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Business of the House

Volume 532: debated on Thursday 8 September 2011

The business for the week commencing 12 September will be as follows:

Monday 12 September—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.

Tuesday 13 September—Opposition Day [20th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 14 September—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill [Lords].

Thursday 15 September—Motion relating to food security and famine prevention in Africa, followed by general debate on human rights in the Indian subcontinent. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 October will include:

Monday 10 October—Remaining stages of the Protection of Freedoms Bill (day 1).

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply, and I welcome him and Members on both sides of the House back from a busy summer.

As this Sunday will mark the 10th anniversary of the 11 September attacks, I am sure that the whole House will wish to remember all those who lost their lives, including the 66 British citizens. Our thoughts are with them and their families.

The inquiry on the recent riots will produce an interim report in November. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Government will provide time for it to be debated? Can we be told how many police officers’ jobs could be saved by not spending £25 million on a delayed poll for costly police commissioners—just, it seems, to placate the Liberal Democrats?

We welcome the opportunity that e-petitions will give the public to get things debated in Parliament, but the Leader of the House will be aware that my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, says that there are quite a few problems with that. Will he allocate more time for those and other Back-Bench matters to be debated?

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the autumn statement is when the Chancellor will finally announce plan B, because plan A clearly is not working? The Government’s growth forecasts will have to be downgraded yet again, consumer confidence has never been lower and the head of the International Monetary Fund has just warned countries to adapt their austerity programmes by taking steps to improve growth, but the Chancellor is not listening. Indeed, the only thing he seems keen to do is abolish the 50p tax rate. Does not that send a clear message to hard-pressed families—that this Government are more interested in millionaires than they are in middle England?

As we have seen this week, despite its famous pause, the Health and Social Care Bill has failed to win the confidence of those working in the NHS. Meanwhile, more patients are waiting longer for operations, and yesterday the Prime Minister was completely unable to explain why. Is it because attention is being diverted elsewhere?

On that subject, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on reports that the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust has considered selling off St. Mary’s hospital in London—the place where penicillin was discovered—for property speculation? It seems that it went as far as to start a tendering process involving six architects. How much NHS cash did that cost?

Something else that is not safe in the Government’s hands is our countryside. After the forests sell-off fiasco, we now have the planning punch up. It takes a special talent to make a sworn enemy of the National Trust, but calling critics “nihilist” and “semi-hysterical” was not very clever, was it? When can we expect a statement on the further revisions to that guidance, which are now inevitable?

Yesterday, a delegation from Bombardier came to the House to plead with the Government to reconsider their decision to award the Thameslink train contract to Germany instead of Derby. The Government’s refusal once again to listen, even though they have now admitted that they can reopen the process, has angered Derby city council. Its Conservative leader, Philip Hickson, was blunt:

“I do not think they have grasped the widespread anger… the Government have simply got things wrong”.

Finally, in recent months the Prime Minister’s strategy chief, Mr Steve Hilton, has proposed scrapping maternity leave and health and safety laws, closing jobcentres and replacing Government press officers with bloggers—there could be an opening there for the Leader of the House—all ideas that have been slapped down by No. 10. This week it is reported that Mr Hilton secretly asked a QC to advise on how to challenge new employment rights for temporary workers being introduced by the Business Secretary. The Business Secretary was distinctly unimpressed. A source in his Department said:

“Vince makes decisions on this policy… not Steve Hilton”.

A Lib Dem observed:

“Hilton is just a renegade.”

I had thought that Mr Hilton was the Prime Minister’s chief special adviser, but when I pressed No. 10 on this I was told that the Prime Minister knew nothing about it. Could we be told how much this legal freelancing cost and who exactly Mr Hilton works for? He seems to come up with so many bad ideas, so may we have a statement from the Prime Minister listing his good ideas? I am sure that that would appeal to you, Mr Speaker, because it would not take very long.

May I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome back, which is reciprocated? He clearly spent the summer recess further honing his skills of performance at the Dispatch Box, and we had another sparkling example this morning.

With regard to 9/11, he may know that there will be a commemorative service at Grosvenor square tomorrow, at which the Government will be represented, which will provide an appropriate opportunity to remember the UK citizens who died in that tragedy. On the riots, we need an appropriate opportunity to discuss the aftermath. The Government have established a number of groups to look at some of the implications, and I know that the House will want to revert to that subject in due course.

There will be an opportunity on Monday, when we debate the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, to consider the Government amendment to postpone the elections for police and crime commissioners until next November, and I am sure that he will want in principle to support the idea of the electoral accountability of the commissioners. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are not quite clear why the Labour party is so frightened of having elections.

