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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
13 September 2012
Volume 550

House of Commons

Thursday 13 September 2012

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before questions

Committee of Selection

Motion made,

That Geoffrey Clifton-Brown be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Bill Wiggin be a member of the Committee until the end of the current Session.—(Mr Randall.)

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Object.

Oral Answers to Questions

Culture, Media and Sport

The Secretary of State for Culture Olympics, Media and Sport was asked—

Sport Participation (Children)

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1. What progress she has made in encouraging more children to take part in competitive sport. [120631]

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Before answering, may I record the congratulations of the whole House to everybody involved in London 2012?

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Especially Tessa.

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Wait a moment—the hon. Gentleman is being slightly tedious. I congratulate in particular the athletes of Team GB and ParalympicsGB. Moreover, I would particularly like to record, on behalf of everybody, our congratulations to the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) on her contribution to the project over many years. I also congratulate—I know that this will please you, Mr Speaker —Andy Murray on his win in New York on Monday.

Through the school games, we are encouraging all schools to offer their pupils the chance to play more competitive sport. More than 14,000 schools have so far signed up to participate and, in addition, 1,600 of our best young athletes had the chance to compete in and around the Olympic park in the inaugural national finals in May. The national governing bodies of sports will use the inspiration of the London 2012 games to encourage more young people to take up their sport. One example is hockey’s “Give it a Go” scheme, which has now attracted more than 20,000 people at more than 600 sites across the country.

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I echo the Minister’s words: the Paralympics and the Olympic games showcased all that is great about this country.

On building the fantastic Olympians and Paralympians of the future, it is vital to invest in the infrastructure, skills and facilities that our young people need, particularly in schools. What are the Government doing to that end?

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Two things in particular. The new youth sports strategy, which has been announced and the figures for which will be announced in December, will involve an investment over the next four years to encourage sport governing bodies to make those precise investments. Separately, the Places People Play programme has now invested in improving more than 700 facilities up and down the country.

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What prospect does the Minister, helped by his new Secretary of State, whom I welcome to her post, think he has of persuading the Education Secretary to reverse his disastrous decisions on school sport partnerships, on the two-hour target and on liberalising Labour’s very strict laws on disposing of school playing fields?

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The new youth sport strategy is precisely designed to address a problem that existed even under the old scheme—the difficulties in getting people out of school and into community clubs. Steps are being taken. There is no doubt that in some areas school sport partnerships were extraordinarily effective; in others, they were not. I think the consensus is that they were an expensive way of doing things. I note, from what the shadow Chancellor said to the TUC last week, that the Labour party is not making any spending commitments. There is an opportunity now to work together for a new system that I hope will deliver the improvements we all want in school sport.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her new position; she has one of the best jobs in Government. I congratulate the Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, the Olympic Delivery Authority, all the public servants across Government, the Government Olympic Executive, the city authorities and the thousands of people who gave their all to deliver a summer that the people of this country will never forget. A special congratulation goes, of course, to our Olympic and Paralympic athletes and to the games makers, who embodied the feeling of the people of this country that these were their games and that they mattered in the contribution to making them such a success. They really did belong to the people of our country.

In congratulating the Minister on his well-deserved promotion, I invite him to take forward one of the important means of delivering the success of the Olympics by continuing the commitment to cross-party working with a plan for sport that will survive for a decade. It should include more primary children playing sport in physical education, more children competing, and adults, throughout their lives, enjoying the pleasure of taking part in sport at all levels. A cross-party approach will guarantee stability. I commend that approach to the right hon. Gentleman.

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We are extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady, whose courtesy is equalled only by her comprehensiveness.

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Following that, I suppose that we all ought to pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for her comprehensiveness in dealing with this project from the moment the bid was launched, through to delivery. Everybody across the House genuinely would like to recognise her contribution.

The right hon. Lady is right that one lesson from the success of Team GB and ParalympicsGB is the importance of a strategy that is not constantly altered. When I came to office, I called the problem that has constantly plagued the sports world short-term “initiativeitis”. It is our intention to continue with the approach that has served us so well for the Olympics and to ensure, as I am sure everybody in the House wants, that we deliver a tangible legacy from the events of this summer.

Paralympic Sponsorship

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2. What discussions she has had on sponsorship by Atos of the London 2012 Paralympics. [120632]

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The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games was responsible for appointing domestic partners for the London 2012 games, and the International Paralympic Committee is responsible for international Paralympic partners. All the partners provide vital funding, without which the games simply could not happen. Atos has been a key technology provider for the Paralympic movement since 2002, and became the official worldwide information technology partner for the International Paralympic Committee in 2008.

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In contrast to the fantastic performances by the Paralympic athletes, the performance of Atos was slammed by the National Audit Office. The Secretary of State will be well aware of the anger that many disabled people feel towards Atos Healthcare because of its poor decision making and the high success rate of reconsiderations and appeals. Does she feel, in retrospect, that Atos has been an effective service provider and an appropriate sponsor of the Paralympics?

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The hon. Lady will know that without money from sponsors we cannot stage such games. The involvement of the sponsors enabled us to ensure that more countries than ever before competed in the Olympic and Paralympic games. I am sure that she welcomes that.

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I am sure that the whole House welcomes my right hon. Friend to her new position. Given her experience in the Department for Work and Pensions, does she agree that the key to all this is the work capability assessment? Is it not correct that the Government have accepted all the recommendations of Professor Harrington’s two reports on improving the work capability assessment? Is not a reasonable inference from the comments of members of the Labour party that it does not want people to be assessed to see whether they are able to work?

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My hon. Friend is drawing me back to my old job, but I will resist the temptation. He is right that this matter is well and truly in the sights of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I note his comments.

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I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position. As she has already seen, her old position will follow her wherever she goes. I do not think that she will ever get away from that, because disability pervades all of society.

The Paralympics were a huge success and the Channel 4 coverage was wonderful. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it was particularly insensitive of Atos to sponsor not only the games but the lanyards, so that every Paralympian was forced to wear the name of Atos around their neck? Perhaps Atos had a perverse reason for doing that, because a much wider audience now knows how it has been treating disabled people in the work capability assessment.

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The hon. Lady will know that such decisions are made by organisations outside of Government. She is right to say that the Paralympics were a fantastic opportunity to change attitudes in this country, and I think that they achieved that. We need to keep that going. She is also right to say that former Ministers for Disabled People retain a deep and passionate interest in ensuring that the needs of disabled people are catered for, whichever Department they work in.

Leveson Inquiry

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3. When she expects the publication of the report by Lord Justice Leveson on the culture, practice and ethics of the press. [120633]

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I expect Lord Justice Leveson to deliver his report in the autumn.

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I am grateful for that answer. During module 4, the final module of Lord Leveson’s inquiry, it became increasingly clear that the self-regulation of news content would work far more effectively if it were supported by some statutory underpinning. Given that the Government are already introducing statutory measures in areas such as defamation, will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government retain an open mind on further statutory regulation in that area?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reason we commissioned a report was to listen to what Lord Justice Leveson puts forward. We very much have an open mind and I would not want to pre-empt the inquiry by trying to second-guess its conclusions. Whatever we do in future, we need to ensure that we maintain freedom of expression, that we have a press that is suitably independent of government and politicians and that there are sufficient teeth in the sanctions that empower the system. It must command the confidence and respect of the public and the industry alike. We need to adhere to those important principles, but first and foremost we must receive the report.

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Should Lord Justice Leveson call time on the last chance saloon and recommend a statutory underpinning for press self-regulation and a co-regulation model, what preparatory work have the Government done to prepare for such an option?

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The hon. Gentleman outlines some of the options that may be taken forward. What we have to do at this stage is ensure that the inquiry runs its course. Those both within and outside the House have noted in great detail the evidence that has been given, and we will need to look at the report in detail.

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Does the new Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that successive Governments have got too close to the media? Does she also agree that this Government, like previous ones, are still leaking information to the press before statements are made to Parliament? Should that not end immediately?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All Secretaries of State would want to ensure that the House is kept informed first and foremost. In you, Mr Speaker, we have somebody who we know keeps an eye on that very closely.

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May I add my warmest and sincerest congratulations to the right hon. Lady on her appointment as not only Secretary of State but Minister for Women and Equalities? I look forward to working with her on both issues.

The right hon. Lady takes on her role at a crucial time. The Leveson inquiry offers a historic opportunity to tackle the long-standing problems of the lack of a proper press complaints system and the concentration of media ownership. We saw from the Hillsborough independent panel report yesterday, 20 years before the Dowlers, the ugly spectacle of collusion between the police and some elements of the press, inflicting pain and misery on innocent people who were already suffering. Will she ask Lord Justice Leveson to examine the implications of that for the media and to take evidence from the panel and the families? When his report is published, will she convene cross-party talks so that we can ensure that we have a press that is strong because it is free and clean, and that we can all work together to achieve that?

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I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her kind words and look forward to continuing to work with her on these issues and those of women and equality.

The right hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that there are issues within Leveson that have clear read-across to the report that was released yesterday. However, at this time I want to ensure that we continue to focus first and foremost on the importance of getting it right for the families involved. We will examine the report in great detail to ensure that any necessary actions are taken so that we do not have the same scandalous situation again.

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I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new job, but she has made one mistake already, because there is not to be one report by Leveson: there are meant to be two, and I believe that the second is the more important. It is to be on what actually happened at the News of the World. So far, Lord Justice Leveson and everybody else have rightly avoided the illegality, criminality and dodginess that went on between the police and the News of the World, for the simple reason that nobody wants to compromise criminal prosecutions. Will she ensure that, contrary to what Lord Leveson has been saying, he will produce a second report so that we know what went on?

