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Business of the House

Volume 568: debated on Thursday 17 October 2013

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 21 October—A general debate on the future of the BBC, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the state of natural capital in England and Wales. The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 22 October—Second Reading of the Immigration Bill, followed by a debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Wednesday 23 October—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, followed by a debate on air passenger duty. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Thursday 24 October—A debate on a motion relating to the Financial Conduct Authority’s redress scheme for the mis-selling of interest rate swap derivatives, followed by a general debate on aviation strategy. The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 25 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 October will include the following:

Monday 28 October—Second Reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 29 October—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to reform of Eurojust and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Wednesday 30 October—Opposition Day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject to be announced.

Thursday 31 October—Remaining stages of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.

Friday 1 November—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that the autumn statement will be made on Wednesday 4 December, and that the business in Westminster Hall on 24 October will be a debate on planning, housing supply and the countryside.

I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I also send my best wishes to the Leader of the House as he recuperates from his minor operation.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who yesterday won the election to become Deputy Speaker. I hope that she will not mind my saying that it is unusual to see a Scottish Tory being elected. I am sure that I speak for many Labour Members when I say that it has certainly been an experience to be on the receiving end of the vote-gathering techniques of the Conservative party. We enjoyed welcoming all the candidates to a parliamentary Labour party hustings, and I am pleased to say that we managed to resist the temptation to set them a bushtucker trial.

Last week, I asked where the Offender Rehabilitation Bill (Lords) had disappeared to. I note that it is still missing. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm my suspicion that the Government are deliberately holding up the Bill so that they can privatise the probation service before they bring the Bill back to the House of Commons?

When the Government announced new plans for the funding of social care, they claimed that no elderly person would be forced to sell his or her home to pay for it. At the Tory party conference, the Health Secretary was at it again, promising

“for those who need residential care…We’ll stop them ever having to sell the home they have worked hard for all their life to pay for the cost of it.”

However, during the debate on the Care Bill in the other place, those grand ministerial claims have been exposed as empty PR posturing, and the truth has finally emerged: older people will be helped only if they have less than £23,000 in the bank. Given the huge disparity between the Health Secretary’s claims and the modest reality, will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to be made?

It is a rare treat to face the Deputy Leader across the Dispatch Box. I often wonder what he is thinking when he is sitting next to the Leader of the House on Thursday mornings. I suppose that we are going to find out today. I am sure the Deputy Leader is aware, however, that for 39 of the 40 months for which the Government have been in power, prices have risen faster than wages. Labour’s promise to freeze energy bills until 2017 would be of real benefit to those who are struggling. What is the Government’s policy? The Tories want to scrap energy efficiency measures for the poorest in order to reduce bills, but the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that that would put prices up. What does the Deputy Leader think? We have heard only this morning that British Gas is going to increase its prices by nearly 10%. Is the Deputy Leader proud that the Government are arguing among themselves while the cost of living squeeze just gets worse? Would it not be easier to freeze energy bills?

Yesterday the Prime Minister could not clear up the confusion over his own policy on marriage tax breaks, which will benefit only one third of couples. The Deputy Prime Minister has made his opposition clear. So when this policy eventually comes to the House, will the Deputy Leader of the House and his party be voting against it, or will this just be another example of the Liberal Democrats saying one thing and doing another?

The Deputy Leader of the House will remember that before the last election he signed the National Union of Students pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. I am sure he also remembers that just months after the election he was voting to treble them. I noted this week with interest that the Deputy Prime Minister has made another Lib Dem pledge on tuition fees: he has promised not to increase them to £16,000 a year. Will the Deputy Leader be signing up to that one, too, or has he learned his lesson? I am sure nothing will worry the hundreds of thousands of young people considering going to university more than another promise from the Liberal Democrats on tuition fees.

I understand that the Deputy Leader is heavily involved in his local save St Helier hospital campaign. In fact, he is so involved that the phone number and address on the campaign website is that of his own constituency office. To clear up any confusion, can the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that he is actually a part of the Government who are closing the hospital? Is there not a pattern of behaviour here: the Deputy Leader is campaigning against himself on St Helier, the Deputy Prime Minister is campaigning against himself on library closures forced by Government cuts in Sheffield, and now they are ready to sign up to a new pledge on tuition fees? The more they protest, the more we see right through them: you can’t trust the Liberal Democrats.

