The business for the week commencing 6 January 2014 is as follows:
Monday 6 January—Remaining stages of the Water Bill.
Tuesday 7 January—Remaining stages of the Mesothelioma Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 8 January— Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 9 January—General debate on rural communities, followed by general debate on inter-city rail investment. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 10 January—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 13 January will include:
Monday 13 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords].
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 23 January 2014 will be:
Thursday 23 January—A debate on the fourth report of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the FCO’s human rights work in 2012, followed by a debate on the second report of the Select Committee on International Development on violence against women and girls.
I would also like to inform colleagues that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that the date of the Budget statement will be Wednesday 19 March 2014.
May I take this opportunity, Mr Speaker, to wish you and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas? On behalf of the whole House, I should especially also like to thank all the staff of the House, who have kept the House and us running smoothly—the Doorkeepers, the Clerks, the cleaners, the officers and all those working in the House Service. We wish a happy and peaceful Christmas to one and all.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the first week back in the new year.
It has been reported that the Prime Minister told the 1922 committee yesterday that he is ready to take the extremely rare step of using the Parliament Acts to ensure that a Back-Bench private Member’s Bill makes it on to the statute book. Does the Leader of the House know whether the Liberal Democrat part of the Government supports that plan and could it proceed without the Liberal Democrats?
The Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill returned to the other place this week after the Leader of the House’s six-week panic pause, but despite an on-the-record promise that the Government would use the pause to complete wide consultation and try to address the concerns of charities and campaigners, the Bill remains unamended and there is little evidence that the Government have listened to anyone at all. Will the Leader of the House tell us what he has been up to for the last six weeks, and why he is continuing to ignore the broad coalition of charities and campaigners who are telling him that this bad Bill will have a chilling effect on our democratic debate? May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman spend his Christmas break pausing, listening, reflecting and improving his approach to legislation?
Talking of legislation in a rush, the first thing we discuss on our return in the new year will be the Water Bill. Will the Leader of the House clarify what has happened to the Government’s proposed plans to crack down on rising water bills, and will he explain why none has been included in the legislation? Does he agree with the Opposition view that we should create a national affordability scheme, ensuring access to a social tariff for all? Given that, so far, only three of the 20 water companies have created a social tariff for those who struggle to pay, does he agree that a weakly worded letter to water companies from the Secretary of State is simply not good enough when people are struggling with a cost of living crisis this Christmas?
At this time of year, there is nothing better than sitting in front of the fire with a good read. This year, my recommended stocking filler is the Conservative party’s 2014 “campaign toolkit”. Rather than 50 shades of grey, there are apparently only three shades of grey approved for use in Tory literature. Strangely, there are only three approved photos of the Prime Minister, too. I assume that that is to prevent anyone accidentally using a photo of his second cousin nine generations removed—Catherine the Great, to whom he bears such an eerie resemblance! Catherine the Great was an enlightened despot who became less enlightened and more despotic the older she got, so perhaps the family traits do not just end with appearance.
On page 12, under the revealing title “Out of date visual identity”, we learn that blue sky has been banished because sunshine no longer rules the day. It was not just sunshine that the Tories confined to history in 2013—it was the Prime Minister’s hollow claim to be a moderniser. He used to tell us that we were “all in it together”, but this year we got a tax cut for millionaires while real wages fell by more than £360. He used to tell us that he would fight for a new politics, but all we have had is Lynton Crosby and his politics of fear and smear. The Prime Minister used to tell us he was a compassionate Conservative, but he gave us the bedroom tax, the closure of hundreds of Sure Start centres and yesterday his MPs laughed and jeered as we debated the record numbers of people forced to turn to food banks to feed themselves and their families in Tory Britain. Does the Leader of the House agree with me that no matter how many PR makeovers they indulge in, the Tories will never change?
Given that this is our last sitting day before the Christmas recess, I want to take the opportunity to wish all right hon. and hon. Members and their families, all of the House staff and their families, you and your family, Mr Speaker, a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
I have been considering what it would be like if the Cabinet had Christmas dinner together. First of all, everyone would be late because they had spent their journey arguing about the route and U-turning so often that they were driving round in circles. The turkey would be half-cooked, like their policies, and the Leader of the House would have to call for a pause halfway through the meal. The Prime Minister’s lapdog, the Deputy Prime Minister, would be encouraged to learn that election promises are for life, not just for Christmas. Perhaps the joke in the Christmas crackers would simply read, “Vote Lib Dem”.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the business statement and, in particular, for her Christmas good wishes to Members and House staff. She only slightly raided the Christmas crackers in advance with her comments today.
