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Business of the House

Volume 546: debated on Thursday 21 June 2012

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 25 June—Consideration in Committee of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (day 2).

Tuesday 26 June—Opposition Day [3rd allotted day]. There will be a debate on the national health service followed by a debate on defence. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 27 June—Conclusion of consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill (day 3).

Thursday 28 June—Debate on a motion relating to fiscal measures to strengthen the green economy, followed by debate on a motion relating to the appointment of a Minister for older people. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 July will include:

Monday 2 July—Motion to approve ways and means resolutions relating to the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 1).

Tuesday 3 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 2).

Wednesday 4 July—Estimates Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s regional role, followed by a debate on the work of the UK Border Agency.

Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: There will be a debate on: UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s regional role; 12th report from the Foreign Affair Committee of Session 2010-12, HC 1567, and the Government response thereto, CM 8370. Followed by a debate on the work of the UK Border Agency; 15th report from the Home Affairs Committee of Session 2010-12, The Work of the UK Border Agency (April-July 2011), HC 1497, and the Government response thereto, CM 8253, and the Committee’s 21st report of Session 2010-12, Work of the UK Border Agency (August-December 2011), HC 1722.]

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 5 July—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Bill, followed by debate on a motion relating to VAT on air ambulance fuel payments, followed by a further debate to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 6 July—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House of business in Westminster Hall:

Thursday 5 July—Debate on adoption.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week.

The visit to the UK by Aung San Suu Kyi is an opportunity for us to pay tribute to her enormous courage and determination in leading peaceful opposition to the Burmese dictatorship. The personal sacrifices that she has made in spending most of the last quarter of a century under house arrest have been enormous. Her bravery and fortitude have been an inspiration to many and deserve the deepest admiration. Members in all parts of the House will be looking forward to the speech she will deliver to both Houses later today. Because of the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi and others, Burma is finally taking the first tentative steps on the road to democracy. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is important for the UK to do all we can to help to ensure democratic reform in Burma?

If in Burma the signs are promising, in Egypt there are worrying signs that the military is reluctant to give up power, and in Syria the Government’s actions in massacring their own people are completely unacceptable. Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that the Foreign Secretary will continue to keep the House aware of the efforts being made to ensure the transition to democracy in all these regions?

This week Members will have received a letter from the Culture Secretary announcing a U-turn on the planned draft Communications Data Bill Green Paper, which was to be published this summer. It was delayed until the autumn, and now we are told that it will not be published at all. Instead, we are promised a White Paper some time next year. In his letter, the Culture Secretary told Members that this would incorporate the Government’s response to the Leveson report. Is not the position of the Culture Secretary and the Government getting beyond parody? Does the Leader of the House really think that it is remotely credible for Lord Justice Leveson’s report to be sent to this Culture Secretary to consider, given that he has, to put it kindly, a strong personal interest in the conclusions?

The Prime Minister rushed to the TV studios to condemn the tax avoidance scheme used by Jimmy Carr. Oddly, he did not take the opportunity to condemn as “morally repugnant” the tax avoidance scheme used by Conservative supporter Gary Barlow, who has given a whole new meaning to the phrase “Take That”. If he is also “morally repugnant”, why has he just been given an OBE in the birthday honours? Why is the Prime Minister’s view of what is dodgy in the tax system so partial? Sir Philip Green has interesting tax arrangements, but far from being labelled “morally repugnant” in a Mexican TV studio, he got a Government review to head up.

While the Prime Minister talks the talk in the TV studios, the reality is that his Government are cutting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ resources, making it much harder to tackle tax avoidance schemes, while in the botched Budget his Government have given every millionaire a legal way to reduce their tax bill by cutting tax for the richest 1%. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the part-time Chancellor to make a statement to explain why the Government are cutting taxes for millionaires when hard-pressed families are struggling to make ends meet?

Another U-turn this week was the admission by the gaffe-laden Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General that the Government had recruited additional special advisers, breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of the Tory election manifesto and the coalition agreement. May I tell the Leader of the House that the difficulties that the Government are experiencing are not because they have too few special advisers but because they stand up for the wrong people? They make the wrong choices: the wrong choices on the economy, the wrong choices on tax cuts for the richest 1%, and the wrong choices on HMRC funding.