On e-petitions, I have regular discussions with the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Backbench Business Committee, and am of course happy to have further discussions with her so that we can make e-petitions a success. I was pleased to see in the press notice that the Committee put out yesterday that it thinks that

“the e-petitions site is a very welcome initiative.”

I want to work with her to ensure that this really takes root.

On the autumn statement, I would have thought that the one thing that had become absolutely clear during the summer recess is that those Governments who did not take a firm grip of the fiscal situation ran the risk of losing market confidence and then paying a very high price to regain it. One of the things the coalition Government have done is avoid the loss of market confidence by taking firm action last year. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to go down the route of plan B, he runs the risk of losing market confidence in the same way other European countries have done.

On the question of tax, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that in the last Budget and the next one, around 25 million taxpayers will benefit from the increase in personal allowances and over 1 million people will have been taken out of tax entirely.

On waiting lists, I followed the exchange yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. Overall there has been very little change in waiting times since the general election. In one case, that of in-patients, waiting lists have gone up, and in the case of out-patients they have gone down, but overall there has been a huge increase in the number of people being treated, thanks to the extra resources we have put into the national health service, which Labour would have denied it.

On planning, the right hon. Gentleman will know that there is a document out for consultation, the national policy framework consultation, which ends next month. In the meantime, discussions are being held with the National Trust and others. He will have read the article by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, which made it absolutely clear where we stand on planning.

On Bombardier, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the tender process was initiated and designed by his Government. We used the criteria they set out to assess the tender, and on those criteria it would clearly benefit passengers and taxpayers to allocate the tender to Siemens. I was pleased to see that some 2,000 jobs will be created in this country by Siemens doing part of the work here.

On Steve Hilton, I am happy to say that he is a fellow cyclist, and therefore I am normally happy to defend what he says, but at the end of the day I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is Ministers who make policy, not special advisers.

Can the Leader of the House tell us why in the near future we are to go through the ridiculous ritual of putting our clocks back by one hour, thereby plunging parts of the country into darkness by mid-afternoon? Can we have a statement on what the Government intend to do to make better use of daylight hours? If, as I suspect, the only opponents of change are a handful of Scots, should not they be told, “Look, you’ve got your own Parliament, if you don’t like it we’ll give you the power to set your own time zone”?

My right hon. Friend will know that the issue is the subject of a private Member’s Bill, and I personally have form on it, in that I supported a private Member’s Bill in a previous Parliament, proposing reform in that direction. I am not sure whether he was in Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport questions, when my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys) raised the same issue, but in response the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), spoke on behalf of the Government in advocating a slightly more cautious approach than that advocated by my right hon. Friend.

The Government launched the e-petitions website on the last day before the summer recess, with little consultation, debate or agreement by the House. All of us warmly welcome the e-petitions initiative, and there is clearly a public demand for it, but, although the Government have raised public expectations, they have passed responsibility for what to do with that expectation to the Backbench Business Committee.

We are delighted to be involved with the initiative, and we very much want to ensure that it is a success, but we want to make it work properly and meaningfully. The problem—and I address this point in part to the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson)—is that we cannot schedule for debate subjects raised by e-petitions unless the Government give us time to do so. Will the Leader of the House therefore meet not just me but the Chair of the Procedure Committee, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr Knight), to discuss allocating extra time specifically to debate e-petitions in the short term, and to look at options such as setting up a dedicated e-petitions committee in the long term?

I am grateful for what the hon. Lady said at the beginning about e-petitions, and for making it clear that she wants the new e-petitions website to be a successful way for people to trigger debates in Parliament. We were in fact delivering a coalition agreement in going ahead with the website, which is an improvement on the No. 10 website, in that it links into the democratic process instead of ending simply at No. 10.

I am conscious that over recent weeks and months we have not been able to allocate to the Backbench Business Committee as much time as the hon. Lady would like, but that is due in part to the way in which the legislative programme impacts on the parliamentary Session. I very much hope that in the weeks and months ahead it will be possible to allocate more time to the Backbench Business Committee, and to give it the headroom that it needs to accommodate debates about e-petitions.

Two e-petitions have so far gone through the threshold, and in one case, as my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said in response to an oral question, the Government have responded. On Hillsborough, we have made all the papers available from the Cabinet Office to the independent panel, and we have made it clear that we have no objection to them going into the public domain, so it may be that on Hillsborough the petitioners have achieved what they wanted.

On the e-petition concerning riots, somebody may present themselves on Tuesday to the hon. Lady’s salon, and I hope that in due course it might then be possible to debate the other one that has gone through the threshold.

