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Business of the House

Volume 537: debated on Thursday 8 December 2011

The business for the week commencing 12 December will be:

Monday 12 December—General debate on immigration. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister plans to make a statement on the EU Council.

Tuesday 13 December—Motion to approve the chairman of the Statistics Board, followed by proceedings on the Charities Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to financial restrictions (Iran), followed by Opposition day [un-allotted day] [half-day]. There will be a debate relating to Europe. This debate will arise on a Democratic Unionist party motion.

Wednesday 14 December—Motions on Standing Orders relating to ways and means and supply, followed by motions relating to scrutiny of draft orders under the Public Bodies Bill [Lords], followed by Opposition day [un-allotted day] [half-day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 15 December—Motion relating to the recommendations of the Members’ Expenses Committee report on the operation of the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, followed by, motion relating to financial education. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 December will include:

Monday 19 December—General debate on apprenticeships.

Tuesday 20 December—Pre-recess Adjournment debate. The format will be specified by the Backbench Business Committee.

Colleagues will also wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on 20 December.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 December 2011 will be:

Thursday 15 December—Debate on Remploy.

We have all been captivated this week by the images of the arrival of two giant pandas at Edinburgh zoo. Is the Leader of the House alarmed to realise that there are now more giant pandas in Scotland than there are Conservative MPs? Before the Deputy Leader of the House gets too comfortable, let me say that, given his party’s poll ratings in Scotland, it looks like its MPs are going to be joining the endangered species list north of the border as well.

In 20 years in this place, I have never known business statements to contain so little legislative substance, especially so early in a Parliament. There has been little even resembling Government legislation in this place for weeks now. Will the Leader of the House explain why the Commons is twiddling its thumbs while the Lords teeters under the weight of badly drafted, highly controversial and ill-thought-out legislation? Was this part of the plan? Before he blames the Opposition, the snow or the royal wedding, analysis shows that thousands of Government amendments and endless Liberal Democrat speeches are causing the logjam in the Lords. Why is the Government’s legislative programme so out of balance and why can they not manage it better?

Talking about incompetence, on Tuesday the Government lost their first vote in the House of Commons amid chaotic scenes as panic-stricken Government Whips first dragged their MPs out of the Aye Lobby and then shoved them back in again. By the time the doors were locked, Hansard shows fewer than a quarter of Government MPs were actually in the Lobby with just three Cabinet Ministers for company. I have to say that neither the Leader of the House nor his Deputy were among them. Thankfully for the Leader of the House, neither was the Chief Whip.

I understand that when this defeat was announced, the cheers from the Carlton Club were even louder than those from Opposition Benches. What an ominous sign for the Prime Minister on his way to Brussels. Whether the Leader of the House likes it or not, this place has expressed a clear view by a majority of 134 that we require more time to debate this Government’s failing economic policy. Will the right hon. Gentleman now honour the clearly expressed wishes of this House, by scheduling further Government time for debate on the economy in the very near future?

This week, the Deputy Prime Minister vowed to go into the next election with a plan to means-test free bus passes and TV licences for millions of pensioners. Is that what his newly appointed “brand advisers” meant when they told him to act more like Oxfam? Some 9 million pensioners now want us to have a debate on whether this is Government policy. Will the Leader of the House oblige?

On Tuesday, a former Conservative Member of this House was caught on camera boasting of his access and influence at the heart of Downing street. This follows the still unanswered questions on the Werritty affair. In Opposition, the Prime Minister said that lobbying was the

“next big scandal waiting to happen.”

The Minister responsible gave a firm promise to the House that there would be a consultation document on the regulation of the lobbying industry by the end of November. Given that it is now December and next week is the last full parliamentary week before the recess, will the Leader of the House confirm that the promised consultation paper will be published next week?