The U-turn on special advisers is the latest in a long line. Will the Leader of the House update Members on how many U-turns the Government have performed over the last month? We have had U-turns on the pasty tax, the skip tax, the caravan tax, aircraft carriers, and the special advisers cap. Have I missed any? [Interruption.] Oh yes, the charity tax. Given this record, and for the convenience of Members, will the Leader of the House, alongside announcing the forthcoming business, in future also announce the forthcoming Government U-turns?

I suppose that there was a tangential connection with next week’s business in some of that.

May I, too, start on a consensual note and endorse what the hon. Lady said about the visit of Aung San Suu Kyi? We are all looking forward to her address in Westminster Hall. It is a sign of the progress that has been made in Burma that she feels able to leave Burma confident that she will be able to return. It is quite right that this iconic person should be given the opportunity to address both Houses in Westminster Hall later on. It is indeed our objective to play a key role in supporting genuine democratic change in Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi will be seeing the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development, and that dialogue will take forward the agenda for change. There is a heavy weight of expectation on her shoulders, and I feel some sympathy with her for carrying that burden.

The Foreign Secretary will certainly want to keep the House up to date on the worrying events in Egypt and Syria, so I can give the hon. Lady that undertaking.

On the proceedings on the Leveson report and the way in which that gets reported back to the House, I think that the machinery we have set up is absolutely correct. We debated the position of the Culture Secretary last week, and his position was endorsed in a vote at the end of that debate.

On tax avoidance, we are introducing a number of measures that the Labour party failed to introduce, such as a general anti-avoidance rule and measures to ensure that at least some tax is paid by those on high incomes. Of course, the Chancellor will be at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday to answer questions.

The hon. Lady ended on U-turns and wrong choices. Today I read an article in The Times by the shadow Home Secretary, in which she conceded that Labour did not get it right on immigration:

“In government we didn’t do enough to address people’s concerns on immigration. By the election, we had lost the argument”.

That was one wrong choice, and I welcome that admission. I hope we can expect it to be the first in a series of articles by Opposition Front Benchers outlining their mistakes over the 13 years. When can we expect an article in The Times from the shadow Chancellor, confessing that Labour did not get it right on the economy either?

I appreciate that the Procedure Committee published its report on our sitting hours only yesterday, but is the Leader of the House aware of the desirability of the Government’s responding to the report soon so that we can have a debate before the summer recess? Will he use his offices to see that a debate on sitting hours, whether in Government time or in Backbench Business Committee time, takes place sooner rather than later?

The whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend and his Committee for their report on sitting hours. I encourage all hon. Members to read it. The Government will of course seek to make an early response to facilitate the debate to which he has referred. I see an advantage in dealing with the section of the report on Monday to Thursday sitting hours at an early stage. I will report back to him and to the House if time for such a debate can be found before we rise for the summer recess.

I, too, welcome the report on sitting hours by the Procedure Committee. As a Select Committee report, it almost certainly falls to the Backbench Business Committee to allocate the time. With this being a new Session, I have a new plea. So far, only Thursdays have been allocated for Back-Bench time. Will the Government allocate something other than Thursdays for Back-Bench time, so that not only important reports such as the sitting hours report by the Procedure Committee but other matters with votable motions can be debated not on a Thursday?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. Of the 40 days in the Chamber that were allocated to the Backbench Business Committee in the Session that has just ended, 17 were not on Thursdays. It is therefore not the case that they are all Thursdays. None the less, I take to heart her plea for more non-Thursdays. There may be a non-Thursday before the recess. I take her point on board and, as always, we will seek to accommodate the hon. Lady and her Committee as much as we can.

May we have a debate on extending the excellent provisions for councils to borrow to build social housing? Headingley in my constituency is now achieving a better balance between family houses and houses in multiple occupation. However, we want councils to be able to buy properties so that the mix can be extended and the balance improved further.