In light of the strong interest in Parliament and from the public about all matters European, will my right hon. Friend consider making Government time available for a full debate about Europe and about the repatriation of powers to Britain?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the debate, which I think she had yesterday in Westminster Hall, on precisely that subject. We did discuss at some length the European Union Bill, when there was extensive debate about the repatriation of powers, and there are fairly regular debates, thanks to the European Scrutiny Committee, on European-related issues. I cannot at this stage promise a full debate about the matters that she has raised, but I hope that the House will have an opportunity from time to time to listen to her views on Europe.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 2138, which stands in my name and the names of a number of hon. Members?

[That this House notes that those in Fallowfield applying for bar staff posts at Vodka Revolution, Wilmslow Road are required to work for a full day for no pay under the practice of trying out and are promised that they will be paid if appointed, then are not appointed; believes this practice to be unethical and possibly illegal; and further believes that both potential employees and customers of Vodka Revolution, Wilmslow Road should be made aware of its policy on non-payment of those who work a trial day and are not subsequently employed.]

The motion describes how the Vodka Revolution drinking den in my constituency has the corrupt practice of telling job applicants that they should work for a day and will be paid if they are appointed, but then does not appoint them. It thereby has a stream of free labour. Will he condemn this corrupt practice by these swindlers, and will he ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to investigate these disgraceful activities?

I am sorry to hear about what is happening in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Of course I deplore any exploitation of labour of the type that he has described. I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to see whether any effective enforcement action can be taken to stop this undesirable practice.

I encourage the Leader of the House to find time for a full debate in this Chamber on cutting the higher rate of income tax. If we are all in this together, where is the fairness to the rest of society in ensuring that Wayne Rooney gets an extra half a million pounds a year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will know that issues relating to taxation are matters for the Chancellor at the Budget, and are therefore usually matters for the Finance Bill. He may have heard at Treasury questions on Tuesday the exchange in which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made it clear that the 50% rate was temporary and subject to a review by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to see how much revenue it raises. That review will not be completed until early next year. I know that my right hon. Friend will take the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) into account, along with others, before he comes to his Budget judgment.

Today is the launch of the It’s Liverpool, I’m Liverpool campaign, which shows why the city is such a vibrant and exciting place to live, work and study. It is also the friendliest city in the country, according to a recent travellers’ survey. Will the Leader of the House join me in backing the campaign, and can we have a debate on how the Government can support great British cities such as Liverpool?

I endorse what the hon. Lady said about Liverpool. In a former Administration, along with my right hon. Friend Lord Heseltine, I was part of an initiative to assist Liverpool in the difficult time it went through after the riots. I applaud her campaign and will see what more can be done by my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to assist the regeneration that is under way.

As the Leader of the House is fully aware, the ongoing saga over village greens and the upgrading of footpaths to bridle paths is not only costing the country a massive amount of money, but causing legal hurdles that go a long way back. In Somerset, there is a 22-year waiting list to try to get these matters through. Can we please have time in this Chamber to discuss the ramifications, costs, complexity and legal ambiguities of the way in which people, with no user evidence, get bridle paths and village greens put into planning applications right across the United Kingdom, such as in Bristol where it has caused problems?

I am sorry to hear of the problems in my hon. Friend’s constituency and I suspect that they may be replicated elsewhere. I will certainly raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see whether there is a simpler way of resolving it than the way he has just outlined.

Can we have a full statement on what compensation is available for businesses and organisations affected by the riots and the looting? We have had a few hints, including from the Prime Minister, but a number of businesses, including some in my constituency, face a pretty insecure future because of the looting. Can we have a full statement so that we can question the relevant Minister?

Rather than a statement, I think that what we want is practical assistance for the businesses that have been affected in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He will know that a number of funds have been set up with the specific objective of assisting firms that are in difficulties after the riots. I will draw the attention of the Home Secretary to what he has just said and see whether we can get some practical assistance to the firms that are suffering in his patch.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about the e-petitions initiative, but can he arrange for a statement to describe how the paper-based petitions signed by more than 100,000 people that call for a debate on High Speed 2 can be qualified as an e-petition, so that the issue might be debated in this Chamber and so that the many thousands of people who perhaps do not have access to the internet do not feel disfranchised?

That is primarily a matter for the Backbench Business Committee, but my understanding is that if somebody goes along on a Tuesday morning and says that they are speaking on behalf of a petition, it will be neutral whether the 100,000 signatures are on an e-petition or an ink-and-pen petition. I am sure that the process is neutral, but it does require somebody to be present on a Tuesday morning to place the bid.

I am happy to see the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee nodding in assent at the principle of the equality of treatment that I have enunciated.

The House will know that 18 October marks anti-slavery day. In light of the huge public concern about modern-day slavery and, in particular, the fact that more than 735,000 people in this country have recently called on the Government to implement a system of guardianship for child trafficking victims, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is an important and appropriate occasion for Ministers to come before the House, respond to the petition and set out their position on child trafficking?

