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Business of the House

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

The business for next week will be:

Monday 27 June—A debate on House of Lords reform.

Tuesday 28 June—Remaining stages of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day one).

Wednesday 29 June—Second Reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.

Thursday 30 June—A motion to bring in a resolution, on which a Bill is to be brought in, followed by a motion to approve a regulatory reform order relating to Epping Forest.

The provisional business for the week commencing 4 July will include:

Monday 4 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance (No.3) Bill (day two).

Tuesday 5 July—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 6 July—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be debates on the Prevent strategy, and on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: The Prevent strategy: 6th Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2009-10, HC 65, “Preventing Violent Extremism”.

Afghanistan and Pakistan: 4th Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 514, “The UKs foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the Government’s response, CM 8064.]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 7 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 30 June 2011 will be:

Thursday 30 June—A debate on co-operatives and mutuality in the economy.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply.

On tonight’s vote on stopping the use of wild animals in circuses, will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Government are not whipping their vote? Would it not be ironic if the whip were used to defeat the ban so that people can go on cracking a whip at circus animals?

It is learning disability week, and yesterday I met a group from Leeds who had come to tell MPs that they face discrimination every day. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any idea that disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage would be outrageous discrimination, and may we have a statement condemning it?

Following your comments on Tuesday, Mr Speaker, about the Government holding press conferences on major policy announcements before they come to the House to answer questions from MPs, will the Leader of the House now make time available for the Procedure Committee’s proposals on ministerial statements to be debated? The Committee’s idea that Ministers would be forced to make a formal apology on the Floor of the House for breaching the rules might concentrate the Government’s mind.

Last week I asked the Leader of the House about reconsidering the strategic defence review. Yesterday the Prime Minister came to the House and let slip that he is doing so already, although he had not previously told anyone, least of all the House of Commons. In the Prime Minister’s own words:

“We have had a review of the national security and defence review over the past year”—[Official Report, 22 June 2011; Vol. 530, c. 315.]

When can we expect a statement on the outcome of the review?

This week the climate change Secretary attacked right-wing ideologues and deregulation zealots for putting environmental regulations, including those in climate change and national parks legislation, on a list of so-called red tape that might be scrapped. We wish the Secretary of State well in his fight to save the regulations, but has the Leader of the House had any indication that the Cabinet Secretary’s right-wing, zealous Cabinet colleagues—presumably they were who he was talking about—have asked to make a statement by way of right of reply to this grave charge? If not, may we at least be given a list of their names so that we can keep score?

On the subject of zealots, may we have a statement from the Prime Minister on how he has got on since PMQs yesterday in his desperate attempts to prevent Tory MEPs from voting against a 30% reduction in emissions—which is, after all, a coalition policy—in the European Parliament today? This is a real test of his authority, and if he fails it his claim to be leading the greenest Government ever will be in tatters.

May I offer the Leader of the House an apology? I fear that my comments on weekly bin collections may have inadvertently contributed to a widening of the rift between the Environment Secretary and the Communities Secretary over whose turn it is to take the rubbish out. The Daily Telegraph today reported:

“Cabinet pair ‘at daggers drawn’ after bitter bin collection feud.”

It seems that the right hon. Lady hung up on the right hon. Gentleman, and the pair are thought not to have spoken since. A colleague said:

“The whole thing is fairly unpleasant. . .”

So may we have a statement on why this fragile coalition inside the Conservative party now seems to be falling apart?

After all the policy changes, pauses, rethinks, repudiations, and U-turns in the past few weeks—by the way, I congratulate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website on its honesty for yesterday announcing changes to the BBC World Service with the headline

“Massive U-turn on BBC World Service funding”—

did the Leader of the House see the conclusion drawn by one unhappy Conservative MP who this week said:

“It’s not worth going out on a limb for something if it may be abandoned when the tabloids or the Lib Dems kick up”?

