Mr Speaker, may I wish you and the House a happy and peaceful new year?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 14 January—Second Reading of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 15 January—A motion to approve the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013.
Wednesday 16 January—Opposition day [14th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 17 January—A general debate on Atos work capability assessments, followed by a general debate on the nuclear deterrent. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 18 January—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 21 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.
Tuesday 22 January—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House on the Succession to the Crown Bill.
Wednesday 23 January—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 24 January—Debate on a motion relating to reducing the voting age, followed by a general debate on the Holocaust memorial day. The subjects for those debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 25 January—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 24 January will be:
Thursday 24 January—Debate on the first report of the Justice Committee on post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
May I also take this opportunity, on behalf of the House, to offer our congratulations to the Members of this House whose public service has been recognised in the new year honours? May I also say how pleased we are by the awarding of Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath to the Clerk of the House? That reflects his fine public service and leadership, and is a tribute to the House service as a whole.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and may I join him in wishing you, Mr Speaker, all Members of this House and all the staff who work here a happy new year? I would also like to join him in his congratulations to those who were recognised in the new year’s honours list.
The ongoing disturbances in Northern Ireland concern Members from all parts of the House. More than 3,000 people were killed during the troubles. The peace process has brought to Northern Ireland hope and greater security, and has helped to attract much-needed investment. Those whose only aim is to bring down the peace process are exploiting events in Belfast, and we must not let a small minority undermine all that has been achieved since the Good Friday agreement. May I thank the Leader of the House for arranging a statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary following business questions? Will he undertake to ensure that she keeps the House regularly updated?
On Tuesday, the House considered the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, and there is more of it to come. The Government have refused to let the Bill have pre-legislative scrutiny and are intent on forcing it through the House in just one more day. Ministers are running scared of scrutiny because they do not want the facts to get in the way of their nasty little caricatures of those who rely on social security. The facts are that 7 million households affected by this legislation are in work; and the Government’s own impact assessment, published at the last minute on Tuesday, thus preventing Members from scrutinising it before the debate, shows that those who lose the most from these measures will be the poorest 10% of households. So can the Leader of the House explain why there is no pre-legislative scrutiny for this Bill, unlike almost all other bills this Session, and look again at the timetabling of this legislation?
Did the right hon. Gentleman find time this morning to tune into the Deputy Prime Minister’s new, gripping, radio show? No doubt, like all Conservative MPs, he has cleared his diary so as not to miss a broadcast. I am sorry to say that expectations were not high among Government Back Benchers, with the view of the hon. Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) being:
“Having sat and listened to him at Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, he has never answered a question yet so he isn’t likely to break the habit of a lifetime on radio.”
Having listened to the broadcast this morning—it was half an hour of my life that I will never get back—I have to report to the House that the Deputy Prime Minister did not break the habit. However, I have discovered that, strangely, although the Deputy Prime Minister is keen to do a London phone-in, yesterday he refused to appear on a Radio Sheffield show to answer questions about the impact of Government cuts in his own constituency. As the Deputy Prime Minister clearly has time on his hands, could the Leader of the House make a change to future business to accommodate a statement on why the Liberal Democrat leader is hiding from the people of Sheffield?
I pay tribute to the former Leader of the House of Lords, Lord Strathclyde, who has decided to leave the Government because he is fed up of having to deal with the Liberal Democrats. If every Conservative Member who was fed up with the Liberal Democrats abandoned politics, the only Tory left in the Government would be the Prime Minister.
This week, the PR Prime Minister managed to bungle his own Government relaunch. First, two Ministers resigned because they had had enough of the coalition and then we had the shambles of the Government’s self-audit. Having put together a document allegedly auditing their first two and half years, Ministers realised, as the memo put it, that it had “problematic areas” that would lead to “unfavourable copy” as a result of identifying “broken” promises. On Monday at the relaunch, there was no audit. It is a unique interpretation of Government transparency first to decide against publishing a so-called audit, only to have to retrieve it from the waste paper bin after a bungling aide inadvertently revealed its existence to the media. I have had a look at what is actually in the document. There is no mention of the cost of living going up, nurse and police numbers going down and the economy flatlining. Who is the Prime Minister trying to kid? Seventy broken promises is just the start. It does not say Ronseal on this tin; it says whitewash.
