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Business of the House

Volume 540: debated on Thursday 23 February 2012

The business for the week commencing 27 February will be as follows:

Monday 27 February—Estimates day [4th allotted day]. There will be debates on funding for the Olympics and Paralympics, and on the Forensic Science Service.

Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Funding for the Olympics and Paralympics: Oral evidence taken before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 14 and 21 December 2010, HC 689 I and II, 17 May 2011, HC 689-III, 15 November 2011, HC 689-IV, and 24 January 2012, HC 689-V; Forensic Science Service: 7th report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 855; Government response—The Forensic Science Service, Cm 8215.]

Tuesday 28 February— Estimates day [5th allotted day]. There will be debates on transport and the economy and on preparations for the Rio plus 20 summit.

Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Transport and the Economy: 3rd report from the Transport Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 473; Government Response—4th special report from the Transport Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 962; Preparations for the Rio+20 summit: 8th report from the Environmental Audit committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1026; Government response—5th special report from the Environmental Audit Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1737.]

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 29 February—Second Reading of the Water Industry (Financial Assistance) Bill, followed by proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.

Thursday 1 March—Motion relating to CPI/RPI pensions uprating, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The subject for these debates has been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

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

Monday 5 March— Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 1, 8 and 15 March 2012 will be:

Thursday 1 March—Debate on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.

Thursday 8 March—Debate on the common agricultural policy after 2013.

Thursday 15 March—Debate on the effectiveness of UK Trade & Investment.

I thank the Leader of the House for his statement.

Every time that I have raised the question of the Health and Social Care Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has claimed that he supports it, and I was beginning to worry that he might actually be a true believer in it. So I was delighted to read that Downing street sources had fingered him as one of the Cabinet’s heroic three who had briefed Conservative Home about their opposition to the Bill. May I welcome him to a just cause? He joins the company of patients, doctors, nurses, midwives, royal colleges and health managers—in fact, he joins just about anyone who has anything to do with the NHS. These are all the people who were locked out of No. 10 when the Prime Minister held his self-styled “summit” on Monday, which was just another public relations stunt from a Prime Minister who thinks that that is what his job is about. A year ago, the Prime Minister said he had to listen to those in the NHS, but now he shuts the door on them if they dare to disagree with him.

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), explaining all this away, said that we should ignore the views of the royal college because general practitioners had been opposed to Labour’s 1948 Bill founding the NHS. That was not the best argument for a Conservative MP to advance, because if Labour had listened to the Conservatives then, there would be no NHS today. The Conservative party was wrong then and it is wrong now, so will the Government see sense, listen to even the Leader of the House and drop the Health and Social Care Bill.

Fifteen Liberal Democrats signed early-day motion 2659, which states:

[That this House expects the Government to respect the ruling by the Information Commissioner and to publish the risk register associated with the Health and Social Care Bill reforms in advance of Report Stage in the House of Lords in order to ensure that it informs that debate.]

Yesterday, there was an almost identically worded motion on the Order Paper, but astonishingly only four Liberal Democrats joined us to vote for it—the rest abandoned their principles and shamefully scurried through the Government Lobby or sat on their hands. This week, Russian scientists announced they had grown an extinct plant from seeds frozen in the permafrost for the past 30,000 years. Liberal Democrats have clearly decided to put their principles into a similar deep freeze. Let me tell them that they are kidding themselves if they think they can store them away until the next election.

There are rumours going around that the Deputy Prime Minister, who astonishingly did not turn up to vote last night, is encouraging Liberal Democrats in the Lords to wreck the Health and Social Care Bill. So will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on coalition unity, to give Liberal Democrats a chance to make up their minds on whether they are in the Government or not? They cannot be a bit of both.

The House was grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing the forthcoming parliamentary calendar. The Government are planning for the House to rise on Tuesday 27 March, Tuesday 17 July, Tuesday 18 September and Tuesday 13 November. In total, two thirds of the days on which the House has risen since the election have been Tuesdays. Will the Leader of the House now find time for a debate on why the Government are so keen for the House to rise on Tuesdays? The Prime Minister operates a lock-out policy at No. 10 for his health critics, he cannot stand criticism, he gets rattled at the Dispatch Box and now it looks very much like he is running away from Prime Minister’s questions at every opportunity.

Today, Royal Bank of Scotland has announced that its losses doubled last year. There have been 3,500 job cuts and front-line bank staff have been offered a 1% pay rise. With ordinary families struggling, can it be acceptable that RBS is planning to pay £400 million in bonuses to top bankers—from a state-owned bank? Is that the Government’s definition of “We’re all in this together”?

I am pro-fairness, not anti-business.

The House was conveniently in recess when last week’s appalling unemployment figures came out, and when the next figures are due the Prime Minister is out of the country. The Prime Minister runs away from engaging with health critics, he cannot face talking about the economy and he has no solution to the unemployment crisis. So will the Leader of the House now find time for a debate on the economy so the Government can explain their failing economic policies?

This is a Government led by a Prime Minister who dodges Prime Minister’s questions and a Deputy Prime Minister who spends most of his time attacking the Government of which he is a member. Their disastrous economic policy has resulted in unemployment at its highest level for a generation and their health policy is opposed by just about everyone who works in or cares about the NHS. No wonder recesses cannot come fast enough for the Government.