I understand my hon. Friend’s keen interest in improving the quality and quantity of the social housing stock in his constituency. I welcome what he said about the freedoms that we have given local authorities recently. I will raise the point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Apart from local authorities, there is the additional resource of housing associations, which already have the freedom, to which my hon. Friend referred, to buy houses on the open market if they want to. Because they can borrow and top up their allocation with private funds, routing money through housing associations often enables public money to go further than if it was routed through local authorities.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 could do much to protect and promote local public services, jobs and thriving places, and to empower people. We have, however, been waiting for more than a year for the associated regulations. Media reports suggest that the regulations have been signed off by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). May we have a statement from him about when he plans to publish the regulations, or should we just quietly forget the whole thing?

There are questions to Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government on Monday week. In the meantime, I will ask my right hon. Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman to bring him up to date with our plans to publish the regulations to which he has referred.

Will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on the public perception of the politicians in this place and, more specifically and pertinently, now that the dust has settled, on whether that perception was enhanced by last week’s Opposition debate?

As I said at the end of that debate, it was not a good debate. I would very much welcome a debate along the lines that my hon. Friend has suggested, in which Members from all parts of the House could outline the steps that we can take individually to drive up the public’s perception of and confidence in Members of the House. If such a debate took place, I very much hope that Members on all sides would listen to the repeated injunctions from Mr Speaker that we should use temperate language and have regard to the impact of what we say in this Chamber on those who are watching.

I am glad that you have a good sense of timing, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for news of the Lords reform Bill, but I heard nothing. Will the Leader of the House confirm that when the Bill is introduced, it will include provisions for the ending of the link between a peerage and sitting in the legislature, and that it will end peerages being given to anybody? While we are at it, should we not abolish baronetcies, because now that we have parliamentary knights, who have earned the right, and since a baronetcy can never be inherited by a woman, but only by a man, surely it is time, in an egalitarian era, to get rid of them?

I think that was a wholly unnecessary and provocative remark! Some baronets were Labour MPs, such as Tam Dalyell. I am not sure what he would have thought about that comment. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we published a draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which proposed some of the measures to which he referred. There was then a report by the Joint Committee on the draft Bill, and the Government are reflecting on it. We will introduce a Bill to reform the House of Lords and plan to do so and to have a Second Reading debate on it before the summer recess.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the private rail companies? One of my constituents bought a ticket with his young person’s railcard, but when he was inspected on the train he was found not to have the railcard with him. He was charged not only the mark-up to the adult fee, but the full adult fee plus a £60 administration charge by East Midlands Trains. May we have a debate on the practices of some of these companies?

I am sorry to hear of the misfortune that happened to my hon. Friend’s constituent. I am sure that as his Member of Parliament my hon. Friend will take the matter up with the train operating company to see whether it might consider its actions. There will be Transport questions a week today, when there will be an opportunity to raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

As the co-chairman of the Conservative party has been travelling abroad on official Government business with her business partner, who has involvement with the extremist Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, may we have a statement from the Prime Minister on whether he will honour his pledge to ban that organisation, which he made before becoming Prime Minister?

I will raise with the Home Secretary the question of banning that particular group. However, the hon. Lady should be careful about making accusations about who travels along with whom, because I am sure that that is an issue that could be raised by Members on both sides of the House.

I, too, would like a debate on anomalies in the rail fares pricing system. Constituents in Marsden and Slaithwaite in my patch are constantly baffled that it costs three times as much to travel just one stop in a direction that goes across different passenger transport executives as it does to go 20 miles in the other direction to Leeds.

I understand the perplexity of my hon. Friend’s constituents. There is a consultation on ticketing that ends towards the end of the month. I encourage him and his constituents to make representations to that review of ticketing policy. There is a separate consultation exercise on devolving more autonomy to local organisations to resolve issues such as ticketing for local journeys. There are therefore two opportunities to influence the fares structure to which he has referred.

Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the quality of management in our country? A recent Chartered Management Institute report suggested that 38% of the managers in this country are not very good at all. That affects every aspect of our lives and ultimately leads to our country underperforming. Given the low morale of staff in this place, which I remarked on only two or three weeks ago, is he doing something about raising the standard of the management of this place so that the people who work here actually feel that we care about them?

Responsibility for managing the House of Commons is an issue not for the Government but for the House of Commons Commission. As a member of that Commission, I take very seriously, as I know the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) does, our responsibility to the staff who work here, who give us a good quality of service. We are aware of some areas of concern and my door is open to representatives of the staff of this House to come and talk to me. On the broader issue, the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill currently going through the House may offer an opportunity to debate the quality of management in this country.