There you have it, Mr Speaker, in one week: a botched relaunch, a cover-up and a whitewash. This just proves that with this Government an omnishambles is not just for Christmas.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. Perhaps it should fall to me to express our appreciation of Lord Strathclyde and his fabulous service over many years. He was leader of the Conservatives in the Lords for 14 years and Leader of the House since the election; he has an exemplary record of public service and we in this House, although we do not normally comment on matters in another place, have benefited many times from how he fostered co-operation between the two Houses. We should certainly thank him for that.
The shadow Leader of the House is right that it is the Government’s intention and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to keep the House fully informed. My right hon. Friend has made statements and she will do so again today. I share with the shadow Leader of the House the view that those engaging in violence in Northern Ireland are attacking the character and nature of Britain and the flag that represents the United Kingdom as a whole. As the Prime Minister rightly said in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, we should be working towards a shared future. There is a tremendous opportunity of which we have seen evidence in Northern Ireland and I hope the statement today will further reiterate this House’s support for those in Northern Ireland who are making that shared future a reality.
The hon. Lady asked about the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill. It is a short, simple Bill and what it sets out to achieve is very clear. I do not see any case for pre-legislative scrutiny of a Bill with such a character. More to the point, I think the debate the other day was not about scrutiny of the Bill but about differences of view about how to take forward deficit reduction. The Government recognise that it is a necessity, that everybody must play their part and that it was not acceptable for out-of-work benefits to continue to increase at twice the rate of increases for those who were earning. We are supporting those in work, giving them opportunities by reducing taxation. Some 24 million people have seen their tax bill come down as a consequence of the increase in the personal tax allowance and those on the minimum wage have seen their tax bill halved. That is the right way to go—it is about everyone participating in deficit reduction, but those who are most in need should get the greatest support.
I must confess to the shadow Leader of the House that I did not have an opportunity this morning to listen to LBC and the Deputy Prime Minister because I was preparing for questions in this House. However, I regularly attend and listen to the Deputy Prime Minister as he responds to questions in this House, as he did earlier this week. I thought he did so admirably.
Finally, the Government were always going to publish the audit. It is obvious that, compared with the previous Government, this Government have been transparent, clear and accountable both in what we have set out to do under the coalition programme and in what we have achieved, and 90% achievement in just over half of a Parliament is a record that we can be proud of.
Further to the question raised a few minutes ago in Women and Equalities questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), has the Leader of the House considered the importance of holding the Committee stage of the House’s deliberations on changes to the marriage legislation in a Committee of the whole House, bearing in mind that this is a free vote conscience issue?
It is not the case that issues of conscience in a Bill are always considered in a Committee of the whole House. It is a matter for further discussion on how we take the Bill forward, as we have not yet introduced it. I am sure that, at that time, I will have the opportunity to inform the House about our plans for effective scrutiny of the legislation.
It is interesting that, when it comes to tackling poverty, the hon. Gentleman might have included in his list of things that impact on poverty the extent to which people are in work. The level of poverty in this country is not simply a product of the redistributive changes by Government. It is about getting people into work, and one of the central achievements of this country over that past two and a half years has been—we can see it in the contrast between the United Kingdom and many other European countries—the extent to which the private sector is creating jobs and people are going into work. As has been acknowledged by Labour Members, although they appear not to follow through the logic, work is the best means of escaping poverty.
When he considers business for next week and the coming few weeks, may I urge my right hon. Friend not to rush bringing forward the legislation on same-sex marriage until Government officials and officials in the Church of England and other faith groups have agreed the draft clauses that will give protection to Churches and faith groups that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages, and have agreed that those clauses will do what they say on the tin? Whatever the views of the Church of England and other faith groups might be on same-sex marriage, I am sure the Leader of the House will agree that it is in everyone’s interests that we get the quadruple lock provision properly sorted, and that it will not help the Government’s handling of the measure if there is any confusion about these provisions on Second Reading.
It is absolutely our intention to ensure that the legislation that comes forward is clear and will carry support. To that end I am grateful not only to my hon. Friend but to representatives of the Church of England for enabling us to have those conversations before the Bill is introduced.
May I push the Leader of the House to arrange an early debate on post-natal depression, which affects about 20,000 women a year in this country? It is the most likely cause of death in young women between the ages of 18 and 40 by suicide. It is a very neglected area and the sooner we tackle it and give it higher visibility, the better.
The hon. Gentleman may recall that in the summer of last year, when I was Secretary of State for Health, one of the things that I set out as part of the further measures to improve maternity services was a focus on post-natal depression. I entirely share his view. There is still, as I know from my knowledge of the health service, variable access to specialist services for some of the most severe cases of post-natal depression. I know my colleagues will be looking at that, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise the matter at Health questions next Tuesday, I am sure that would be helpful too.
