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Business of the House

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

The business for next week will be:

Monday 4 July—Continuation of remaining stages of the Finance (No. 3) Bill (day 2).

Tuesday 5 July—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Finance (No. 3) Bill (day 3).

Wednesday 6 July—Estimates day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on the “Prevent” strategy followed by a debate 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 UK’s 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 Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill, followed by a debate on use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and Committees. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 11 July will include:

Monday 11 July—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the European Union Bill, followed by motion to approve European documents relating to civil law.

Tuesday 12 July—Motion relating to the retirement of the Clerk of the House, followed by Second Reading of the Public Bodies Bill [Lords].

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 7 and 14 July 2011 will be:

Thursday 7 July—A debate on intellectual property and the Hargreaves report.

Thursday 14 July—A debate on “The Future of CDC”, the International Development Committee’s fifth report of session 2010-12, HC 607.

Further to your earlier announcement, Mr Speaker, the whole House endorses what you said in congratulating Robert Rogers on his appointment as Clerk of the House and wishes him well in his new responsibilities.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply. I associate myself with the congratulations to Robert Rogers on his appointment. We look forward to continuing to work with him in his new role.

We are about to have a statement on police detention following the court ruling. We stand ready to assist with emergency legislation if that is what is needed to deal with the problem. The Leader of the House did not refer to the possibility of such legislation in his statement. Will he tell us the latest position?

Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) raised the problem of questions addressed to the Minister for Women and Equalities being transferred to other Departments. Has the Leader of the House made any progress in looking into that? Can we have topical questions on this important area of the Government’s responsibilities?

Next Monday, Andrew Dilnot’s report on social care is due to be published. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that there will be an oral statement? Will he also undertake to find time subsequently for the House to debate these important matters? Talking of which, in view of today’s industrial action, may we have a debate about the Government’s mishandling of the public sector pensions negotiations?

The Business Secretary said recently that he wanted a resurgent manufacturing sector. Therefore, can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on why he awarded a £1.5 billion contract for 1,200 new train carriages to a company in Germany, when it will put some 3,000 British railway manufacturing jobs in jeopardy?

Has the Leader of the House seen the e-mail that was released this week from Evan Harris, the former Liberal Democrat Member? In discussing the changes to the Health and Social Care Bill, he wrote:

“There is a view that we should keep quiet, say we had a victory and hope no-one notices this stuff—but I think that is not realistic. The plans remain bad for the NHS”.

May we have a debate so that we can sit back and discover whether those views are shared by the coalition Liberal Democrats who still have their seats or whether they are doing what they do on occasion, which is to face in several different directions at once?

Last week, the newspapers reported the Deputy Prime Minister’s plan to give away shares in the publicly owned banks. No sooner had it hit the front pages than a source was briefing that it was back-of-the-envelope stuff:

“He…should know better. This is not the way you make policy.”

A few days later, the Deputy Prime Minister announced the localisation of business rates, again outside the House of Commons. Here are two major policy announcements. In one case, it seems that the Cabinet has not even had the chance to question him, let alone the House of Commons. In the other, we are still waiting for a statement.

May we have a debate on Camnesia? That is not a previously undiscovered Polynesian island, but a previously undiagnosed condition that affects the Prime Minister’s ability to recall the detail of his own policies. As we saw again at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, he seems to know nothing about the huge increase in the number of NHS quangos that he is creating.

After all the remarkable U-turns we have seen in the last few weeks, the very special humiliation of last week’s vote on wild animals in circuses took some doing. The issue was extremely clear: it is not right for the entertainment of others to make big beasts do things that do not come naturally to them, which is why we have all felt great sympathy this week for the Justice Secretary. As we have heard, first thing in the morning, there was a hard three-line Whip in a desperate attempt to defeat the motion, but by 4 o’clock in the afternoon it had vanished, along with the Government’s courage, because the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) had made it clear that he would neither be induced nor bullied by the Prime Minister into withdrawing his motion. Can we have a debate to praise the hon. Gentleman—others are trying to bury him—or at the very least to save him from being taken round the back of the bike sheds for a good hiding, as one colleague has apparently suggested? I assume that he did not mean it—perhaps it was just a job application to be a Tory Whip.

