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Business of the House

Volume 550: debated on Thursday 13 September 2012

The business for next week will be:

Monday 17 September—Second Reading of the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill.

Tuesday 18 September—Motion on the conference recess Adjournment, the format of which has been specified by the Backbench Business Committee. Colleagues will wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 11.30 am on this day.

The business for the week commencing 15 October will include:

Monday 15 October—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill.

Tuesday 16 October—Remaining stages of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill (day one).

Wednesday 17 October—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Thursday 18 October—A debate on a motion relating to the disbandment of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the use of intercept evidence in courts and inquests. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 October will include:

Monday 22 October—Second Reading of the Public Service Pensions Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 17 September and 18 October will be:

Monday 17 September—A debate on the e-petition relating to the west coast main line franchise decision.

Thursday 18 October—A general debate on community benefit for major infrastructure projects.

It is also my intention to provide time for a debate on Hillsborough, as announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during his statement yesterday.

Colleagues will also wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver the autumn statement on Wednesday 5 December.

The whole House will be shocked and saddened by the murder in Libya of the US ambassador and three other members of the United States diplomatic staff. It will inevitably raise concerns about the safety and security of our own diplomats in Libya and elsewhere in the region. May we have an urgent statement from the Foreign Secretary on what action the Government are taking to protect Foreign Office staff in the region?

We welcome the publication yesterday of the Government’s papers on the Hillsborough disaster and the report by the Bishop of Liverpool—that was a process we began in government. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said yesterday, those of us in the Opposition fully associate ourselves with the very welcome apology the Prime Minister made to the families and to the people of Liverpool.

The contents of the report are scandalous. There is shock and anger at the revelations that an opportunity to save the lives of so many was missed. There is shock and anger at the despicable and self-serving lies told about the fans’ behaviour on the day. There is disbelief that the truth has been concealed for 23 long years. I pay tribute to the families who have campaigned for justice for so long—without them yesterday would not have been as it was. I also pay tribute to the work of all Members of this House representing Merseyside seats and others who have campaigned for justice, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), and my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram). Does the Leader of the House agree that this shows the value of Members of Parliament who represent and fight for the communities they serve?

Last night, the chief constable of South Yorkshire police said that it looked on the face of it as if some police officers had broken the law. This morning, the ex-chief constable of South Yorkshire, Richard Wells, said that it is “absolutely essential” to pursue prosecutions in the Hillsborough case. At the same time, one of those officers who appears to have been involved in orchestrating the cover up is currently a serving chief constable.

Yesterday, the House was united in its response. May I assure the Leader of the House that we stand ready to co-operate in any way that is helpful in finally achieving a just resolution? Will the Leader of the House explain what the Government’s course of action will now be to hold to account those who did wrong and deliver justice for the families, now that we finally have the truth? On setting aside the flawed coroners’ verdicts, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Attorney-General to make a statement before recess on the next steps? We welcome the fact that there was a statement yesterday and the commitment to a full debate in Government time. I note what the Leader of the House said in his statement, but many members will want to contribute to the debate, so could he be a little more forthcoming and update the House on when it will take place? I hope that it will take place on the Floor of this House and not in Westminster Hall.

The Chancellor has finally plucked up the courage to come to this House at the start of December to make his autumn statement. We know that the new Environment Secretary is a climate change sceptic, but the Chancellor clearly thinks the climate is warming because in his mind autumn now extends well into December. Given that this Government have decided that autumn now extends into December, can the Leader of the House assure us that the Prime Minister has no plans to cancel Christmas?

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister about the Government’s target to cut debt by 2015. Given that borrowing is up 25% and that the Government are briefing that the Chancellor will abandon his debt target completely, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to make an urgent statement in this House on whether the Government are still committed to the target?

The hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) gave an interview to The Spectator this week in which he compared himself favourably to Churchill, Pitt and Disraeli. Now, we all share his joy at his appointment to ministerial office after striving so hard to be noticed, but it is not immediately apparent to me, or I suspect to anyone else, why the Under-Secretary of State for Skills thinks he has quite matched the achievements of some outstanding British Prime Ministers. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the hon. Gentleman to make a statement before the recess to enlighten us on his obvious powers?

I think we share across the House a sense of outrage at the attacks on US diplomatic staff in Libya. As the hon. Lady rightly says, the Foreign Secretary, who was in Cairo, responded and made clear the Government’s condolences to the US Government. The attacks of course remind us of the dangers our diplomatic staff run, which we know very well from other such incidents. I know that the Foreign Secretary, if he can, will update the House on how arrangements to secure our staff around the world are being pursued.

Having sat here yesterday and heard the report from the Hillsborough Independent Panel, I share the House’s sense of shock and outrage. From my point of view, as a former Secretary of State for Health, I know that people might not always be able to achieve the standard in professional and public service responsibilities that so many of us believe they would want, but it is shocking that some would go to such lengths to deny the truth, spread misinformation, not follow the evidence or the science and, in those circumstances, leave the families with no awareness of what the post-mortems genuinely meant or what the possibilities had been. I completely share the hon. Lady’s sense of shock that that occurred.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, what has happened is very much to the credit of the families and Members of this House. In response to her question, it does indicate the value of Members of Parliament, and I pay tribute to the way Members have pursued the issues over many years. It says something about the value of this House that we are not part of the establishment, and should not see ourselves as such; we are beyond it, with people being accountable to this House. We should use this House and its powers and privileges to deliver that sense of accountability. In following up the panel’s report, we must continue to make the House exactly that kind of forum for achieving that sense of accountability.

Clearly, Ministers and other authorities must follow up the panel’s report. I know that the Attorney-General will keep the House informed, as the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, and I will of course keep in close touch with him about keeping the House updated on whatever decisions he might reach. I have announced a debate, which will take place on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that, with the usual channels, we will expedite that so that it can take place as soon as possible, and talk about when the appropriate moment for the debate will be.

The hon. Lady asked about fiscal policy. I have to tell her that the Government’s fiscal policy is very clear, and it enables our plans to meet the targets. With regard to forecasts, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast, for example, is due at the autumn statement, which I announced today will take place on 5 December.

I am in favour of Christmas. Oliver Cromwell, when Lord Privy Seal—an office I now have the privilege of holding—abolished Christmas but, although we are fond of precedent in this place, I have no plans or intentions to do the same.

Although many tributes were paid to him last week when I was in my constituency, may I, as Father of the House, thank the previous Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), for his service to the House? I have known every Leader of the House since Harry Crookshank in the 1950s, and to my mind my right hon. Friend ranks high among the best of them.

May I add my voice to those who support the statement and campaign of the families affected by the Hillsborough disaster? The campaigners used the then-new e-petitions system to take their campaign to the House so that Members could bring forward yesterday’s statement. That points out the importance of e-petitions to the House.

I welcome the announcement that the 10,000-signature threshold will now trigger a response from the Government. Will the Leader of the House work with the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that every single instigator and signatory of an e-petition will eventually get some kind of response from us?

I enjoyed listening to the work of the Backbench Business Committee this week. I intend to work with the hon. Lady and Members across the House, including my colleagues in the Government, to ensure that those who give their time and energy to bringing issues before the House feel that they are responded to properly and timeously.

Order. A large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but it is highly unlikely that I shall be able to accommodate them all today. There is a statement on Afghanistan to follow and two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. I seek to maximise the number of contributors, so there will be a premium on brevity from the Back Benches and Front Benches alike.

May we have a debate on the future of the Shoeburyness-to-Fenchurch Street line, which is currently under tender? Specifically, can the Government give my commuter constituents reassurance that good rolling stock will not be replaced with old, dirty rolling stock without air conditioning?

The choice of rolling stock is a matter for the franchisee, but it must meet the franchise conditions. The competition to which my hon. Friend refers is, of course, live, so I shall not make any further comment on the bids.

