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Business of the House

Volume 536: debated on Thursday 24 November 2011

The business for the week commencing 28 November will be:

Monday 28 November—General debate on political developments and security in the middle east, north Africa, the Sahel, and the horn of Africa.

Tuesday 29 November—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his autumn statement, which will be followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (Amendment) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Bodies Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to national policy statements relating to ports.

Wednesday 30 November—Opposition day (un-allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 1 December—Motion relating to BBC cuts, followed by a general debate relating to debt advice and debt management services. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 December will include:

Monday 5 December—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 6 December—General debate on the economy.

Colleagues will also wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on Tuesday 29 November.

I should like to begin by paying my own tribute to Alan Keen, whose death was announced to the House this week. He was a dedicated champion of his constituents. Many of us have happy memories of Alan, especially of the Tea Room football banter that we all shared with him. My thoughts go out to his wife Ann and the family at this very difficult time.

Mr Speaker, this week you let it be known in no uncertain terms that the leaking in advance of statements is a gross discourtesy to the House. On Monday, you warned the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the disclosure of his housing statement in the weekend papers. Less than 48 hours later, not only was the Government’s energy statement leaked, but the fact that there was to be a statement at all was tweeted to the world half an hour before the Secretary of State could be bothered to inform his opposite number or the House. Can we now take it that it is the Government’s intention to replace the Order Paper with the Twitter feed of The Guardian? Does the Leader of the House deplore this behaviour, and will he give me a personal assurance that it will never happen again?

On housing, the Government’s rushed-out PR blitzkrieg on Monday came the day before official figures, which they will have seen, showed a complete collapse of housing starts across Britain from 32,000 to just 454 across the entire country. In my own region of the north-west, not one single housing start was made. Monday’s cynical choreography was clearly designed to bury bad news. May we have a proper debate on the worsening housing crisis now that the full facts of the Government’s failure have been revealed?

Two weeks ago the right hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell me that

“the Queen’s Speech will be held in May to coincide with the fixed election dates”.—[Official Report, 10 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 454.]

But last week his counterpart in the other place, Lord Strathclyde, seemed to contradict him by saying that it could be in April. That is despite Government undertakings given by Lord Wallace during the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill that there would be a fixed day in May for the Queen’s Speech. Based on these assurances, Labour peers withdrew an amendment to the Bill which would have set the Queen’s Speech in May after local elections. Will the Leader of the House now clear up the chaos between the Government Front Benchers in the two Houses? Will he confirm that it is not his intention to stage the Queen’s Speech just ahead of election purdah? Surely he has no desire to put Her Majesty in an invidious position by using her in a politically partisan pre-election stunt in her diamond jubilee year?

Every week demonstrates that the Government’s economic policy is hurting but not working. The Office for National Statistics revealed a 3.5% real-terms fall in average incomes, while chief executives and directors enjoyed a 15% increase in median earnings this year alone. Meanwhile youth unemployment passed 1 million, showing the brutal price our young people are paying for the Government’s failed choices on the economy. Long-term youth unemployment has risen 77% since the Government scrapped the future jobs fund. As the economy continues to flatline, instead of Government action all we are hearing from the Prime Minister is his latest list of excuses. Last year it was the snow, this year it has been the royal wedding, civil servants, trade unions and employment rights—and now it is the eurozone. The Prime Minister is like an Eton schoolboy, facing rustication by his headmaster, who will say anything and blame anyone rather than take responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Will the Leader of the House now admit that these policies are not working and urge the Chancellor to announce an economic rethink that puts jobs first in next week’s autumn statement?

In opposition, the Prime Minister said that lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen, but after 18 months and the loss of a Cabinet Minister there is still no sign of the promised register of lobbying interests. Today there are disturbing reports that Ministers’ spouses and partners will remain free to lobby the Government for private companies under any new rules. This week, it was also revealed that a serving Conservative peer and ex-Chief Whip has been appointed UK representative for the Cayman Islands in order to oppose any further regulation of offshore tax havens. Will the Leader of the House tell us when the Government propose to address the increasingly urgent need for tough regulation in this area, and what is the Government’s position on serving Conservative peers lobbying against regulation of tax havens?

May I begin on a consensual note and endorse every word that the hon. Lady said about our former colleague Alan Keen? Our thoughts are very much with Ann and the family at this difficult time for them.