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I will, of course, always look to the hon. Gentleman to keep me right on these things. He is absolutely right that there is a part two to the inquiry and, as I think we have already made clear, the Government will make a statement on part two when part one has concluded. It is important that we take these things at the proper pace and that we have time to consider the initial report before we consider further work.

Tourism

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4. What recent estimate she has made of the financial contribution of the heritage sector to the tourism industry. [120634]

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Heritage tourism in the United Kingdom accounts for £4.3 billion in gross domestic product, rising to £7.4 billion if heritage green spaces are included. The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games and torch relay have provided a major opportunity to highlight our heritage assets.

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Given that, only a Government of such awesome incompetence as this one could follow up the Olympics, when the eyes of the world were on Britain, by abolishing the post of Minister for tourism and heritage. We know that the Tory party did not like Danny Boyle’s wonderfully progressive vision of British history, but did it really have to seek revenge by scrapping the post? Why will the Government not support our national heritage and tourism industry, rather than abandon it?

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That is the silliest question I have heard in two and half years. Let me make it absolutely clear that I loved the opening ceremony and that, far from the tourism Minister being abolished, he is standing before you.

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Does the Minister agree that the £122 million that the Government are about to spend on the so-called GREAT campaign, celebrating all that is great about Great Britain—including, in my case, the great adventurers and great climbers, which will launch in October—is extremely good value for money? How much does he expect the country to benefit from that £122 million investment in inward tourism, and how does he intend to monitor the return?

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We have used the GREAT campaign to try to drive incoming tourism into this country. The initial signs are that it has been a great success and that people are waking up once more to the delights of holidaying in this country. We are in consultation to ensure that the process rolls on, with further additions to the GREAT campaign.

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Is the Minister aware that the Environment Minister in Northern Ireland recently commissioned an expert study that showed that heritage contributed substantially to the Northern Ireland economy? Does he agree that we must not only protect but invest in our heritage sector?

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The answer to that has to be yes.

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I totally agree with the Minister’s previous answer. Will he join me in congratulating my local council, Cheshire West and Chester, on its massive investment in renovating Chester’s Roman city walls, reversing years of neglect?

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Absolutely. The great thing about the torch relay was that it gave many places the opportunity to put their tourism assets on display, and I am absolutely delighted that my hon. Friend’s local council is acting in such a fashion.

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There is no doubt that London 2012 has been a fantastic achievement, demonstrating Britain’s unique character. Despite that success, there has been significant concern, especially outside London, that visitor numbers were below those that were predicted. Given that concern, given the Government’s recent commitment to increase the number of overseas visitors from 30 million today to 40 million by 2020 and given that at a time when they should be capitalising on the Olympic tourism legacy they have chosen, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) rightly mentioned, to cut the ministerial post focused on tourism and heritage, will the Minister explain how he will guarantee that every region benefits from UK tourism?

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This has to be one of the silliest points made for a very long time. We had a thoroughly excellent Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), who covered tourism, heritage and gambling. We now have a Minister who covers sport, tourism and gambling. I cannot remotely see that that is in any way a downgrade. There were three responsibilities before and there are three now—the maths are very simple.

Scottish Independence

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5. Whether she has discussed with the BBC Trust the potential effect on the BBC of an independent Scotland. [120636]

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I am in regular contact with the Culture and External Affairs Minister in the Scottish Government on a range of broadcasting matters. The Government encourage broadcasters to undertake production throughout the UK, but the future of individual BBC services and production in Scotland is a matter for the BBC and we do not seek to intervene.

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The separatists tell us that a separate Scotland could replicate the success of Danish TV. However, looking at prime-time Danish TV schedules for this evening, I see few zingers ready to wing their way across to the United Kingdom, although three top-class independent UK productions are featured. Does the Minister agree that Scotland is much better off as part of one of the most successful TV industries in the world?

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I have huge regard for the hon. Gentleman. I did not know that he was fluent in Danish and a regular studier of Danish television schedules, but that only enhances my regard and I agree with his point.

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10. Network commissions from the BBC in London constitute £80 million to £85 million of investment in the Scottish economy, make up 78% of revenue from independent production companies and help sustain 15,000 jobs in Scotland. Does the Minister share my concern that if Scotland separates from the rest of the United Kingdom significant damage could be done to that section of the Scottish economy? [120643]

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I certainly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Over the past few months I have been lucky enough to visit BBC Scotland’s headquarters and see the excellent work it does. May I record my gratitude to BBC Scotland for sending my children a photograph signed by Nina of “Nina and the Neurons”?

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It is with a great sigh of relief that we see the Minister is still at the Dispatch Box, and I welcome the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The threat to the BBC comes not from an independent Scotland but from what is happening with the cuts now. How can that be justified in Scotland, which is a nation, not a region of the BBC? Given that we are about to make the biggest decision in our nation’s history, is it right that the BBC has been cut to the absolute bone? People need to be informed and the issues debated.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I regret that must I disagree with him. I think the licence fee settlement was excellent for the BBC. It provides funding certainty until 2017, which no other media company in this country can boast.

School Playing Fields

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6. What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the protection of school playing fields. [120637]

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School playing fields fall under the departmental responsibility of the Department for Education, but my Department is in regular contact with it over a range of issues relating to sport. For the first time, the Places People Play initiative has a specific programme for safeguarding and enhancing playing fields, and is operated in partnership with Fields in Trust.

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I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he agree that there is a lack of local accountability in the selling of academy school fields, which should be subject to the same protection as those belonging to maintained schools?

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In a sense, yes. After the Olympics, anybody who is interested in or involved with sport will want to ensure that those opportunities are available to as many people as possible. That said, the point of academies is that they enjoy freedom from central control and set their agenda as they wish. The issue is less about playing fields than about the provision of sports facilities. The key point is to build more 3G pitches, from which schools get 90 hours of use, as against four for an old grass pitch.

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Does the Minister agree that the quality of coaching and facilities is just as important as the amount of space available? In Folkestone, the state-of-the-art redevelopment of Cheriton road sports ground was possible only because of the sale of a redundant piece of playing field land in the vicinity.

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Absolutely. The key statistic is that on average a grass pitch provides four hours’ use a week, but that rises to 90 hours on a new 3G pitch. This is not a new process: 246 school playing fields were sold off under the previous Administration.

Local Community Sport

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7. What steps she is taking to build on the success of the London 2012 Olympics in local community sport. [120638]

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Through Places People Play, Sport England is investing £135 million in community sport facilities and local community sport, and to date over 700 community sport facilities have benefited from the programme. In addition, the new youth sport strategy includes funding to help local authorities improve sport provision and investment to enable schools to open up their sporting facilities for use by local communities.

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I thank the Minister for that reply. The Paralympics received a fantastic response, but can we extend those good things to ensure that wherever possible everybody has access to community sport—obviously with a focus on disabled people?

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That is absolutely the intention. Three initiatives are worth looking at in that respect. The new whole sport plans will include for the first time specific disability targets, as will Places People Play, and an inclusive opportunities fund is being run for the first time by Sport England to address exactly that issue.

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The Government have set up a programme to encourage local sports clubs to engage young people and to get them involved in sports after school to create a sporting habit for life, but that will not work unless we have quality sports education in earlier years. In response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), the Minister said that the delivery of school sports partnerships was patchy, but that is not what he said before the general election, when he said that we should be building on school sports partnerships. Sadly, in the past two years, there has been a 40% drop in school sports partnerships and a 60% drop in hours spent outside the classroom by teachers organising sport, and the Government’s PE teacher release money is due to end in August 2013. Will he admit that cutting £162 million from school sports partnerships was a mistake, and will he join the Opposition in calling for the Secretary of State to re-ring-fence that money so that we can have a sporting legacy?

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Order. We have got the question and we are grateful for it. Let us have the answer.

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All Members know why that happened, but the key issue is the deficit the Government inherited in 2010. It is absolutely pointless the hon. Gentleman whining unless the Opposition have another policy or are prepared to commit to restoring that money. The shadow Chancellor made it abundantly clear to the TUC last week that there will be no spending commitments of that sort, so it is utterly hypocritical to pursue this until you have an idea of how to put it right.

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Order. I am sure the Minister is not accusing any individual hon. Member of behaving hypocritically. Will he clarify that he is not? He needs to make it clear.

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I am happy to do so, Mr Speaker.

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I am extremely grateful to the Minister.

Broadband

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8. What steps her Department is taking to improve access to broadband. [120639]

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We are making good progress. Almost all areas have an agreed local broadband plan to deliver 90% superfast broadband and universal standard broadband coverage under our rural broadband programme. Five projects have completed procurement and we expect the remainder to have entered into contracts by next summer. Lead responsibility for rural broadband in Scotland lies with the Scottish Government, who have been allocated funding of over £100 million by my Department.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that broadband coverage in Glasgow is, at 60%, well below the UK average, and that the recent application for superfast broadband was surprisingly rejected by her Department. Will she give me her personal assurance that she will work with the city council, the Scottish Government and other partners in Glasgow to ensure that it can benefit from superfast broadband, because without it Scotland’s economy will suffer?

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I share the hon. Lady’s concern to ensure that more people have access to faster broadband as soon as they can. That is why we will shortly announce funding for the first 10 super-connected cities. Bids from up to 27 second-tier cities are due by 17 September. Edinburgh will be among the first 10 cities to which funding will be allocated, and Glasgow can apply in the second round. I urge her, too, to work with the Scottish Government on these matters.

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Suffolk county council will announce its decision in the next few weeks, but the exciting development of 4G roll-out by existing operators is welcome news. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress that Ofcom is making on the other spectrum that will bring 4G nationally?

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My hon. Friend will be aware that we continue to work with the Commission to clarify state aid details prior to our being able to proceed with that part of our programme. We anticipate Commission approval in the autumn and will continue as rapidly as possible to ensure that we make the necessary progress. Our country needs better connectivity to ensure that we are competitive in future.