The Government are firmly opposed to child trafficking. I will certainly contact the Home Secretary to see whether we need to make yet further progress. We have had debates on anti-slavery days in previous years that have been well attended and well supported. The Backbench Business Committee might like to consider such a debate as an option for October.

Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to Flight Lieutenant Jon Egging, the RAF Red Arrows pilot who sadly lost his life after the air show in Bournemouth on 20 August? Rather than eject from his stricken aircraft, he was able to manoeuvre it away from a built-up area—an action that probably cost him his life. He will be missed by his family, his friends, the RAF community and indeed the nation.

I am sure that the whole House will associate itself with the tribute that my hon. Friend has paid to Jon Egging, who sadly lost his life a few weeks ago. In addition to his work for the Red Arrows, he saw active service in Afghanistan, which I think should also be remembered.

Will the Leader of the House set the Bombardier decision in context? There seems to be no apparent manufacturing plan or strategy for this country. Manufacturing is still vital to our well-being and future, but there is no sign that this Government understand that a long-term strategy for manufacturing is essential.

I dispute what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He may have seen the evidence given by the Transport Secretary yesterday. It was the criteria set by the previous Government that led to this conclusion. The Secretary for State for Business, Innovation and Skills is now looking at the whole design of tender documents to see whether they can be in any way adjusted so that the sorts of considerations that the hon. Gentleman wants to be taken into account can be taken into account, perhaps in the way that other countries seem to be able to do.

The privately owned port of Liverpool received more than £20 million of public money from this country and Europe to develop a cruise liner terminal, with the explicit provision that cruises should not start or end there, but only call there. It now proposes to repay a quarter of this sum over 15 years if the provision that it cannot have a turnaround facility is lifted. That would adversely affect the port of Southampton. May we have a statement from a Transport Minister on what seems to be a calculated case of unfair competition now that it has been revealed that Liverpool city council planned from the outset to get the port built and then renege on the condition on which it was being done?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern on behalf of the port of Southampton. He will know that a consultation exercise is currently being carried out by the Department for Transport on the proposal to allow turnaround cruises, to which he has just referred. The consultation closes on 15 September. If he wants to respond, his views will be taken into account along with those of other respondents.

During the summer, the Department for Work and Pensions sneaked out direction 23 on the operation of crisis loans. It specifically excludes any claims by parents to help towards the purchase of school uniforms and simple school equipment such as pencils and pencil cases. Was that discussed with the Department for Education, and what is the view of the Leader of the House?

I think that I am right in saying that crisis loans cannot be used for school uniforms, but I will draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.

On 30 September we will see the start of the 2011 Ilkley literary festival. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you. May we have a debate on the positive impact of such highly successful festivals in bringing the pleasure of reading to young people?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on drawing the House’s attention to this. I hope that he might submit an entry to the festival so that his work can be considered along with that of others. I applaud the work of his constituents, and his own work, in taking steps to promote and drive up standards of literacy in this country.

Will the Leader of the House make arrangements for an urgent statement from the Housing Minister on the consequences for social housing tenants of the Government’s new rules on under-occupancy? In Manchester on 1 April 2013, 14,000 families will either have to find a smaller home or pay up to £18 a week more towards the cost of their rent. As a highly regarded former Housing Minister himself, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that this is not only unjust but unworkable.

I have looked at the copy of Inside Housing where the survey that the right hon. Gentleman carried out in his constituency was reported and given some prominence, and I read the article. I will convey his concerns to the Housing Minister so that he can be aware of the possible impact of the change in the rules and the introduction of the cap and see whether any additional measures are necessary on top of the ones we have already put in place.

In 2010, 27,500 crimes were committed by EU nationals. In response to a parliamentary question, it emerged that only 1,400 of those were sent home, with many having agreed to go. Is it not time that we had a debate not only on the free movement of labour but on how we, as a country, treat foreign nationals who come to this country and commit crimes and whom we allow to stay living in this country?

I think I am right in saying that my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration has taken steps and we are now increasing the number of people repatriated after committing crimes. However, I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the Minister’s attention to see whether there is further action that we might take.

After months of campaigning, only two of the big six energy companies are still maintaining the practice of cold sales on the doorstep. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that Parliament can put real pressure on E.ON UK and Scottish Power, which are being so recalcitrant over this important issue?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the profile of this issue. I will certainly see what action can be taken further to discourage the sort of cold-selling tactics that he has outlined, and I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to write to him.

Croydon college in my constituency has formed a partnership with the university of Sussex and is looking for accreditation as a university centre so that young people from across south London can study for a good degree, while living at home, for fees much lower than most universities are charging. May we have a debate on what more we can do to ensure that young people from deprived backgrounds continue to have access to university?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is appalling that of the 80,000 pupils eligible for free school meals, only 40 went to Oxbridge. We are committed to enabling more people from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds to get to university by raising the maintenance grant, introducing a new national scholarship programme, and making the graduate repayment scheme much more progressive. On top of that, we are writing to sixth-formers to draw attention to the financial support that is made available to students. I hope that we can improve on the figures that I mentioned.