Finally, as yet another policy bites the dust, does this not all reveal the fundamental truth about the current occupant of No. 10 Downing street? Unlike his much more resolute predecessor[Interruption.] Unlike Baroness Thatcher, this Prime Minister is for turning.

As always, we enjoyed that, but there was a slight absence of questions about the future business of the House, from which I take it that the Opposition are perfectly happy with the way in which this Administration are managing the business of the House.

I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman said about police detention and bail. We will have to await the statement that is to follow to discover whether emergency legislation is necessary. I am grateful for his offer of support should that be the outcome.

Turning to the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), I will share with my right hon. and hon. Friends the right hon. Gentleman’s request to extend topical questions to the Government Equalities Office, which at the moment does not have them because it has a relatively narrow slot. The procedure for transferring questions has not changed at all under this Administration. A question is transferred to the Department that is best able to answer it.

On Dilnot, this is an important issue. That is why one of the first things we did on taking office was to ask Andrew Dilnot to chair this commission, which I understand will report on Monday. It is an issue that should be debated by the House in due course, but I cannot promise a statement by the Government on Monday, which is the date of the publication. It may be some time before the Government come up with their response.

We would welcome a debate on our approach to industrial action and strikes, and I hope that the Labour party might clarify its own views. I see that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that the Leader of the Opposition was under some misapprehension as to what was going on. However, I am grateful to the him and many other Members for making it into the building today.

The matter of train carriages was dealt with in Transport questions. The contract was awarded under exactly the same procedure that the previous Government used to order new rolling stock, and there has been no change whatever.

I was in the House when the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) raised the issue of local government finance, and I refreshed my memory about the coalition agreement, which committed us to

“promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance.”

The terms of reference for that review were set out in a statement on 17 March. The review is ongoing, and a consultation document will be published in due course. There has been no dramatic change in Government policy.

The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the events of last Thursday and talked about the vote, but there was no vote at the end of that debate. The Government accepted the motion. He might at some time pay tribute to the coalition Government for setting up the Backbench Business Committee. There would have been no such debate had his party remained in power, because it refused to set up the Committee.

Finally, I admire the right hon. Gentleman’s acting ability in keeping a straight face in his final remarks about the former Prime Minister.

May I warmly welcome the announcement of the business for next Thursday based on the Procedure Committee’s report on the use of hand-held devices in the Chamber and in Committees? Does he agree that that is a very important matter, on which it is desirable that an early decision is made? Will he therefore bring forward a business motion to ensure that the House can reach a decision next Thursday one way or the other?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for producing that report. I think some hon. Members have anticipated the House’s decision by already using hand-held devices, but it is important that we regularise the matter.

The Government are anxious not to create a precedent of routinely timetabling Backbench motions, but I will consider my right hon. Friend’s request. Subject to the agreement of the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and indeed of the House, I will be prepared to table an appropriate motion to protect the business on Thursday.

On Monday the House will devote considerable time to debating, and voting on, an amendment to tackle the problems caused by legal loan sharking. Given that, may we have an urgent statement on the Government’s plans to cap the cost of credit? As part of that, will the Leader of the House investigate a meeting that I understand took place on Wednesday, at which it was agreed that the Government would vote against the amendment on Monday, delaying action to relieve the misery caused by high-cost credit, purely so that an announcement can be made at the Liberal Democrat party conference? We need to know that when MPs vote on Monday, they are not putting choreographing coalition dividing lines ahead of the interests of vulnerable consumers.

May I say by way of preface that I commend the action that the hon. Lady is taking, in conjunction with others, to tackle excessive interest rate charges on credit cards and other means of credit? She asked for a debate, but answered her own question by saying that there would indeed be a debate next Monday. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my colleague at the Treasury who will be replying to that debate. I am sure that nothing underhand has taken place at all.

May I draw the House’s attention to the real concerns, particularly in Norman Shaw, about the proposal to transfer the postal delivery from the Attendants to the postmen? That is causing great concern among the Attendants, many of whom have worked for the House for 20 or up to 36 years. Are they going to be made redundant? What is going to happen to them if that change is made?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I share his appreciation of the work that the Attendants have done. As he will know, this is a matter for the House of Commons Commission rather than the Government. You, Mr Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission, will have heard the comments, and I will ensure that the Commission addresses the issue at its next meeting.