May I start by thanking the shadow Leader of the House for her kind words, which I will pass on to the Leader of the House, who is recovering well? I am grateful to her for those remarks. I also echo her comments about the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who not only is a Scottish Tory who got elected, but who did so under the single transferable vote, which is clearly very welcome, too.

On the issue of the funding of social care, I am sure the hon. Lady will be aware that no decision has been taken on that, and the consultation is still open and if Members want to make a submission, they have until 25 October to do so.

We have just had a full hour of Department of Energy and Climate Change questions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did a very good job of explaining why Labour’s policy of freezing energy prices is a con. In case the hon. Lady was not here to hear that, it is because prices will go up both before and after the freeze, and the Leader of the Opposition has indicated that if things changed globally during the freeze, he would not be in a position to hold prices down. That is why we do not support Labour’s position, but what the Government have done is maintain winter fuel payments, worth £300, cold weather payments of £25, and the warm home discount, which is worth £135. Indeed, more generally in relation to cost of living issues, under this Government 25 million basic rate taxpayers will be £700 better off next year, and 3 million people have been taken out of income tax entirely.

The hon. Lady mentioned the save St Helier hospital campaign. I thank her for promoting that and, of course, I am fully behind that campaign. It seems as though she is chiding me for running a campaign in support of my local hospital, something I will make sure Labour-inclined voters are aware of, but the important thing about the save St Helier campaign is that the review that has taken place was not conducted by politicians, but the proposals came from a team of clinicians and, on that team, St Helier hospital was under-represented, which is why we are campaigning against this. I am very pleased to be able to conclude my remarks on the subject of save St Helier hospital, because that is a campaign I intend to win.

Last week, the all-party group on excellence in the built environment, which I chair, published its report on the Government’s green deal for the domestic residential market. I was delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is responsible for planning, attended the launch. May we have a debate on this issue, so that the Government can bring us all up to date on the progress they are making on the green deal and how better insulation in homes will help to reduce the number of families and individuals living in fuel poverty?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was able to be here for Energy questions earlier, but energy efficiency and the green deal came up then. Let me detail some of the specific things that the Government have done. In October 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change offered English local authorities the opportunity to bid for funding to reduce the extent of fuel poverty, and £31 million is now going into 60 projects involving just under 170 local authorities. Of course, we have the Warm Front scheme—it was closed in January for new applications but we are still processing others and measures are being taken on the back of that. In response to the shadow Leader of the House, I also set out the measures we are taking to support people who are in fuel poverty or are struggling to pay their bills with a range of initiatives, including the warm home discount, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the debate next Wednesday on the fate of the Arctic Sunrise crew, who are still being held captive in Murmansk. It is nearly a month since the Russian authorities hijacked the boat and unlawfully detained and arrested the crew, including six Britons, three of whom are from Devon. They have now been charged with the ludicrous charge of piracy. May we have an urgent statement from a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister on what the British Government are doing to secure their release?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which raises a significant issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister responded to it yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, because one of his constituents is also affected. The British Government have rightly made representations, and I want to see those people released as soon as possible.

Following its recent survey of businesses, the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce stated that

“the economic recovery in the Humber region is gathering pace”.

Constituencies such as mine contain a large proportion of low-income and middle-income households, and we need to ensure that they are the first to benefit from the recovery. Will the Deputy Leader of the House find time for a debate when these issues may be fully aired?

Clearly, we want to ensure that those on low incomes and middle incomes benefit first from the recovery, and that is exactly what is happening in the tax measures we are introducing. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is detecting good news economically in his constituency. Some 1.4 million more people are in work today in the private sector than there were at the time of the general election. On a whole number of indicators things are moving in the right direction. There should be no room for complacency, but we are beginning to see very positive indicators in the economy generally.

May we have an urgent debate on the ever-increasing cost of in-work benefits, given that it would appear that the taxpayer is having to subsidise employees of companies that are earning millions of pounds in profits? It is not about time that they paid decent wages and cut the welfare bill?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that where employers are in a position to pay the living wage, they should do so, but that should not be at the expense of jobs. So he makes a valid point, but how employers address that is a decision for them.

