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Business of the House

Volume 556: debated on Thursday 17 January 2013

The business for next week will be:

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 general debate on the Holocaust memorial day. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 25 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 28 January—Remaining stages of the Succession to the Crown Bill.

Tuesday 29 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, followed by remaining stages of the HGV Road User Levy Bill.

Wednesday 30 January—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 31 January—Consideration of opposed private business nominated by the Chairman of Ways and Means, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 1 February—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 31 January will be:

Thursday 31 January—Debate on the 30th anniversary of S4C, followed by debate on the military justice system.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the forthcoming business. May I also thank him for the written statement today on public reading stages for Bills?

We welcome the announcement that the House will debate, on a Back-Bench business motion, Holocaust memorial day. It is right that we remember the premeditated murder of millions of people, mostly Jews, during the holocaust.

We agree with the Government’s decision to provide logistical support for the French operation in Mali. The brutal rebel regime has been terrorising the civilian population. Its links with al-Qaeda pose a security threat. The killing of two oil workers in Algeria and the kidnapping of more than 20 of their colleagues shows that the threat from al-Qaeda remains serious. This is an extremely dangerous and, for the families, deeply worrying situation. We recognise that Ministers might be limited in what they can say in public until the situation is resolved, but will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to ensure that the Government keep the House updated when it is appropriate to do so?

We are less than three weeks into the new year, and three major retailers have gone into administration. First Jessops, then this week HMV and Blockbuster. More than 10,000 retail jobs have gone or are at risk, impacting on communities across the country. The growth of online business has had a major impact on the structure of the retail economy, but the hollowing out of our high streets has a detrimental effect on local communities. The Government could support the change in the retail sector by ensuring that global online retailers paid their fair share of tax here in the UK. It has also been revealed this week that Ministers have been including unpaid work experience posts in their employment figures. So, while real jobs are disappearing on the high street, Ministers have spent their time conniving to boost artificially the employment figures. May we have an urgent statement on that from the Business Secretary?

Students at Stanford university were last week regaled by Mr Steve Hilton’s accounts of his time in No. 10. He told them:

“Very often you’ll wake up in the morning and hear on the…news”—

a Government announcement—

“…and you think…it’s not just that we didn’t know it was happening, but we don’t even agree with it!”

None of us was in the least surprised by that observation. After all, Mr Oliver Dowden, the deputy chief of staff at No. 10, said he was

“surprised on a day-to-day basis”

by his own Government’s announcements. The fact that the Government’s aides wander the world saying that No. 10 is a shambles does raise the question of who is responsible.

This week, we learned that Ministers have found someone new to blame: the civil service. The list of those the Government have blamed for their difficulties keeps on growing. We have had the weather—at different times, it has been too hot, too cold, too windy or too wet for the economy to grow. We have had Her Majesty, for having a diamond jubilee, we have had the Olympics for distracting us, and the Deputy Prime Minister has been blamed for just about everything. Next, they will be turning on each other. Oh—they are.

That brings me to Europe. The Prime Minister told The Sun in 2009 that

“if we win that election, we cannot afford to waste time having a row with Europe.”

Well, the Conservatives did not win the election, and they are having a row about Europe. The Prime Minister has decided that crossing the North sea to Holland will put sufficient distance between him and his Back Benchers to allow him safely to deliver his European speech. No doubt the Dutch people are eagerly anticipating his remarks, but will the Leader of the House suggest to the Prime Minister that he might choose to make a statement to this House?

Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, we had questions but no answers, so perhaps the Leader of the House could tell us this: is it the Government’s intention that the UK will be a full member of the European Union in five years’ time? The Prime Minister refuses to answer, but Cabinet Ministers have been falling over each other to offer different answers. The Local Government Secretary said that he might vote to leave; the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), thinks the idea is barking; the Education Secretary thinks that it might be a good idea to leave; and the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that it would have a chilling effect on our economy. I can quite understand why the Foreign Secretary, witnessing all that, decided to go and spend some time in Australia. Given that we had two statements on Leveson, are we now going to have three on Europe: one by the Deputy Prime Minister, one by the Prime Minister, and one by rebel Tory Cabinet Ministers? There we have it: the Government are divided, the Prime Minister has lost control, and party management is trumping the national interest. It is Maastricht all over again.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her comments, and particularly for her welcome for the written ministerial statement on public reading stages. I also share her welcome for the Backbench Business Committee’s decision to timetable a debate on Holocaust memorial day. I am a supporter of the Holocaust Educational Trust and a member of its council, and I have been with students to Auschwitz-Birkenau, as I know many Members have done. Holocaust memorial day is an occasion on which we can commemorate and understand the nature of that horror. It helps us to understand the applications of that genocide to the issues of today, and the horrors that man unfortunately still tends to visit on other members of mankind.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about Mali. She will recall that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), made a statement on that matter earlier in the week. I know that my colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence will ensure that the House is updated on that issue, and, when it is appropriate to do so, on the events in Algeria. The Government condemn what has happened there. We are acting in concert with our allies in response. We send our condolences to the families of this and other countries’ nationals who have been killed and captured, but we will not rest from trying to recover those who have been kidnapped.

The hon. Lady asked about the high street, and she will recall the Portas review. The Government are supporting regeneration in the high street, but she and the House must understand completely that the Government cannot stand in the way of change in the economy—and changes are taking place, which will impact on high-street retailers. Some high-street retailers will succeed and prosper; others unfortunately will not. One of the key things that this Government have set out to do is always to try to ensure that we give the private sector an opportunity to grow. The evidence for that—the hon. Lady neglected to put it before the House—is the creation of more than 1 million jobs in the private sector since the general election. That is precisely what this Government are doing.

I was amused, but I was not much questioned by the shadow Leader of the House on some other issues. A former civil servant myself, I have seen press reports suggesting that the Prime Minister referred to “Yes Minister” as a documentary, but I am not aware that he did; I think I did in the House.

I am pretty sure that is not going to happen. For the purposes of “Yes Minister”, I have been both Bernard and Jim Hacker. What I can say with great confidence—I know it is true of this coalition Government—is that as my esteemed colleague Lord Fowler once said, “Ministers decide.” That is true; Ministers do decide. We take the decisions and we take the responsibility.

Finally, I do not want to chide the shadow Leader of the House too much, but once again she and her colleagues have not given notice to the House today of what the business might be for the Opposition day next Wednesday. I wonder whether they lack options. If they feel that they do, let me suggest gently, given that the hon. Lady was talking about and asking questions about Europe, that the Opposition might like to have a debate on Europe. Then we might discover the Labour party’s policy on Europe. As far as I can see, the Leader of the Opposition is willing to go on the radio and say that there are areas in which Britain needs powers back, but not to endorse the idea of a negotiation, the purpose of which is to achieve that. I thus have no idea what the Labour party’s approach might be.

Following the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) saying in a debate on the welfare benefits uprating that he was

“happy to debate priorities within”—[Official Report, 8 January 2013; Vol. 556, c. 217]

the spending envelope, perhaps we could have a debate on that so that we can hear the Labour party’s proposals. Otherwise, we could have a debate on the elasticity of money supply, since the Labour party has made proposals for additional taxes, which would raise something over £2 billion, but appears to believe that that money is capable of matching spending pledges of more than £30 billion. Elasticity of money supply seems to be the Labour party’s approach.

Order. There is heavy pressure on time today, as I have already indicated, making it imperative that contributions from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike are brief. Moreover, I remind the House that, in accordance with convention, hon. and right hon. Members who came into the Chamber after the Leader of the House had begun his statement or who exited during it, should not stand and expect to be called.

