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Commons Chamber

Volume 533: debated on Thursday 13 October 2011

House of Commons

Thursday 13 October 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Bank of Ireland (UK) plc Bill

Bill considered.

Bill to be read the Third time.

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Flood Protection (Warrington)

1. What steps her Department is considering taking to protect households in Warrington from flooding. (73877)

Before I start, may I welcome the new members of the Opposition Front-Bench team and the returning member, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)? That is a great pleasure and I look forward to working with them in future weeks; the hon. Gentleman is living proof that one can boil cabbage twice.

The Environment Agency is working closely with partners to develop a scheme that will reduce the risk of flooding from the River Mersey to 2,000 properties in Warrington. Last year, DEFRA provided £200,000 to Warrington borough council, which it used to address local flood risk for 30 homes in Dallam and Orford. Flood risk from rivers in Warrington is also actively managed by water course maintenance, flood warning and development control.

I thank the Minister for that reply, and, as he says, the work that has taken and is taking place in Westy is much appreciated. In other parts of Warrington, around Penketh and Sankey, the previously planned work has been delayed. Will the Minister give some indication of the time scales for that work?

It is to my hon. Friend’s credit that he continuously raises these issues with the Environment Agency and the Department. The Sankey area is of great concern to a number of households. It does not rate as highly as the other much larger scheme in the Warrington area and it will be considered, as is the way, with complete transparency in the funding scheme that has been announced, which will be considered by the local flood authority in due course.

If I may say so, Mr Speaker, the similarities are very great, because just like Warrington, we suffered—

Order. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I was prepared to give him some latitude, but the question must be purely on Warrington rather than allied to Warrington. We are grateful to him for his industrious efforts.

Recycling Sector (Employment)

2. What steps the Environment Agency is taking that will contribute to growth and employment in the recycling sector. (73878)

I, too, want to add my welcome to the new members of the shadow DEFRA team. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) is remembered fondly by officials at DEFRA and I should send their regards.

The UK’s waste and recycling sector is valued at more than £12 billion a year and is projected to grow between 3% and 5% a year for the next seven years, making a valuable contribution to the greening of our economy. The Environment Agency will implement part of the Government’s waste review to ensure that regulation is effective in protecting human health and the environment while making compliance as easy as possible for legitimate business.

My right hon. Friend will be interested to learn of a potassic lime fertiliser produced by 4Recycling, a company on the periphery of my constituency of Elmet and Rothwell. The product is made from recycled material but the company is being hindered by the bureaucracy of the Environment Agency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the issues that are restricting growth in this industry?

My hon. Friend has been vigilant in writing to me about this product, produced by 4Recycling Ltd. I must set straight for the record that the product, potassic lime, is a mixture of water treatment work sludge and cement kiln dust. A current analysis of the product shows that it contains contaminated products, such as lead. The caution that the Environment Agency has exercised is therefore something that I am sure all Members of the House would understand, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further.

If the Environment Secretary had followed Scotland and Wales and adopted an ambitious 70% recycling target in her waste review, she could have created 50,000 new green jobs, yet she has been silent as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government splurged £250 million on weekly bin collections, directly undermining her own waste strategy. Is saving her own job really more important than creating 50,000 jobs in the real economy?

First, we ought to record with gratitude the effort that the public make to help with recycling rates. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would accept that it is not right to take a one-size-fits-all approach and that it is up to local authorities to decide the best collection service for their area. I fully support the scheme being introduced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government because it is conditional on environmental benefits as well as giving increased value for money for the taxpayer.

Training Opportunities (Rural Areas)

3. What steps she is taking to encourage young people to take up learning and vocational training opportunities in the countryside and farming sector. (73879)

5. What steps she is taking to encourage young people to take up learning and vocational training opportunities in the countryside and farming sector. (73881)

6. What steps she is taking to encourage young people to take up learning and vocational training opportunities in the countryside and farming sector. (73882)

11. What steps she is taking to encourage young people to take up learning and vocational training opportunities in the countryside and farming sector. (73887)

12. What steps she is taking to encourage young people to take up learning and vocational training opportunities in the countryside and farming sector. (73888)

I am delighted that so many colleagues are keen to ask about this important issue. Improving skills and creating learning opportunities is an essential part of delivering growth in farming, rural areas and food businesses. To that end, earlier in the summer, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, announced 50,000 new apprenticeships, mainly associated with agriculture and the food industry. In addition, we are working closely with colleagues at the Departments for Education and for Business, Innovation and Skills to make sure that rural areas benefit from the additional £250 million that the Government are investing in adult apprenticeships.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will she encourage her Ministers to work with people such as those at the Suffolk Agricultural Association, who hold annual school days for children, to ensure that they are involved in encouraging the take-up of apprenticeships when people leave school?

I have absolutely no hesitation in endorsing that scheme in Suffolk. Obviously, we would like to see that example of best practice replicated elsewhere.

With the rising price of lamb making upland sheep farming a promising and viable business now and for the future, what is the Minister going to do to ensure that more young people are attracted to remain in this sector of farming after generations of farmers’ sons and daughters have left it?

I well remember, when we launched our upland support package, which brought £26 million of new money to help support farmers and their communities in the uplands, sheep farmers saying to me that this problem of succession is a serious one. So I was delighted to hear that Northumberland national park, in partnership with Lantra, is encouraging a programme with the local college in that national park for upland farming skills. A similar scheme called Dartmoor skills has also been introduced. I think that young people will increasingly be attracted to the tradition of sheep farming, which has a bright future.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly Government launched the young entrants support scheme—an innovative project that offers grant funding and business mentoring to new entrants and young farmers. Will the Secretary of State look at replicating something similar in the UK? We have a real problem in that around a third of farmers are over the age of 65. We must try to get some new people in.

Yes, I think that that scheme has merit. As I announced earlier this month, we will have a rural strand as part of the growth review. I am sure that all Members want to see part of the economic recovery of our country vested in rural areas, which have often been neglected. A huge opportunity exists to help young people to enter land-based employment and to encourage rural enterprise.

Does the Secretary of State agree that national park authorities such as the Broads Authority in my constituency do some great work with disadvantaged youngsters in their outreach programmes and that all national park authorities should prioritise that kind of outreach work?

Yes, the Broads Authority sets a very good example in helping young people, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, to gain access to the countryside. I am delighted to tell the House that the Health and Safety Executive has, at the request of the Government, simplified its guidance for farm visits, thereby removing one of the significant barriers to helping schoolchildren access the countryside. Through the rural development programme for England, we make it possible for 1,000 farms to be visited by our young people; access to nature for young people is a very important part of investing in their future.

I recently met a farmer in my constituency who told me that more than 80% of his 50 employees are hard-working eastern Europeans. He finds it very difficult to attract young British people to take on those jobs. Is there anything that the Secretary of State’s Department can do to make this work more attractive to them?

I am sure that the same complaint has been made to other hon. Members. On Open Farm Sunday, I visited a farm in Worcestershire where exactly the same point was made to me. It is important to stress, for the record, that although manual work on the farm is hard work, it can be very well paid—up to £10 an hour on average—so that seems not to be the impediment. By working with the Department for Work and Pensions, we are very keen to make sure that work does pay for our young people.

Will not a lot of young people be discouraged from going into agriculture by the Government’s plans to scrap the Agricultural Wages Board, as that will drive down wages and conditions, particularly for young people and casual workers? Should the Secretary of State not listen to her coalition friend the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who, speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I believe, has said that he is against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board? Listening to him is something that she could do to help workers and young workers in particular.

