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Business of the House

Volume 543: debated on Thursday 26 April 2012

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 30 April—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill [Lords], followed by if necessary consideration of Lords Amendments.

Tuesday 1 May—The House may be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

I thank the Leader of the House for his comprehensive statement. I also thank the staff of the House for all the hard work that they have done for Members during the current Session.

In the week of Shakespeare’s birth, we should pay tribute to our greatest dramatist, who has had such an enormous impact on our culture and our language. Looking at the Government, however, I have to say that even Shakespeare could not write a farce like this. Where does one start?

The Culture Secretary came to the House yesterday to try to explain himself. He failed. He said on Tuesday evening that now was not the time for knee-jerk reactions. On Wednesday morning, he kicked out his special adviser. The Culture Secretary may have thrown his aide to the wall, but the ministerial code is crystal clear: the Secretary of State is responsible for the conduct of his special advisers. Will the Leader of the House now answer the following questions, which the Culture Secretary conspicuously failed to answer yesterday?

Was News Corporation informed about the content of a parliamentary statement before that statement was made to the House? Although the Culture Secretary told the House on 3 March that he had published all the exchanges between his Department and News Corporation, the e-mails that were disclosed at the Leveson inquiry demonstrate that he had not done so. That is not a matter for Lord Leveson; it is a matter for the House, and the House needs answers. Far from acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, the Culture Secretary has been acting like a dodgy football ref who not only favours one team, but is in the dressing room with them planning the tactics. Apparently he is at the Tower of London today, awaiting his fate.

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Prime Minister has asked the independent adviser on the ministerial code to investigate the Culture Secretary’s actions, and if not, why not? Will he also tell us whether the Prime Minister has indicated his intention to come to the House to correct the record that he placed in the Library on his meetings with Rupert Murdoch? The Prime Minister recalled just two, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said yesterday, Mr Murdoch revealed to the Leveson inquiry that he had met the Prime Minister more often than that. The Prime Minister apparently “forgets” the majority of his meetings with Rupert Murdoch.

The Prime Minister also said that he had not been involved in “any of the discussions” about News International’s bid for BSkyB, but it now emerges that he did discuss it with James Murdoch—over a cosy Christmas dinner with Rebekah Brooks while the phone-hacking scandal was in full swing. And then there is Raisa the police horse. The Prime Minister could not remember whether he had taken her riding, before finally remembering that he had. We know that this Prime Minister doesn’t do detail, but his lapses of memory are beginning to look a little bit too convenient.

The Public Administration Committee has been examining the leadership that the Prime Minister has given the Government. Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read its report? According to the Committee, which is chaired by a distinguished Conservative Back Bencher, there is a “strategic vacuum” at the centre of this Government. The report concludes that the Government’s aims were

“too meaningless to serve any useful purpose”.

Another Conservative Back Bencher, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), has put it even more bluntly. Now that Government Members recognise what Opposition Members have been saying for some time—that this is an incompetent, out-of-touch Government —will the Leader of the House be making time for a debate on the Committee’s report before Prorogation?

The current long parliamentary Session is finally crawling to a close. It began with extravagant boasts by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In June 2010, presenting his first Budget, the Chancellor told the House that by today the economy would have grown by 4.3%. He also told the House that unemployment would peak in 2010 and fall in each subsequent year, and that public sector borrowing would fall each year. Will the Chancellor now be correcting the record?

The economy is back in recession. The Chancellor has presided over the worst performance in our economy for a century. Unemployment is higher than it was when the Government came to power, and they are borrowing £150 billion more than they had planned to borrow. This is a double-dip recession made in Downing street. The Chancellor has bungled his latest Budget just as he has bungled his economic strategy, and hard-working families up and down the country are paying the price.

“The economy is stagnant. The Government is misfiring. The Budget was a shambles. Tory MPs are unhappy. Downing Street is incompetent.”

That is not my assessment; it is the assessment of The Daily Telegraph.

Order. For the avoidance of doubt and for the sake of good parliamentary order, I assume the hon. Lady’s question relating to the details of the conduct of the Culture Secretary and Prime Minister are couched in terms of a request for a statement or debate next week?

Indeed. [Interruption.] I am seeking to clarify the position, and that should be welcomed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

Let me respond to what the shadow Leader of the House has said. The business statement was, indeed, brief, but you, Mr Speaker, are always asking Ministers to make brief statements, so I hope that found favour in at least one quarter.

