his ticket. There is provision within the process. A ballot will take place, and anyone who is unsuccessful will get preferential treatment in the next round.

During the recess, I met Mr Owen Taylor, the owner and operator of a number of family amusement arcades in Cleethorpes and other east coast arcades. He is concerned about the changing face of those resorts, with higher stake money and larger prizes creating a risk of drawing young, vulnerable people into the gambling habit. Will the Minister agree to meet a delegation consisting of Mr Taylor, myself and others to discuss this matter? During such a meeting, we could perhaps discuss other initiatives that the Government have in mind for resorts such as Cleethorpes.

We take any concerns about gambling, particularly problem gambling, very seriously. When considered on an international basis, British levels of problem gambling are comparatively low, although there is obviously no room for complacency. I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his constituents as necessary.

T5. The current BBC experiment to have all the local radio stations in Yorkshire carrying the same programme at lunchtimes is not local, and we already have regional television. Does the Minister agree that the licence fee should be used for programming that would not otherwise be broadcast, and that that should include BBC local radio? (52648)

Hon. Members have made their concerns very clear about reforms to local radio by the BBC, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s remarks will be heard. I am afraid I do not know the specifics of what is happening in Yorkshire. At the beginning of April, I made a very interesting visit to BBC Radio Norfolk in Norwich, and the working of a local news operation was a wonder to behold.

Will the Secretary of State join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr Field)—and, no doubt, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis)—in congratulating Bury FC on its promotion at the weekend, and in wishing it well in division one?

There is significant support among players and supporters in Wales for the creation of a Welsh national cricket team to compete in the one-day world cup and the Twenty20 world cup. A Welsh national team competed in the 1979 International Cricket Council trophy, so there is a precedent for this. Will the Minister raise this matter with the England and Wales Cricket Board to see whether this ambition can be achieved without endangering Glamorgan’s first-class status or the SWALEC stadium’s status as a test venue?

The answer to that lay in the question. We have an England and Wales Cricket Board, and it would also be extraordinarily difficult to do that without endangering Glamorgan’s first-class status or the ability of the ground to compete for test matches. Traditionally, for many years, Welsh players have competed for England, although there are none at the moment. I imagine that Robert Croft was the last one to do so, and I hope that there will be many more in the future. Hugh Morris, the director of cricket at the ECB, was a Glamorgan player.

The Minister will be aware that the London Mozart Players, one of the finest chamber orchestras in the country, is facing closure. Will he agree to meet Hilary Davan Wetton, the associate conductor, whom I know through his connection with the equally fine Milton Keynes City Orchestra, to see whether a short-term solution can be found to allow the orchestra to survive while we work out a long-term solution?

I know Hilary Davan Wetton of old, and have the utmost respect for him, but I have to say that I do not think it would be appropriate for me to have such a meeting. These decisions are taken by the Arts Council at arm’s length from the Government, and the right people for Mr Davan Wetton to meet would be representatives of the Arts Council.

T7. In the light of the considerable concerns arising from the ongoing criminal investigations into phone hacking in the News International stable, is the Secretary of State now minded to postpone his decision on the future of BSkyB until such time as those criminal investigations have been concluded? (52650)

The decision I have to take about the Sky merger relates to media plurality, and we are in the process of taking that decision. I am very concerned about the news about phone hacking. It is a criminal offence. Two people have already gone to prison and three people have been arrested. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the police must follow their investigations wherever they lead because the public must have confidence that, with a free press, the press use that freedom responsibly.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Ministerial Statements

1. If he will bring forward proposals to implement the recommendations of the Procedure Committee relating to ministerial statements. (52651)

I have sent the Government’s response on its report to the Procedure Committee, which will be published in due course. It would be for the Backbench Business Committee to find time to debate proposals to reform ministerial statements.

Under the last Government, it was routine for ministerial statements to be leaked to the press. There was a media grid and they were leaked, before a statement was made, in a routine manner. Unfortunately, that has continued under this Government. Until we have sanctions against Ministers for leaking, we will never get the problem under control. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether he thinks the proposals of the Procedure Committee go far enough?

I recall the sanctions that my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech of 20 July: one was to string Ministers up from the roof and the other was to put them in stocks in Parliament square. I think even the Whips would agree that that was going slightly over the top. The Government’s view is that there are enough sanctions at the moment. A Minister can be summoned to the House in response to an urgent question; he can be grilled by a departmental Select Committee; and, under the arrangements we have just introduced, the Backbench Business Committee can table a motion for debate, including a motion deploring a Minister’s behaviour. Our view is that enough sanctions are already available.

May I remind my right hon. Friend that the circumstances surrounding the preparation of this report were rather unusual in that it was, in effect, commissioned by the House, following a debate and a motion before the Chamber, which he supported? One does expect the Government to be accommodating on this matter. In an attempt to move this issue forward, may I invite him to return to the Procedure Committee for further discussions—hopefully sooner rather than later?

I would be delighted to respond to my right hon. Friend’s invitation and attend his Committee at the earliest possible convenience.