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May I add my congratulations to the right hon. Lady? The reshuffle was supposed to be the delivery reshuffle. At questions last week, the Prime Minister said he wanted the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to support the economy by focusing on broadband roll-out. Will the Minister assure the House that, by 2015, 90% of the country will have superfast broadband?

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The hon. Lady will know that the reshuffle has delivered some very fast changes. We had announcements last Friday on freeing up the roll-out of superfast broadband from some of the regulations and red tape preventing us from moving forward as fast as we need to. I hope that she will join me in encouraging her constituents and others to support our measures.

Heptathletes: Facilities

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9. How many facilities for heptathletes are planned for construction in the next four years. [120642]

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The honest answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is none, because heptathlons generally take place in athletics stadiums, and the Olympic stadium will remain in use as an athletics venue as part of the sporting legacy of the London games and will host the London 2017 world athletics championships. In addition, Sport England is investing £30 million over the next three years to support new large-scale multi-sport facilities.

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There is one planned. Emily Race is the top 11-year-old heptathlete medal-winning prospect in the country, but she has to practise on a grass football field. If my area can put together two thirds of the money, will the Minister join me in twisting the appropriate arms to ensure that the national sports bodies find the other third, so that her and others’ dreams and ambitions can be realised?

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Particularly after the feats of Jessica Ennis earlier this summer, I am sure that everybody across the House will join me and the hon. Gentleman in wishing Emily Race all the best. The possibility of doing what he suggests through the Sport England fund is absolutely there, and I encourage him to make a bid.

4G Spectrum

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11. What assessment she has made of Ofcom’s decision to allow Everything Everywhere to use the 4G spectrum from September 2012. [120644]

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I have made no assessment of Ofcom’s decision. The decision to allow the variation to Everything Everywhere’s licence to allow 4G services in its spectrum at 1,800 MHz is for Ofcom to make as the independent regulator.

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I thank the Minister for his reply, but would he not agree that in an era when consumers are taking out 18-month contracts, it is essential that Ofcom moves quickly to ensure that monopoly power does not become entrenched and consumers can benefit from genuine competition in the 4G spectrum?

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My hon. Friend is right about the importance of competition. Not only is EE, as we must learn to call it, about to roll out 4G services, but we are working with Ofcom to ensure that we can proceed with our auction as quickly as possible and bring 4G services to all mobile operators.

Topical Questions

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I remind the House that topical questions and answers are supposed, by convention, to be briefer.

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [120651]

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The thoughts of everyone in the Chamber will be with the families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. Before I turn to the distressing report published by the Hillsborough independent panel yesterday, I want to place on the record my sincere thanks to everyone involved in the organisation of the London Olympics and Paralympics.

As has been said, 2012 will be remembered as the best ever summer in our sporting history. At the start of the Olympics, Lord Coe said:

“These games will bring out the best in us”,

and our athletes answered that call. They did so through not only what they achieved but how they achieved it. They are incredible role models and they did the country proud. But they are not alone. The success of the games was due to thousands of businesses and organisations—

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Order. I am sorry, but I must say to the Secretary of State that although I absolutely understand the spirit of her remarks, it is an abuse to use topical questions to make a statement. She must give a brief initial answer and then the supplementary will follow. That is the situation—always has been, always will be.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I would like very briefly to note yesterday’s panel report on the Hillsborough disaster and say that our thoughts are with the families.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on coming to her new position and associate myself with her opening remarks.

Tourism supports 54,000 jobs in Essex and contributes more than £3 billion to our local economy. Will she join me in congratulating the tourism sector in Essex and attend the Visit Essex tourism conference on 14 November to see at first hand the excellent work done there and the contribution that these individuals make to our local economy?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Olympics also played their part in Essex, which hosted the mountain biking competition, at Hadleigh farm. The Government will continue to do everything they can to support tourism in Essex, and I hope to come along and see it for myself in the not-too-distant future.

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T2. The all-party group on women’s sport and fitness wants to see our fantastic women athletes in the media, inspiring girls and women of all ages to take part in sport. However, outside the Olympics, women’s sport gets 5% of the media coverage and less than 1% of the commercial sponsorship. Do Ministers agree that this must change, and will DCMS Ministers work with the all-party group over the coming months to ensure that it does? [120653]

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The answer to that is absolutely yes. We were trying—[Interruption.]

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Order. I do not know what this chuntering from a sedentary position is about; all I know is that who answers the question is a matter for those on the Treasury Bench. Let us hear from the Minister.

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I would have thought that my answering was encouragingly non-gender specific.

We were trying to work this out earlier, but I have a suspicion that the first medal at London 2012, the first gold and, indeed, the last medal were all won by female athletes. They made a huge contribution, both to Team GB and to Paralympics GB. All of us absolutely want to do everything possible to build on that and use it to encourage more young women to get into sport.

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T4. What assessment have the Government made of problem gambling on the internet, given the prevalence of the advertising? [120656]

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It is absolutely our intention to tackle the issue by regulating gambling at the point of consumption. Proposals to that effect will be brought forward later this year.

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T3. I am sorry that the Minister responded to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), the shadow Minister, by accusing him of whining for raising genuine concerns about school sport. Does he not accept that the cuts to the school sports partnership will seriously undermine the 14-to-25 strategy? [120655]

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Let me be clear about this. The point I am simply making is that hon. Members cannot criticise a policy if they do not have a policy, and the Opposition do not, at this moment, have a policy. [Interruption.] No, no; I think I heard the shadow Chancellor saying that there would be no restoration of funding and that the Opposition could not make wide-ranging funding commitments. If the Opposition do not have the money to restore the partnership, the better approach is to follow the advice very wisely offered by the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), which is to ensure that we work together to deliver the improvements we all want to see in school sport and deliver a proper legacy from London 2012.

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Will the Minister join me in congratulating Sir John Major on his foresight in setting up the national lottery and direct funding of sport, which is seen as a major contributory factor to our amazing Olympics success? Does that not show that a good Government can leave a legacy that can be enjoyed for generations, whereas a bad Government just leave debts that take generations to pay off?

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Absolutely, and it is noticeable that many of the legacy programmes from London 2012 are being run as a direct result of this Government’s decision to restore national lottery funding to the levels envisaged by Sir John Major. The figure was 13.7% when we took office; it is 20% now, and that is what is underpinning the legacy.

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T5. In Northern Ireland we were immensely proud of the huge success enjoyed by Northern Ireland competitors in the recent Olympic and Paralympic games, including the rowing successes of Richard and Peter Chambers, and Alan Campbell. However, although officially they competed for Team GB and NI, it is all too frequently abbreviated to Team GB. Is there any prospect of the Government rebranding Team GB as Team UK, so that all four nations are fully reflected in the success? [120657]

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This is a question that is raised on many occasions by people from Northern Ireland. The honest answer is no, because the decision is outside the remit of Government. Athletes are selected by the British Olympic Association. The team is called Team GB for historic reasons that predate the events that led to the formation of Northern Ireland, and I see no sign of that changing in the near future.

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Many parts of Argyll and Bute have no mobile phone coverage, which is bad for business and can make it difficult to get help in an emergency. Will the Government please tell us what plans they have to extend mobile phone coverage in Argyll and Bute?

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I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we have the mobile infrastructure project, which we are currently procuring and which is putting £150 million precisely into bringing mobile phone coverage to constituencies such as his.

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T6. Can the Minister for sport update the House on when the Government expert group on involving supporters in the governance of football will be convened? [120658]

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Yes; we are awaiting the findings of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I pay tribute to its work on this issue, as I have on many occasions. As soon as we have the report back, we will announce the next steps.

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The Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey), will recall a meeting to discuss the better regulation of DMOL, which organises channel listings for Freeview, at which he undertook to take a look at the matter. Will he update the House on any progress that has been made?

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Yes; my understanding is that DMOL applied to Ofcom, effectively to have its electronic programme guide regulated by Ofcom. I will write to my hon. Friend with the full details of the implications.

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T7. Many of my constituents cannot even get moderately fast broadband. They are therefore desperate for the introduction of superfast broadband, but 2015 is too far away. Aberdeen will be bidding to become one of the superfast cities. Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that the criteria will include not only ease of installation and density of population but factors such as the industries that will depend on having superfast broadband? Aberdeen is an important economic driver in the north-east of Scotland. [120659]

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The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I hope that she will join me in encouraging her local authorities to adopt the kind of deregulation of planning issues that will help to speed up the delivery of broadband and reduce the costs.

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Ministers will be aware of the proposed changes to listed building consents. Can they give me an assurance that no radical changes to a listed building will take place without full consideration and positive consent having been obtained from a council, rather than following the absence of a response from a council?

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The previous Minister for heritage, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), did an excellent job of consulting on this issue, and I pay tribute to the hard work that he has done to promote the heritage sector over the past two years. The consultation has now closed and we will consider the responses. The sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) are well made.

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T8. The Football Association taskforce that I recently chaired highlighted a huge variation in the quality of stewarding at professional football matches. Will the Sports Minister pursue that issue with the football authorities, given the dangers inherent in that situation? [120660]

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House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked

Palace of Westminster: Refurbishment

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1. What discussions the Commission has had with the Parliamentary Works Directorate on the possibility of vacating the Palace of Westminster to facilitate the renewal of the fabric of the building and an overhaul of its essential facilities. [120661]

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6. What assessment the Commission has made of the risk of exposure to asbestos in the Palace of Westminster; and if he will make a statement. [120666]

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8. What plans he has for the Palace of Westminster to close for refurbishment. [120669]

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I reassure hon. Members that no decisions have been taken as yet. Such a project would be a major undertaking, and a final decision will not be taken for some time and would probably be a matter for both Houses. This will clearly require careful study and planning.