There is a great deal of concern about the protection of vulnerable children, so may we have a debate on how child protection services in Somerset, which were adjudged to be outstanding just five years ago, were last year judged to be inadequate, with Ofsted saying this year that there has been no improvement? Does it not show an astonishing failure of political leadership and management that Somerset county council, which does not face overwhelming demands on its social services, is now considered to be among the 17 worst local authorities in the country at protecting our children?

May I say what a pleasure it is to respond to a question from my hon. Friend, who did such a good job as Deputy Leader of the House before me? The Government take any failure to deliver adequate children’s social care services very seriously. I recognise the challenges that local authorities can face in delivering strong child protection services, but it is right that Ofsted should identify weaknesses clearly and set out the areas where improvement is needed. I can assure him that Ministers are acting robustly to ensure that failure is turned around quickly and sustainably. In Somerset, that process has happened. Department for Education officials have met senior representatives from Somerset council and Ministers intend to issue the council with a notice to improve. Clearly, my hon. Friend’s strong concerns are now on the record, too.

The earnings limit for carers allowance was last increased in April 2010. Carers in my Bridgend constituency tell me that if they work more than 16 hours on the national minimum wage, they will lose their carers allowance. Carers are critical to our economy; they provide a vital service and support to vulnerable people. Is it not wrong that they should be punished in this way? May we have a debate on how we can support carers and ensure that changes to the benefit system do not leave them worse off?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question, because it gives me an opportunity to reinforce her point about the excellent work that carers do, which is acknowledged on both sides of the House. She has raised a specific issue about the earnings limit and I will ensure that her concerns are passed on to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.

May we have a debate on the effect that decisions taken by one Government agency have on other Government Departments and on the public purse? Training for Travel in my constituency, which provides training for the travel industry, was days away from transferring its training providing business to another provider when the Skills Funding Agency told it that it was cancelling its training contract. The result is that that company is likely to fold, resulting in hundreds of thousands of pounds having to be paid out by other Government Departments in statutory redundancy and the like.

The issue my hon. Friend raises is quite complex and I have a significantly complex reply that I could give him, but in the circumstances I think it would be better for me to ensure that he is written to. He might also want to raise the matter in Business, Innovation and Skills questions next week, if that is appropriate.

May we have a debate or a statement about the regulations governing major retail developments in local areas? Late last night, I was contacted by residents on Melton road who were complaining bitterly about Sainsbury’s, which is trying to put up a huge store on the junction of Melton road and Troon way. The work goes on throughout the night. We are trying to make Leicester into the city of culture; Sainsbury’s is trying to make Leicester into the city of roadworks.

There might be an opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the subject at Communities and Local Government questions on Monday and we will have a debate on Thursday on planning, housing supply and the countryside, and he might be able to raise the issue as part of the planning aspect.

May we have a debate on restoring public trust in the police? Is it not the case that David Shaw, the chief constable of West Mercia police, should take immediate and appropriate action against the officer implicated in lying against my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am sure that he will have heard the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister state their position. The behaviour was unacceptable and action would be appropriate, but clearly that is something for the Crown Prosecution Service and others to consider, rather than Ministers.

Has the Deputy Leader of the House seen this week’s article in The Economist, which referred to towns such as Hartlepool, Hull, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton as “rustbelt Britain” and urged the Government to ignore and abandon them? May we have a debate on the issue so that we can reject that ridiculous notion and highlight the promise and potential of my area, or would such a debate merely confirm that the Government have already abandoned areas such as Hartlepool?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter on which there is agreement. No one wants to abandon any towns or cities, and that is why the Government have invested as heavily as we have in the regional growth fund to ensure that jobs in the private sector are there. We want to work constructively with him on that issue.

May we have a debate on the factors that lead to business investment and job creation? Honeytop Speciality Foods in my constituency has already exported naan bread to India. It is creating 200 extra jobs this month, and it has turned Dunstable into the crumpet capital of the United Kingdom. But it gets even better. I have now learned of an extra £22 million investment to produce the fastest burger bun plant in the whole of Europe. Is it not critical that we have this type of investment across the whole of the United Kingdom?