Pity the loyal Back Benchers: they are keen to help, eager to please and want to back their Government, but they now have absolutely no idea, with all this prime ministerial hokey cokey, whether policies that are in this week might be policies that are out next week, or at the very least shaken all about. May we therefore have a statement reassuring them that if they do take the plunge and voice support for the Government, they will not be left high and dry as so many of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues have found themselves in recent weeks? Finally, does this collective loss of nerve by the Government not show just how right was the Treasury mandarin who last week complained:

“They just don’t seem to have thought any of this stuff through”?

Sir Humphrey could not have put it better himself.

We hear that the shadow Leader of the House’s bid to lead his party goes from strength to strength. I can report that following my comments last week, even The Independent has been tempted into a flutter:

“I’d put £50 on Hilary Benn. He’s not an automatic embarrassment. His performance as shadow Leader is widely admired. And there’s the hereditary principle working in his favour.”

With friends like those, what is holding—[Interruption.]

As the sixth baronet, I am in favour of the hereditary principle.

Let me turn to the shadow Leader of the House’s questions. I note in passing that he asked very few questions about next week’s business. None the less, on the motion dealing with circus animals, we are tackling a problem that he singularly failed to tackle during his time in government.

The Government are perfectly entitled to defend their position in the House and in a Division.

As for shadow Leader of the House’s question about disabled people and the minimum wage, the suggestion made was outrageous. It is not Government policy, and I agree with what he said about it.

We would welcome a debate on ministerial statements. It is for the Backbench Business Committee to find time to debate the proposals of the Procedure Committee. This Government have made roughly one third more ministerial statements a day than the outgoing Administration, and we are more than anxious to keep the House fully informed. There will not be another SDSR, as the Prime Minister made clear, and there is not a review of it.

As for the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about zealots, which I believe were reported in the press, the comments and criticisms within the coalition Government are, from time to time, made by members of two different parties, whereas in the previous Government much more offensive comments were made about Ministers in the same party, so I am not sure that he should raise the issue on the Floor on the House.

So far as MEPs are concerned, the coalition’s policy is wholly unaffected by what happens in the European Parliament. The coalition Government’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions and climate change remains unaffected.

As for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the additional £2.2 million for the Arabic service, for which there was support among Members on both sides of the House. In the context of a budget for the World Service of some £250 million, it is difficult to describe that as a mammoth U-turn. It is a sensible and welcome change in response to pressure from the House.

So far as rethinking Government policies is concerned, I wonder how long it will be before the right hon. Gentleman’s party reconsiders the shadow Chancellor’s view on a reduction in VAT, which it seems was introduced without any consultation with his colleagues.

Would my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate to hold a debate in Government time on the future of the Commonwealth? We are approaching an important Heads of Government conference in the autumn and, more imminently, the centennial conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association here in London.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work as chairman of the CPA in organising an important conference at the end of next month. I am glad that a number of my ministerial colleagues will speak at the conference, which I hope will be a great success. I would be misleading him, however, if I said that I could find time between now and the summer recess for a debate on the Commonwealth, but I hope that there might be an opportunity to raise the issue in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions or perhaps to seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

I am sorry to go on about this, but the Leader of the House gives me absolutely no option. The Government are not sticking to their promise of allocating one day a week as Back-Bench time. At the moment, we are running at about one day a month, and I am sure that the problem cannot possibly be the subjects that we are choosing to debate on the Floor of the House, so will he please again consider allocating one set, regular, non-Thursday slot as Back-Bench time?

Let me reassure the hon. Lady, whose work as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee I admire, that we will stick to our promise that there will be 35 days in the Session, plus injury time because this Session is longer. We cannot offer one day every week, and a large number of days at the beginning of the Session were devoted to general debates. We might be able to catch up towards the end of the Session, but at the moment I am under enormous pressure to provide adequate time to debate Government measures, and she has a whole day today to debate Back-Bench business. I reassure her that we will honour the agreement of 35 days per Session, plus injury time because this Session is longer than normal.

Order. A further 38 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to accommodate them, but I remind the House that two debates are taking place today under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, both of which are well subscribed. Brevity from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike is therefore of the essence.