Most of the current Palace of Westminster dates from the mid-19th century, and much of the external structure and weatherproofing has been untouched since then. Many of the utilities and services inside the Palace date back 60 or 70 years. There is a major backlog of remedial work, including that involving asbestos, which is being professionally assessed and must be remediated in accordance with regulations.

In January this year the Commission appointed a study group to examine all the possibilities, including a temporary relocation of Parliament. The group was assisted by two Members from each House. The report of the study group is not yet finalised, but it is expected to be submitted to the Commission and the House Committee of the House of Lords at the end of next month.

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The hon. Gentleman appeared to say all that without having to breathe. I am extremely impressed.

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The Palace of Westminster is a place of work for thousands of people, yet the fabric and facilities in many areas of the building date back to the 1840s. Clearly, the cost of bringing the building up to modern standards could be billions of pounds. When is the House of Commons Commission likely to get its first estimate of the total cost of doing up the building?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. It is difficult at this stage to make a proper assessment of the cost, but we expect the report to contain an assessment of the various costs and, therefore, an indication of the best avenue to pursue. The Commission will ensure that it pursues the best value for money, which will involve a combination of the lowest-cost option and keeping Parliament functioning properly.

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If Parliament is to be decanted, may I make a shameless bid for it to be decanted to Birmingham? [Interruption.] Why not? It is our second city. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the cost of doing the works over 10 years would be considerably higher than the cost of decanting and doing the work over two or three years?

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On my hon. Friend’s suggestion about Birmingham, I cannot possibly comment. In regard to the costs, it is my experience from my past life that a decant and a quick contract are often preferable to a series of contracts with no decant, but that is a matter for the study, and we must be led by the evidence that is produced. We will follow that properly.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for those answers. My concern is about decanting and its cost. Does he view the September sittings as a significant barrier to achieving the necessary repairs without completely closing Parliament? A contractor could be let in during the long summer period, and while I acknowledge what the hon. Gentleman said, this would be preferable to hon. Members.

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The hon. Lady makes a good point about the September sittings. I have given evidence on the subject. Again, there is a balance to be struck between the cost of a day’s sitting and the advantage one might gain on a contract, but in this case we are into something of a quite different magnitude. There is already estimated to be £1 billion-worth of backlog, and these are not contracts of 10 or 11 weeks; they are seriously big contracts, so all options to ensure best value for the taxpayer and allow the Commission to make the right choice must be looked at.

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If the House of Commons Commission gets its skates on, we have a fantastic facility in Hackney in east London—the Emmedia centre. While it awaits a tenant, it could happily house Parliament while the work is done. There is a seven-minute shuttle to St Pancras, City airport on the doorstep, excellent transport links and it is 20 minutes to Westminster, so will the House of Commons Commission consider a temporary relocation of Parliament to “Eastminster”?

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I am delighted to reassure the hon. Lady that at this stage, with the Commission not yet having received the report, all options can be placed on the table. However, the option that is ultimately chosen will follow best practice, best value and the best advice that we receive.

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It would be totally unacceptable for the House not to sit for three months, so I hope we will continue with September sittings. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if the patching-up work is going to be very costly and possibly carry on for years, it would be far better to reach a brave decision and do the job properly from the start?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As I said, from my experience in another life, I have found that it is usually better to take two or more years and get the job done than to be inconvenienced and unable to work properly for 10 years. I stress, however, that we are at a very early stage; it is for the professional advice to be given first, and then for the Commission to make a decision in the light of that advice.

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I suggest that the hon. Gentleman’s answer on asbestos is much too complacent. It is incredible that we are being brought back here when every day I go into my office, I meet men in white coats—[Laughter]—wearing protective clothing and gas masks. We have staff wandering around in this building, yet we have reports on the dangers of asbestos here going back to 2005. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should take this matter far more seriously.

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I cannot imagine that the right hon. Lady keeps eccentric company; that is quite beyond my imagination.

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I can assure the right hon. Lady that I take asbestos extremely seriously, as does the Commission; but more importantly, the Parliamentary Director of Estates does, too. Asbestos is not dangerous if undisturbed. All areas of the Palace have been properly surveyed. Where remedial action is taken, the work force operate within full health and safety dictates and do so as safely as possible. I am constantly reassured by the House authorities in this area. My answer was necessarily short, given that I had to answer three questions and given the orders for brevity issued from the Chair. I assure the right hon. Lady that this matter is taken extremely seriously.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Scrutiny

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2. What plans he has to improve scrutiny of the Government by the House. [120662]

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As Leader of the House, I want to ensure that the public see the Government reporting to and being accountable to this House. As a Government, we have increased the number of ministerial statements in comparison with the previous Government; given more time for the Report stages of Bills; and published more Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny. We are also encouraging public engagement in the House’s scrutiny, with public reading stage pilots and, as I have announced today, a new 10,000-signature threshold for e-petitions to trigger a Government response.

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I understand that the Government plan to introduce a business Committee by the end of 2013. Will the Leader of the House tell us how he views the proposal at this stage, and whether he thinks that such a Committee will improve scrutiny by giving Back Benchers more of a say in, for example, the timetabling of Bills and opportunities to vote on amendments?

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As the House will know, I have the greatest admiration for the reforms introduced by my predecessor, including the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, which has provided substantial opportunities. The hon. Lady rightly drew attention to the Government’s commitment in the coalition programme, and I look forward to constructive discussions about it.

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The Leader of the House could improve the quality of scrutiny immediately by making the post of Chairman of the Committee of Selection an elected post. Would it not be totally absurd if an independent Chairman of that Committee were replaced overnight by a former Whip?

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Again, I pay tribute to my predecessor. The introduction of elections to membership of Select Committees represents a considerable step forward in terms of Members’ ability to determine the shape of decision making in the House. However, it is also important for the Committee of Selection to reflect the interests of the parties—

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Of the House.

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Both sides of the House have an interest in getting business through, as well as respecting the rights of Back Benchers.

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Could we get rid of Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time, because he is hopeless, and introduce a format enabling Boris Johnson to come and give evidence to the House, because he clearly has more influence over Government policy?

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I seem to recall that Labour Members wanted the time for Deputy Prime Minister’s questions to be extended.

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7. I welcome the Leader of the House to his new position. May I ask him to consider improving scrutiny of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by extending the time allocated to oral questions to its Secretary of State? [120667]

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I am aware of my hon. Friend’s interest in that issue. I think that the time available for DEFRA questions has proved adequate, and we have no plans to change it at present.

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It is two and a half years since the Wright reform of the election of Chairmen of Select Committees was introduced. At that time there were very few candidates for some of the posts, and in the case of one Committee there was only one candidate. Would this not be a suitable time for the existing Chairmen to resign, so that all Members, including new Members, could have a chance to have their turn, in order that the work of Select Committees could be refreshed?

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I do not think that I would hold myself or my predecessor responsible for whether people put themselves forward. I think it is perfectly reasonable to give Members that opportunity. If they do not take it up, that is a matter for them.

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I note what my right hon. Friend said earlier about responses to e-petitions with 10,000 signatures. Will he clarify that by telling us what time frame would be involved, and can he give us any more details?

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I hope that it will be possible to respond rapidly to petitions with 10,000 signatures. I cannot tell the hon. Lady at this stage how quickly we will do it, but I hope that we will do it in a matter of weeks. I want members of the public to feel that they have a genuinely interactive relationship with scrutiny of the Government in the House, which involves direct responses to their use of the website and, indeed, to their e-mail addresses.

Ministerial Statements

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3. Whether the Government plan to impose penalties on Ministers who fail to observe the House's expectations in regard to statements. [120663]

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The Government are committed to making key policy announcements in Parliament, a principle that is set out clearly in the Ministerial Code. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the House had an opportunity to debate the issue in December last year. The premise that specific penalties should be imposed by the House over and above those already available was considered and rejected during that debate.

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I congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on delivering that reply with a straight face, but let us be honest: we all know that announcements should be made in this House first, but the temptation of a quick headline and some media coverage trumps virtue almost every time, especially within the walls of No. 10. Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that Ministers need to know that there is a certain penalty for that, such as promotion to the Whips Office or being hung by their toenails from the Elizabeth Tower, in order to ensure that virtue prevails?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that. He is an experienced and respected parliamentarian, and he will be aware of the range of measures available to put a Minister on the spot over any alleged failure to make the most important policy announcements to this House: urgent questions, Select Committee investigations, Prime Minister’s questions, points of order and raising matters in the Backbench Business Committee. I hope he agrees that that is an impressive list of effective sanctions against errant Ministers.

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The Government have increased the number of ministerial statements made to this House, and you, Mr Speaker, have increased the use of urgent questions to hold the Government to account, which is also welcome. However, it sometimes feels as if there is not much point in attending events such as the Budget debate or the Queen’s Speech debate, as one has read all about them in the previous Sunday’s newspapers, which shows that not enough is yet being done. Will the Government consider making use of Westminster Hall, or elsewhere, in order to have far more ministerial statements and, crucially, far more opportunities for Back Benchers to scrutinise what Ministers are up to?

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It is worth pointing out that over the recent period there have been 32 statements by the Prime Minister. We are making more statements per day than under the previous Government. I agree, however, that it would be a good idea to allow Westminster Hall to be used for oral statements, and the Leader of the House has expressed support for that.

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In which case why, at 10 o’clock today, did the Minister for Universities and Science make an announcement on changing the immigration policy at a conference a long way from here?

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I do not know the detail of what was announced, but sometimes such statements do not address matters of policy, but instead express the direction in which the Government are going.

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The fact that we have both a new Leader and Deputy Leader of the House presents us with an excellent opportunity to establish higher standards in how the Government report matters of concern to this House. Will the Deputy Leader therefore take this opportunity to give a guarantee that the Government will report statements to this House before briefing the media?