The Leader of the House will know that the Business Secretary constantly hints that he is going to introduce some sort of legislative curb on the freedoms of the trade unions, despite the fact that we already have some of the most restrictive labour laws in the western world. Is the Business Secretary finally going to come to the House and make an announcement, or is this just going to lurch on for a few more months?

The hon. Gentleman must have been listening to different speeches by the Business Secretary from the ones that I have heard, in which he has consistently said that he has no plans to change industrial relations legislation. I am not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman got that idea from.

May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Education, following the latest appalling figures released by my local district council? They show that a total of 28,000 children in the district do not speak English as their first language, representing 43.5% of primary school children and one in three secondary school children. For clarification, I believe that more than 90% of those children were born and raised in this country. There is a clear responsibility on parents, who are failing our children. How are we going to hold them to account?

I understand the challenges that face teachers in educating children who do not have English as their first language, and the consequential issues for other children at their schools. My hon. Friend will know that in April, the ethnic minority achievement grant, which currently stands at just over £200 million, was mainstreamed into the wider dedicated schools grant. He will know also that the coalition Government’s priority for children with English as an additional language is to promote rapid language acquisition and include them in mainstream education as soon as possible. I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education.

I make my usual declaration of an indirect interest in the interests of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford).

Will the Leader of the House consider asking the Minister for Housing and Local Government to make an urgent statement to the House, preferably this afternoon, on the regional growth fund? There is a real contradiction between what he has been saying in the House and the evidence given by Lord Heseltine to the Communities and Local Government Committee yesterday. The Minister says that housing is definitely part of the regional growth fund, but Lord Heseltine says, “Oh no it isn’t”. Will the Leader of the House please encourage the Housing Minister to come and clear this mess up?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern that areas that benefited from the housing market renewal grant may not benefit from the regional growth fund. She will be pleased to know that two authorities have already received money under the regional growth fund for projects that include a very large element of housing. They are two areas that were previously getting funds from the housing market renewal programme, so the situation is not quite as dire as she has just implied.

In a written parliamentary answer, the Lord Chancellor confirmed that his Department had provided information to a journalist from The Daily Telegraph on the Government’s new policy on legal aid prior to his written statement to the House on 21 June. It was published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph prior to the statement. May we have a statement from the Leader of the House next week on the Government’s views on statements, and could they be heard first here, not on the front page of The Daily Telegraph?

The ministerial code is absolutely explicit that important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to the House. I would regret any breach of that part of the code. This Government have made roughly one third more oral statements per day than the previous Administration, so we take that responsibility seriously, and the Prime Minister has made more oral statements in his first year than his predecessors.

May we have a debate on the way in which we pay our respects to the fallen, particularly in Afghanistan? The practice of Back Benchers reading out the names of the fallen in the House is now forbidden, and on two occasions the announcement by the Prime Minister of their names has been moved, to a Monday and a Tuesday.

There is now great concern that the moving tributes paid by the people of Wootton Bassett cannot be paid under the new arrangements at Brize Norton, because the hearses are taken on a route that does not allow the public to line up and pay their tributes in order that we as a Parliament can be reminded of the consequences of our decisions and the country can be reminded of the true cost of war.

It is important that this House has an opportunity to pay the sort of tributes that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, although some of the issues that he raised at the beginning of his question fall more appropriately to you, Mr Speaker. I will raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has a constituency interest, and see whether there is any way that what used to happen in Wootton Bassett can take place under the new arrangements for repatriating those who have fallen.

May we please have a statement on when the driving test centre in Bury, which has already been closed for over six months, will reopen? Its continued closure is causing enormous inconvenience to both driving school instructors and their pupils in Bury and the surrounding area.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Driving Standards Agency is committed to reopening the driving test centre in Bury, which suffered from extensive flooding damage in late 2010. Feasibility studies have now been obtained and the building works will be subject to a competitive tender exercise. The planned reopening is scheduled for late 2011, and I hope that my hon. Friend is invited to do the honours.