My right hon. Friend will know that from January next year 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians will potentially have access to the UK under the free movement directive. This Government are at risk of exhibiting institutionalised torpor on this issue. There has been no proper liaison with local authorities, no proper analysis of the likely numbers coming here and no analysis of whether we can vary the free movement directive to protect our core public services and our employment market. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister to look at this matter as a matter of urgency, because we have only 11 months left?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are actively considering the issue. Rather than adopting the last Government’s attitude to the accession of member states, we are deploying as much of the extension of transitional measures as is available to us. My colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are in contact with local government representatives, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is leading a ministerial group which is considering matters relating to access to benefits and other services for those who come here. We do not want to exaggerate, as it were, the pull of this country rather than others for people exercising free movement in the European Union as a result of the differential in that regard.

We already know from the former policy adviser to No. 10 that the Government are not in control of some of the policy announcements that are emerging, but this week we heard from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence that they were unable to check 70 A3 pages relating to apparently low-impact cuts. Will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Defence to come to the House to explain exactly what was in those documents, and to reveal whether he is actually in charge of his Department and the decisions that it makes?

I am not sure that the hon. Lady knows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence very well. I do, and I can assure her that he is very much in control of his Department—as, indeed, are my other right hon. Friends.

May I join my right hon. Friend in calling for a debate on Europe? In view of the Prime Minister’s important speech tomorrow, may I also encourage him to offer the Prime Minister some advice? Will he advise the Prime Minister to ensure that the timing of a referendum is right, that the question of a referendum is right, and that the politics of a referendum are right?

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I have every confidence that the Prime Minister’s speech will be correct in all the respects that he has identified. Personally, I think that a lot of nonsense is being talked about this matter. The Government are undertaking a review of competences, and we are very clear about the necessity of understanding how we can create a new settlement with the European Union. The Prime Minister is very clear about that, and I entirely share his view that we want to be in a European Union, but a changed European Union. The EU is undergoing changes in the eurozone and in other areas, but this is an opportunity for us to have a better, more flexible and more competitive Europe, and that is what we will seek to achieve.

May we have a statement on changes in mobility benefits that will affect both children and adults, given that they were sneaked out without any consultation?

I will of course talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions about the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I can assure him that I will always work with my colleagues to ensure that nothing is “sneaked out” and that Parliament and those who are affected by changes in benefit arrangements are kept informed.

A further consequence of the collapse of Jessops and HMV is that thousands of customers have been left with worthless gift vouchers. May we have a debate on consumer protection in the gift voucher market, which is worth £4 million a year? Interestingly, figures from the industry show that £250 million-worth of vouchers are never used.

I am sure that many Members will have the utmost sympathy for the people who held gift and credit vouchers, some of whom may not have been able to afford to lose them. The law provides for all unsecured creditors to be treated in the same way in the event of an insolvency, and the list of preferential creditors is kept to an absolute minimum. However, the hon. Gentleman has made an important point. He may wish to establish whether there is scope for a debate about the issue on the Adjournment, or through the Backbench Business Committee.

Has the Leader of the House seen reports in the press this morning that, for the first time since 1994, Camelot is to increase the price of a lottery ticket, from £1 to £2? Will a Minister from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport come to the House and make a statement? I fear that that price increase may have an impact on contributions to good causes.

Yes, I have seen those reports. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates, after the passage of so many years the initial £1 ticket price could not possibly start rising by small increments, and it was only a question of the point at which it was appropriate for it to be adjusted substantially. Obviously Camelot and, presumably, the Lottery Commission will have to consider the potential impact on money that is raised for good causes, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to hear more from my colleagues at the DCMS, either during Question Time or on some other occasion.

The local government settlement has just been announced. Before next year’s settlement, may we have a debate to discuss the difference between urban money and rural money? That still presents a problem, and now is the time to discuss it so that we can get it right for next year.

That is a matter of concern to many Members, including my hon. Friends at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Ministers agree that the evidence shows that rural areas are comparatively underfunded, and that a correction should be applied so that there is proper recognition of the additional costs of delivering services in rural areas. I will not elaborate on the details of those adjustments, although I could do so. Although we will want to have transitional stability in local government, the Government recognise that such costs need to be understood and reflected in the formula.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the performance of the Food Standards Agency? We have just had a poor performance from the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who failed to reassure the House about the FSA’s performance. There are concerns that if horsemeat can be labelled as beef and enter the food chain via supermarket shelves, other sources of meat that have been banned—perhaps because of concerns about BSE—could also enter the food chain. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have a statement from the Department of Health, so that we can be reassured about the performance of the FSA?

