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Business of the House

Volume 570: debated on Thursday 7 November 2013

10.35 am

The business for next week will be:

Monday 11 November—Second Reading of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords], followed by a debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the regulation of new psychoactive substances.

Tuesday 12 November—Opposition day [11th allotted day]. There will be a full day’s debate entitled “Abolition of the Bedroom Tax”. The debate will arise on an Opposition motion.

I would like to remind colleagues that this year Parliament week will run from 15 to 21 November. The week will launch with the annual sitting in this Chamber of the UK Youth Parliament on Friday 15 November.

The business for the week commencing 18 November will be:

Monday 18 November—Remaining stages of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, followed by a motion to approve a carry-over extension on the Energy Bill, followed by a general debate on police procedures in dealing with mental health issues. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 19 November—Opposition day [12th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Wednesday 20 November—Remaining stages of the Defence Reform Bill.

Thursday 21 November—A debate on a motion relating to the finances of the House of Commons, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the implementation of new legislation on stalking. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 22 November—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 21 November, 5 and 12 December will be:

Thursday 21 November—Debate on the first report of the Committees on Arms Export Controls on the scrutiny of arms exports and arms control.

Thursday 5 December—Debate on the second report of the Education Select Committee on the role of school governing bodies, followed by a debate on the third report of the Education Select Committee on school sport following London 2012.

Thursday 12 December—Debate on the first report of the International Development Select Committee on global food security, followed by a debate on the second report of the International Development Select Committee on violence against women and girls.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I am looking forward to attending the sitting of the Youth Parliament next week. May I take this opportunity to remember the sacrifice of our armed forces as we approach Remembrance Sunday? We all wear our poppies with pride.

This morning, the Public Accounts Committee has published a devastating report on the Government’s flagship benefit reform, citing a shocking failure to manage it and predicting that the Department for Work and Pensions will have to write off a substantial part of the £425 million it has already spent. It seems that the blame game for this costly fiasco has already started. This morning we learn of a wholly improper attempt to lean on members of an independent Select Committee of this House by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and his parliamentary team to try to put the blame on the permanent secretary. Can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about these very serious allegations?

While the majority face a cost of living crisis, it has been reported in the Daily Mirror today that the Prime Minister has cut his own household bills by nearly £400 a year while refusing to support our motion yesterday for an energy price freeze for everyone else. That tells us everything about who he is standing up for. Will the Leader of the House now confirm how much less the Prime Minister is paying on his home as a result of the top-rate tax cut?

In evidence to the Health Select Committee, the chief executive of NHS England said that the NHS was becoming

“bogged down in a morass of competition law”,

following the Government’s botched, £3 billion top-down reorganisation. Given that the Leader of the House had his fingerprints all over that one, does he agree with that analysis?

The Leader of the House must also have felt a sense of déjà vu as he was forced into a humiliating climb-down on the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill in the Lords this week. Perhaps he is trying to patent a new way of doing Bills. First Reading—outcry; Second Reading—lose the argument but stubbornly refuse to listen; go to the Lords—hit the emergency pause button and say that he will do all the things he should have done before he published the Bill in the first place. This is just like what happened on the Health and Social Care Bill. Everyone who will be affected by the lobbying Bill opposes it. Just like on the health Bill, he cannot make the case for his proposals because there is no case for them; and just like on the health Bill, he is disguising his true intentions because he knows he has no public support. Will the Leader of the House tell us how he intends to use the next six weeks to “listen, pause and reflect” on the lobbying Bill, and will he commit now to making the substantial changes that this sinister gagging Bill needs? Better still, why does he not just scrap it and start again?

We all know that the Prime Minister does not seem to like answering questions from the Opposition very much during his Wednesday outings. Yesterday, he told three of my hon. Friends that he did not have the answers to hand. He did not know the total number of people in the country on zero-hours contacts; he did not know how many of his so-called new private sector jobs involved zero-hours contracts; and he decided that the appropriate way to respond to a question about the rights of pregnant women not to be sacked was to have a cheap shot at trade union general secretaries. Is it not time we renamed Prime Minister’s questions “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue”?

This week, the Government were forced by the courts to keep the independent living fund up and running, and they lost yet another vote in the other place on the Energy Bill, despite stuffing the Chamber with their friends. They have also now lost two terror suspects: one escaped in a black cab, the other dressed as a woman. And on Monday, the Communities Secretary welcomed a report that called for sheep and cows to replace council lawnmowers. I know that I call this Government Orwellian, but I was not suggesting a production of “Animal Farm”.

Last week, we discovered that there had been a 50% rise in the number of special advisers, despite the coalition agreement promising to cut them. We also discovered that the Deputy Prime Minister had 19 special advisers, costing over £1 million a year. This week, despite the uproar, the Deputy Prime Minister decided that the best thing to do was to hire another one, to do his PR. We have had the famous five, and we have had the magnificent seven. Even the Messiah only had 12! What on earth does the Deputy Prime Minister need 20 for? Does the Leader of the House agree that the Deputy Prime Minister is not the Messiah—he’s a very naughty boy?