May we have a statement about what the Government are going to do about the treatment of the two classes of Members in this House—those who turn up and do their work here in Parliament, and those who refuse to take their seats, but who, scandalously, will still get paid an estimated £3 million to £4 million over the course of this Parliament, not only in constituency money, but in Short money, which they, unlike us, can use for non-parliamentary, political party activities? When will the Government deliver on their promise that it would be inconceivable that MPs would continue to allow that to happen in this Parliament?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. The Government’s view is quite clear: those who are elected to the House should take their seats in the House like everybody else. As he may know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is discussing this very issue with the political parties, and I will remind him of the continuing need to find an appropriate solution.

In an answer that the Minister for Immigration gave me yesterday, it was confirmed that we could extend to 2013 the transitional arrangements for migrant workers from new accession countries who have access to our job market. I would like to protect British jobs for British workers where possible, so may we please have a statement from the Minister on why we are not taking advantage of that extension of protection for our labour market?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There will be an opportunity at Home Office questions to cross-question the appropriate Minister, who I believe was before the House during Home Office questions earlier this week. In the meantime, I will share my hon. Friend’s concern with him and see whether there is any possibility of changing the date that she has mentioned.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Business Secretary to make a statement on the serious situation facing the Liverpool retailer T J Hughes? Some 4,000 jobs across the country are under threat, with the company going into administration this week. Will the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills use all its efforts to find a buyer, so that the company’s jobs can be protected and the service to local people continued?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the prospective loss of jobs in his constituency and elsewhere. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will want to do all that his Department can, either to protect those jobs in the way that the hon. Gentleman has just outlined, or to assist in every practical way those who may lose their jobs.

Can consideration be given to holding a debate on the way BT treats its elderly and vulnerable customers? I have recently dealt with a case in which a widow in her 70s was without a domestic telephone service for a month, despite many efforts to resolve the problem.

I am sorry to hear about the inconvenience caused by BT’s failure to restore the service to my hon. Friend’s constituent. I will raise the issue with BT. Speaking as a constituency MP, I can only say that I have found the liaison officer, Clova Fyfe, to have been enormously helpful in addressing such issues when they have arisen in North West Hampshire.

May we have a debate on standards in the production of wills and possible regulation? I have been approached by a number of constituents who have had difficulties ensuring that their partner’s will is delivered and executed correctly, where it is clearly against their partner’s wishes, as expressed to them before their death. We need regulation in this important area, so may we have a debate?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I do not know whether it would be appropriate to raise the issue either on the Adjournment or, if the Backbench Business Committee so decides, in the series of Adjournment debates that we normally have on the last day before the recess. In the meantime, I will inform the Justice Secretary of his concern and see whether he has any plans to sort out the uncertainty that arises in the situations that the hon. Gentleman has set out.

I very much hope that we can have a debate on public sector pensions, on whether it is fair that those in the private sector should have to work longer and pay more so that those in the public sector can retire earlier and receive more, and on how we achieve a pensions system that is fair to all.

My hon. Friend is right: we have to get the balance right. We have to be fair to those who are entitled to public sector pensions and to the taxpayers, who fund a large part of that. If he has read the Hutton report, he will see that there is a strong rationale for rebalancing the current arrangements, as the cost to the taxpayer has increased by about a third in the last 10 years, to some £32 billion. We want public sector pensions to remain the best. We do not want a race to the bottom, but we must find a sustainable way of funding them in the long term.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the Government’s upcoming cuts to provision for ESOL—English for speakers of other languages. He will also be aware that the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning has promised an equality impact assessment. Can he guarantee that that impact assessment is published before the recess and that there is a debate on its findings on the Floor of the House?

The first of those two requests may be easier to deliver than the second. I cannot promise a debate on the Floor of the House, but I will see whether publication will be made promptly, as the hon. Gentleman has just said.

May I return to the thorny issue of IPSA? I recently submitted two duplicate invoices to IPSA by mistake. Despite having the same supplier name, the same date and the same reference, and despite being for the same amount, those receipts were paid by IPSA. The first that IPSA knew about it was when I turned up in its office with a cheque. Not only was I advised by an IPSA member of staff that there was no system in place to pick up such duplication, I was also advised that the system ran by “trusting Members”. Given the urgent importance of reassuring the public about the way our expenses system operates, may we have an urgent debate about what we are spending £6 million of taxpayers’ money on?