Tory divisions on Europe have exploded into the open. The Prime Minister got a Euro-mauling from his own Back Benchers yesterday and the Eurosceptics are out on manoeuvres. Meanwhile, Cabinet Members are openly at war: the Work and Pensions Secretary is reportedly issuing threats over the phone; the Northern Ireland Secretary has taken to the airwaves demanding a referendum and the leader in waiting at City Hall is madly stirring the pot.

We have a Tory grass-roots rebellion, a Cabinet divided and a Prime Minister isolated. Will the Leader of the House inform us what is different from the last Tory Government that he served in?

My party plans to overtake the population of pandas before the next election—[Interruption.] At the next election. In view of the fertility of pandas, that may not be a very high hurdle, but we do plan to do better than them.

As for the House twiddling its thumbs, I think that the hon. Lady demeans the debates that I have announced in the forthcoming week. There is a debate on Europe. What can be more topical than that? There is the Opposition-day debate. Are they going to choose something that is of no consequence? I am amazed that she has repeated the accusation that we heard last week. The fact is we have managed the business in the House of Commons much better than the outgoing Government. We have managed to scrutinise the Government’s legislative programme with adequate time. That programme is now in another place and we will deal with the Lords amendments in due course.

I am amazed that the hon. Lady raised the issue of the debate and vote on Tuesday. We provided a debate in Government time after the autumn statement. That is something that the previous Labour Government did not always do. We had the pre-Budget report, and we did not always get a debate in Government time. Having provided a debate in Government time, the Labour party then brought it to a premature conclusion by moving that it should stop before we reached 10 o’clock. It then complained that we did not have enough time to debate the motion. A number of Labour MPs who took part in the debate then solemnly went through the Division Lobbies to assert that they had done no such thing; that they had not considered the economy. At a time when we are trying to reconnect the House of Commons with the public, I wonder whether the sort of antics that the Labour party got up to on Tuesday really advanced our cause.

On benefits for pensioners, if the hon. Lady looks at the coalition agreement, she will see clear commitments on benefits to pensioners on bus passes and other issues and that remains the policy of the coalition Government.

I am amazed that the hon. Lady chose to raise the subject of lobbying. For 13 years, the Labour Government did nothing about lobbying. They ignored the recommendations of the Public Administration Select Committee, which reported in 2009. By contrast, we are actually doing something about lobbying. We will produce our consultation paper within the next few weeks, proposing a statutory register of lobbyists, which is something that the Labour Government consistently failed to do. On the question of boasting, I have to say that in the previous Parliament, there were ex-Labour Ministers who were boasting, while they were still Members of Parliament, of the influence that they had on Government.

Finally, on Europe, I gently remind the hon. Lady that when we had the vote on the referendum, her party was split as were all three parties. On the Government Benches, we are delighted that the person representing this country in Europe today and tomorrow is the Prime Minister and not the Leader of the Opposition.

I do not wish to fall out with Labour Members who represent Leicester constituencies but it is a long-standing fact that the queen of the east midlands is Nottingham.

There was good news today for the city of Nottingham, and that is good news for my constituency, which forms part of Greater Nottingham. Will the Leader of the House be so good as to find time for us to discuss cities and today’s good news for all the core cities?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Having listened to the exchange just now, I know that the announcement and the enfranchisement of local government were welcomed on both sides of the House. I cannot promise an early debate on the cities and I do not want to get drawn into the question of which is the principal city in the east midlands. There will be an opportunity to discuss this matter, however, on Tuesday week, during the pre-recess Adjournment debate, or she might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall. Furthermore, there will be the normal debate on the revenue support grant early in the new year.

I apologise in advance for not being able to stay for the whole of business questions today.

I would like to offer the Leader of the House the help of the Backbench Business Committee between now and such time as the Government’s legislation comes back from the House of Lords: we would be only too delighted to take responsibility for scheduling all debates on the Floor of the House between now and then. I hope that he will take us up on that generous offer. I also hope that he does not mind if I take this opportunity to make another public service announcement: hon. Members have until 6 pm on Monday to put in for the pre-recess Adjournment debate ballot.