I endorse what the hon. Lady said about the House staff. On Shakespeare, I think “All’s Well That Ends Well” is a good work to remind the House about. On special advisers, the hon. Lady rehearsed a number of issues that were raised yesterday. I cannot remember which Minister resigned when Damian McBride had to leave No. 10 Downing street.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will, of course, reply to the letter the Deputy Leader has written to him, but may I remind the hon. Lady of what Lord Justice Leveson said on Tuesday? He said that

“although I have seen requests for other inquiries and other investigations and, of course, I do not seek to constrain Parliament, it seems to me that the better course is to allow this Inquiry to proceed. When it is concluded, there will doubtless be opportunities for consideration to be given to any further investigation that is then considered necessary.”

I think Lord Justice Leveson has given good advice.

On the question of meetings with Rupert Murdoch, I understand that Rupert Murdoch has produced a new list this morning, which has not yet been published but which will be published in due course. The Government stand by the list we produced on a quarterly basis, which we were always clear included only formal meetings, rather than, for example, being at a summer party when it would obviously be impossible to know the full list of those attending.

However, I am sure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will want to reflect on what he did yesterday when he raised evidence in this House that had not yet been released by the inquiry, a clear breach of the restriction order placed on it by Lord Justice Leveson, and which Lord Justice Leveson deprecated in his opening remarks this morning. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to reflect on what he did, and possibly apologise to Lord Leveson.

Finally, on the Public Administration Committee and all that, I shall tell the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) what the Government have been doing. We have been carrying forward important reforms that the country needs on welfare, immigration, planning, education, health, energy, legal aid, the financial sector, the costs of Government and transforming local democracy—all of them reforms that her party ducked when in government. We are having to do this in a less benign economic environment than the last Labour Government had, and we are having to do it at the same time as we pay off their record budget deficit. Against that background, we have boosted businesses, cut corporation tax, helped hard-pressed families and given pensioners the biggest increase in the state pension for over 60 years. The truth is that this two-party Government have done more for the country in two years than her party managed in 13.

Last week, DCA Design International, a business based in my constituency, won the Queen’s award for enterprise in international trade. At a time when we need to rebalance our economy and increase exports, DCA is an excellent example of what can be achieved. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating DCA, and will he find Government time for a debate on how we can promote exports by small and medium-sized enterprises?

I commend what DCA has done. This is exactly the sort of rebalancing we want to see, and I applaud the work that has been done. I would be misleading my hon. Friend if I were to say I could find time for a debate on that subject in the relatively short period that I anticipate being available between now and Prorogation, but I hope that, perhaps in a debate on the Loyal Address when the House reconvenes, there may be an opportunity for him to make his case again and for the Government to set out the actions we have taken to promote SMEs, exports and the rebalancing of the economy, which is so desperately needed.

Will the Leader of the House consider granting an early debate on giving to the arts and culture? Now that we are in a double-dip recession, with the Chancellor targeting those who give and local authorities cut to the bone, galleries, museums and theatres are under threat. They need to understand what more the Government have in store for them.

The Government have taken a number of steps to encourage charitable giving. We have made changes to the inheritance tax regime and made it easier for charities to claim back tax on small donations. As the hon. Lady knows, discussions are under way to see whether we can minimise the impact of the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget on charities that depend on large donations. However, it is right to expect those on high incomes to make some contribution, through income tax, towards the overheads of the country.

The Leader of the House will know how important business in the north-east of Scotland is to the Scottish and UK economies. May we have a debate on the roll-out of superfast broadband, to recognise the higher than average take-up of broadband in the north-east the first time round, to build on that demand and to recognise the importance of ensuring that those communities that were left behind last time are not left behind again?

As a Member with a rural constituency, I understand how important it is that people in such constituencies should be able to compete on equal terms with those who live in cities when it comes to accessing fast broadband. I welcome the roll-out in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I would welcome a debate early in the next Session, when we can outline the steps we have taken through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to encourage BT to roll out broadband and, where that is not an option, to encourage alternative suppliers.

Southern Water, which serves my constituents, loses over 92 million litres of water a day. That is enough to supply more than 600,000 people, or 26% of its domestic users. Can we have an early debate on what action the Government will take to increase the leakage reduction targets for water companies, and to increase the percentage of profits that Ofwat can require them to invest in reducing leaks if they do not meet those targets?