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House, and I join her in remembering the fallen, as will Members right across the House, both here and in our constituencies on Sunday. Many families will remember not only those who fell but those who have served this country, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The shadow Leader of the House made a point about universal credit. The Public Accounts Committee report deals with historical matters, and my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Work and Pensions have already taken steps to secure the safe and sound delivery of the programme on time and on budget. She also referred to certain reports, which I have seen. I have talked to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and I can tell the House that there is no need for a statement. I can tell her and the House that there is no truth—[Interruption.] I can tell the House now that there is no truth in the allegations about talking to members of the Public Accounts Committee. I talked to the Secretary of State and I can tell the House that.

I spoke to my good friend, the chief executive of NHS England, on the Committee corridor. As for

“a morass of competition law”,

I do not think that is true. We do not share the same view. As it happens, the Health and Social Care Act 2012 did not change the structure of competition law as it applies to the NHS, except in so far as it introduced a concurrent jurisdiction for Monitor, a health-related body, to exercise, as opposed to competition authorities doing so directly. The Health and Social Care Act has enabled us to deliver £5.5 billion-worth of savings in administration costs in this Parliament and to support the NHS in delivering, for example, 23,000 fewer administrators and 4,000 more clinicians.

On the transparency Bill, no pause is taking place—[Interruption.] I am telling Opposition Members what is happening. The order of consideration in the House of Lords is quite understandable, given that peers wanted the opportunity to consider in detail issues relating to part 2—part 1 and part 3 will be considered first, and part 2 will be considered later in December. That is perfectly sensible. We will engage fully. My noble Friend signalled an amendment in the House of Lords that relates to the structure of the registration thresholds. We will look at what is being proposed—if changes are proposed to part 2, we will look at them—but in the context of delivering through the transparency Bill, what we should all agree on, and this House agreed in principle, is that when third parties seek to influence the political system, whether it be through lobbying or through campaigning at election time, or when the trade unions are seeking to exert influence, it should be subject to proper transparency and accountability. Nobody is being gagged, but the transparency must be there. We must see how third parties influence the political system.

I did not draw up a complete list of all the points that the shadow Leader of the House raised—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House is quite right—I am not sure whether I should respond to jokes rather than to questions. In that context, the only other question was about zero-hours contracts—

Oh, yes—the special advisers. I think it is the same answer as last week. The coalition gives rise to particular requirements, and it is perfectly understandable that when two parties are in coalition there is a need for sources of independent advice for the Deputy Prime Minister. That is understandable and it will continue to be the case.

I am sure that the Leader of the House will have noticed the magnificent display in Parliament square of the flags of the British overseas territories and, indeed, of the Crown dependencies. Will he invite the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on an unusually helpful comment in and answer by the EU Commissioner, Michel Barnier, about the tax and financial status of Gibraltar, in which he confirmed that there were

“no ‘well founded’ complaints alleging Gibraltar’s failure to cooperate on tax, financial and money-laundering matters”?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that completely debunks the propaganda put out by the Government of Spain?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I have indeed seen those flags displayed; it is good to see them. I completely agree with my hon. Friend about the character of the complaints made about Gibraltar by the Spanish Government, and the Commissioner rightly made an important point about that. Earlier this week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe made a written statement about Gibraltar in general. In the context of working with overseas territories, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a written ministerial statement—a welcome one—about our taxation arrangements with the Cayman Islands. That is demonstration of how we are working more positively than ever before with the British overseas territories to secure an exchange of information in respect of, and action on, tax evasion and avoidance.

Later today the Intelligence and Security Committee will hold its first public session, at which the heads of the various security agencies will speak. I welcome that, because, along with others, I have advocated such a meeting for some considerable time, but no notice of it is given on today’s Order Paper. I do not blame the Clerks, because I am sure that there are parliamentary reasons for the fact that the meeting is not listed, but will it be possible for notices to be posted around the building informing people that it will take place at—I understand—2 pm, and can the Leader of the House confirm that, although it has been suggested that tickets should be obtained beforehand, there will be no restriction on Members’ attendance?

The Order Paper does not convey the information because the Intelligence and Security Committee, although under statute a Select Committee of Parliament as designated in the Act that we passed during the last Session, is not analogous with other Select Committees of the House. There are ways in which it differs from them.

The statute says that it is a Select Committee of Parliament, but it is not analogous with parliamentary Select Committees. I understand that, Mr Speaker, and you understand it, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) does not understand it.

I must confess that I am not aware of the arrangements relating to the attendance of Members of Parliament at meetings of the Intelligence and Security Committee. They are a matter for the House authorities, and no doubt you, Mr Speaker, will advise the House further if necessary.

Has my right hon. Friend noted the reports of the Justice, Home Affairs and European Scrutiny Committees on the European justice and home affairs opt-ins? Is he aware that all three reports call for a debate to be held so that the Government’s hand can be strengthened in negotiations by the House having expressed its views?

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend personally on his 40 years in the House.