It sounds as though the hon. Gentleman missed asking his question of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. To my knowledge, my DEFRA colleagues have no plans to make a statement about the performance of the Food Standards Agency, but I will of course ask them to respond to the hon. Gentleman about that. I recall from my time as Secretary of State for Health that we exercise ministerial oversight, although the FSA is a non-ministerial department.

Hundreds of my constituents spent Christmas and new year on flood alert, like many others, but now that the immediate danger has passed, they still have to cope with the worry of an uncertain future for their flood insurance. May we please have an urgent oral statement on the progress that the Government are making with the insurance companies on agreeing a statement of principles?

I share my hon. Friend’s sense of frustration that the negotiations with the Association of British Insurers have not yet reached a successful conclusion. My hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Government Policy are actively engaged in those negotiations. I would advise my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood) that it is not necessarily helpful to make statements or offer a running commentary in the midst of such negotiations. Our objective is clear: to do something that will offer the necessary protection to householders and, of course, also be fair and responsible to taxpayers.

Bob Dylan named himself after Dylan Thomas. We in Swansea will celebrate the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth in 2014, and I have asked Bob Dylan whether he would be prepared to give a centenary concert in Swansea, in order that he could blend his music with Dylan Thomas’s poetry. Sony Music has come back and said that Mr Dylan is thinking very positively about the idea. Would the Leader of the House welcome such a concert, and does he agree that it would add to the reputation of Swansea, the popularity of Bob Dylan and the legacy of Dylan Thomas? Also, would the Leader of the House be interested in coming along, or is his answer “Blowing in the Wind”?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If I can attend, I will do so, and I will look forward to it. Perhaps others will join me. Many who come from Swansea might contemplate revisiting it. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is from Swansea, as is the First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means—and, indeed, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury.

Can the Leader of the House confirm whether the Prime Minister will be making a statement in the House next week on his speech on Europe? Such a statement would give us all the opportunity to congratulate him on the fantastic speech that the Leader of the House confidently predicts and would also expose how out of touch with public opinion the Opposition are on this issue. Given that the shadow Leader of the House was leading with her chin in demanding such a statement, surely it would be a shame to disappoint her.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. It is not unusual for Prime Ministers of all parties to make speeches, and they sometimes do so in an international context. In this instance, it is important that the Prime Minister does so, because is it important that we communicate not only to the people of this country, but to the people of Europe our determination to achieve changes in Europe that enable the whole of Europe to be more competitive and more flexible. That is sought not only by this country, but by people in many other countries; this is about enhancing democratic accountability. On issues that require reporting to the House, I will, of course, discuss with my right hon. Friends whether it would be appropriate for a statement to be made and ensure that the House knows of any such statement as early as possible.

May we have a debate in Government time that allows Ministers from the Northern Ireland Office to come to the House to explain what work the Department is doing with the Treasury to assist the Northern Ireland Executive in the current serious situation in Northern Ireland, and to address issues such as under-investment in education and housing, and social deprivation? The serious cuts to the block grant in Northern Ireland are having a detrimental effect on people on the ground in Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House give us some assurance on that point?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is having discussions today with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and, I believe, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland. I have no doubt that the discussions will be very helpful. The right hon. Gentleman will note that questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will take place on Wednesday next week, which may afford an opportunity for a response, but I will of course ask the Secretary of State whether there are further ways in which she can respond to the points that he makes.

Last Friday, I was very pleased to visit the NHS Blood and Transplant centre in Colindale to listen to the concerns of management and staff. One concern that was raised with me was the low level of blood donations from ethnic and minority groups. That is a particular problem because that blood is used to treat people with sickle cell anaemia. Will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to advise on how the Government are trying to encourage people from ethnic minority groups to give blood?