I was waiting for the question about the business, but it did not come.

May I begin by disappointing the hon. Lady? There was no truth in the rumours to which she referred at the beginning of her remarks. I have supported the Health and Social Care Bill publicly and privately and continue to do so. Once again, she asked us to drop the Bill. Does she really want us to drop clauses 22 and 25, which put in law for the first time a duty on the NHS to tackle health inequality? Does she want that dropped? Does she want clause 116 dropped, which will prevent discrimination in favour of private health companies over the NHS the first Bill to do so? Does she want to abolish part 1, which is all about integrating health and social care? Does she want to stop local authorities dealing with public health? The Opposition want to stop all sensible reforms and to drop our extra £12.5 billion investment.

On yesterday’s debate, I am delighted that Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament listened to the argument made by Members on the Government Benches and decided, on reflection, to oppose the Labour party’s motion. I gently remind the hon. Lady that I seem to remember an early-day motion in the last Parliament that was signed by a large number of Back-Bench Labour MPs. When it was debated in the House, they miraculously had the same sort of Pauline conversion and decided to support the Government, so she should be slightly more careful about the examples that she chooses. On the cohesion of the Government, I would say that this is a more cohesive Government than the Blair-Brown Government of which she was a member.

So far as Prime Minister’s questions are concerned, I have checked the figures and can tell the hon. Lady and the House that the number of Prime Minister’s questions per sitting day has risen in this Session compared with the last Session under the previous Administration. I say to the hon. Lady that the current Prime Minister is turning up for Prime Minister’s questions more often than his predecessor. His predecessor—[Interruption.]

Order. I am glad that the House is in a boisterous but, on the whole, good-natured mood, but I want to hear the answers from the Leader of the House.

The previous Prime Minister was absent from Prime Minister’s questions twice as often as the current Prime Minister has been and my right hon. Friend, who relishes his performances in the House, has made proportionately more statements to the House than his predecessor and has been at the Dispatch Box for well over 30 hours in so doing.

I remind the hon. Lady that, between 2001 and 2007, bank bonuses went up from £3.1 billion to £11.5 billion at a time when the banks were engaged in irresponsible lending and buying securities that turned out to be worthless. In 2009, the Labour party signed off £1.3 billion-worth of bonuses for Royal Bank of Scotland. That compares with the figure of below £400 million that was approved today, so that was also an unfortunate subject for her to raise.

Finally, on the economy, the International Monetary Fund has forecast the UK to grow twice as fast as Germany and three times as fast as France this year. After the Budget, we will have four days of debate on the economy, which Government Members look forward to with relish.

The Minister for Europe has placed a letter in the House of Commons Library, which is addressed by the permanent representative of the UK representation to the EU to the secretary-general of the Council of the European Union, and raises the question of the legality of the treaty on stability, co-ordination and governance, which was signed on 30 January. It states that the United Kingdom

“must reserve our position on the proposed treaty and its use of the institutions”.

In the circumstances, and given that I and others have raised the fact that there are serious questions about the nature and lawfulness of that treaty, and given that the Government appear to share the concerns on that issue, will the Leader of the House agree to have a debate in Government time for at least three hours next week to discuss the nature and lawfulness of that treaty?

I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed. I have just announced the business for next week and, sadly, there is not an opportunity to raise the specific issue to which he has referred. I cannot guarantee to find time in the near future for his request, but there may be other opportunities for him to raise European business on the Floor of the House, as he has done on many occasions in recent weeks. Of course, there is also the opportunity of debates in Westminster Hall or through the Backbench Business Committee in this Chamber.

Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to announce to the House that instead of having a pre-recess Adjournment debate on 27 March, the debate will be on assisted dying? Will he also reassure the House that this is going to be an exception rather than a rule? We intend to preserve the pre-recess Adjournment debate but we thought that this issue was of such importance that we wanted to give Members and those outside time to organise for it.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There is no need for me to make the announcement because she has just done so. It is up to the Backbench Business Committee to reconfigure the days that we have allocated to it and there is no obligation on the Committee to adhere to the pattern of days adopted by previous Governments. She has the flexibility and I understand the strength of feeling on both sides of the House regarding the motion she has mentioned. I am sure that a debate on that issue is an intelligent use of time.

Given the number of people who travel abroad for cosmetic operations, may we have a debate on the merit of taking out private insurance to cover the cost of any post-operative care, which people often hope the NHS will pick up at great expense?

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but I am sure that she would not want to suggest that those who come back to this country, having been let down by treatment overseas, should be denied access to NHS treatment. If she is suggesting that people should insure themselves against such costs, that is a sensible and prudent suggestion, which I am sure my hon. Friends will want to take on board.

Will the Leader of the House tell us which Minister is responsible for the north-east region? Across Departments, whether we are talking about Transport, Communities and Local Government or the Department for Work and Pensions—there is a very long list—cuts in the north-east are much deeper than elsewhere. Of course, we can raise these issues individually with Ministers but when can we have a strategic overview of such issues? This has been particularly problematic since the abolition of the Regional Select Committees.