I have indeed seen those reports, and, as my right hon. Friend will know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made clear our intention to enable the House to consider what the Government have proposed in relation to the opt-out and the measures in respect of which we think that it may be appropriate to opt back in, and to express its view.

The allegation in The Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been smearing a civil servant is a serious one. May we have a statement tomorrow—or a resignation?

May we have a debate about morality in the tax system, with particular reference to section 58 of the Finance Act 2008? Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is trying to collect tax retrospectively from some 2,200 people, including constituents of mine. Some of them will have to sell their homes. We really need to debate this issue and reconsider it.

If I may, I will ask Ministers in the Treasury to respond directly to my hon. Friend, although he will know that the subject was discussed during consideration of the Finance Act. We are careful to ensure that the instances in which legislation has a retrospective effect are minimised, and that when it does occur, it is subject to specific advice from the Law Officers about its appropriateness.

It is truly shocking if there is any truth in the allegation in today’s edition of The Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, or others associated with him or working for him, tried to influence the report of an independent Committee of the House. It is also of concern that, when one of the Committee members was asked to deny that he had been approached, he refused to comment. It really would be right and proper for the Secretary of State to come here and explain himself, so that we can ask him questions on behalf of the House.

Opposition Members seem to have arrived in the Chamber expecting to be able to make points without listening to the answers that I have given previously. I have had a conversation with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and there is no truth in the allegations.

May we have an early debate on local government finance? That would enable Members to reflect on the fact that, given that both sides of the House now accept the public spending limits until 2016-17, even if there is a change of Government at the next general election, there will be no more money for local government and, difficult though it may be, all local authorities are going to have to live within the funds allocated to them?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we came into government there was no money, as a message from the then departing Chief Secretary stated. We are trying to escape from the mess we inherited from the Labour party. In part, that depends on every bit of the public sector doing its bit. Local government has undeniably had to contribute substantially to the reduction in the deficit. It continues to do so, and does so very well as local authorities are achieving more for less and are delivering public satisfaction with many local government services, notwithstanding the substantial reductions. The Government are giving support to enable councils to address some areas of greatest need, such as supporting them in freezing their council tax. That is relieving the pressure on hard-working families. We are also supporting local government directly through the work that the NHS is going to do on joint funding for social care; £3.8 billion in additional support was announced in the latest spending round. Full details on the local government finance settlement will be published in due course, but we have made encouraging progress.

May we have a debate on the imminent reintroduction of the skip tax by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will lead to a 2,700% increase in the cost of emptying a skip? It will lead to an increase to customers of £175 for hiring a skip, and it will force 1,500 small businesses into bankruptcy, including Mr and Mrs Tapping of Reliable Skips in my constituency. If construction and small businesses are to be the drivers of growth, how can the skip tax be right?

If I may, I will not comment in detail on that, but I will ask my hon. Friends at the Treasury to respond to the point that the hon. Lady makes.

As a Conservative member of the Public Accounts Committee, may I begin by making it clear to Opposition Members that no pressure was exerted on any Members in respect of universal credit?

May we have a debate on technical and vocational education in Peterborough? The number of NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—is falling, the number of apprenticeships is rising and youth unemployment is dropping, but we need to drive up skills. Serendipitously, this week a very strong bid for a university technical college in Peterborough comes before Ministers. Will the Leader of the House nudge them in the right direction?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, including for his confirmation of the point I have repeatedly made now at these questions to Labour Members, who do not appear to be able to understand when they are being told a simple fact.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reference to a UTC. We have a UTC being developed in relation to skills to support the life sciences industry in Cambridge. The possibility of a UTC in Peterborough is an interesting and important opportunity. The UTCs will help us ensure that young people have the training to support economic growth in the future. In terms of the applications, I expect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to announce the successful projects in January.

On Tuesday, regulations will take effect that allow the outsourcing of provision for children in care to private companies, despite a striking lack of evidence that it is good for children. The regulations also allow for a clear conflict of interest to arise, because the same private company will be allowed to place a child into care and run that placement. This is, frankly, a disaster waiting to happen. Does the Leader of the House agree that the fact that there has been virtually no scrutiny of this measure—the Government tried to push it through under a legislative reform order before they were stopped—is an extraordinary breach of our responsibility as corporate parents to these children? Given that he is so fond of pausing legislation, will he pause these regulations so we can have an urgent debate in this House about this very important matter?

I am not sure that I heard a request for a debate as such, but I will ask the relevant Minister at the Department for Education to respond to those issues. As the hon. Lady says, the state’s responsibility as a corporate parent to children has often not been discharged as well as it ought to have been. Clearly it is important that we improve the quality of the placements that we achieve for looked-after children. The Children and Families Bill made good progress through this House, when it was the subject of extensive scrutiny, and it continues to be the subject of scrutiny in the other place, with more than six days in Committee, so that gives real opportunities for the matter to be considered.