This is becoming something of an obsession for the Labour party, but Labour Members refuse to accept or acknowledge that, when in government, they were certainly considering scrapping the Agricultural Wages Board, and only the Warwick agreement and pressure from the unions—their paymasters—caused them to change their minds. Employment legislation has moved on tremendously since 1948, when the Agricultural Wages Board was set up. They are supporting an analogue solution in a digital age.

Notwithstanding the previous question, does my right hon. Friend not agree that potential new, young entrants will be looking closely at the common agricultural policy reform proposals published by the Commission yesterday? Although there are welcome proposals with regard to payments to young farmers, does she not agree that many of the other proposals would undermine the competitiveness of the future of British and, indeed, European agriculture?

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for that. The House will be aware that the Commission has just published its proposals to reform the CAP, and I am afraid that they are disappointing. We will do all we can to improve them. We need agriculture that is competitive, market oriented and successful, to attract new entrants, but at first sight—we need to do more analysis—the Commission’s proposals seem extremely bureaucratic and do not move us in the right direction.

Bats in Churches

4. What recent discussions she has had with (a) the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and (b) Natural England on the effects of bats on churches and other listed buildings. (73880)

The Secretary of State has met church building representatives to discuss the issues, and Natural England is working closely with them to find solutions to difficult cases. We have had no discussions with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the issue.

My hon. Friend’s family have the patronage of the livings of a number of churches, so he will know more than most Members about the damage done by bat faeces and urine to church fabric. May I exhort him to encourage Natural England to do much more to work with English Heritage to try to ensure that, while bats continue to have their statutory protection, they do not have it at the cost of irreparable damage to our parish churches?

As someone who loves bats and is a reasonably regular churchgoer, I suppose that I am qualified to talk about this. There is a serious point: of course, we want to abide by the habitats directive and, in most cases, working with Natural England, we can resolve these issues locally, but it would be ridiculous if churches that have been used for worship for hundreds of years become unusable owing to a too-close following of the directive. There must be a common-sense way forward. I am happy to work with my hon. Friend in his capacity as the Second Church Estates Commissioner to ensure that we have sensible policies on the issue.

At St Hilda’s church in a parish near Thornton-le-Dale parish, the bats are allowed to use the church but the congregation is not. Have we not reached a ridiculous state of affairs when bats have greater protection than the congregation?

I am aware of the issue at St Hilda’s. If that really is the case, we have reached an absolute impasse. We must consider finding an alternative means to provide a place where bats can roost and people can worship. That is one of the reasons why the Government have put all wildlife legislation in the Law Commission’s hands—to make absolutely certain that we are not gold-plating our interpretation of the directive. I assure my hon. Friend that I will work with her and any other Member if they find examples where we have hit the buffers and cannot find a way forward.

Common Fisheries Policy

As UK Fisheries Minister, I continue to have discussions about the reform of the common fisheries policy with a wide range of people and organisations, including the EU Commission, Members of the UK and European Parliaments and ministerial colleagues from other member states, as well as representatives of fishing and related industries. I will continue to press our case for reform, as the negotiations develop in the Council and European Parliament.

May I urge my hon. Friend to press for UK fishing waters to come back under UK control, and to sort out the loopy idea that the Austrians might end up having a vote on the common fisheries policy even though they do not have a single piece of coastline?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. That debate will perhaps be had at a higher level than mine, but he should remember two things. First, we are dealing with an industry in crisis, so urgency is a real factor for those involved in the fishing industry, both in his constituency and everywhere else. Secondly, we would need a mechanism for dealing with other countries whether we were covered by the common fisheries policy or not, because fish do not respect borders. We would have to continue to deal with historical fishing rights, which go beyond our membership of the common fisheries policy. I take seriously my responsibility, given the door that has been opened by the Commission’s position on the subject, to push for real, genuine, radical reform that can improve the situation for fishermen and the marine environment.

Alongside CFP reform, the ongoing mackerel dispute with Iceland and the Faroe islands continues to cause great concern, not just for pelagic fishermen but for the white fish fleet and fish processors. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of negotiations with Iceland and tell us, in the event of a deal, what recompense will be made available to Scottish fishermen? Might it possibly take the form of additional quota?

I cannot give the hon. Lady that precise information at the moment. I can tell her that there has been a slight improvement in the relationship with the Icelanders, and I hope that we can build on that. I am still pessimistic about our discussions with the Faroese, but I assure her that I will keep her closely involved, because we are talking about our most valuable fishery. It is sustainable, and we face a severe risk of losing marine stewardship accreditation for the stock, which would cause great harm to her constituents and our economy.

For the first time, I do not have to declare an interest in the subject.

Will the Minister update the House on any representations that he has made during the ongoing negotiations to enable the United Kingdom to introduce a higher standard of fisheries management for all fishing vessels fishing within our 12-mile limit, and say whether any member states have pledged support for that?

I continue to work with other member states to get across our view that where we are creating marine conservation zones outside the 6-mile limit, we should not be controlling the activities of our fishermen while allowing fishermen from other countries to continue to operate as they did. There has to be a level playing field. On fisheries safety and the development of control orders, which came in under the previous Government, this is the opportunity to make sure that fishermen from other countries behave as we require our fishermen to behave. It is really important that we follow through with that. We have allies in Europe, and I am determined to make sure that an even-handed approach is taken.

Agricultural Science

8. What recent assessment she has made of the role agricultural science can play in promoting growth. (73884)

New science and innovation is essential to enhancing the competitiveness and resilience of the UK and wider EU agricultural sectors. As the House will know, Lord Taylor of Holbeach recently joined the ministerial team of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Lord Taylor is, of course, the architect of the Taylor review, which explored the role of science in agriculture, and which the Government are taking forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and congratulate her Department on everything that it is doing to drive a sustainable recovery and unlock growth in our agricultural sector. I am sure that she, like me, will have seen the news last week from the world-class John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research about the launch of the new glucoraphanin-enhanced broccoli with the potential to reduce heart disease and some cancers. Does she agree that our often overlooked agricultural research base has huge potential to unlock new markets around the world, and will she meet representatives of the sector and me to see what more we can do to help?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. Not only did I read about the new variety of broccoli, but my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science actively referred to the benefits that it can bring. It is a very good example of the benefits of investing in research on agriculture and agri-food. The Government spend £400 million on agri-food research and development, and DEFRA spends £65 million per annum on agri-food R and D, including on animal health and welfare.

The proposals announced yesterday for the reform of the agricultural policy include sums of money for promoting agricultural science. Will the Secretary of State please ensure that that is carried forward into the final proposals, and that Britain has its fair share of that money?

I have no hesitation at all in agreeing with that and welcoming that part of the CAP reform proposals. It is very important that European agriculture is innovative and that the industry becomes more competitive and market orientated. That must be done with the support of research and development in agriculture. That is an element of the proposals that we warmly welcome.


9. What representations she has received from the scientific community on her plans to pilot the free shooting of badgers. (73885)

We have received a large number of representations, including from members of the scientific community. DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser, Professor Bob Watson, has also discussed the evidence with a group of leading scientists, who were able to agree on a number of key points. Their conclusions have been published on DEFRA’s website.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but why is he blindly following the free shooting option and excluding others, such as vaccination, regardless of the scientific advice, and why did he cancel five of the six vaccination trials entered into by the previous Labour Government?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. We are not blindly ignoring vaccination, which we have always said has a role to play. Indeed, it is being carried out at the moment in some parts of the country. The simple fact, as we have published, is that our veterinary advice states that we can have a greater and swifter impact on bovine TB through a culling policy than through vaccination. With regard to what he called the trials that I cancelled, they were not trials of the vaccine, but deployment projects, and we decided that we could achieve all that we needed in one project, rather than wasting another £6 million on the others.

