Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 4 February—Second Reading of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 5 February—Second Reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.
Wednesday 6 February—Opposition day [16th allotted day] (first part). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party on suicide prevention in the UK, followed by consideration of opposed private business nominated by the Chairman of Ways and Means.
Thursday 7 February—Debate on a motion relating to subsidies for new nuclear power, followed by general debate on the closure of A and E departments. The subjects for these debates have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
The provisional business for the following week will include:
Monday 11 February—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by general debate on the local government finance settlement for rural local authorities. The subject for this debate was nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 12 February—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 13 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports, followed by motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2013 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2013.
Thursday 14 February—Debate on a motion on protecting future generations from violence against women and girls, followed by general debate on preventing sexual violence in conflict. The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 February will be:
Thursday 7 February—Debate on the Environmental Audit Committee report on Protecting the Arctic, followed by debate on the Defence Committee report on Future of Maritime Surveillance.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting an urgent question on Tuesday to the Defence Secretary. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) said, we support the decision to send troops to Mali and neighbouring countries to help to train the Malian army, but the deployment of troops to conflict areas raises important issues on which Members wanted to question the Defence Secretary. It should not have taken an urgent question to force the Defence Secretary to the House. It is not the first time that an urgent question has been necessary to get the Defence Secretary to the Dispatch Box to answer questions on important matters concerning our armed services. Will the Leader of the House therefore undertake that in future, while our armed forces are deployed, the Defence Secretary will keep the House regularly updated without being forced to do so? Will the Leader of the House now agree to a general debate on the developing situation in north Africa?
Last Friday’s GDP figures were terrible. After two and a half years in government, the Chancellor has presided over a double-dip recession and a flatlining economy. Once again on the part-time Chancellor’s watch, the economy is contracting. We warned that the Government’s economic strategy—if one can call it that—was damaging the economy: they cut too far and too fast. The Deputy Prime Minister has popped up to attack his own Government’s record of cutting infrastructure expenditure. It is a bit late to be saying so, since his party voted for each and every cut. While the economy has nose-dived, the part-time Chancellor has been filling up his time with pizzas in Davos, and not one but two dinners with Rupert Murdoch. With all these dinners, I fear that the only thing now growing is the Chancellor’s waistline.
With bankers lining up to pay themselves massive bonuses over the forthcoming weeks, may we have an urgent statement from the Business Secretary on what the Government are going to do to stop this abuse?
We welcome the cross-party decision on Tuesday on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. The Conservative party’s attempt to gerrymander parliamentary boundaries was rejected by Members across the House from all political parties—an alternative coalition, one might call it. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has returned to his rightful role after subbing for the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) in that debate, for reasons that were somewhat opaque. None the less, we enjoyed his performance on a sticky wicket.
The Leader of the House will have heard in Tuesday’s debate the clamour among those on the Conservative Back Benches to hear from the Deputy Prime Minister, who was strangely absent from the proceedings. It is not very often that the Leader of the House’s Back Benchers want to hear from the Liberal Democrat leader. Given the demand, will he arrange for the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement? I think we would all enjoy that.
Relate tells us that January is the month in which couples are most likely to break up, so may I congratulate the coalition on managing to get through it? [Interruption.] Just—there is one day left.
Last weekend I was troubled to read not about coalition tensions but about tensions within the Conservative party. There was even the suggestion of a plot to depose the Prime Minister. I do not know where the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) is today; perhaps the Chief Whip could tell us. The way things are going, we do not want to lose the Prime Minister and his chums, so may we have a debate on Government leadership to give the hon. Member for Windsor the opportunity to share with the House the qualities he thinks he has to lead the country?
I have been looking at the voting records in Hansard. What we have learned this week is that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), managed to vote both for and against the Succession to the Crown Bill. She then failed to participate in the boundaries vote on any side, so engrossed was she in meeting Shami Chakrabarti from Liberty. She was not the only Conservative Minister to miss Tuesday’s crucial vote. In a brilliant whipping operation, the Foreign Secretary decided that he would rather have dinner in Washington than vote in the House. You would have thought, Mr Speaker, that the Cabinet was a dining society given the number of dinners that Ministers are having. Can’t vote, forgets to vote, can’t be bothered to turn up—what a shambles!
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House. I think she asked one question relating specifically to future business.
Of course, it is absolutely our intention and that of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary that the House should be regularly and appropriately informed about our engagement in Mali and in north-west Africa. On the issue of a statement or an urgent question, the circumstances were that EU agreement had not yet been reached on the EU training mission, and in my colleague’s mind was the intention to update the House in the light of the EU training mission as well as the bilateral agreements that were entered into. I make no bones about that—it was absolutely fine for the urgent question to be responded to and we will keep the House informed. I cannot promise an oral statement in every case, for reasons of the progress of business, but I am sure we will keep the House fully informed through a combination of written ministerial statements, oral statements and answers to questions.