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised the same issue last week. He will remember that the Leader of the House promised to go and sample a crumpet if he was in his constituency. Last night I was at a planning meeting at my local authority to support strong local opposition to the opening of a fast-food restaurant, so it would be hypocritical of me to offer to come and eat a burger with the hon. Gentleman. However, he has put on record the fact that substantial, welcome investment is going into his constituency, which I am sure will create lots of jobs, building on what the Government have already achieved—the 1.4 million jobs that we have helped to create in the private sector.

The prison population is approaching record highs and the numbers of prison staff are approaching record lows, and that is causing prison staff up and down the country to have great health and safety concerns. The situation has been described as a powder keg. May we have a debate on how we approach safety and health for prison staff before we as politicians suffer greatly as a result of a tragic incident that is waiting to happen in the Prison Service?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on drawing attention to that. Clearly, we all want our prisons to be safe environments both for prison staff and for prisoners. He has made a specific request about staffing levels and the impact on health and safety, and I will ensure that a written response is sent to him.

Far too often, constituents of mine end up in destitution when their claim for employment and support allowance ends. Whereas they qualify for jobseeker’s allowance or income support, such a claim is not put in place. Will the Government introduce a motion to authorise the Department of Work and Pensions to institute automatically a claim in appropriate circumstances while the legislative environment is resolved?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He said something on which we can achieve consensus, which is that no one should be left destitute. If there is an appropriate way of ensuring the transition to which he referred, I am sure that DWP will seek to find it.

May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take time this week to read the article that I published in The House magazine this week about how we treat the people who work in this Parliament of ours? Most of our constituents and certainly mine in Huddersfield believe that this place should be a beacon of good treatment of people at work. Zero-hours contracts, no contracts and short-term contracts dominate this House now and it is about time we put our shop right. Let us lead; let us be a beacon. Let us treat our staff well.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to speak in the Opposition day debate on that very subject yesterday. If he did, he will have heard the Minister’s response. I agree with him that we should be an exemplar in terms of how we treat people who work in this place. I will endeavour in the next few hours to track down a copy of The House magazine so that I can read his article.

Over the past five years QinetiQ in Boscombe Down in my constituency has doubled the number of new graduate trainees and apprentices that it employs. It has also set up the 5% campaign to challenge other companies to aim for 5% of their work force being drawn from apprentices and new graduate trainees. Will the Deputy Leader of the House make time for a statement on how the Government can encourage this worthwhile campaign?

My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the importance of employers taking on graduates and apprentices. He will be aware that we have created a million extra apprenticeships, which is beginning to have a real effect. I am sure that in the contacts that both he and I have with employers, they underline how much added value apprentices bring to their company. So he has helped publicise this today, and I am sure that all Members will want to do so in the contacts that they have with employers.

The Deputy Leader of the House said that he was in the Chamber for Energy questions. He will have heard me tell the House that Grangemouth oil refinery and chemicals is shut down until further notice. It is not only the first time that there has been a full, cold shutdown of that plant, which represents 10% of the Scottish economy, in the 21 years that I have represented the town, but it is the first time since I first worked there as a student in 1967. The replies from the Energy Minister were all about securing supply and everyone getting supplies. May we have a statement from the Business Secretary and a debate in the Chamber about the fact that planning clearly went into this so that the company, which is owned by one man and two others but mainly by one man, who may be the equivalent of a Russian oligarch and may have been involved in collusion with this Government to store up supplies so that he could take on the work force and break them because he wants to take £50 million out of the terms and conditions of employment of the people on that site, so we need a debate on collusion—

Order. The hon. Gentleman probably should seek an Adjournment debate on the matter in order fully to give vent to his multiple concerns on the issue. Business questions is an occasion when a brief request for a debate is made.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has put on record his concerns for a second time. I will not repeat some of the language that he used, but clearly from the Government’s perspective we would encourage the employers and the unions to work together to ensure that the matter is resolved. If he feels as strongly about the issue as he clearly does, there will be an opportunity for him to raise it again next Thursday during questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

The editor of The Guardian recently boasted online that he was “taking precautions” to prevent UK security services from having access to the files of vital national security information that he had sent outwith the remit of the UK courts to The New York Times. Security sources are still trying to decrypt these files, which The Independent described as “highly detailed” and a “threat to national security”. May we have a statement to reassure the House that The Guardian will be asked for a decryption key and if none is forthcoming, action will be taken?