Next week marks national export week. Many businesses in Erewash are successfully exporting their products and services around the globe, so may I ask my right hon. Friend to make time available in the House over the next few weeks in which we can support this important area of UK business?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I think that everyone in the House will recognise that we have made good progress on support. Indeed, when I was talking to a company in my constituency just last week, it described the excellent support it has received in China from UK Trade & Investment. We have had great success in increasing our exports to China, India and Brazil—some of the emerging economies —but we all recognise that we need to do more. We have some great businesses, but if we were to secure an increase in the proportion of businesses, especially small businesses, that export to some of our competitors, such as Germany, it would do an enormous amount to boost our long-term recovery.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House was able to listen to today’s “Thought for the Day” by Rev. Lucy Winkett, who spoke movingly about this week’s events in the campaign for a living wage. The fact is that a living wage is very important, especially to people living in my constituency and in London. Those working in this House need a decent level of wage in order to have a reasonable life. May we have an early debate on the work of the House of Commons Commission so that we can sort out that this place should be a beacon for good employment?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the view expressed by the Prime Minister at this Dispatch Box, and by the Mayor of London and others, about the desirability of supporting a living wage. So far as I am aware—I did discuss this with the Clerk of the House—the staff employed in this House are all in receipt of at least the London living wage.

Order. People who work in the House of Commons are indeed paid the living wage. The right hon. Gentleman, the Leader of the House, is factually—[Interruption.] Order. The Leader of the House is correct in what he said. That is the beginning and the end of it.

I am sure that the whole House was shocked by the death of the young girl who was attacked by her dog earlier this week—our thoughts must be with her family. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent review of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, because if its provisions on dangerous dogs go through, the mother of that young girl would face up to 14 years in prison, which would be a ridiculous unintended consequence of the legislation? Will he ensure that the Bill at least involves provision on intent, or that it is changed in other ways, to ensure that the mother of that young girl, who is going through enough trauma at the moment, does not face a ridiculously long prison sentence?

My hon. Friend is right to refer to the great distress and shock that people have felt as a result of those events. Many people have called for the provisions in the Bill relating to harm caused by dangerous dogs on private premises for a long time. They have been debated in this House, but the Bill continues to be considered, so I know that Members of both Houses will consider the points he makes and the application of the Bill in any individual circumstances.

Serious accusations were made in this morning’s edition of The Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions tried not only to nobble a Select Committee, but to smear a civil servant. The Leader of the House has just told the House that he has spoken to the Secretary of State, so will he tell us what the Secretary of State said in response to the accusations? Would not the best way of clearing things up be for the Secretary of State to come to the House and make a statement?

I have told the House that there is no truth in those allegations, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), a member of the Public Accounts Committee, who entirely endorsed the point that I made.

Although I welcome the Government’s plans to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, Babcock, which is responsible for refitting and refurbishing our nuclear submarines at Devonport dockyard in my constituency, faces a challenge in retaining skilled nuclear engineers. May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on how we might avoid such skill shortages?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. When I was a member of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry some 10 years ago, we were concerned about the loss of skills and expertise in this country because of the failure to proceed with any new nuclear build. I am afraid that remedying the situation has taken until now, following the coalition Government’s steps. My hon. Friend rightly makes a wider point about the availability of skills. The sector skills organisations and, in some locations, the local enterprise partnerships will be able to work with industry to focus on enabling Government support to go directly to meet those needs.

Even those who are not particular fans of football might have seen the horrific pictures last Sunday of the Spurs goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, being concussed on the pitch, but being forced to go back on and play. May we have an urgent debate as soon as possible on the dangers of concussion in sport so that we can provide a lead? A conference in Twickenham this afternoon is considering the subject in the context of rugby and The Mail on Sunday is running a big campaign. There is clear evidence that when people are forced to play again after being concussed, they can all too easily end up suffering from premature dementia.

I confess that I did not see that, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point very clearly. I am not sure whether I can promise Government time for a debate, but if he is in conversation with colleagues across the House who, quite rightly, share his concern, they could seek an Adjournment debate or Back-Bench time, perhaps in Westminster Hall, to allow those important issues to be raised.

My late and courageous constituent, Private John Brackpool of the Welsh Guards, was killed while on active duty in Afghanistan in July 2009. I understand that the Australian military offers visits to the place where loved ones fell in Afghanistan, and I would be grateful for a statement from the Defence Secretary on whether the Ministry of Defence could offer a similar scheme for British families.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Ministry of Defence is committed to giving the families of service personnel all the support it can, especially when they tragically lose a loved one on operations. The most recent loss of a soldier from 3rd Battalion The Mercian Regiment provides us with a painful reminder of the sacrifices our armed services personnel make. The Ministry of Defence is sensitive to requests from families who wish to visit the place where their sons and daughters have died while on operation in Afghanistan. However, its overriding responsibility is one of safety, both for those visiting and for our service personnel. Afghanistan, as the House will know, remains a dangerous environment, and the Ministry of Defence has a responsibility to ensure that those who are escorted are not exposed to unnecessary risk, and that doing that does not expose service personnel to additional risk.