On the statements and announcements earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, in response to a point of order, explained the background to what happened on Monday. Inevitably, as a background to the housing statement, other organisations were involved and their consent was needed to make the statement. Therefore it was more difficult—although equally essential—for the Government to maintain strict confidentiality about the announcement. I confirm that I deplore any leaking of statements that should be made first to the House and I am happy to remind my colleagues of the ministerial code and what is expected by you, Mr Speaker.

We inherited a deplorable housing position. The outgoing Government admitted that they did not give it the priority that it deserved. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Lady will welcome the initiatives announced on Monday by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government to kick-start the housing market, to get public land into play and to make it easier for first-time buyers to buy their first home.

On the date of the Queen’s Speech, I said on 10 November:

“The Queen’s Speech will be announced in the usual way.”—[Official Report, 10 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 454.]

I am not in a position to confirm a specific date—as the hon. Lady knows, it is subject to progress in another place—but I can confirm that all constitutional proprieties will be observed come the state opening of Parliament.

The hon. Lady did not remind the House of what action the Labour party took to deal with executive pay and the widening differential between executive pay and average pay, to which I referred at the last business questions. As she will know, we are consulting on the matter—consultation ends tomorrow—and we welcome the High Pay Commission’s contribution. We are consulting on shareholder votes on executive pay, reforming remuneration committees, including the possibility of an employee representative, greater transparency and a much stronger link between pay and performance.

I was amazed that the hon. Lady had the nerve to mention lobbying. The outgoing Labour Government refused to implement a Select Committee recommendation of a statutory register of lobbyists. In the coalition agreement, we committed to introducing that register, and consultation on the proposals will begin shortly. We would welcome any advice that she might have.

Finally, the hon. Lady mentioned the economy. I was interested to read that apparently the Leader of the Opposition will say today:

“The biggest economic gamble in a generation has failed”.

I agree, and I am glad that he has seen the light. It was the reckless gamble that he and the shadow Chancellor took in the last Parliament that got us into this mess—borrowing beyond our means, claiming to have abolished boom and bust and completely failing to regulate the banks properly. Now they want to increase the deficit by more than £20 billion. It is their economic strategy that has failed the country—it is no wonder that the shadow Chancellor, by his own admission, is often to be found in tears.

Order. As usual, there is extensive interest. However, Backbench Business Committee business is to follow, and it is important that we allow adequate time for that. Brevity is therefore of the essence—and we will be led in that important exercise by Karen Bradley.

May we have a debate on the Work programme and the successes on the ground? Last month, I met Staffordshire Moorlands community and voluntary services, which had taken on 56 of the most difficult to place individuals and had already found full-time work for four and part-time work for two. It would be useful for colleagues to share these on the ground success stories.

I would welcome such a debate. It might be possible to have one after the autumn statement if there is a debate on the economy. I welcome the involvement of the voluntary sector in the Work programme. Citizens Advice, Mencap, the Prince’s Trust and Action for Blind People will be involved in delivering the Work programme and helping to find sustainable long-term jobs for those currently out of work.

On Monday, the Prime Minister promised a housing revolution. On Tuesday, the shocking statistics were released showing a 99% collapse in the building of affordable homes and homes for social rent. The code on the release of official statistics states that statistics should be released in a way that “promotes trust”. May we have a statement to the House on whether the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Housing and Local Government knew of those shocking statistics before on Monday offering the latest false dawn to the people of England?

The statistics to which the hon. Gentleman refers were put out by the Homes and Communities Agency on a date arranged some time ago, and it would have been wrong—it would have breached the code of practice on statistics—for any Minister to have referred to them on Monday.

Signs near motorway service stations read “Tiredness Kills. Take a Break”, yet parking companies are driving motorists back on to the motorways in contravention of those signs. Is it really the role of the state, through the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, to assist private parking firms that are at the limits of legality? May we have a debate on the matter? Perhaps the Home Affairs Select Committee could also investigate these rogue parking companies.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I hope he recognises that those signs perform a useful purpose in promoting safety on motorways by encouraging people to take a break rather than carry on driving. If there were any unauthorised benefit from those signs of the type that my hon. Friend has described, I would of course be happy to take it up with the Secretary of State for Transport.