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that he was unable to announce today a debate on the armed forces? Is he aware that the Backbench Business Committee—through no fault of its Chair, I have to say—has refused my request for a debate on the armed forces, although we have not had one since September last year, in favour of a request to debate eight or 28 circus animals? That is an important subject that would be appropriate for a debate in Westminster Hall, but I understand that that already happened a couple of weeks ago.

I understand where my right hon. Friend, who is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, is coming from, but under the Wright Committee proposals the four days per Session that were allocated for defence have been put into the pot, which is now owned by the Backbench Business Committee. It is therefore up to the Backbench Business Committee to decide how to allocate those days, and I think that his comments were addressed as much to the Committee as they were to me.

On parliamentary accountability, or the lack of it, why did the Secretary of State for Defence table a written statement today on the cost of the military operation in Libya, rather than making an oral statement at the Dispatch Box? Is it not unfortunate that we get our information either from the media or from written statements, and that the Minister responsible does not come here to explain and justify his actions and to answer questions accordingly?

The hon. Gentleman says that the Government have not made a statement, but he is holding in his hand the Government’s statement. As I said a few moments ago, the record of this Government on making statements is better than the record of the Government whom he supported.

Following the schools Minister’s welcome announcement this morning that grammar schools such as those in my constituency will be allowed to expand, may we have a debate on grammar schools and their positive impact on social mobility?

Again, my hon. Friend’s request might have been heard by the Backbench Business Committee. The policy of the coalition Government is that, where grammar schools exist, they should be allowed to expand. We are not, however, in favour of starting them in areas that do not have them. I personally would welcome such a debate, and I hope that that can be arranged through the Backbench Business Committee or possibly on the Adjournment.

The Leader of the House will know that the base interest rate is 0.5%. Is he aware that my constituents and others up and down the land are paying 19.1% interest on their credit cards? The failure of the credit card industry to lower its rates in line with the base rate has ripped off our constituents by £500 million. When may we have a debate on the way in which interest rates are ripping off consumers and small businesses?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern at the gap between the base rate and the rate charged by credit card companies and other lending organisations. There will be an opportunity to raise this matter of consumer protection in questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as in Treasury questions. Alternatively, the hon. Gentleman could apply for a debate on the Adjournment.

May we have a statement next week from the Leader of the House on why the Government are rowing back on their commitment to provide a day a week for Back-Bench business? It is no good for him to suggest that Members refer their requests to the Backbench Business Committee if the Government are not giving us any days. May I suggest that it is his job to resist pressure from the Executive for debates?

I am under enormous pressure from both sides of the House to provide adequate time to debate Government legislation. We have accommodated two days for the Report stages of a number of Bills because we think it important that the House has adequate time for such debates. If my hon. Friend looks at the Standing Orders, he will see that the commitment was to 35 days per Session, not to one day a week. As I said to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), we will abide by our commitment. I must also point out that there would be no Backbench Business Committee at all, were it not for the coalition Government introducing one.

There is a Focus store in Consett in my constituency, as I am sure there are in many others. I have been contacted by Kingfisher, the parent company, which wants to take over the store and all its staff, but it has been advised that it will not get a decision from the Office of Fair Trading until September. That will be too late for my constituents, who will be made redundant by the Focus receiver on 18 July. The redundancy payments and welfare benefits represent a massive cost that does not need to be incurred. May we have a statement on what action the Government will take to speed up the OFT’s decision?

Of course I understand the concern that the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of her constituents, and I will contact the OFT today to remind it of her concern and ask it for an urgent response.

Local communities in my constituency have been left devastated after the Planning Inspectorate imposed Traveller sites on various communities, based on the outdated planning policies of the previous Government. A Government consultation is taking place on the planning circulars. May we have a debate, so that Members can influence that consultation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. It sounds as though that decision was reached under the existing rules on Traveller sites. Our view is that the rules are not fit for purpose, so we are consulting on an alternative set of proposals. The consultation closes on 6 July, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will respond to it. I cannot promise her a debate on the subject she raises, but the Localism Bill is now in another place, where there might be an opportunity to debate proposals on Traveller sites.