We are grateful for the public service announcement. On the hon. Lady’s generous offer to replace me as Leader of the House, I gently point out to her that I have announced six days’ business in the next two weeks, three of which are Opposition days or Backbench Business days. I do not think that she will find a more generous offer in the history of Parliament.

Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on payday loans? It is an area of the financial sector that has not had that much coverage, but yesterday’s report showed that one in six people cannot afford to pay off the principal that they borrow. It seems that this area of the financial sector is acting in a fashion that is little more than loan sharking, particularly given that it preys on the financially vulnerable in our constituencies.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House of the report published yesterday. The Government are concerned about the impact of these high interest rates on the day-to-day life of those on low incomes. He might know that this issue was raised during a debate on 1 December in Westminster Hall. The Government have just commissioned research from Bristol university to find out what the consequences would be of introducing a cap on the interest rates. I hope that that will be available and published in the summer and that it will inform the debate. In the meantime, I urge people to think twice before taking on high-interest loans and to contact the free money advice service, possibly through their citizens advice bureau, or to visit their local credit union, which might be able to help on better terms.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 2506, which stands in my name and those of other hon. Members, and deals with the antisocial property speculation in my constituency of Mr R. Street of Woodhouses, Manchester and Associated British Foods, which for eight years have kept derelict a site among which large numbers of my constituents live.

[That this House expresses its disgust with Mr R. Street of Woodhouses, Manchester, landowner and Associated British Foods PLC, head lessee, whose avarice and lack of concern mean that land at the junction of Wellington Street and Cross Lane, Gorton, Manchester, remains a derelict eyesore, as it has been now for eight years, when community development is urgently required on this site; notes with anger and concern that large numbers of local residents in this heavily populated area have had to put up with this unacceptable situation for so long; calls on these greedy property-speculators to give up the land without delay so that it can be developed for community use; and further calls on the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and Manchester City Council to take all possible action to get these anti-social people to behave decently.]

It is a total disgrace that because of the greed and cupidity of these property speculators my constituents should have to put up with this. Will the Leader of the House refer the matter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government so that these people can be told that they cannot go on like this anymore?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have now seen early-day motion 2506, and I understand why he and his constituents feel strongly about the site. I note that at the end of the motion he calls on Manchester city council, as well as my right hon. Friend, to take all possible action, and presumably compulsory purchase order powers are available if desired. However, I shall do as he has suggested and bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

May we have a debate on the Freedom of Information Act? In my area, public bodies have been asked a range of questions, including on witches, werewolves, wizards, ghosts, vampires, zombies and demons. Even the star signs of local car thieves and the chief constable’s lottery choices have been asked for. It is a waste of time and money, and may we review it?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. The Government announced in January that they would review the FOI legislation. We are about to submit our evidence to the Justice Committee as part of the post-legislative scrutiny, and that scrutiny will touch on the issues that he has just mentioned—the costs imposed on those who have to respond to these requests. I hope very much that the Committee, once it has received our review of the FOI Act, can take the matter forward. Of course, we will be interested in any recommendations that it might make on changes to the legislation.

May we have a debate in Government time on the national lottery provider, Camelot, with a view to securing a constituency breakdown of where tickets are purchased, not just where lottery money is spent?

I understand that there will be an opportunity to ask that question of Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on 15 December. I also understand that the hon. Lady represents her party on the Front Bench so she is well placed to ask that question. I shall convey the question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and see whether we can get the information—I am pretty sure that it has been asked for before—on the relationship between the areas that buy the tickets and those that get the lottery investment. I shall do what I can to secure that information.

