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Business of the House

Volume 559: debated on Thursday 28 February 2013

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 4 March—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security Bill [Lords] (day 1).

Tuesday 5 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on the budget and structure of the Ministry of Justice, followed by a debate on financing of new housing supply.

Wednesday 6 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on universal credit, followed by a debate on regulation of medical imports in the EU and UK.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: There will be a debate on Universal Credit, Third Report of Work and Pensions Committee 2012-13 (HC 576) Government response, February 2013 (CM 8537)].

Thursday 7 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations and Adjustments) Bill, followed by conclusion of remaining stages of the Justice and Security Bill [Lords].

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 11 March—Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill.

Tuesday 12 March—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 13 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Courts Bill [Lords].

Thursday 14 March—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 7 March will be:

Thursday 7 March—Debate on the Scottish Affairs Committee report on the referendum on separation for Scotland: terminating Trident—days or decades?

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business.

Today would have been the 67th birthday of Robin Cook. He is remembered, among many things, for his formidable mind and for the reform and modernisation of the Commons that he delivered when he was Leader of the House.

I want to congratulate the Patronage Secretary, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who was first elected on this day in 1974. I wonder whether he agrees that there are some clear parallels between the run-up to that election and now: economic turmoil, a Conservative Government in crisis, and an Education Secretary with an eye to the main chance. There is even an NUM—a national union of Ministers to resist further cuts in their Departments. We wish them well.

It is three months since Lord Justice Leveson published his report. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is vital that we make sure that what happened to the Dowlers, the McCanns and countless other victims of press intrusion can never happen again? The debate that we had in this place before Christmas and the amendments attached to the Defamation Bill in the other place demonstrate clearly that parliamentarians from across all parties and across both Houses support the implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations. Since the Bill has now completed all its stages in the other place, when does the Leader of the House expect it to be back in this House?

The Government have been caught out trying to privatise the NHS by stealth. The NHS competition regulations create a system of compulsory competitive tendering for all NHS services. This is in breach of direct assurances given during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, not least by the Leader of the House himself. While the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister appear happy to unleash a free market free-for-all in the NHS, the Liberal Democrat Health Minister, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), is not. On Tuesday in Health questions, he criticised the regulations, which can neither be amended nor easily withdrawn. Given the huge level of concern, will the Leader of the House arrange for us to debate the statutory instrument on the Floor of the House and not upstairs in Committee?

“Channel 4 News” has published disturbing revelations about alleged cases of sexual harassment in the Liberal Democrats. While the party hierarchy have buried their heads in the sand, the victims are being let down. Next Friday is international women’s day, so will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate in Government time on sexual harassment of women and the culture of silence that all too often surrounds it?

The Leader of the House has announced that the Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill is scheduled for 11 March, but the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is not due to issue its second report until later this year, after the conclusion of the Commons Committee stage, which means that the House is expected to scrutinise a Bill that is only half written. That shows contempt for the Commons, so will the Leader of the House assure us that the Committee stage will not begin before the commission has reported?

Last week we learned that the part-time Chancellor was missing £1 billion from his 4G auction receipts. He was so desperate to fiddle the figures that, as usual, he put party politics before economics. We also learned that Britain has lost its triple A credit rating. Let us remind ourselves of what the Chancellor promised in the Conservative manifesto:

“We will safeguard Britain’s credit rating”.

He also said that it would be a benchmark against which the British public could

“judge the economic success or failure of the next government.”

This is more than just a humiliation for our downgraded Chancellor—he has failed a test he set for himself. Even now, however, he is too stubborn to admit his mistakes, so the British people are paying the price for this downgraded Chancellor’s failed economic strategy. Businesses, families and pensioners feel it every day, while in April 13,000 millionaires will get a six-figure tax cut. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor to begin his Budget statement with an apology?