May we have an early debate on the marking of GCSE English exams this summer? It is clear that tens of thousands of young people went home in June, confident that they had done everything that their teachers and the examiners asked them to do, only to get devastating results in August. As Ofqual is accountable to the House, should we not have the chance to debate whether the damage being done to those young people’s careers far outweighs any impact of regrading in line with the January assessments?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will have seen that the Education Committee is pursuing precisely those issues, and it is right that it should. The Secretary of State for Education was absolutely right to say that Ofqual is an independent regulator. He did not interfere with its decisions, and, frankly, the Welsh Education Minister is wrong in seeking to substitute his own judgment.

May we have a debate on bigotry, which will enable the many hon. Members who hold a traditional view of marriage not to declare an interest?

I am in favour of marriage and I do not think we need to debate bigotry because in the House we seek to engage with all our affairs in a way that respects good language. If my hon. Friend is referring to the draft of a speech for the Deputy Prime Minister, I reassure him that the Deputy Prime Minister did not make the remarks and nor did he intend to.

May we have an urgent debate on the situation in Yemen? On Tuesday, the Yemeni Defence Minister narrowly escaped assassination and today 5,000 Yemenis have stormed the American embassy in Sana’a. The country is sliding into civil war. Please may we have an urgent statement?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised an issue that we all recognise is both urgent and increasingly difficult. I will, of course, talk to my colleagues at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about it. I do not have knowledge of any immediate opportunity for debate, but I will talk to them about how they might further report to the House.

Yesterday I hosted a meeting for MPs about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. We heard numerous tales of aid not getting through to the people who really need it. When we return from the conference season, may we have a debate or statement on the effectiveness of aid and what changes need to be made to make sure that it is getting to the people who need it?

I will of course ask my colleagues how they might further report to the House. However, I remind hon. Members that the UK is the second largest bilateral donor to the Syrian people, and that it is helping to deliver emergency food aid to 80,000 people a month, shelter for 9,000 families, and urgent medical care for over 50,000 people affected by the fighting.

We do need to have the debate about GCSE marking that was requested. Why will not the Government and Ofqual listen to Mike Whiting, the Conservative cabinet member in Kent county council who said that regrading should take place? Do we not need an urgent debate in the House in Government time?

I will not repeat what I have said other than to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is absolutely right to say that there was no political interference. Ofqual is an independent regulator, and we should respect its independence and its determination to maintain standards.

Four incredibly brave women of the Special Operations Executive were murdered by the SS in Ravensbrück concentration camp on or shortly before 5 February 1945. Their names were Denise Bloch, Cecily Lefort, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo, who was later awarded the George Cross. Former Member of Parliament, Nicholas Bennett, recently visited Ravensbrück and can find no obvious memorial to those real heroes. I am sure that my right hon. Friend, and all Members of this House, will join me in calling on the Government to rectify this situation.

My hon. Friend is right. The courage of the men and women of the Special Operations Executive was remarkable. Members of the House will recall that three years ago that courage was recognised with a memorial on the Albert embankment, including a statue of Violette Szabo. None the less, what my hon. Friend has said about Ravensbrück camp will no doubt have been noticed by the German embassy here.

When, and from whom, may we expect a statement indicating that the Honours Forfeiture Committee is going to look at the honours attached to the names of anyone who was implicated in the scandalous syndicate of deceit that was exposed yesterday? When it does so, will it also consider the case of Derek Wilford, who was clearly indicted by the Saville report?

If I may, I will ask colleagues with those responsibilities to write to the hon. Gentleman about those matters, and ask that I be informed about what the timetable is for considering them.

The Backbench Business Committee has been an outstanding success, and I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) for her leadership in it. However, does the Leader of the House agree that an excessively large number of set-piece debates that used to take place in Government time are now held in Backbench Business Committee time? Is there now an opportunity to increase the amount of time given to Backbench Business Committee debates or, alternatively, to bring back Government-time debates for defence and other things?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his recognition of what a step forward the Backbench Business Committee is. We look forward to it continuing to do its work. As I understand it, part of the intention following the Wright Committee was that some of the debates that were scheduled in Government time should be treated as part of the responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee.