The hon. Lady asked about the private Member’s Bill relating to the EU referendum, which is in the House of Lords. The issue would arise only if the Lords were not to pass it, and my hope is that their Lordships will recognise the support that the Bill attracted from this House. From memory, I think that there was a majority of some 200 in favour of Third Reading in the House of Commons. I think that that should serve as an indication to the House of Lords of the positive sentiment that was attached to the proposal for an EU referendum when it left this House.
The hon. Lady asked about the transparency Bill. Clearly she has not taken on board how often the House of Lords considers legislation. Their Lordships frequently deal with the Committee stages of Bills, but in this case neither the Government nor others who had tabled amendments pressed those amendments to a vote, because they wanted to discuss some issues on Report in the context of Government amendments. My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness made it clear to the House of Lords that a wide-ranging consultation had indeed taken place, and emphasised the benefit that will, I know, be apparent when the Lords consider the Bill on Report.
The hon. Lady also asked about the Water Bill, which, as she said, we will debate when we return in the new year. I look forward to that debate, because I think it will show that we can increase benefits to consumers in two main ways: by giving them access to more competition in the water industry, and by giving those who are at risk of flooding access to a continuing and secure scheme for the delivery of flood insurance. As for the question of tariffs, the hon. Lady should bear in mind the work that the regulator is doing with the water companies to try to ensure that, in the next period of regulation, they deliver the best possible benefits and value for money to consumers. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change supports that work.
I am sad to have to tell the hon. Lady that I am not responsible at this Dispatch Box for what the Conservative party has put in its 2014 “campaign toolkit”. [Interruption.] I may not be sad, but if the hon. Lady is really going to read that on Christmas Day, I fear that she is rather sad. I confess that I shall not be reading it. I should add that when the hon. Lady reached the point of comparing the Prime Minister to Catherine the Great, I felt that it was a case of “more desperate than despot”.
In this season of good will, I think that I should conclude with good news. Growth in the economy is 1.5% higher than it was a year ago, and retail sales are up. We are net exporters of cars, and the automotive industry produced more cars in the first 11 months of this year than it did in the previous 12. Manufacturing and services are up. Moreover, 2.7 million people have been taken out of income tax altogether, and every basic rate taxpayer can look forward to a benefit of at least £700 after next April. Fuel duty has been frozen, unemployment is down, and employment in the private sector is up by more than 1.6 million. There are fewer workless households than at any time since records began. That, I think, is a source of good cheer for Christmas present and hope for Christmas future—and I am afraid that, for the Opposition, it means no return to their Christmas past.
May we have a debate on what the Government can do to protect people—especially the elderly and disabled—who are disadvantaged by having no access to, or ability to use, the internet in order to obtain the best prices for financial, insurance and other services?
Let me add another item to my hon. Friend’s list. Access to NHS services for those who do not have internet access is also very important. It was certainly very important to me when, as Secretary of State for Health, I was involved in the delivery of patient choice and information through NHS Choices.
We will do all that we can to protect vulnerable people by helping those who are offline to gain access to online services. We will increase access to the internet, improve digital skills, and ensure that people are aware of the benefits that going online can bring. A new cross-Government digital inclusion team has been established in the Cabinet Office as part of the Government Digital Service with the aim of driving forward the digital inclusion agenda, and we plan to publish a digital inclusion strategy early in the spring. Given my hon. Friend’s interest in these matters, he may wish to meet the Cabinet Office team to explain how he feels his constituents could benefit from the strategy.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all hon. and right hon. Members a very merry Christmas?
When we return in the new year, the Backbench Business Committee will be taking part in a pilot scheme allocating a 90-minute Westminster Hall slot—which is currently allocated by you, Mr Speaker—every Tuesday from 9.30 until 11 am. Will the Leader of the House help me to advertise this to as many hon. and right hon. Members as possible?
On behalf of my Select Committee, may I thank you, Mr Speaker, and the whole House and the staff and everybody else for all their work this year?