The House’s Select Committee system has proven itself time and again to be a cornerstone of our democracy. Given today’s serious allegations in The Times that some of its impartiality and independence might have been compromised, why will the Leader of the House not allow the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the House and tell Members and the public what he has told the Leader of the House, and to reassure us that that independence will be defended at all costs?

I have informed the House of the situation, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is not justified. I have no reason to believe that the independence of the Public Accounts Committee has been compromised in any way.

I was unable to be in the Chamber for Transport questions this morning but, if I had been, I would have asked for a debate about extending the cycle routes that the Secretary of State has announced through the national parks and joining them up so that more people can use them, especially if the routes go through a world heritage site. That would bring tourism into my constituency and enable cyclists to commute into Derby on safe routes.

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that I suspect my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be familiar with and sympathetic to, given his constituency interest. I will draw the further point relating to transport to his attention, and he might like to respond to my hon. Friend.

May we have a statement about what is happening with the Chilcot inquiry? It seems like an age since it was established and took its evidence, and we learn today that there has been a further blockage in obtaining correspondence between Tony Blair and George Bush from the Cabinet Secretary. Surely the Chilcot inquiry should get everything that it requires so that we can get to the bottom of why we went into that disastrous illegal war?

I regret that I am not in a position to comment about that. I have read about this in the newspapers, but that is literally all I know about whether information is being sought by the Chilcot inquiry. I will talk to my colleagues and see whether we can update the House on the timetable although, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is not in the hands of the Government as such.

May we have a debate on geography? As I sat through Transport questions, I heard about wonderful investments in the north, the midlands and across the country, but I did not hear one word about anything west of Swindon or south of Bristol. There is a real fear that the Department for Transport does not know where the west country is. If the Secretary of State wants to assure me that he does, he can announce improvements on the A303, the electrification of the Great Western line and the re-opening of Langport and Somerton stations, and then I will be satisfied.

I did hear the Secretary of State respond to a question about Bristol, but not beyond Bristol. I am entirely familiar with the geography of the south-west, having lived in Exeter for four years. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the rail investment programme, which is not just HS2—as he said, HS2 represents just a quarter of the investment during the next Parliament. Many projects in the programme were never proceeded with under the previous Government, but will have a positive impact on many parts of the country. If there is anything in particular that my colleagues can say to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) about this matter, I will ask them to do so.

It has always struck me that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is an honourable man so, notwithstanding the assurances given by the Leader of the House, I would have thought that he would want to come to the House and deal with these matters directly.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is indeed an honourable man and a man of integrity. I am happy to confirm to the House that the allegations are not true and there is no reason for him to come to make a statement. We make statements to the House to update it on something that has happened, not something that has not happened.

On 25 October I received a parliamentary answer informing me that, out of 2,533 railway stations, only 452 had disabled access to all platforms. That is clearly inadequate in the 21st century, so would it be possible for a Minister to make a statement on when that inadequacy will be rectified, placing particular emphasis on rural areas?

There are stations in my constituency where it is difficult for people with disabilities to access all platforms to change trains, so my hon. Friend makes a good point. I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Transport to write to him as he has just missed the opportunity to raise that point during Question Time.

I can remember at least two occasions since I have been in the House when improper conduct—within and externally—in relation to Select Committees has been the subject of inquiries called for by the Leader of the House’s party. Why is he being inconsistent now? Can he not simply accept that it undermines the credibility of Select Committees for him to act as a shield for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?

I am sorry, but Opposition Members are persisting with a complete misapprehension. There is no basis for their questions; there is no need for any further statement. I have made it clear that the independence and credibility of the Public Accounts Committee is not compromised.

Given that, during the course of the Electoral Commission’s research into the excellent private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), which provides for holding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, the commission discovered that some people apparently do not even know that we are members of the EU, may we please have a debate on the effectiveness of our education system?

There are two things that I would say to my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. First, the national curriculum review has revised programmes of study to ensure that teaching is directed towards a core knowledge of citizenship, including how our society is governed. That, we hope, will help young people in the future. Secondly, and perhaps more immediately and practically, the passage of legislation that ensures that the people of this country have a referendum on our membership of the European Union will educate everybody about the character of our membership of the European Union—and, I might say, about its benefits.

Yesterday was the 10th anniversary of the Work and Pensions Secretary’s departure as leader of the Tory party. To commemorate that, may we have an urgent statement by him about the allegations repeated in The Times of pressure being applied to a parliamentary Committee of this House, and about whether this again is a resigning matter for the Secretary of State?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply I gave some moments ago—and the one before that, the one before that, and the one before that.

Has the Leader of the House seen today’s report from WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—showing that although domestic food waste has been cut by 21% since 2007, the average household still throws away the equivalent of six meals every week? May we have a debate to consider how such waste might be further reduced, and to look in particular at how the effective use of packaging could affect that?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the issue, and the report from WRAP is extremely helpful. Clearly progress has been made, but a lot more progress is possible. I am glad that Tesco, for example, recently illustrated rather powerfully the extent of food waste. The more we can reduce food waste, the more we can improve our situation in so many respects, including by reducing the amount of unnecessary packaging, by making sure that we can balance more effectively the growing and supply of food with demand for food and, hopefully, by also reducing the cost of food.

