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Business of the House

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 5 May 2011

Monday 9 May—Opposition Day (unallotted day—half day). There will be a half-day debate on the future of the NHS which will arise on an Opposition motion, 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—Remaining stages of the Education Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the draft directive on common consolidated corporate tax base, followed by a motion to approve the charter for budget responsibility.

Thursday 12 May—Motion relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, followed by a motion relating to reform of the common fisheries policy.

The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 13 May—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 16 May will include:

Monday 16 May—General debate on the middle east, north Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Tuesday 17 May—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution relating to the Localism Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Localism Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 18 May—Remaining stages of the Localism Bill (day 2).

Thursday 19 May—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:

Thursday 12 May—Debate on education performance.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply, and I welcome the further foreign affairs debate that we are going to have.

The House will be aware that heath and forest fires are affecting a number of parts of the UK so, as well as thanking those who are working so hard to contain them, does the Leader of the House anticipate a statement?

On the length of this Session, the right hon. Gentleman was uncharacteristically dismissive in responding to my question last week about when it will conclude. Previously the House has always had a pretty good idea when the next Queen’s Speech would be, so may I urge him again to let us know as soon as he has worked it out?

At business questions last week, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) asked about the comments made last autumn by Baroness Warsi about the general election. Let me remind the House that she said that there were

“At least three seats where we lost....based on electoral fraud.”

When asked to identify the seats, she replied:

“I think it would be wrong to start identifying them”.

The Leader of the House said that my right hon. Friend had received a “reply” to those allegations from the appropriate Minister. I have read the letter and it does not give one, and my right hon. Friend has now written to both that Minister and the Leader of the House to seek a proper response. However, given that a member of the Cabinet has made an accusation of electoral fraud, can the Leader of the House confirm for us today that Baroness Warsi has passed, either to the Electoral Commission or to the police, the information that she must have had to have made those very serious allegations in the first place?

May we have a statement on the role of OFFA—the Office for Fair Access—in respect of the setting of university fees? Last weekend its assistant director was very clear. He said:

“We are not a fee pricing regulator; that is not our role...we wouldn’t say to an institution we would only allow a fee of ‘X’ or ‘Y’”.

That statement completely contradicted what the Prime Minister told the House on 30 March, which was that

“the Office for Fair Access will decide whether universities can go to that £9,000 threshold.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 334.]

Now that this has come to light, when will the Prime Minister come to the House to apologise for giving Members incorrect information about the powers of OFFA?

May we have a debate on the breakdown of collective Cabinet responsibility? After his threat to sue ministerial colleagues last week, we read that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change this week used the Cabinet meeting to launch a blistering personal attack on the Prime Minister over the content of the no campaign leaflets. He also said this over the weekend:

“To attack your political colleagues in a coalition...for accepting the compromises necessary to allow the Conservatives to implement some of its policies is...outrageous.”

Well, where exactly do we start on that? First, it makes it sound as if the Lib Dems are helpless victims, rather than willing participants. If, however, that is the case, can we have a list so that we know who to blame in future and for what? Secondly, a Cabinet Minister was openly criticising the man who appointed him and it appears that the occupant of No. 10 is completely powerless to do anything about it. I wonder whether the Prime Minister feels that the most annoying man in British politics is now, in fact, the Climate Change Secretary.

Thirdly, we now have no idea who speaks for the Government, so can we have statements on the following matters? Is the Health and Social Care Bill in suspension or not, and if so, for how long? Does the Prime Minister agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comment this week that piloting the idea of police commissioners would be “entirely rational”? What exactly is the Government’s policy on the outsourcing of public services? First we were told that that was the future; now we read in a leaked document this week that they are pulling back because it would be politically “unpalatable”. Who is right about internships and family friends? On Tuesday the Deputy Prime Minister told the “Today” programme that Government policy is to end informal internships, yet on the very same programme his boss, the Prime Minister, contradicted him, saying that he has his neighbour coming in for an internship.