The hon. Lady asked a number of questions. It is interesting—the Leader of the Opposition made almost exactly the same point yesterday—that the Opposition try to argue that the economy requires the Government to spend more money, but complain, at one and the same time, that the Government are borrowing too much. They cannot have it both ways. They have to decide. Not only does their position represent utter confusion on the part of the Labour party, but, to be frank, it carries no credibility outside Parliament—that is the essential point. As the Prime Minister rightly said, the public will not trust the people who crashed the car last and put them back in the driving seat. It is not going to happen.
I listened to yesterday’s debate on Europe, but did not hear the confusion regarding the Labour party’s position remotely clarified. As far as I can see, the Opposition’s position now is that they are not in favour of an in/out referendum today, but they might be at some point in the future; yet, at the same time, they manage to be opposed to the idea of making a future commitment to the public that a new settlement with Europe should be the subject of a referendum. If they, like us, do not want a referendum now, why can they not just agree with us that there should be a referendum in the future on the basis that the public have the right to decide on the character of the settlement that we seek to negotiate with Europe?
On the question of powers in Europe, the Foreign Secretary has made it clear that, through the review of competences, we are looking at that negotiation with specific objectives for the return of powers. The hon. Lady and the Leader of the Opposition talk about returning powers, but the shadow Foreign Secretary has said that the Opposition are talking not about repatriation but about reform and a flow of powers to and back from Europe. I thought that the Opposition had just agreed to the referendum lock on powers to Europe, yet they seem to be reopening that question. There is utter confusion on their part.
Finally, the hon. Lady referred to collective ministerial responsibility. It was my happy duty to lead from the Dispatch Box on the debate on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. She was very kind about that. In fact, she was so kind that she did not observe that, although I was defending a sticky wicket—though I did make the odd stroke here and there—the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who is not in his place, took the bails off my stumps later on. He was rather good—I give him credit for that.
The point is—the hon. Lady has to give the Government credit for this—that the mid-term review shows that we are very clear about where we are going and we are doing it together as a coalition. We have entered into not only a coalition but a mid-term review. We understand that we have a collective responsibility. I wish that the shadow Leader of the House and her colleagues would stand at the Dispatch Box and take either collective or individual responsibility for the mess they left this country in—for the debt and the six-and-a-half per cent. collapse in the economy. The reduction in GDP was not 0.1% but 6.3%. It was a bust like we had never seen before, after her then leader had promised that there would be no more boom and bust.
On collective responsibility, paragraph 2.1 of the ministerial code says that the way the Liberal Democrats behaved on the boundary review would have required them to cross the Floor and leave Government unless the Prime Minister had signed an explicit waiver from collective responsibility. How was the House informed of the waiver? Was it by a press release to the BBC or an e-mail to Lobby correspondents, or has a yellow flag been run up over Downing street?
My hon. Friend will recall, because he was in his place, that the House was informed that one of the reasons why I addressed the House from the Dispatch Box on Tuesday was that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) spoke on behalf of the Government on the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill. I spoke as Leader of the House in order to facilitate debate and to speak on behalf of my party in circumstances in which the Prime Minister had explicitly set aside collective ministerial responsibility. The House was informed by me then.
As the Leader of the House knows, more and more Members are coming to the Backbench Business Committee with ideas for debates that have a wider public interest. They are asking us to schedule debates quite far in advance so that they can then engage better with people outside in order to give them a better idea of what we are doing in Parliament. As he knows, we are given a maximum of two weeks’ notice of any days that are to be allocated to the Backbench Business Committee. Given that almost every Thursday is a Back-Bench day, will he consider the possibility of our working on the assumption that Thursdays will be Back-Bench days to allow Members more time to organise greater interest in the debates that are happening in Parliament?
The hon. Lady knows that I am happy to work with her and her colleagues to provide as much advance notice of the allocation of days as possible and, where possible, to enable her and her Committee to announce days in advance. We have been able to do that to some extent in the past. The issue was covered to some degree in the report from the Procedure Committee on the work of the Backbench Business Committee, to which I responded. We have a good record of providing Back-Bench time in the Chamber every week, with the exception of one week so far in this Session. She is, however, asking for a level of certainty in relation to future business that is not even available to me and my ministerial colleagues. She is aware of the issues that we face when timetabling business, but we do our absolute best to provide a degree of certainty to her and her colleagues, and we will continue to talk about how we can do that.
Although I accept that our armed forces should be more flexible and mobile, the Government would be suffering from institutional amnesia if they thought that conflicts and wars could be fought and won by equipment alone. May we have an urgent debate on the future of the defence budget beyond 2015, so that we can hear that the Government are going to protect not only equipment but personnel?