The hon. Lady reminds the House, very aptly, that at a time when there is still a water shortage, it is vital to do all we can to reduce the amount of water lost through leakages. There has been one drought summit, and I believe another is planned next month. Part of the agenda is to take further action to reduce the amount of water lost through wastage. I will certainly draw the hon. Lady’s concern to the attention of my the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), to ensure that, in the case of Southern Water, every possible step is taken to minimise the loss of water through leakage and wastage.

Staff at the Worcestershire Health and Care Trust have been working very hard to reduce waiting times for young people awaiting a mental health assessment. Given that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that waiting times are an important measure of the performance of our national health service, may we have an early debate on the important topic of waiting times?

I welcome what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which shows that it is possible to make progress, notwithstanding the somewhat gloomy forecast that we have heard from Opposition Members. Waiting times generally have remained broadly constant since the general election, although there are many more people to treat, both as in-patients and out-patients. I applaud what has happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency to reduce the time that local children have to wait to receive a mental health assessment. For a child who is developing, a delay of months—or in some cases even years—can put back their education, so I applaud the initiative that is taking place in Worcestershire.

In 2009, the Labour Government reduced the qualifying period and increased the cash limit for support with mortgage interest payments. Unfortunately, the Budget was silent on what the Government are going to do about the scheme, which finishes at the end of the year. We know that it has already helped more than 250,000 people to stay in their homes, which is important. Given the concern about increasing mortgage rates, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate or statement, so that Ministers can say what they are going to do about this important scheme?

One of the things we have done is to enable mortgage interest rates to stay at a much lower level than they would be, had we pursued the economic policies recommended by Opposition Members. I am sure that all those who have a mortgage will welcome the fact that interest rates are at record low levels. I will make inquiries at the Department for Work and Pensions, if that is the appropriate Department, on the question of support for mortgage interest payments for those on benefits, and ask the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), to write to the hon. Gentleman.

In February, I organised a jobs and apprenticeships fair in Colne, working closely with students from Nelson and Colne college, so I was pleased to see that in March unemployment fell in Pendle. Sadly, however, unemployment remains too high, despite the increase of 275,000 in employment across the country that we have seen since the general election. Can we therefore have a debate on some of the measures that the Government are taking, such as the youth contract and the back to work programme?

Again, I would welcome such a debate, perhaps at the beginning of the next Session and in the debate on the Loyal Address. The youth contract, launched this month, has provided an extra 250,000 work experience or sector-based work academy places. We also have the Work programme, which will help more than 3 million people in total, as well as work experience and apprenticeships. We have a portfolio of schemes designed to get young people back into work, and there are already signs of success, with about half of those who have gone through a work experience course having come off benefits. That seems to me to be a very encouraging initiative.

In 1628, the Government were in the midst of a “clustershambles” and they decided to prorogue Parliament immediately, so that there could be no further criticism of them. It would seem that the Leader of the House is, in effect, going to do that on behalf of Her Majesty on Tuesday. May I suggest that it would be much better to provide a whole week of Back-Bench business, so that all the matters that I am sure Government Members would like to debate, such as why the European Commission is demanding an increase of 7% in its budget, and all the issues that Opposition Members would like to discuss, such as the double-dip recession, can be put not only to Ministers, but to the Prime Minister, who will be avoiding Prime Minister’s questions for another two weeks?

The previous Prime Minister was absent at Prime Minister’s questions roughly twice as often as the current Prime Minister, who has spent more time answering his questions than almost any other Prime Minister. It seems to me perfectly reasonable, once Parliament has discharged the legislative programme, for the House to prorogue and then start a new Session. There will be an interval of perhaps three sitting days between the end of this Session and the beginning of the next one, which is roughly in line with what happened previously—[Interruption.] I just say to the hon. Gentleman, who is chattering incessantly from a sedentary position, that when he was Deputy Leader of the House he did not introduce a Backbench Business Committee. The freedom that he is now asking us to give to the House was one that he denied Parliament in the previous Parliament.

In my constituency, tethered horses are frequently escaping on to the highways and causing serious accidents. Will the Leader of the House update me on the possibility of allocating time for an urgent debate on the responsibility that local authorities have to tackle the issue?

Obviously, this is an unacceptable risk to other road users, and of course we want to take any steps we can to promote road safety. I will raise this issue with the appropriate Minister and ask him or her to write to my hon. Friend, just to make sure that local authorities have all the powers necessary to prevent this unnecessary hazard in his constituency.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for us to be updated on electricity market reform? A delay in getting final announcements is causing considerable uncertainty for developers of new plants, including the developers of the Carrington power station in my constituency.