The Metropolitan police have just announced that they have arrested their first suspect in computer hacking. This marks phase 2 of the hacking scandal. Does the Leader of the House think that there might be merit in having a debate, which would allow us to test the remit of the Leveson inquiry to see whether it is wide enough to incorporate this new sinister development as well as look at the recent revelation that the Mulcaire evidence file contains a suggestion that intelligence service profiles were part of his information?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information. If there has been an arrest, he will understand the difficulties of debating matters relating to it in this Chamber. He will know that the Leveson inquiry is sitting at this moment, looking at these issues, as is the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I hope that there will be adequate opportunities—both in the House and outside it—to pursue the agenda to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Will the Leader of the House grant us a debate as soon as possible on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the light of its recent report suggesting that the extreme weather events we were previously promised may not occur for another two or three decades and the release of several thousand more e-mails from the East Anglia university climate research unit showing that many scientists are privately lukewarmists rather than alarmists about the climate but are afraid to say so in public? Secondly, the IPCC system is being systematically abused and Government officials have been urging scientists to come out with evidence biased in the direction of alarmism lest the Government appear foolish—

Order. This is an abuse. The right hon. Gentleman is an immensely senior Member. He had heard my exhortation to brevity and wilfully defied it. It really will not do.

I understand my right hon. Friend’s strong views on this subject. He will know that a statement on related issues was given yesterday by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change when there might have been an opportunity for him to amplify his views. I cannot promise a debate in the short term, but I hope my right hon. Friend is successful in applying for a debate on this important subject in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment.

The report of the independent commission on and inquiry into the events that took place in Bahrain earlier this year was published yesterday. It shows what we all suspected and have heard about over the last few days—that psychological and physical abuse and torture took place there. In Monday’s debate, will the Foreign Secretary indicate the response of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to this very good report?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for bringing to the House’s attention this important report and what it says about the abuses and atrocities she mentioned. As she says, there will be a debate on Monday, and I will ensure that the Foreign Office Minister who handles the debate comes fully briefed to deal with the specific point that the right hon. Lady has raised.

Do the Government think that the European Union summit at the end of next week is of so little consequence that it does not require any discussion before it takes place? Does my right hon. Friend recall that there used to be a regular debate before each European summit? Why has that practice been abandoned? Do the Government think that nothing of consequence will be discussed at the summit?

The practice has been abandoned because of paragraph 145 of the Wright Committee report, which specifically mentioned the two pre-European Council debates that formerly took place in Government time. The Wright Committee recommended that that debate and the other set piece debates should be transferred to the Backbench Business Committee along with the time in which those debates took place. That has now happened. My hon. Friend should go to the Backbench Business Committee with his request for a debate on this particular matter. I have to say to him that it is not as though we have not debated Europe in this Chamber: we had a debate on the petition on the referendum; we had a motion to approve the budget on 8 November; we had a motion on Croatia on Tuesday; and we had a general debate on the UK chairmanship of the Council of Europe. It is not the case that these important issues have gone by default in the Chamber.

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament discussed the Act of Settlement, and there was broad and overwhelming agreement that the discrimination against Catholics must come to an end. When the Government consider sexual equality and the succession, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the House gets the opportunity to debate this ongoing discrimination against Catholics?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there will be a Bill on the royal succession, and I hope it will be possible to debate the important issues he has just raised in that context.

May we have a debate on the increasing level of crisis in the eurozone, following the news that yesterday even Germany, which everyone was hoping was going to bail out the eurozone, was able to find buyers for only two thirds of its debt bonds for the first time since it scrapped the Deutschmark and adopted the euro?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Government receive a wide range of advice on a number of matters, including the international economic situation and outlook. A range of contingency plans are in hand. It would be inappropriate to comment on what may or may not happen, however, or on the detail of that advice.

Two weeks ago we learned that the Home Secretary had ordered a secret pilot that left our borders unprotected. This week we learn that French company Eamus Cork Solutions, famed for sleeping guards and letting detainees wander off, has been given a contract to protect our borders, and the Government now want, at huge cost to the taxpayer, to fly volunteers in from Russia, South Africa and India to cover our borders. May we have a debate on the effectiveness of this Government’s UK border controls?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Select Committee on Home Affairs is currently conducting an inquiry into precisely the issue he raises. We take border control seriously. We are introducing a UK border agency. The situation we inherited from the outgoing Labour Government was less than satisfactory, and we are now putting the deficiencies right.

Given that striking public sector workers will in effect be saying next week that the rest of us should pay more tax to support their pensions, may we have a debate in Government time on their premature and irresponsible actions?