May we have a debate on penalties for swearing at police officers? The excellent new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has said that people should be properly punished for swearing at police officers, whereas the rather ridiculous Mr Justice Bean has recently quashed the conviction against somebody who swore at a police officer, saying that it was the kind of thing that they should expect. Given the widespread concern about the lack of respect in society, surely people should not be able to swear at police officers without punishment. A debate in the House could decide the will of the House.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. Having been on the police parliamentary scheme, which I am sure that many other hon. Members have been on, I understand the frustration that policemen experience when they are subject to abuse. My recollection is that it is not an offence, as such, to swear at a policeman, but that if, after someone has been warned, they carry on, they are liable to be arrested. However, I am not a lawyer and I shall get an authoritative response from the Lord Chancellor, which will be conveyed to my hon. Friend.

A couple of days ago, the renewables obligation banding review impact assessment was published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Unfortunately, in spite of meetings with officials and at ministerial level, the impact assessment has failed to address some of the issues relating to the wood and forestry industry in the United Kingdom, not least the impact on 150,000 jobs across some of the most rural parts of the UK. Given that the Leader of the House has so much time to be generous with, will he allow a debate in Government time on this important industry?

I understand the right hon. Lady’s concern, and I understand that the issue was raised—although perhaps not in precisely the form in which she expressed it—at DECC questions recently. I will share her concern with my right hon. Friend the Energy Secretary and see whether we can get a response on the impact assessment.

Many Government Members are passionate about the NHS, so may we please have a general debate on it, particularly given the recent problems at the Care Quality Commission and the variability in certain orthopaedic services?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The Government would welcome a debate on the NHS, during which we could explain the reforms that we are introducing to improve it and the extra resources that we are investing. I cannot promise a debate, but at some point the Health and Social Care Bill, which is in another place, will return to this place, and then there might be an opportunity for the sort of exchange to which he refers.

Given that the Government are in disarray over their legislative programme, do we not have an opportunity to have some pre-legislative scrutiny so that we do not end up in the position we found ourselves in with the Health and Social Care Bill, when it had to be paused?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady remembers the previous Parliament, but in contrast to it the legislative programme in this Parliament is a model of order. She made a serious point about more legislation being introduced in draft. We will do that. I think that we plan to introduce nine draft Bills this Session, which is double the number at the beginning of the previous Session. It is the objective of the coalition Government to have more pre-legislative scrutiny and more Bills introduced in draft. We think that that leads to a better scrutiny process in the House of Commons.

May we have a debate on the rights of children to proper and equal access to their grandparents? In a few moments, I and a number of other MPs will join the Grandparents Association—a charity based in Harlow—to take a petition to No. 10 Downing street calling for children to be given that right in law?

I applaud the work of the Grandparents Association to achieve positive outcomes for grandchildren, and I hope that my hon. Friend will get a positive response to the petition that he is about to present. In the context of what the coalition Government are doing to strengthen the family, we of course want to see what more we can do to strengthen the rights of grandparents, particularly where there is family breakdown.

I wonder whether the Leader of the House is aware of the growing concerns about the potential implications of changes to tax credits for couples who work only 16 hours in the week. Last week’s Westminster Hall debate on the issue was well attended, and it was clear that many more Members wished to speak than could do so in the time available. Will the Leader of the House therefore consider allocating some time during Government business to consider the issue and allow the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to give fuller responses than she was able to give in that debate?

I understand the hon. Lady’s concern. She will know that the Welfare Reform Bill is in another place. It may be appropriate to raise such issues when the Bill returns to this House. However, I would point out that by next April the child tax credit will have risen by £390, so against a difficult background we have tried to help the sorts of families to whom she has referred.

The Leader of the House will have noticed that the number of questions submitted by MPs to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Secretary of State for Transport has risen to about the equivalent of those submitted to the main Departments, which give an hour’s worth of responses from Ministers, rather than three quarters of an hour. I wonder whether the Leader of the House will consider raising the time to an hour, to ensure that the farmers and everyone with transport problems in my constituency, including young people, will have a chance to hear some answers.

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I wonder whether she has been able to identify which Department might have less time, in order to accommodate the extra time for the Departments that she mentions.