I was shocked to see the Prime Minister hugging five hoodies in Downing street last week, until I realised it was a photo op with the chart-topping group, One Direction, for Comic Relief. This week, however, band member Harry Styles has declared himself a Labour man. He apparently styles his outfits on those of Harold Wilson and Michael Foot. Harry and I know that there is only one direction in which this Government are heading and it is the wrong one. Perhaps the Prime Minister should have instead met with hip hop artist, Plan B.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, particularly for her tribute to my distinguished predecessors. Robin Cook was a notable Leader of the House for the reforms that he brought in. Indeed, I am sure, as time goes by, that the contribution of the current Patronage Secretary will be seen as such, not least because, as our discussions in business questions show, the Backbench Business Committee has improved dramatically Members’ access to the Floor of the House to debate current issues.

The hon. Lady raised a number of matters. On the principles of the Leveson report, she will know that only a few days ago the Conservative party published proposals for a royal charter to implement them. That is subject to cross-party discussions and I urge them to proceed and come to a successful conclusion. I share the view of my noble friend Lord McNally, who made it clear on Third Reading of the Defamation Bill that, while the so-called Puttnam amendment was amended further at that stage, the amendment is still unacceptable. On that basis, I hope that an agreement will be reached that will enable us to proceed with the Bill without that amendment and to deal with Leveson properly.

It is not unknown for us to debate the regulations for public procurement in the NHS. The hon. Lady will know that it is possible for Opposition business managers to seek access to such a debate through the usual channels, and I encourage her to do so. On the substance of the issue, however, she is not right. The Prime Minister was quite right yesterday and let me reiterate what he said. If we did not have these regulations, normal procurement law and competition rules would apply. The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), knows perfectly well that the principal rules for co-operation and competition would have applied in the same way before the last election. If he and the hon. Lady look at the regulations properly, which of course I have, they will see that it is possible to proceed without a competition on a single tender basis. The regulations, for the first time, create a structure that allows for “any qualified provider”. That is exactly what was said during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012 and what is stated in the Act. There is no change in policy. The regulations enable commissioners to go for whoever is best placed to improve the quality of the services, meet the needs of people who use the services and improve efficiency, including through an “any qualified provider” route rather than a competitive tendering route.

The hon. Lady asked about a debate on international women’s day. I have announced the business and it does not allow us to have such a debate on that day; the House is not sitting on 8 March and the business does not allow for such a debate on 7 March. However, there is an Opposition day on the following week and the Backbench Business Committee has always been receptive to Back-Bench Members who apply for such debates, as was demonstrated in the well-attended and well-structured debate that took place the week before last.

The hon. Lady asked about the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made it clear that before Second Reading—not before Committee stage, as was previously intended—the Government will publish the principal draft regulations associated with the Bill. She asked about the timing of the Committee stage. She knows perfectly well that it is our intention on Second Reading to table a carry-over motion so that we can consider carefully what is the appropriate timing for the Committee stage.

I thought that the most important sign-up to a political party this week was to the Conservative party on the part of Marta Andreasen, a UK Independence party MEP. That demonstrates that across this country people are recognising that the Prime Minister’s speech on the future of our relationship with the European Union was, as she said, a “game changer”.

I apologise that we have not been able to give the hon. Lady and her colleagues time for an Opposition day debate next week as we are making progress with legislation. When she does have that opportunity the week after next, there are many matters for her to choose from: the increase in employment last year, with the fastest rate of new employment growth in the private sector since the 1980s; the reduction of more than 80% in the number of people waiting for NHS operations for more than a year and the waits that patients have to experience in Wales under a Labour Government, which the shadow Secretary of State for Health might want to debate; and, in the Home Office context, the reduction in crime figures or the reduction in net migration to this country of a third since the last election, which was announced this morning. This is a coalition Government delivering on our promises.

Given that one of the world’s worst-kept secrets is that Commonwealth day falls on 11 March and that Commonwealth Parliaments are being encouraged to mark that day with a debate on a Commonwealth theme, how can it be that this House is being given no opportunity to debate the Commonwealth, the proposed charter or connected matters?