Will it be possible to have a debate next week on collective ministerial responsibility? I tabled a number of questions to the Prime Minister on the subject, which have been ducked. Surely it is important that there should be clarification of what we mean by collective ministerial responsibility, and how and to what extent the Prime Minister feels obliged to enforce the provisions of the ministerial code in relation to collective ministerial responsibility.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have not had the opportunity to see the questions to which he refers, although I would be glad to. As far as I am aware, collective ministerial responsibility continues to apply as it always has done, as has the ministerial code.
On the question of keeping the House informed, before Christmas I asked the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice about proposals for new prisons in north Wales, but he refused to meet Members of Parliament from north Wales. As we speak, the Department is briefing journalists on new prisons and on a super-prison that might be placed in north Wales. Why are the Government so disrespectful of Members of this House that they are briefing Lobby journalists, rather than Members of Parliament, on the matter, which is of profound concern to my constituents?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that a written ministerial statement was laid before the House this morning—[Interruption.] He says that he wants an oral statement. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice laid a written ministerial statement that is very full and detailed, and there will, of course, be opportunities in future, for example during Justice questions, for Members to ask questions on that.
In the past half hour my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) have all questioned the length of time there will be for discussions on the Bill to equalise marriage, and it seems to me that a Committee of the whole House is the answer. Previously, when the Leader of the House, as shadow Health Secretary, was involved when a conscience issue came before the House, it was considered in a Committee of the whole House, so will he reconsider his position and ensure that the Bill is considered in a Committee of the whole House?
I reiterate that in the past conscience issues, including those that have been the subject of free votes by virtue of that fact, have not necessarily been considered by a Committee of the whole House. There is a job to be done in scrutinising legislation, which can sometimes be best achieved in Committee, and all Members have an opportunity to participate in the debate on Report, particularly if sufficient time is available. I am not prejudging the question of the equal marriage Bill at all, as it has not been introduced and I have not announced how we propose the business should be taken forward.
Next Tuesday we will discuss the important section 30 order, which will allow for a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence to be determined by the Scottish Government. Many of the Leader of the House’s hon. Friends are not particularly well disposed to that idea and might be tempted to vote against the measure. Can he assure me that there will be a three-line Government Whip for attendance to ensure that any rebellion is defeated?
If I may say so, it is sufficient that I deal with the business of the House, rather than attempting to answer questions relating to the whipping arrangements of each individual party. Suffice it to say, the matter will be brought forward on a Government motion.
Many of my constituents contact me about asylum and visa applications, and when my office investigates with the UK Border Agency we see that the personal data held by the agency are woefully out of date. Will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to explain what the Department is doing to ensure that UKBA is not only fit for purpose, but keeps up-to-date personal records?
My hon. Friend will know that the UK Border Agency is developing a strategy to identify and resolve data issues, not least in response to a recommendation of the chief inspector of borders and immigration. That should ensure the quality of data and assist the agency in cleansing the data records on the system. If my hon. Friend has specific examples of constituents affected, I am sure that it would be helpful if he raised those with Home Office colleagues. We know that the UK Border Agency had a poor record in the past. The process of turning that around has begun and is progressing, but it will take time.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts), any time a Minister is asked about food poverty, their response is that we have seen jobs created in the private sector. I am shocked that the Government are not aware that working people are accessing emergency food aid in this country. When will the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor, or a Minister from the Department for Work and Pensions or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs actually visit a food bank so that they can give more informed responses to the questions asked by Labour MPs?
I am surprised that the hon. Lady should think that we have not done that, although I can speak only for myself; I have not checked with other Ministers. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and I visited a food bank in her constituency in the early part of last year or thereabouts. I completely understand the concern, of course. Access to food banks has been increased, and that is absolutely right. It is right that people should have access to food banks, and there is better access than there used to be in the past. We are setting out to ensure that those who are in the greatest need get the greatest support. However, it is not simply a matter of public sector support; it is about giving people the opportunity to have the dignity and independence that comes with work and earnings.
Following the recent announcement by the would-be state nannies in the Labour party that they think that the content of breakfast cereals should be regulated, which will put our Sugar Puffs and our Frosties under threat, may we please have a debate on how we can best protect these great British cereals from this unwarranted attack before anyone starts suggesting that they should be put in plain packages?