House Procedures

2. If he will assess the merits of the provision of training on the procedures of the House for hon. Members who are former Ministers. (52652)

The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) has spoken only once in this Chamber in the past year—

Order. I simply want to establish that the hon. Gentleman has notified the Member in question because that is the proper course of action. It needs to be made clear to the House, rather than simply privately, that that has been done.

Order. Let me repeat the point. It is not a matter of private communication, but the responsibility of the Member to notify the House that the Member in question has been notified. Private considerations and communications do not come into it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

That was in stark contrast to the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, who used to speak monthly after he stood down. You will know, Mr Speaker, that yesterday saw the installation of the official photo of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in No. 10 Downing street. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree to acquire a copy of the photo for identification purposes to use in this Chamber in case the former Prime Minister decides to come down and participate.

I am not sure that we necessarily need to go into that. I did see the picture and thought it looked rather nice; there was almost a smile. On the serious issue of training for former Ministers, I am sure that support could be made available if it were requested, and it might be welcomed, because when people leave office they often find that they forget some things.

Pre-legislative Scrutiny

3. What plans he has for pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation proposed by the Government; and if he will make a statement. (52653)

The Government have made clear our intention to improve the quality of legislation. We have already published the draft Defamation Bill and two draft Detention of Terrorist Subjects (Temporary Extensions) Bills. We have also informed the Liaison Committee of our intention to invite pre-legislative scrutiny on the Financial Services Bill, the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, the House of Lords Bill, the Parliamentary Privilege Bill, and the Political Reform Bill.

I welcome that reply, but can I establish that the Government intend all Government legislation to be published in draft as well as, later, in substantive form for the remainder of the current Parliament, so that pre-legislative scrutiny can take place all the time? That is clearly the best practice.

We are committed to publishing Bills in draft whenever possible, but the aspiration to publish more of next Session’s potential Bills in draft must be balanced against the need to devote sufficient resources to getting this Session’s Bills right. We hope to increase the proportion of Bills published in draft during the current Parliament, and by the end of this Session we expect to have published more Bills in draft than the average number under the last Administration.

As the Government are so keen on pre-legislative scrutiny, can the dear Deputy Leader explain why they did not use the procedure in the case of the Health and Social Care Bill? Would that not have had numerous advantages? It would have prevented the Government from introducing legislation that had not been thought through, it would have allowed the Liberal Democrats to pretend that they were being listened to, and, more important, it might have saved the NHS. Will the hon. Gentleman now apologise for that abject failure, and ensure that the House is given proper time to debate the amendments to the Bill when the Government present them?

I rather like the idea of being a dear Leader, or a dear Deputy Leader. I think it lends a certain cachet to the office.

The serious response to the hon. Lady’s question is that, with a new Administration, it is inevitable that some Bills will not receive pre-legislative scrutiny because they must be put into action. In the case of the Bill that she mentioned, however, a period of reflection is now being entered into, and I think that it will be extremely valuable. It will ensure that we hear the advice of everyone who is concerned with getting the Bill right.

Politics (Cost Reductions)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on the implications for the House of Commons of the Government’s programme for reducing the cost of politics. (52654)

The Leader of the House and I regularly discuss such issues with ministerial colleagues. Since the general election the Government have cut ministerial pay by 5%, steered through legislation that will reduce the size of the House of Commons, cut the cost of special advisers, and scrapped the use of dedicated ministerial cars in all but exceptional cases. The House has played its part, with Members agreeing to the freezing of their salaries, and the Commission is overseeing a programme to save at least 17% by 2014-15 while ensuring that the House remains able to scrutinise the Executive effectively.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for that answer, and particularly for his comment about ministerial cars. Like many other people, I believe that if we take care of the pennies, the pounds take care of themselves. Will the Deputy Leader of the House say a little more about the impact of the change in the ministerial cars system?

As the hon. Gentleman probably knows, on 24 May 2010 the Government announced that in all but exceptional cases Ministers would no longer have dedicated cars and drivers. That is not to say that no cars are ever used—there are times when Ministers require the use of a car—but I think I can modestly say that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I set something of an example in that we hardly, if ever, use ministerial cars: we prefer to use our bikes or walk.

If Members of Parliament base their staff in their constituencies they must pay rent, rates and telephone, heating, lighting and photocopying bills, but if they base their staff at the House of Commons, all those assets come as a free resource. Will the Deputy Leader of the House consult representatives of the other parties, and try to find a way in which to get rid of the perverse incentive to base staff in London, where they cost the public purse rather more?

I am always happy to discuss such matters with anyone, but that is now a matter for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. It is certainly not a matter for Government.

House of Commons commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Renewable Energy

5. What assessment the House of Commons Commission has made of the potential for use of renewable energy technology on the House of Commons part of the parliamentary estate. (52655)

In 2005, a study was conducted on the potential for solar photovoltaic and hot water systems on the roofs of the Palace of Westminster. However, it was ruled out because the financial payback was 125 years and the equipment had a life expectancy of 30 years. The current mechanical and electrical project has already installed new energy-efficient pumps and motors, and the medium to long-term plans include solar photovoltaics, greywater harvesting, borehole water cooling, and combined heat and power.