Farmers across North Wiltshire are being ruined by TB in cattle and very much welcome the recent announcement that the Government will press ahead with a limited cull. Does the Minister agree that selected tests so far have shown a 27% reduction in bovine TB and that, although there was perturbation, as they call it, around the edge of the trial area, it is shown to have been reduced in subsequent years?

My hon. Friend is perfectly correct. The results of the Krebs trials, which were conducted by the independent scientific group on cattle TB, demonstrated that after nine years—long after the end of the trials themselves—there was a reduction of 27%, and even 29%, in the cull zone, which was slightly offset by a temporary increase in the peripheral area. What matters, however, are the measures that are taken to reduce that increase, which is why we are now saying that any group or farmer must now put forward their own ideas about how they will minimise this perturbation.

In a parliamentary answer to me on 5 September, the Minister said that the science showed that his badger cull would lead to five fewer herd breakdowns a year in each cull area. Last year there were more than 2,025 confirmed herd breakdowns in England, so even with 10 cull areas after 2013 the cull would prevent just 50 herd breakdowns a year, a reduction of only 2.5%. However, the cost to farmers in cull areas will run to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of pounds. Why should they bother?

I suggest that the hon. Lady asks the farmers. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) has just said, the farming community is anxious to do something after 13 years of neglect under the Labour party. Of course it will be expensive for the groups of farmers involved, but that is up to them. This is one part of a large package of measures, all the rest of which the Government are doing.

The Minister says “do something”, but surely doing something effective is more useful. We know that the Home Secretary has objected to the cull and is concerned that it will divert scarce police resources away from policing the Olympic games next summer. The latest impact assessment, the consultation for which has just closed, put no figure on the costs, although last year’s consultation put the costs at £200,000. Have those costs risen or fallen since then and will he undertake to make them public so that taxpayers can see how much they are contributing to the cull before a final decision is taken on whether to proceed?

I am glad the hon. Lady recognises that no final decision has been made, a point that I need to emphasise. The fact is that the proposals that we laid before the House, and the consultation that has just finished, were agreed by the whole Government. On the policing costs, we are in discussions, and have been for some months, with the Association of Chief Police Officers. Its attention was unfortunately but quite understandably diverted by the disturbances and riots, so it has only recently refocused, but I assure the hon. Lady that all that information will be used and involved in the final decision, when we bring it to the House.

Living as I do in the west country, I know that the Minister will be aware of our concerns not only about bovine TB, but about several other things. I gather that the Secretary of State has put together a proposal to close the vet labs in various places throughout the country, and I wondered what the rationale was for that, particularly in an area where bovine TB is such a problem.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend allows me to correct her impression slightly. The decision, which will be made quite rightly by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, results from the merger of two agencies into one. All that is being closed is the actual laboratories that undertake scientific testing. The post-mortem centres are not proposed for closure, and most samples are already sent by post anyway, so it does not represent in any way a diminution of service.

Dangerous Dogs

10. What plans she has to bring forward proposals to deal with antisocial behaviour by dogs and their owners. (73886)

As the House is aware, the Home Office has already consulted on changes to the tools and powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, including antisocial behaviour involving dogs, and is considering the responses. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is also considering a range of further measures to promote more responsible ownership of dogs and will make an announcement shortly.

When my constituent Pat Brennan was savaged by a bull mastiff, he was told that there was nothing he could do because the attack took place on private property. How many more people have to die or be maimed for life before the Government act?

I am tempted to point out the lack of action by the previous Government, but the much bigger issue is that, as the consultations have demonstrated, some results of which have been published, there is a massive variety of ideas on the best way forward. On the specific issue of private property, that is one thing we consulted on and one thing being considered, but the problem is how we differentiate between an assault on a postman or somebody who is lawfully present and an assault on somebody who may be trespassing or a criminal.

May I urge the Minister, when he discusses the issue with colleagues throughout the Government, to impress upon them the need to ensure that anyone who encourages their dog to attack a guide dog used by a blind or partially sighted person is very severely punished indeed?

Obviously, punishment is precisely a matter for the courts, but I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiment, and the Home Office has fully taken that point on board.

I am glad to be back, as proof that this Opposition are serious about recycling.

Far too many people, including children, are being needlessly killed or maimed by dangerous dogs, and the numbers are rising every single year. Twenty organisations, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Kennel Club, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, the Royal College of Nursing and the Police Federation, are calling for a change in the law. The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have already acted, so, 16 months after the end of the consultation and when the Minister said in July that the Government ruled nothing out, will he now rule something in and bring forward his proposals before Christmas at the very latest?

There speaks the authentic voice of 13 years of inaction—and the hon. Gentleman now criticises us about 16 months. We have shadowed each other, and I respect his integrity and admire him, but he is really stretching credibility. I assure him that, as soon as the Home Office has finished considering its consultation, which finished only recently, we will come together to the House with our proposals as soon as possible.

Wild Animals in Circuses

The Government fully understand the House’s desire for a ban and are continuing to look at how the legal obstacles may be overcome so that one can be achieved. In the meantime, we are developing a tough licensing regime that will stop circuses using animals if they do not provide appropriate welfare standards. We will consult on these early next year, and I hope that they will be in place by July of next year.

As the Minister will no doubt recall, on 23 June there was a simply stunning cross-party debate on this issue which concluded unanimously with this House directing the Government to make sure that these regulations took effect by 1 July 2012. Can he assure us that he will make sure that the Government do deliver on this, absolutely definitely?

As I have just said, despite the clear view of the House, which the Government share, we cannot ignore our international legal responsibilities—that is why we are still continuing with our regulatory proposals—but we want to be able to implement the ban as soon as we can when the legal obstacles are cleared up. Since the debate to which my hon. Friend rightly refers, a lot more legal advice has come to us, either having been sought or offered, and it all confirms that which I reported at that stage.

Topical Questions

My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers, and strengthening the green economy. In line with that, I have just returned from the Rio+20 preparations in Delhi, where good progress was made in identifying areas of common ground on sustainable agriculture and energy, resource efficiency and inclusive growth for what I hope will prove to be a successful summit next year.

I have referred to the CAP reform proposals published yesterday. We are currently scrutinising the full document for its impact on all parts of the United Kingdom, and it will of course come before the European Committees in due course.

The Forestry Commission’s current consultation proposes to reduce educational visits to public forests in England from 43,000 per year to just 15,000 per year. Will the Minister commit to consult teachers, parents and Forestry Commission staff over this shocking attack on children’s outdoor education?

Obviously, the Forestry Commission is responsible for taking decisions in relation to its own budget, but this is a consultation and I will certainly look into the matter. In response to an earlier question, I said how important it is that young people are able to engage with nature, including with our woodlands and forests. Through the Rural Development Programme for England, we make it possible for young people to do that, and we would actively encourage the Forestry Commission to consider this as well.

T7. The Minister will be aware that the Fishery Protection Squadron is the oldest squadron in the Royal Navy. Does DEFRA see an enduring role for fishery protection within the Royal Navy once the current arrangements finish in 2013? (73904)

I much enjoyed a visit to HMS Mersey and boarding a trawler from another country, and I was impressed by the squadron’s professionalism and approach to the whole job. It is at an advanced stage in negotiations with the Marine Management Organisation on the continuance of this contract. I very much hope that that can be achieved, because I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is a very professionally run operation that is doing great service not only to our fishing industry and the maintenance of our waters but to our national security.

T2. The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency has announced proposals to close eight of its labs, including both Welsh sites at Aberystwyth and Ceredigion. I am informed that closure of the Welsh sites will result in a 24-hour delay in diagnosing livestock diseases—an unacceptable period that could leave the communities I represent terribly exposed. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that this decision was made without any consultation with the Welsh Government or the farming and workers trade unions? (73898)

As I mentioned earlier, this was a decision by the agency, but I understand that it was discussed with the equivalent agency and the chief vet in Wales. No sites are being closed. As I said, this is purely about the laboratory aspect, not the post-mortem aspect. I agree that 24 hours extra delay may be unacceptable, but that is not what is expected; we expect timeliness to remain as it is.