I am amazed that the hon. Lady mentions the Regional Select Committees which were, frankly, a fiasco. They were poorly attended and that is why we wound them up. There are opportunities for the House to debate regional issues such as London or the south-west in Westminster Hall; that would be an appropriate forum for her to pursue her concerns.

Order. There is huge interest today, which I am keen to accommodate, but if I am to do so I will require brevity, a master class in which will be provided by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood).

RBS has announced pay increases for investment bankers, big losses and no dividends for taxpayers yet again. May we have an early debate on measures to break the bank up, promote better management and get some money back for taxpayers?

My right hon. Friend may have an opportunity in the Budget debate to intervene along those lines with his radical suggestions for a fresh approach to RBS.

The Leader of the House may be aware that I have twice raised the issue of wind farms being built in close proximity to people’s homes. In Scotland there is a rule about how close wind farms can be to homes, but the Department I have raised the matter with has refused on both occasions to think about that. If wind farms are so perfect, why are there none in the backyards of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government? As a bonus, why are there not half a dozen at Highgrove?

The hon. Gentleman is right that, as the Localism Bill went through Parliament, the Government resisted an embargo on wind farm development within a certain distance from residential units, and we have resisted it subsequently. I will raise his concerns with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Whether to approve applications for wind farms at the exciting locations the hon. Gentleman mentions is a matter for the local authorities. I am sure that they would take on board the support for them that he has just enunciated.

May we have a debate on making better use of our natural resources? Is the Leader of the House aware that later this year the country could be in the ridiculous situation of having some areas suffer drought while others are awash with water? Is it not time we had a national water grid?

My right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to raise that matter next Thursday. I remind him that in December we published the water White Paper, which sets out a more resilient approach to the water shortages he refers to. Next Wednesday we will debate a Bill that will enable investment in water infrastructure, particularly in London, in order to improve the quality of water and the reliability of supply.

With regard to the Health and Social Care Bill and future debates, is the Leader of the House aware that watching the Prime Minister trying to defend the Bill yesterday reminded some of us who were present at the time of Mrs Thatcher, as she then was, trying to defend the poll tax?

No, and I say that as someone who opposed the poll tax but happens to support the Health and Social Care Bill.

We should heed the words of the Institute of Directors, which today urged us to stop the gloom and doom about the economy. As confidence is so important to economic revival, will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor to make a statement on the really positive parts of our economy, such as agriculture, food and drink in Cornwall, which delivers more than 30% of local employment?

My hon. Friend is right to sound a note of optimism and remind us of the e-mail from the Institute of Directors, which I received just before I came in, cautioning against doom and gloom, and I am delighted to hear about what is happening in her constituency. The recovery that we all want to see will be assisted by the retention of low borrowing costs, and our whole economic strategy is engaged in ensuring that that remains the case to underpin investment and take the pressure off household incomes.

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen early-day motion 2742, which I and a number of other hon. Members have signed?

[That this House condemns the illegal and oppressive employment practices of Impact Security Solutions in Ormskirk and in particular its abrupt dismissal of a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton in violation of his contract of employment and despite his alleged conduct having been committed by other employees, against whom no action has been taken; condemns, further, the foul language used against this employee by a member of management, together with the bullying and pressure inflicted on him; calls on Impact Security Solutions immediately to reinstate this employee with full recompense for lost pay; further calls on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to investigate this company’s employment practices; and further calls on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to investigate the validity of the business practices of this company.]

The motion relates to the employment practices of Impact Security Solutions, a disgraceful firm that has been victimising a constituent of mine oppressively and illegally. Will the right hon. Gentleman condemn this disgraceful company and ask the Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions and for Business, Innovation and Skills to investigate its activities to see whether it is behaving lawfully in any way?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. I do not know whether this relates to the point of order he raised earlier in the week, which I was in my place to hear. Of course, I condemn harassment, victimisation and illegal activity wherever it occurs and will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and invite them to reply.

May we have a debate on the Olympics, not on sporting matters, but on other matters related to the games, including the souvenirs, a large number of which are being sourced overseas? There are reports that the opening and closing ceremonies will exclude the traditional folk culture of the nations and the regions. Also, the railway line between Stratford and Liverpool Street station is in a state of dereliction, as I have informed the Leader of the House before, and is a negative showcase. An overarching approach is needed. Otherwise, this will be very negative for visitors to this country.

If I understand my hon. Friend’s bid, he wants the opening ceremony of the Olympics to make specific reference to Colchester and its culture. Was that the thrust of his remarks? In which case, I say to him that we could all make similar bids on behalf of our constituencies. I am sure that the opening ceremony will do justice to the whole country, including Colchester, and that when he sees it he will be delighted.

My constituent, Jacqueline Smith, a mother of three, received a letter from the Department for Work and Pensions informing her that she must increase her weekly work hours from 16 to 24 or lose her working tax credits, which are worth £3,000 a year. Her husband is unable to work because he is the full-time carer of his elderly mother. Alongside her husband’s carer’s allowance of £55 a week, Jacqueline’s wages and working tax credits are what her family depend on. Her employer is simply unable to offer the increase in hours that she needs to keep her working tax credits. May we please have an urgent debate on why the Government are punishing families such as Jacqueline’s, who are doing the decent thing and looking after elderly relatives, by cutting their tax credits?