Yesterday the Prime Minister told us that the extra cost of moving the election of police commissioners to November would be £25 million, yet on Tuesday, Lord McNally, in a reply to Lord Grocott, said that the cost of the alternative vote referendum, held on the same day as other elections across wide areas of the country, was £89 million—and that is without the cost that falls on the Electoral Commission. May we have a statement to clarify the real cost of this ridiculous November election and whether it will be borne by central Government and not fall on hard-pressed local councils?

The election for police and crime commissioners is England-only, whereas the other referendum was nationwide. The £25 million figure is the correct one. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the cost of this will not come out of the police budget.

Last month, I had the privilege of joining the Metropolitan police on active patrol, and that increased my admiration, which was already great, for the sterling work that the police force does on a day-to-basis to keep us safe. May we have a statement on the impact on the Metropolitan police of the work that has had to be done since the riots? My understanding is that they have been doing constant 12-hour shifts with no rest days and all leave cancelled. The bill for that has come to some £62 million already, and the impact on police morale is dramatic. It is essential that we ensure that that money is paid for by the Government and not by London council tax payers, and that we lessen the load on the Metropolitan police.

My hon. Friend will know that a Select Committee inquiry into the riots is going on; my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave evidence to it today. We have made it clear that we will support the police regarding the additional costs they face to ensure that front-line services are not hit. I will pursue with the Home Secretary the specific issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned of the impact on London.

The Leader of the House will know that today the Deputy Prime Minister slipped out a written ministerial statement on the establishment of a commission on the West Lothian question; this was presumably to pre-empt the private Member’s Bill that will be debated tomorrow. Given the importance of this issue for Members across the House and in all parts of the UK, may we have an oral statement on the Government’s intentions and thoughts behind that commission rather than leaving it to some kind of backroom deal between the Government and a rebellious and recalcitrant Back Bencher with a private Member’s Bill? This is an important issue for all of us and I hope that the Leader of the House can do something about it.

Written ministerial statements are not slipped out; they are put on the Order Paper and they are in the public domain for everyone to see. This one delivers on a commitment of the coalition Government to establish a commission to look at the West Lothian question, and it should have come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that we are taking it forward. If he looks at the WMS, he will see the timetable envisaged by my right hon. Friend in announcing its membership and terms of reference, as well as the time scale in which it will report. I hope that the hon. Gentleman might feel minded to give evidence to the commission when it is set up.

Given that local authorities are currently preparing their electoral registers for the forthcoming year, will the Government make a statement to address the problem of individuals who make multiple applications at different addresses by registering at a property they own but at which they do not reside, even when the property is occupied by others who are legitimately registered?

It is an offence to provide false information to electoral returning officers, and if that happens I hope they would pursue it. As my hon. Friend will know, we are introducing individual electoral registration, which will reduce the opportunity for fraud because people will have to provide some evidence of identity before they are added to the register. I hope that that will reduce the sort of practices to which he refers.

Further to the answer that the Leader of the House gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), we know that the moving of the elections of police commissioners to November is going to cost an enormous sum of money. May we have a statement on how the Government reached the decision to make this amendment to the proposal in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill? We are told that that was done to appease Liberal Democrat councillors. If that is how the Government are making decisions and wasting public money, is it not a matter that should be discussed on the Floor of the House?

Of course it is. That is why the Government have tabled an amendment to the Bill that will be debated on Monday.

You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that this year the Royal Mint is striking a commemorative coin to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, yet, unlike many other commemorative coins, it will not be available in general circulation. Obviously there are many different and varied religious faiths, but the Bible’s publication represents a significant point in the history of the English-speaking world. Can representations be made from the Government to the Royal Mint?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I will raise this with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whom I suspect has overall responsibility for it, and ask him to write to my hon. Friend with a response to his representations about making the coin legal tender.

You are aware, Mr Speaker, that sometimes in this House wheels grind extremely slowly, but I was delighted to see that action had been taken on an early-day motion that I tabled in July 1996 followed by a number of letters, including to your good self. Will the Leader of the House congratulate those involved, including Bob Hughes, who is now in the House of Lords, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), Mr Speaker and all those involved on getting a commemorative plaque for Nelson Mandela in Westminster Hall? It is absolutely right that we commemorate the visit to this place of the greatest statesman of our time.

It sounds to me that that was a matter for the House rather than the Government, but the gestation period does seem to have been extremely long.