Will the Leader of the House ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House before we rise for the recess to clarify the Government’s intentions if, as expected, the United Nations General Assembly is asked to vote before we reassemble on the admission of Palestine as a non-member state of the UN? Last year many hon. Members found it inexplicable, given the UK’s policies, that we should have abstained on the motion at the Security Council. At that time, the Foreign Secretary said that in the event of a motion at the UN General Assembly, different considerations would apply. As this matter could be resolved one way or the other before we reassemble, may we have a statement so that we can respond before the House rises?

The House will be aware of the Government’s view, which I think is widely shared, that the right route is to a two-state solution through negotiation. That will continue to be the Government’s approach. Indeed, depending on the events at the UN General Assembly, Her Majesty’s Government will be seeking to promote such a negotiated solution.

Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 489?

[That this House notes that the Charity Commission has formally recognised druids as a religion and granted them charitable status, even though they have just 300 members; questions why therefore the Charity Commission has not recognised the Christian Brethren church, which has 16,000 members and more than 300 churches across the country; further notes the extensive community and charitable outreach that the Brethren church does, which has significant public benefit; and finally calls on the Charity Commission to stop the discrimination against this Christian church and to have a level playing field for all religions.]

May we have a debate on the Charity Commission and the recognition of religious groups to find out why it recognises druids but does not recognise the Christian Brethren, who have 16,000 members and 300 churches across the country?

Yes, I have seen the early-day motion in my hon. Friend’s name. Of course, the Charity Commission is not a regulator of religion, and it should be explaining its responsibilities and doing so in a way that commands confidence.

A high street payday loan broker in my constituency has been standing outside a primary school handing out balloons to children and leaflets asking whether they are struggling to afford a school uniform. May we have an urgent debate on effective regulation of this predatory sector?

I will, if I may, invite my hon. Friends from the Department for Education to respond on that issue, with which I confess I am not familiar.

The ongoing saga of Post Office procurement is getting rather out of hand. There is still no information coming to sub-postmasters from the Post Office. If the Post Office loses the procurement bid, rural post offices will disappear. May we please have a statement or a debate in this House to discuss what is plan B should this go wrong?

I presume that my hon. Friend is talking about the vehicle excise duty contract. That is a live procurement and, as such, it would be incredibly difficult to have any kind of a debate about it. I assure him and the House that last year Government business passing through post offices increased in value, which it had not done for a number of years previously. I reiterate that, as I said last week, the post office local model is giving post offices additional possibilities and business opportunities, and I hope that that will continue.

May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 523?

[That this House deplores the decision of HSBC to close its branch located in Shildon, County Durham; notes that in light of this decision the town of Shildon, home to over 10,000 residents, will be left without any banking facilities meaning residents will be forced to travel several miles to get to their nearest bank; further notes that this decision is especially deplorable in light of the fact that HSBC made a pre-tax profit of £13.7 billion last year and paid their Chief Executive just under £8 million; and finally calls for HSBC to review urgently its decision to close its branch in Shildon.]

The disgraceful proposal to close the HSBC bank branch in Shildon will leave 10,000 people without any banking facilities at all. Will the Leader of the House make time for us to have a debate on how the banks treat ordinary people?

I have every sympathy with the hon. Lady. I remember that in my own constituency, some 10-plus years ago, branches of HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds shut down in villages. As the years have gone on, much of that closure programme has made it increasingly difficult for people to obtain cash and to undertake some of their business. I know that this concerns the House, and I will raise it with my colleagues. It may come up again when banking reform proposals come before the House.

May we have an early debate on restoring public trust in the police? The majority of police are professional, hard-working and honest, but an increasing minority are not, and too often they are pensioned off after internal disciplinary procedures rather than going before the criminal courts, even when they are known to have committed a criminal act.