Is the Leader of the House aware that hundreds of Derbyshire constituents are up in arms at the prospect of there not being an oral statement about the railway contract that went to Siemens in Germany, rather than to Bombardier in Derby? Why are this Government not acting like the Government in Germany, where about 90% of the contracts stay in Germany? About 100% of such contracts stay in France. And do not tell me it is because of what the last Government did; this Government are supposed to be doing something else. I never voted for the free movement of capital and labour, unlike the Leader of the House and thousands of others. Stop rolling over to the EU!

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in Transport questions a few moments ago when that subject was raised.

If he was listening, he would have heard that the terms of the tender were set by the Government who, from time to time, he supported. His point about Ministers not being able to defend the proposition is wholly untrue; we defended it a few moments ago.

The Local Government Boundary Commission’s review of Daventry district has united all political parties locally and a huge number of the parishes against the proposals. Few if any of the views expressed in the consultation period have been taken into account, and I am being asked to pray against the measure when it is placed before the House after the summer. Will the Leader of the House advise me on the parliamentary routes available to me to get the Local Government Boundary Commission to listen to the views of my constituents?

The short answer is no, but I will write to my hon. Friend outlining the procedures available to him to pursue this important matter.

May we have an urgent statement on the newly leaked plans to close seven of the eight HMRC offices in Wales, leading to a possible 1,000 redundancies and affecting the quality not only of the service in Wales generally but in particular of the service through the medium of Welsh provided in Porthmadog?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which I will convey to the appropriate Minister and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman as soon as he can.

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on the apprenticeships programme, in the light of today’s excellent news about apprenticeship numbers? We should all be delighted that there are 114,000 more apprenticeships in the year, which will provide real opportunities for our young people.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I commend to the House the written ministerial statement from the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning. There will be some 25,000 more apprenticeship places as a result of the steps we have taken, and we see that as an important part of the road to recovery and dealing with the high youth unemployment that we inherited.

Ahead of the visit by the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, may we have a debate on human rights in China? We welcome the release yesterday on conditional bail of Ai Weiwei, but the Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo is still banged up in the Chinese communist gulag. When the Prime Minister meets his opposite number here in London, will he say in public that Liu Xiaobo should be freed? He did not do so in China, which I think was contemptible, but now that the Chinese Premier is coming to English democratic territory, will he tell him to his face to release Liu Xiaobo?

I welcome the release to which the right hon. Gentleman refers. I give him the assurance that my right hon. Friends will raise with the Chinese delegation the important issue of human rights, and I am sure that they will do so diplomatically and effectively.

On a recent visit to an RAF station, it was highlighted to me that junior rank servicemen living in single room accommodation in blocks of more than 40 still have to pay the full television licence, even when serving abroad. With Armed Forces day approaching, could we have a statement from the relevant Minister to see whether we could review that situation?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There will be an opportunity to question Defence Ministers on 4 July, when he might have an opportunity to raise the matter during topical questions.

I am also in favour of the hereditary principle because, just like the right hon. Gentleman, I come from a very long line of parents. I know he reads the Daily Mirror. Has he seen today’s report that Cardiff has been listed in National Geographic magazine as one of the top 10 alternative places to visit this summer? May we have a debate on tourism and the importance of promoting and publicising our wonderful cities like Cardiff?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman risks setting up a bidding war between every Member who believes that his or her constituency is the best one to visit for holidays, but he has achieved his objective by putting his views on the record.

May I urge the Leader of the House to support having a debate on the rare cancer of neuroblastoma? My constituent, Mr Samual Daubany-Nunn, suffers from this rare cancer and has to go to Germany to get treatment. Some primary care trusts fund going to Germany for treatment, but the one in my constituency does not do so at the moment. I really think that people should be treated fairly throughout the country.

I share my hon. Friend’s concern. He will know that we have put extra resources into cancer treatment over the past year, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1956:

[That this House recognises the sacrifice of the UK's atomic test veterans; notes that many test veterans are now ill; further notes that many countries have paid compensation to ex-service personnel who were exposed to atomic tests; believes that atomic test veterans fulfilled their military duties in good faith; and urges the Government to make an ex-gratia payment to the UK's atomic test veterans.]