My hon. Friend and I share a common understanding that the decisions that we have had to make on the defence budget were not ones that we sought but ones that were effectively forced upon us by the financial circumstances that we were left in. None the less, they have been responsible decisions. For example, we have looked at the simple fact of dealing with the £38 billion black hole in the defence budget. Today, in a written ministerial statement, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out a future equipment plan for the Ministry of Defence, including a degree of contingency, that is extremely encouraging, compared with the past. He and the rest of the Government are committed to delivering the Future Force 2020 plan that we set out, notwithstanding the fact that it has involved some difficult decisions. I know that there will be opportunities for the House to debate that matter, but we in the coalition Government have committed ourselves to achieving those aims.
I recently took a delegation to the previous Housing Minister to discuss the bedroom tax. At that meeting, it was clear that the Minister did not understand his own policy. Yesterday, the Prime Minister again showed that no one understands the implications of the tax that the Government are introducing. May we have an urgent debate on the issue, so that Ministers can turn up and listen to the implications of the tax for ordinary people in our constituencies?
I do not recall whether the hon. Gentleman was able to be at the recent oral questions on these matters, but, having listened to those oral questions, my recollection was that Ministers completely understood the issue. It is very simple: the rate of increase of housing benefit had become unsustainable and, at the same time, there has been a dramatic increase in the demand for social housing, as all Members of Parliament know. There is a real need to ensure that social housing is used as effectively as possible to meet housing need, and the combination of those circumstances means that there is every reason to have an incentive and, if necessary, a requirement for people not to under-occupy the housing that they live in.
As part of the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into the failure of the Department for Education to answer written questions, I have been hacking into the computer database that holds the records for the House as a whole. I have discovered that some Departments are very good at answering questions and that some are not. Looking at questions that were tabled in 2011 and had not been answered by yesterday, I find that the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health had just one each, but the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice had 21 and 42 respectively. May we have a debate on why certain Departments are good at answering questions and others are not?
I am interested in what my hon. Friend says. We have discussed this matter across the Dispatch Box before. Modesty forbids me to reiterate the record of the Department of Health in answering questions. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Suffice it to say that it can be done. We did it in the Department that had the largest number of questions, so it is not simply a matter of high volume leading to difficulty in performance.
I welcome what the Procedure Committee is doing. The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that when the Procedure Committee reports, there will be the usual opportunities for the Government to respond and, if it is sought, for the matter to be debated in the House.
Has the Leader of the House seen the article on the front page of The Times today about a major scandal involving a charity and many millions of pounds? Does that not signify that the third sector—the charitable sector—is in deep trouble in our country? Forget the big society—the third sector and the charitable world are struggling to survive and to help people. Will we have a debate soon on the future of the third sector and charities?
Yes, I have read that article. On the hon. Gentleman’s request for a debate, I am aware from listening to questions and debates that Members across the House are supportive of charities and the voluntary sector, and want them to succeed. There are many ways in which the Government are trying to help them to succeed. However, having read the article in The Times this morning, I would urge him not to try to excuse those kinds of allegations by raising the financial problems. Those are separate issues. We should not try to draw together the situation in the voluntary sector and the issue of tax avoidance.
My constituent Colin Froude wrote to me this week about the £107,000 bill that his elderly parents are having to pay for their care home this year. Many constituents have come to me on this issue. There is great frustration across the House at the Government’s failure to bring forward proposals to deal with the escalating costs of social care. Will the Leader of the House bring the relevant Minister to the House to make a statement on this critical issue, which affects many people up and down the country?
My hon. Friend raises a matter that is recognised in constituencies across the country as a compelling one that we must do something about. The Government have also been clear about that. He might reasonably have said that the previous Government failed to deal with the issue in 13 years. We have reached the point at which 45,000 older people a year are having to sell their homes to pay for care. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair said that that was a disgrace and that it would stop, but his Government did not act. They had a royal commission, but they did not act on it.
After the election, the coalition Government appointed Andrew Dilnot and his colleagues to undertake a commission. They reported in the summer of last year. We have reiterated that we are determined to implement their principles. As the mid-term review made clear, the House can look forward to further announcements in the coming weeks about how we will do exactly that.
Today is a first for me. It is the first time in my 16 years in the House that I have observed the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) occupying the middle ground of the Chamber. I call Mr Jeremy Corbyn.
I am obliged to you, Mr Speaker. I have always felt that travel broadens the mind.
The Leader of the House will have heard the request from the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on the situation in north Africa. May I ask the Government, once again, to table a votable motion on the increasing deployment and involvement of British armed forces in what could become an unpleasant, long, drawn-out, guerrilla-like conflict into which this country, inevitably, will be sucked deeper and deeper? The precedent for holding a vote was set before the Iraq invasion in 2003 and it is now the norm that the significant deployment of British troops in a war requires the consent of Parliament. I hope that the Leader of the House will recognise that and that the Government will table an appropriate motion for debate, so that many of us can express our concerns about the depth of our involvement.
In the first instance, I simply reiterate to the hon. Gentleman and the House that I believe Ministers have had several substantive opportunities to explain the nature and circumstances of our engagement, and to be questioned on that. I am not sure that I take the analogy with Iraq, or indeed Afghanistan; as my hon. Friends and Ministers have said at the Dispatch Box, an analogy with the situation in Somalia is probably closer.