At the weekend I was rather staggered by the effrontery of Labour Members, who, in the course of their 13 years in office, presided over what was, in effect, a doubling of obesity, in then saying that something should be done and, in particular, proposing legislation when in those 13 years they proposed no such legislation themselves. They are clearly amusing themselves with the luxuries of opposition. The fact is that in government we have done more in two and a half years to tackle these issues than the Labour party did in 13 years.
On the question of cereals, the evidence is that a voluntary approach can make more progress more quickly, and that is what the responsibility deal is doing. We have achieved that in relation to salt. In particular, it has enabled us to take full account, in a practical and effective way, of consumer preference and consumer taste. We can shift consumer taste and reduce salt in cereals, and the public will continue to buy them. Even Mr Speaker might buy cereals in the morning and not notice that the salt content has been reduced. Reducing sugar is tough because it impacts on taste, but it does not get us anywhere—[Interruption.] I did not even have Weetabix this morning. Reducing sugar in cereals through legislation does not get us anywhere if the consequence is that people simply start sprinkling sugar on their cereals. If we tackle the problem in a way that works effectively through the responsibility deal, that is a more long-term and sustainable approach.
Over the weekend we read a great deal of what was provided to lobby journalists about the Government’s plans for the future of child care, yet when the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister relaunched the Government on Monday afternoon we heard no detail about their plans. When will a Minister come to this House to lead a debate or make a statement so that Members can contribute on the issue of the future of child care, which is such an important one for most of my constituents?
The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were very clear on behalf of the coalition Government in setting out some further directions, one of which, rightly, was investment in the future of child care. They made it very clear that over coming weeks further announcements will be made, and of course they will be made, as is proper, first to this House.
Will the Leader of the House note my sorrow to hear today that Shepton Mallet prison is to close—a prison where most prisoners are working? The most recent report and several previous reports have said that it is a settled and remarkably safe prison for prisoners, staff and visitors. Will he recognise the leadership of Andy Rogers, who is the governor, and his team of very dedicated staff, and note that such decisions on closure affect not only money but jobs in the prison and for those who serve it in an area without many alternatives?
I know that my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice will read what my hon. Friend has just said in response to this morning’s written ministerial statement and there will be opportunities in the future to discuss these issues. I will take this opportunity, as she has asked, to pay tribute to not only Andy Rogers, but to those working in the Prison Service, who do an often thankless and difficult task very well.
There is an urgent need for prison places in north Wales and today’s statement indicates that it is a possible option for a super-prison, but, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), I am concerned that we do not have the opportunity to question the Secretary of State for Justice today. May we have an early debate on the provision of prison places, and could the Leader of the House gently suggest to the Justice Secretary that, given that he was at the Dispatch Box yesterday talking about rehabilitation and prisons, he may have had an opportunity to make these announcements then so that we could have questioned him in this House?
As I said to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), a written ministerial statement setting out what are, frankly, detailed and substantial issues was placed before and announced first to the House. There will be both formal and informal opportunities for Members to get together with Justice Ministers to discuss how to take this forward.
At this time of year, local authorities are determining their budgets. Harrow council, uniquely in London, is increasing its council tax by 2%, while Hammersmith and Fulham is reducing it for the sixth time in seven years. May we have a debate in Government time about what is happening to Government money in local authorities and expose the wastage in Labour-run authorities?
If I recall correctly—I will correct myself if I am wrong—we have had a debate on the local government finance settlement. It is important that we in the House vote for resources to support local government, but it is the responsibility of local government to use those resources effectively and to secure value for money. I know that many authorities are achieving that, but others—I look to the Labour party to explain some of them—are not achieving value for money in what are, frankly, tough financial times. I hope that all authorities will achieve best practice in terms of value for money.
The Academies Commission has released disturbing evidence of the selection of some pupils at the expense of those from disadvantaged communities. At the same time, we hear reports of academies being run for profit, which the Education Secretary has previously denied. May we have a debate about the future of academies so that both those very important issues can be addressed in this House?
Following the passage of the Academies Act 2010, the expansion in the number of academies is a great success of which this coalition Government are very proud. The hon. Gentleman says that the Academies Commission has produced evidence. I have not had an opportunity to read it myself, but the press reports that I have seen do not suggest that it was more than limited, anecdotal evidence. I am not sure that there is any substantial body of evidence. On schools and profit distribution, the position is exactly as my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has said: they are not permitted under the legislation to distribute profits.
May we have a debate on the integrity of Government consultations? Following representations from my local Sikh community, will the Leader of the House inform Members how Sikhs up and down the land were consulted on proposed legislation for same-sex marriage?