It calls for compensation payments to atomic test veterans. This issue has gone on for an extremely long time. At one time or another, we all praise the hard work of our armed forces; now is the time to turn those words into deeds. After all, there are not many of these veterans left and they are probably now outnumbered by lawyers.

As the hon. Gentleman was good enough to concede, this problem has been going on for some time. There will be an opportunity to raise it with Defence Ministers on 4 July. In the meantime, I will remind my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence of the concern that this matter remains outstanding and urge him to do all he can to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and, this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister are calling for shares in Northern Rock and Lloyds, which we substantially own, to be distributed to the British people. Given the interest in this proposal, may we please debate it on the Floor of the House?

Indeed, that is one of a number of options. I think the reference was to Lloyds and HBOS, as I think a Treasury statement about Northern Rock was made last week. It is important to have an open debate about the options available to the Government when the time is right for transferring these banks to the private sector. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I am sure there will be opportunities, perhaps in the remaining stages of the Finance Bill, to deal with it.

Is the Leader of the House aware that Syrians living in London are being threatened and intimidated by agents of the Assad regime? Does he know that these people have been photographed and the photographs shown to their families in Syria? The Syrian ambassador is about the Houses of Parliament this morning. Has he been called in and told that that is totally unacceptable behaviour in this country, which believes in freedom of expression and freedom of speech?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising this matter. We are indeed aware of the reports and we are discussing them with the Metropolitan police. Any evidence of offences committed by embassy staff—or, indeed, anybody else—against demonstrators should be reported to the police. Anybody who has any such information should do the same. We will, of course, take up with the police any information they receive regarding alleged offences by the Syrian or any other embassy, and we will take the appropriate action.

What has been the role of the Leader of the House in framing the new construct for the release of Government information—namely, a written ministerial statement, a press conference and then an oral statement to this House? Given your very clear pronouncement on this issue, Mr Speaker, will my right hon. Friend assure us that this will not happen again?

On the specific issue that my hon. Friend mentions, we were following a precedent established by the previous Government. In December 2009, for example, Labour published its “smarter government” strategy via a written ministerial statement; it was then followed by a detailed speech by the then Prime Minister and an oral statement took place later in the afternoon. I have, of course, heard what you, Mr Speaker, said on both 14 and 21 June. I recognise that there is a balance to be struck between observing the proprieties of the House and informing the public. I will draw the attention of my ministerial colleagues to both those rulings and to my hon. Friend’s point.

May we have a statement on compliance with UN resolution 1973? We found out this week that the war in Libya is costing £0.25 billion and that this country’s military leadership believe that our armed forces are overstretched in engaging in that endeavour. May we now have a debate to find out why British troops are not enforcing the ceasefire on both sides, but acting as the military wing for the rebels in a civil war?

The Government have done all they can to keep the House in the picture on Libya—and, indeed, on Afghanistan and other issues. There will be an opportunity on 4 July to raise these issues again with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Leader of the House may be aware of the possibilities for an early debate—I hope so, anyway—to discuss the guidance issued under the Reservoirs Act 1975 by the Institution of Civil Engineers, as approved by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environment Agency. At no stage has the House considered this guidance, which caused the failure of a flood defence in Pickering. May we have an early opportunity to discuss and, possibly, amend these guidance notes?

I will raise those issues with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I cannot promise a debate. I was concerned to learn about the incident to which my hon. Friend referred. She might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment in the meantime.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the situation in Sudan? In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Nuba people have been displaced from their homes, and we have seen the resumption of aerial bombardment by Khartoum. In two weeks’ time, South Sudan takes its place in the league of nations, but the situation is very fragile. May we have an opportunity to debate it in the House?

I am aware of problems in Sudan, following the referendum and the decision to split the country. There will be an opportunity to raise this during Foreign Office questions in the middle of next month, but in the meantime I will share the hon. Gentleman’s concern with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and ask him to write to him.

May we have a debate on procedure? Politics is about choices. We have a slightly bizarre situation whereby it is possible and in order to draw attention to Opposition policies in debate, but not in questions. Surely the Opposition’s approach to debt and the deficit and their proposals for unfunded VAT cuts must be a matter of parliamentary interest and a matter of concern to the country.