As the Government have made clear, we will observe the existing convention that before UK troops are committed to conflict, the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate and vote on the matter, except when there is an emergency and such action would not be appropriate. One should also recognise, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said in the House this week, that the role of British troops is clearly not a combat role and it is not our intention to deploy combat troops. We are clear about the risks of mission creep—that was the nature of the question being asked—and have defined carefully the support that we are willing and able to provide to the French and Malian authorities. I would not carry the analogy to the point where the convention is engaged in the sense of a requirement for a debate and vote in this House.
When anyone moves to Britain with their car they are required to register the vehicle with the Driver and Vehicle and Licensing Agency, and to have UK plates on that vehicle within six months. That is to ensure that the vehicle is taxed, insured and roadworthy, and so that the driver can be prosecuted for any speeding or parking offences. By its own admission, the Department for Transport has said that those rules are not working, and with 2 million EU residents permanently residing in this country, there are potentially tens of thousands of vehicles on our roads illegally. Will the Leader of the House use his charm, influence and position to pioneer a joint statement by the Department for Transport, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice, and say what Her Majesty’s Government will do to solve the problem?
Order. So far, the erudition of questions has been equalled only by their length. I am sure we will have a characteristically snappy answer from the Leader of the House.
My hon. Friend made an important point very well. I will indeed get in touch with my colleagues and use what influence I have to encourage them, if not to make a collective statement, certainly to respond to him on behalf of the Government and to inform the House.
I know the Leader of the House is a keen sportsperson and takes a keen interest in sport. Is he as concerned as I am about reports this week of a reduction in participation in school sports? That is worrying given the Olympic legacy. May we have a debate, discussion or ministerial statement about the decline in school sport?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am always hopeful that we might have more opportunities to discuss sport in the House, and in part that is a matter for Members and the Backbench Business Committee. In that context, however, from my point of view I think we are doing a great deal. For example, I and my colleagues were responsible for promoting school sports clubs though the Change4Life campaign, and extending those clubs in primary schools and connecting them with financial support for school partnership organisers in order to connect with secondary schools. That was not only about support for elite sport, but about ensuring the participation of all young people in sports of one kind or another, particularly at primary school age.
May we have a debate on the programme motion on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, given that there will not be a debate on that subject on Tuesday? That would allow the Government, and indeed the Opposition, to explain why they appear to be running scared of the Committee of the whole House deliberating on the issue, and why they are breaking with established convention from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Acts of 1990 and 2008 in not enabling Members of Parliament fully to express their consciences at Committee stage.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to explain. We have thought very carefully about the issues raised by him and colleagues on both sides of the House. I will not go into the 1990 analogy at length, but at that time there was no precedent or practice for taking evidence in a Public Bill Committee.
What about hybrid Bills?
The Bill is not a hybrid Bill.
We propose that the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill be debated in Committee, which affords the opportunity for the taking of oral evidence. From my point of view, that was a compelling reason for considering the Bill in Committee. Because of its technical character, the unitary nature of the argument and the need for oral evidence, particularly on the permissive religious marriage provisions, that is absolutely the right thing. It is also right to make it clear that we are prepared for two days of debate on the Floor of the House for consideration on Report.
Since 1999, the cost of football tickets has increased by 716%. Liverpool fans might have been more entertained had they gone to see Fulham beat West Ham last night, but those who went to the Emirates to see their team will have paid £62. Fulham fans like me paid £53 to see a game at Stamford Bridge just before Christmas. May we have a debate on the impact of price increases for football supporters, and particularly on the impact on away fans, who bring so much spirit and atmosphere to many football games, and who are in danger of priced out of attending football?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point well. I will not comment on it, because wider issues have been raised, not least in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport report on football governance, of which ticket prices form an important part.
This Sunday in St Editha’s church, the Peel Society commemorates the 225th anniversary of the birth of Sir Robert Peel, the former Member for Tamworth. As a keen student of parliamentary history, Mr Speaker, you will know that Peel was a great reformer. He emancipated the Catholics, fathered the modern police force and repealed the corn laws. At the time, those measures were unpopular, but he believed them to be right, and was proved to be right. Therefore, in the spirit of Peel, may we have a statement from the Government on their key reforms to remind us that those things that may not find favour with all now will eventually be proved to be right?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the achievements of Sir Robert Peel, who was one of the founders of this Conservative party. In addition to the great reforms my hon. Friend mentions, Peel also oversaw legislation such as the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, which forbade the employment of women and children underground, and the Factories Act 1844, which limited working hours for children and women in factories. Although Benjamin Disraeli fashioned the phrase “two nations” and the principle of a one nation party, in a sense Sir Robert Peel implemented those things in policy terms well before that—recognising the responsibility we each have to one another. One of the great traditions of conservatism was born with him.