Given the successful roll-out of free schools, would it not be opportune for the House to discuss the free school programme shortly?

I welcome the fact that within a relatively short time some 24 free schools are up and running, given that the legislation only hit the statute book in July last year. That compares favourably with city technology colleges and academies, and many more free schools are in the pipeline. I hope that there will be opportunities to take the debate forward, perhaps in Westminster Hall, so that we can tell more people about the success of free schools. Some of them have been established in the teeth of local resistance.

As President Obama promised that Palestine would be a new member of the United Nations by this September, may we have a debate on Palestine’s application for membership before the UK casts its vote, so that we can show our overwhelming support for a yes vote?

I understand that there was a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on precisely that matter, so I do not think it would necessarily be the best use of time to have yet another debate when we have already had one this week.

May we have a statement about equal rights for parents? Two Harlow residents, Mr Colin Riches and Mr Neil Colley, have been affected by the inequality in the law which means that fathers do not have the same custody rights as mothers. They have started an e-petition to get the matter looked at. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rules can be deeply unfair for families?

I know from my own constituency cases that many parents feel that the courts have acted against their best interest in decisions about the allocation of responsibility for children. At the end of the day it is a matter for the courts, but I will raise with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor the question of whether we need to look again at the legislation.

Mr Broughton, one of my constituents, worked all his life until he had a stroke. He now suffers from angina, blocked arteries, heart disease, hypertension, chronic kidney failure, arthritis, diabetes and other illnesses, yet when his assessment was done he was found to be ready for work. May we have a debate and discussion on why there is such a shambles in the Government’s medical assessments?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is an opportunity to appeal against work assessments, and that we have instituted one review and another is under way to examine all the processes and ensure that we get them right. I am sure the chairman of the review process will take on board the comments that he has just made.

Many of my constituents are very irritated with banking charges, chiefly because they are usually applied when they are in difficulties. They are also concerned about the length of time that it takes cheques to clear. Can we discuss these issues in due course, especially in the light of the Vickers report, which is imminent?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He will know that there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to introducing stronger consumer protection, including measures to end unfair banking and financial transaction charges. That is being taken forward in a review by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury and, in July, they published the evidence that they had called for.

On cheques clearing faster, my hon. Friend will know that we now have instant banking, with money transfers taking place almost instantaneously. However, following the decision that cheques will not be withdrawn, the Payments Council is considering the options for speeding up cheque payments, which I hope will deal with the issue that he raises.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the problem of telephone cold-calling that offers same-day loans? It appears to have overtaken loan sharking in parts of my constituency and to be targeting those who have lost their jobs or who are not able to raise loans through the normal channels of the banking system. Will he issue a statement on the matter?

I am sorry to hear about the practice that the hon. Lady refers to. I will draw it to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who has responsibility for consumer protection, and ask him to write to her outlining the steps that the Government believe can be taken to stop that practice.

During the past year I have met two teachers in Pendle who have been assaulted while at work and, across the UK, 44 teachers have had to be rushed to hospital in the past year for serious injuries resulting from violence. Will the Leader of the House grant us a debate on school discipline?

My hon. Friend will know that every day, some 900 pupils are excluded from school for the type of behaviour to which he refers. He may have seen the speech recently made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education setting out steps to restoring discipline in schools, including removing the requirement that teachers should keep a record of each time they use physical restraint, overhauling the rules on physical contact to make it clear that schools should not have a no-touch policy and stopping the requirement for teachers to give 24 hours’ notice before issuing a detention. I hope that that will begin to address the problem that my hon. Friend describes.

The Leader of the House will be fully aware that the Palestinian authorities are applying for membership of the UN later this month. Will the Government make a statement fully supporting the Palestinian people in their efforts to become a member of the UN?

Again, I have to say that on Tuesday there was a debate in Westminster Hall on UN membership of a Palestinian state, in which the Minister who replied will have set out the Government’s position. I do not think another debate so soon after that one would be the best use of parliamentary time.

Everyone wants the e-petitions scheme to be a success, but according to today’s Order Paper the Backbench Business Committee has only five days to allocate in the six months between now and the end of the Session, at the end of March 2012. Does the Leader of the House realise that if the scheme is to be a success, he simply needs to allocate more days?

I have said on an earlier occasion that whereas we are committed to 35 Backbench Business Committee days in a normal Session, because this Session is longer and will run on until next spring there will be more than 35. I also said in response to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), who chairs the Committee, that we hope in the next few weeks and months to be able to allocate more days than we have been able to in the past few weeks and months. As the bulk of the legislative programme passes through the House, that will free up more time for the Backbench Business Committee.