As chair of the all-party kidney group, I recently heard distressing evidence from kidney dialysis patients of their difficulties in living a full family life because of their inability both to find and to fund DAFB—dialysis away from base? May we have a debate on a statutory requirement to make available vacancies in dialysis units so that dialysis patients can go on holiday, attend weddings or visit their grandchildren, with the funding going with them to finance their treatment?

The hon. Lady might wish to seek an Adjournment debate or, perhaps with colleagues, time from the Backbench Business Committee to discuss that important issue. I imagine that kidney patients would find that very valuable. I recall that, when I was Secretary of State for Health, I was aware of the relative lack of access to dialysis here compared with in other countries. The previous Government made some progress on that and we have added to that progress since. I recall visiting dialysis units, such as in Brighton, that expressly set out to provide sufficient capacity for those working away from home and those on holiday.

Last year Warwick’s High street and Jury street were closed for 17 weeks for roadworks, causing significant disruption for local businesses and residents alike. Warwickshire county council now proposes closing the roads again in January, partly as a consequence of the failure of the previous roadworks. May we have a debate on how we can build better communications between local authorities and businesses so that local infrastructure projects are undertaken in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the local economy?

My hon. Friend does good work to raise his constituents’ concerns. Obviously that is not a matter for the Government directly, but I understand that the works proposed for January are to install a pedestrian crossing on Warwick’s High street, although no decision will be made by the council until 22 November, when the portfolio holder concerned is expected to make a final decision on whether the works will proceed. That is a matter for the local highways authority, Warwickshire county council. I know that my hon. Friend will have raised it with the council and will continue to do so, but raising it here today might help its considerations.

The Government have been celebrating a huge increase in sanctions against jobseeker’s allowance claimants. In order to have a fuller picture and to be confident that there are indeed grounds for celebration, may we have a debate on the reasons for those sanctions, the number of appeals pending and the outcomes of the appeals heard so far?

The hon. Gentleman might wish to raise those issues during Work and Pensions questions on Monday 18 November. I do not think that it is a matter of celebrating sanctions. I think it is important for us all that we focus the state’s resources on supporting those in need, whether that arises from disability or relative vulnerability, and those genuinely seeking work. It is therefore important that those who should be seeking work are genuinely doing so.

May we have a debate on how a co-director of a company can possibly meet the requirements for an application for financial support and assistance, including legal aid, when the company’s accounts are being withheld by her spouse, from whom she is separated?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I will not delve into it too far, because it seems quite an interesting and difficult point. It is a statutory requirement that a company’s accounts are made available through Companies House. If I may, I will refer her question to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Ministry of Justice, because it relates to legal aid, to see whether they can provide her with a further helpful answer.

May we have a debate on the international festival for business, which Liverpool is hosting next year on behalf of the whole UK? A debate would enable us to hear about the excellent work taking place in Liverpool, carried out by Liverpool Vision on behalf of Liverpool city council, and consider how the whole UK could benefit from the business opportunities on offer.

I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I think that the House would welcome such an opportunity, which interested Members might seek through the Backbench Business Committee. I completely agree that it would be good to have an opportunity to celebrate that, not least the new business formation and the regeneration and renaissance of businesses in and around the north-west, and in Liverpool in particular. I know from my visits to the city that it has shown admirable progress in regeneration and in new business creation, and I hope that that can be showcased for the whole country from Liverpool to the rest of the world.

Last night, Mr Speaker, you kindly hosted an event to highlight the campaign for women’s rights in Afghanistan. I was pleased to meet students there from Benton Park school in my constituency who have done considerable work in that area. Given the withdrawal of troops next year, may we have a debate on that important issue so that we can lend our support as this becomes even more urgent as the 2014 date draws nearer?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and join him in welcoming the Amnesty International event to which he refers. As it happens, my right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Warsi, the Senior Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was in Afghanistan yesterday, when she raised with Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmadi and others the need to uphold the historic gains in women’s rights since 2001. We work in partnership with the Afghan Government and others to further progress the rights of all Afghan citizens, including the equal rights of women and girls. As for a debate, it would clearly be helpful at some point, but it might be premature in advance of the presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan scheduled for April next year.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal found against the Department for Work and Pensions on the very important issue of the independent living fund. Today, serious allegations have been made about the Department’s conduct. Is it not correct and proper that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions should come to this House to be held publicly accountable to all Members on these issues and not have private conversations with the Leader of the House that are supposed to satisfy my constituents?

On the hon. Gentleman’s latter point, the purpose of the conversation was so that I could give the House the assurance that I clearly have given to it. On his first point, we were pleased that the Court of Appeal upheld the way in which we undertook our consultation on the future of the independent living fund and accepted that it had been carried out properly and fairly. By contrast, we are disappointed with some aspects of the decision. We will examine the judgment very carefully, consider its implications, and, in due course, take and announce decisions on how we intend to proceed.