We do not want windmills here just as much as I do not want them cluttering the landscape of Bassetlaw, but there must be scope for solar energy, and not least for air source heat pumps, in the Palace of Westminster. Is it not time that we got our act together and started using renewables far more on the parliamentary estate?

I am very happy to be able to agree with the hon. Gentleman and to inform him that these issues are at the heart of the project that is ongoing within the Facilities Department. All of these options are considered for ongoing programmes and where repairs and renewals are undertaken or where capital investment is made.

Does my hon. Friend agree both that much has changed since the earlier assessments, not least the Government’s recent announcement that public bodies will be able to benefit from feed-in tariffs, and that rather than looking to the medium to long term, we ought to be taking a much more urgent approach to achieving renewable energy for the parliamentary estate?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and, indeed, the infrastructure to accommodate the measures I referred to in my first answer will be installed to take advantage of the technologies as they mature and as paybacks improve, as they currently are doing.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Hand-held Devices

6. What representations he has received on the use of hand-held devices during proceedings of the House and its Committees. (52656)

I am very conscious of the fact that anything I say on this subject may be tweeted and used in evidence against me. The Leader of the House has received no representation on this matter, which is ultimately a matter for the House. The Procedure Committee has produced a sensible proposal in its report. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House wrote to the Chair of the Committee saying that we would both support a motion in the terms proposed by the Committee to be debated in Back-Bench time.

I commend the report of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight) and his Committee on this matter. Would it, however, be technically possible to install a screen in the Chamber so MPs could follow a live Twitter feed during the course of our debates and therefore be able to see what people are saying about us, including our own colleagues?

It is an intriguing thought, but I suspect there are enough distractions in the Chamber already.

While I broadly support the use of electronic devices for urgent messages and the like, I divided the Procedure Committee on the matter and voted against the report, simply because I took the view that if we were all to be sitting here tweeting, checking our e-mails and reading newspapers on screens, we would not be paying proper attention to the debates we were sent here to engage in. I therefore ask the Deputy Leader of the House whether he is ready to respond to the Committee’s report, and let me add that I hope his response will be more considered than the report’s conclusions.

I do think this is a House matter, and a matter for you, Mr Speaker—and you have given an indication of your own thoughts on it. I understand that the Chair of the Committee has asked the Backbench Business Committee for time to discuss the report, and I think it is appropriate that the House has a debate on the issue, takes on board the contrary views on either side of the argument, and then comes to a decision.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Questions

7. For what reason the time allocated to questions for oral answer to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been reduced to 45 minutes; and if he will review that decision. (52657)

Following a request from the official Opposition, the Government increased the time allocation for questions for oral answer to the Deputy Prime Minister. As a consequence of the pressures on the time available for oral questions, it was necessary for changes to be made to the rota. The status of the oral questions rota will, of course, be kept under review.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. I know that you, Mr Speaker, and, indeed, the Leader of the House and the whole House, put great store on there being sufficient supervision of Departments of State. In asking the Leader of the House to review his decision, I would suggest that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is a Department whose responsibilities bear greater scrutiny than 45 minutes allows. We have had the unfortunate incident over the sale of forestry and a number of delayed decisions, which we on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee are not able to consider because of the delay before the summer recess—I am thinking here of bovine tuberculosis, the natural environment White Paper and the water White Paper. Please will the Leader of the House review his decision and give proper scrutiny of that great Department?

May I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does, as Chair of the appropriate Select Committee, in holding that Department to account? Of course we will keep this matter under review, but I just say to her that the time available for DEFRA questions is longer than that for 10 of the other oral questions sessions.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—


8. What recent progress the House of Commons Commission has made in improving the recycling of paper and other materials used on the House of Commons part of the parliamentary estate. (52658)

The amount of waste recycled in 2010-11 was 49.2%, and the amount of paper and cardboard that has been recycled has more than doubled since records started in 2002. The two Houses are due to let a new waste collection contract this summer, and this will require the contractor to work in partnership to meet the waste reduction and recycling targets set by the House. The new contract will also include a pilot scheme to recycle compostable waste.

What are the recycling targets set by the House, and can we not do far better than we are doing at the moment?

Parliament’s recycling target for office waste was set at 60% for 2010-11. The actual recycling rate achieved in the year was below target, at 49.2%, largely because of a significant reduction in the recorded amount of glass waste and, thus, in the proportion of total office waste recycled. The House is looking to recycle 75% of office waste by 2020-21.

Rifle Range

9. What the cost to the House of Commons Service of the rifle range on the parliamentary estate was in the latest year for which figures are available. (52659)

The range is situated in the House of Lords, so there is no direct cost to the House of Commons other than in respect of that percentage of the estate which is paid for by the House of Commons.

Given the continued sniping about some of the family-friendly measures that have been introduced, such as the crèche, and the need for the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make cuts to their budgets, are we not shooting ourselves in the foot by continuing to pay for a rifle range in the House of Lords?

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for her attempt to brown the covey, but I suggest that she has to take a more targeted approach. This is a matter entirely for their lordships.

Business of the House

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.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning in my constituency, a group of 40 police officers arrived at a site, handcuffed one of my constituents and forcibly detained a group of them in a building on the site. They then und