My hon. Friend has not used the fifth amendment to protect himself from self-incrimination. I hope that there will be no dire consequences from his double claiming for the same item. He will know that there is a liaison group between the House and IPSA. A number of my hon. Friends sit on it, and he may like to raise the matter with them. The House has just approved the estimates for IPSA for the current year. If he looks at the suggestions that were made alongside that, he will see that SCIPSA, the committee that gives money to IPSA—[Laughter]—I am sorry: the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—has made some suggestions about IPSA continuing to raise its game and improve the quality of its performance.

The Leader of the House will know that there is increasing evidence of economic and financial warfare being waged against companies in this country—indeed, against Governments—involving the manipulation of interest rates and currencies. The Government are aware of this, but there is no joined-up reaction to it. Are we coping with it and doing our best to combat it? May we have an early debate, so that we can enlighten some Members on just how worrying this economic warfare is?

We are debating the Finance Bill for two days next week, including on Third Reading. It may be appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to raise the subject in those debates. However, in the meantime I will alert my Treasury colleagues to his concern and see whether we can take any additional action to prevent the sort of manipulation to which he refers.

May we have a debate on the lack of transparency in the annual accounts of many arm’s length bodies? For example, the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust increased its management costs by 23% in its last accounts, but when I asked for an explanation, I was told that I would have to submit a freedom of information request. Can my right hon. Friend look at how we better hold to account senior executives for the spending choices that they make?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has had that problem. His request sounds perfectly reasonable, and it is one that someone charged with safeguarding the taxpayer’s interests is entitled to make. I would hope that we can get the information that he has asked for without going down the FOI route, and I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to see whether he can make some progress on it.

The Leader of the House will recall that, last week, I raised the issue of the proposed takeover by B&Q of a Focus store in my constituency. He very kindly offered to speak to the Office of Fair Trading that day about what appeared to be its tardy decision making. He did so, and I am grateful to him. The OFT has now told us that a decision will be reached by 5 August, but that will be too late for the employees who will be made redundant on 18 July in my constituency, and in the constituencies of 30 other Members including the Prime Minister, at a cost of £4.5 million in unnecessary redundancy and welfare payments. I realise that I am being greedy with the Leader of the House’s time, but will he speak again to the OFT and ask if it could possibly move the decision forward, so as to avoid unnecessary heartache for the employees and unnecessary costs to the public purse?

Of course I understand the concerns of those who might lose their jobs, and the hon. Lady’s anxiety to bring the matter to a swift conclusion. I was pleased to hear that last week’s exchange produced results. Without making any promises, I hope that she is on a roll and I will have another go this week.

Will the Leader of the House grant us a debate or a statement on the effect of entrepreneurs’ relief, particularly on manufacturing firms in my constituency, in encouraging those who want to expand their businesses and invest in growth?

That is indeed an important engine for growth, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the matter. He will know that we have raised the lifetime limit on capital gains qualifying for entrepreneurs’ relief to £10 million, and I hope that that will make the UK a more attractive location for entrepreneurs by encouraging those who want to expand their business and reinvest in growth to do so here.

May we have a statement on Ministers’ replies to Members’ correspondence? I have received an e-mail from the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien), in which he says that it is not the policy of the Department for International Development to respond to “similar items” of correspondence that MPs send to it, because

“this places a burden on DFID’s resources which would be better directed towards the poor.”

I do not recall the code of conduct on Ministers replying to Members’ correspondence containing that kind of provision, and I would be grateful if we could have a statement and perhaps some consultation on this matter, to clarify the extent to which Ministers can pick and choose to which MPs’ letters they reply.

Every Member of Parliament is entitled to a prompt and courteous response from Ministers to the letters that they send, but if a Member sent 1,500 identical cards to a Minister, for example, it would be reasonable for the Minister to send one reply and ask the Member to notify the constituents who had sent all the cards to him. It does not follow that every single identical letter sent to a Minister is entitled to a personal reply, but each individual subject should certainly get an answer from the appropriate Minister.

Earlier this week, I accompanied my constituent, Karen Kannair, to meet officials from the Department for Education, to whom she gave a harrowing description of the treatment that she and her son had received after he had been excluded from school some two and a half years ago. Could we find time for an urgent debate on the performance of local education authorities in dealing with excluded pupils?