As we approach the first anniversary of the coalition, is not the truth that it is already beginning to fray at the edges as both partners realise that a marriage of convenience is no substitute for voting for what you believe in? And on that subject, may I tell the Leader of the House that many people are looking forward to voting for a Labour alternative to this shabby coalition today?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that response, which deserved a far wider audience on the Labour Benches than it received today. While the Leader of the Opposition still struggles to be identified by the “Today” programme, the shadow Leader of the House has at least managed to define himself in these sessions as a sort of Rory Bremner without the accents. The fact that he rarely turns his creative energies to the business before the House for the next week is, I think, a welcome acknowledgement that so far as the running of the business of the House is concerned, I enjoy his full confidence and support.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the current affairs debate. It shows the value of business questions that when serious propositions are made by the right hon. Gentleman and Members from all parties, the Government can respond to the views of the House and in some cases find time for a debate.

On heathlands, the Government will want to keep the House in the picture, whether by written ministerial statement or otherwise, and I take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

As for the Easter recess and when the House might rise next year, the right hon. Gentleman is well ahead of the game. I think I first asked about last year’s Easter recess in October the year before. I went on asking and—I have had to refresh my memory on this point—it was 12 days before the Easter recess in 2010 that I actually got the date from the then Government. For him to ask some 11 months in advance is, I would gently suggest, a little premature.

On the matter of the correspondence between my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio and the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), as the shadow Leader of the House knows a reply was sent by the Minister responsible for constitutional reform. If a reply has been sent by the right hon. Member for Warley, it will of course get a proper response, which will include the specific questions that the shadow Leader of the House raised.

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that OFFA will decide whether a university can charge £9,000, so my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right. Universities can charge that figure only if OFFA is satisfied that the necessary arrangements have been made, for example, to secure access for those on lower incomes. There is no clash there.

Finally, on the whole business of collective responsibility, I am amazed that the right hon. Gentleman should seek to raise this when he is speaking for a party that since losing power has deluged high street bookshops with inside accounts from all the main players, giving us the grisly details of the spats, feuds and briefings within the then Cabinet. Things do not sound much better in the current shadow Cabinet, with one Brownite insider reported as saying that the Leader of the Opposition’s team is “terrified” of the shadow Chancellor and shadow Home Secretary because;

“They think they're going to come and try and kill him. And the reason they think that is because they will.”

The truth is that the tensions within one party that sits on the Opposition Benches are much more damaging than the understandable tensions between two parties during a referendum campaign and local elections. From next week we will be back in business, working together in the national interest to get the economy back on its feet. Our divisions will heal, but Labour’s never will.

I am sure that the prospect of yet another Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority debate next Thursday fills the Leader of the House with the joys of spring. However, as he will be aware, there is one piece of unfinished business. Although there will be no determination of any salary until April 2013, will he ensure that he will trigger the mechanism that puts the power for setting salaries into the hands of IPSA, so that it can do its preparation work in advance of that deadline?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We have not seen the motion that we will debate next Thursday, although we have received a general indication of the subject. I hope that the House will stand behind the principle of independence and transparency that was agreed in the previous Parliament and to which I very much hope we can adhere. I can confirm that I shall trigger very shortly the transfer of responsibility for fixing MPs’ pay from where it rests at the moment to IPSA.

The education maintenance allowance reduces poverty and promotes equal opportunities. We learn from the recent equality impact assessment on their replacement that the administration of the new bursaries could open up the possibility of unintended discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, ethnicity or the other characteristics against which discrimination is outlawed under equalities legislation. Will the Secretary of State for Education come to the House and make an urgent statement to tell us what he is going to do about that?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made a statement about the replacement regime for EMA a few weeks ago, and that statement was generally well received and the sum of money allocated was higher than many commentators had thought. It is no part of our agenda to discriminate in any way against the groups that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I will draw his comments to my right hon. Friend’s attention and invite him to respond appropriately.

May we have a debate in Government time on the Winsor review? Like many other hon. Members across the House, I have received letters from serving police officers, and such a debate would help to clarify the situation. I understand that all parties agreed that it was appropriate to consider police overtime and shift patterns.