Excel, a new car park operator in my constituency, has gridlocked my office with complaints. Shoppers, local traders and taxi drivers think that they have been unfairly hit by hefty penalty charges. We should consider a licensing system and an independent appeals service to improve car parking management. May we have a debate on driving up standards for car parking operators?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. I think that legislation banning the clamping of cars on private property has gone through the House and will come into effect next year. I hope that that is a step in the direction that he wants, but I will raise his broader concerns with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

A total of 17 babies die every day in Great Britain, with 11 stillborn and the others dying within four weeks of birth. SANDS, the campaigning charity in this area, is currently holding an exhibition at the Oxo gallery to highlight the care available for parents who suffer this tragedy. I had a Westminster Hall debate on stillbirth about six months ago, and I have been trying hard to get a debate, in Westminster Hall or otherwise, on the certification of a stillbirth, which is a Home Office matter. May we have some Government time to discuss the issue?

The Government are anxious to improve the perinatal mortality rates to which my hon. Friend has referred. I hope that the investment in midwives will help to bring that figure down. I will pursue his specific question about statistics with the Home Office, if that is the right Department, and see what can be done on that front. As he will have heard, there will also be an opportunity to debate the matter further in the pre-recess Christmas Adjournment debate.

May we have an urgent statement about why the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) is privately telling the Care Quality Commission to press ahead with the takeover of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, while publicly saying that he is still consulting and considering options? Surely that is unreasonable, in a judicial review sense, and bad government.

It might be unreasonable if it were true. I would like to make some inquiries, but I assume that what my right hon. Friend says in public is what is the case.

Many local authorities in Wales have accepted demands from trade unions not to dock the pay of striking workers until January or February. May we have a statement to ascertain the Government’s position on using taxpayers’ funds to provide unions with a “strike now, pay later” option?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. So far as the Government are concerned, we have had no approach from the civil service trade unions to do what he describes, and we are not aware of a general approach from the public sector trade unions. However, I very much agree with what he has said, and if we were approached, we would say that it is not appropriate to pay people for work that they have not done at this or any other time of year.

May we have a debate on the double whammy that the music industry is imposing on small and medium-sized enterprises? Currently, both Phonographic Performance Ltd and the Performing Right Society are demanding significant amounts of money from small and medium-sized enterprises simply for playing the radio on premises that are accessible to the public. Will the Leader of the House raise the matter with the appropriate Minister, so that we can have some clarity about what powers such organisations have to demand such amounts from small and medium-sized enterprises?

The Government are sympathetic. We want to deregulate, and the regime that the hon. Gentleman has described is the one that we inherited. There will be Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions in a week’s time, but if this is a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issue—which it may well be—I will raise it with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. The hon. Gentleman might like to be here in a week, and I will ensure that whichever Minister answers his question is well primed.

Leek further education college in my constituency has been providing excellent skills-based training to young people for over 100 years. It is now in negotiations to become part of the university of Derby, so that, for the first time ever, both further and higher education will be available to young people in Staffordshire Moorlands. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how we can help all young people with educational aspiration, including those in Leek?

I welcome that initiative, which is to have on one campus the two institutions to which my hon. Friend has referred. We are trying to reform vocational education to ensure that there are high-quality alternatives to academic subjects, such as the ones that she has mentioned, and to remove all the perverse incentives to push pupils into lower-level qualifications that might not improve their employment prospects. I am delighted to hear of the initiative to which she has referred.

A total of 179 gallant British soldiers died in Iraq as a result of a decision of this House that was based on a deception. Some 383 died in Helmand as a result of a decision that was based on the hope that not a shot would be fired. When can we debate early-day motion 2515, in order to discuss the dreadful threat of a potential war in Iran actually happening?

[That this House is alarmed that the UK is stumbling towards a war in Iran that would have dreadful, unforeseeable consequences; recalls that in the past the momentum of preparations for war has frequently led to major wars; and urges the Government to seek to reduce tension, pursue conflict resolution and cease war preparations.]