I endorse what my hon. Friend says about the impact of this strike. I hope that, even at this relatively late moment, many of those who are contemplating striking will not do so, as a strike would have a damaging impact on the economy. Negotiations on the pension deal are continuing. It is my view—and, I think, the view of many in this House—that it is a generous offer, striking a fairer balance between taxpayer and public sector employee. The best thing that could happen would be for those involved to accept the offer that is on the table, to call off the strike action and to get on with rebuilding the economy.

Witnesses before a Select Committee have said that the inquiry into the Werritty affair was rushed and inadequate, and possibly in breach of the ministerial code as it was not conducted by the only person who is the enforcer of the code: the independent adviser on ministerial affairs. As the inquiry was conducted for reasons of political expediency to avoid embarrassment for the Government, and as new evidence is available, should we not have a full legitimate inquiry conducted by the only person authorised to undertake it: Sir Philip Mawer?

No, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman did not intend to cast any aspersions on the person who carried out that inquiry, Sir Gus O’Donnell. It was a full inquiry; it was not rushed, as the hon. Gentleman implied, and I think it brought the matter to a satisfactory resolution.

May we have a debate on deportation? On occasions too numerous to mention, when I investigate through the UK Border Agency the immigration status of people who come to see me in my constituency surgeries, I discover that they had exhausted their possible remedies many years ago and had been told they had to leave the jurisdiction. They are exhorted to leave it voluntarily, but of course they have no desire to do so but want to stay in the UK indefinitely. Until we get to grips with the whole issue of people leaving the jurisdiction who have no right to be in the jurisdiction, we will never sort out the problem of immigration.

My hon. Friend is right, and he will know that in the last 15 months the Home Office has taken effective action and more people are now being deported than was the case in previous years. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration wants to make further progress, and I shall ask him to write to my hon. Friend setting out the further action we are taking to make sure that those who are not entitled to stay in the country leave it.

On 3 November I raised an issue in respect of the public duty costs allowance. Uncharacteristically, I have not yet received a response from the Leader of the House as to why £1.7 million has been paid to former Prime Ministers. That money has obviously gone through the Government’s books in some way, so may we have a list of exactly what duties were performed, and whether invoices and receipts had to be provided?

I am sorry if the hon. Lady has not received any information that she is entitled to. I will chase this matter up the moment these business questions finish, and make sure that she gets an answer from the appropriate Minister.

The TaxPayers Alliance has recently published a new and compelling report called “Industrial Masochism”, which demonstrates how the carbon floor price threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of British workers as energy-intensive businesses relocate overseas. Could we find time for an urgent debate on the impact of the Government’s climate change policies on British industry, so that workers in these vital manufacturing sectors can learn why their jobs have been sacrificed on the high altar of global warming?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he will know, following the statement by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change a document was published setting out the impact of climate change policies on households and industry. I think my hon. Friend will find that that document comes to a slightly different conclusion from the TaxPayers Alliance. I would welcome a debate on this matter, as would my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) who spoke a few minutes ago, but I cannot promise that we can find time for that in the near future.

Will the Leader of the House invite the Prime Minister to come to the House to explain why he did not feel the need to declare his land deal with a major Conservative party donor and lobbyist? Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), what is the point of having an independent standards commissioner if his advice is never sought?

The right hon. Gentleman might have put that question to the previous Prime Minister. On the first issue, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister took the necessary advice from those at No. 10, and that advice was that he did not have to register that particular piece of property. The information is in the public domain anyway because of the Land Registry.

There is real concern in Otley among staff, students and the local community about the conversion of Prince Henry’s to an academy. May we have a debate on the rules surrounding conversion to academy status, because at present it can be done on a single, even a casting, vote on the governing body, and consultation can simply be whatever the school says it should be? That is clearly unsatisfactory, and it needs to be changed.

I say to my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Those rules are—[Interruption.] Those rules—[Interruption.]

Order. It is very discourteous for all sorts of finger-pointing across the Chamber to take place. The hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) has asked—[Interruption.] Order. [Interruption.] Order. I am not looking for, or expecting—[Interruption.] Order. I am not looking for, or expecting, any response from the hon. Gentleman, and it is not for the hon. Gentleman to sit in his place shaking his head. The hon. Gentleman asked—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman had better watch himself very carefully. He has asked a question of the Leader of the House, and the Leader of the House is courteously responding. The hon. Gentleman will sit quietly and listen to that response. If he finds himself unable to do that, he knows what his alternative is.