I think that that is one of the many reasons the whole House will have been shocked by the concerted effort, including by police officers, to misinform and mislead people about the nature of what happened at Hillsborough. This is, in a sense, part of a wider issue about culture. I hope that in discussions with my hon. Friends and the new Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice we may be able to address, together with the police service, further changes in culture. I would not say that there have not been substantial changes. I know personally many of those who feel that over the years there have been substantial changes in the right direction in the police service, but we must look critically at whether more can be done to make sure that there is a culture of openness, transparency and accountability.

The Leader of the House will recall from his previous position the importance of physical activity in promoting the health of the nation and programmes such as Move It that deliver it across the spectrum for thousands of young people. Will he therefore consider a debate on the Olympic legacy, particularly in relation to what that legacy can mean for the health of the nation?

Yes. I share the hon. Gentleman’s view. I hope there will be an opportunity for the House to debate not only the physical, economic and related legacies, but the legacy of promoting sport, which we will do through competitive games in schools, by extending the school games, by improving engagement with community sports clubs, and by promoting physical activity as well as competitive sport. That is what the Change4Life and Games4Life programmes have sought to do and will continue to do.

Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to all the athletes who took part in the British Transplant games, which were held in my constituency? Linked to that, may we have a debate on organ donation and transplants, which help save lives?

I will, of course, look at whether opportunities will emerge for a discussion about organ donation and I recognise that there is an ongoing debate in Wales about the character of the organ donation programme. I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Transplant games. Papworth and Addenbrooke’s hospitals in my constituency probably conduct more transplants in total than anywhere else in the country. I never fail to be amazed by what is achieved by those who provide transplant services.

Following on from the Business Secretary’s answer to an urgent question on Monday, may we have a debate about this country’s industrial policy? It is hugely important. It is about how we pay our way in the world, how we ensure that we have a robust tax base and how we will provide high-paying jobs in the future, so it deserves a major debate in this House.

The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise with his Front-Bench colleagues their choice of time for debates. What the Business Secretary said clearly is that not only are the Government focusing on an industrial strategy to deliver growth, but the range of measures and our ability to do so are increasing all the time.

Yesterday the Department of Health announced the warm home scheme. May we have a debate on the wide range of measures that the Government are introducing to tackle fuel poverty, so that Members of this House can work with their communities to make sure that the people who most need the help get it this winter?

I am pleased that my colleagues at the Department of Health were able to follow up last year’s initiative of a warm homes healthy people fund and support local authorities and charities with further provision, which was announced earlier this year. It is all about taking practical steps to ensure that people who are vulnerable and frail can be supported by community action.

May we have a debate on ever-increasing energy costs? It is clear that neither we as politicians nor the regulatory bodies are doing anything to protect our constituents. Will the Leader of the House look at what powers this House has to say to major energy companies, “As long as you are recording record profits and as long as you are awarding yourselves £1 million bonuses, you are not doing it at the expense of our constituents”?

The hon. Gentleman will recall how the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Secretary focused on the issue of energy costs more than a year ago. They, along with the regulator, Ofgem, have been focusing on how we can ensure that energy costs and opportunities for those who are at risk with regard to fuel costs are able to access the best possible price for energy.

When pre-legislative scrutiny takes place on the draft Care and Support Bill, how will my right hon. Friend ensure that every Member of the House will be able to engage in the detail, rather than its being a Second Reading debate on a grander scale?

Our intention is that the pre-legislative scrutiny will be undertaken jointly between the two Houses—I hope that that is what will happen. As with any pre-legislative scrutiny, all Members of this House will have an opportunity to make representations about the Bill’s character to the Joint Committee.

The GCSE fiasco is of major national significance. It affects the lives of thousands of young people in their ability to get apprenticeships and jobs and to go on to further study. We need a debate in this House and should not just leave it to the 11 members of the Education Committee. We owe it to the 376,000 young people who took their GCSEs this year to have a debate in this House.