I entirely share my hon. Friend’s desire for such a debate. Those who have a reforming instinct and introduce reforms they believe to be right are often the subject of considerable criticism. They look and hope to be justified in the long term.
I do not know how many teaspoons of sugar the Leader of the House had in his cup of coffee this morning, but he will know of the dangers of sugar and the fight against diabetes. As the architect of the responsibility deal, is he concerned that a third of school leavers of primary school age are either obese or overweight. Is it not time we had a statement or debate on the success of the responsibility deal?
I introduced the responsibility deal with my colleagues at the Department of Health precisely because I am concerned about the number of people in this country who are overweight and obese—[Interruption.] Contrary to the sedentary remark from the Opposition Front Bench, the deal is working. I will not go into this at great length now, although perhaps we will find an opportunity to do so. The deal includes the calorie reduction challenge, which is one of the world-leading opportunities for us—not just the food industry, but all working together across the board—to consider the extent to which the virtual abolition of artificial trans fats, the reduction of saturated fats, the reduction of sugars in foods, and a reduction of calorie intake can get us to sustainable, healthy weight.
Ceredigion county council is one of the latest local authorities to sign the community covenant and appoint an armed forces champion. May we have a debate on the housing, health care and benefit entitlements of veterans and, critically, on how we communicate those entitlements to the veterans to whom we owe so much?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and he is absolutely right. I value the way my own local authority and his have taken up the commitment to the armed forces covenant. He is right that we should make sure that it is understood, not least by veterans and their families. The first annual report on the military covenant showed good progress, but I know my colleagues, not least at the Ministry of Defence, will be very keen to take up his suggestion to consider how we can do more to publicise it.
In the past 10 years, £1 billion has been stolen from the UK Exchequer through the illicit trade in and smuggling of fuels, yet in the past 10 years no one has been jailed in Northern Ireland for these crimes—an atrocious record. Given that today another oil-laundering plant has been smashed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, is it not time for a statement from the Treasury on the sentencing and arrest policy of HMRC officers, so that we can get these criminals behind bars where they belong?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He will forgive me if I do not know HMRC’s immediate response, but I will of course talk to my colleagues at the Treasury and encourage them not only to respond to him but to update the House at an early point.
May we have a debate in the House so that we can issue a clarion call to parish and town councillors to make use of neighbourhood planning to empower their local communities, shape their environment, promote local economic growth and defend green fields?
Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I have seen in the past how parish plans have successfully informed local development frameworks, but we have gone further and entrenched in statute the ability of those neighbourhood areas to shape their own area. That is very encouraging, and already more than 150 neighbourhood areas have been designated. He, like others, will be pleased that the Department is running a support programme from April to help local authorities with neighbourhood planning.
As the only parliamentary vote we have had this week was one where seven parties came together in the national interest to defeat the Conservative party, is it not an appropriate time to extend the cricketing metaphor employed by the Leader of the House, for the Government to draw stumps, to return to the pavilion—where most of the Conservative Back Benchers appear to have gone today—and to allow Members to have a say on the non-existence of a forward programme for this Government?
The premises of that question are almost entirely wrong. I will not re-run the vote on Tuesday, but I am absolutely clear that what we set out to do was in the national interest—more particularly, it is in the democratic interest for votes to be of equal value. Those on the Opposition Benches have to explain why they have continuously, over many years, sought to frustrate people in having their vote count equally in more equal-sized constituencies. On the idea that there is no forward programme, what did the hon. Gentleman think we were doing when we published the mid-term review? That is a comprehensive statement not only about the delivery of the coalition agreement but about additional clear, strong priorities. This week, he saw the reform of child care and support for child care provision come through. Those and other priorities are coming through, as the mid-term review set out.
This time last week, I asked for a departmental statement on departmental responses to letters, or the lack of them. The Leader of the Houser replied:
“I will certainly be in touch with the Treasury and will perhaps encourage my colleagues there to respond to my hon. Friend before they answer questions here next Tuesday.”—[Official Report, 24 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 467.]
That was last Tuesday. Nothing has happened. Will my right hon. Friend please come to my rescue once more?
I am somewhat confused, Mr Speaker, because I have a letter to my hon. Friend from the Economic Secretary dated 28 January. I will ensure that a copy is placed in my hon. Friend’s hand.
May we have a debate on the scrapping of council tax benefit? Currently, 5.9 million families receive this benefit, which is to be abolished on 1 April, and the Resolution Foundation says that a single parent using child care and working full time on the minimum wage could see their council tax jump from £220 to £797. This is happening at a time when the bedroom tax is coming in, when tax credits are being cut and when the minimum wage is being frozen for under-21s. May we have a debate, therefore, about why council tax benefit is being cut, while millionaires are getting a tax break?