The nation’s corner shops rely heavily on tobacco sales to sustain their business. As the Government are pursuing a number of policies designed to reduce tobacco consumption, may we have a debate on how we can support our corner shops, which are a lifeline in so many communities?

I note what my hon. Friend says about the importance of small shops. So far as standardised packaging is concerned, there is currently a consultation exercise, which I think ends on 10 July, on the case for and against standardised packaging of cigarettes. The Government have not made up their mind—we want to await the outcome of the representations that have been made—and I urge my hon. Friend and her constituents, if they have not already done so, to join members of relevant trade associations in making representations to the Department of Health on this important issue.

The chief constable of West Mercia police has indicated that a strategic merger between the force and Warwickshire will result in a reduction in front-line officers and police community support officers. Will a Minister come to the House to explain why the promise that there would be no front-line reductions in police has been broken?

I am not sure that there are active proposals to do what the previous Government proposed—they were persuaded not to do it—and merge some of the police forces in this country. So far as front-line services are concerned, the Home Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that although police authorities have to take difficult decisions, we believe that through having joint services and intelligent commissioning, by getting other people to carry out some of the services currently performed by police officers, the quality and integrity of front-line services can be maintained.

Local Reading mum Rebecca Rye has raised concerns with me about the health effects on her son Edward of so-called energy drinks. Given the growing research evidence, including a paper from the university of Miami, there is significant cause for concern for vulnerable groups about effects such as seizures, strokes and even sudden death. As parents are very concerned, may we have a statement from a Health Minister or a debate in Government time about this very important subject?

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. There is concern about the impact on some people of high energy drinks. The UK Food Standards Agency considers that the effects of caffeine are transitory and without permanent health effects. It has published advice that children and other people who are sensitive to caffeine should consume such drinks only in moderation. If my hon. Friend has further evidence, the FSA and the Department of Health would very much like to have a look at it to see whether that advice needs revision in the light of the evidence.

This week, the Welsh First Minister said on the Floor of the Senedd that he was actively canvassing for the relocation of Trident to Milford Haven. The reaction of the people of Wales to this news is one of horror. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to make a statement on what progress there has been in the intergovernmental negotiations on this issue?

We had Defence questions a few days ago, on Monday last week, and I do not think that the opportunity to ask Defence questions arises again until September.

In the mean time, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to write to the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) to bring him up to date with the discussion to which he has just referred.

My right hon. Friend may be surprised to hear that a city with the cultural history of Chester does not have its own permanent theatre. However, the local council has inspirational plans to build a new 800-seat theatre in the city centre. May we have a debate on funding for art facilities so that I could highlight and champion this exciting project?

I am delighted to hear that the City of Chester is contemplating having a theatre and that it has the strong support of my hon. Friend. He will know that decisions on capital funding for projects like this are made by the Arts Council at arm’s length from central Government. If he has not already done so I encourage him and his local authority to contact the Arts Council to make sure that this is on its radar and that there is a constructive dialogue about how we might make progress. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be invited to the opening if and when it is built.

Project Merlin was announced to the House with great fanfare by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Its catastrophic failure led the Chancellor to make a series of announcements in his Mansion House speech, but despite the fact that we had a Treasury statement last Thursday, the Chancellor still has not come to the House and given us an opportunity to question him on this matter. I know that the Leader of the House genuinely believes in the importance of this Chamber, but why have we not had an opportunity to speak to the Chancellor about this?

For many businesses in South West Devon, overheads such as rent and staffing costs are fairly stable, but business rates seem to be escalating out of control, often for precious little in return. The situation is made worse by an appeal system that is completely clogged up and that takes months to navigate. What do the Government intend to do to clear this logjam and ensure that my constituents receive a swifter, fairer hearing?

I am sorry to hear about any delay in hearing appeals from my hon. Friend’s constituents about the rateable value of their business premises. I will certainly pursue that with Ministers at Department for Communities and Local Government. It is worth putting it on the record that we have doubled small business rate relief, which helps roughly half a million small businesses. Also—this may be of relevance to my hon. Friend—we have scrapped Labour’s ports tax, thereby helping many businesses operating in areas such as Plymouth.