May we have a debate on the subject of Government support for the computer games industry? As I am sure the Leader of the House is aware, calls for more Government support, not only from the industry itself but from Committees of the House, are continuing to increase. Such a debate would allow us to discuss ways of improving support, for example tax incentives and increasing the scope of the small firms research and development tax scheme, which would help companies in my constituency go from strength to strength.

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says, and it is an industry in which this country has a competitive advantage, with many of the market leaders. He may like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, so that he can make his case and then listen to the steps that the Government are already taking to assist that innovative industry.

The Government are taking us back to the time of Wilberforce and should be congratulated. Then, mass petitioning was how the public influenced Parliament, and now e-petitions will be. However, may we have a statement from the Leader of the House next week on e-petitions? There is misunderstanding of how the system is working. The Backbench Business Committee did consider e-petitions this week, but not a single Member was there at our public session to promote any e-petition.

My hon. Friend has performed a service in reminding everybody that in addition to a petition getting 100,000 signatures, somebody needs to go along on a Tuesday morning on behalf of the 100,000 petitioners. That may not have been fully understood. I suspect that by next Tuesday it will have been, and that Members may present themselves and ask for a debate on the two subjects in question.

May we have a debate on the alternative vote? It appears that having lost the referendum, the Government seem to be sneaking it in by the back door for the election of police and crime commissioners.

We will have a debate on the matter on Monday when we debate the very Bill that introduces police and crime commissioners. I do not understand this idea that we are using the back door, because it is in the Bill. There is nothing underhand about it at all; it is all in the public domain.

The deficit reduction plan is a key priority for the Government. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the progress that has been made? Does he accept that history is extremely effective in contributing to such a debate? Will he time the debate so that it comes out after the political memoirs?

There is a lot of advice floating around on how one reduces the deficit, but I thought that the previous Chancellor put it well in his memoirs when he said that Labour had no credible policy. Nothing has changed since he made that particular pronouncement.

Dynamic Advertising in my constituency is threatened with closure due to the loss of a £90,000 contract with the Highways Agency. That was a result of a Government moratorium on spending in those departments. How can the Government promote a jobs and growth agenda by putting such small businesses out of business? May we have an urgent debate on flatlining growth and the consequences for the small business sector?

Of course, I am sorry to hear of any loss of jobs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but he should recognise that even if his party had won the last election, it would have had to make difficult decisions on public expenditure. There is no guarantee at all that, if his party had won the election, the Highways Agency would have been able to continue spending at the level that had been planned.

Despite recent media coverage, planning law has always had a presumption in favour of development. However, economic development in my constituency is being stifled by Natural England, which seems to presume against development. This matter cannot wait for the current consultation and any changes, so may we have an urgent debate on it?

As a former planning Minister, I have some familiarity with the planning system. In 1990, the system was changed to a presumption in favour of the plan in order to introduce certainty into the system, and I believe that that remains the case.

What comes out of the recent debate in the press is the importance of local authorities having a local plan, so that there is some certainty on which areas are designated for development and which are not. The allegation is that if there is no plan, there will be a free-for-all, but that is simply not the case. Authorities must continue to abide by the national policy framework, which gives specific protection to the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest. Although I cannot find time for such a debate, I would welcome one in order to put to bed some of the myths that are flying around.

Following on from my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and for Bolton West (Julie Hilling), may I ask the Leader of the House whether he has seen early-day motion 2135, which is signed by 60 Members from both sides of the House, and which calls on the Government to support Palestine’s membership of the UN?

[That this House recalls the target set by President Obama last year of welcoming a new member of the United Nations - an independent sovereign state of Palestine’ by September 2011, a target also endorsed by the EU and the Quartet; notes that the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations and EU have all reported that Palestine is ready for statehood; recalls that Palestinian negotiators entered talks with Israel and offered substantial concessions; regrets that talks broke down because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s refusal to extend even a partial freeze on illegal settlement-building; further notes that Palestinians have recognised Israel since 1993 despite Israel's refusal to recognise a Palestinian state; further notes that 122 countries with nearly 90 per cent. of the world’s population now recognised Palestine and even among Israelis 48 per cent. support recognition and only 41 per cent. oppose; and concludes that the way forward is to recognise an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and support its admission to the UN because this will be the most effective guarantor of a resumption of negotiations and will also be the best protector of the rights not only of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, but also of Palestinians living in Israel and of Palestinian refugees abroad.]

The Leader of the House mentioned earlier an Adjournment debate on Tuesday, in which the Government Minister said that the Government reserved their position on the question of Palestinian membership. This matter is being dealt with by the UN later this month, so it is of some urgency. May we have an urgent debate or a statement so that the Government can take the temperature of the House on the need to support Palestine’s membership?

The Government took the temperature of the House in that debate. I suspect that if there were another debate, the answer from the Minister would be the same. There is an opportunity on 25 October at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions to raise that issue again, and I hope the hon. Gentleman takes it.