I agree with my hon. Friend that we owe blood donors a huge debt of gratitude. Each unit of blood donated helps us to save the lives or improve the health and the lives of three people; on average, one donation helps three people. That is important and I hope that everybody will recognise it. He raises an important specific point. NHS Blood and Transplant runs regular donor recruitment campaigns, including those to encourage blood donations from black and minority ethnic donors. It works with the media, particularly those of particular relevance to those communities, and with celebrities who have support in those communities. In addition, the Department of Health has established the National Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Transplant Alliance, which brings together organisations to tackle the issue of low donor and transplantation rates in those communities.

Can we not have a debate in Government time on the state of the high street? Now that we understand the shakiness of the Government’s jobs figures, does it not make the Leader of the House’s assertion just now that market forces will prevail look worrying indeed?

The hon. Lady may wish to go, with others, to the Backbench Business Committee to seek such a debate. The employment figures are not shaky; they are absolutely robust. They are telling us that a great deal of private sector job formation is taking place, and that is very important. It stands in direct contrast with the situation in many other countries. We know that we are suffering from the economic effects of the eurozone crisis, but in contrast with a number of countries in the eurozone we have relatively robust employment figures. That is evidence of the Government’s support for the private sector.

The Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire local medical committee, which represents local GPs, has written to me and other MPs to raise its concerns about people coming to this country to access free health care. It says it wants help on this issue, so may we have an urgent debate on how we can offer that?

I understand very well the point my hon. Friend is making. The Government have concluded a major review of the rules and procedures on charging visitors for NHS care. It is important that we understand that those who are here, on whatever basis, have access to emergency care, but that there are rules about those who have access to non-emergency care or continuing care beyond primary care. I hope that Health Ministers will be able to make an announcement about the results of that review soon.

I do not want just a statement on Europe; I want a full debate on Europe in Government time. In the old days, we used to have four debates a year before European Councils and four statements after European Councils so that the Government’s policy could be scrutinised by the House. I know that they were pretty tedious affairs, with single transferable speeches delivered time after time, not least by myself. It would be good if we could have a bell fitted behind the Speaker’s Chair, so that every time the word “Europe” is mentioned all Pavlov’s dogs on the Government Benches could start slobbering—[Interruption.]

There is nothing disorderly about that remark, but I leave Members to make their own assessments on the question of taste.

You are absolutely right, Mr Speaker—there is a distinction between what is in order and what is charming, and that was charmless. I also noted that following oral questions earlier, the hon. Gentleman did not take the trouble to apologise for being completely wrong in suggesting that I had incorrectly informed the House about what was in the ministerial code, but be that as it may.

I think it is a tremendously positive innovation that a substantial proportion of the House’s time is not in the gift of Government but is available to the Backbench Business Committee. That includes time that was previously allocated to a range of general debates for such purposes. If the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the need for a debate on Europe, he should get together with other Members and go to the Backbench Business Committee to seek it.

The Glastonbury road run is an established, popular and safe annual charitable fundraising event, supported with great good will by our local police and other services. Should the council choose to use the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 because the street is “liable to be obstructed”, local charities lose no funds, but if the council elects this year to use the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the organisers will receive a demand for £1,000, which will have to be paid from charitable donations. Will the Leader of the House raise the matter of clarifying the regulations to separate commercial from charitable street events so that the latter are treated with reason and common sense and not as a county council fundraising effort at the charities’ expense?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question and will of course raise the issue with my hon. Friends at the Department. I might be wrong, but I think that in such circumstances the local authority has the discretion to waive those fees in certain cases.

Despite a 400% increase in the demand for food banks since 2010, the Prime Minister has neglected to give clear answers to me or to my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) about whether he will visit one. May we have a debate on the subject of food banks in this Chamber so that we can bring the facts to the Prime Minister, if he is unwilling to go and see them for himself?