It is important that pupils who are excluded from school should not lose contact with mainstream education, and that they should get back into it as soon as possible. The experimental statistics published today show that pupils in alternative provision perform significantly less well in GCSEs than those who are in mainstream schools. These are vulnerable children, and they need the support to which my hon. Friend refers. We set out in our White Paper last year our plans to increase the autonomy, accountability and diversity of alternative provision in order to help to drive up standards.

May we please have a debate on the effect of the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday about business rates? It seems to me that the better-off areas of the country will become still better off, and that the poorer areas such as my constituency will suffer even more.

We have not come to a final decision on business rates, as I said earlier. However, if local authorities decided to keep the business rate, there would still have to be a system of equalisation to ensure that those local authorities with fewer than average businesses did not suffer unduly.

May we have a debate in the House on bureaucracy in the NHS, and a statement about the reduction in the number of managers since the general election?

I would welcome such a debate because, since the general election, we have reduced the number of managers in the NHS by 4,000, reversing the record of the previous Administration, under whom the number of managers increased at six times the rate of the number of nurses.

Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Home Secretary about her failure to answer named-day questions? The shadow Home Secretary has tabled 15 questions over the past couple of weeks, only two of which have been replied to. Is not that a distressing return on the number of questions tabled, given that the convention is that named-day questions should be answered on the named day?

I will raise that matter with the Home Secretary, who might possibly be in the House quite soon. It is indeed the objective of every Minister to reply to questions on the named day, and if that is not possible, they will send a holding reply, but I will raise the matter with my right hon. Friend to see whether we can get a prompt response to the outstanding questions.

Small and medium-sized enterprises in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft are working hard to pull together with the local enterprise partnership to put forward a bid for an enterprise zone in our area. Bearing in mind all the work that they are doing, may we have a debate in the House on what small and medium-sized enterprises are doing for the economy and what the Government are doing to assist their development?

I understand my hon. Friend’s advocacy of an enterprise zone for his constituency, and I commend his zeal in bringing it forward. There might be an opportunity on Monday and Tuesday next week to discuss the incentives that we have produced, including a moratorium on domestic regulations, abolishing the jobs tax, the small business rate relief, the enterprise finance guarantee, the growth capital fund and many similar initiatives.

Following the announcement by Scottish Power of its price increase of up to 20%, consumer organisations have said that, should other utility companies follow suit, 4 million households in the UK could be driven into fuel poverty. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on electricity market reform, so that we can address the vertical integration of the companies and the lack of transparency, and ensure that that does not happen?

There will be an opportunity a week today, on 7 July, to address those specific questions to my hon. Friends in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We have retained a number of measures to help to tackle fuel poverty, including cold weather payments and winter fuel payments, and a Bill is going through Parliament that will enable people to insulate their homes without having to dig into their pockets. There will also be a statement in due course on electricity market reform.

May we have a debate on Tuesday’s higher education White Paper? Yesterday, I welcomed representatives of Drexel university, one of the leading universities in the United States, to my constituency. They are looking to set up an operation in the United Kingdom with a UK institution. Is not the Government’s policy of freeing up institutions to expand and allowing new entrants into the market the best way to ensure that students get value for money in higher education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Perhaps he was in the House on Tuesday, when the Minister for Universities and Science, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) made a statement—which was well received, certainly on this side of the House—offering a sustainable future for higher education, giving more power to students to choose their university and rewarding those universities that perform well. Also, looking ahead, we will strike a fairer balance between taxpayers and students.

I recently met Frankie, a Whizz-Kidz ambassador in Liverpool, who told me about the situation that he is facing. He finishes school this year, but he still does not know whether the course that he has applied for at the local college will be made available. He will not find that out until August. His travel to the youth club has been cut, and his opportunities to socialise have been significantly scaled back. Frankie and his family face an uncertain future. May we please have an urgent debate on how the Government’s cuts are specifically affecting disabled older teens?