I thank the Leader of the House for bringing forward the Water Bill on the first day back. There is currently an omission in the Bill, however, concerning something that many constituencies have suffered from: the surface water run-off going into combined sewers. Will my right hon. Friend explain why we have not had a clear business week to allow us to table amendments in the usual way? You will be pleased to know, Mr Speaker, that the Select Committee has tabled amendments, but we have not been able to do as thorough a job as we might otherwise have done.
May we have an urgent statement on EU membership and immigration, but this time can we have it from the person at the Dispatch Box who is actually pulling the strings of the Conservative party and setting the agenda, which can only be Nigel Farage?
I think the hon. Gentleman is living in some kind of fantasy world. I can assure him that Nigel Farage is not pulling the strings. If I may revert to being a constituency Member of Parliament for this purpose, I take particular pleasure in the fact that before the last county council elections there was one UKIP county councillor in South Cambridgeshire and after it there were none.
During 13 years of Labour misrule, things got worse and worse. Under this coalition, things have got better and better. Under Labour England lost 21 times to Australia and lost five series, despite what the shadow Leader said last week. Under this coalition Government, we have won more than we have lost, and we have won two series. Is not the truth that the only way we are going to regain the Ashes is by having a Tory Government?
I have to admire my hon. Friend’s optimism in trying to derive a good story out of the English team’s performance in Australia, and I hope he will be proved right in the fullness of time, in the same way as in the fullness of time we have always discovered that unemployment is higher when a Labour Government leave office than when they take office. Under this coalition Government employment has increased and unemployment has decreased.
Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday Commissioner Potocnik released the clean air programme for Europe. It announced tightening of the NOx and SOx—nitrous oxides and sulphur oxides— regulations for air quality, quite against what the Government had assumed, which was that they were going to be relaxed. May we have a debate on this matter in Government time, given that the Government are now facing serious infraction proceedings, to ensure we have the air quality in this country that we need?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that there will be questions to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Thursday after the House returns. He might wish to raise that important and interesting matter at that time, and I will ask the Secretary of State to respond to him.
I have spoken to the Leader of the House on several occasions about my concerns over the environmental statement on HS2 that has been issued by the Department for Transport. The fact that it is tens of thousands of pages long is putting great strain on our environmental organisations, because the Department has given them only eight weeks over the Christmas period in which to respond to it. Furthermore, the memory sticks containing those tens of thousands of pages had to be recalled because of omissions and errors, and new ones had to be issued. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate on the possibility of extending the consultation period immediately?[Official Report, 6 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 2MC.]
I know how assiduously my right hon. Friend is pursuing the interests of her constituents in relation to this matter. I am not in a position to extend the period as she requests, not least because the 56-day consultation period for the environmental statement that precedes the production of a report by the person appointed by the House was determined not by the Department for Transport but by the House, by means of orders made in June relating to changes in the Standing Orders covering hybrid Bills.
May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the business in Westminster Hall on 23 January? He has set down only half the afternoon for a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights. That is completely inadequate for a debate on human rights around the whole world, the UK’s role in upholding them and the Foreign Office’s responsibility for them. It is simply not proper to try to debate all that in one and a half hours; we need at least a full afternoon or a debate in this Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the time in Westminster Hall on that Thursday was allocated on the initiative of the Liaison Committee. If that debate were to show that there was a demand among Members for additional debating time, it would be open to him and other Members collectively to go to the Backbench Business Committee and to seek to secure a further debate.
May we have a debate about the increase in the number of apprenticeships and the fall in unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, under this Government? In my constituency, the number of apprenticeships has increased from 420 in 2009-10 to more than 1,000 last year. At the same time, the claimant count has fallen from 3.2% to 2.4% and, for 18 to 24-year-olds, from 7.1% to 4.4%.
None of us is remotely content with the level of youth unemployment, but, happily, the latest figures have shown that the level has been reduced by 19,000 on the quarter. The youth claimant count has gone down 106,000 since the election, and the number of young people not in employment, education or training is at its lowest for a decade. My hon. Friend is right to say that apprenticeships are terribly important from this point of view, with 1.5 million starts since the election. It is our objective that they, together with work experience and the new traineeships, will ensure that all young people acquire qualifications and experience through education, work, apprenticeships or traineeships.
Rail overcrowding is so acute in my constituency that Northern Rail is laying on buses to take passengers by road when they cannot get on the trains, and I know of at least one constituent who has been hospitalised after being overcome in the crush. Please may we have an urgent statement and debate on the Government’s plans for diesel and electric rolling stock in the north of England?