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It is clear from the ministerial code that that is precisely what Ministers are required to do, and, as we know, if necessary the Speaker will intervene and force a Minister’s hand if that is required.

Pre-legislative Scrutiny

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4. What plans he has for pre-legislative scrutiny of Government Bills. [120664]

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The Government are committed, wherever possible, to publishing legislation in draft with a view to pre-legislative scrutiny. We have published nine sets of draft measures so far this Session and will publish more as it progresses.

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But given the right hon. Gentleman’s unfortunate experience with the Health and Social Care Bill, does he not agree that it would be best for all Government Bills to have extensive scrutiny before reaching the Floor of the House?

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I think the hon. Lady and the House will recognise that it is not possible for all Bills to have pre-legislative scrutiny, but as I said, the Government have published a substantial number of such measures. When I was Secretary of State for Health, we published the Care and Support Bill in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny—I look forward to its commencement this autumn—and it has also been the subject of both consultation and a public reading stage.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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The Father of the House, once again, rightly and appropriately speaks on behalf of us all.

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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?

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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.

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rose

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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”?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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I will, if I may, make an announcement on that in business questions at a later date.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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So far as I am aware, yes.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

Afghanistan

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will present a quarterly review of our progress in Afghanistan, following the Prime Minister’s statement after the G8 and NATO summits in May. This statement represents the combined assessment of the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence.

I begin by paying tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces. As of today, 427 British troops have lost their lives since the conflict began in 2001, including 33 since the beginning of this year. They have made sacrifices that the House and the British people acknowledge with the utmost gratitude and admiration. We all recognise the considerable challenges that they continue to face in protecting Britain’s national security and that of the Afghan people.

I also join the Foreign Secretary in condemning the brutal and senseless attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday. It only serves to highlight the risks that personnel face as they work for peace and stability in countries in transition. In Afghanistan, we have strict security regimes in place to keep UK officials safe, and of course our arrangements are kept under constant review.

We are in Afghanistan to protect our own national security by helping the Afghans take control of theirs. Our objectives in Afghanistan, which are shared by our international partners, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people, remain the same—an Afghan state that is able to maintain its own security and prevent the country from being used as a safe haven by international terrorists. In pursuit of that aim, we are helping the Afghans develop their national security forces, make progress towards a sustainable political settlement and build a viable Afghan state that can provide for its people.

Security transition remains on track, and in May the Afghan Government announced the third of five tranches of areas that will start the process. Once fully implemented, it will mean that all 34 provinces will have areas that have begun transition. Significantly, in tranche 3, Afghans will be taking lead security responsibility for 75% of the population, including in all three districts that make up Task Force Helmand, the UK’s area of operations.

Our training efforts are delivering tangible results. The Afghan national security forces are increasingly moving to the fore in delivering security, and their capability and confidence continues to improve. By mid-2013 we expect the Afghans to be in the security lead across the country. They are deploying in formed units, carrying out their own operations and planning complex security arrangements. After 2014 any residual insurgent threat will be tackled by capable Afghan forces trained and equipped to manage their own security effectively. Although the international security assistance force coalition continues to play a key role, it is right that it is increasingly a supporting one.

The increase in so-called insider threat attacks is of course concerning. We routinely assess and refine our force protection to meet mission requirements and to best ensure the personal safety of our forces. We are also working closely with ISAF and the Afghan Government to take concrete action to reduce as far as possible the potential for such incidents in the future. Developing the Afghan national security forces is a key part of our strategy. They have an essential role in providing long-term security and governance in Afghanistan. Partnering is not without risk, but it is essential to success. The incidents in question are not representative of the overwhelming majority of Afghan security forces, and in fact every day tens of thousands of coalition forces work successfully alongside their Afghan partners in a trusting relationship, without incident.

We continue to support an Afghan-led political process as the means to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. We recognise that the way forward will be challenging, but we remain committed to supporting the Afghan Government’s efforts. We also recognise that security and stability in Afghanistan are in the mutual interest of all its neighbours, who have, in different ways, suffered as a result of Afghanistan’s instability during the past 20 years.

In November 2011, Afghanistan and its neighbours agreed to take forward regional dialogue and co-operation through the Istanbul process. As part of that process, the Foreign Secretary attended the Heart of Asia ministerial conference in Kabul on 14 June together with Foreign Ministers from the region and supporting countries. The final declaration reaffirmed participants’ support for sovereignty and regional co-operation. Participants also agreed to implement key confidence-building measures and the UK has offered to provide assistance to develop chambers of commerce, tackle the narcotics trade and support counter-terrorism and disaster management activities. We will continue to engage with that process and the lead regional countries.

Further highlighting the UK’s commitment to Afghanistan, the Prime Minister visited Kabul and Camp Bastion in mid-July. In Kabul, the Prime Minister participated in a trilateral meeting with President Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf on the common goal of security and stability in the region. Nevertheless, we know that transition to a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan will require significant economic growth and development as well as progress on security and an Afghan-led political settlement supported by its neighbours.

With that in mind, we continue to promote growth and to help to build up the private sector to provide opportunities for the Afghan people. For example, since the beginning of this year our assistance has provided more than 7,000 men and women in Helmand province with technical and vocational education and training, tailored to the needs of the local private sector, enabling them to get the jobs they need and to start their own businesses. More than 80% of those graduates are now employed, providing a better life for their families.

At the same time we continue to help the Afghan Government to increase tax revenues. In May, domestic revenue tax collection had increased to more than $2 billion, a 23% year-on-year increase and more than eight times the level of revenue collected in 2004-05 when UK support began. As the Select Committee on International Development’s recent report on tax in developing countries has rightly highlighted, increasing revenue generation is absolutely vital for countries such as Afghanistan to help to reduce their dependence on international assistance over time.

UK aid is helping Afghan civil society organisations and local communities to hold their Government to account. For example, through the Tawanmandi civil society programme, Afghan women’s organisations are raising awareness of the elimination of violence against women law, holding Government bodies to account for its implementation and supporting female victims. In addition, thanks to UK support, by the end of the year about 470 communities will be able to monitor Afghan Government public works programmes to ensure they deliver what they have promised.

As we progress towards full security transition at the end of 2014 it is vital that international assistance, including from the UK, continues to deliver such results so that ordinary Afghans can have faith in their Government to provide an alternative to the insurgency and a better life for their families. In previous statements, Members of this House have pointed out that Afghanistan faces an uncertain financial future that could put future peace and stability at risk. With that in mind, my predecessor led the UK delegation at the Tokyo conference in July. Partners committed $16 billion, or $4 billion per annum, through to 2015 to meet Afghanistan’s essential development needs. At that conference, the UK announced that we will provide development assistance to Afghanistan at the current levels of £178 million per annum up to 2017 and will continue to support Afghanistan right through the “transformation decade” from 2015 to 2024. Many other partners followed our lead and thanks to the efforts of the UK Government, the conference declaration commits the international community to meeting Afghanistan’s budget shortfall until at least 2017.

Our continued support, however, will require the Government of Afghanistan to implement the reform commitments set out in the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The framework acknowledges the importance of better governance, economic growth and regional co-operation and calls on the Government of Afghanistan to deliver progress on elections, corruption, economic management and human rights. It includes a strong and specific focus on the rights of women as a prerequisite for peace and prosperity. At the request of the Afghan Government, the UK agreed to co-chair the first ministerial review of progress against the Tokyo commitments in 2014. We therefore intend to play a major role in holding the Afghan Government and partners to account for their commitments to each other.

Since Tokyo, the Afghan Government have taken steps to demonstrate their intent. On 26 July, President Karzai issued a far-reaching decree on tackling corruption. The decree sets out 164 specific and time-bound instructions for almost all Government ministries. We welcome the vision outlined in the decree and President Karzai’s personal commitment to the agenda. We now need to see the Government deliver and we will continue to support them as they take forward those reforms.

Taken as a package, the commitments made at Tokyo and NATO’s security-focused summit at Chicago in May send a powerful message to the Afghan people and the region that we are there for the long haul. They also send a clear message to the Taliban that they cannot wait us out and that now is the time to participate in a peaceful political process.

Afghanistan has enormous potential. The country’s vast mineral wealth could transform its long-term economic prospects and the UK Government are helping the Afghans to capitalise on that, accountably and transparently, for the benefit of their people. Local government institutions are beginning to have a transformative effect on the lives of urban and rural communities by delivering better public services and strengthening infrastructure, again supported by UK aid. With the right amount of international support in place and the commitment of the Afghan Government to take forward essential reforms, the Afghan people aspire to a peaceful and prosperous future, which will support the UK’s national security interests, too. I look forward to taking forward that work alongside my right hon. Friends from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence in the months and years ahead.

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I thank the Secretary of State for sending me a copy of her statement in advance. Let me take this opportunity to welcome her to one of the best jobs in government. I hope that she has had time to reflect on how privileged she is to lead a Government development agency that is a global leader in reducing poverty and earns widespread respect for our country around the world.

I also welcome the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone) to this excellent Department and place on the record my appreciation and respect for the contribution the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr O'Brien) made to the Department for International Development—his is one of the sackings that will raise many questions among Members on the Government Benches.

Whatever political differences I have had with the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), nobody disputes his commitment to international development or the respect he earned across the sector during his period as Secretary of State. He is sitting next to the former Secretary of State for Health—the Government Front Bench today could be called “detox and retox”, as while the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield was detoxifying the Conservative brand, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) was retoxifying it—[Interruption.] I shall have plenty of time to mention the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr Duncan). I am sure that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has been sent to the Department in part to keep an eye on him.