This is an important matter. I cannot anticipate the Loyal Address, but there may be an opportunity when we have a debate on it for hon. Members to speak about how we are undertaking electricity market reform, which is a vital measure necessary to secure energy supplies in the medium term.

The specialised Ministry of Defence police protect our bases and other sensitive installations against disruption and even terrorist attack. Given that, as part of the defence economies, they are facing the loss of several hundred officers over the next three years, may we have a statement from a Defence Minister confirming that the alternative proposals put forward by the highly experienced Defence Police Federation, which would result in fewer losses and less degradation of the level of security provided and also in savings equivalent to those proposed, will be properly evaluated by the security department of the MOD?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Like him, I have received correspondence from the Defence Police Federation. Those counter-proposals are now being considered by the chief constable of the MOD police. A helpful meeting has taken place between the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and the chair of the DPF. We are now taking this forward with a view to ensuring that the best possible use will be made of MOD police at those defence sites where there is a clear requirement for constabulary powers as part of the overall protective security arrangements.

Overnight, we have heard yet more reports of acts of violence against civilians undertaken by the Syrian regime. This fictional ceasefire is clearly not working. Will the Leader of the House have an urgent conversation with the Foreign Secretary? Can we get a statement on Syria before the House prorogues?

I would be misleading the hon. Gentleman if I said that we could get a statement on this very important matter before the House prorogues. He will know that the Foreign Secretary has made it absolutely clear that the current regime in Syria should stand aside, that political prisoners should be released, that there should be a cessation of hostilities and that relief aid should be allowed into those cities in Syria that desperately need assistance. Together with our allies in the United Nations, my right hon. Friend is now reflecting on what further measures can be taken to stop the slaughter taking place in Syria.

There is widespread concern in my constituency following the debate about VAT on static caravans, which has again highlighted the fragile state of some of the local economies in our seaside towns. Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate on such a matter?

I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the answer, exceptionally, is yes. Today’s Adjournment debate, standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), is on static caravans, so if my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) is around later, he will have an opportunity to share with the House his concerns on this matter.

In ancient times, the most dishonourable act was for a senior officer or official to sacrifice a junior person to save his own life. Can we add a day’s sitting next week to have a debate on this, because the media can discuss it and Leveson is discussing it, but Parliament is not. We began this Session with the cancer of Coulson and we are finishing it with the stench of sleaze at the heart of government. The Culture Secretary is living on borrowed time, as we know. We must debate this and clean up this matter.

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we did have a long statement and exchange of questions and answers on this matter yesterday. I just ask him this question: which Minister resigned when Mr Damian McBride had to go because of his activities at No. 10?

May we have an early debate on the injustice faced by a number of my constituents, and indeed by people up and down the country, who have had land stolen from them by people who have failed to register the change of ownership with the Land Registry? The law does not allow someone to sue persons unknown, so my constituents and others have no ability to seek justice. Will the Leader of the House please raise this matter with the appropriate Minister?

This is potentially quite a complicated legal matter, and I will raise it with my ministerial colleagues at BIS and the Ministry of Justice. If it is simply a matter of trespass, the freehold can be recovered by court action—the MOJ may be able to give more detail. I have a lot of sympathy with the farmer who is confronted with this problem and I will raise it with the appropriate colleagues.

When can we have a debate on this country following the examples of Canada, the Netherlands and now Australia, and taking an independent decision on withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan? The extraordinary result of the Bradford West by-election shows that there is a great dislocation between opinion in this country and opinion in this House. Should we not debate the fact that our soldiers should not be in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the green screen of the annunciator, he will see that there is shortly to be a statement on troop levels in Afghanistan. I very much hope that he will be able to stay in the Chamber for a little longer, as he will get an authoritative reply from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Leader of the House will be aware that it is illegal to grow cannabis but perfectly legal to purchase the equipment for growing it. May we have an early debate on this to assist in the law being changed, so that Nottinghamshire police can continue to stamp down on this dreadful crime?

That is a helpful suggestion from my hon. Friend, which I would like to share with the Home Secretary, who shares his concern that the consumption and growing of cannabis should be discouraged. As my hon. Friend says, it is indeed illegal and I will see whether it would make sense to change the law in the way that he has just proposed.