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend had occasion to catch Mr Speaker’s eye in order to ask that question of the Minister for Women and Equalities earlier. He will know that the consultation on theses issues was substantial and attracted hundreds of thousands of responses. I have no doubt that the Sikh community will have been represented in those responses, but I will gladly ask my right hon. Friend at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to secure a specific reply.
May we have a debate on Government transparency, because the Government are telling us not what we need to know, but what we do not want to know? The Department for Education has answered only one freedom of information request in the past nine months, yet on “Call Clegg” this morning the Deputy Prime Minister felt the need to tell the nation that he owned a green onesie, although he has not yet worn it. Is that the sort of information that the public really need to know? How many Ministers own a onesie? The nation should be told!
I am beginning to think that the best preparation for business questions would be to listen to LBC radio on a Thursday morning. I clearly missed out. I find it incredible that the Department for Education could have responded to only one freedom of information request. Any Department that I have been in has replied to freedom of information requests by the dozen on a weekly basis.
At a time of great change in the EU and in Britain’s relationship with it, has my right hon. Friend given any thought to improving scrutiny in this place, for example by improving the use of specialist Select Committees to scrutinise EU legislation, promoting the post of Minister for Europe to a Cabinet position and periodically considering European business in this Chamber, rather than always considering Westminster business?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the European Scrutiny Committee is conducting an inquiry into European scrutiny, which Her Majesty’s Government have welcomed. She makes an important point about the wider use of the expertise of departmental Select Committees in European scrutiny. I hope that that will be taken forward. We look forward to seeing the report of the European Scrutiny Committee. Questions on European business may be asked of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In addition, European legislation impacts on the policies of many Departments and so can be raised at many Question Times.
As the nations of Britain have waited three centuries for an opportunity to reform the undemocratic anachronism of the choice of Head of State, is it not unseemly to rush the legislation through both Houses in a single day, thereby denying the House the opportunity to give the nations a choice over the next Head of State by referendum, so that they can choose whether they want Charles, William or Citizen A. N. Other?
The Government have no intention of doing what the hon. Gentleman asks. I reiterate that from the business that I have announced, it is clear that we are proposing that the Succession to the Crown Bill should be considered on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House on the first day. There will therefore be two days of debate in this House, each of which will have proceedings that are amendable.
In April, the Government will cut income tax for 33,340 working people in Pendle and lift 1,570 of the lowest-paid workers out of paying income tax altogether. That is in stark contrast to the previous Government, who abolished the 10p tax rate. May we therefore have a debate on supporting hard-working families and ensuring that they can keep more of the money that they earn?
My hon. Friend makes an important point admirably. I hope that in our further debate on the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill, people will recognise that the changes to personal tax allowances will take a lot of low-income workers out of tax altogether and reduce the tax bill for many millions of people.
I attended Culture, Media and Sport questions this morning in the hope of asking a question about the gambling prevalence survey, but there was so much interest in that matter that it was oversubscribed. I therefore ask the Leader of the House to consider having a debate in Government time on the proliferation of betting shops on the high street in the hope that the concern will ensure that the Government put into action their rhetoric on localism and allow local authorities the right to control the number of betting shops on their high streets.
If I may, I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to respond. I am aware that it has considered issues relating to the licensing of betting shops in local areas, so it is perhaps best that it replies on that specific matter. Given the comments from across the House, this might be an issue that the hon. Lady and other Members would like to invite the Backbench Business Committee to pursue.
May we have a debate about attacks on public service workers, particularly teachers, people in the NHS, and police officers? Over Christmas we had the appalling example of a thug who violently assaulted a headmistress, abused and punched her, but simply walked away with a community service order and having to give her £100 in compensation. Surely such crimes should always be dealt with by a prison sentence. May we have a debate to find out what we can do to protect public servants from such attacks and ensure that the perpetrators of such violence are always sent to prison?
I completely understand, and my hon. Friend makes an important point very well. I recall, particularly in relation to the health service, how strongly we felt that on many occasions too few attacks had been followed up, and that too few cases had led to appropriate action. The Government were looking at the extent to which such issues were taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing, but I will ask my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to look at the issue and respond to my hon. Friend.
Sixty per cent. of agricultural land in countries such as Burma and Indonesia that have serious hunger problems have been subjected to land grab. Given that the UK has the presidency of the G8 summit, may we have an urgent debate on how we can use that presidency to stop such practices and return the land to the people who live on it so that they can feed themselves?