I understand that the hon. Lady raised a comparable issue a few moments ago in Women and Equalities questions. I hope that she will have an opportunity to raise this matter at the next Work and Pensions questions. It is our intention to help the Jacqueline Smiths of this world. For example, we have made changes to eligibility for child care for working women and introduced a number of other measures to help people in that position. However, I will make some inquiries about that specific case and ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to write to the hon. Lady.

May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the debate requested by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on the non-EU treaty is urgent for next week, because the final text of the treaty will be agreed at an EU summit at the end of next week? Unless we have the debate next week, its purpose will be rather less.

I am sorry to give my hon. Friend a disappointing response, but it is the same one I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). The Government are not planning to have a debate on the matter next week, and I would be misleading him if I said that I will plan the timetable in order to facilitate it.

I am sure that the Leader of the House agrees that, with leadership, determination and imagination, we could do something about the scandal of youth unemployment. I mean young people at 16, post-16, post-18 and the scandal of young unemployed graduates. Surely the House, on a cross-party basis, could do something in a debate that could lead to action on this national scandal.

I agree that the qualities to which the hon. Gentleman refers can make an impact. We have actually had debates on youth unemployment, and I pay credit to the Opposition for choosing them for some of their Supply day debates. He will know that the Work programme is helping over 3 million people. We recently introduced the youth contract, wage incentives for 160,000 jobs, and 250,000 extra work experience places to help those aged between 18 and 21. All those measures are offering better value than the future jobs fund. I would welcome further opportunities to debate these issues, perhaps in the context of the Budget.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, will be aware of the Government’s efforts to promote exports, and no industry is better at doing that than the music industry. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Adele on winning her Grammy awards and call for an urgent debate on how music contributes to our great export growth?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Adele on her many achievements and share her disappointment that Adele’s speech was cut short by those she called “the suits”. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the music industry is an important export industry and that we should do what we can to encourage it. I will take her intervention as a bid for appropriate assistance from the Chancellor of the Exchequer as he prepares his Budget.

Members keep commenting on the fact that the hon. Lady was there, but in fairness it ought to be pointed out that she is a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, if memory serves, so it is not a particularly staggering revelation that the House has just been given.

At Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern) about the Royal Marine Reserve headquarters in Dundee, the Prime Minister said that

“there is no intention to cut the number of Royal Marine reservists in Scotland. Indeed…we actually need more people to join the reserves.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 873.]

The facts rather contradict that, however. The Greenock and Inverness detachments have been shut, and we understand that the intention is to cull the number of regulars who serve in the Royal Marine Reserve. Given the difficulty and the confusion, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence specifically on the Royal Marine and Royal Naval Reserves so that the Government’s intentions are clear?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and was in the Chamber during that exchange. I shall certainly ask the Secretary of State for Defence to reply to him and to respond to the issue that he has raised, although I start from the premise that what the Prime Minister says is always right.

Given the view of the late and much lamented journalist, Marie Colvin, that the outrageous atrocities being committed by the Assad regime on its own people were among the worst that she had seen in her long and distinguished career as a war correspondent, allied to the position of the US, which is now considering additional measures, may we have a debate about Syria?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Marie Colvin, who went to the most dangerous places in the world to expose the most appalling regimes and to describe what was happening to ordinary people, who were the victims of those regimes. It is a tragic loss, and we send our sympathy to her relatives and friends.

My hon. Friend may have listened to the exchange with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the “Today” programme, when he outlined the approach that we are taking to Syria, the conference that is taking place in Tunis tomorrow, the stepping-up of emergency aid for Homs and other cities, the shaping of new sanctions to cut off funding to the military regime and the supporting of the Syrian opposition to set out a credible and inclusive alternative political vision. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to keep the House informed as to progress.

I was really heartened three weeks ago when the Leader of the House told me that he wanted to support an international women’s day debate, but I am really disappointed today that he has not announced one. Please may we have a debate on 8 March, on international women’s day, about women?

I am sorry that the brief moment of optimism in the hon. Lady’s life has been shattered, but the responsibility for choosing the subjects on the dates that are allocated to the Backbench Business Committee rests with the Backbench Business Committee. It is no longer a matter for the Government to find time for a debate on international women’s day; that responsibility has been transferred to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and the Committee. It has total responsibility for choosing the subjects for debate on international women’s day.

In little more than two months, voters in some of our major cities will have the opportunity to vote in referendums on whether to have an elected mayor. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that those of us who favour such a move can argue the case, and the case for extending the role of elected mayors and allowing electors elsewhere to trigger referendums?

I cannot offer an opportunity for an immediate debate, but there has been an opportunity, as the relevant orders have passed through the House, for hon. Members to participate if not in the Chamber, then elsewhere. I am a keen supporter of elected mayors. I hope that where referendums take place people will support them, and I am heartened by the support of my hon. Friend for this innovation.

Given that William Hill is now offering odds of 5:4 on the first child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge being born in 2012, what progress has been made in respect of a royal succession Bill? As the Leader of the House knows, I offered my ten-minute rule Bill as the vehicle for the change agreed by the Prime Minister at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference. When will such legislation come before the House?