If the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about that, he may wish to talk to his Front-Bench colleagues about how they choose to use Opposition time. I listened to my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary giving excellent answers when he gave evidence to the Education Committee, and I would think that that provides it with a very good basis for its own inquiry.

May we have an urgent debate on community health services? In Milton Keynes the strategic health authority has advised the primary care trust to progress with an NHS-only competitive procurement for our community health service. This goes against a strong local wish for a managed transfer and potentially undermines the innovation and benefit our integrated service is delivering.

My hon. Friend and his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), have discussed this and I had intended to meet him. I hope that this might be able to be pursued with my successor as Health Secretary. We are always clear where such changes take place that, while it is important to make progress, to do so quickly and to have a system that is viable, it is vital that it carries the confidence of the local decision makers—the council, the public and the clinical commissioners—in how we go forward.

Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the annual debate on fish quota allocations will take place in this House later this year, in advance of the completion of the negotiations in Brussels?

May we have a debate about donations to political parties and their influence? I and many colleagues are concerned about the unions that are calling for co-ordinated action to bring the country to its knees and the amount of money that they donate to the Opposition.

Yes, of course. As Leader of the House, I do not engage in any partisan activity, but it is important that all parties recognise on whose behalf we make representations to the House—we make them on behalf of our constituents. We should not do so, whether as individual Members or as parties, on the basis of outside vested interests, and that applies to the Labour party with regard to the trade unions.

May we have a debate on tourism? Does the Leader of the House agree that the exciting discovery of what might be the remains of Richard III in a Leicester city car park has the potential hugely to benefit the city of Leicester in terms of tourism? Does he also agree that if those remains turn out to belong to Richard III, they should be laid to rest at Leicester cathedral?

I should probably not venture into the latter point, but I have followed this archaeological inquiry with great interest. It is an exciting potential discovery.

May we have a statement or a debate in the light of last night’s announcement of the proposed merger between BAE Systems and the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company? BAE employs tens of thousands of people in the UK, is our biggest export manufacturer and is a company in which the UK Government hold a golden share.

I recall that development. Clearly, these are commercial matters for the companies concerned, but there will be matters of substantial public interest in relation not only to the Government as a customer, but to the Government holding a golden share. I will make sure that my colleagues are aware of the need, as I am sure they are, to report to the House when the time comes.

The Government appear to be indulging in a mashup, as popularised by the television programme “Glee”. Last week, the Leader of the House told me that there was no variance in policy on Sunday trading pre and post-Olympics; yet the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has told The Daily Telegraph that he is willing to take a long, hard look at different trading patterns. May we have an urgent statement to clear up this mashup?

What I said last week was accurate and continues to be true. The fact that one is continuously looking at issues, as one does in government—I know that only too well—does not mean that one has changed one’s position.

Many of my constituents who are members of trade unions are moderate people who do not think that the best way to lift this country out of recession is to cripple it with strikes. In view of the TUC’s comments this week and given that many strikes are held on the back of very low turnouts in strike ballots, will my right hon. Friend bring forward a debate on whether such a small minority of people should be able to hold the country to ransom at such a difficult time?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I was interested to see that only 27% of members of the National Union of Teachers voted in its ballot. It seems to be utterly wrong for the education of young people potentially to be prejudiced on the basis of a clear lack of participation among members of that union.

The Leader of the House will know that the Health and Safety Executive has described asbestos as

“the single greatest cause of work-related deaths in the UK.”

Those of us who work in this building have a right to know, in detail, what is the situation with asbestos here. Please may we have a written statement so that we know precisely what is the situation, rather than having to rely on conversations with the men in white coats?

The right hon. Lady and the House will have heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said about that. He was entirely accurate. I do not need to be persuaded of the importance of ensuring that asbestos is dealt with properly and that people are not exposed to it. I have seen in friends of mine the consequences of exposure to asbestos and of mesothelioma. We will take every step to ensure the safety of Members, staff and visitors to the House.