The rules to which my hon. Friend refers are exactly the same as those that pertained under the previous regime, and which we inherited from the outgoing Government. I will draw his concern to the attention of the relevant Department and see whether there is any role for the responsible Minister to play, but I have to say that, by and large, conversion to academy status has been welcomed by local communities.

May we have a debate on Lords reform? I do not know whether the Leader of the House is a fan of “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!”, but would not one interim solution to the overcrowding he is causing down the other end of this building be a new reality TV show, perhaps called “Peer Pressure”, as that would provide an efficient and entertaining way to cull the rapidly increasing population of the unelected?

The hon. Gentleman may find that when his parliamentary career here finishes he does not end up in the upper House. I say to him that one of the problems that we inherited from the outgoing Government was the total failure—[Hon. Members: “Oh no.”] Oh yes. We inherited their total failure, after three elections where there had been overwhelming Labour majorities, to deliver on their election manifesto and reform the upper House. We have a draft Bill going through at the moment, which is being examined by a Joint Committee—I am sure that it will be interested in the hon. Gentleman’s views. The person who increased the size of the House of Lords more than anybody else was Tony Blair.

May I echo the call by the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on lobbying, particularly that by trade unions? Many of my constituents have expressed concern to me, as they feel that trade union cash should not buy a vote or an amendment in this House.

I would welcome such a debate. My view is that it would be in the interest of the Labour party to have a slightly weaker link with the trade unions. I think that many Labour Members, in their heart of hearts, believe that the pension deal on the table is a generous one which they would like to commend but cannot because of the links to which my hon. Friend has just referred.

Can the Leader of the House clear up his confusion over the Queen’s Speech? He had previously said that it would be in May. It was claimed that the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill would create a more predictable parliamentary timetable, and during its passage Lord Wallace, on behalf of the Government, committed them to May-to-May Sessions. Yet last week Lord Strathclyde referred only to “spring”, which we know means, in ministerial terms, from the first crocuses in February to sometime in the middle of June. The Leader of the House can clear this up now, so will the Queen’s Speech be in May—yes or no?

I refer to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle); we will announce the date of the Queen’s Speech in due course. If the right hon. Gentleman can be patient, he will find that the moment will come. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act fixes the date of the next general election in May 2015—that is a fixed event. The actual date of the Queen’s Speech between now and then depends on the progress of legislation. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will use whatever influence he has in the other place to make sure that the Bills before it complete their passage in good time.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the e-petition from my constituent Mr Colin Riches entitled, “Support The Best Policy for Children; give Both Parents Equality in Law”? May we have an urgent debate on the Norgrove report and ensure that fathers have equal access to children?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House’s attention to the independent review panel, which has just reported. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is considering all the recommendations in detail and will respond in due course. We want a family justice system that meets the needs of those at the heart of the system—the children.

May we have a debate to discuss the challenging of racism in politics? If such a debate were secured, I would like to raise the issue of the St Andrews university Conservative association burning an effigy of US President Barack Obama last Friday. Almost one third of students at the university are American. Does the Leader of the House believe that such incidents are conducive to Britain’s relationship with its closest ally?

I would condemn what happened in that particular club, and I hope that there is no repetition of that incident in any organisation associated with my party.

Please may we have a debate about exports and, specifically, the success of British exporters? The latest data for the first three quarters of this year show a 13% increase in exports, with faster growth in exports to the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—especially China.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to one of the ambitions of our economic policy, which is to switch the emphasis on growth from spending and borrowing to investment and exports. The fact that we are not in the eurozone enables us to have a competitive exchange rate, which in turn gives our exporters a head start over those in some other countries.

Are the Government delaying the Queen’s Speech because the economy is flatlining, because they have run out of ideas or because their legislation is so bad for Britain that they cannot get it through the other place? Are we ever going to have the Queen’s Speech?

The Government’s legislative programme has made good progress through this Chamber and is now in the upper House, where we are awaiting the Welfare Reform Bill, the Health and Social Care Bill and the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. I hope that those Bills will receive legitimate and proper consideration down there and then come back. When the Government have got their Bills through this House, it will then be time to give the date of the Queen’s Speech, but not until then.

May we have a debate on the maintenance of railway lines in Wales? The Conwy Valley railway line in my constituency should be maintained to route availability 7 standard. A commercial proposition to use the line to carry goods has been rejected because the line has not been maintained to that standard, thus costing jobs and investment which are much needed at this time.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question because, as a former Secretary of State for Transport, I am interested in promoting use of the railway. The issue that he has raised is a technical one for Network Rail, but I will raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to see whether we can make some progress and expand that route for the use to which my hon. Friend has just referred.