The hon. Gentleman knows that council tax benefit is not being scrapped, but being localised, with local authorities taking responsibility. He also knows perfectly well that there are clear administrative benefits associated with local authorities taking responsibility for council tax benefit alongside their housing benefit responsibilities. Like any Opposition Member who asks about this, however, he must start by recognising that we are doing this because we are in the most appalling financial mess inherited from the last Labour Government, under whom spending on council tax benefit doubled. Welfare reform is necessary. They cannot create the problem and then resist every solution.
Today, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which I introduced as a private Member’s Bill, will officially be implemented across the public sector. It marks the end of a two-year campaign to change how we design public service contracts and the beginning of a new campaign to ensure that the principles of the Act are properly implemented by public bodies. May we have a debate on public service commissioning, specifically on how we can ensure that the principles of social value are instilled across all public bodies?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend. This important reform, for which he has been responsible, is about how we design public services and contracts. We are working across Government to build in social value. It needs to come not just from central Government, however, but with the support of local authorities and our partners, including in the health service. Social Enterprise UK has published a guidance document that will help commissioners and procurers of services to do it, but I undertake that I and my colleagues will try to ensure that we take every opportunity to see how we can take forward the principles of social value across public services.
There are 3,200 Motability scheme customers in Hull, many of whom are concerned about the changes to the personal independence payment being introduced in April. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House about how many of those people are likely to lose their vehicles in this new review that they will have to take part in?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will have noticed—because she follows these matters closely—the exchanges in the other place, not least the response from my noble Friend Lord Freud. As the Prime Minister made clear at the Dispatch Box in Prime Minister’s questions, we continue to take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that those with disabilities see resources focused on those in greatest need.
May we please have a statement on what progress has been made on the provision of improved broadband speeds in Greater Manchester? Many of my constituents, particularly those living in rural areas, are still forced to put up with very slow connection speeds, which, among other things, holds back rural businesses, and still have no idea when or whether they will benefit from the £1 million allocated by the Government to Greater Manchester to improve broadband access there.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. It is important that urban areas, which often find it easier to deliver superfast broadband on a commercial or near-commercial basis, recognise that in putting together their schemes they have a responsibility not to marginalise rural areas, where the commercial case for delivering superfast broadband is obviously much harder to make. That is why we are setting such ambitious targets for 2015. Broadband Delivery UK is supporting that, but, as I know from my authority, this requires not only resources from BDUK, but substantial additional funding. My local authority and others are getting together to make that happen.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will recall my asking for a general debate recently on the proliferation of betting shops. May I reiterate that call and request that the debate be framed in the context of the implementation of the Portas review and the Government’s localism agenda?
The hon. Lady will be aware that, following the Portas pilots funding, we are taking these forward along with additional packages, such as the high street innovation fund and the national markets fortnight campaign. Many of the 300 towns that did not get direct access to the Portas pilots are taking forward elements of their original plans across their high streets. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has taken the opportunity to encourage her colleagues across the House to make a submission to the Backbench Business Committee—as I think we discussed previously—but this seems to be exactly the sort of opportunity it might look for.
Worryingly, after two and a half years it seems that IPSA is still a four-letter swear-word to many of my colleagues in all parts of the House. Is my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House aware that every year the taxpayer is charged £11,500 to do our expenses individually? That is £7.5 million per annum charged by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Does he think that is value for money in this time of austerity and does he think there is anything he can do about it?
The answer to my hon. Friend is yes, I am aware of that. I am a member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and one of our responsibilities is to scrutinise the estimates for IPSA. We have established in statute an independent organisation. It needs to be funded to do its job properly and although it is independent, just as this House is responsible for voting resources right across Government and the public sector, one of our jobs is to ensure that it delivers the kind of value for money that we would expect in any part of the public services.
May we have a debate about the support offered to people, particularly those in skilled and technical jobs, when they face the prospect of unemployment? This week Total Petrochemicals in Stalybridge announced that it had entered into consultation with its work force on the future of the factory, due to tough trading conditions in the polystyrene market. Does the Leader of the House agree that at times like this it is incredibly important to ensure that we offer employees as much targeted support as possible to safeguard as many jobs as possible or help with the transition to new employment opportunities?
I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Announcements of possible job losses in any constituency are a matter of considerable concern to that constituency’s Member of Parliament. The most important things are, that support is available through Jobcentre Plus and, if appropriate, the Work programme. Sometimes support can be readily available from employers, as part of a package. At the same time, it is not just about offering support through retraining and job placement; it is about making sure that the jobs are there. The most encouraging thing is that since the last election we have 1.1 million more private sector jobs in this country. That is what should give people the greatest hope for the future.
As the Leader of the House will be aware, Canada and Australia—members of the Commonwealth—along with other countries, such as the USA, Poland and Hungary, recognise the genocide called the Ukrainian holodomor, in which 7 million Ukrainians were systematically starved to death in 1932-33 by Stalin. Britain does not recognise that it was genocide. Is it not time for this to be rectified and may we have a debate?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of great historical and, for many, personal significance that has limited international recognition. She of course understands fully that it was an appalling tragedy. The UK fully recognises its significance. I have to tell her that the United Kingdom does not judge that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to categorise the holodomor as genocide as defined by the 1948 UN convention on genocide. However, we recognise that there is a division of opinion among academics on this matter. We will continue to follow the debate closely, particularly in the light of any further and emerging evidence.