May we have an early debate on the charges that some GPs impose on their low-income patients in relation to their housing needs? I was shocked to learn that one of my constituents was charged £35 for such a letter, which is half of his weekly benefit. That is wrong.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I will discuss it with my hon. Friends at the Department of Health and the Department for Work and Pensions and ensure that he receives a reply. GPs are not in a position to charge their patients for any NHS services or to provide private health care services directly to their patients. However, under their contracts and by agreement, there are a number of additional services that they can provide to their patients that are outside those that are provided by the NHS. I will, of course, ensure that he receives a reply.

Given the concerns about the downgrading of school food standards and the influence of lobbying, may we have a debate on why Domino’s Pizza’s shareholders decided to donate £50,000 to the Education Secretary’s local Conservative association?

Well, I imagine it was because they think that my right hon. Friend is a first-rate Member of Parliament. I know that he would not, and am sure that he did not, allow that to influence any decision that he made. Opposition Members must recognise, as do Government Members, that it is important that the public support political parties, because otherwise they cannot exist, function or do their work. However, it is important that that does not cause any influence. Opposition Members should look to the beam in their own eye, because the trade unions not only provide the overwhelming majority of the Labour party’s money, but exert direct influence over its policy as a consequence.

In March this year, in response to a written question, the Department for Education stated that it was considering proposals to form military academies. May we have an urgent debate on the role that military academies might play in addressing issues such as low aspiration and low social mobility, particularly in deprived areas?

Yes, I will ask my hon. Friends to respond on that. The Government welcome the role of military cadet forces, which can help tremendously to engage young people. We recently announced a £10.5 million-plus expansion of school-based cadet forces, which will create a further 200 units by 2015. Of course, free schools and academies have the flexibility to extend such an ethos in their schools. I am sure that the Department for Education and the Government would welcome that.

The coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics on television was outstanding and brought the country together. Can we have a debate on free-to-air sports productions for UK consumers? Many people feel locked out from being able to watch major sporting events, such as the Ryder cup and test match cricket, live. Can we look again at the events that are on the national register?

I am sorry, but I was not here throughout Culture, Media and Sport questions, so I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had a chance to raise that issue. I endorse his view that the coverage of the Olympics and Paralympics was excellent. In particular, although I am not always able to do these things, the ability to watch any of the many Olympic sports that were happening at any given moment was excellent.

I am fighting to keep my local post offices open. That is why I support the campaign for the renewal of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency services contract. May I add my name to the cause for a debate on the importance of the renewal of that contract and of other Government work to safeguard a strong post office network?

As my hon. Friend will have heard, I urge Members to look at the positive steps that are being taken and at the increase last year in the Government revenue at post offices. That particular contract is a live contract. It would not be appropriate for Ministers to comment during the course of a live contract, nor for there to be a debate about a contract during the course of its procurement.

Will the Leader of the House do all he can to encourage the Labour Opposition to give us at least the topics of their Opposition day debates at the business statement prior to their taking place? I am not sure whether he is aware of what happened on Monday night. We had 20 minutes to prepare and submit an amendment to a Labour Opposition motion. That is totally unacceptable and is a gross discourtesy to the House, the Speaker and the officials. Will the Leader of the House get the Opposition to get their act together?

I read the hon. Gentleman’s point of order on that issue. In the spirit of the two Front Benches, I refer his question to the shadow Leader of the House to reply.

May we have a debate on the importance of new transport infrastructure in regions such as the west midlands, focusing on the potential for investment in new airport capacity in Birmingham and on high-speed rail, to continue the important work of rebalancing the British economy?

My hon. Friend will have a good opportunity to raise that important point and related issues in the debate on the Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill on Monday. The Bill will enable us to do much more to provide such important infrastructure investment by using our credibility in the international money markets and the low cost of borrowing to drive forward long-term investment in infrastructure.