T8. Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm when she expects to receive the final report of the Independent Panel on Forestry? (73905)

I am pleased to say that the chairman of the panel, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, has recovered well from his operation and is back at work. That has not in any way affected the timetable for the publication of the final report, which will still happen next spring. When speaking to Bishop James Jones last week, he assured me that the interim report will be received by the Department in November.

T3. The Labour-led Welsh Assembly Government this month made Wales the first part of the UK to introduce a carrier bag charge. That was done not to raise money but to encourage reuse and avoid waste. Is the Secretary of State willing to take the lead from Wales, in view of the Department’s recent back-tracking on recycling? (73900)

I do not accept the accusation of back-tracking. My Department has the first waste review policy for 20 years. We are certainly looking at the Welsh proposal and we should consider everything that might deal with elements of litter that are part of our waste prevention strategy. At a European level, the European Commission is looking at the Italian Government’s proposal to ban plastic bags. That has to be considered in a single market context.

T9. The Shropshire Union canal runs through the heart of Chester and is much-loved by canal users, fishermen and local residents. How can local people and canal users get involved in the new north Wales and borders waterways partnership to help support the future of our local canals and inland waterways? (73906)

The good news that the launch of the canal and river trust is on schedule will be welcome to my hon. Friend’s constituents and all who know and love their canals. There is a plethora of ways in which they can get involved. They can take part in their local partnership, which, following our consultation, will have a much more local focus. I look forward to working with him and other hon. Members to ensure that the new charity is a great success.

T4. Farmers and food suppliers in Wigan are desperate for the protection of a groceries ombudsman from the unfair practices of supermarkets. The Government recently promised a Bill to implement that proposal very soon. Will the Secretary of State put pressure on her colleagues to ensure that “soon” really will be soon? (73901)

The short answer is yes. As the hon. Lady knows, a draft Bill has been published and has been considered by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The Committee’s report has gone to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills recently. It is that Department’s Bill, but we are pressing hard for it to be passed as soon as possible.

I welcome the Government’s negotiations in Europe on food labelling, but I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure that we maintain the flexibility to keep the things that Britain holds dear, such as buying eggs by the dozen and beer by the pint.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s words. This is a policy commitment that the Government have delivered on very clearly. We promised honest labelling and we now have a voluntary code in this country and mandatory country of origin labelling across a lot of products in Europe. I entirely agree with her point about quantities; Britain has its traditions and we want to stick to them.

T6. Food prices have risen by 6% in the last year, costing a family with two young children an extra £350 a year. When will the Secretary of State do something positive to tackle speculation in food prices and its impact on families? (73903)

The underlying cause of rising food prices is, of course, rising global prices of food commodities. The market fundamentals are the driver of that. Supply and demand is tight. We have to feed a hungry world, which will possibly have 9 billion people by 2050, as the Government’s own Foresight report says. That is why this Government and my Department have set a priority of producing more food sustainably.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the canal and river trust. What plans does he have to ensure that its decision-making is transparent and accountable? Indeed, will he consider applying to it the Freedom of Information Act?

I am grateful for the opportunity to point out that all the provisions that currently exist for British Waterways in that regard will follow through to the new charity. If the new charity is to have the credibility that it must have, it is important that we assure all those who really mind about this matter that we are protecting those rights.

On 6 July, in a Westminster Hall debate on dangerous dogs, the Minister said in his response that there was

“real evidence that the situation is worsening”

and that

“Action must, therefore, be taken.”—[Official Report, 6 July 2011; Vol. 530, c. 485WH.]

Given that admission, is it not morally reprehensible that even today he refuses to give a date for a response to the consultation started by the previous Government?

As I said earlier, the Government are fully committed on the matter, and I do not resile from anything that I said in that debate. However, as I have just mentioned, the Home Office rightly decided to examine the wider issues. [Interruption.] Hon. Members are bleating from the Opposition Front Bench, but they know as well as I do that much of the problem is the people, not the dogs. That is why it is right that the Home Office should be involved, but we will bring forward our proposals as soon as we possibly can.

I am frequently advised by potential investors in my constituency that they lack confidence in the planning process due to delays caused by Natural England. Can the Secretary of State assure me that she will look into that and ensure that Natural England is mindful of the commercial pressures on investors?

Natural England is a statutory consultee in the planning process, but I certainly give my hon. Friend an undertaking that I will look into the case in question. There is, of course, a balancing act, and Natural England is responsible for ensuring that directives that the previous Government and their predecessors signed up to are complied with correctly, but I will look into that specific case with urgency.

In light of the meeting that is to take place on 25 October between the Secretary of State and the Ministers from the devolved Assemblies across the United Kingdom, will she set out what the agenda for that meeting is going to be? Will she assure us that CAP reform will be on the agenda, and that she will listen carefully to the needs of representatives of the rural regions across the UK and of the 40,000 farmers in Northern Ireland who rely on the CAP as it currently stands?

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are due to meet devolved Administration Ministers on 25 October, and agricultural reform is on the agenda. I expect that they will attend the Agriculture Council meeting next week, as I have encouraged them to, and we will work very closely with them. I hope the hon. Gentleman noticed that when I referred to how the Government were looking at CAP reform, I said that we would examine its impact on all parts of the United Kingdom.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Local Infrastructure Investment

1. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the potential opportunities for the Church of England to work with other parts of the community to attract public funds for local infrastructure investment. (73907)

The Church of England and the Church Commissioners will always take every opportunity to work with local partners for the benefit of local communities.

Ripon cathedral plays a really important role in our local community, bringing together community groups and developing the economy of Ripon as a whole. Will my hon. Friend pass on the positive feedback about the cathedral’s role, which could be an example for other cathedral towns across England?

Absolutely, I would of course be very happy to do that. Ripon cathedral is the oldest English cathedral—its crypt dates back to 672—and for centuries it has been at the heart of Ripon. I hope that every possible local organisation will work with the dean and chapter to help enhance the vitality of Ripon. The Church Commissioners will certainly engage positively in whatever way we can to support that.

Metal Theft (Churches)

2. What recent discussions the Church Commissioners have had with the Home Office on reform of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964 for the purposes of reducing the incidence of theft of metal from churches. (73908)

6. What resources the Church Commissioners plan to make available to churches that have been subject to theft or vandalism. (73912)

I shall place in the Library a copy of the Church Buildings Council’s report on metal theft, which concludes that the 1964 Act is no longer fit for purpose.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the theft of metal from churches is costing them an estimated £1 million a month. Has he yet had any indication whether the recommendation made in the Church Buildings Council’s working party report of March this year—that cash payments by scrap yards for metals such as lead should be prohibited—will be accepted?

We are working very closely with Ministers to achieve that, and we have a meeting in the very near future with the noble Lord Henley to try to take it forward. I think that there is general agreement among everyone who has examined the matter that we need to take cash out of the transactions. It is too easy at present for people to strip churches of lead at night, go to a scrap yard the next day, get cash and walk away. The people who are suffering from that are in the most vulnerable communities in our society.

The hon. Gentleman will know of St John’s in Birkby, which had its steeple pulled down by people stripping the lead from the roof, and of the immense cost that the parish incurred. I certainly agree that we need to amend the scrap metal legislation, but we also need to consider the level of compensation and insurance premiums.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The thieves, in that case, simply wanted the lightning conductor, but in trying to get it they almost destroyed the whole church, because they pulled the steeple down into the church. One of the penalties for churches that have their lead stripped is that the insurers thereafter will refuse to insure them, so all the burden falls on local communities and parishes. This is an epidemic that we need to grasp and solve. It simply cannot continue.