I have discussed this matter with a number of colleagues and have encouraged them to approach the Backbench Business Committee. I am not aware of whether they have done so. Of course, I have announced the business for 11 March, so I do not think that we can accommodate such a debate on that day. However, a number of Parliaments are debating the Commonwealth at some time close to that day. I encourage my right hon. Friend and others to continue to approach the Backbench Business Committee on that matter.

Following the question from the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) about Commonwealth day, the Backbench Business Committee approached the Government to ask whether they would open Westminster Hall on a Monday afternoon to facilitate such a debate, but the Government refused. In the light of that, may I ask the Leader of the House whether the Backbench Business Committee’s full allocation of time will be received from the Government before the end of the Session? By our calculations we have two provisional days booked in and nothing more on the horizon, which falls at least one day short. So far, we have 13 important and urgent Back-Bench debates that need scheduling.

As the House will know, the Standing Orders provide for Westminster Hall to be opened on a Monday only for particular purposes, and I did not think it appropriate for us to seek to depart from that in this instance. The hon. Lady asked about the time available for the Backbench Business Committee, and taking today’s debate into account it will have scheduled 25 and a half days’ debate in this Session. The Standing Orders provide for 27 days in this Session, and I am confident that we will meet and exceed that.

As the Leader of the House will know, last week I raised the urgency of holding a debate in Government time on the Francis report. I discussed the matter with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and she entirely agrees with me, and others, who believe it is becoming a disgrace that we are not holding a debate on that vital issue. There is also the question of Sir David Nicholson and whether he should resign. Will the Leader of the House please speak to the Prime Minister and ensure that we have that debate as a matter of urgency in Government time on the Floor of the House?

As my hon. Friend knows, it is the Government’s intention to have a debate on that issue. He will also know, however, that on 15 January he and his colleagues went to the Backbench Business Committee to ask for time for a debate, but it has not been scheduled. We must remember that as a general proposition this House resolved that the Backbench Business Committee should take responsibility for a wide range of debates, including general debates. If we start to re-import an expectation that the Government will provide time for such debates, it will by extension be impossible to allocate the same amount of time to the Backbench Business Committee. We will have a debate on the Francis report and discuss between ourselves how that is to be accomplished at the appropriate moment. I continue to make the general point of principle that the Backbench Business Committee exists in part to enable the House to debate current important issues, as it did with Hillsborough, for example.

May we have a debate in Government time on the fact that we are supposedly “all in it together”, so that we can contrast the return of the curse of fuel poverty that is affecting many of our constituents with the handover of some £10 million to the outgoing chief executive of British Gas, the £1.3 billion to shareholders, and the fact that so much is being done to make life more difficult for the people we represent?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the House supported in legislation the establishment of the green deal, which will make an enormous difference to many people. Many companies in the energy sector are providing discounts on energy bills to something approaching 2 million households, and over the winter the Government are supporting many people with winter fuel payments. In addition, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Energy Bill has just been considered in Committee, and when it returns to the House it will provide an opportunity to debate many of the issues surrounding fuel and energy prices, and energy poverty.

On a day when the Royal Bank of Scotland announced a further £5 billion of losses, it is pertinent to call for a debate on the ongoing losses—currently around £20 billion —being suffered by the taxpayer as a result of the previous Government’s handling of the bank bail-outs in 2008. Mr Michael Cohrs, a member of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee, stated recently that the previous Government probably overpaid for their stakes in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. Interestingly, the then chairman of Lloyds Banking Group, Sir Victor Blank, subsequently made a £10,000 donation to the Labour party.

The House will have noted that I announced in the provisional business for the week after next the Second Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill, which will allow hon. Members an opportunity to debate the issues my hon. Friend raises. In addition, the shadow Chancellor, who was the City Minister responsible at the time of a banking collapse, will perhaps have the opportunity to explain and apologise to the people of this country.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made by the appropriate Minister on the scandalous treatment by Tesco of more than 400 workers in a high-unemployment area in Bolsover? Tesco is transferring those workers 170 miles down south, which is a complete contradiction of the regional policy of sending jobs up to the north. Tesco has been there for only a few years. Will the Leader of the House ensure that all the assistance that Tesco got to set up its distribution factory—all the money it received from development agencies, Europe, central Government and local government—is paid back? Does he agree that that scandalous treatment shows that Tesco stinks worse than the horsemeat it has been selling?