The hon. Gentleman has been successful in securing a debate on Tuesday next week, when I am sure he will get a much more detailed response to his concerns than I am able to give him. Clearly, he is right that intelligence leaks are causing serious damage to the UK’s national security. The Government have a duty to protect national security and should make it clear to media organisations that publishing highly classified material damages our ability to protect this country. Journalists are not in a position to make national security assessments on what should or should not be published. As he will be aware, however, it is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a crime has been committed and what action should be taken as a result. As I said, he will have an opportunity on Tuesday to raise these matters in detail.

In view of what we have just heard and what was said by the Prime Minister yesterday, by the Home Secretary before the Home Affairs Committee and by the head of MI5, is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that many of us believe that what is happening at present are threats and smears against The Guardian for publishing details, which is not in any way a threat to the security of our country, but information which the public have a right to know? As the Liberal Democrats are supposed to be ardent defenders of our civil liberties, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind that it would be useful to have an overall debate on intelligence and security matters and not just leave it to the Committee which meets in private session.

I will not restate what I have said, but the Government clearly have a duty to protect our national security. If a newspaper—whichever one—is in the business of publishing information that damages our national security or circulating information that has the potential to do so, the Government are required to respond. If that newspaper publishes information on certain matters that have no relevance to national security, clearly we want them to be able to do so.

In the next few days we will hear an announcement on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is obviously vital to UK plc. The Government will no doubt make a statement to that effect, which will be welcome, but may we have a debate in the Chamber to consider it more closely, because of the importance to skills and inward investment and what it will mean for UK plc over the next 100 years?

The hon. Gentleman is right to expect a statement on the matter very soon, and it would be appropriate for him to take that opportunity to make his point and to listen to the responses to all the other questions that will be asked.

May we have a statement on the Government’s support for traditional music, as this year Wingates brass band is celebrating its 140th anniversary? On 26 October it will hold a concert at which two new specially written pieces will be introduced, as well as the launch of “From Bible Class to World Class”, a book about its history. Will the Deputy Leader of the House join me in congratulating Wingates brass band on that fantastic achievement?

I join the hon. Lady in congratulating that musical ensemble. I am afraid that my briefing pack, although extensive, did not run to traditional music, but she has put the matter on the record and I am sure that in future all Members will want to know more about that important subject.

The Commission on Human Medicines has today recommended that schools should be permitted to keep an asthma inhaler for general use for when children who do not have recourse to their own inhaler suffer an attack, which Members will be shocked to learn is currently against the regulations. May we please have a debate on support for children in our schools who suffer from chronic conditions such as asthma?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on campaigning on the matter. The Government are grateful to the Commission on Human Medicines for its recommendation and intend to act on it. We will consult on changing the regulations to allow schools, if they so wish, to hold a spare asthma inhaler for emergencies and to develop appropriate protocols for their staff to ensure its safe and proper use. She will have opportunities on Monday, during Communities and Local Government questions, and on Tuesday, during Health questions, to raise the matter of schools and health.

We already know that accident and emergency departments in the north-east are to receive no extra funding this winter, but this week we learnt that the South Tees clinical commissioning group’s per-head funding is to be cut significantly, alongside other north-east CCGs. Following that, Monitor indicated that it will be investigating South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for a persistent failure to meet targets on waiting times, and on clostridium difficile and for a rise in never events. May we have a debate in the House in Government time about NHS funding for the north-east?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I do not have the specific figures about north-east funding in front of me, but he will be aware that the Government have committed an extra £12.7 billion to the NHS, in contrast with Opposition Front Benchers, who I think described that proposal as “irresponsible”. The level of funding going into the NHS is very significant. On A and E and NHS waiting times, average waiting times remain low and stable. The number of patients who have been waiting longer than 52 weeks is 352—clearly that is 352 too many—but that compares with a total of 18,458 at the end of May 2010, when his party left power.

Ellen, a year 11 student from my part of Somerset, wrote to me about the cancellation of her GCSE maths exam in November, having heard about it not through her school nor through Parliament but through the Sunday papers. May we have a debate to consider the method of communicating such changes, which Ellen says causes confusion, distress, upset and anger, and to see whether it would be preferable and more sensible for changes to apply only to students who started studying for their exams last month rather than making dramatic changes for those like Ellen who, since 2009, had planned her work with her teachers for an exam next month?