I join the Secretary of State in condemning the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi yesterday and welcome her assurances about ensuring the necessary protection for UK personnel serving in Libya. This House overwhelmingly supports ISAF’s mission in Afghanistan and we are tremendously proud of the dedication and courage of our armed forces, aid workers and diplomats. We must always remember and pay tribute to those who have fallen and provide all necessary support to their loved ones left to grieve.

It is important to recognise on such occasions the significant progress being made in Afghanistan, where more children are attending school, access to health care is improving and the economy is growing, yet tremendous challenges remain. Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most fragile countries in the world, and progress on the millennium development goals is slow. There is serious concern at the escalation of “green-on-blue” attacks, which have led to too many fatalities, raise serious questions about the safety of our troops, and hamper the essential work that is being done to strengthen the capacity and professionalism of the Afghan national security forces.

As the Government have rightly said, the draw-down of troops must be gradual so that we do not have a cliff-edge withdrawal in 2014, and we must ensure that there is no erosion of the international community’s commitment to stability in Afghanistan when our forces depart. We have a long-term responsibility to ensure that the Afghan people shape the destiny of their country with the greater stability that is essential for much needed economic growth and the fight against poverty.

I have a number of questions for the Secretary of State. Political and institutional development in any country is a slow, long-term project, and a steady—rather than sharp—decline in funding is needed to avoid triggering a worse economic crisis than that already likely. The Tokyo conference in July this year was essential, and we welcome the $16 billion post-2014 funding agreement.

In that context, will the Secretary of State confirm that it remains Government policy that by next year 0.7% of gross national income will be spent on official development assistance, and that the Government will support the private Member’s Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick), which would enshrine that commitment in law?

Will the Secretary of State expand on the specific mechanism used to ensure that the contribution of the international community is not lost through corruption but spent on the priorities outlined in Tokyo and at the NATO Chicago summit? Will she comment on the political process? The Afghan peace and reintegration programme was bolstered in June when the Helmand provincial peace council and representatives of the Afghan national security forces held a shura—the first of its kind in Helmand. As the Secretary of State will agree, a political settlement that brings together local populations with new authority structures is essential to guarantee lasting and local stability across Afghanistan. Will she provide an update on how and where the Government expect the Afghan peace and reintegration programme to develop?

The House will be aware that presidential elections will be held in Afghanistan in 2014, the conduct of which will be a significant measure of how far the country has come. What work is the Department doing with the Afghan authorities and the international community to ensure that the elections are safe, free and fair?

Although it was stated at the Bonn conference that the peace process would be “inclusive...regardless of gender”, there have been no specific commitments to involve women. What is being done to bring more women into the political process, and ensure that the voice of Afghan women and civil society is heard when shaping the country’s future? Members on both sides of the House will agree that there will be no peace and security in Afghanistan without a leading role for women.

Finally, in 34 “green-on-blue” attacks this year, 45 soldiers have been killed and 69 wounded. In the most recent incident on 29 August, an Afghan soldier shot dead three Australian soldiers at a base in the south-central province of Uruzgan. What protections have the Government put in place to protect our forces from such attacks, and what analysis has been done of their cause and potential solutions?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about my new role. He was right to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Mr O’Brien) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell). In their many years at the Department, they made a huge difference to the importance of UK policy, and that was recognised by the many people with whom I have already spoken about our agenda, including Dr Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank, whom I met yesterday for the first time.

The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) mentioned funding and corruption,. If the international community is to match reform in Afghanistan with funding, as part of the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, we must ensure that every pound goes where it is intended. That effort, however, must be led by the Afghan Government, and President Karzai was right to announce wide-ranging steps to ensure that members of the Government, judiciary and Executive are transparent about their interests, and to ensure accountability for the delivery of public services at a local level. The Department supports such measures, and we are funding 35 advisers to work in 17 different departments to ensure effective delivery and so that the skills needed for successful delivery are developed over time.

I understand the rationale behind the hon. Gentleman’s question about the Afghan peace and reintegration process. It is an important issue, and if we are to achieve a sustainable political solution in Afghanistan all elements of Afghan society must join the dialogue on that. Early signs are encouraging, but there is a long way to go. The peace and reintegration process is a key part of that but, as the hon. Gentleman said, a start has been made. I will write to him with further details about anticipated further steps.

On the 2014 election, we are supporting the work of the Independent Election Commission, which has a vital role. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the challenges faced during the 2010 election, but that was the first democratic election in Afghanistan for 30 years, so of course there were challenges. From that base, however, I believe that real improvements have been made, and it is right for the Independent Election Commission to oversee the process of electoral reform. In 2014 I expect that elections will be better run, and I hope that a higher proportion of women will participate than in the first set of elections.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of women in Afghanistan, and in spite of the progress that has been made, women in Afghanistan still face huge challenges every day. It was heartening to see women’s rights explicitly mentioned as part of the Tokyo agreement, and they are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution, which we wanted to see. The challenge, however, is in implementation and ensuring that those rights for women exist in reality. It was correct for the Tokyo agreement to refer specifically to women’s rights, and we must look to the medium and long term. For example, nearly half of children entering education are now female, and such key building blocks will enable women to take a more prominent role. Just under 30% of Members of the Afghan Parliament are women, and we must ensure that in the future, women have the education and training that will enable them to participate more fully in Afghan society than in the past.

I will conclude my comments—[Interruption.] How could I forget? I will not sit down without referring to our important 0.7% commitment. Britain has played a leading role in meeting that goal. The coalition agreement is explicit about that and about our intention to legislate, and we will stick to it.

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rose—

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Order. A large number of Members wish to comment on the statement, which means that questions have to be brief. I will cut hon. Members off if they are not brief, and I will not be able to call anybody who arrived late to the statement.

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May I welcome the Secretary of State to her position? Is she satisfied that the Government of Afghanistan are doing everything necessary to deal with the Kabul bank corruption scandal?

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I believe that a lot of progress has been made. As my hon. Friend will be aware, prosecutions will take place, and the United Kingdom—together with Canada—is funding a forensic order that will provide an evidence base so that action can be taken.

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Eighty-seven per cent. of Afghan women experience at least one form of domestic abuse. In evidence to the Select Committee on International Development, we have heard calls for funding for counselling, hostels and legal services. Will the Secretary of State commit to funding those services directly so that UK aid can improve the lives of Afghan women?

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I have two things to say in reply to the hon. Lady. First, much of our support is delivered through the Afghan reconstruction trust fund, which supports women in the ways to which she referred. Secondly, women are playing more of a role in supporting women—for example, the number of women defence lawyers has risen from about three to 400. Those are the key ingredients we need if women’s rights are to be not just enshrined in the Afghanistan constitution but delivered on the ground. I recognise, as she does, that a huge amount of progress is still to be made. Afghanistan has come a long way, but it started from a low base, and we should be under no illusion—it has a long way to go. The role of our country, working with our international partners, and, critically, the Afghanistan Government, is key in ensuring that progress continues.

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There is widespread agreement that a political surge is needed, with regional talks involving the Taliban and regional countries such as Pakistan, India and Russia, but, sadly, progress is very slow. With that in mind, has the Secretary of State had a chance to form a view on the Royal United Services Institute report that members of the Taliban are prepared to engage in talks?

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I shall certainly look closely at that report. On the Taliban, I refer my hon. Friend to my earlier comments that a sustainable political solution will involve the participation of all members of Afghan society. President Karzai has been very clear that he wants to engage with the Taliban, but he has three conditions: first, they must renounce violence; secondly, they must break their links with al-Qaeda; and, thirdly, they must recognise democracy and the fact that they should be part of the Afghanistan constitution.

The broader regional talks to which my hon. Friend refers are absolutely right. A safe and secure Afghanistan is absolutely in the interests of Pakistan. He mentioned Russia, but Iran was also at the Istanbul conference. That shows that regional countries understand that working towards a secure and stable Afghanistan is in everybody’s interests, including the UK’s.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and wish her the best of luck in it.

Hon. Members have spoken a lot about women in Afghanistan in the past few years, but we need more detail on what talks are going on to protect the considerable gains that have been achieved for them. I meet Afghan women MPs twice a year in Inter-Parliamentary Union delegations. I find it amazing that they feel too constrained to be able to speak freely with us because of the person leading the delegation, who is, of course, usually a man. We therefore need to know the detail of what is happening to ensure that the gains made for women are and will be protected. That is extremely important.

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I ask the right hon. Lady to take a careful look at the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, which includes discussions specifically on protecting women’s rights and, critically, delivering them on the ground—I will take a close personal interest in the matter.

The right hon. Lady asks for specifics. The mutual accountability framework includes ensuring the proper implementation of the elimination of violence against women law, which has been passed, and the national action plan for the women of Afghanistan. I understand that many people will listen to me and think, “Those are fine words, but what will actually happen on the ground?” The key point is that this is a process. The Tokyo conference was important because, for the very first time, it solidified in writing many of the reforms that we want the Afghan Government to take forward in return for the financing settlement, which sits alongside the reforms, and which will be delivered by the international community.

Monitoring and reviews will take place, and the UK will play a key role in them. We were asked by the Afghan Government to co-chair the first ministerial review in 2014, but, as I am sure the right hon. Lady knows, an officials’ review will take place next year. We will pay very close attention to the whole agenda.

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The Secretary of State’s appreciation of Her Majesty’s armed forces will be welcomed in the garrison town of Colchester, home of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Will she give a progress report on the huge logistic achievement of the summer of 2008, when soldiers from Colchester were involved in the transportation of turbines to the Kajaki dam? What has happened since?