The current war of words might become a war of weapons.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about those who lost their lives in conflict. We had a debate in Government time relatively recently on a range of countries that included Iran—I am not sure whether he was able to take part in that debate—so I cannot promise another early debate on the middle east and related areas. As I said earlier in response to another question, he may want to put in for the pre-Christmas recess Adjournment debate or apply for a debate in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate in Government time about the state pension? In addition to the record cash increase announced this week, which I know pensioners have welcomed, the Government are proposing two other alternatives in their White Paper for reform of the state pension age, as the state pension is the foundation of the retirement income of 100% of our constituents.

I would welcome such a debate. In the debate on Tuesday, a number of my hon. Friends drew the House’s attention to the generous pension increase next spring and reminded the House of the triple guarantee that we have introduced. My hon. Friend also trails the next development in pension policy, which I think will be warmly welcomed by pensioners in this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is taking that policy forward.

I could never fall out with the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), even if she will not accept that Leicester is the superior city. May I ask the Leader of the House about the scheduling of economic debates? He knows, of course, that the Government lost a vote. When we have a Budget, we have four or five days of debate immediately afterwards, as well as on the day of the statement. May we have a similar arrangement for autumn statements, so that we have debate on the day and perhaps for the following one or two days?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had time to read the recommendations of the Wright committee, but we have done exactly what it recommended—namely, to provide in Government time a debate after the autumn statement. I drew to the attention of the shadow Leader of the House the fact that that was not a practice that had been adopted by a previous Government when we had a debate on the pre-Budget report only in response to a Standing Order request from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), now the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Yesterday an important report on atrial fibrillation was published. AF is a condition that, through lack of awareness, leads to a huge number of deaths and disability as a result of the much increased risk of strokes. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have an opportunity to raise awareness of atrial fibrillation by having a debate on the Floor of the House?

The Government are anxious to improve the diagnosis, detection and treatment of atrial fibrillation. Some work is going on at the moment to identify those at risk so that they can be helped at an earlier stage. We work closely with the Atrial Fibrillation Association and the Stroke Association on this issue. I will draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health my hon. Friend’s interest in this subject.

Despite improvements, many 11-year-olds in Tamworth go into secondary school with a reading age of eight, which severely limits their learning opportunities. May we have a debate on innovations in education, particularly on vertical integration between primary and secondary schools, which is being examined in Tamworth and can help to identify the problems and encourage the aspirations of many young people?

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says, and I assume his local education authority would be the appropriate body to approach about merging those two types of schools. I hope that my hon. Friend will take comfort from what we are doing with the academies programme, driving up standards and putting parents and teachers in power, and what we are doing with free schools, which I hope will improve the education of those children to whom he referred, who are leaving school without the qualifications they need.

The Government are investing heavily in improving broadband capacity, which can bring about some great innovations such as home working and flexible working that can enhance the work-life balance. May we have a debate on such issues to encourage as many private sector employers as possible, following on from Government initiatives, to enhance the work-life balance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The roll-out of broadband is a priority for this Government, and I know that BT is doing a lot of work in this area. I will share with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the particular point that my hon. Friend has made and will ask him to write to him.

Local and regional newspapers are gutted that they cannot get accreditation for the Olympics. May we have a debate about how we open up the vast media centre at the Olympic site to newspapers from across our country?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There will be an opportunity to raise that issue at Culture, Media and Sport questions in a week’s time, and I will forewarn my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that my hon. Friend is on the warpath on this issue.

Just as religious fundamentalism can be damaging to social cohesion, so can anti-religious fundamentalism as exhibited by the National Secular Society in its attempt to stop prayers before council meetings. Will the Leader of the House find time for a Government statement to ensure that councils remain free to have prayers where they so wish?

I strongly believe in local democracy, and I think that the decision to which my hon. Friend refers—on how to conduct council meetings and whether there should be a prayer before them—is very much one that should be taken by local councils. I hope that they will follow the example of this House, which has a short moment of prayer before we re-engage in normal hostilities.