We are approaching the first anniversary of the elections of police and crime commissioners. In the Humberside police area, we are fortunate to have Matthew Grove as our commissioner. He is doing an excellent job in contact with local communities in improving policing in their areas. May we have a debate in Government time to mark this important anniversary of an excellent coalition policy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Grove during the past year and hearing from him about the excellent and innovative, almost exciting, ways in which he is—

I never get excited. However, they were certainly innovative and effective. He and others are demonstrating that police reforms are working and crime is falling. The police and crime commissioners have been a mechanism by which the public can see that their priorities are being reflected directly into the priorities of policing in their area. That is welcome not only for democratic purposes but from the operational point of view.

Yesterday at the all-party group on youth affairs, the Youth Select Committee launched its report, “A Curriculum for Life”, which is the result of its inquiry into the role of the education system in supporting young people to develop life skills. Please may we have a debate on that excellent report?

I cannot promise a debate immediately, but the hon. Lady makes an important point. I hope that if she is in her place on Monday at Education questions she might have a further opportunity to highlight it to Education Ministers. I recollect that at last year’s meeting of the United Kingdom Youth Parliament in this Chamber, its members resolved to pursue the issue of a curriculum for life, so they are on exactly the page to which she refers. When the Youth Parliament is here next week, it will have an opportunity to reinforce the point, which I hope that we as a House will then have further opportunities to take up.

May we have an urgent debate on motorway congestion in West Yorkshire? For two years, my constituents have suffered from the implementation of the managed motorways scheme between Huddersfield and Leeds. Now the central barrier is being replaced, causing yet more congestion, and they cannot even use the M1 north from Wakefield to Leeds because it is now having its own managed motorway scheme implemented as well. This is a really important issue for my constituents every morning.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raised these important issues about the M62 earlier. There is inevitably some disruption during these works. He will know that the further work relating to barriers on the M62 was not able to be funded at the time when the managed motorways scheme was being introduced. That is a pity, but the work is now due to be completed in December. I can assure him that the Highways Agency will keep three lanes open to traffic during the day, limiting necessary lane closures to overnight where possible. I hope that the smart motorway works that have been undertaken will bring extra capacity and more reliable journeys for his commuters in future.

The Leader of the House has sought to assure the House that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions did not seek to influence an independent Select Committee. Given the interest in and seriousness of the allegations, I am sure that is something the Secretary of State will want to explain to the House himself. Can this be arranged and can we then have a debate on who at the Department for Work and Pensions should take the blame for the shambles of universal credit, which is affecting the lives of so many constituents, including mine, across the country?

I do not think that I sought to assure the House—I think that I have assured the House. I have made that clear. I reiterate my earlier point that the Public Accounts Committee report makes important points about the historic problems, and that is precisely why the Secretary of State and my colleagues have sought to ensure the safe and sound delivery of the programme by proceeding at a different pace for the roll-out. They and we remain committed to the achievement of universal credit on time and on budget, because the resources we provide should be directed towards supporting those who are most in need, and in the context of ensuring that it always pays to be in work.

May we have a debate on the Government’s policy on light rail? The excellent “Green light for light rail” report overturned the anti-tram policy of the previous Government but, unfortunately, Leeds is still being told that we cannot have a tram station and that we have to have a bus-based scheme, which was a decision made by the previous Government. May we have a debate on why Leeds cannot have a modern light rail scheme?

I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Transport to respond to the particular points raised by the hon. Gentleman, but he and his colleagues in Leeds may wish to secure an Adjournment debate on the issue. My constituency has a guided busway scheme that uses an old rail route. It has become very successful and is now exceeding its anticipated passenger numbers. Although there were considerable difficulties involved in establishing it, it is possible to have an effective public transport route, through a guided busway system, on an old rail corridor.

On average, for every £100 a man earns, a woman earns only £85. Today is equal pay day, the day when women in effect stop being paid due to the 14.9% gender pay gap. It is 43 years since the Equal Pay Act 1970, 100 years since the suffragette movement and 125 years since the match women’s strike, so may we please have a debate on ensuring that all women get equal pay for work of equal value?

I hope and believe that there are common values on this issue throughout the House. It is something we have legislated on and we seek to pursue it in the public sector. The evidence today suggests that we have made more progress than appears generally to be the case in the private sector. The hon. Lady will recall that equal pay day in the private sector was 27 August. We have to make progress on the issue. If an opportunity arises for a debate, not least through the Backbench Business Committee, I for one would welcome it.

May we have a full day’s debate in Government time on Britain’s rapidly increasing population? Official statistics suggest that Britain’s population will increase from 63.7 million today to 73.3 million in 2037 and that we will have to absorb another city the size of Greater London, which will put huge pressures on our public services, social cohesion, jobs and wages.

Those are interesting figures from the Office for National Statistics, although they are in the nature of a forecast, some aspects of which we can influence and some we cannot. For example, over roughly the past decade, this country’s birth rate has gone up by, I think, about 16%. There is a limit to what we can do. The increase in population is also a result of increased longevity. The combination of those two things will inevitably mean an increase in our population and we have to respond to that.