The Leader of the House must not keep hiding behind this wretched Wright Committee recommendation abolishing debates on Europe. I know that we have had specific debates on this and that, but the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is absolutely right to say that we need a broad debate on Europe, particularly at this stage of our historic relationship with the EU. The Backbench Business Committee carries out its Daily Mail rent-a-petition, rent-a-debate duties, but it is for the Government to provide time to discuss this vital issue for our nation’s future.

I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that if we had not implemented the Wright Committee’s recommendations, he might well have been one of the first to criticise us for going back on a clear election commitment. The fact of the matter is that the Government have given some of the power and patronage they used to have away. We have given it to the Backbench Business Committee, which gets roughly one day a week, and it is up to that Committee to decide what it does with that time. One set of debates that was handed over to that Committee, along with the defence debates, was the pre-European Council debates. The Committee has chosen not to have such a debate. That is a consequence of setting up the Backbench Business Committee and transferring the days to it.

The Leader of the House may be aware that Welcome to Yorkshire, the official tourism agency for Yorkshire, is due to lose its public funding in April 2012. May we have an urgent statement from the Minister for Tourism and Heritage, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), setting out what the Government might do to bridge this funding gap in the next financial year, in order to protect the Yorkshire tourism industry from potentially catastrophic circumstances?

As my hon. Friend will have discovered, other Members in the House think that their own county deserves generous support on funding tourism. Yorkshire was the county that received more cash than any other area of the country, and it is having to go through the same process as everyone else in adjusting to the new regime. It has an advantage, in that Yorkshire received £10 million of regional development agency funding for the financial year 2011-12, because of a three-year agreement between Welcome to Yorkshire and Yorkshire Forward, which other regions did not get. I can say to him only that there may be other sources of funding—the regional growth fund, the European regional development fund and the rural development programme for England—to which he may turn for assistance.

I would like to return to the issue of the housing statement and the Homes and Communities Agency figures. They show that in London the number of social rented homes started between April and September this year was just 56, which is 7,469 down on the figure for the previous six months. If the Government knew that the figures were going to be released on Tuesday, why was the statement not made on the same day?

The statement was made in its own right, independent of the statistics to which the hon. Lady refers, and I do not think that she should link them in the way that she has. I hope that she will welcome what was said on Monday, which was aimed at kick-starting the housing market and doing better than the outgoing Labour Government on housing starts and housing completions.

May we have a debate on the very long-standing regional disparity in rail ticket pricing, particularly given the welcome investment in rail infrastructure? Sadly, that will not directly benefit many of those living in the west country, who are at risk of becoming the poor country cousins on rail transport.

I have some sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend makes, because I sometimes see him on the same train as me when I go to my constituency. I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport the issue as to whether there is a disparity between ticket prices and investment in infrastructure, and see whether there is any role for her to play in getting a more level playing field.

The Business Secretary gave a speech yesterday on the dilution of employee rights. It was accompanied by a written statement in this House and a fleeting mention in yesterday’s Opposition day debate. He now seems to be indicating, through the media, that he did not agree with a word that he said in either his speech or his written statement. May we have an urgent statement in this House on the role of employee rights and what the Government’s intentions are by making it easier to fire employees rather than hire them?

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills was in the Chamber yesterday answering questions during his speech and he spoke in the House after he made his speech to the Engineering Employers Federation. We had an opportunity to cross-examine the Secretary of State only yesterday on precisely the issues that the hon. Gentleman has just raised.

Earlier this month, despite the considered statement of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 2 November, West Midlands ambulance service workers voted to strike next week, threatening to bring chaos to a service that deals in matters of life and death. May we have a debate on the implications of that strike, because I fear it will be very deleterious to the health of many people in the west midlands?

I hope that people in the west midlands have listened to my hon. Friend and will reflect before they go on strike, if that is what they are planning to do next Wednesday, and on the consequences for schools and, in some cases, for health. I hope that if the Labour party has any influence it might bring that to bear on the trade unions, condemn the strikes and persuade them to abandon them and accept the generous offer that is on the table.