I confess to the right hon. Gentleman that I have not been following the odds quite as closely as he has. He did introduce a private Member’s Bill, and I understand that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), at the Department with responsibility for political and constitutional reform, wrote to him explaining why, sadly, we could not use his Bill as a vehicle for the royal succession Bill. But it is on the Government’s agenda, and we will make announcements in due course.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House is having a bad day or what, but he suggested that the Backbench Business Committee has not awarded 8 March to a debate about international women’s day. The problem is that the Committee has been given no further days for such awards, so to suggest that we have not awarded a debate to a day that we have not been given is slightly misleading—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Not misleading in any way whatsoever, just difficult to understand.

The Government have undertaken to allocate roughly one day per week to the Backbench Business Committee. If we look at the allocations since the first debate that the Committee arranged, we find that we have allocated 0.97 days per week, so it is not the case that the Government are not honouring their obligation to the Committee, and we hope to go on offering days to it for the remainder of the Session. It is up to the Committee then to decide what to do with the days that are allocated.

My constituent Mike Allen has devised and successfully sold his patented portable snow and ice-clearing system, a de-icing unit called Thaw-Tec, to Network Rail, Eurotunnel and Asda, but Network Rail is now trying to copy his design. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister are aware of that, but may we have a debate on the Floor of the House about the importance of patented designs to small and medium-sized enterprises, and their protection? [Interruption.]

My hon. Friends behind me say that what is needed is a good lawyer, and a number of them may be offering their services. I say seriously to the hon. Gentleman, however, that of course I will pursue the dialogue that he has mentioned with my ministerial colleagues, but it might be the subject for an Adjournment debate or a debate in Westminster Hall.

May we have a debate about the practice of directory services companies that divert people from the numbers that they have requested, as I found out when I dialled 118 118 the other day to ask for the excellent Heads of the Valleys driver training school in Gilwern, where I passed my HGV test 20 years ago, and was told to ring the AA instead?

There are some questions that I am asked at business questions to which a response is almost impossible. I am sorry to hear of my hon. Friend’s experience, and I will contact whichever Minister has responsibility, possibly somebody at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and ask them to write to him rather than to ring him up.

May we have an early debate about the health of the high street? The Leader of the House will know that yesterday Peacocks announced the closure of 244 stores, including the one in Flint in my constituency. That will lead not only to 3,100 job losses, but to a big hole in the high street. We need to reflect on how we can promote the health of the high street.

There was a debate—designated, I think, by the Backbench Business Committee—about the Mary Portas review. The Government take the issue seriously, and in the spring we will set out our response to the review.

May we have a statement from the Ministry of Justice, following the extraordinary and absurd case whereby David Friesner was allowed to carry on practising and defending in criminal trials, despite having been convicted of an imprisonable offence? He is now in prison for three years. So far we have not had a statement, and the Bar Standards Board says that the process is not acceptable. May we have a statement to ensure that the loophole is closed and we never again have a criminal representing a criminal?

There will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue at Ministry of Justice questions next Tuesday. If he has not tabled a question, he might like to take his chance at topical questions. I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you have noticed his interest.

Does today’s announcement that the Royal Navy is buying vessels from South Korea give us a chance to have a debate about the Government’s policy on defence procurement in the light of the written statement on defence that was produced without any opportunity to question Ministers on their decision not to give priority to British manufacturing?

I may have inadvertently misled the House, Mr Speaker, by saying that MOJ questions are next Tuesday; I understand that they are not.

Set-piece debates on defence procurement happened in the previous Parliament. Days for such debates are now allocated by the Backbench Business Committee. Bids for debates on defence procurement are therefore a matter for that Committee, and I am sure that the Chairman has noted the hon. Lady’s bid.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), has written to journalist Polly Toynbee about her backing of a militant campaign to destroy the work experience programme. May we have a debate about why work experience is important and why backing trendy left-wing causes and destroying jobs is not?

I agree with my hon. Friend and commend the forthright way in which he said that. The introduction of the new work experience scheme, focused on 18 to 21-year-olds, offers them work experience and the ability to retain their benefits, which they could not do for as long a period before. That is an opportunity—a voluntary opportunity—for young people, and the initial evidence is that 51% subsequently come off benefits, so it is a good use of their time. I commend the employers who have offered the scheme, as well as Tesco, which has a parallel scheme that offers four weeks’ paid employment and then an opportunity for a job through an interview. It is wrong to decry these initiatives; we need more of them, not fewer.

Statistics published last week revealed that 4,633 people in Hartlepool are unemployed—the figure is up month on month and year on year—and that the proportion of unemployed people in the north-east is the highest in any region. Government policy is not helping; in fact, it is making matters much worse. May we therefore have an urgent debate about unemployment in the north-east?

I would deny that Government policies are making the situation worse. I believe that the retention of low interest rates is in the best interests of creating jobs in the hon. Gentleman’s area. Unemployment is too high, but if he looks at the latest figures, he will see that an extra 60,000 people are in work in the last quarter, the number of those in long-term unemployment has fallen, and the number of vacancies has begun to increase. I am not sure that the picture is quite as dismal as he painted it.