The commercial decisions of Tesco are not a matter for me. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) is in his place. I am sure that he, like the hon. Gentleman, has issues to raise regarding the decisions that Tesco has made. However, they are commercial matters for the companies concerned.

May we have a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on what it is doing to prevent identity fraud? I have recently received complaints from a constituent that his address has been used on two separate occasions in the registration of new companies without his knowledge or permission. The Government should not be complicit in any form of identity theft.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will speak to my hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to secure a response to it. In so far as the Government have regulations and require people to be on databases, it is important that the information is valid and reliable.

The Leader of the House has mentioned the immigration figures. He will know that today the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency has published a report showing that, last year, 300 people entered Birmingham airport without proper checks. May we have an urgent statement from the Home Secretary on how that was allowed to happen? May we also have an assurance that anyone entering this country has undergone the full border checks that are required?

The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that the chief inspector published a report on Birmingham airport. Regrettably, it included the fact that, over a number of occasions, 278 passengers came through the primary control point when the biometric chip-reading facility had been deactivated. As the report acknowledges, that is one of a number of checks that UK Border Force officers conduct to verify identity. All criminal and immigration checks remained in place and action has already been taken to ensure that that cannot happen again. All contingency staff deployed to the border were fully trained to enable them to undertake the necessary security checks.

Before the half-term recess, we had a debate on violence against women and girls. According to the Ministry of Justice, men and boys are twice as likely to be victims of violent crime as women and girls. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am a big fan of equality—I believe you once referred to me as “a troglodyte” in one such debate in the previous Parliament. Therefore, in the interests of equality, may we have a debate on violence against men and boys?

In the interests of equality, I advise my hon. Friend to approach the Backbench Business Committee in the same way that hon. Members who secured the debate on violence against women and girls did.

May I return to the Health and Social Care Act 2012? I remind the Leader of the House that the then Health Minister, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), assured the Bill Committee that there was no intention to impose compulsory competitive tendering. Those assurances were repeated by the Leader of the House and by Earl Howe in the other place. Will the Leader of the House arrange not only for the regulations to be debated on the Floor of the House, but for us to have a debate on ministerial standards and accountability, so that we can discuss how those assurances came to be given by Ministers when something completely different has happened in the regulations?

I will not repeat what I have said before, but I have to say to the hon. Lady that the regulations are entirely consistent with commitments and statements made by Ministers during the passage of the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

One of my constituents was recently knocked over and killed crossing Heybridge road in Hadley in my constituency. He was nine years old. Can we have an urgent debate on the need for West Mercia police and Telford and Wrekin council to listen to the concerns of residents of both Leegomery and Hadley about speeding traffic in those residential areas?

I am sure that the House shares my hon. Friend’s regret about the tragic circumstances that he describes. We have just had Transport questions, and he will know how strongly Ministers in that Department feel about the need to improve our record on road safety, good as it may already be. Local authorities can play a part in that, and I will of course ask my hon. Friends if they can add anything to enable him to approach his local authority in that way.

If the Leader of the House had been in another part of the House this morning, he could have heard the Children’s Commissioner tell a group of us interested in children’s issues that we have the worst outcomes for child health in Europe. With the plague of obesity and lack of exercise, and the evidence that the likelihood of any young person going to any green spaces in our country has halved in a generation, may we have an early debate on children’s access to the countryside?

I am sorry that I did not have an opportunity to hear the Children’s Commissioner: I would have appreciated doing so. It will not have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s notice that in January last year, knowing that we had poor child health statistics relative to other highly developed countries, I asked a team led by the medical director at Alder Hey and other distinguished clinicians and representatives in that area to form a taskforce, which reported last year. On that basis, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) last week announced further measures to take that forward as part of a strategy to improve children’s health.