We must therefore ensure that we manage migration into this country better than has been done in the past. That is why we set ourselves the objective of bringing net migration down from a quarter of a million a year to the tens of thousands. We have made considerable progress and have reduced net migration by a third. We need to continue with that because of the simple fact that an increase in the total population creates pressure on resources.

May we have a statement on the plans for a trans-Pennine transport feasibility study, which the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced in June? That will directly affect the Longdendale area of my constituency, which is heavily congested. I first wrote to the Department for Transport at the end of June to follow up on that welcome announcement and have contacted the Department three times to seek a response. I appreciate that there have been ministerial changes, but I am eager for news. If the Department needs any assistance in formulating its response, I reiterate that I am happy to work with it, as is my Conservative neighbour, the hon. Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham), to deliver the feasibility study. Will the Leader of the House kindly pass that message on?

I will, of course, do so. It is one of my responsibilities to assist Members by ensuring that my colleagues respond to them on such issues.

I thank the Leader of the House for his fitting tribute to the brave soldier from 3rd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, the Staffords. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and fellow Mercians.

May we have a debate on the responsibility of banks for the way in which their financial products are sold by agents? My constituent, Mr Locke, was sold a product by an agent for Barclays in such a way that, without his knowledge, he was unable to claim the protection of section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 when the service was not delivered in the way that had been promised.

I will talk to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Treasury about securing a response on that matter. The work of the Financial Conduct Authority will enable some of those issues to be pursued. The Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill is being considered in another place. When it returns to this House, I hope that the measures will be further strengthened to protect consumers in the way that my hon. Friend describes.

A survey of businesses in my constituency found that exporters are seeing solid growth and that they expect that growth to continue. Given that next week is export week, please may we have a debate about the support that is provided to new exporters so that they can grab the opportunities that are available to their business and, in so doing, make a big difference to the national economy?

My hon. Friend once again illustrates a general point with the welcome progress that is being made in his constituency. As I said earlier, the resources and support that the Government are giving to UK Trade & Investment are making a difference. The way in which the Foreign Secretary has reoriented the priorities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and our diplomatic posts around the world is making a difference. The support that the Government are giving to bilateral chambers of commerce is making a difference too. The connections that that will provide to chambers of commerce and local enterprise partnerships in local areas will enable smaller businesses to network and to access export promotion and support more effectively than in the past.

Why does the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions not want to come to this place to defend himself against the serious allegations that have been made in The Times this morning?

I have reported the facts to the House. They do not give rise to the need for a statement because the allegations are not true.

It was announced recently that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs offices in York will be part-privatised. That is causing concern for a number of my constituents. May we have a debate on the outsourcing of jobs and, more importantly, on the fear that some of those jobs might be outsourced abroad?

My hon. Friend will be aware of the benefits of joint working and the sharing of services between Departments. I do not think that any decision has been made, other than that services will continue to be provided out of York and Alnwick. Beyond that, I do not know what the situation is. I will ask colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to write to him about where shared services might be delivered.

Between 1997 and 2010, 50,000 hospital beds were cut, including a number in my constituency. We were told those beds were no longer needed, but in recent years, hospitals in and around my constituency have had to open emergency beds to deal with winter pressure, due to a failure of intermediate care services. In my constituency at the moment, the local Labour party is fighting against proposals for a new 30-bed intermediate care centre. May we have a debate on the urgent need for proper intermediate care services across the country?

I cannot promise a debate immediately, although I suspect the House will recall just how strongly Members have felt in the past about the availability of intermediate care services, often in the context of locally accessible community hospitals. The devolution of responsibilities to clinical commissioning groups with active GP involvement gives an opportunity for that to be reconsidered, in particular by GPs who recognise the needs of their patients for treatment locally, accessible admissions and step-down care after admission to acute services. We might see a reduction in the number of beds in the most acute context, but care of the kind my hon. Friend refers to must also be available. I know that clinical commissioning groups will focus on that point.

Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to apply pressure on an issue that has come to my attention over the past 24 hours? A book for sale on Amazon, “To Train up a Child” by Michael and Debi Pearl advocates the beating of children under the age of 12 months, using a switch. The book recommends that a switch be cut from a willow tree, and be no longer than 12 inches in length and 8 cm in diameter. It advocates the use of paddles, rulers and other means to beat children from four months onwards. I have written to the Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport and for Education, and to the Prime Minister’s Office and Amazon. Given that this issue has come to light only in the past 24 hours, will the Leader of the House advise how we can bring this issue to Parliament and apply pressure on Amazon to remove this book from sale?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and Members of the House will be rather shocked by what she has described. She has raised her point in the House, and I will certainly talk to colleagues in the Departments for Culture, Media and Sport and for Education. I hope there will be a proper response from those responsible for Amazon’s publicity and marketing of this book, but if that does not happen, my hon. Friends from the Department for Education will be in the Chamber on Monday. That might be a further opportunity if those responsible for this issue have not taken action.