The hon. Lady has just missed Transport questions—[Hon. Members: “She was here.”] I beg her pardon. I did not mean that she was not here. I meant that she did not get her question in—[Hon. Members: “She did.”] Oh, I apologise. If she has asked that question, she has, from a business point of view, already had a chance to raise it. [Hon. Members: “She wants a better answer.”] My answer would be to draw her attention to the unprecedented £38 billion of investment that is being provided through Network Rail, which is increasing capacity on the railway system across the country.
We have already had a question about broadband, but I wonder whether I may ask the Leader of the House about it too. We had an announcement last week about broadband throughout the UK and the extra money that is being made available. This issue affects every constituency, throughout the UK. Because we still have anomalies in cities, towns and rural areas, may we have time in this Chamber to allow Members to discuss the problems in their constituencies relating to the roll-out of broadband throughout the UK?
I suggest to my hon. Friend that, given the widespread interest among Members in the roll-out of broadband across the country, this may be a subject that he and other Members collectively wish to approach the Backbench Business Committee about? I thought last week’s announcements were very positive. With Connecting Cambridgeshire, in my constituency, we are looking forward to having 98% superfast broadband coverage by the end of 2015, and that is very encouraging.
May we have an urgent statement on Government secrecy, given that they are still refusing to release the document they commissioned on food banks, that they will not give any information on the financial position of the NHS trusts, and that they are refusing to release the Shrewsbury documents, citing “national security”? What happened to transparency?
This is the most open and transparent Government ever. We are publishing more data about more of the activities of government than has ever been the case. We are not only publishing what is available, but, increasingly, we are making sure that we genuinely audit the outcomes of what we are doing and publish those results.
May I wish you and your family a very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker? This weekend, I attended the deployed service families Christmas party in Plymouth, and may I take the opportunity to wish them all a very merry Christmas, too? I was reminded that stepchildren of service families are not treated in the same way as blood relatives or adopted children, and they often have to deal with some of the emotional issues that many of their stepbrothers and stepsisters also have to deal with, especially at this time. May we have a debate on the involvement of stepfamilies in the armed forces?
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that the definition of a child of service personnel is
“a legitimate or legitimated child or step-child”
of a service family who is below the age of 18. Under departmental regulations both are treated equally. If he has a specific example of unfair treatment that he wishes to raise, the best thing would be to raise it directly with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who is responsible for defence personnel, welfare and veterans. I know that she will be happy to look into any matter that he raises.
May I not only extend the season’s greetings to you, Mr Speaker, the Leader of the House, hon. Members and House staff, but pay tribute to our emergency services for the work they do over this period and the work they have done all year? On those services, the Leader of the House will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) ask in Transport questions about the under-resourcing of coastguards and marine safety. Is it not time that we debated the issue in this House, following the debacle in 2010-11, so that we can deal with that under-resourcing? Marine safety is far too important to be left to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury.
I did indeed hear that question, and I heard the reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), and his explanation of how this programme was being rolled out in the way that was anticipated from 2011. I know how carefully the hon. Gentleman looks after the interests of his constituents, and I will take the opportunity to speak to my hon. Friend to see whether he can provide any further information.
May we have a debate on the oversight and support given to free schools? I very much regret that on Friday last week an Education Minister in the other place announced a withdrawal of funding from the Discovery New school in my constituency, despite the fact that a new management team had just been put in place and there was a new head teacher. May we also have a statement from my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary?
I am sure my hon. Friend knows, as do other hon. Members, that the vast majority of free schools are performing well, with three quarters of them rated good or outstanding. But he also knows that where there is failure, we will not hesitate to intervene and take action. Children must be given the education they need and deserve, no matter what type of school they attend. Since Discovery New school was placed in special measures by Ofsted in May, the Department monitored progress closely. The trust had not provided evidence that it was making the changes required to secure the long-term future of the school. As my hon. Friend said, my noble Friend Lord Nash did notify the trust that the Department would terminate its funding agreement. If I may, I will speak to my noble Friend and make sure that he has an opportunity to speak directly to my hon. Friend about the circumstances for the children. The children will be looked after as a consequence of this, but in relation to the business of the House, if my hon. Friend has any continuing concerns, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be responding to questions on Monday 6 January.
This Christmas children from the Central African Republic right through to the middle east will die in refugee camps. Will the Leader of the House allow us Government time to discuss their response to this humanitarian crisis?