Last Friday, I was privileged to attend the inaugural Pride of Stratford awards, which bring businesses, charities and citizens together to celebrate their work for the economy and for the community. Considering that business nationally invested £119 billion last year—£3 billion more than the previous year—may we have a debate about business working with the community so that at least Government Members can send out the message that we are pro-business and not anti-capitalism?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and interested to hear about the Pride of Stratford initiative, which I am sure should be replicated throughout the country. He is right to point to the good news in many parts of the country, with people responding to the initiatives that the Government have taken through the national loans guarantee, the enterprise zones and the regional growth fund. I welcome any debate, perhaps in the context of the Budget, so that we can take this agenda forward.

On the business of the missing end-of-term Wednesdays, Members in all parts of the House find it useful to be able to question the Prime Minister. If the Leader of the House cannot find Government business to fill the time on those Wednesdays, could we arrange to do what is sometimes done on the last day of term in school, with Members bringing in board games, or perhaps the Leader of the House showing a video or leading a nature walk in Victoria gardens, to fill in the time until the appointed hour for Prime Minister’s Questions?

There is a motion on the Order Paper that requires the House to sit through an extra day, so it is not the case that the House is being prevented from meeting. As I said in response to an earlier question, the ratio of PMQs to sitting days has gone up during this Parliament as compared with the previous one.

May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the work of the Backbench Business Committee? Given that so many of the requests to the Leader of the House appear now to be the responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee, a lot of us—even those of us who have been around for some time—find it quite confusing as to what are the responsibilities of the Backbench Business Committee and what are the responsibilities of the Leader of the House. As the shadow Leader of the House now asks the Leader of the House no questions about next week’s business, perhaps we could skip this session and cut out the party political broadcast that she makes each week, and get the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee here so that we could ask her some questions about what her Committee can do to allocate time for the debates that we would like.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It would be up to the Backbench Business Committee to find time for a debate on the Backbench Business Committee. On his serious point, we have made a commitment that by the third year of this Parliament we will move towards a House business committee to seek to integrate the work that is done by the Backbench Business Committee with what I do as Leader of the House. There may then be an opportunity for a duet, if that is the right word, between me and whoever has responsibility for the Backbench Business Committee. These matters are still to be resolved. If my hon. Friend looks at the coalition agreement, he will see that the current arrangements are interim arrangements,.

A year ago in the House, Mr Speaker, you granted me an urgent question on what was happening in Bahrain. The House will be shocked to learn that we are still exporting arms to that country despite the awful repression there, which has not much ceased. Tear gas is being thrown into homes to terrorise people, and there are no human rights advances. It is a very shocking situation, even overshadowed as it is by Syria, and yet we have resumed our arms exports. May we have a debate on why we are selling arms to regimes in any part of that region where despotic rulers are still repressing their peoples?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. There will be Foreign and Commonwealth questions on Tuesday 28 February, and that might be an opportunity for him to raise this serious matter with the Foreign Secretary.

Over the recess, I was fortunate to visit Adams Foods in Leek, where I met the first five young people taking part in its new apprenticeships scheme, which is giving them an opportunity to find long-term sustainable work that they would not otherwise have had. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how other companies might help young people in this way, and how Government policies might help them?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and commend the initiatives that she has been taking in her constituency. I would welcome a debate to talk about the Work programme, which is helping 3 million people, together with a massive increase in apprenticeships, which number over 400,000 this year. I applaud the work that is taking place in her constituency to reduce the number of young people who are out of work.

This morning the Royal Bank of Scotland announced a pre-tax loss of £766 million and, at the same time, announced a bonus pool of exactly the same amount. In explanation, it tells us that the bonus pool has been cut in half, but my understanding from reports in the Financial Times is that that is being made up for by increases in people’s fixed salaries. This whole announcement takes place against a backdrop of thousands of redundancies up and down the country. For reasons very different from those of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood), may I ask for an early debate on RBS, the banking system, and banking bonuses?

The Financial Services Bill, which is going through the House, sets up a new financial structure for regulating the banks. There may be an opportunity to have the debate that the hon. Gentleman requests when the Bill comes back to the Floor of the House. I gently make the point that the party that he supports took no action at all to control bonuses when it was in government.

On Monday, I attended the opening of a new swimming pool and leisure centre in Redditch that is partly heated by the local crematorium—an innovative scheme that is saving the taxpayer £14,500 a year by not putting heat out into the atmosphere. Will the Leader of the House congratulate Redditch borough council on this innovative scheme and find time for a debate when we can discuss how other groundbreaking schemes can be used across the country?

I will die a happier man if the heat generated by my cremation can increase the temperature of any nearby swimming pool. On the point that my hon. Friend makes, the Government are aware of the scheme. The Department of Energy and Climate Change will shortly publish its heat strategy, which will explore the potential for better recovery and reuse of wasted heat, using such schemes. I pay tribute to the groundbreaking scheme in her constituency.

The Richards brothers run a small service station in Cefn Glas in my constituency. They employ no other staff. At the back of the service station, they have a private office that is clearly labelled as such, in which they have a television set. Bizarrely, despite being told by the local authority that they do not need to have a Performing Right Society licence, they have been approached by an organisation called PPL, which claims that they need one of its licences because of the possibility that a member of the public may hear music from an advert on entering the service station. They have no option but to pay the licence fee. They face a double fine if they fail to do so within 28 days. An accountant, a justice of the peace and a solicitor have confirmed that it is not a public place. May we have a debate on what defines a public place and on how PPL is allowed to enforce such licences and fines on organisations?