In my constituency, St Brides church in Old Trafford suffered the theft of its church bell. One of the reasons we are particularly vulnerable to such offences is the presence of a large scrap metal yard in the constituency. Will the hon. Gentleman join me in putting pressure on the Home Office not just to amend the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, but to ensure that the police are adequately resourced to deal with these increasing levels of crime?

I am glad to say to the hon. Lady that I think that police forces up and down the country are now taking this issue seriously, not just because of the theft of lead from churches, but because of the theft of copper from railway signalling devices. The theft of metals has now gone significantly up the agenda of police forces across the country.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

United Kingdom Elections

3. What recent recommendations the Electoral Commission has made to the Government on the running of UK-wide elections. (73909)

The Electoral Commission has made a number of recommendations to the Government on the administration of UK-wide elections, most recently in its report on the 2010 parliamentary general election. The commission has recommended that the Government set out a comprehensive plan to improve the management of elections and to make it easier for voters to participate.

Although the result of the recent alternative vote referendum was probably predictable from the beginning, it was nevertheless a very well-run process. Are there any lessons that we can learn from that for future UK-wide elections?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is being very perceptive, because there has been widespread public appreciation of how the UK referendum was run earlier in the year. The commission will be publishing a report next Wednesday that will make a number of recommendations for improving the delivery of all future UK-wide elections and will, in particular, emphasise the benefits of central co-ordination.

What consideration has the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission given to ensuring the integrity of the UK-wide franchise? We are hearing of proposals from the Scottish Government to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds for their proposed referendum on Scotland separating from the UK.

The commission takes all such issues very seriously, and although I do not have a lot of knowledge of that particular issue, no doubt the commission is considering it. If I can respond to the hon. Gentleman in writing, I shall certainly do so.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


4. What assessment the Church Commissioners have made of the effects of bats on churches; and if he will make a statement. (73910)

I am sure that many in the House will be concerned about the damage done by bats in church buildings. Although all species of bats have statutory protection, considerable damage has been caused to church fabric by bat droppings and bat urine.

My hon. Friend is familiar with, and has taken up, the case of St Hilda’s church, but it is unacceptable that the congregation is not allowed to pray and worship in the church because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Natural England are taking a leisurely pace to exclude the bats from the church. The bats would not be excluded completely, but would have a different access point. May I ask him to use his good offices to speed this procedure along so that the congregation can worship normally in St Hilda’s church?

My hon. Friend and the whole House will have heard the comments at the Dispatch Box earlier from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon). I think that the House will recognise that he acknowledged that there is a problem here that needs to be addressed. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh), who chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, will work with the church authorities, Natural England and all of us in trying to strike a much better balance and in making appropriate representations to the Law Commission to ensure that we do not gold-plate the habitats directive in a way that prejudices people against bats.

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Visit to Africa

5. What reports he has received on the outcome of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent visit to Africa. (73911)

The Archbishop of Canterbury, as spiritual leader to the worldwide Anglican community, was invited to make a pastoral visit to Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia by the Archbishop of Central Africa, the right reverend Albert Chama. The purpose of the visit was primarily to meet with bishops, clergy and parishioners to celebrate the life and ministry of the Anglican Church in the region and to strengthen ties with the Anglican communion. In the course of his visit the Archbishop of Canterbury met the Presidents of Malawi, Zimbabwe—Robert Mugabe—and Zambia, and the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai.

I am grateful for that response. Several of my constituents in Gloucester have told me that they thought that the archbishop’s visit showed real moral courage. How much confidence does my hon. Friend have in Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s pledge to ensure that the rule of law is applied and to allow Christians to worship in peace?

I would hope that the whole House would share that view about the courage of the Archbishop of Canterbury. By his preaching and presence in Africa he will have given immense encouragement to the persecuted Church there. The Archbishop of Canterbury in Africa has made a direct challenge to tyranny and given words of hope for the oppressed. The archbishop made it clear to President Mugabe that he should use his powers as Head of State to guarantee the security of Zimbabweans who worship with the Anglican Church and put an end to illegal and unacceptable behaviour—beatings and other degradation—that has been visited upon people simply because they are Christians.

On one of the very few occasions when I can agree with Conservative Members, let me say that many of us are deeply impressed by the way the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke the truth to Mugabe and urged him to stop the violence and thuggery that has unfortunately occurred over the past few years. The Archbishop of Canterbury has undoubtedly given a tremendous lead to decency.

This is one of the few occasions when I have agreed with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the whole House would do so too.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Police Commissioner Elections

7. What estimate the Electoral Commission has made of the cost of holding elections for police commissioners. (73914)

The Government included an estimate of the cost of holding elections for police and crime commissioners in May 2012 in their original impact assessment. When the Government proposed to move the date of the elections to November 2012, the commission advised Parliament that additional costs would arise from holding a stand-alone election and that it would be important to ensure adequate resources were in place. The commission has made no separate estimate of the cost of holding those elections.

In North Yorkshire—just to give an example from one county—the Government have cut funding for the police from £54 million to £47 million in just two years. Will the hon. Gentleman make representations to the Electoral Commission to do all it can to reduce the cost of the elections and urge the Government to vire the money saved back into front-line policing?

I think the hon. Gentleman is raging against the policy rather than the Electoral Commission’s role in it. The costs are those incurred by the Government and local authorities, not the Electoral Commission, but I am sure that his plea for the cost of the elections to be minimised will be heard in the appropriate quarters.

Local Referendums

8. What recent discussions the Electoral Commission has had on giving communities the power to hold local referendums; and if he will make a statement. (73915)

The Electoral Commission has had no recent discussions on giving communities the power to hold local referendums. It has, however, set out its views on the proposals contained in the Localism Bill in briefings to Parliament. The commission’s priorities are that any referendum should be consistently well run and that the question put to voters should be intelligible and unbiased.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. In Harlow a planning application for a waste transfer site has been pushed through by Essex council against the will of local residents, the Tany’s Dell primary school and Harlow council. How soon will the powers for local referendums be put in place, so that Harlow people can have their say?

As ever, my hon. Friend is a doughty champion for the people of Harlow, but he will know that the local referendum provisions are contained in the Localism Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords. Once the Bill has received Royal Assent, the Government will then need to produce detailed rules for local referendums, which the Electoral Commission will study very carefully indeed, so I am afraid that his constituents may have to wait a little while longer.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Coptic Christians (Egypt)

Church of England mission agencies, as well as the diocese linked with the region, continue to provide much needed pastoral support to Egypt’s beleaguered Christian minority. Bishop Mouneer, the Anglican Bishop of Egypt, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, is based in Cairo and is in regular contact with the leadership of the Egyptian Coptic Church.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that, if the new regime in Egypt is to be taken seriously, it must ensure that the murder, victimisation and torture of Christians there ceases?

I entirely agree with that, and I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has made exactly that point to the Egyptian authorities this week. He has told them that they cannot be taken seriously unless they afford proper protection to the Christian minority in Egypt, which, after all, forms something like 20% of the population of that country.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. There is always just time.

Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Church Commissioners to work with the Government to ensure that the issue of Christian minorities not only in Egypt but in other countries such as China where they are being heavily persecuted will be taken up internationally and by the United Kingdom Government?

I entirely agree with that. In fairness to the Foreign Secretary, he has been a doughty champion of the need to protect persecuted Christians throughout the world, whether in Pakistan, China or Egypt. It is very important that religious freedom should involve freedom for everyone, irrespective of their religion and of where they wish to practise their religion.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 17 October will be:

Monday 17 October—Motion relating to MPs’ pensions, followed by motion relating to disclosure and publication of documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 18 October—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 19 October—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on energy prices followed by a debate on individual voter registration. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Armed Forces Bill.