Fire safety in places of public assembly and in historic buildings is very important. Has the fire Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis)—indicated whether he might issue a supportive statement encouraging parliamentary colleagues to undertake the fire safety awareness training available on the parliamentary intranet as that would be in the interests of our own safety, that of our staff and visitors to this place? Will the Leader of the House encourage the fire Minister to attend the fire evacuation drill planned for the Chamber at 12.30 pm on 11 February?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose record on supporting fire safety measures is recognised across the House. I will be here myself on 11 February. I am not sure of the position of my colleagues, but I encourage them to recognise that such attendance and fire awareness training are important things to do. I am aware from discussions in the House of Commons Commission of the precise extent of the take-up of that training among Members and staff. It is not as complete as it should be, so I encourage people to take that opportunity.
Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1000?
[That this House is disappointed that despite a unanimous vote in Parliament calling for an investigation, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has refused to hold a full inquiry into allegations of anti-competitive behaviour in the petrol and diesel market; notes that their decision is despite evidence of market abuse handed to them by hundreds of independent petrol stations, transport firms, small businesses and members of the public through RMI Petrol, the AA, petrolpromise.com and FairFuelUK; further notes that even the OFT report admits that over the last 10 years the combined gross margin for refining, wholesaling and retailing has increased by 3.4 pence per litre for petrol and 7.2 pence per litre for diesel and that taking account of inflation, this represents an increase in real terms of 14 per cent for petrol and 41 per cent for diesel; and therefore calls on the OFT to reconsider its decision not to hold a full inquiry and to step up the pressure on the oil companies and financial speculators who are pushing up prices at the pump.]
May we have an urgent statement about yesterday’s shocking decision by the Office of Fair Trading not to hold a full inquiry into the rip-off oil companies that are ripping off motorists at the petrol pumps—especially given that the House unanimously supported, without a Division, the idea of having a full inquiry? The OFT decision flies in the face of thousands of pieces of evidence from FairFuelUK, petrolpromise.com, the AA and many other organisations. It is undermined even by its own report, which admits that over the last decade fuel margins have grown in real terms by 14% for petrol and an astonishing 41% for diesel.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who continues to argue forcefully for the fairest fuel prices possible for consumers. I completely understand that. As a Government, we have continually listened to my hon. Friend’s and other arguments, which is why the price of fuel at the pumps is 10p a litre lower than it would have been if we had allowed the last Government’s escalator to proceed. My hon. Friend understands, as do I, that the Office of Fair Trading is independent in its investigations and in the judgments it makes. There will be opportunities for colleagues to question Treasury Ministers, for example, about their approach to fuel pricing at the next Treasury questions.
Like Mr Speaker’s lectures, the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution are part of our cultural life. They were started by Michael Faraday in 1825 at 21 Albemarle street, which is now under threat. I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate and will he facilitate a meeting between leading scientists and the Minister for Universities and Science to save 21 Albemarle street for the nation?
I cannot promise a debate, but I will of course talk to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities and Science. The hon. Lady knows of his remarkable interest in, and his devotion to, supporting science, which is reflected across the Government. If I may presume for him, I think he might well be willing to take an opportunity to talk to scientists, without promising that it is the Government’s responsibility in any way.
At last week’s business questions my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) raised the important issue of interest rate swap mis-selling. Today, the Financial Services Authority issued a report, and I believe that it would be good to have some parliamentary scrutiny of it. That might provide more publicity for the issue so that other businesses that have been involved but do not realise that they might be eligible for compensation start to take action.
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it is absolutely right to follow up the matter from last week. Upstairs this morning, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is taking further evidence on the mis-selling of interest rate swaps, forming part of its further inquiries into banking standards. In addition, I will talk to my colleagues about updating the House on what can be done to ensure that small businesses do not continue to be borne down by the cost of mis-sold policies of that kind.
On that very point, I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that we do indeed get this type of report before the House. Many of the businesses concerned are in dire straits and need action and compensation now. They do not really want to wait for the outcome of reports and investigations by other Committees. Given that there are six weeks before the next Treasury questions, may we have a statement from a Treasury Minister about what can be done?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, which I completely understand. The length of time that it took for the FSA to undertake its investigation, and its explanation of the difficulties of investigating individual cases, demonstrate the scale of the problem in relation to any individual policy, but today’s report indicates the need for the sector across the board to try not to deepen the harm done to companies, in terms of the policies that they have taken up and also in terms of where they stand at present. I will consult my colleagues on possible opportunities for a debate, but it might also be possible to arrange one by means of an application to the Backbench Business Committee.