I raised this matter on a point of order, Mr Speaker, and you suggested that it would be best raised as a business question. Will the Leader of the House look again at programme motions and, in particular, at the programme motion for the Financial Services Bill? Programme motions, quite rightly, enable the Government to get their business through, but to balance that they should ensure adequate scrutiny of proposed legislation. The whole thrust of the Financial Services Bill is corporate responsibility and the one clause that we did not reach dealt with that. The Bill will be considered for a second day, but would it be possible to extend the period allocated to ensure that we deal with the matter of corporate responsibility? Otherwise, this House looks irrelevant.

I was in the Chamber when the hon. Gentleman raised that point. In my view, the time that the Government allocated on Report for the Financial Services Bill was adequate. Speaking from memory, we allocated two days, which is quite generous compared with the time that is normally allowed. When what I would regard as adequate time has been allowed, it is up to the House to make intelligent use of that time. If people speak at length during the earlier debates, it is inevitable that a price must be paid in the later stages. As a business manager, I genuinely believe that the overall amount of time that we allocated was adequate so long as the House behaved in an intelligent and disciplined way that enabled all the relevant bits of the Bill to be covered.

Colin Brannigan of Ripon is having his sleep badly disturbed by unsolicited marketing fax calls to his home phone. He has tried Ofcom and the Information Commissioner. May we have a debate on banning unsolicited marketing fax calls in the middle of the night?

My understanding is that if one registers with the telephone preference service it is then an offence to telephone that number after a gap of 28 days. I will need to check whether that applies to faxes as well as phone calls, but there is protection from unsolicited phone calls when someone is either registered with the TPS or has made it clear to the caller that those calls are unwelcome. It is illegal under privacy and electronic communications regulations. I will clarify the issue about faxes and somebody will write to my hon. Friend.

The estimable Hansard Society released a report earlier this week that said that the number of people volunteering in the country had gone down by 8%. May we have a debate on why the Big Society is shrinking under this Government?

I read the Hansard Society report, which I thought was more about engagement in the political process than the overall propensity to volunteer. I can only speak for my own constituency, where I have seen no reduction in the numbers of people coming forward to volunteer. On the contrary, I think that there has been a growth in the breadth and support of voluntary organisations, certainly in my constituency. I am sure that my constituency is not alone.

The Leader of the House has today published a Green Paper on parliamentary privilege with some perfectly sensible proposals based on the work of seven Select Committees. Would it not be worth while having a debate so that the House can address how we deal with the terminology and language of parliamentary privilege? As the Green Paper says:

“Parliamentary privilege is an often misunderstood concept. It is not helped by its name; the connotations of the word ‘privilege’ are unfortunate, as it is associated with special treatment for individuals. The term ‘parliamentary privilege’ might superficially imply, to those not familiar with it, that there are special rights or protections for parliamentarians, perhaps even to the extent that MPs and peers are ‘above the law’.”

That is clearly not the case, it has never been the case and it should never be the case, but we are confounded by the language of parliamentary privilege and the Bill of Rights. Perhaps it is now time to rethink through the whole of that language before we can get through to sensible proposals for reform.

For a moment, I thought that the hon. Gentleman had opened the Second Reading of a Bill on the matter.

It was difficult dealing with the chuntering of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) while I was getting through it, Mr Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the written ministerial statement and the publication, and I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who did all the heavy lifting on this document. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is right; what we plan to do is set up a Joint Committee to consider the issues raised in the document. I know that my hon. Friend’s guidance and advice would be welcome on that Committee. One issue is the language that we use about privilege, which implies our privilege whereas it actually is about protecting the rights of those we represent to ensure that this place operates without outside interference. We are trying to start a consultation and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s point about language is important. It is right that we should have a Government-led review of privilege on the basis of the Green Paper.

The most important issue for my constituents is the double-dip recession, which was made in Downing street. May we have a debate next week or a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can explore this urgent issue and how we can get this country out of recession and back to jobs and growth?

We have had a number of days debating the Budget, the Finance Bill and the Financial Services Bill, so it is not the case that the Government have sought to avoid discussion of the economy. The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing, and we are creating 400,000 apprenticeships, we are helping people into employment with the Work programme, we are cutting corporation tax, we are setting up 24 new enterprise zones and we are investing billions in transport and communications. If we do not deal with the deficit that we inherited, we will lose our triple A rating and the average family on the average mortgage might find that their outgoings go up by £1,000 a month. I am sure that that is the last thing the hon. Gentleman wants to happen to his constituents.