Thursday 20 October—General debate on national planning policy framework.

Friday 21 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 24 October will include:

Monday 24 October—Remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 25 October—Continuation of remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 26 October—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (day 3).

Thursday 27 October—Business nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

For the convenience of the House, I wish to announce the proposed calendar for the coming year. We intend for the House to rise at the close of play on Tuesday 15 November, returning on Monday 21 November, meaning that we will not sit on two days—Wednesday 16 November and Thursday 17 November—as previously planned. The House will rise for the Christmas recess at the close of play on Tuesday 20 December, returning on Tuesday 10 January 2012.

The House will rise for the constituency break at the close of play on Thursday 9 February, returning on Monday 20 February. We will rise for the Easter break at the close of play on Tuesday 27 March, returning on Monday 16 April. We will rise for the Whitsun recess at the close of play on Thursday 24 May, returning on Monday 11 June. The summer recess will start at the close of play on Tuesday 17 July, returning on Monday 3 September. Finally, we will rise for the conference recess at the close of play on Tuesday 18 September, returning on Monday 15 October. All those dates will be put before the House for approval, and the dates for the Queen’s Speech and private Members’ Bill Fridays for the second Session will be announced in the usual way. All dates are subject to the progress of business, and a calendar is now available from the Vote Office.

May I thank the Leader of the House for his statement, especially for his giving us early notice of the annual calendar? Even if it changes slightly, it is an innovation that I think all Members of all parties will appreciate. May I also take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) as my deputy, and to pay tribute to the work done by my immediate predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who even as we speak is wrestling with the intricacies of the local government grant formula in his new shadow Cabinet role? I look forward to shadowing the Leader of the House. I note that he first came to the House in 1974, when I had only just arrived in big school. I hope that I can achieve a triumph of youth over experience on at least a few of these occasions.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister promised to look at publishing a full list of all the meetings of Ministers and officials with the Defence Secretary’s self-styled adviser Adam Werritty. With further irregularities surfacing by the day, when will this list be published? Following the BBC’s revelations on secretive wealthy donors running a shadow operation at the heart of one of Whitehall’s most sensitive Government Departments, what are the implications for accountability and probity?

With unemployment hitting a 17-year high, youth unemployment at nearly 1 million and the highest levels of joblessness among women for more than 20 years, is it not time that the Government admitted that their economic plan is just not working? Even the Conservative Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee recently described the Government’s action on growth as “piecemeal, contradictory and incoherent”, so it was no surprise to see him being strong-armed round the corner for re-education by the Prime Minister’s spin doctors at the Tory party conference.

Is not the utterly inadequate response from the Government in yesterday’s debate on growth and jobs the clearest proof yet that they are in denial about the plight of millions of people now languishing on the dole? Will the Leader of the House therefore consider bringing forward the autumn statement so that we can take urgent action to implement Labour’s five-point plan on growth and jobs and begin to deal with the soaring unemployment and the waste of potential that it represents.

Speaking of potential, I notice that the Prime Minister yesterday hosted a reception of FTSE 100 companies, exhorting them to promote more women into their boardrooms. With only four women in the entire Cabinet, is this not a case of the Prime Minister telling people to “do as I say, not as I do”? Perhaps if the Prime Minister had more women in his Cabinet he would be spared further embarrassment from some of the men he has in it. And while we are talking about the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, given our debate later today on electronic devices and tweeting from the Chamber, will the Government provide him with urgent training on how best to keep his fingerprints off the increasingly frequent briefings against his Cabinet colleagues?

May I begin by warmly welcoming the new shadow Leader of the House to her post? She has been a Member since 1992 and has held a number of ministerial and shadow ministerial posts as well as serving on Select Committees as a Back Bencher. She is well placed to take on her new responsibilities and help us in our efforts to strengthen the House. I look forward to working with her and her deputy, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), whom we also welcome, but the latter may have to clarify her role. I see from her website that she says:

“Along with the Shadow Speaker of the House, I intend to make sure this government is held to account for its actions right in the heart of Parliament.”

I am not sure whether you, Mr Speaker, will welcome this development and this new position.

Along with the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), I pay tribute to the previous shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who had a deep understanding of, and affection for, the House. He will be much missed, as his bravura performances at the Dispatch Box every week were enjoyed on both sides of the House. Indeed, I believe he had to be moved because he risked overshadowing his leader on the Wednesdays. He now shadows my right hon. Friend the Communities and Local Government Secretary, and he may find that shadow a rather different profile from mine!

I welcomed what the hon. Lady said about the early announcement of the parliamentary calendar. I think that that is in the interests of the House and all who work here. In 2010 we were given the Easter recess dates two weeks before the Easter recess.

I am sure that the Prime Minister will honour the undertaking that he gave the House yesterday on the list of visits to Ministers as soon as the information has been dealt with. As for the other issue that the hon. Lady raised, the Cabinet Secretary is, as she knows, dealing with all outstanding issues and unanswered questions, and will complete his inquiry as soon as he can.

Yesterday’s unemployment figures were grim. We debated the issue at some length yesterday in Opposition time, and the Prime Minister made clear that every job loss was a personal tragedy. We need to do all that we can to get people back to work. Youth unemployment, sadly, has been rising every year since 2004 and, given that it was rising during a period of growth, it will obviously be difficult to get it down during a period of challenging world recession. I will not repeat what the Chancellor said about 360,000 new apprenticeships, new sector-based work academies and the rest. We have had an Opposition day, and we are always ready to arrange another.

As for being in denial, I think that the Opposition are still in denial on the deficit. During the Opposition day debate, the shadow Chancellor could not bring himself to discuss the central Opposition policy that was announced in the Labour leader’s conference speech. Perhaps that is proof that when it comes to constructive policies on the economy, the Government are the producers and the Opposition are the predators.

I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments about the need for more women in the Cabinet to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Order. As usual, a great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I remind the House that there is a statement by the Foreign Secretary to follow, as well as a series of heavily subscribed debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. As a consequence, we need—from Back and Front Benches alike—brevity.

The whole House is waiting with bated breath to hear details of a written statement later today on improved transitional arrangements relating to changes in the women’s state pension age. Government Members have fought very hard for that. Will the Leader of the House please give us some details of what he is expecting?

My hon. Friend and neighbour might have seen the written ministerial statement that has just been published in the name of the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), in which he says that he will

“today table Government amendments to the Pensions Bill”,

which we shall discuss on Tuesday,

“including one that caps the maximum increase in women’s State Pension age at 18 months, relative to the legislated timetable.”

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome that announcement.

May we have a debate on whether the funding of a charity or an individual to further the political interest of a Minister constitutes a donation in kind?

That sounds like one of the issues to which I referred in my response to the hon. Member for Wallasey, and which may arise from the ongoing inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary. I honestly think that it makes sense to await the outcome of the inquiry, and in the meantime to allow the Secretary of State for Defence to get on with his job.

There is real concern about carbon taxation policy among industries that are large users of energy, such as CEMEX, which manufactures cement and is also a large employer in my constituency. May we have a debate on the matter, and on the need to ensure that UK industry remains competitive?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. He will know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said from this Dispatch Box that he is anxious to engage in dialogues with intensive users of energy who might be adversely affected by the changes, and who might be put at a competitive disadvantage in relation to other producers in Europe. I am sure that those dialogues are continuing, but I will bring my hon. Friend’s concern to the Chancellor’s attention.