That may be a question that you, Mr Speaker, feel better placed to answer than me. As my hon. Friend will know, we had an opportunity yesterday to test the Opposition on their VAT policies and, indeed, found them wanting. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will have heard what my hon. Friend has said about the propriety of questions on Opposition policies.

Yes. Questions are to the Government about the policies and proposals of the Government. ’Twas ever thus and ’tis still so.

May we have an urgent debate on how to secure the future of the British train manufacturing industry, following the decision to appoint Siemens as the preferred bidder for the Thameslink contract, which will potentially cost 3,000 jobs at Bombardier based in Derby and a further 12,000 jobs in the supply chain? This could spell the end of the British train manufacturing industry because, come this autumn, Bombardier’s order books are empty.

Of course I understand the concern felt in Derby about what has happened, but there has just been an opportunity to ask Ministers about this issue at Transport Questions, and questions were asked, and answers were given.

As this is a time when both central and local government are short of money, I ask that a Minister come to the House to explain, perhaps by making a statement, how we are supporting local government and the police in pursuing litter louts. That may seem a trivial issue, but my local authority is spending £6 million a year picking up rubbish, and that money could be spent on educating kids or looking after the elderly.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I cannot promise a debate on this important issue, but perhaps he would like to put in for an Adjournment debate so that he can expand his ideas at greater length.

May I again press the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time on energy prices? He kindly suggested that I should make a request to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, yet I am, in fact, a member, and we have dealt with the issue on many occasions. Ofgem has made its proposals clear, yet prices are still rising. This issue affects every constituency, and such a debate would provide an opportunity for all Members to discuss it, and to stop our constituents getting ripped off.

I note the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Energy prices have risen by about 50% over the past 12 months. We have taken a number of initiatives: the cold weather payments are being maintained at their higher level, and we also have winter fuel payments, Warm Front and the green deal. We are doing all we can to reduce energy costs, particularly for poorer-income households, at a time of rising prices.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett), I welcome the announcement of 114,000 new apprenticeships and pay tribute to the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning for his sterling work on that. However, may we have a debate or a statement on why so many publicly funded organisations—such as the Charity Commission and the Met Office—currently offer no apprenticeships whatever?

I would be very grateful to my hon. Friend if he would let me have a list of the public bodies he thinks are not pulling their weight in offering apprenticeships, and we will, of course, then pursue the matter through the appropriate Minister.

May we have a debate in Government time on what more the Government can do about the increase in fuel prices—they have gone up by 10% in the last year, compared with an average rise in retail prices of 5%—especially since the fuel duty stabiliser does not seem to have cut prices at the pumps?

As a consequence of the fuel duty stabiliser, the price of petrol at the pumps is 6p a litre less than it would otherwise have been. We have the warm home discount, which amounts to £250 million a year, and the Warm Front scheme helping 47,000 families. We are also giving Post Office account holders a discount, and as a result of the £1.9 billion fuel duty package the typical Ford Focus driver will be £56 better off. We have, therefore, taken steps to try to insulate people against the higher fuel prices.

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—the RMT—is threatening, on a minority vote of its membership, to make travelling in London a misery over the next few weeks. May we have a debate in Government time on requiring unions to secure a majority vote of their membership before they can take industrial action?

I very much hope that the RMT will not go ahead with the industrial dispute, which will cause widespread disruption in London. I am aware of my hon. Friend’s views on changing the law—and, indeed, those of the Mayor of London. We have said that we plan to keep the industrial relations legislation under review, but as of now we have no plans to change it.

I thank the Leader of the House for persuading his colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to see sense over the ridiculous plan to impose a shadow executive mayor on Birmingham. May we now have a debate on the equally ridiculous plan to make the people of Birmingham pay for the Government’s referendum at a time when their budgets are being cut to the bone?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the Localism Bill, which is now in another place, and to a number of Government amendments to it. If he has colleagues in the other place who share his concerns in respect of Birmingham, there will be an opportunity to press the Government further on the second issue that he raised.