May I probe the Leader of the House once more for a debate in Government time, or indeed a statement by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, on the massive hike in energy prices—gas and electricity—for every household in the country? I welcome this and the previous Government’s social tariffs, but they have been wiped out by the massive increases. Five of the six last increases were in double digits. May we have a statement? The Prime Minister has said that he wants to curb excessive price increases, so may we have an opportunity for the Government to make their position clear?

I hope that there will be exactly such an opportunity next Wednesday, when we debate the Energy Bill.

May we have a statement or an urgent debate on access to cancer services? I understand that the Department of Health published a report on its website on 19 August that contained some specific recommendations. Such a debate would be opportune, given that out of 28 cancer networks, the North of England Cancer Network figures worst in terms of access, and has the seventh highest incidence of newly diagnosed cancers—Yorkshire is 27th. It would be useful if we could have a statement or debate on that.

The Government’s view is that those who are recommended by their general practitioner to have a scan for cancer should have it as quickly as possible, and that any subsequent treatment should also take place as quickly as possible. I shall raise with the Secretary of State for Health the particular problem that the hon. Gentleman outlines and will ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

The Government’s latest plans to reorganise the coastguard accepts the importance of local knowledge in retaining 24-hour coastguard stations. The closures of Crosby in my constituency and of Clyde leave the whole north-west of England and west of Scotland coastlines without a single coastguard station. Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Transport to reconsider the closures at Crosby and elsewhere before it is too late, because of the importance of local knowledge?

There will be an opportunity a week today for the hon. Gentleman to raise his concerns with the Secretary of State for Transport, who will be at this Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman can ask my right hon. Friend whether he is prepared to consider that proposition.

Is the Leader of the House aware that this week is the 20th anniversary of the ceasefire in the Western Sahara? Will he consult Ministers and seek time for a statement or debate on the UK’s position on resolving that conflict, and on how the Sahrawi can see justice sooner rather than later, rather than wait another 20 years?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern and I am grateful to her for raising it. I shall ask the Foreign Secretary to write to her to respond to her question to see whether we can make some progress on this important issue.

In July, an answer to a written question made it very clear that officials in the Department for Education should not use Hotmail addresses to contact schools that were going for academy status. However, a press report last month said that that was happening. May we have a statement on what is actually going on?

There will be an opportunity on Monday 17 October, but that seems a little far away, so I will ask the Secretary of State for Education to write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify that matter.

The Leader of the House responded to the hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) by referring him to a speech by the Secretary of State for Education. The Leader of the House spoke of the formal recording of restraint of, and use of force against, pupils in schools. He is clearly not aware that the Secretary of State for Education made a written statement to the House on Monday in which he made it clear that he no longer requires schools formally to record the use of restraint and force against pupils in schools. Clearly, one hand of the Government does not know what is happening on the other. May we have an urgent debate, so that we can know the Government’s position on the use of restraint and force against pupils in schools?

As I said a few moments ago, my understanding is that the Secretary of State has removed the requirement that teachers should keep a record of each time they use physical restraint on pupils as part of the initiative to rebalance discipline in the class, and to give teachers more authority. The Secretary of State will have seen this exchange, and if by any chance I have not set out the position accurately, I know that he will write to the hon. Lady.

Further to the earlier exchange on Backbench Business Committee time, the Leader of the House will be aware that a huge number of Select Committee reports, including a Procedure Committee report, must be debated in the Chamber. Will he ensure that if additional time is found, it will also be made available for Select Committees?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Liaison Committee has its own quota of time for debates, which sits alongside the time available to the Backbench Business Committee. His remarks should therefore be addressed to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, who allocates debates of Select Committee reports.

Last week, I spent two days with Hull Churches Home from Hospital Service, a wonderful organisation that provides support to patients, families and carers. May we have a debate in Government time on the role of such organisations, and on how we can secure their support during the chaos of the NHS reforms?

I hope that the extra resources that the Government are putting into the NHS will mean that the more dramatic scenario that the hon. Lady paints will not take place. I would welcome such a debate, and perhaps she should like to apply for a debate on the Adjournment so that we can hear more about the heroic work that is being carried out.

May we have a Government statement on the status of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ change plan? A year after the spending review, the 500 staff in the Cumbernauld HMRC office remain in the dark about the impact of HMRC cuts on their jobs.

There was an opportunity on Tuesday to ask Treasury Ministers about the future of the staff at Cumbernauld, but I will raise that issue with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

I must thank the Leader of the House and point out to colleagues that in 44 minutes consumed by Back Benchers in business questions, 51 had the opportunity to question and receive an answer from the Leader of the House. I thank him and all colleagues for their extreme succinctness and self-discipline.