May we have a debate to congratulate the Prime Minister on his wisdom in forecasting, just before the election, that the next major scandal affecting the House would involve lobbying? Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has done nothing about introducing his promised register.

Is this matter not quite separate from the inquiry into the Defence Secretary? Appalling accusations have been made that major lobbyists representing extreme views paid an individual who was not registered as a lobbyist, did not register any interests and did not undergo any security checks, but nevertheless gained access to the top discussions in this country and abroad. That dreadful situation requires an urgent debate and legislation.

The previous Government totally ignored the Public Administration Committee’s recommendation to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists; they did absolutely nothing. We have given a coalition commitment to introduce such a register, as the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) confirmed from the Dispatch Box on Tuesday. He will publish a comprehensive consultation so that the widest range of views can be considered, with a view to introducing legislation providing for a statutory register of lobbyists.

Neal Butterworth, editor of the influential Bournemouth Daily Echo, has drawn it to my attention that media passes for the Olympics are not being given out fairly to the local and regional press. May we have a statement from the Minister for Sport and the Olympics, so that our local media can be properly represented?

I understand why all our local papers are anxious to have access to next year’s Olympics. I will certainly raise this with Department for Culture, Media and Sport Ministers, although it might be a matter for the organisers of the Olympics. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will pass it on.

May we have an urgent statement on whether any Conservative candidate at the last general election received illegal funding for foreign travel from foreign organisations linked to Adam Werritty?

If there is any evidence that anything illegal has taken place, the hon. Gentleman should notify the police.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee has now published its report into pub companies, which shows that self-regulation has failed and that the Government must now legislate. The Government have said they will do that, so may we have a statement in the House from the responsible Minister, instead of just the normal response to the Select Committee report?

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his work in promoting the interests of those who run pubs and who often face onerous Pubco terms. I am aware of the report the hon. Gentleman mentions, which basically says that the voluntary agreement has not worked. I cannot anticipate when the Government will respond to that, but I will inform the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills of the hon. Gentleman’s appetite for an early announcement.

On 2 December last year I put a question about Southern Cross to the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) and received the dismissive reply that it was a matter for local authorities. I think he subsequently came to regret that response. An article in today’s Financial Times claims that from the summer of that year the chief executive of Southern Cross had been informing the Department that he wanted a meeting with the Minister in order to explain the seriousness of the problems and the possible consequences, but, again, the Minister said his diary was too full. May we have a statement from the Minister explaining his actions—or, rather, explaining his complete inertia?

A written ministerial statement on Southern Cross was published on Monday; the right hon. Gentleman may have seen it. Because of the piece in the press today, I have made some inquiries. There have been regular constructive discussions between the Government and Southern Cross representatives since the moment it became clear that the Government were in difficulty. Ministers took the situation seriously, and they were kept fully informed. There were numerous meetings between senior Department of Health officials, the company and others, to seek to formulate a solution that protected the health and well-being of the residents. Ministers were kept fully in the picture.

Following today’s worrying report from the Care Quality Commission on the lamentable standards in the care of older people in the NHS—it found that 20% of the 100 hospitals it inspected were almost criminally negligent—may we have a debate on this subject?

In response to the previous question, I think that instead of saying Southern Cross was in difficulty, I said that the Government were in difficulty, which of course they never are.

Like my hon. Friend, I was very concerned by the reports in today’s press. Everyone admitted to hospital deserves to be treated as an individual and with compassion and dignity, which is why we commissioned the report she mentions. It certainly shows the value of unannounced inspections. It found some exemplary care, but it also found that some hospitals were not getting even the basics right. The new Health and Social Care Bill gives new responsibilities to Monitor to integrate health care across health care services. I hope that everyone will learn the lessons: that some things need to be done tomorrow to put things right; that there are problems of culture, such as putting paperwork before patients; and that there is inadequate management training and leadership in hospitals. Some of these problems may have been going on for some time. Important lessons must be learned if we are to improve the quality of care in many of our hospitals.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on the future profile of civilian jobs in the Ministry of Defence? Many people in my constituency are concerned that they will lose their jobs while he is flying around the world with his mate.

I understand why Labour Members want to continue on this issue, but the Secretary of State for Defence has a responsible job to do on behalf of this country and the Government. He should be allowed to get on with it and the hon. Gentleman should wait for the Cabinet Secretary’s report into the issues he raises.

Given the recent decision by the Communities and Local Government Secretary to overturn the inspector’s decision to reject 500 new homes in Hampton Park II in Salisbury, may I urge the Leader of the House to table a debate on public understanding of localism? Local councillors, community groups and residents constructively engaged to persuade the inspector to turn the application down, and they are now bemused and do not understand what localism means.

I understand the concern of another of my parliamentary neighbours about the outcome of that decision in his constituency. My hon. Friend asks for a debate, but I have just announced a debate next Thursday on the national planning policy framework, which will provide an opportunity for him to raise that issue and get a response. The decision was issued on 21 September. The Secretary of State has no further jurisdiction in the matter, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits as we are still within the six-week period during which the decision can be challenged in the High Court.

The Leader of the House will be aware that G20 meetings are increasingly becoming as important as those of the G8. The next G20 meeting, in November, will be particularly important. Will the Government agree to have a debate in advance of a G20 summit in which the House can express its views on the policies that the Government should put forward, as used to be the case for G8 meetings, and to ensure that there is a statement from the Prime Minister after the summit to report on and account for what has happened?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and I agree that such an approach would be desirable. I am not sure whether he has approached the Backbench Business Committee to see whether it would find time for such a debate, but I will certainly take account of what he has said in planning future Government business.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the rise in the number of photovoltaic cells on houses across the United Kingdom is a policy started by the former Government and rightly continued by this one. However, the rise of cowboys installing them is costing the country money and resources, and putting people’s long-term ownership of houses at risk. May we have a debate on this Government’s renewable energy policy to discuss the photovoltaic cells that are being put on householders’ roofs?

My hon. Friend might catch your eye, Mr Speaker, a week today during Department of Energy and Climate Change questions, but in the meantime I will alert the Secretary of State and ask him to write to my hon. Friend.

The Leader of the House will be aware of the recent report showing that 20% of FTSE 100 companies do not have any women on their board and that it will take 20 years before one in three executives are women, so may we have an urgent debate to show everyone outside that this House believes in positive action and not just positive words?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a speech about this a few days ago, urging the FTSE companies to do even better. As for a debate, the hon. Lady may wish to raise the matter with the Backbench Business Committee or, indeed, to apply to you, Mr Speaker, for a debate in Westminster Hall, so that we can have a proper discussion of this important issue.

The East of England strategic health authority published an independent review into Downham Market health centre, which found serious failings in oversight by the authorities, as no action was taken after four serious incidents at the health centre. I am very concerned that, as yet, no individuals have been held to account for those failures. Please may we have a statement from the Health Secretary on the steps he will take to ensure that people are accountable?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern to make sure that anyone guilty of misdemeanour is held accountable. This is a matter for the local NHS, and I understand that NHS Midlands and East is working with NHS Norfolk and the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust to take forward the report’s recommendations. I have been assured by NHS Norfolk that there will be accountability for the failings to which she refers.

When we discuss the Localism Bill next week, will the Government give a guarantee that the protections against the sale of playing fields—school playing fields or public playing fields—will still be in place? At the moment, there is nothing in the Bill to protect those playing fields.