On Friday 18 May, I am looking forward to taking part in the launch of the Keighley and Worth valley branch of the National Autistic Society. Autism is a lifelong condition that affects about 1,000 people in my constituency and some half a million across the country. Will the Leader of the House invite the Secretary of State to describe what the Government are doing to support people who suffer from that disability and the people who look after them?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I applaud the work of the National Autistic Society, what it does in early diagnosis and early treatment and what it does to encourage many schools to provide support to those who suffer from autism. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes a very keen interest in how we can do more for those with special needs and there might be an opportunity when we return after Prorogation for some debates about the steps we are taking to enable children who suffer from autism to recover and do well at school.

I respectfully remind the Leader of the House that Government Ministers are accountable not to the Leveson inquiry but to this House, just as ordinary Members of this House—including my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—are accountable not to the Leveson inquiry but to their constituents. Does the Leader of the House agree with the wording in the ministerial code of conduct on the relationship between a Secretary of State and a special adviser or do the Government intend to make a retrospective amendment to the code?

We have no plans to amend the ministerial code in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It makes sense to allow the Leveson inquiry to continue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is sometimes accused of having made up his mind before hearing the evidence; there is a real risk of Opposition Members making that mistake by coming to a conclusion before they have heard both sides of the case. I honestly think it makes sense to proceed with the Leveson inquiry before jumping to conclusions.

May we have a debate about the correlation between the size of the state and economic growth? Evidence from around the world shows that economies with a smaller state sector have faster and higher economic growth. My constituency is the 10th least reliant on public sector employment, has less than half the national average of unemployment and is one of the 20 fastest growing districts in the country. Does that not demonstrate to the Leader of the House that the Government must press on with measures to rebalance our economy as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is right that if we want sustainable growth and secure, well-paid jobs we must rebalance the economy so that it is less dependent on public sector employment and more dependent on private sector employment. I welcome the way that my hon. Friend’s constituency has diversified and is less dependent on public sector employment. He has just outlined the advantages of a relatively high employment rate and a relatively low unemployment rate. That is the transition that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is seeking to promote in other parts of the country, with assistance for those parts that are at the moment over-dependent on the public sector through the regional growth fund and with other measures.

I thank the Leader of the House for his help over this Session. Perhaps he could help me once more in finding the £500 million missing from the NHS budget. In the 2011-12 budget, £900 million was saved; £400 million has gone back into the 2012-13 budget. May we have an urgent statement, debate or just a letter to say where the £500 million has disappeared to?

I would be surprised if that had disappeared. I would expect it to be reinvested in the NHS, but I am sure that I can generate a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to explain the accounting procedures to which the hon. Lady has just referred and to give her the reassurance that the money that Parliament has voted to the NHS will indeed be applied to the NHS.

During the Easter recess, the Government released £600 million for new primary places across England and Wales. I looked with great interest to see who had got the money— £382 million has gone to London; I know that £30 million has gone to the London borough of Brent, which is extremely welcome—and I looked for the allocation to the London borough of Harrow, only to find that it was zero. I then made a series of phone calls to find out who was responsible, only to discover that the incompetent Harrow council had failed to supply the data, and therefore received no money. Despite many efforts, we still do not have an answer on how much money will be available to provide much-needed primary places in Harrow. Will the Leader of the House offer the House an opportunity of a statement so that we can clear up this matter once and for all?

I cannot offer a statement, but I commend my hon. Friend’s energy in seeking to ensure that the children in his constituency get a square deal at school. There is an issue between the London borough of Harrow and the Department for Education about the school capacity data that Harrow provided to the Department in 2011. That issue is under investigation, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to write to my hon. Friend to bring him up to date. I want to assure other colleagues that that will not affect allocations to other local authorities.

In the summer, the Department for Transport will decide its programme for capital investment in our railways. In Blaenau Gwent, where we have 25% worklessness, we are seeking electrification of the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line. May we have a debate on transport investment and the boost that it can give to local economies?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a commitment to electrify the line to Cardiff, and he will welcome that decision. I cannot promise an early debate on transport matters, but I hope that there will be an opportunity, perhaps in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, to touch on transport-related issues. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport can outline the investment that has been made in Wales to promote rail travel and follow up the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

May I pay tribute to Councillor Angus Adams of Dudley council, who was also chairman of Centro, who has sadly died? He was a much-loved character and a passionate advocate of local rail transport in the west midlands, as well as an advocate of the benefits of high-speed rail. May we have a debate on the economic benefits of HS2 and what it will bring to the west midlands, including jobs and employment in my constituency?