Given the changes to A-levels announced by the Department for Education in November 2012, can we have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to advise on how the Government intend to prevent students who started their A-level courses in September 2012 from being adversely affected by the changes midway through their course?

My hon. Friend will be aware that Education Ministers will be here on Monday to answer questions. He will also know that the decision to remove the January exams was taken by Ofqual, following strong support during its regulatory consultation on A-level reform. That consultation highlighted concerns that modular exams and a high frequency of re-sit opportunities led to teaching to the test and a culture of re-sits. Removing the January exam will limit the number of re-sit opportunities and help to address those concerns, but it will impact on those students who began their course in September 2012.

Party politics aside, all our constituents and local businesses are angry at and frustrated by the contemptuous way in which the bankers and energy companies are treating us. Could we therefore have a debate on how best we could give protection to consumers in our constituencies? Our Select Committees do an excellent job in scrutinising these industries but lack any effective powers. Is that something that the Leader of the House would be prepared to consider?

I say to the hon. Gentleman—equally, party politics aside—that we are not powerless in this House. We are discussing an Energy Bill that will require energy companies to give their customers access to the lowest possible tariffs. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is currently looking at the question of standards in banking and the way in which customers are treated by the banking industry. We are not powerless and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill and the Energy Bill can be instrumental in giving consumers a better offer in relation to these industries.

I congratulate the Government on their recent decision to stop backing World Bank and IMF loans to Argentina, because Buenos Aires has an appalling record of defaulting on international loans. Unbelievably, the country is still a member of the G20 despite its appalling economic record and how it behaves internationally. Can we have a debate on how G20 membership is decided?

My hon. Friend may wish to raise that issue with Foreign Office Ministers on Tuesday, but I appreciate what he has to say about World Bank loans to Argentina. The G20 is an informal organisation with no formal criteria for membership, and that has remained unchanged since it was first established. Any change to G20 membership, or the introduction of criteria for membership, would require consensus agreement by its members. Currently, there are no plans to revisit either.

Can we have a debate on bankers’ bonuses? I understand that the Government are opposing the EU proposal to limit them without shareholder permission to the salary of the banker concerned. According to Wiktionary, a bonus is extra pay due to good performance. A bonus that is in excess of an entire salary is not extra pay due to good performance. Is it not just pure, unadulterated, sheer, naked greed?

I completely understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he has to recognise that, as he will have noticed from how many people have responded to the proposal agreed between the Commission and Parliament, it runs the risk of converting what properly should be a bonus into something that is consolidated into people’s salaries. That would lead to additional fixed rather than variable costs in the banking industry. We have to focus on ensuring that the industry is competitive and that bonuses are genuine, and not end up with an artificial situation that makes the industry more costly and less competitive.

The local authority in the Vale of Glamorgan has recently been considering plans to close three schools. Two are among the best in Wales, and one is one of the most improved in the area. Unfortunately, the final decision lies with the local authority. Thankfully, it has been forced by parents to back down. Can we have a debate on free schools, which empower parents to take control of the future of these establishments? Such a debate would also inform and educate people across other parts of the UK.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—and I am sure his constituents will be too for the support he gives them in this respect. He will be frustrated that the Labour Government in Wales are not adopting reforms analogous to those being pursued in England by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education. My right hon. Friend will be at the Dispatch Box on Monday and, although it is not his ministerial responsibility, I am sure he would share with Members in this House the view that if the Welsh Labour Government followed some of the precepts of academies and free schools, it would be much to the advantage of parents and pupils.

It is 10 years since the start of the conflict in Darfur, which led to the slaughter of 300,000 Darfuris. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on human rights in Sudan? Is he aware that this morning 98 politicians from the UK, United States and Australia signed an open letter to their Foreign Ministers asking for urgent leadership in the Security Council to ensure that we do not see a repeat of that violence and a man-made famine in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and he does it well. He will have an opportunity to raise the issue again with Foreign Office Ministers on Tuesday. He will find that my hon. Friends in the Government share his concern to ensure that we continue to keep up the pressure on Sudan to respect human rights and to maintain a level of peace in that country.