The debate next Thursday is not on the Bill as such—it is on the policy framework—but the hon. Gentleman will be able to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, and raise those issues. In the meantime, I will alert the relevant Secretary of State to the fact that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the disposal of playing fields and that he is anxious that proper protection should be in place to ensure that children and others have access to recreational facilities.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in Government time on the report by the British Hospitality Association, which was published today and which was mentioned in The Times? The report calls for a reduction in VAT in the sector, as happens in many European countries, which would benefit all seaside towns, including my own, and greatly help local tourism in this country.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about the impact of VAT on the hospitality sector, particularly in his constituency. He will know that taxation matters are for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who will be coming to the House in November, as the shadow Leader of the House said. When he does so, my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to press him on the issue.

The Leader of the House announced a shorter week in November when detailing the calendar. Will he confirm that the Prime Minister will account to the House on 15 November, which is during that week?

If the House is not sitting on a particular day, it is difficult for the Prime Minister to come to be held to account. I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I congratulate on his appointment to the Opposition Whips Office, that the Prime Minister has made more statements from this Dispatch Box than his predecessor, that he has stood here, on some occasions for hours on end, being held to account by the House and that he has appeared before the Liaison Committee, so my right hon. Friend has no fears about coming to the Dispatch Box to answer questions.

The Leader of the House will be well aware that lots of colleagues on the Government Benches were very concerned about the impact of the proposed pension reforms on a particular group of women. I welcome the idea that we will have some movement on that and a statement today. As this is such a vital issue, perhaps he could expand on what the Government are going to do. Will we see amendments to the Pensions Bill next week?

Yes, it is probably easiest if I refer my hon. Friend to the written ministerial statement, which sets out the amendments that are being tabled today. It states:

“The amendment to Clause 1 will ameliorate the increase in State Pension age for around 245,000 women and 240,000 men and reduce total savings from the increase to 66 by around £1.1 billion…It maintains our policy to equalise the State Pension age for men and women in 2018 and increase to 66 by 2020.”

My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to intervene in that debate, but I note that she welcomes the fact that the Government have listened to the concerns that have been expressed and taken steps to mitigate the impact on women of the increase in the state pension age.

The Leader of the House will, I hope, be aware of this week’s damning report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which predicts that an additional 500,000 children will be living in absolute poverty by 2015 as a direct result of this Government’s policies. May we have an urgent debate on the Government’s abject failure to keep their promise to end child poverty?

The hon. Lady will know that progress towards the target of eliminating child poverty by 2020 stalled under the previous Government. We remain committed to that target. The universal credit will take 600,000 adults and 450,000 children out of poverty, as the IFS said. The report also examined tax and benefits, but did not look at some of the broader things that the Government are doing, for example, in the Work programme. I am sure that she will be pleased to hear that we remain committed to the target of eliminating child poverty by 2020.

I am chairman of the all-party group for motor neurone disease, and the group has recently produced a report on access to care for those suffering from the disease. It is a dreadful, devastating disease; would it be possible to have a debate on access to palliative care for sufferers?

I commend the work that the all-party group—my hon. Friend and other Members from both sides of the House—have done to emphasise the importance of palliative care for those who suffer from motor neurone disease. I think it would be an excellent subject for a debate in this House, either nominated by the Backbench Business Committee or in Westminster Hall. The Government would very much like to hear more about the report to which my hon. Friend has just referred.

In answer to my written question yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), told me that he would not be considering plans put forward by staff at Crosby coastguard that would save the Government money on plans for a new maritime operations centre. The Crosby plan would use existing buildings and makes revenue savings, too, whereas the Government plan is for a new build. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any plan that saves the Government money should at least be evaluated, not disregarded before such an evaluation takes place, and will he ask his colleague to reconsider his decision?

Of course, the Government are interested in all options that might save money, and I will put that option to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Order. I remind the House that we are very pressed for time and I am not likely to be able to call many more Members, so there is a premium on brevity if we are to maximise the number of contributors.

I have recently been dealing with a case on behalf of two constituents who were dismissed from their jobs with a commercial cleaning firm called Jani-King, allegedly for being British. May we have a debate on discrimination against British workers in this country?

If anything illegal has taken place, I hope the appropriate authorities will be notified. I shall share my hon. Friend’s concern with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and see whether anything irregular has taken place.

There are reports that up to 60 NHS hospitals face serious financial difficulties due to the new burdens being imposed by NHS reforms. As there are risks that such trusts could be taken over by private sector health interests, may we have an urgent debate or an urgent statement, so that we can take some action before the situation becomes terminal?

No trust can be taken over by a private sector concern, but I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that any financial problems confronting his trust or other trusts would be even worse without the extra resources committed by this Government, which his party opposed.

My hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) recently received a written answer from the hon. Member who represents the House of Commons Commission showing that the marginal costs of the House sitting for just two weeks in September could be £1.5 million on an ongoing basis. May we have a debate on the merits of moving the party conference season to save that money for the public purse?

I thought my hon. Friend was going to suggest abolishing the party conference season, which might have received an even greater cheer—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!] He raises a serious issue, in that the party conference season imposes some constraints on the parliamentary calendar, and I shall bring his remarks to the attention of the chairmen of my party and the opposite numbers in the parliamentary Labour party and the other parties—[Interruption.] We have a chairman and a chairwoman. I shall see whether there is any emerging consensus on the treatment of political conferences in the future.

I note that the Leader of the House passed very hastily over the answer to the first question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) today about the meetings between Adam Werritty, Ministers and members of Downing street staff. Will he assure us that that information will be made promptly available and that if there is anything of substance in it, it will be the subject of a statement to the House?

I do not think it makes sense to have a running commentary on the inquiry by the Cabinet Secretary into the Secretary of State for Defence and related matters. I have said that the inquiry will deal with all unanswered questions and outstanding issues, and the sooner it is brought to a conclusion, the better. In the meantime, I think it is sensible to avoid speculation.

In 1997 the incoming Prime Minister said that his priorities were “education, education, education”, yet 14 years on, a publication has shown that in reading, 15-year-olds in our classrooms are a year behind those in our competitor countries. May we have an urgent debate on the actions that the Government will take to remove this appalling legacy for the people whose future has been prejudiced?

I would welcome such a debate. Some of those issues were touched on in the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education on Monday. I would welcome further opportunities to debate the steps that we are taking to drive up standards of education in our schools.

Following the riots in the summer, the Prime Minister announced a cross-departmental review of gangs and serious youth violence. A strategy is due to be published this month. Can the House have a debate on this vital issue in Government time?

There will be a debate this afternoon in Westminster Hall on the riots, and the hon. Lady might like to go to that and to ask that question. She is right to say that there is an ongoing report into gang violence and related issues, and I hope that it will be made available in the relatively near future.

Well over 2,000 early-day motions have been tabled in this Parliament so far, and it is estimated that they cost the taxpayer around £1 million each and every year. Given that in the last year we had a spending review that carefully considered every aspect of public expenditure, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right that we should now have a debate to examine the cost-effectiveness and value of early-day motions?

It is suggested that my hon. Friend table an early-day motion to abolish early-day motions. He is not alone in believing that the costs of the current arrangements outweigh the benefits, but on the other hand many people place some value on early-day motions. Any debate on early-day motions should take place in Backbench Business Committee time and be informed by the views of the Procedure Committee; its Chairman was in his place a few moments ago, and I shall draw those remarks to his attention.

There are only three more days allocated for private Members’ Bills before the end of this Session, but there are 96 such Bills now tabled for consideration on those days. Some of them are completely and utterly bonkers, because, frankly, they come from Members whose grasp of reality is somewhat strained anyway—[Interruption.] Mine is splendid, obviously. As only one more of those Bills is likely to become law in this Session, does that not show that the system for examining private Members’ Bills is now completely bust? We need to reform it. Before the Leader of the House says that that is up to the Chair of the Procedure Committee, could he please show some leadership on this matter in his remaining weeks as Leader of the House, as he will have to hand all the business over to the Backbench Business Committee by the start of the third Session?