The Leader of the House will be aware that a YouGov poll this week showed that 59% of people agreed with a total ban on smoking in cars with passengers, a view supported by the majority of all three major parties’ supporters. The British Lung Foundation, of which I know the Leader of the House is a supporter, says that 86% of parents support a ban when children are present. My ten-minute rule Bill on the subject is 10th on the list tomorrow and is likely to run out of parliamentary time. Will the Leader of the House please give some Government time so that we can debate that important issue and so that the House can make clear its view on a ban on smoking with passengers and children, and also on an outright ban?

I commend the hon. Gentleman’s work and that of the all-party group on smoking and health, which has played an active role in campaigning and was very influential in the last Parliament in making progress on the ban on smoking in public places. I cannot promise Government support for his ten-minute rule Bill—he will have to come along tomorrow and see what happens—and I see some difficulties in trying to enforce a ban on all smoking in cars. That might have to wait until public opinion has moved on.

May we have a debate on the equity of child benefit payments, particularly when parents are separated but still have joint child care responsibilities?

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. Sadly, more and more families are splitting up and there is an issue about whether the child benefit should go to one parent or another. I think I am right to say that at the moment it cannot be split. That is also the case with other child-related benefits. I will raise the question with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has responsibility for it, and see whether there is any way of coming to an arrangement whereby those benefits or tax credits are apportioned in a fair way to reflect the responsibilities that underpin them.

The Leader of the House has debating time on his hands. May we have a specific debate about the provision of social rented housing in this country? There are 20,000 people in Telford looking for rented housing in the social sector and thousands of them are in urgent need. May we have a debate as soon as possible on rented housing provision? We have heard already from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) about the collapse in the provision of new social rented homes and we need a debate urgently.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, I have announced that there will be an Opposition day. Perhaps his bid was heard by his friends on the Front Bench. He will also know that waiting lists doubled under the last Labour Government and that is the problem we are now trying to address.

The sympathy that my constituents feel for public sector workers who face a freeze in their pay and changes to their pension contributions will be significantly eroded by the inconvenience and worse that will be caused by the proposed strikes. May we have a debate on the legitimacy of those strikes, so that we can see whether Labour Members will stand up for their constituents or their paymasters?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We are trying to get a fairer balance between the public sector employees and the taxpayer, who pays a very large percentage of the pension contributions. My hon. Friend raises a good point. I detect public sympathy ebbing away from those who are planning to strike and they would do well to reflect on that before they go ahead with their action on Wednesday.

Would it not be useful to have a debate in the very near future on the obsessive hatred—there is no other way to describe it—that the Tory party has and always has had for the trade union movement? Trade unionists need no lectures about public service and patriotism from the Conservative party.

That is a travesty of my party’s view about trade unions. I was a member of a trade union until I was expelled and described as a “pin-striped bovver boy” by ASTMS, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, back in the 1970s. The trade unions have a legitimate role to play in this country but we think that the very strong links between the trade unions and one political party are unhealthy for that party.

Our constituents in care homes are among the most vulnerable we represent and the Care Quality Commission is supposed to be one of their guardians, yet its recommendations are not always implemented. May we have a debate on the important subject of how we protect those very vulnerable constituents?

My hon. Friend is quite right that sometimes action is not taken. The answer is that the Care Quality Commission has a range of enforcement powers at its disposal and his message is that it should use those more often to address the problems he has described. The CQC has a range of enforcement powers that it can use to bring a provider back into compliance and in the case of the most serious failings it can cancel a provider’s registration, which would simply result in that provider’s closure. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has emphasised to the CQC the importance of driving up standards and using all the powers at its disposal to do that.

May I press the Leader of the House? Given the shockingly low number of affordable housing starts—just 454 in the six months from April, a figure that was revealed the day after the Government’s much-trumpeted housing strategy—may we have a debate in Government time on the crisis in our construction industry?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government on Monday, which addressed the parlous state of the housing and construction industry we inherited, the action we are taking to bring public land back into use, the incentives we are giving to local authorities to develop and the help we are getting through building societies and banks for first-time buyers. We are taking effective action to kick-start the sluggish housing economy that we inherited.

The economy of my constituency is almost entirely made up of small and medium-sized enterprises, public support for which comes from both sides of the England and Wales border. Will my right hon. Friend programme a debate to discuss the future of SMEs and support for them, with particular reference to cross-border issues?