I am sorry to learn of the death of my hon. Friend’s constituent. I would welcome such a debate. As he knows, we are committed to HS2, not least for the reasons that he outlined of jobs and employment in the west midlands. I understand that HS2 could support employment growth of more than 8,000 jobs in the west midlands and would help to regenerate Birmingham’s east side. The Curzon Street station would create 1,400 jobs, and the Washwood Heath rolling-stock depot would create 400 jobs in construction. That is why I believe that HS2 is a project that should be supported by Members from all parts of the House.

Tempers are starting to fray in parliamentary offices following an e-mail from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority on 16 April at 17.18 asking right hon. and hon. Members to send a letter on to their staff about a change in their contract. That change does not apply to those members of staff who are on the old parliamentary contract. There is confusion among staff. The timetabled deadline is Monday next week. Some MPs have not sent the e-mail on; some members of staff do not know what they should do about their contract. Could we have at least a statement by Monday telling us whether Members have to send that e-mail on to their staff and what members of staff on the previous contract should do about the change in arrangements?

I am sorry to hear of the confusion experienced by the hon. Lady’s staff. From memory, I think that that was a beneficial change by IPSA to improve redundancy arrangements for staff. IPSA is an independent organisation, as she knows, but I will relay to it the concern that she has expressed. I regret any uncertainty among staff who work for Members of Parliament, and I will see whether the clarification that she seeks can be sent to her as a matter of urgency.

Companies such as E-Tech in Great Yarmouth have offered apprenticeships to young people which can give them experience that takes them all over the world. In Great Yarmouth alone, apprenticeships have almost doubled under this Government to 730. May we have an early debate in the House to highlight the positive opportunities offered by that excellent programme, which gives young people an excellent opportunity for work?

I am delighted to hear of the increase in apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We are committed to helping more people to benefit from high-quality apprenticeships. As a demand-led programme, it is dependent on employers coming forward. My hon. Friend has done a great deal to encourage them to do so and bid for apprenticeships. That is something that we can all do in our own constituencies to give the programme added momentum.

The Government’s double-dip recession has made life hard for hard-working families in Nottingham South. Now, the Government’s shambolic housing benefit reforms mean that those families will have to compete with displaced Londoners for homes, jobs and school places. Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for a debate on the housing crisis that his Government have caused?

The principle of a cap on housing benefit was supported by the hon. Lady’s party as well as by mine. We have a cap of £21,000 a year, which is a reasonable level of housing benefit, bearing in mind the rents that people in work may be asked to pay. She will know, too, that there is a transitional fund of £190 million to help the process of adjustment from where we are now to the regime that is being introduced. That is the right way to approach a bill that was soaring out of control. Among the measures that we have had to take to control public expenditure, a housing benefit cap was a proportionate and reasonable step.

Leek further education college in my constituency has received an additional £2 million from the Skills Funding Agency, which it is using to invest in new engineering training. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the support that the Government have given to vocational training to give our young people the best start in life?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who complements the point made by another of my hon. Friends about the initiatives that we are taking to equip young people with the skills that they need. I was delighted to hear of the extra £2 million invested in my hon. Friend’s college, which I know will be well spent. She reminds the House of the steps that we have taken to enable young people to compete in a competitive job market.

How can we not have an urgent debate about the state of the economy before we prorogue? If the GDP figures yesterday had been positive, the Government would cite that as proof that the strategy was working, but they were not—they were terrible. Should the Government not think again, show some humility and give the House a chance to debate that?

I say to the hon. Gentleman what I said a few moments ago. We had the Budget, followed by several days’ debate on the Budget. We then had Second Reading of the Finance Bill, followed by two days of debate on the Floor of the House on measures in the Finance Bill. We then had a debate on the Financial Services Bill. It honestly is not the case that the Government have denied the House an opportunity to debate the economy. On top of that, the Opposition are allotted regular Opposition days, which they can use if they want further debates. The answer is that we have debated the matter. We would welcome further debates, and there may be an opportunity in the new Session when we debate the Queen’s Speech for a further exchange about the economy.

The Nuneaton-Coventry rail upgrade, A5 improvements at Nuneaton, the A45 toll-bar island upgrade, and the A14/M1 upgrade are all vital infrastructure projects that the Government have introduced to support the midlands economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that investment in transport infrastructure is vital to generate economic growth, and will he agree to a debate on the future of transport infrastructure?