On 12 October last year, I had the privilege of a visit from the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), to Porton Down in my constituency, when she said she hoped a decision about the future location of that facility would be made by the end of the year. I raised this matter in the House on 11 March, yet we are still no clearer. Does the Leader of the House agree that the time has now come for the Government to make a statement and thereby address the uncertainty felt by the large number of my constituents who work at Porton Down?

As I am my hon. Friend’s constituency neighbour and constituents of mine also work at Porton Down, I understand the concern felt locally about this matter. I will raise my hon. Friend’s concerns with the relevant health Minister in order to try to discover the timetable for this decision.

The Leader of the House will be aware that his colleague the Secretary of State for Wales has failed in the last 13 months in that job to say a single word from the Dispatch Box about Wales, save at Wales Questions. Will he prevail upon her to try to raise her subterranean profile in this House, and secure a debate in Government time on matters of importance to the people of Wales?

I have the good fortune to sit next to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales at Wales Questions, and I would have thought that 15 or 30 minutes would be sufficient time to deal with all the questions likely to be raised by Opposition Members. So far as the call for a debate is concerned, the hon. Gentleman will know that following the recommendations of the Wright Committee a decision on a debate on Wales—or London or any other part of the country—is now a matter for the Backbench Business Committee.

May we have a debate on the causes of child poverty? Members on both sides of the House are concerned that it costs 50p for every pound that the Child Support Agency is able to get to children, and that the arrears are £3.8 billion. We could also talk about the provision in the Welfare Reform Bill that gives parents much greater incentive to work and therefore lift their households out of poverty, including their children.

My hon. Friend is right: children growing up in households where a generation or more has not worked is a real issue. I think I am right in saying that the Work programme is the UK’s single biggest employment support programme. I hope it will help to end the cycle of worklessness that has blighted many families, and all out-of-work benefit customers will be able to access the programme at a time that is right for them.

The Prime Minister is currently in Brussels attending the European Council meeting trying to prevent a crisis across Europe which would make Lehman Brothers look like a small event. The House again did not have a debate ahead of the European Council, however. I know that the Leader of the House thinks that this is Back-Bench business. If that is so, may we have a debate on what he thinks is Front-Bench business?

In a nutshell, Front-Bench business is the Government’s programme of legislation. There was a statement about Greece on Monday, and I know my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will want to keep the House in the picture on what happens at the European Council. The question of the House having a debate before European Council meetings is, as the hon. Lady knows, a matter for the Backbench Business Committee.

This morning, the Secretary of State for Transport announced that he was looking into the impact of the European Union procurement regulations and how France and Germany manage to procure their trains from their own domestic manufacturers, yet we seem to be unable to do so. Given the great interest that there will be in such a review, may we have a statement or a debate so that the Secretary of State can hear the full views of the House on this controversial issue?

I understand the concern that is felt on both sides of the House about the procurement process for rolling stock and engines. I wonder whether the best way to proceed might be to have a debate on the final day before the recess, if the Backbench Business Committee decides to have a series of Adjournment debates, or for a Member to apply for an Adjournment debate in the Chamber or Westminster Hall.

My constituent Joe Arthur was attacked, and subsequently died, while on holiday in Corfu in 2006. Five years on, the three individuals connected to his death are still awaiting trial in Greece. Mr Arthur’s family have received exceptional support from Northumbria police, but they want justice. Will the Leader of the House arrange for me to meet a Foreign Office Minister to discuss the case and see what further assistance can be offered to the family?

I am very sorry to learn of the death of the hon. Lady’s constituent. Of course I will contact a ministerial colleague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to arrange a meeting for the hon. Lady.

May I, too, highlight the importance of human rights and human dignity, by drawing to the attention of the House the fate of the Baha’i religious community in Iran? May we have a debate to underline the importance of concerted action to promote human rights, as the Helsinki accords of 1975 did for people in eastern Europe in the following decades?

Persecution of any individual on the grounds of their religious faith is unacceptable. I am aware of the problems faced by the Baha’i community in Iran. The FCO makes regular representations on this matter here, and we also make representations to the Iranian Government so that this persecution can be brought to an end.