It would be helpful to hold a debate, possibly in Westminster Hall, on the Winsor review. It would be an opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to clarify their position. I understand that an Opposition spokesman told the House in December that £500 million to £600 million of the £1 billion that the previous Government were planning to save in the police service was to come from changes in overtime and shift patterns, so I very much hope that there will not be widespread opposition to some of the proposals in the Winsor review.

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to column 305WH of yesterday’s Hansard? As he will see, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) said that he had deliberately not asked his Department to produce documentation on the Government’s plans to privatise some of our hospitals. He has done that to avoid ministerial accountability. May we have an urgent debate on that issue?

I have just announced a half-day Opposition day debate on the NHS, so I can accede to the hon. Gentleman’s request perhaps faster than he had expected.

Will the Leader of the House look favourably on any request to debate the successes of the coalition in its first year in government, particularly the pupil premium and the increase in the tax threshold, and give us the opportunity to debate the remainder of the Government’s programme and how we will address the poisonous legacy that was left to us by the previous Government?

The Government would welcome with open arms any opportunity to debate the successes. My hon. Friend reminds the House that 1.1 million people have been taken right out of tax and that a number of other measures have been introduced—for example, to safeguard the interests of those who have retired with a triple lock on pensions, and the other measures announced in the Budget. We had an opportunity in the two days that we spent on the Finance (No. 3) Bill to talk about some of those issues, but if we can arrange it, I would welcome any opportunity to continue with that agenda. I remind the House that we are still paying £120 million a day in interest on the debt that we inherited from the outgoing Government.

Will we have a statement following the outcome of today’s referendum? Even before the polls have closed, the Deputy Prime Minister is under attack for breaking yet another pledge. He said that he would not get involved in the yes campaign, but when he saw it ahead in the polls he became involved, and it suffered from dead Clegg bounce—and now it looks as if it will not succeed today. So can we have a statement—and can it be made by the Deputy Prime Minister, because we really want to take in earnest whatever is said from the Dispatch Box?

The best answer I can give the hon. Gentleman is that the Government have no plans to make a statement on the outcome of today’s elections.

May we have a debate in Government time on the potential for further efficiency savings in local councils? Many councils, such as my local council in Wiltshire, are both cutting costs and investing in front-line services, and it is perverse that other councils—often Labour councils—are sitting on huge cash piles and making cuts for entirely political reasons.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would include in her category of well-performing councils Test Valley borough council and Basingstoke and Deane borough council, in which I have an interest and for which I hope to vote later today. She is right to contrast the performance of some councils that have decided to protect front-line services and other councils that are sitting on huge piles of reserves and have chosen instead to make cuts in front-line services. People have an opportunity today to choose which of those alternatives they prefer.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House has seen early-day motion 1585, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), which expresses deep concerns about the east coast main line decision to award a customer call centre contract, currently based in Newcastle, to Intelnet Global Services, with the possibility of transferring jobs to Mumbai.

[That this House is deeply concerned at the decision of the state-owned East Coast Mainline to award its customer call centre contract, currently based in Newcastle, to Intelnet Global Services and ATOS Origin, who have operations in Plymouth, Wolverhampton and Mumbai, India; is appalled that this loss of jobs, which is yet another blow to the economy and communities of the North East of England, will also see jobs exported overseas to India; believes it is completely unacceptable for a government company to transfer work abroad and calls on the Secretary of State for Transport to intervene to prevent this; further believes that this episode once again demonstrates the failure of fragmentation and sub-contracting in the rail industry; and calls for an urgent industry-wide assessment of the benefits to the passenger, taxpayer and economy of bringing all railway services in-house.]

A lot has changed in the past 12 months in terms of coalition policy, but is it now the Government’s policy to export British jobs to India?

We want to generate as many jobs as we can within the UK. We have just had Transport questions, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman took the opportunity to ask that question—

Is my right hon. Friend aware that early last week potholes in Parliament square were filled in and areas of damaged tarmac in and around the square were resurfaced? Can we have a debate to see what we can do to encourage more royal weddings to take place, preferably around the country, including East Yorkshire, so that the rest of us can have an adequate road surface to drive on?