I do not know whether my hon. Friend was able to be in the Chamber on Monday when the Minister for Schools made a statement about standards; she may find that pertinent to the issue. She has raised a specific point about which I will ensure that the Department for Education writes to her.

My constituents continue to suffer from cold calling by claims management companies. Will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Justice to make a statement to this House on the performance of his Department in regulating those companies, including looking at whether to transfer that responsibility to the Financial Conduct Authority?

I am sure that every Member in the Chamber has sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point. These calls are persistent and an irritant, and we need to ensure that, as far as possible, the matter is addressed. He asked for the Secretary of State for Justice to respond to the issue. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of his concerns and writes to him about the matter.

I am sure that we are all hoping our local authorities will be getting in the appropriate levels of salt and sand to ensure that we have, as far as possible, an accident-free winter. The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that the Department for Transport continues to liaise with local and national partners to improve winter resilience so that this country enters the forthcoming winter season well prepared. A national strategic salt reserve of no less than 425,000 tonnes is going to be brought to bear on this issue. If he wanted to raise specific issues about local authorities, he could do so on Monday at Communities and Local Government questions.

Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 589, which deals with lower taxes for lower earners?

[That this House welcomes the Government taking 2.2 million people out of income tax so far by increasing the personal allowance threshold; further welcomes the Government raising the income tax threshold even further to £10,000 in 2015; notes that the Government is committed to helping the low paid with the cost of living by lowering taxes so that they can keep more of their own money; further notes that the National Insurance threshold remains at £7,748; and therefore urges the Government to examine the possibilities of increasing the threshold for National Insurance in the long term to help low earners with the cost of living.]

My right hon. Friend mentioned earlier the fact that our Conservative Chancellor has cut taxes for 20 million lower earners in our country. May we have a debate on whether we can help lower earners still further by raising the threshold for national insurance?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a doughty campaigner on many issues and has had great success with some of them. I am pleased that the issues he mentions are very much on the Government’s agenda. Once we have hit the threshold to allow people to earn £10,000 before they pay any income tax, the Liberal Democrats would like to push the matter further, and the Government as a whole might like to do so as well. He raises the specific issue of national insurance contributions, and I am sure that he would support the Government’s initiative to reduce those in relation to employers. I can assure him that I have just read his early-day motion, and fantastic it is too.

The Deputy Leader of the House is demonstrating that he could be Leader of the House by filling in for him today. Could this be extended so that other deputies could take over for a day? Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister could take over for a day; may I suggest 1 April?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. It was all going so well until the last phrase. In fact, I misheard it so I will just stick with the first part. I think it is entirely appropriate for deputies to take over on the occasions when they are required to do so. I was rather expecting my shadow, the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), to take over for today as well; I am not quite sure what happened there.

Today is international credit union day and the Bishop of Stafford is opening in a Stafford department store a branch of the Staffordshire credit union, with which I have an account. Could we have a debate on how credit unions can provide viable and excellent competition against payday lenders and other forms of credit on the high street?

The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Perhaps I should declare an interest as a member of the Croydon, Sutton and Merton credit union. Clearly, there is real potential for credit unions to enter the market and provide people with loans at low rates of interest and to make a sustainable contribution. I am sure that Members of all parties are interested in the subject of credit unions, so the hon. Gentleman may want to consider making representations to the Backbench Business Committee through an all-party delegation.

Data published yesterday show that my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency is one of the top three in the country for falling unemployment, with particularly encouraging falls of more than 40% year on year for both long-term unemployment and 18 to 24-year-old claimants. Could we have a debate on job creation, in order to explore not just that positive news, but how we can accelerate growth and ensure that it is spread around the country?

I would welcome such a debate. I am pleased for the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that there has been a significant drop in unemployment in his constituency, which is something that is being replicated to a greater or lesser extent around the whole country. Employment is up, unemployment is down and youth unemployment is slightly down. Clearly, there are still many issues that we need to address and the debate suggested by the hon. Gentleman might give the Government the opportunity to focus on youth unemployment, on which we could make even more progress.