Yes, I am interested in the subject raised by the hon. Lady although I do not think it is one of the issues set as a priority for the upcoming G8 summit. Such summits always afford opportunities, however, not least because of the increasing influence that we are able to exert through the strength of our overseas aid programme and the like. I will therefore talk to my hon. Friends to see whether we can continue to follow up strongly the issues raised by the hon. Lady.
With new car registrations at a four-year high and record exports for our motor manufacturers, many of our car makers are now looking to repatriate their supply chain, to the benefit of areas such as Coventry and Warwickshire. Skills, however, are an issue, so may we have a debate on that and on how we can encourage our young people into manufacturing industries?
Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point and he will have welcomed, as I did, what our right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said last year about supporting a supply chain initiative. It is important that we perform strongly in the motor vehicle industry, and that can have considerable multiplier effects. My hon. Friend is right about skills and the Under-Secretary of State for Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock) is this morning making clear the Government’s support for initial traineeships—a sort of pre-apprenticeship programme—to ensure that we do not have an economy in which any of our young people go without access to skills and training, and so that we can provide all levels of skills to industry.
Well before Christmas I secured a Westminster Hall debate on proposed increases to rail freight charges that threaten more than 700 jobs in my constituency. We were promised an announcement by November but nothing has come. If that means a change of heart, I very much welcome it, but may we have an indication of when an announcement will be made as the issue is causing great concern throughout the coal industry in the UK?
I will, of course, ask the Department for Transport on the hon. Lady’s behalf whether it could let us both know the position on that issue from last year. Transport Minsters will be answering questions in the Chamber on 17 January and the hon. Lady might find an opportunity to raise the issue with them.
The Drop Inn centre in my constituency is an independently run youth organisation where young people can meet and engage in positive activities. It has assisted and continues to help hundreds of young people in Belper and is an excellent example of the big society in action. Over Christmas, the Drop Inn centre was attacked by arsonists. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how we can support such big society organisations when they are victims of such crimes?
Yes, I am glad my hon. Friend has raised that matter. It is important to support voluntary organisations, which often do not have an infrastructure that enables them to respond to such events—they should not be subject to such criminal activity. I will speak to the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), who leads on support for charitable organisations, to see whether he can point to a particular measure, but generally we have innovative routes by which we can provide not only financial support, but a great deal of practical support to charities seeking to develop their activities.
Will the Leader of the House give further consideration to holding a debate on how many promises the coalition has not kept, and in particular a debate on the Chancellor’s promise that he would not balance the books on the backs of the poor? He is borrowing £212 billion more than predicted, so he is certainly not balancing the books, but with 14 times more people in the poorest 10% being affected by the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill compared with the richest 10%, he is destroying the living standards of the poorest.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be living in some kind of denial. We inherited the largest deficit among OECD countries and have reduced it by a quarter. We are taking the action necessary following the appalling legacy we inherited, and the way we are going about it is fair. If he looks at the distribution of impacts of income tax changes, he will see that the highest earners see the biggest increase in taxation, and that low earners see reductions in income tax, not least specifically as a consequence of the change in personal tax allowance.
Has my hon. Friend seen early-day motion 897 on restoring the 10p income tax rate that was abolished by the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)?
[That this House regrets the abolition of the 10 pence rate of income tax in 2008 by the last Labour Government; notes that a starter 10 pence rate of income tax between the personal allowance and 12,000 would instantly move all British workers on the minimum wage about halfway towards earning the Living Wage, in cash terms; concludes that the poorest Brits would benefit the most as a share of income; and therefore urges the Government to restore the 10 pence rate of income tax as soon as economic growth allows.]
May we have a debate on lower tax for lower earners? In that way, we might see how restoring the 10p rate would be a better way to help lower earners rather than recycling benefits through the tax system?
I have seen my hon. Friend’s early-day motion. He knows we have taken action to help the lowest-paid workers, but as I have said a number of times, the increases in the personal income tax allowance will take 2.2 million of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether. Someone working full-time on the minimum wage will see their tax bill cut in half as a result of that measure.
May we have a debate on the Prime Minister’s mid-term review and relaunch this week, and particularly on the full and frank audit of Government achievements? Will the Leader of the House tell us why he supposes the full and frank audit forgot to mention that the Government have trebled tuition fees to £9,000?
Compared with previous Governments, this Government are open on the nature of our programme and what we have achieved. Our frank and full assessment demonstrates not only transparency but a high level of achievement. On tuition fees, the hon. Gentleman must bear it in mind that our policy gives this country’s universities and higher education establishments, which are a success story when compared internationally, increased resources to improve the quality of tuition.