In taking the difficult decisions that we had to take to get the deficit under control, we have sought to protect vulnerable members of the community—people who suffer from disabilities, the elderly and the sick; we protected the NHS budget—and in our reforms to welfare, we are also seeking to protect people such as Frankie. Inevitably, some reductions in public expenditure have had to be made and it would help if the hon. Lady’s party would at some point indicate how it would have responded to the fiscal challenge that we inherited.

From today, victims of the Equitable Life scandal—in Tamworth and around the country—begin to receive justice as the compensation scheme begins to pay out. Following years of vacillation from previous Governments, may we have a statement or a debate to mark that milestone?

My hon. Friend is right. In 13 months we have done more for Equitable Life pensioners than the previous Administration did in 13 years. It is indeed the case that, as we said, the first payments would be made in the first half of this year. Those first payments are now going out, so we have honoured the commitment we made to providing a transparent and fair system of compensating those who lost money in Equitable Life.

The Government have now confirmed that £115 million will be made available to schools and colleges to disburse through discretionary learner support awards and bursaries rather than the £180 million that was originally promised. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to make a statement on why those amounts have changed?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education did indeed make a statement when he announced the transfer from education maintenance allowance to the discretionary learner fund, so we have already had that exchange. There might be an opportunity at questions on Monday 11 July to press the Secretary of State even further on the matter.

Will the Leader of the House make a statement about the training of hon. Members in matters of procedure, which can be confusing and difficult not just for new Members like me? I noticed on Report of the Finance Bill that there were starred amendments and new clauses from more senior Members of the House, so a general refresher might be worth while.

We are debating the Finance Bill again next week and I hope that there will be no repetition of this week’s inexplicable incident. The official Opposition failed to table an amendment in time on their flagship policy; they then refused to vote on an identical amendment tabled by another party, only to vote for some anodyne alternative. I hope that there will be no repetition of that embarrassment from the Opposition Front-Bench team.

May we please have a debate on the funding of political parties? At a time of industrial action, it would be useful to tease out the influence that trade unions can have on some parties’ policies.

As my hon. Friend knows, Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life are looking at the important issue of party funding. My own view is that it is unhealthy that one political party is dependent for about 87% of its funding on the trade unions.

May we have a debate on the reform of the laws relating to industrial action? The nation is clearly opposed to the teachers’ unions going out on strike when only one third of their members voted.

My hon. Friend reminds us that less than 20% of the overall PCS membership voted for strikes, which is less than 10% of the civil service. Only two teaching unions have a mandate for strike action and the turnout in both ballots was low. As I said in response to an earlier question, we have no current plans to legislate, but we are keeping the matter under review.

My constituency carries the unenviable burden of having one of the highest rates of empty shops. Will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on what measures could be introduced to encourage local authorities to provide free car parking, which would be a fillip not just to city centres, but to high streets and small independent retailers?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. The coalition Government are very committed to localism and devolving decisions such as whether to extend free local car parking to local councils and local authorities, which are best placed to take such initiatives forward. If he has not already done so, my hon. Friend should get in touch with his local authority to see whether it will take the action that he advocates.

Following my question to the Prime Minister yesterday, may we have an urgent debate on petrol prices and how they are hitting public services? Last year, the police spent £78 million on motoring fuel and it could hit £90 million this year—money that could have been spent on policing. The Royal College of Nursing says that 60,000 nurses now subsidise NHS petrol bills out of their own pockets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that high petrol prices are becoming a real threat to front-line services?

My hon. Friend is right. Our petrol prices have begun to come down over recent weeks, and we all hope that that initiative can be sustained. The coalition Government have taken action to help. As he knows, average pump prices are approximately 6p a litre lower than they would have been if we had continued with the previous Government’s escalator.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the importance of the food and drink manufacturing sector to the UK economy, which would enable Members to explain the importance of the sector locally and allow me personally to trumpet the quality and value for money of Thorntons products?

If my hon. Friend is ingenious, he might be able to get into the debate on the Finance Bill next Monday or Tuesday to draw attention to the importance of the food and drink sector to the national economy. Alternatively, he could put in for an Adjournment debate on our last day, which, if the Backbench Business Committee so decides, would give him more time to amplify his point.

Order. Points of order come after statements.

I really must encourage better timekeeping by those on the Treasury Bench. Ministers should be here in time to make their statements; this is a serious matter, not a laughing matter.