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The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific question and it might be better if I reply to him in writing after the statement. Suffice it to say that he is right to point out that our troops have played a critical role not just in combat but in supporting the Afghanistan Government to rebuild some of the infrastructure that the country will need. He mentioned a project in Helmand province. Alongside that, our troops have played key roles in helping with schools, health care and roads—if we are to have a thriving agriculture sector, farmers need to get their produce to market. All that work provided by our troops will be immensely powerful not just in protecting Afghanistan and in working with Afghanistan forces today, but in building the country we hope can be successful tomorrow.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her post. I also welcome her commitment to working with women in Afghanistan and her reflection on the importance of the role of women in peace-building and stability. Will she expand on what specific role the UK Government can play in supporting rural women in Afghanistan to ensure that they have access to education and financial independence, and to ensure that they are not only aware of their rights but able to exercise them?

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The hon. Lady will no doubt understand that a huge range of different activities are happening, and not just at national level—provincial and district plans are also in place. The district plans are very much locally driven, but we are providing assistance. As I have said, we are providing assistance at national level in Ministries to ensure that they are better placed in terms of their skills and capability to deliver at local level, but we need to see further progress. The Tokyo mutual accountability framework is the right one to enable us not only to agree what needs to be done, but to track it to ensure that it happens.

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I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to her new position. I am sure she welcomes the fact that the representation of women in the Afghan National Assembly is 27%—it is 22% in the UK House of Commons—but there is only one female governor in Afghanistan. In addition, through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, I have met several Afghani women National Assembly Members who are concerned about their future, and who feel that they will go backwards when our support and troops come out. What will she do to ensure that they retain their position and that level of representation?

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My hon. Friend is right to flag up those understandable concerns. The NATO-led combat mission will come to an end by the end of 2014. One key outcome of the Chicago conference was that NATO now needs to consider post-2014 support. We need to ensure that the constitution, which enshrines women’s rights, works on the ground as well as on paper. That is incredibly important, and as I have said, I take a close personal interest in it.

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I notice that a motion contains the names of 425 of our brave soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Although it was put down last week, it is already out of date—it does not contain the names of the two fatalities since then or the names of the 2,000 of our soldiers who have returned broken in mind or body, and it cannot contain the names of the almost certain future deaths, such as those that followed the Falklands and Vietnam wars, when more soldiers took their lives after the war than died in combat. One Welsh soldier took his life this January. He is not recorded. How can we respect the self-deluding fiction in the report? It is another case of our brave soldiers—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but I said that questions should be brief, however important.

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I think that many people across the country and the House believe that our troops are performing a vital role. It is the right thing to do not only for Afghanistan but for our country. The number of terrorist threats to the UK coming out of Afghanistan has already reduced substantially in recent years.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on another point. He referred to servicemen and women coming back battered and broken; I cannot remember the exact phrase.

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Broken in mind and spirit.

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Broken in mind and spirit. The hon. Gentleman only had to watch some of the competitors at the Paralympics in recent weeks to see that they were amazing people who had done amazing things in the past and would continue to do amazing things in the future. We owe them our wholehearted support.

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For those of us who opposed our involvement in Afghanistan, it was obvious from the start that the Taliban would not be beaten, given the available resources, and that we were fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country, given the differences between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Yet the key stumbling block to a diplomatic solution remains the American refusal to conduct non-conditional talks with the Taliban. They will talk only if the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the constitution. This will not happen. Should the UK Government not be doing more to get the Americans to change their position? After all, we showed in Northern Ireland that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time.

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As we have made clear, we believe that the political process towards a sustainable peace should ultimately be led by the Afghan Government. I take my hon. Friend’s point about the Taliban, but it is worth reflecting that increasingly their attacks have been pushed to the fringes of Afghanistan society. In fact, 80% now take place in parts of Afghanistan where just 20% of the population live. So I believe that we are making progress, and I hope that over time growing numbers of Taliban fighters will choose to join the peaceful discussion on how to reach a political settlement and lay down their arms. Steps are being taken in Afghanistan to encourage that process to continue.

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I congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and welcome the commitment to women’s rights that she has articulated in her statement and answers. When the international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the role of the Afghan national army and police force will take on increasing importance. What are she and her ministerial colleagues doing to ensure that the police and army are alive to issues of women’s rights and can enforce the law to which she referred many times, so that it becomes a reality on the ground, not just in the constitution?

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A lot of our work concerns not only combat but training, assistance and advice for the Afghan security forces and local police. That is one of the key routes to maintaining women’s rights. Although we often talk about the departure of British troops in the coming months, I should emphasise that we will retain a presence so that we can support and train the Afghan national security force to maintain security. As the hon. Lady will know, an academy will be set up next year to continue training the best and brightest Afghan soldiers to play that leadership role. That is one of the key things happening next year. Those building blocks will help maintain women’s rights. There is not one thing alone we can do to make the ultimate difference. It will involve a series of actions at all levels in Afghan society delivered by many different stakeholders. Over time, that will start to bring a change for the better. I believe that that change has already begun, however, as can be seen, for example, by the number of women elected to the Afghan Parliament in its first elections.

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As a trustee of a UK-based non-governmental organisation, Afghan Action, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Would she be minded at a time convenient to her to meet representatives of UK-based NGOs, such as Afghan Action, Afghanaid and Turquoise Mountain, to discuss how, with our partners in Afghanistan, we can maximise our contribution to continued development there?

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I am pleased that my hon. Friend raises that point. In such a statement, it is often easy to fail to mention the huge amount of very important work done by NGOs, including some of those to which he referred. I have had the privilege of meeting some of the key NGOs involved in international aid, and I would be delighted to meet some of the organisations he has talked about. I will ensure that my office gets in touch with him to make that happen.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and express my disappointment that she has left the position of Secretary of State for Transport, where she did such a sterling job. The AFP news agency reported this week that President Karzai had criticised the war on terror. He said that the war

“was not conducted and pursued as it should have been”

and that

“Afghan villages and homes were once again turned into a battlefield of a ruthless war inflicting irrecoverable losses in both human and material”

terms. Does she agree?

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We have made it clear why we believe it important to work with the Afghanistan Government to create a stable and secure Afghanistan. Obviously, people will have opinions on how action there is progressing, but the important thing is that we now look forward.

Finally, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s opening comments. I was proud of what I achieved with my previous Department. And one of the most important bits of that, of course, was the electrification of the Welsh railways.

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The Secretary of State was right to emphasise the concern in this country about the so-called insider threats, or “green-on-blue” attacks. As ISAF troops withdraw from combat action, what can be done to ensure the safety of our development workers and those of other nations?

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It is about ensuring that Afghanistan as a whole has a secure and orderly society, whether that involves helping to develop local Afghan police forces, supporting the Afghan national security forces nationally so that they have the capacity and capability to deliver security, or DFID working with departments, for example, to deliver a system of justice and rule of law on which people can rely. All those things will create an environment in which positive work can be best achieved. It is an overall support package that will make a difference. The work done by the organisations mentioned has been critical in supporting Afghan people on the ground as we go through the complex and huge process of helping to build a state that benefits everyone.

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I welcome the Secretary of State to her position and thank her for the work she did on the reduction of the Humber bridge tolls in her previous role.

In her statement, the Secretary of State talked about promoting growth and building up the private sector. What is being done to help women get into the workplace and perhaps start their own businesses?

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We are seeing an improvement, with more women going into employment, although there are still clear differences between men and women in Afghanistan in terms of pay and wages earned. A lot of support is being given, not just to get investment into Afghanistan at both the private sector and national levels, but to ensure help and advice in developing small and medium-sized enterprises, particularly in rural areas. Those are the sorts of routes that will ensure that more opportunities are opened up for women to participate.

In answer to the hon. Lady’s point about the Humber bridge, let me tell her that the very first picture I put up in my office was of the Greening toll buster beer that was brewed in my name after we reduced the tolls. I hope that I can deliver in this role as well as I hope I did in my last.

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I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new position and thank her for her warm support for women’s rights. Afghan women are not just victims; they, too, are brave campaigners for women’s rights, but that position comes at a cost. Many, such as Hanifa Safi, who was assassinated this summer, pay the ultimate price. Can my right hon. Friend say what steps she is taking to develop a plan to support women human rights defenders and assist the Afghan Government in protecting their female representatives, who face increasing threats?

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Clearly this is a real issue, and it has been raised by many parliamentarians across the House today. For the first time, women’s rights are now enshrined in the Afghan constitution. We are supporting many of the departments in Afghanistan that will play a key role in ensuring that those rights are respected and implemented on the ground. Having listened to the many questions asked today, I think this is an issue that I will want to pursue with perhaps a number of colleagues across the House, in order to tap into their clear knowledge and experience in this area over recent months and years. Indeed, I shall ensure that I get such a meeting organised.

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I met a delegation of Afghan MPs this summer, and I think the Secretary of State is absolutely right to focus on women’s rights and the protection of women. Can she say what targets have been set, and what progress has been made towards meeting them, for reducing deaths in childbirth and infant mortality?

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I do not have those precise statistics with me, but clearly improving health care is critical. For example, we have moved from a position where very few children under the age of one had any kind of vaccine to one where a quarter are now vaccinated. There is now also much more support for women to ensure fewer deaths in childbirth. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, and I thank him for the kind note he sent me on taking up this role. This is an area that I hope we can all focus on together.

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I, too, warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to her new role. What steps can the Government take to ensure that those nations that committed to supporting the future of Afghanistan, in Tokyo and in Chicago, stick to that commitment?

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We can make sure that we review progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework. The progress review will happen regularly. There are already a number of countries that, alongside Britain, have made clear financial commitments to continue to support Afghanistan, while a number of others are yet to confirm exactly what their contributions will be. We secured an overall agreement that £16 billion would be made available to support the Afghanistan Government as they go through their period of reform, and that is just between now and 2016. That is a substantial investment. There was also clear support for the sense that the next decade needs to be one in which Afghanistan will be truly transformed. I am sure that there will be further discussions about the funding needed beyond 2016 to support that.