I heard the Prime Minister’s reply during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and the hon. Gentleman might recall that during business questions last week I made it clear that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) and I have visited a food bank. We rightly appreciate the service that is being provided by food banks and the Department for Work and Pensions operates a food bank referral service that works with them, including, in particular, the Trussell Trust. The Government are also working independently, not least through the Healthy Start scheme, which helps about 500,000 very low-income families across the UK to buy milk, fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy balanced diet.

According to TripAdvisor, the town of Llandudno in my constituency has some of the best guest houses in the world. However, if they want to increase business by offering a complimentary glass of wine to their residents as part of an evening meal, they face the disproportionate cost of acquiring a licence. May we have a debate on the Government’s proposals, as set out in the alcohol strategy, for reducing licensing burdens on these ancillary sellers of alcohol?

Yes. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. If I recall correctly, there was very positive coverage of at least one hotel in Llandudno earlier this week—

Yes. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I was referring specifically to Llandudno in my hon. Friend’s constituency for a second. I sometimes wonder, Mr Speaker, whether the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) wants to be in charge of the order of the House. It seems rather impertinent, does it not? If I were disorderly, you would call me to book. I do not need the hon. Gentleman for that to happen.

I can give my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) some reassurance. On 28 November the Government launched a consultation on whether to reduce the burdens of licensing on businesses that sell alcohol only as a small part of a wider service. That includes guest houses or bed-and-breakfast accommodation that wish to provide alcohol to guests as part of an evening meal. That consultation can be found on the Home Office website. I encourage him and all interested parties to respond before the closing date of 6 February.

May we have a debate on Government waste by Departments? Figures that I have uncovered show that Government Departments have produced more than 5,500 circulars, consultation documents and publications since May 2010 at a cost of over £1.3 million, including such exciting titles as “Code of Practice on Noise from Ice-Cream Van Chimes”, “Understanding the relationship between taste and value in culture and sport”, and my personal favourite bedtime reading, “Is your dog barking too much?” Is this really a good use of taxpayers’ money?

I do not have comparative data, but I suspect that under the previous Government there were at least equivalent numbers, but probably much larger numbers of consultations taking place, and the hon. Gentleman knows that perfectly well. Our responsibility is to make sure not only that we engage the public by consulting fully and adequately, but that we make effective progress with business. That is why we introduced in the latter part of last year a new structure for consultations that means that they will be conducted more expeditiously. We will make more progress more quickly and we will help business, not least as a consequence of that, to get certainty more quickly, and it will help us in the process of reducing the burden of regulation.

Some 1,080 people from Tamworth started apprenticeships last year. May we have a debate in Government time on the new traineeship programme so that we can explore how we can further help young people successfully to compete for jobs and avoid the welfare trap that all too many of them endured under Labour?

Yes, I hope we might find an opportunity, by one route or another, for further discussion of the announcements made by the Minister for Schools. Traineeships are a welcome addition to the armoury, so to speak, to ensure that all young people get access to the right skills and that all employers find young people in this country who have appropriate skills and attitudes in order to go into work. My hon. Friend is right. Since the election more than a million people have started apprenticeships. The budget has been increased, and even where apprenticeships are not appropriate, through the youth contract work experience and other support to the young people who most need skills have been growing under this Government.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the uses and abuses of zero-hours contracts, which plague many people in my constituency, particularly the most vulnerable workers?

If the hon. Gentleman specifically wants to raise abuses, I am sure my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would be interested to hear from him. I encourage them to respond to him about the nature of those contracts. In some cases—for example, in relation to the NHS—I looked at some of those contracts, and they can play a part in the effective management of a work force and may sometimes be in the interests of workers themselves, as well as their employer. It is all a matter of what the appropriate circumstances are. The hon. Gentleman might like to look for an Adjournment debate or some other opportunity in order to raise these issues.

In the light of the recent rioting in east Belfast, some have suggested that some of the youngsters involved feel that they are not included in the decision-making process. At what stage does my right hon. Friend think Parliament should assess progress on the Good Friday agreement, especially as far as community relations are concerned?