May we have a debate on UK Border Agency delays and bureaucracy? Odstock Medical in my constituency sponsored a PhD student for four years. Despite the change in Government policy, it was unable to secure his position in this country for a further year and he had to be sent back. That is just not good enough, and we need to sort it out.
My hon. Friend no doubt heard my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord). The chief inspector of UKBA has said that, since April 2012,
“the Agency has ‘started to tackle the problems’, with improved governance, a stronger performance framework and a more robust approach to tracing and locating individuals.”
Work is going on throughout UKBA, but Ministers are very aware of continuing problems of delay and the difficulty of delivering UKBA activity. All hon. Members experience that and Ministers will want to keep the House fully updated and respond fully. If Members can provide information to Ministers about the nature of the problems their constituents experience, it will help Ministers to ensure that they are delivering the changes in the UKBA that we all want.
May we have a debate on the distribution of funding for elite-level sports in the run-up to Rio 2016 in light of the hugely disappointing decision by UK Sport to give zero funding for sports such as basketball, table tennis and volleyball, while giving tens of millions to sports such as rowing, sailing and equestrian? Such decisions cannot just be about past success; they have to be about potential and there is huge potential for a medal in sports such as basketball, as well as it being a sport that is accessible to millions of people.
I will, of course, raise these issues with my hon. Friends at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but I caution the hon. Lady that on the evidence of the Olympic and Paralympic games, UK Sport, and lottery-funded support for sport and elite sport in particular, has had tremendous success by being very clear in its determination to support the greatest potential and to focus resources to make that happen. That does not mean that we have to agree necessarily with every decision made by UK Sport, but one should give it credit for what it has achieved.
May we have time for a debate on the rather bizarre decision by the Office for National Statistics not to change how the retail prices index is calculated, despite saying that how it is calculated is wrong? A change would help final salary pension schemes that are disadvantaged by legislation put in place by the previous Government.
I do not immediately have an opportunity for a debate on this subject, but it will no doubt be discussed at Treasury questions and elsewhere soon. Of course, it was announced only this morning. For my part —I am sure the same will be true of other Ministers—we will look to the ONS to make recommendations and we will now consider them very carefully.
In the light of Lord Heseltine’s report, “No Stone Unturned” and his agreement to pilot its proposals in the Humber region, is it possible to have a debate on whether local enterprise partnerships need additional powers and resources to make an impact in areas such as Hull?
The hon. Lady will have seen that, in the autumn statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave strong support to Lord Heseltine’s report, and, in particular, for LEPs. Also, additional financial support for LEPs was announced in autumn last year. I do not have an immediate opportunity for a debate, but perhaps, through the Backbench Business Committee or elsewhere, we will see a proposal for a debate come forward. It would be useful to have a debate at an early point, not least so that the LEPs can see us understanding and recognising what they are achieving, the plans they are bringing forward, and the opportunities we want to help them realise.
When a high-profile Yorkshire business went into administration in 2011, solicitors’ fees of £15,000 and administrators agents’ fees of £14,786 were paid, yet a small graphics business in my constituency did not receive the £1,000 it was owed. May we have a debate on when local small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the lifeblood of our local economies, will be given a fair deal when they are left high and dry by companies going into administration?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, all insolvencies involve a degree of loss, or are very likely to do so. He and other hon. Members have been pursuing prompt payment, which he knows is very important to SMEs. They should not be exposed to financing others because payments are not made on time. He will know that before Christmas we announced a review of insolvency practitioner fees, which will look to establish whether further changes are needed to ensure creditors have confidence that those fees are fair and commensurate with work done. He might also bear it in mind that the insolvency red tape challenge is in progress, which might offer another opportunity to raise this issue.
Some of us who support marriage equality none the less want to ensure that the House does a good, proper and thorough job of scrutinising the legislation when it is presented. It might be difficult for the Government to put together a Committee that is fully representative of Conservative Back Benchers. Would it not be a good idea, therefore, to make sure that the Bill is committed to a Committee of the whole House, or, even better, to give a few legislative days to the Backbench Business Committee, so that it could decide, almost as if it was private Members’ legislation, how to proceed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and mentions the tragic case of his constituent. He will be aware of the Prime Minister’s speech recently on crime and justice, when he said that the Government would be looking at toughening up knife sentences and at the use of cautions. The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working together to review the punishments available for carrying a knife. We strengthened sentences in relation to this under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, and the Home Office has committed £18 million to support police agencies and the voluntary sector in tackling knife, gun and gang-related violence and in preventing youth crime.