The crossroads of the UK’s motorway network is the junction of the M1 and the M6 at Catthorpe, which is used daily by many businesses based in Rugby. The Government have rightly scheduled funds for an upgrade, but there have been two serious accidents in the past week, one of which involved yet another fatality. May we have a debate to consider what temporary measures could be taken immediately and how to make permanent changes to avoid further loss of life?

I am sorry to hear about the loss of life. As my hon. Friend has said, we have committed funds to this project, but I think a public inquiry is needed first. The Highways Agency is aware of the recent accidents and, subject to the result of police investigations into their causes, will look at what measures might be possible to improve the safety of the junction in advance of the major improvements to which my hon. Friend has referred.

Will the Leader of the House find time for us to debate last Thursday’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on child poverty and the forthcoming consultation on how it is measured and on whether this means that the Government are opening up the Child Poverty Act 2010?

My hon. Friend raises an important point and there will be a debate on social mobility in Westminster Hall on 28 June, in which it might be possible for her to raise this issue. We take seriously the commitment to tackle child poverty. As my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary has said, we believe that the current measurements are wrong. Discussions are under way to see whether there are better measurements and whether we need to look beyond having a simple mathematical calculation of poverty and look at some of the root causes to make sure that they are tackled as well.

I know that the Leader of the House is extremely keen that Members should hear new Government policy first, or at the earliest opportunity. As Ministers cannot make statements here first—they seem addicted to going to television studios and newspapers—would it be possible each week to publish in which television studios, programmes and papers these statements are going to be made?

I think that the first debate chosen by the Backbench Business Committee was one on ministerial statements. There was then a report by the Select Committee on Procedure, which we debated. I have consistently made it clear that Ministers take seriously their obligation, when the House of Commons is sitting, in the first instance to announce major changes of policy to the House. That is the policy of the Government, of which I constantly remind my Cabinet colleagues, and we intend to adhere to it.

May we have an urgent statement on the European Union and animal experiments? My constituent Louise Jackson is concerned about a new EU directive which will scrap the historic protection that Britain has granted to stray cats and dogs, stopping them being used in laboratory experiments. Losing a pet is distressing, but the idea that it could end up in someone’s lab is unacceptable. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Government to stand up to Europe on the issue?

Like other hon. Members, I have had representations from constituents who share the concern referred to by my hon. Friend. I can give him a categorical assurance that the UK does not allow the use of stray dogs and cats in animal experiments. We do not envisage any circumstances in which the use of stray animals could be justified in future.

May we have a statement from a Local Government Minister on the performance of councils with respect to revenue collection? The Leader of the House will be as shocked as I am that Labour Enfield council has failed to collect £4.9 million in unpaid penalty charge notices since 2010 and yet, despite that, it is putting up parking charges, which are harming our town centre and introducing new charges on a Sunday.

I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, which he has expressed on several occasions at business questions. I understand that a meeting is taking place in Enfield on 4 July and I encourage residents who are opposed to what is planned to go along to that meeting. So far as the Government are concerned, we have removed the policy of setting charges to discourage the use of cars and we have introduced the policy that parking enforcement should be proportionate but, crucially, we expect local authorities to have regard to the impact of parking charges on businesses in the town centre. I commend my hon. Friend for the vigorous campaign that he has launched.

May we have a debate on honesty in prison sentences? According to a parliamentary answer from the Ministry of Justice this week, someone who is sentenced to prison for six months can be released in six weeks, someone sent to prison for 12 months can be released after three months, and someone sent to prison for two years can be released after seven and a half months. A debate would allow the Government to explain to my constituents why that is a satisfactory state of affairs, and if they do not think it is a satisfactory state of affairs, perhaps they could explain what they will do about it.

In the previous Session we had extensive discussions on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. During the passage of the Bill, my hon. Friend raised many of those issues. Some of his suggestions were dealt with by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice in response. We have no plans for another debate on sentencing policy, but it is open to my hon. Friend, as a former member of the Backbench Business Committee, to seek a Back-Bench debate in Back-Bench time.