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May I also congratulate the Secretary of State on her new role and thank her for the tribute she paid to our armed forces? That includes not just those who have lost their lives, but the many who have been injured. Does she agree that their sacrifice not only has enabled capacity building in law and order, democracy and governance to take place, but for the first time has enabled millions of children to access an education? That should give us great pride, as well as optimism for Afghanistan’s long-term future.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things that struck me in my first few days in this role is just how common some of the challenges we all face are. Education is the route for all of us to make the most of ourselves. That is why it is so important that children in Afghanistan should also have the chance to develop into the people they can be. Some 5.9 million children—nearly 6 million—are now attending school in Afghanistan, which is a huge, dramatic increase. Nearly 40% or so are now girls. Let us remember that under the Taliban none of them were girls and there were also far fewer children in school. If we are to see long-term progress, we have to enable people in Afghanistan, particularly children, to get the knowledge and skills to develop their country themselves. That is one of the most important things we are doing.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. Please can she explain what role the UK is playing in improving governance in Afghanistan?

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Obviously we are playing a leading role in this area. The most important thing we are doing is supporting Afghan departments to be effective. We have funded advisers helping them not just to work on policy, but to do very straightforward tasks such as planning budgets, executing budgets and monitoring financial spend. All those things are relatively straightforward, but they are the key ingredients that need to be in place for public services to be delivered well. When public services are delivered well in Afghanistan, that will lead to increasing buy-in among the Afghan people, as they see their country moving in the right direction. If we can do that, it will create, I hope, a more virtuous circle, so that we see more and more development continuing in future.

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Post-2014 there are likely to be diplomats, military personnel and British contractors left in Afghanistan to help the country. When the planning is done, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State ensure that the post-2014 medical arrangements are good, particularly for casualty evacuation? It does not end when the military leave.

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I hope that I will be able to provide my hon. Friend with that assurance. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary, and perhaps he will then receive a fuller reply about the work that the Ministry of Defence is doing in that regard. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the safety of troops is paramount. That has been a focus for this Government, and that will continue going forward.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that the excellent work done to win over hearts and minds is undermined by the use of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does she agree that that needs to change if we are to continue winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan?

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My hon. Friend asks a complex question in many respects. Ultimately, the focus for this Government has principally been to provide support for security on the ground, in terms of both combat operations and helping the Afghan national security force build up capacity and capability. We are one of a number of international partners operating in Afghanistan, and we will continue those operations. NATO is looking at what the nature of those operations should be post combat, after 2014. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s question is an important one and that it will be reflected on by many people.

Points of Order

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance on the way in which the Home Office parliamentary unit is refusing to deal with Members of Parliament. This week, my office contacted the unit to seek guidance as to which new Minister was dealing with a particular area, so that I could address a letter to the correct person. The unit refused to assist me. I then sought a copy of the Home Secretary’s speech to the Police Superintendents Association conference, as it was not on the website. Again, I was refused assistance. I also have three named-day questions for answer on 4 September that are still outstanding. The Table Office has advised me to contact the Home Office parliamentary unit, but in the light of the unit’s refusal to deal with me or my office this week, would Madam Deputy Speaker care to comment on whether that would be appropriate?

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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), is in his place, and he will have heard the hon. Lady’s point of order. I will ensure, with him, that the Leader of the House investigates the matter and reports back not only to Mr Speaker but directly to the hon. Lady on the rather strange circumstances that she is experiencing with the Home Office parliamentary unit.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Please could you discuss with Mr Speaker the possibility of the need for a guidance note for Members on the names of deceased persons being used to make a point? I refer to the publication of the names of all the fallen in Afghanistan, many of whom were my constituents. The only communication that I have ever had from the relatives of the deceased has expressed admiration for what their loved ones have done in Afghanistan, and I simply ask whether it is seemly that the names of the fallen should be used to make a point.

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I must be frank with the hon. Gentleman on this matter. Rather than giving him a direct response today, I will take the matter to Mr Speaker so that he can reflect on it and decide whether there is a need for further action.

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On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will know that, before the general election, the Prime Minister promised that his Government would cut net migration to the tens of thousands. He used the phrase, “No ifs. No buts”. The former Immigration Minister, the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), said to the House on 9 July:

“A student who comes here for three years or more is as much of an immigrant as somebody who comes on a work visa for two years or more.”—[Official Report, 9 July 2012; Vol. 548, c. 4.]

Today, the Minister for Universities and Science has announced—not here in the House, but at a conference in Keele—that the Government have told the Office for National Statistics to

“better count students in immigration flows”.

That is clearly the first step towards statistically removing students from the Government’s net migration target. Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not expect you to comment on the chaos at the heart of the Government, or indeed on the fact that the new Immigration Minister, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) has already lost control of his own brief and policy, given that such announcements are being made by the Universities Minister. Can you confirm, however, that all announcements of that nature should be made to this House, so that Members on both sides of the House can criticise the Government if we think that they are doing something wrong? Can you also confirm that an urgent question, if sought, could be taken either tomorrow or on Monday?

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The hon. Gentleman has put a great deal on the record that was not strictly a point of order. With regard to Ministers making new policy announcements, Mr Speaker has made it absolutely clear that when such announcements are to be made, it is the House of Commons that should hear them first. With regard to what the Government might decide to do in the next few days in relation to the business of the House, I am afraid that I am not able to comment, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pursue the matter anyway.

Bill presented

Public Service Pensions Bill

Presented and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Theresa May, Secretary Philip Hammond, Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Eric Pickles, Danny Alexander, Mr Francis Maude, Sajid Javid and Steve Webb, presented a Bill to make provision for public service pension schemes; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 70) with explanatory notes (Bill 70-EN).

Backbench Business

Select Committee Inquiry (Aviation Strategy)

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I beg to move,

That this House notes the launch of the Transport Committee’s inquiry into the UK’s aviation strategy.

I should like to thank the Backbench Business Committee for this opportunity to launch the Transport Select Committee’s new inquiry into the Government’s aviation policy and for enabling us to bring our work to the attention of Members and the public.

Aviation is vital to the UK economy. The air transport sector has a turnover of approximately £26 billion and provides around 186,000 direct jobs in the UK. More than 500,000 jobs depend on the sector and an additional 170,000 come as a consequence of visitors arriving by air. Aviation feeds into our manufacturing, tourism and freight sectors. It also connects businesses to international markets and allows people to travel across the UK and abroad. The industry, however, also has an impact on the local environment around airports, and its carbon emissions have a global environmental effect.

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I welcome the inquiry. There is an abundance of inquiries at the moment, so we are all going to be busy. In past inquiries, the focus on emissions has centred on carbon dioxide, and not on the nitrogen oxides that are poisoning large numbers of my constituents and, if the third runway goes ahead, will poison 35,000 more. Will my hon. Friend ensure that the inquiry takes that matter into account?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. The Committee will certainly be interested to hear representations on the specific issue that he has raised.

The Department for Transport has taken some time in producing its aviation strategy. The coalition rejected plans for a third runway at Heathrow in 2010, but in July this year the Government published their draft aviation policy framework for consultation. The Government say that their draft policy should make the best use of existing aviation capacity in the short term, while other long-term solutions to increase capacity are being developed.

The issue of hub status is particularly contentious. Two years after opposing plans to expand Heathrow, the Government’s draft aviation policy does not include a strategy for maintaining an aviation hub in the UK. Ensuring that the UK has an effective hub airport is important to encourage growth, maintain international connectivity and provide transport services on more marginal routes.

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As a member of the Transport Select Committee, I am very much looking forward to working on this important inquiry. Will the hon. Lady confirm that the inquiry’s terms of reference will allow us to consider the interaction of aviation strategy with a high-speed rail network, so that we can explore other hub airport options rather than simply the binary choice between expanding Heathrow and building a Thames estuary airport?

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I can confirm that the terms of reference for the inquiry, which are now being published, will include the particular issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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I hear the hon. Lady’s comments on hub airports. I am sure that her inquiry will wish to reflect on the new Secretary of State’s announcement last week that an independent commission was being set up to look at all these proposals. I am sure that that will be within its terms of reference. The Government will very much welcome the Select Committee’s report, and we look forward to reading its findings. She will of course understand that, in welcoming it, we might not necessarily be able to give an unequivocal welcome to its findings.

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I welcome the Minister to his new position. My colleagues on the Transport Committee and I look forward to questioning him on this issue. He is correct to point out that the Prime Minister announced last week that an independent commission would be set up to look at these issues. However, that commission is not expected to produce its final report until 2015, so any decision based on its recommendations will be postponed until the next Parliament, at the earliest.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that, as some airports have already reported that they are losing long-haul flights to hub airports on mainland Europe, there is some urgency in deciding our future aviation strategy, and that waiting until 2015 to make the decision when we know how long it takes to develop any new infrastructure seems like an enormously long time?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. Indeed, that is why the Transport Committee is about to launch its own inquiry.

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I, too, welcome the opportunities that come with this inquiry. Will the hon. Lady confirm that her inquiry will look seriously at the long-term best interests of London, which I suggest are not best served by a patch-and-mend attitude towards Heathrow, which, at best, will be able to squeeze in one more half-runway before it is completely out of room? We really need to look at the long-term best interests of London and the south-east.

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I hope the hon. Lady will note that the terms of reference of our inquiry make it very clear that the Committee will be interested in looking at all possibilities, so we look forward to hearing her thoughts on the issue.

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The hon. Lady mentioned the commission that is being established by the Government. It will inevitably consider the Heathrow proposal, which is shovel ready, and other proposals such as for the Thames estuary airport, which is much less developed. Is she concerned that this inquiry must not only be objective but be seen to be objective, and that, therefore, it is up to the Government to spend some money on bringing forward the alternative proposals that they want considered during the inquiry—otherwise, it will not be an objective inquiry, but a fix for Heathrow?