Head teachers in my constituency have told me that they have been able to use the pupil premium money to help some of the most disadvantaged pupils in their schools. Can we have a debate about the success of the pupil premium policy and ensure that schools have the freedom to make decisions on how to allocate the pupil premium budget without pressure from trade unions or local authorities trying to resist?

My hon. Friend shares my view that the £2.5 billion now in the pupil premium is making a dramatic difference, particularly for schools that have a responsibility to try to secure the best education for some of the most disadvantaged pupils—that is terrifically important. From having talked to head teachers, I know that of particular importance to them are the freedoms we have given them in a range of respects, especially the freedom to use those resources in the best interests of the school as a whole.

Early on 15 February, there was a major fire in Rochdale at what was the world’s biggest asbestos factory, the now derelict Turner Brothers mill. Firefighters spent five hours battling the blaze, and concerns have been raised that no air monitoring took place. Will the Government make a statement that promises the people of Rochdale that this matter will be investigated, that the site will be secured, and that all laws to protect our environment and public health will be fully enforced?

I confess that I was not aware of the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, but they are obviously very important for his constituency and beyond. I will therefore talk to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in respect of the Environment Agency and colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions in relation to the Health and Safety Executive to see whether they can respond to his points.

You may recall, Mr Speaker, that a month ago I asked the Leader of the House a question about the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. No organisation, charity or business would allow its finance department to budget for a cost per employee of about £10,000 per annum to process each individual claim. What does he think of IPSA senior management’s bullying tactics and threats, subsequent to my raising these issues, to try to silence me regarding their spiralling costs? Does he think that the chief executive should show some backbone and meet me—he has refused to do so for more than two and a half years —instead of attempting to smear the names of Members of Parliament by false innuendo and subterfuge?

Order. I appreciate the sincerity with which that point has been raised, and it is a matter of concern to the House, but I am afraid that it is not a business question. The hon. Gentleman should have requested a statement or a debate, but it absolutely was not a business question, as I have just been reminded by the Clerk Assistant. The Leader of the House may wish to say something, but Members really must play by the rules and not invent them as they go along.

I completely understand, Mr Speaker. If it is helpful to the House, I will of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend and, as a member of your Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, I would be glad to take forward any issues he has.

May we have an urgent debate on the proper use of employment statistics? The Leader of the House mentioned the number of people in employment, but of course what actually matters is the employment rate. Earlier this week, the Chancellor was dismissive of my raising problems of underemployment; he referred to the number of hours worked, but it is the rate of underemployment that matters. Ministers can try to ignore the problem if they wish, but that will not convince constituents of mine who can get only a zero-hours or 10-hours contract when what they actually want is a full-time, permanent job.

I was present at the time and I am sure the Chancellor was correct in saying that the number of hours worked has increased. The key points are of course that the number of people in work is up and is now 29.73 million, and that the employment rate is 71.5%. Rather than trying to make a point in the way she does, the hon. Lady should celebrate the fact that since the election employment in the private sector has risen by over 1 million and, as a consequence, last year’s employment increase was the fastest rate of private sector growth in employment since the 1980s.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 1116 on Tesco?

[That this House notes with huge regret and disappointment the planned closure of the Tesco distribution plant at Harlow; further notes the contribution that many Harlow workers have made to its success and the strong customer base that they have served throughout the Eastern region, as well as tens of thousands of families in Harlow town itself; accepts that Tesco has pledged that all workers will be offered positions elsewhere including the new Dagenham site; urges that pay and conditions remain the same or better for staff who have been affected; thanks the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers for its efforts on negotiating on behalf of Tesco employees; and calls on Tesco to do everything possible to look after its many hundred loyal and committed staff at the Harlow depot.]

May we have an urgent debate about workers’ pay and conditions? Hundreds of Harlow workers are losing their jobs because the Tesco distribution centre is closing. Will my right hon. Friend write to the Business Secretary to ensure that workers who are given jobs elsewhere retain their pay and conditions?