I am sure that many Members have been approached by constituents with exactly the problem that the hon. Lady outlines and are being asked for payment in circumstances in which they do not believe it is payable. The regime was introduced by the previous Government—I say that as a matter of fact, rather than to score a cheap point. I will draw the matter to the attention of Ministers at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, because we are anxious to deregulate and this seems to be a regulation that it is worth reviewing.

Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement by the Ministry of Defence on the disposal of the former land forces headquarters at Wilton? Will he urge it to take account of the strong opinions of the Wilton eco-park development community association, so that if its bid is financially viable, the support of local constituents will be taken into account when the decision is made?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. His constituency is very close to mine and I am aware of the importance of this issue. The Ministry of Defence is in the process of disposing of the site and bidding is in progress. Any compliant bid, including a bid from the organisation to which he has referred, will of course be considered. The MOD, like other Departments, will have an eye on getting the best value for money for the taxpayer.

May we have a debate on what is and is not grounds for banning an organisation that wishes to make a protest march in an area? This Saturday, members of the English Defence League intend to hold a march through Hyde town centre, despite it having no connection to the issues that it is purporting to march in support of and despite there being a history of violence wherever it has been. Should not decent, law-abiding citizens from all backgrounds be protected from this unnecessary and unwanted activity?

Of course, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. My understanding is that the Home Secretary has the power in certain circumstances to ban demonstrations and marches. I will draw his remarks to her attention, in view of the serious issue that he has raised.

All Members who represent Welsh constituencies will have been delighted to hear that we are to have a debate on Welsh affairs on St David’s day, after much uncertainty about whether such a debate would take place. Will the Leader of the House consider how this debate can become an accepted part of House business to remove that uncertainty in future?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, but what he suggests would go against the thrust of the Wright Committee reforms, whereby the St David’s day debate and other set-piece debates were handed over to the Backbench Business Committee to give it—

It is all very well the hon. Gentleman saying that, but this Government have done something that no other Government have ever done, which is to give Back Benchers the right to set the agenda of the House. He should be careful about grumbling about that.

It is now a matter for the Backbench Business Committee to weigh the priority of the St David’s day debate against other debates that Members bid to hold on the same day.

The Baker review into extradition was published in October. Four months on, the publication of all its evidence has been blocked by Home Office officials with no explanation. Having tried all the usual channels, I ask the Leader of the House to convey to Ministers the risk that that lack of transparency will undermine the ostensible independence of the review and parliamentary scrutiny? It risks, however unfairly, creating the perception that there is something to hide in the evidence.

My hon. Friend rightly refers to the Scott Baker review, which was published in October. It is a substantial document. There have been a number of debates in the House subsequently on the issues that it deals with, thanks to the Backbench Business Committee. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is reviewing the Scott Baker report, together with the views that hon. Members have expressed in those debates. I will bring to her attention the specific issue that my hon. Friend has raised about the non-publication of certain documents that are in the Home Office’s possession.

The Leader of the House has alluded to the fact that UK borrowing costs are at a record low. May I support the request of the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on the economy, so that we can discuss what those borrowing costs tell us about the market’s confidence in this Government’s economic policies, compared with those of the previous Government?

We would relish such a debate. It would allow us to discuss the low interest rates that this country enjoys, which I think would be prejudiced were we to listen to the siren voices of the Opposition, who are asking us to relax the fairly tight fiscal stance that we have adopted. I very much hope that my hon. Friend’s wish will be granted in the context of the Budget, when there will be four days of debate. I hope that we will hear from Opposition Members an alternative and more convincing strategy than we have heard from them so far.

Given that 500,000 jobs have been created in the private sector since the general election, many of them in manufacturing according to my experience in my constituency, may we please have a debate on the link between sound education policy and the ability of manufacturing to recruit and develop the right people to continue that progress?

I very much hope that our higher education reforms will increase the linkage between what happens in our schools and universities and the requirements of manufacturing. By having a scheme of portability, by which the money follows the student and in which the student is anxious to get a job, I am sure that we will get the linkage to which my hon. Friend refers.

As part of national apprenticeship week, I visited Company Fuel Cards, which is a fast-growing new company based in Barrowford in my constituency. The company used to subcontract work abroad but has now set up an apprenticeship academy, working closely with Nelson and Colne college. That is a classic example of what the Government are trying to achieve. May we have a debate on growth and on how we can further support companies that want to take on apprentices?

Opposition Members should look at the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility and the International Monetary Fund, which forecast growth this year at a higher rate than that in many of our competitor countries.

I say to my hon. Friend that we all have a responsibility as MPs to draw to the attention of employers in our constituencies the benefits of the apprenticeship scheme and to encourage them to take it up. There are worthwhile benefits not just for the companies, but for young people. I am delighted to hear of the scheme in his constituency, whereby work that was outsourced is now being done in-house. I am sure that we all want to see that replicated in other constituencies.

May we please have an urgent debate on current employment law? I learned yesterday that a number of my constituents have been sacked in a form of collective punishment because some money went missing from their employer, who was unable to identify who had taken the money, if indeed it had been taken. Although I completely back the need for employers to have honest employees, I do not like collective punishments, even for schoolchildren. I find it unacceptable that employees might never work again because a group punishment has been imposed on them in that way.