The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and ministerial colleagues have been at the Dispatch Box rightly updating the House on humanitarian support. I think we can take pride in the fact that this country is the most generous and active donor of humanitarian aid to those in need as a consequence of the conflict in Syria, but I will continue to keep in close contact with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so that the House is updated.
May we have an urgent debate on relations between the Israelis and Palestinians in the west bank? Although we all wish the talks in America every success, there are serious issues about Palestinian olive groves being cut down and very badly polluted by sewage and industrial waste.
My hon. Friend knows that the Government share his concerns about the difficulties facing Palestinian olive growers. This is a particularly sensitive issue, given that olive trees are a national symbol and the sole source of income for many Palestinian farmers. We continue to express our concerns to the Israeli Government about this and about the destruction and damage to Palestinian property, including olive trees, whether it is by the authorities or by extremist settlers. The context is, of course, the enduring tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we are doing everything we can as a Government to support efforts, including by the US Government, to achieve a lasting two-state solution.
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, a merry Christmas?
May we have a debate on the impact of VAT on tourism products and the local economy? In Northern Ireland, VAT on tourism is 20%. We have a land border with the Republic of Ireland, where VAT on tourism has continued to be 9%. That has placed us at an unfair competitive disadvantage.
The hon. Lady will know that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are very aware of the importance of the tax relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I will of course raise these issues with them. She will understand how difficult it is in the EU context ever to reduce VAT rates, but that does not mean that that is the only potential source of tax competition.
The Leader of the House said he wanted to end the year on a happy note; I would like to start next year on a happy note. May we have a debate on the success in getting the unemployment figures down? In my constituency, the figure is 385 lower than it was a year ago and 35 lower than it was in October this year.
I would be delighted if we had such an opportunity early in the new year. I cannot promise it immediately, but I hope that it will arise. My hon. Friend is quite right. The most recently published data show that in the east midlands, for example, the number of people unemployed has fallen by some 6,000. In many regions there have been similar substantial decreases in unemployment, which is very encouraging, and at the same time vacancies continue at a record level.
A constituent of mine contacted me this week to tell me that his daughter, an agency worker at the passport office in Durham, will be made redundant in the new year when her job and others will be transferred to India. It is a tragedy not only for her, but for the region, as every job in the north-east is precious. May we have a debate on the scandal of Government and Government agency jobs being transferred overseas?
I will of course, because of the personal circumstances of the hon. Lady’s constituent, raise that with Home Office Ministers and ask them to respond to her directly. If she has any additional information, I would be happy to include it in the query. On the general point, it is encouraging that the most recent data show a reduction in unemployment in the north-east.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and happy Gita Jayanti. Yesterday we launched the all-party parliamentary group for British Hindus in a packed Committee Room 14—there was literally standing room only—as hundred of Hindus from across the country came together for what was possibly the biggest ever launch of an all-party group. May we have a debate in Government time on the enormous contribution made by the 1.6 million British Hindus to the economy, the stability of our society and the fabric of Great Britain?
I am glad my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to raise that. I am sure that many Members across the House share his evident pleasure at the establishment of the all-party group and the fact that so many Hindus from across the country came here to celebrate it. I cannot promise a debate at the moment—he will understand the pressure on legislative time. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, he will understand how precious its time is, too, but it might be able to give the matter the necessary priority in due course.
May we have a debate on the House’s recesses? We talked earlier about September sittings. Is it not ludicrous that we come back for two weeks and then have the party conferences for three weeks before coming back again? May we have a debate on moving the party conferences to the early part of September so that the House can have a clear run through? And merry Christmas!
I have always thought that the party conferences could perfectly well take place at weekends. I cannot for the life of me see why we have to go away from our main place of work for that rather self-indulgent exercise. But I would not want to express any views that could be considered to be controversial.
May we have a debate on what constitutes “high risk” when it comes to referrals for breast cancer screening? A constituent of mine whose mother and two sisters have sadly been diagnosed with breast cancer has bizarrely not been assessed as high risk and, as a consequence, has been denied access to screening, which is causing her and her family great distress, as I am sure hon. Members would understand.