In south Wales over the past three years the theft of metal from train lines has cost £3 million. Last year alone, there were 84 instances of cable theft in our area, leading to train journey delays. May we have a debate on this issue, which is making the lives of train commuters miserable?

I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, who will no doubt want to contact the British Transport police to see whether more effective action can be taken to deter these sorts of thefts and bring the criminals to justice.

Further to the questions of my hon. Friends the Members for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr Evennett) and for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) does the Leader of the House agree that a debate on apprenticeships would be a suitable birthday present for the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning, whose birthday it is today, given the massive increase in apprenticeships that was announced this morning?

By a miracle, my hon. Friend the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning is now in his place and will have heard those wishes for a happy birthday, which I am sure are shared by hon. Members on both sides. I pay tribute to him for what he has been doing. It is a substantial achievement to have delivered 326,700 apprenticeships in the first nine months of this academic year and 114,000 in the previous year—more than double what we set out to do. That is the right way to provide a sound platform for long-term economic prosperity.

May we have a debate on the Floor of the House about why the Government have decided to stop publishing time to pay statistics in July and whether this is the beginning of the end of time to pay?

Notwithstanding yesterday’s Opposition day debate, may we have a specific debate on tax so that we can, among other things, consider the shadow Chancellor’s proposal for a £12 billion unfunded tax cut, on which all Members, but perhaps members of the shadow Cabinet in particular, might appreciate the chance to have an opinion?

We all enjoyed yesterday’s debate in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor trounced the shadow Chancellor on his economic strategy. The Opposition have left their tax cut open-ended and unfunded. They have not given any definition of what constitutes “growing strongly again” and would simply be adding £51 billion to the deficit at the end of this Parliament.

May we have a statement on the accountability of the Government on women and equalities? Today, an oral question on the impact on women of the increases in fees for courses in English as a second language was transferred to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Department has form on this: on 3 March, I raised in questions to the Leader of the House the fact that questions on women and pensions had been transferred. How can we hold the Government to account given that we have only quarter of an hour for questions and no topical questions and given that questions specifically about the impact of Government policies on women are ducked by the Ministers responsible for women’s policies?

I say to the hon. Lady that we have adopted precisely the same arrangements for questions about women as we inherited from the outgoing Government.

I have been delighted by the response to my ten-minute rule Bill to ban smoking in cars when children are present, but I am aware that despite support from across the House and the country, the chances of the Bill getting a further detailed hearing are very slim. Will the Leader of the House therefore provide time for a full debate on the Floor of the House so that the topic can be aired in much greater detail?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having got a Second Reading for his Bill yesterday but I would be misleading him if I said that there was any time within the Government’s programme to adopt it. However, there will be an opportunity in the next Session for him to apply for a private Member’s Bill slot.

May we have a debate on the solving of conundrums? Or perhaps the Leader of the House could solve one for me. The latest figures show that, at the moment, for every job available in the Rhondda there are 84 people seeking that job, whereas in his constituency of North West Hampshire there are only two people seeking each available job. So far as I can understand the Department for Work and Pensions’ view on all this, the way to resolve the situation is for everybody from my constituency to move to his constituency. The vast majority of my constituents own their own home, but their homes are not worth the kind of money they would need to buy a home in his constituency, so what are my constituents to do to try to get into work?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents would always be very welcome in North West Hampshire, but I understand the issue he raises. I think that the answer to his question is the Work programme, which is the biggest and most ambitious work programme ever to get people back into work. In addition, the Government are taking steps to build long-term, sustainable recovery, which I am sure will reach south Wales as fast it reaches anywhere else.

May we have a Government statement on the Government’s plans to mark the 100th anniversary in 2014 of the beginning of the first world war? I visited Belgium a few weeks ago, as a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the other commissioners and I were briefed on the extensive work going on there. That contrasts with the confusion in the UK, where it appears that a decision is yet to be taken on whether the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will take the lead on that anniversary.

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern that we should commemorate this anniversary properly. As a former Minister in the MOD, he will have a good background to this matter. I will raise it with MOD Ministers to make sure that we take appropriate action to commemorate this important anniversary.