For some time I have been in correspondence with the Foreign Office on the unacceptable and illegal discrimination faced by UK and other foreign national lecturers in Italy. Despite repeated attempts to get the European Commission to act and intervene, no action has been taken and the Commission is now looking to close the file. Could we therefore have an important debate on this clear and systemic breach by Italy of the free movement of workers within the European Union, and its discrimination against them, and the failings of the European Commission to act on it?

The hon. Gentleman is right. This is a serious issue and it is the Government’s view that the discrimination faced by UK and foreign national lecturers in Italy is not only unacceptable, but illegal. We have been pressing the Italian authorities to find a solution and the hon. Gentleman may be aware that the Minister for Universities and Science met the Italian Education Minister on 5 October and raised the problems faced by foreign lecturers working in Italy. He received assurances that the Italians are actively looking into a solution over the next year.

May we have a debate on what I think is the case that someone from my constituency of Beckenham who happens to be a Scotsman and wants to go to university in Scotland has to pay tuition fees, whereas someone who lives in Scotland who happens to be an Englishman does not and someone who comes from France, Germany, Italy or Spain does not, either? It seems extraordinary.

The hon. Gentleman is right. He will be aware that higher education is a devolved matter for Scotland and that under EU law member states cannot discriminate on grounds of nationality against people from other member states in the conditions of access to vocational training, which includes higher education. Where certain residency and nationality conditions are met, EU nationals and their family members will qualify for home fee status and will therefore be treated the same with regard to tuition fees as UK nationals who also satisfy the residency conditions.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), I welcome the drop in unemployment in my constituency of Mid Derbyshire. I visited the local A4e last week, which is very successful at getting more than 100 long-term unemployed people a month into employment, but I was told that its biggest problem related to those with mental illness. May we have a debate on how we can further help people with mental illness who are long-term unemployed?

The hon. Lady is right that organisations that are seeking to address long-term unemployment are coming across people with substantial challenges such as mental health issues and drug or alcohol addiction. The Government are committed to assisting them through various work programmes. She has made a pertinent point that requires a written response. She may be interested to know that I am meeting Rethink Mental Illness later today to talk about the sorts of issues that she has raised.

A few months ago, the Secretary of State for Health rightly made a statement to announce the suspension of the Safe and Sustainable review into children’s heart surgery after the Independent Reconfiguration Panel found that it had been flawed and biased. It seems that the same thing may be happening again. May we have another statement on the composition of the clinical reference group because three of its four members established a position in 2010 on what should happen? One of them, Anne Keatley-Clarke, the chief executive of the Children’s Heart Federation, has behaved in a thoroughly unprofessional manner. The Independent Reconfiguration Panel described her charity’s role as

“a source of unhelpful divisiveness”.

May we have a statement so that we can discover why a supposedly neutral body is being set up in such a biased way?

I am afraid that I cannot guarantee my hon. Friend a statement, but I can offer him the opportunity to raise the matter at Health questions on Tuesday. He has made serious allegations about the composition of the clinical reference group and it would be appropriate for the Secretary of State for Health to respond.

Principled employment agencies throughout the United Kingdom are suffering and some are closing because of the practices of unprincipled employment agencies, which exploit staff by underpaying them and incorporating expenses into their remuneration, thereby undercutting the principled agencies that pay people properly. May we have a debate on how the rules could be changed to stop that unfair practice?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to that issue, of which I was not aware. I am sure that she will pursue the matter at Business, Innovation and Skills questions next Thursday. It might be possible for me to secure a response for her in the interim.

As the Deputy Leader of the House knows, the Government are planning to introduce a hybrid Bill into the House before the end of the year on the vexed subject of High Speed 2. It will be accompanied by an environmental statement that contains more than 50,000 pages of information. On the day on which it is laid, the Government’s consultation period will commence. It is rumoured that it will be only eight weeks long and will take place over the Christmas period. Will he grant a debate on the efficiency and effectiveness of the consultation periods that are being allowed by the Government, to ensure in particular that my constituents and other people who will be affected along the line have a decent time to reply to what will be one of the largest environmental statements in history?

Again, I am not in a position to guarantee such a debate. However, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill will be debated in this place on Thursday 31 October and she may have an opportunity to raise those issues during that debate. She will also be aware that there have been many legal challenges to what the Government are doing on this issue, but that overwhelmingly the Government have been successful in overturning them.