I have been a bit of a curmudgeon this morning, but I have always thought the Leader of the House a thoroughly good man. I wish for my constituents, as he will for his, the warm glow one gets from reading “A Christmas Carol”, but does he agree that a lot of people up and down this country are suffering “Hard Times”? Will he look at Angela Merkel’s remarks this week that when the income band for the rich and super-rich gets so far away from not only the poor, but average people, democracy is threatened and put in peril? May we have a serious debate on income distribution in our country?
In the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman raises this, I think we often do have that debate, and we need to do so. In what were undeniably tough times—we will not debate why they occurred; they occurred for a number of reasons—we were very clear as a coalition Government that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden. That is why the top 1% in terms of income pay 30% of the tax going to the Exchequer and why the proportionate increase in tax paid is highest among those who earn the most.
May we have a debate on the procedures that are in place to vet in advance the credentials of organisations that set up Christmas fairs and festivals? My right hon. Friend may have seen reports of the problems with Winter Wonderland in Milton Keynes last weekend. Although trading standards is now looking into it and people have been promised a refund, it left many families bitterly disappointed, and local charities that would have benefited from the fair have lost out.
Yes, my hon. Friend is right; I did indeed see the reports, because my constituency is not far from his. One of the beneficiaries would have been Papworth Trust, which is based in my constituency, so I felt precisely the sense of distress that many families felt about this. It is difficult; hard cases make bad law. The last thing we could contemplate is having some kind of regulatory process before people are able to set up such an event. However, trading standards can certainly look at the consequences and the lessons to be learned from something of the kind he describes.
Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker.
Will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government proactively to come to the House to make a proper oral statement on the provisional local government finance settlement, which would see Birmingham lose spending power at about twice the national average? The Leader of the House will know that yesterday there was lot of criticism of the fact that Ministers had to be called to the House. I found out that the local authority in Birmingham was not even told about the details of the announcement until 12.33 pm —after the urgent question had started. If this House is going to debate the concerns of our constituents and local authorities, this really is not good enough. May we have a proper statement straight after Christmas?
The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), responded to an urgent question yesterday and did so very well. As he said to the House, the information on the local government finance settlement was distributed in a way that is consistent with previous years. In fact, laying it by means of a written ministerial statement is exactly the same process as was adopted by the previous Government in the last year before the election.
Police in Devon and Cornwall get less per head than those in leafy Surrey. Our transport infrastructure investment is less than that in any other part of the country, despite the problems we have with flooding on the main line. Plymouth’s public health statistics are worse than those in almost any other part of the country on a whole range of levels, yet we get only £47 per head in Plymouth compared with £77 in Portsmouth and £66 in Bristol, and Windsor and Maidenhead do infinitely better. May we have an urgent debate on the funding distribution and formula basis of all these decisions, because regionally and in Plymouth we lose out?
I will not go through all those things, but the hon. Lady will know of the focus being given by the Department for Transport to improving routes, including the A30 across Bodmin. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has asked questions about that and I and other Ministers have responded to them.
I held discussions with Plymouth city council two or more years ago about how actively it was considering bringing people together to promote public health in the city. As such, all local authorities have seen an increase in their allocation of public health resources.
This evening I will attend a public meeting to discuss the recent floods in my constituency, particularly those that have affected residents in Barrow Haven who, understandably, will want some answers. Although we have had an opportunity to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and there has been a written statement, as yet there has not been an oral statement or time for a debate in the House. Could the Leader of the House provide Government time for such a debate early in the new year?
My hon. Friend rightly raises important points on behalf of his constituents. Given that he has had a meeting with the Secretary of State, I will consult the Secretary of State on how my hon. Friend and other Members whose constituencies have been particularly affected by the recent flooding might be given further information. Given the current pressure on time, I regret that I cannot promise a debate in the House on these matters, but we will make sure that all Members are properly informed.
One group of people who will not be having a restful Christmas are carers. The Leader of the House has given a list of ways in which life is improving under this Government, but life for carers has not improved. Their income limit has not increased and one of the carers in my constituency, Mrs James, has her income assessed on a weekly basis, because she works on a zero-hours contract. If, in one week out of four, she earns £1 over the £100 allowance, she loses her carer’s allowance for the entire month, even though her income for the rest of the month might be £25 one week and £35 the next. Instead of paying lip service to carers, could we have a genuine debate on how we can provide proper support and income for them so that they can feel valued by this House?