I am sure that Buckingham palace will have taken note of my right hon. Friend’s question—and I believe that there is to be another royal wedding later in the summer. I heard with interest his question about potholes a few moments ago in Transport questions. As a cyclist who cycles around Parliament square, I welcome his interest in my welfare.

Earlier this morning the Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued two written ministerial statements, one of which relates to the fact that in January it discovered a large number of documents relating to allegations concerning Kenya and the Mau Mau, and that it had appointed Anthony Cary, the high commissioner to Canada, to carry out an internal investigation. The written statement says that that report is available in the Library, but I have been to the Library and the Vote Office several times this morning and it is not available. This is not the first time that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made statements in the House saying that information is available when it is not. Indeed, I raised this in the House a few months ago. Will the Leader of the House have an urgent discussion with the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs about the fact that his Department is not treating Members of the House with the respect that they should?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I have the written ministerial statement in front of me, and as he rightly says, it states:

“I have today deposited in the Libraries of both Houses the findings of that investigation.”

If that is not the case, it will be drawn to the attention of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office within minutes, and I very much hope there will have been a response by the time business questions have ended.

May we have a debate on the operation of the construction industry scheme? At a time when many small and medium-sized enterprises still find it difficult to obtain credit from the banks, the scheme often results in businesses being thousands of pounds out of pocket for up to a year. That no doubt benefits the Treasury but it is putting real jobs at risk.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. As a former Minister with responsibility for the construction industry, I am aware that that industry training board survived when many others were abolished. I will share his concern with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Business, Innovation and Skills, both of whom have responsibility for the construction industry, and I will ask them to reply to him.

I do not know whether you, Mr Speaker, or the Leader of the House have received this extraordinarily impertinent letter from the Speaker of the Libyan Parliament, saying that there is a clear process of political reform and social development under Colonel Gaddafi and that we as MPs should all support it. That will be discussed in the foreign affairs debate, which I welcome, but will the motion be amendable, so that the House can consider seriously the views of those of us who think the time has come to put an end to the sacrifice of British soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly following the welcome disappearance of Osama bin Laden?

The answer to the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is no, I have not received that particular communication. The debate on Monday week is a general debate on the middle east, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, so we plan not to table an amendable motion but to have a “take note” debate, which is in the tradition of debates that the House has held on foreign affairs issues.

Further to the representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the Winsor review, may I ask for a debate on front-line policing? We have heard lots of rhetoric from the Opposition about so-called cuts, when the real issue that we should be considering is how to redirect resources from the back room to the front line.

It is worth reminding the House that for every £8 we plan to save this year the Opposition were planning to save £7, so it is difficult to reconcile their criticism of our spending plans with their commitments. I would welcome such a debate on policing. When confronted on the “Andrew Marr Show” at the end of March, the shadow Chancellor said that they would have made cuts in policing. I think that a debate on policing would clarify what the real issues between the two parties are and, if the Opposition do plan to spend more on police, where they would find the necessary savings from other parts of the budget.

May I follow on from the question asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about the disastrous Health and Social Care Bill, and ask the Leader of the House what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health about what a “pause” means? Does it mean that there is a pause in the Bill’s progress through the House or in what the Bill proposes to do? That is still not clear. We find that the changes involving primary care trusts and consortia are still taking place, as we speak. For the benefit of the House, will the Leader of the House tell us what “pause” means in the Government’s language?

The hon. Gentleman will know, looking ahead for the next two weeks, that I have not announced further consideration of the Health and Social Care Bill, and he will also know that a number of meetings have been arranged between Health Ministers and those in the medical profession to listen to concerns and inform the debate before the Government respond. When that process has been completed, we will have the remaining stages of the Bill. I remind the hon. Gentleman that when his party was in government, its Postal Services Bill disappeared completely off the radar; that is certainly not our intention for the Health and Social Care Bill.