There will be an opportunity to debate that issue in the debate on the economy that I announced at the beginning of this question session. We are determined to make more resources available to SMEs and, as part of Project Merlin, the Chancellor announced that the banks intend to lend £190 billion of new credit to businesses, which is a significant increase on the £179 billion in the previous year. We are taking other action, such as reducing the corporation tax rate for small businesses. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s contribution to that debate and the response from Ministers will set out all the action we are taking to help SMEs.

Research reported last week has found that 10,000 babies are born each year damaged by smoking and the consumption of alcohol and drugs during pregnancy. Some 6,000 of those babies are affected by foetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Is it not time for the Government to make a statement on and bring forward proposals to deal with this tragic situation?

The Government are very anxious to drive down perinatal and antenatal mortality and we have taken a number of measures already to promote public health. The Health and Social Care Bill, which is now going through the House, will, I hope, make some progress in that direction. I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ask whether there is more we can do to diminish the number of babies who are born damaged or, sadly, die because of excess alcohol consumption by their mother.

Through the all-party parliamentary group for local growth, enterprise zones and local enterprise partnerships, it is clear that the organisations involved in enterprise zones understand the importance of opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises in enterprise zones. Seajacks in Great Yarmouth is likely to be the first organisation to go into an enterprise zone, highlighting how important SMEs can be for growth and job creation. May we have a debate in the Chamber on the importance of SMEs, particularly with reference to opportunities in enterprise zones?

I believe that my hon. Friend is the chairman of the all-party group and I commend him for his activity in that regard. I hope there will be an opportunity when we debate the economy to say a little more about SMEs. We have extended the level of small business rate relief for two years. We have a new fund of enterprise capital funds, which I hope will help, and there is also entrepreneur’s relief and other initiatives such as the enterprise finance guarantee, all of which I hope will help SMEs to grow and employ more people.

The National Audit Office has revealed the shocking statistic that £2 billion is owed to the Ministry of Justice by convicted criminals in outstanding confiscation orders and unpaid court fines. That figure is £400 million higher than in the previous year. Given that it is the policy of Her Majesty’s Government to reduce the number of people in prison and increase the number of criminals who are fined, may we have an oral statement from the Secretary of State for Justice, so that we can hold him to account for this shocking state of affairs?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. That figure has gone up because the courts are using the relevant provision more often than previously. Also, some of the confiscations are for very large sums indeed—I think there is one of £189 million—which explains why there has been an increase. I can tell my hon. Friend that a blitz on this, using a range of powers such as attachment of earnings, seizure of assets and other measures, is planned to try to get that figure down.

Last Sunday in Hungary, legislation was passed that withdrew recognition of Hinduism as a recognised religion in the country. That threatens not only people’s right to celebrate and worship in accordance with the religion of their choice but the land-ownings of people who celebrate that religion. So far, the Hungarian ambassador refuses to take delegations representing those Hindus in this country and, equally, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has been unable to intervene in this process. May we have an urgent debate in the House on the protection of religious minorities in countries where they are threatened in this way?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the issue. I understand that our ambassador would be very happy to meet him and talk it through, and that our ambassador has already raised the matter with the Hungarian authorities. As I understand it, the legislation is aimed not at discriminating against Hindus but at preventing quasi-religious organisations from benefiting from a tax break. It would be quite wrong if Hindus were penalised and I very much hope that the dialogue that my hon. Friend has with the ambassador will enable progress to be made and reassurances to be given to the Hindu community in Hungary.

The decision to extend small business rate relief until October 2012, which the Leader of the House has mentioned, has been hugely welcome in Pendle, where more than 1,000 small businesses fall into the relevant category and have benefited from paying either reduced business rates or none at all. May we have a debate on the success of that scheme and on what more the Government can do to support small businesses, which are the backbone of the British economy?

I very much hope that the Chancellor of the Exchequer tuned in and heard my hon. Friend make that bid, and that he is able to take it into account as he prepares his remarks for next Tuesday. As I have said, I hope there will be an opportunity to debate the extensive support that we are giving to SMEs when we have the debate on the general economy.

The Leader of the House will be aware that last year the House voted to raise the subsidy for post offices by up to £500 million, but there is no accountability to the House about how that money is spent, where it is spent and what criteria are used. May we have an urgent debate on that, because I believe that the Post Office is failing in its delivery of post offices, and we might be able to reopen the post offices in Wangford, Walberswick and Blythburgh?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I wonder whether this is a subject that the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills might look at and press with the Post Office. I will raise it with ministerial colleagues to see whether we can get some accountability for the large sum she has mentioned.