I further remind the House and my hon. Friend of the opportunity to raise such issues with my right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary and her colleagues on Wednesday next week.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the 1998 Belfast agreement clearly set out the constitutional position in Northern Ireland and the accountability mechanisms that follow from it. I also say to my hon. Friend that the violence and public disorder in Belfast is completely unjustifiable; I do not think it is justified or excused by reference to any issues of that kind.

Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to make a decision about bringing e-petitions fully in-House, so that people are aware that they are petitioning Parliament and not the Government? If he has not yet had a chance to make that decision, will he sit with me and construct a timetable to make sure that it can be done as quickly as possible?

As the hon. Lady will know from our discussions and a previous answer in business questions, I am keen for us to make progress on this issue. No decisions have been made, of course; in any case, I hope that such matters would be for the House.

I hope that we can get together and consider how we can take forward what has been a substantial success. There are now a large number of petitions; there have been some 8 million signatures on 40,000 petitions since the e-petitions website was created. We must not prejudice that, but we must try to make it as relevant as we can to the work of the House, and the hon. Lady’s Committee has done a great deal on that. I am very open to further discussions, and we are working on the issue now.

What on earth is going on at the UK Border Agency? It has never had the best reputation in the world for the timeliness of its responses to Members’ inquiries, but in the past two or three months, it seems to have got many degrees worse; many of my constituents in Kettering are awaiting replies to correspondence that is two or three months old. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister to make sure that the UK Border Agency sorts out its correspondence protocols?

My hon. Friend will recall that during questions last week and previously I said that the chief inspector acknowledges that the Border Agency still has a great deal of work to do, but that the situation has started to turn around and is now improving. However, I share with my hon. Friend and many other Members a sense that there is still a way to go. There is a huge volume of correspondence, which is why the agency is introducing a national operating model in March, under which correspondence from hon. Members will be managed through a single process. Guidance has been issued to staff, stressing the need for all correspondence to be dealt with promptly. However, I will take up my hon. Friend’s question with the relevant Minister at the Home Office.

From the official figures, which are going to be announced next Wednesday, it will no longer be possible for Members to obtain constituency statistics on the number of jobseekers after each job in their constituencies. That is a real issue in my constituency, which has been top for many months—50 jobseekers after every vacancy. There is no legitimate reason for that statistic not to be provided, so may we have a debate on why the Government are choosing to suppress the inconvenient figures that give a real indication and insight into what is happening with local employment around the country?

I will, if I may, talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions about that. I am not familiar with the background to the hon. Lady’s point; the availability of statistics through Government Departments is normally approved through the UK Statistics Authority. I will certainly inquire through the Statistics Authority or the Department to ensure that the hon. Lady gets a proper reply, which I can see, too.

The equal marriage Bill will be published next week. Will there be a statement to explain the rush to redefine marriage and will it address the information from the Commons Library that in the past 12 years no Government Bill determined by a free vote has been announced before the Queen’s Speech?

My hon. Friend seems to have constructed a very particular question about something that may not have occurred because relatively few Government Bills are conducted on a free-vote basis, but I will gladly look back to see what the precedents are. Let me reiterate what I said in last week’s business questions: we have not yet introduced this Bill. My hon. Friend seems to be more knowledgeable than I am. I do not have a timetable for its introduction; I know that we will do it soon but I have not established a date. When the Bill is introduced, we will of course make it very clear how it is properly to be considered.

It is

“a terrible time to have the diversion and uncertainty which build-up to a referendum would entail”.

Those are not my words but those of the Business Secretary, reported in the Financial Times as what he is going to say today. Is not the reason the Prime Minister will not come to the House with a statement following his speech the fact that he cannot speak on behalf of the Government he leads because they have no coherent policy on Europe, and that is damaging British business and British interests?

I am afraid I simply do not accept a word of that. The Government are very clear about what we are doing. We are conducting a review of competence the purpose of which is to enable this country to engage in a negotiation that would lead to a more competitive and more flexible Europe. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s leader saying on a radio programme this morning that he was in favour of a more flexible European Union and that he believed that there were powers that needed to be brought back to this country. He and his party appear to be willing the end but denying the means.

Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement on the performance of the NHS bursary unit? One of my constituents, Thomas Petch, is among a large number of students who have failed to receive the bursary to which they are entitled, causing massive inconvenience as they rely on it to fund their everyday living.

My hon. Friend makes an important point on behalf of his constituent. The changes in the NHS bursary application procedure mean that continuing students need to reapply for their bursary each academic year. A large number of continuing students did not reapply as requested, and this has led to a backlog. I know that the NHS Business Services Authority will take every measure it can to reduce and manage that backlog quickly. May I assure my hon. Friend that his constituent, Mr Petch, will receive his January payment in the next week?

On 14 February it is an international day of preventing violence against women, and MPs from all parties have supported the notion that this House should contribute to events and debates on that day. If the Leader of the House were to make an early decision and inform the Backbench Business Committee that 14 February would be a day on which it could allocate time, it might allocate it to such a debate. Will he tell the House now that we can have that debate on 14 February?

I am afraid I am not in a position to make that announcement now, but I entirely understand the hon. Lady’s point, not least because I heard her and other Members make it to the Backbench Business Committee at its meeting on Tuesday. I will discuss with my colleagues whether we are able to meet her request and the requests of other Members and liaise with the Committee on that.

On Sunday 10 March the Sue Ryder Manorlands 10 km race will take place in Keighley—an event that has raised £120,000 over the past four years. May we have a debate not only celebrating the moneys raised but on how such great events bring communities together?

Yes, I am glad to have the opportunity to share in my hon. Friend’s support for the 10 km run, the money that it raises and the good causes that it will be supporting. It is an illustration of something that Members across the House understand from their communities—that this kind of voluntary action enables people to have a great deal of fun, in this particular instance, to be healthier, and to offer a great deal of support to other people who are in need.

May we have a debate on the cost of ministerial travel? Further to what my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said earlier, it is clear that the Prime Minister will not be making his speech in Holland as Prime Minister and leader of the coalition Government, as other Ministers have said, but as leader of the Conservative party on what the Conservatives will do in five years’ time in the unlikely event that they will be in government, so should not the Conservative party be paying for this trip?

I will say two things. First, I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The Prime Minister will speak tomorrow in the Netherlands as Prime Minister. [Interruption.] The position is very clear—he will speak as Prime Minister and if, during the course of that speech, he refers to the Conservative manifesto or beyond the next election, he will, of course, be referring beyond the scope of the coalition agreement. That is quite usual—there is nothing unusual about it at all.

I do not have the figures in front of me, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate about the cost of ministerial travel in this Parliament relative to its cost in the previous Parliament, we would be very happy to have it.

I have raised in previous business questions the potential negative impact on the organ donation system in England of plans by the Welsh Government to change the system in Wales to one based on presumed consent. Yesterday I received a copy of a letter to the Welsh Government from the UK’s foremost expert on the issue, pointing out that the consultation process adopted by the Welsh Government was fundamentally flawed. Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early opportunity for MPs to discuss this crucial issue before damage is done and it is too late?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. These issues do not relate solely to Wales; they also relate to England, because they have direct implications for the organ donation system in England. I made that clear to the Welsh Assembly Government when I was Secretary of State for Health and I know that my right hon. Friend the Welsh Secretary will have done so, too. I do not know what opportunities there may be for a debate on the matter in this House or, indeed, in the Welsh Grand Committee, but I will certainly discuss it with my colleagues.

This week the Legal Services Commission confirmed a £655,000 cut to the Law Centres Network, the Advice Services Alliance and the Royal Courts of Justice’s citizens advice bureaux service. May we have a debate on what that will mean for those organisations, the organisations they support and, most importantly, the people who will no longer be able to use them?

The hon. Lady may have an opportunity to raise that issue at Justice questions on Tuesday 5 February, but if that seems far off and she would like a response on the specific implications, I will gladly talk to my right hon. Friend at the Ministry of Justice and secure it for her.