I recall, as I am sure do other hon. Members, a form of collective punishment at school, whereby the whole class was detained because somebody had misbehaved and remained anonymous. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) clearly went to a school of well-behaved pupils. I understand the sense of injustice to which my hon. Friend has referred. I will take this matter up with Ministers to see whether, in this day and age, that form of collective and indiscriminate punishment is still appropriate.

The Leader of the House may be aware of suggestions that there was a deal surrounding the recent appointment of Professor Ebdon, which was supposedly brokered before the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills had an opportunity to determine its view. If true, that is a grave matter. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this issue so that we can obtain clarity and dispel the rumours of inappropriate ministerial behaviour and serious disrespect of the House?

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made a statement about that on Monday and subsequently answered questions. He made it clear that he took seriously the view of the majority of the Select Committee, then reviewed the matter, decided that no new factors had been raised and went ahead with the appointment. It was a collective appointment, with the support of the Prime Minister. I hesitate to say this, but there may be an opportunity to debate the Committee’s report at some point if the Backbench Business Committee so decides. I hope that my hon. Friend listened to the exchange on Monday and to the responses that were given, which I found reassuring.

Job clubs such as the newly established Wilnecote job club in Tamworth provide tremendous support to young people and the long-term unemployed, helping them take advantage of the half a million new jobs that have been created in the private sector since 2010. May we have a debate on job clubs to explore and encourage their excellent work?

I am delighted to hear of the job club in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I have one in Andover, which I recently visited. They are very worthwhile organisations, giving mutual support, raising morale and providing help on applying for vacancies. As I said a few moments ago, the last quarter’s figures showed an increase in the number of vacancies. I would welcome such a debate, which might be best placed in the context of the four-day debate on the Budget.

Palmers department store in Great Yarmouth is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. It is a great example of a small or medium-sized enterprise and family business in the retail sector that is doing well and growing. With that in mind, may we have a debate to consider what more the Government can do to cut red tape and bureaucracy, to let such companies in the retail sector, which are often SMEs, grow and create even more jobs?

I welcome what my hon. Friend says and I am delighted to hear what is happening in his constituency. We are scrapping new regulations that would have cost businesses more than £350 million a year and doubling the qualification period for unfair dismissal tribunals, and we have streamlined the planning system. I very much hope that we can take that agenda forward, and again a debate might be appropriate in the context of the Budget.

I recently visited Sandvik in my constituency, which told me that demand for tools from the automotive industry in the west midlands is the highest it has been for many years. May we have a debate in Government time on what the Government are doing to support advanced manufacturing, in order to promote the jobs and growth that we need in areas such as the west midlands and the black country?

My hon. Friend draws attention to the success of the automotive industry, particularly in exports. It is indeed part of our strategy to rebalance the economy, making it less dependent on financial services and more dependent on manufacturing. We are addressing the barriers to growth and encouraging innovation, exports, business investment and improving skills, and we have the regional growth fund, the enterprise zones and the national loan guarantee scheme. I hope that we can develop that policy in the context of the Budget and outline yet further help for manufacturing industry.

According to the lovely people in the Table Office, who always work so diligently on our behalf, every week an average of between 60 and 70 Members put in an application for a Westminster Hall or Adjournment debate. Some weeks that number can be as high as 150, and it never falls below 40. Given that evidence, whenever a day’s sitting in Westminster Hall is cancelled for understandable reasons, should not the Leader of the House make provision for an alternative day to be substituted, so that Members do not lose an opportunity to hold the Government to account?

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but I make the point that this Parliament is sitting for as many days a year as previous Parliaments, sometimes more, so it is not the case that we are not allowing Parliament to hold us to account. On his specific question, there is a motion on the Order Paper for later today to which he has tabled amendments, and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will give a coherent and compelling response to those amendments in due course.

Earlier this month, during the freezing weather, a number of constituents came to me having recently had British Gas central heating systems installed, concerned that the company was not willing to come out to repair them when they broke. May we have a debate on how the large utility companies, particularly British Gas, treat their customers?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and he may like to contact Consumer Direct for advice and information. Some benefits are available under the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982, but I will of course draw the problem that he mentions to the attention of my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who are responsible for consumer policy.

May we have an urgent debate about the effectiveness and value for money of local policing? In my constituency, recorded crime has fallen by 4.8% over the past 12 months and antisocial behaviour by 25%, all within the framework of a very challenging financial settlement forced on us by the legacy of debt that we inherited from the Labour Government. Such a debate would also provide a great opportunity to explode the myth still going around that the only way to improve public services is by throwing ever more taxpayers’ money at them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We debated the police grant a few days ago, which would have given him an opportunity to raise the matter. I am delighted to hear of the reduction in crime in his constituency, which shows what can be achieved within challenging financial targets. We have slashed bureaucracy, saved up to £200 million through national procurement and made the police more accountable to the public, and we are moving towards the first elected police and crime commissioners. I am delighted to hear of the good results in his constituency.

Thank you very much, Leader of the House. I think the House will be interested to know that 51 Members participated in business questions today.