Yesterday, the Mayor of London published his draft police and crime plan, which offered Croydon an extra 117 police officers by 2015. May we have a debate on what others could learn from the Mayor of London about reducing running costs, concentrating resources on the front line and showing that, in a time of austerity, it is possible to protect front-line services?
That is an important example for others to follow. In Cambridgeshire, I might say, we are also seeing resources being focused on the front line and an increase in police numbers. It is important to achieve that. There are good examples, and I hope that we can find opportunities when they can be set out for others to follow.
In a week when a hugely welcome new renal dialysis unit opened in Welshpool, on the Welsh side of the England-Wales border, and it was announced that Shrewsbury prison, on the English side, was to close, may I ask my right hon. Friend to programme a general debate on the implications for provision of public services that straddle the border, in the light of the advent of devolution?
I am interested in what my hon. Friend says. On health services, in particular, I know about the sensitive border issues when it comes to accessing services between the two countries, and that needs to be got right. I will raise that matter with my hon. Friends to see whether there is an opportunity for a discussion. Otherwise, of course, it could be considered by the Welsh Grand Committee. I would just say that it is important that we get the financing right, and I encourage the Welsh Assembly Government to work with the Department of Health to set that financing, so that patients can exercise real choice over where they go, either side of the border, in order to access the best services.
Wightlink, the largest ferry company serving the Isle of Wight, has recently axed all overnight services on one route and reduced them on others. Although it does not affect tourism, these are lifeline services for islanders. In 2009, a market study found that the threshold to involve the Competition Commission had been reached, but it was decided not to make a referral. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made on what alternative remedies might be available?
I know that my hon. Friend has been in correspondence on this matter, because we have discussed it with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and I know that he is also in correspondence with the Department for Transport. Without going into detail, let me say that there is no opportunity to intervene over any lack of competition in relation to these services. From the Department for Transport point of view, neither is there a case for a public service obligation. I will ask both Departments to meet him in order to discuss the service as a whole and what the Government’s relationship to it might be.
I will resist the temptation to ask the Deputy Prime Minister to lead a debate on green onesies to show that we are the greenest Government ever. Instead, I would like to ask for a debate on finding a better way to determine issues of conscience, so that such Bills do not have the Government’s fingerprints all over them. If the Government are to propose such Bills, however, they should be introduced in the Queen’s Speech, as has happened for the past 12 years, up until now.
The Queen’s Speech foreshadows legislation; it always says, among other things:
“Other measures will be laid before you.”
Indeed, in this Session we have introduced a number of Bills, which were desired for a number of reasons, that were not foreshadowed in the Queen’s Speech—the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the HGV Road User Levy Bill and the Bill relating to infrastructure guarantees —and that will continue to be the case in future.
As my right hon. Friend may know, climate change week this year is between 4 and 10 March. During the course of Christmas, Devon and Cornwall were badly flooded. May I ask for a debate on climate change during climate change week?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He and other Members might like to discuss this with the Backbench Business Committee. Debates of this character, enabling us to look at such issues, are often more suitable for Back-Bench time rather than Government time, given the way time is now structured in the House; nevertheless, I entirely understand and he quite properly raises the issue with sufficient time for it to be considered.
Staffordshire university has a strong and growing partnership with Gulf college in Oman, as well as universities in Malaysia and China. May we have a debate on how to make the most of the vital partnerships between British universities and universities across the world and perhaps on how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office could be involved in that?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am not aware of an opportunity in the business immediately ahead of us for a debate of that kind. However, as he made clear, when we consider the ways in which higher and, indeed, further education are responding and marketing to other countries—including, for example, the simple fact, which one would not believe if one read some of the newspapers, that the number of applications to British universities from overseas this year has increased—I think we have an opportunity to continue pushing forward the trade relationships we have. Indeed, Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are on the Front Bench listening to this, and I know they will take this issue forward as well.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend is as concerned as I am about the health and well-being of Members of Parliament and would join me in congratulating the House of Commons on our cycle to work scheme. However, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has told me that MPs are not allowed to participate in the scheme. Will he have the relevant discussions and update the House on allowing right hon. and hon. Members to participate in it?
My hon. Friend is quite right. The technical answer is that the scheme is a salary sacrifice scheme, which under the tax rules is available between employers and employees. As Members of Parliament and their staff are not employed by IPSA, it would not be practical for it to run the scheme. IPSA does, however, operate an interest-free bicycle loan scheme and reimburses Members through expenses when they use bicycles to travel, within the rules of the scheme.