I will, of course, as my hon. Friend requests, talk to my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, not least to ensure that we do everything we can to support workers in Harlow, Bolsover and elsewhere.

Media reports are suggesting that the Government are pushing ahead at great pace with the privatisation of Royal Mail. Given that the House has not debated the issue since the passing of the Postal Services Act 2011, may we have an urgent debate or a statement on the Government’s proposals for the privatisation of that much-cherished national institution?

As the hon. Gentleman suggests in his question, the House has resolved what should happen, and it is now a question of carrying that forward. He will of course have an opportunity to ask questions of Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shortly. I do not have the date—

The Government are doing excellent work on women’s issues, from equal pay audits, to women on boards domestically, to putting women and girls front and centre in international development. May I encourage calls for a debate to celebrate international women’s day and the brilliant work that this Government are doing on women’s issues?

My hon. Friend will have heard me say in response to the shadow Leader of the House that the House will not be sitting on 8 March, which is international women’s day, but that I hope that if he and other hon. Members across the House were to approach the Backbench Business Committee, it might find an opportunity for a debate to celebrate the many ways in which women are at the heart of the delivery of the economy and enterprise—[Hon. Members: “There is not one woman on the Government Benches!”]—and indeed of good government in this country.

Yes, it is nice to see so many women from the coalition Government parties on their Benches today!

I would like to ask the Leader of the House about the restrictions that have been placed on Hull City supporters who will be travelling to Huddersfield for the football game on 30 March. They have been told that they will have to travel by coach from Hull, and that restriction is causing a lot of problems for my constituents. May we have a debate in the House on putting in place sensible guidelines on the placing of restrictions on football matches, so that such restrictions are used only when there is clear evidence that the police need them?

I suspect that that might be an operational issue for the police, and that it should therefore be raised with the chief constable. I am not necessarily amenable to granting a debate on the specific instance that the hon. Lady has raised, but she will recall that I have previously expressed the hope that there might be an occasion on which the House could debate issues relating to football governance. Such a debate could stretch widely across the way in which football is not only governed but policed, as that would also be relevant.

I must also point out that the women Members on the Government side of the House—those from my party, at least—are busy in Eastleigh today, seeking to secure the election of a new woman Member of Parliament, Maria Hutchings.

During this Parliament, more than 650,000 apprenticeships have been started by people under the age of 24, and over half of all apprenticeships are now taken up by women. We have seen a significant increase in the take-up of apprenticeships in the north, especially in my constituency. Please may we have a debate to explore the role that apprenticeships are playing in the rebalancing of our economy? Next month, we will celebrate national apprenticeship week, so that might prove to be helpful timing.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to celebrate the fact that we are increasing the number of apprenticeships—1 million over two years—and that efforts under the youth contract announced by the Deputy Prime Minister are enabling us to focus on the needs of young people, through apprenticeships and the new traineeships that will enable them to access vocational opportunities.

One of the features of this Parliament has been the collapse of the Government’s agenda for constitutional reform. May we have a debate on why it is considered unnecessary to have fewer thorough debates on constitutional reform in this Parliament?

I do not recognise the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. This Government are pursuing issues relating to constitutional reform. We have reformed Parliament in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, we have changed the arrangements in this House and we are taking forward measures relating to the recall of MPs. As a Conservative, I always like the need for constitutional reform to be proven by evidence, and that is how we are proceeding.

Council-provided services in Montgomeryshire are under threat of devastation because of the legal costs of defending decisions, arrived at democratically, to refuse planning permission for wind farms. The foreign-owned energy leviathans that are taking those actions seem to have unlimited access to subsidies to pay for their costs. May we have a statement on the Government’s position on this matter, to determine how democracy might be retained in Montgomeryshire?

I recall that my hon. Friend and I have discussed the issue previously at business questions and I will, of course, go back to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. We want to make sure that there is a kind of equality of arms before the law so that people feel that they are not inhibited from getting access to planning opportunities or planning decisions simply because of the deep pockets of those seeking planning approval.

Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement or a debate on regional variations in the numbers of those diagnosed with dementia? In England and Wales the figure is some 43%, in Northern Ireland it is approximately 60% and in Belfast, the central and largest city in Northern Ireland, it is 75%. The differentials and variations are obvious. An exchange of medical expertise in diagnosis for everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be to everyone’s advantage.

We had a debate on dementia quite recently. It is important to understand regional variations on dementia, particularly given that, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware, Northern Ireland has a good record in identifying and diagnosing dementia. To that extent, the figures he quoted are about a differential in diagnosis rather than necessarily a variation in the incidence—or, I should say, the prevalence—of dementia in different parts of the United Kingdom. It is important to understand this issue, which is why the dementia challenge is in part precisely about ensuring that we get much higher rates of dementia diagnosis across parts of England and Wales.

Can we have an urgent Government statement, because it is grossly unfair that each week the Leader of the House turns up at business questions to be duffed over by Members on both sides of the House over the allocation of time for parliamentary business? That happens because it is the Government who allocate the time. The coalition is committed to a Business of the House Committee made up of parliamentarians of all parties, excluding Front Benchers. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Government are opposed to such a measure, as long as it is based on the Jopling principles. We are committed to having this committee by the beginning of May: when are we going to have this Business of the House Committee?

My hon. Friend will know that I am not opposed to a House business committee; I am supportive of it, but we need to get it right. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is examining the issue right now. I do not feel in the least bit—

I do not in the least feel under any kind of duress in respect of the allocation of time. I just need to remind Members from time to time that the House has resolved that a substantial part of its time—something approaching half the total number of sitting days—is made available to the Backbench Business Committee, to the Opposition, to the Liaison Committee—[Interruption.] We have to secure the business of government. From my point of view, it is absolutely transparent that a House business committee should add value to the measures that have made progress in this Parliament in giving Back Benchers access to parliamentary time, rather than detracting from them.

In connection with this question, I remind the House that my daughter is a practising medical student.

Final-year medical students face uncertainty this week over their foundation programme jobs because of application scoring errors in the new SJT—situational judgment test. This week, more than 7,000 final-year medical students who were initially delighted to receive their foundation school allocations may be concerned that those allocated jobs are now at risk. Students were informed of this by e-mail at 6.30 on Tuesday, with no apology for the error, causing some distress and anxiety. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Leader of the House request a statement from the Secretary of State?

The UK Foundation Programme Office is working urgently to resolve these problems so that there is minimum disruption to doctors and the affected hospitals, and to ensure that everyone is notified as quickly as possible about their placements for August. The error should not have happened and we are concerned about the anxiety that this has caused to students. I reiterate—and I recall making this clear when I was the Secretary of State for Health—that all eligible graduates of a UK medical school will receive a training place for August 2013.

Last Thursday I was given a guided tour of the new Visions Learning Trust university technical college at Victoria Mill in Burnley by Martin Gallagher, the college principal, and Steve Gray, the chief executive of Training 2000. The multi-million-pound college, which will open in August this year and will admit students aged between 14 and 19, is designed to appeal directly to the more vocationally minded, and is exactly what large Pendle employers such as Rolls-Royce, Weston EU and Graham Engineering said that our area needed. May we have a debate on university technical colleges, and the fantastic opportunity that they provide for young people to gain access to an education linked directly to the skills and knowledge that our local employers say that they desperately need?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I should like to say that we could find time for a debate soon, but we may not be able to do so, although I am sure that the issues that he has raised would be relevant to questions to the Secretaries of State for Education and for Business, Innovation and Skills.

My hon. Friend’s question had a certain resonance for me, because only last Friday I was standing on the site in Cambridge where a university technical college is to be established. It will focus on the provision of technical training for young people who will work in life sciences around Cambridge. The crucial aspect of such education is that it is directed to the needs of employers in an area, and enables young people to feel confident that the training they receive will enable them to find jobs quickly.