My local planning authority, Powys county council, is a small, hard-pressed rural authority which is currently having to divert £2.8 million of its funds to defend its rejection of wind farm applications in a public inquiry, while developers have access to unlimited moneys which are demanded from consumers. This is a David versus Goliath position. May we have an urgent debate on the way in which appeals are funded? That would give us an opportunity to demonstrate that the Government are not entirely on the side of Goliath.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me when I say that I did not listen to all the questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and his fellow Ministers, which I think may have touched on the issues that he has raised. I will of course discuss those issues with them, but it must be said that there often seems to be a disparity between the resources available to those making planning applications and those available to the—sometimes small—local authorities that respond to them.
On 10 January, the Foreign Secretary gave me what he described as a “broad assurance” that there would be a vote in the House on the deployment of soldiers abroad, following the precedent of 2003. The Leader of the House rested his refusal to allow that on the narrow point that we are not in conflict in Mali. We have up to 400 troops there; many of them are armed, and if they are attacked, they will use those arms. That sounds very much like conflict to me.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). Given that the country is now weary and wary of avoidable wars, is it not important for us to debate the issue, so that the House can establish what precisely is the terrorist threat to Britain from Tuareg nationalists?
I am sure that the House would not wish me to repeat what I said earlier—which I think was perfectly understandable in the circumstances—but I might add that our actions have been in response to what were, in effect, urgent and emergency requests from, in the first instance, the French authorities, with the support of the Malian authorities. That engages, to an extent, the question of this being an emergency. However, we will constantly keep in mind the question of whether it is appropriate, under the convention, which we respect and to which we will adhere, to present the issue to the House for debate.
Why has there been no statement, either oral or written, about the decision—announced in the media this morning—to scrap the competition for the First Great Western rail franchise? If no Minister will come and explain that decision to the House, will the Leader of the House contact the Department for Transport after business questions and ensure that every Member who is affected by it—including my hon. Friends the Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who are in the Chamber now—receives a letter today containing details of the reasons for a decision that affects our constituents very deeply?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, because the matter is market-sensitive, it was the subject of an announcement to the markets and a written ministerial statement this morning, so the House was informed.
It was not advertised.
No, it was not, because it is market-sensitive, but a written ministerial statement was laid before the House this morning. However, I will check with my colleagues at the Department for Transport to establish whether they have notified Members across the House about the three franchises on which announcements were made in that statement.
When will the Leader of the House schedule a debate on the massive rise in unemployment among the disabled that there has been under this Government? It has increased by 42,000 since mid-2010, to a record 434,000. Is he aware that it will be added to by a further 44 sacked workers from the Remploy factory in Springburn in my constituency, which this Government are disgracefully allowing to close today?
Of course, I am aware of the situation in relation to Remploy because I was sitting on the Front Bench when the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), responded sympathetically and well to questions from Members. If we had sufficient Government time to be able to debate employment, I would love to do so because we would be able to say many very positive things. Unfortunately, the nature of time and the allocation of time in the House is such that most Government time is committed to the progress of legislation and addressing a number of specific requirements. Of course, Opposition time and Back-Bench business time is available, and I know that employment issues of all kinds are right at the forefront of the interests of Members.
May we have an urgent debate on pathology services in north-west London? Since The Doctors Laboratory—TDL—took over those services last month, doctors have complained that bloods are not stored or transported safely. One general practitioner has reported that 300 results have gone missing, that an excessive number of potassium results are high and that INR results are unexpectedly low. As the Leader of the House well knows, that could lead to a misdiagnosis and, consequently, an increase in warfarin, which could be fatal. Those matters have now been reported to the Care Quality Commission, as have concerns of all the GPs in the area and the North West London Hospitals NHS Trust. The matter is urgent and I hope he will create time to debate it.
As my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is on the Bench and will have heard what the hon. Gentleman had to say, he might have noted it. If my recollection is right, the hon. Gentleman has described a process that was a consequence of the Carter review undertaken under the previous Administration. The then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), is in his place on the Opposition Front Bench, so he might like to have a word with the hon. Gentleman to explain why the Carter review set out specifically to rationalise and, in some cases, to secure the outsourced management of pathology services.
Last but not least, Mr Speaker. The past week has not been good for animals: we have heard numerous references to stalking horses; we have heard a Minister using American slang in referring to “discombobulated monkeys”; we have had a Westminster Hall debate on hunting of foxes; and one Conservative Member is reported to have referred to the Liberal Democrats as rodents leaving a sinking ship. May we have a debate on how animals can be kept out of politics?
In my experience, when we are discussing wild animals in circuses, and when we are discussing horsemeat up in Westminster Hall and elsewhere, animals seem to be in politics all the time.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Trusts (Capital and Income) Act 2013
Statute Law (Repeals) Act 2013
Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act 2013
Disabled Persons’ Parking Badges Act 2013.
European Union (Croatian Accession and Irish Protocol) Act 2013
Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013.