One of the decisions that the Government made on taking office was to preserve the capital programme that we inherited and, in fact, to add to it in certain parts and to make the necessary reductions in revenue expenditure. That is why the projects to which my hon. Friend referred could go ahead. It enables the country to be more competitive in world markets if we modernise our transport infrastructure as he outlined.

As chair of the all-party group on the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, may I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on procedural deficiencies at the UK Border Agency, with particular reference to its interface with SO15—Counter Terrorism Command—which may be preventing the pursuit of people living in our country who have participated in genocide and crimes against humanity?

This is an important matter which, of course, I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman wants to make sure that those who are charged with genocide are intercepted when they arrive in this country by the UK Border Agency and then, if necessary, arrested. I will certainly pass that on to the Home Secretary, and I applaud the work that the hon. Gentleman does on the all-party group.

May we please have a debate on the outcome of last week’s Brighton conference on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights so that Members can have the opportunity to examine the extent to which the new arrangements may reduce the number of Court rulings which directly oppose the wishes of this House?

There was a written ministerial statement on—I think—16 April which summarised the outcome of the Brighton conference. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers are to be complimented on what they did in a relatively short window—six months—in getting agreement for reform of the European Court, strengthening subsidiarity, improving the efficiency of the Court and raising the quality of the nomination process for judges. There are a number of outstanding issues which I know my hon. Friend is concerned with and which I know the House will want to return to in the next Session.

In a double-dip recession, drugs education is even more important, so may we please have a debate on why the Government have scrapped the £69,000 going to the drugs education forum, which includes more than 30 organisations, among them the Association of Chief Police Officers and the NSPCC, sharing and providing good practice to schools? Why, when I wrote to Lord Henley, did he refuse to deal with the issue?

I am sure my noble Friend Lord Henley would want to respond to any representations from any Member of Parliament, particularly on this serious issue. On support for education, we have maintained constant in cash terms the support for children and we have complemented it with the pupil premium. We have had to take some difficult decisions on public expenditure which, in all honesty, the hon. Lady’s party would also have had to take, had it got into government and been faced with the deficit. I will see whether I can elicit from the appropriate Minister a response on support for the project she mentioned.

I have constituents who are suffering from phone scams where companies acting as third parties are selling contracts that are very expensive. The people involved are being sent to jail for fraud, yet the consumers are still being held to pay the vastly inflated bills by phone companies. May we have an urgent statement on the matter from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs?

I am sorry to hear that a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents are being confronted with very high phone bills as a result of activity which sounds to me highly immoral. Of course I will raise it with the appropriate regulator, Ofcom, or the Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who has responsibility for consumer protection, and see whether we need to build in additional safeguards to protect people from exorbitant telephone bills for calls which they are not conscious of having made.

May we have a debate on the work of food banks? The Leader of the House may have seen early-day motion 3006 praising the work of the volunteers and staff at Harlow food bank, not least because it has now given food to more than 5,000 people and been nominated as Dods local charity of the year.

[That this House celebrates the nomination of Harlow Foodbank for the 2012 DODS Local Charity of the Year Award, and urges every hon. Member to vote for them; commends Harlow Foodbank for supporting individuals and families in crisis by providing free emergency food; further notes that since 2009 it has provided food to over 5,000 people; welcomes what the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has done to allow jobcentres to give this foodbank vouchers; and recognises the work of Harlow Foodbank in really making a difference to people’s lives in Harlow, as a lifeline to people who are going through a period of difficulty or crisis in their life.]

Will the Leader of the House vote for it and urge all hon. Members to do so as well?

I applaud the work of the Harlow food bank. My hon. Friend asks me to vote for it. There is an Andover food bank in my constituency, and I think the people there would be distressed if I were to vote for another food bank, but I applaud the work that food banks do in constituencies throughout the country, making help available to people who, for whatever reason, have no cash at the end of the week, and I commend the work that is being done in Harlow.

At least three of my constituents had their final divorce settlements agreed on the basis of their Ministry of Defence spouse’s pension levels, as agreed by the actuaries in the MOD. They have recently received letters informing them that their pensions will be significantly reduced. Will the Leader of the House urge one of the Defence Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box, apologise and take corrective action so that these three women can have a decent pension, as they imagined they would?

It so happens that there are three Defence Ministers sitting on the Front Bench, all of whom heard that question. The nod of assent from the Secretary of State indicates that he has that problem on board and he will make urgent inquiries. If any injustice has taken place, he will ensure that it is put right.