May we have a debate on the hours that the House sits so that Members can determine the full cost, including necessary staff travel, when the House sits, as it did this week, past 4 o’clock in the morning, only to run out of steam early the following day?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Procedure Committee has started an inquiry on our sitting hours, the sitting week, and indeed the whole Session. I very much hope that he will find time to respond to the questionnaire, if he has not already completed it, and perhaps to give evidence to the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight). The House did indeed sit late on Wednesday morning, and if my hon. Friend looks at the time taken by Opposition spokesmen he will see that there were two speeches that lasted one hour each; having read them, I think they could usefully have been condensed. My view is that we could have completed half the consideration in Committee on Tuesday by 10 o’clock, and the other half on Wednesday by 7 o’clock, and I am sorry that, for whatever reason, the House was not able to agree a more sensible approach to the remaining stages of the Committee of the whole House on the Finance (No. 3) Bill. That is one of the factors that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, who is in his place, will take on board in his report.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on the criteria used for giving overseas aid, so that we can tease out why we are still giving money to India despite the fact that it spends $35 billion a year on defence and $750 million a year on a space programme, and has its own overseas aid programme, and why we are giving money to Pakistan, which may well have been harbouring the world’s worst terrorist?

Pakistan would be a perfectly appropriate subject to raise in the debate on Monday week. I remind my hon. Friend that some 17 million children do not go to school in Pakistan, that it has areas of real deprivation and poverty, and that it is in this country’s interests to have a strong, democratic, well-resourced Pakistan as an important ally in the fight against terrorism.

I hope that you will bear with me for my question, Mr Speaker. There has been much public discussion about the increasing use of super-injunctions and the ability of judges, rather than elected parliamentarians, to decide policy. Is the Leader of the House aware of the anomaly this creates if, as has been rumoured, a Member of this place seeks a super-injunction to prevent discussion of their activities? May we therefore have a debate on the use of super-injunctions, and not leave the issue to the Joint Committee on the Draft Defamation Bill, which cannot address these concerns?

My hon. Friend raises the very important question of how we balance, on the one hand, an individual’s right to privacy, and on the other hand, freedom of expression and transparency. The Master of the Rolls is currently conducting an inquiry into this very subject, particularly the use of super-injunctions and other issues relating to injunctions that bind the press. The Government will await the report from the Master of the Rolls’ committee before deciding what the next step should be. It may then be appropriate for the House to debate this important issue.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the issue that I am about to mention was raised at Transport questions but not really clarified. May we have a statement from the appropriate Minister on actions that the Government will take to minimise the disruption in London caused by the RMT tube strikes? Can we then have further measures from the Government at least to raise the bar to prevent small minorities from causing strikes, and if possible to outlaw them, in emergency services?

I understand the anxiety that my hon. Friend expresses about the disruption to London and the loss of money to London as a result of the strikes called by the RMT, and I very much hope that they can be resolved through the usual channels—through ACAS. The Government are not seeking to pick a fight with the trade unions; we have no plans to introduce fresh legislation on employment laws, but we do keep the matter under review, and I very much hope that trade unions will not resort to strike action until every other opportunity has been examined. In this particular case, I am not convinced that they have done that.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Special Olympics world games will start in Athens on June 25. I hope to be there for the opening. Is there a way in which we in the House can celebrate the achievements of the learning-disabled athletes whom Special Olympics Great Britain is sending to the games—before the games, so that we can send those athletes off to represent their country in the most appropriate of fashions?

That is a welcome suggestion. I suggest that my hon. Friend apply to the Backbench Business Committee or Westminster Hall for a debate, before June 25, when he plans to attend that very important event. The pairing Whip has taken notice of his public request to be slipped.

May we have a debate about the decorum of senior Members of the House participating in other elections? Did my right hon. Friend notice the extraordinary sight of the Leader of the Opposition appearing at a campaign rally with a Labour council candidate sporting a T-shirt in appallingly bad taste, which said:

“A generation of trade unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?

I believe the Leader of the Opposition has recognised that that was an unfortunate conjunction, and has expressed regret and said that in future those T-shirts should not be worn by anyone representing that political party. There is a message there for us all. We should be very careful who we are photographed next to, and take note of what they happen to be wearing at the time.