At oral questions last week, the Minister for the Cabinet Office suggested that gaps in the Contracts Finder website in relation to contracts between Atos Origin and Atos Healthcare and the Government were due to contracts signed under the previous Government. On checking that, I found that at least three significant contracts, including one worth £200 million between the Department for International Development and Atos, are not listed. May we have a statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office about the accuracy of that website, which he promotes constantly?

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear that I do not know whether what he says is true or what the position is. I will simply, if I may, refer the matter to my hon. Friends and ensure that he receives a response.

Dr Stuart Smallwood, the respected headmaster of Bishop Wordsworth’s school in Salisbury, wrote to me this week to express great concern that strike action has been approved by just over one in five members of the National Union of Teachers. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Education Secretary to bring forward legislation so that there is a minimum threshold before such disruptive action can take place?

My hon. Friend and the head teacher of the school in his constituency make an important point. From my conversations with leaders of trade unions over a number of years, I think that when they clearly do not have a compelling mandate for action, they should take that into consideration. I simply urge the teaching unions not to proceed with industrial action. It is not in the best interests of the children, and it is not justified by any grievance that they have brought forward.

On 16 July, the then Secretary of State for Transport announced in a statement that a competition was to be launched to invite bids for new train stations. Since then, nothing has been heard. The competition could help Ferryhill in my constituency, which has been crying out for a new train station for years. May we have another statement on when exactly the competition will start and what the rules are, so that if possible, Ferryhill can get a bid together?

I was very impressed by the announcements that were made just before the summer on the future rail network, which were substantial and wide-ranging. I do not know the answer to that particular question, but I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to respond.

May I congratulate the Leader of the House on how he has answered all these difficult questions? May I ask him a gentle and easy one? Will he confirm that, as is political convention, the only business on tomorrow’s Order Paper will be private Members’ Bills?

Our colleagues in the New Zealand Parliament have just decided to bring their troops out of Afghanistan a year earlier than planned. The Parliaments of Canada and the Netherlands have already brought their troops home and they are safely back in their own countries. With the situation in Afghanistan getting worse than ever and a record number of NATO troops having been murdered by the Afghans whom they are training, arming and funding, must we not now react to public opinion, which is saying that for goodness’ sake, we must bring our troops out of harm’s way and away from a war that has become a mission impossible?

My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary is in her place and will be making the quarterly statement on Afghanistan immediately following business questions. If the hon. Gentleman seeks to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, he may have an opportunity to raise that issue.

May we have a debate on the future management of acute hospitals, particularly in London? I ask because there is now survey evidence showing that a significant number of members of the Royal College of Physicians would not recommend their hospital for the treatment of their friends and family.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Prime Minister and I have rightly emphasised the friends and family test. It involves both staff and patients being asked whether they would recommend their services. My colleagues at the Department of Health will continuously examine how we can improve acute hospital services. I have discussed the future hospital programme with the Royal College of Physicians, and what we are doing to modernise the NHS will absolutely address the issues that it raises. As it says, we should recognise that the increasing burden of ill health among older people, which is a consequence of increased life expectancy, should increasingly be managed through improvements to services in the community. That will mean that we can focus hospital services on patients who genuinely need to be in hospital.

In the north-west of England, the four police authorities are merging some civilian parts of the Forensic Science Service’s functions with unseemly haste on the back of the closure of the FSS, before the system has been able to bed in. Will the Leader of the House organise an urgent debate on that important subject, as that appears to be happening before the police and crime commissioner elections? Will he ask the Home Secretary to publish any documents that give guidance to chief constables on the matter?

I will of course ask the Home Secretary about that, but it strikes me that the hon. Gentleman might seek to secure a debate on the Adjournment about it.

On Monday, I attended the Delegated Legislation Committee on the criminal injuries compensation scheme. At the end of the debate the Minister in charge did not move the motion because of the level of opposition to the Government’s proposals to slash compensation for the victims of crime. May we now have a statement providing assurances that compensation will not be cut?

I think my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice will make a statement to the House in due course, but I will discuss with them when they might do that.