I will ask my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to respond to the hon. Lady on the circumstances she describes with regard to the carer’s allowance. On the more general issue, carers should understand that individual Members, the House and the Government support them. I think that is evident from our allocation of some £400 million to ensure that carers have access to more respite breaks; from the Children and Families Bill, which delivers additional support to children who are carers; from our commitment to deliver health checks and support to carers; and from all the additional carer rights in the Care Bill—the hon. Lady will no doubt take part in the debate on that—which sets out for the first time a comprehensive structure of rights for carers.
The cost of motoring is a significant part of household expenditure and it also has a broader economic impact, because most goods are moved by road. I recognise that there has been cross-Government action on the issue—including the cut in fuel duty, stopping the escalator and work on insurance fraud—but please could we have a debate to consider the progress made and ask what more can be done to help?
My hon. Friend is right. I think that motorists in general can take heart from the way in which the Government have ensured that additional costs are not loaded on to them. Had the previous Government still been in office, fuel duty would have been an extra 20p per litre by the end of this Parliament as a consequence of their fuel escalator, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has taken away. I also think that the work of the Office of Fair Trading on motor insurance claims offers the prospect of relief to motorists in terms of their insurance premiums, as does the Ministry of Justice’s work on the response to whiplash.
Further to questions on local government spending, I see that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is to be given a new role as the head of Minitrue, to guard against the risks of doublethinking in our local authorities. Given the discrepancies in the answer to yesterday’s urgent question on local government spending, might it not be an idea to start with a debate on the accuracy of answers given to Members of the House?
Like many councils, Stroud district council is busy formulating and agreeing our local plan, but in the meantime we are effectively circled by developers who are picking off field after field. Their plans are often rejected by the planning committee, but we are obviously open to the risk of an inspection. May we have a debate about that and about how we can assist local areas to defend themselves against unscrupulous developers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is very important to have a local plan in place, which is why it is encouraging that three quarters of authorities have now published one. In fact, just over half of them now have an adopted local plan. It is important to achieve that, so the intention of Stroud district council to submit its local plan for examination will give more weight to that plan in decision making, and help to guard against developments that are not determined locally.
Tech City UK has a budget, funded by the taxpayer, of just over £2 million, but it has recently been very coy about revealing exactly how it spends that money, despite being probed by Tech City News. Does the Leader of the House not agree that transparency about how taxpayers’ money is spent is vital? Will he remind Ministers to ensure that any body funded by their Department is required to be as transparent as possible about its spending?
On Tuesday night, the press were briefed about a welcome introduction of restrictions on certain benefits for immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania. Will the Leader of the House explain how this House has been informed of those restrictions, what the legislative mechanism is for their introduction, whether they include restrictions on tax credits and whether they will also apply to other EU member states?
The House was made aware by the fact that regulations to that effect were laid on Wednesday morning; they are subject to the negative procedure, so they can be brought into force. In that sense, they are available for the House to see, and if any hon. Member wishes to pray against them, they can be prayed against under the normal arrangements.
On my hon. Friend’s other points, I do not know that the regulations extend elsewhere or in any sense beyond this country, but the measures we have taken are informed by a great deal of work done by the Government to examine the benefit arrangements available to those who exercise their free movement rights inside the European Union. That work gives us confidence that we can introduce the proposed measures.
I am sure that the Leader of the House was shocked by the revelations in the Daily Mirror about the abuse of expenses at Essex county council under its Tory leader Lord Hanningfield. It will clearly be of concern to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who regularly lectures local government about the importance of the prudent use of public money. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on that issue and ensure that it is led by the plain-speaking Secretary of State who, as an Essex MP since 1992, could explain what he has done to stop the abuse by his party colleagues in his own county?
My noble Friend the Leader of the House of Lords made a statement in the House of Lords the day before yesterday, in which he said that he was “completely dismayed” to read reports in the press about the behaviour of a Member of that House. The Member in question is not a Conservative peer, but he was formerly the Conservative leader of Essex county council. I share that dismay, but those matters are for the House of Lords, rather than for this House.
We are following developments in South Sudan with great concern. The British ambassador has spoken to the President of South Sudan. The Minister for Africa, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), is speaking with regional Foreign Ministers. We have called for restraint and for differences to be resolved through dialogue, and we have underlined the importance of protecting civilians.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised against all travel to Juba and has been helping British nationals to leave. A UK military aircraft is en route to Juba to evacuate British nationals today. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been contacting British nationals in the country and offering consular assistance.
When the Leader of the House went home last night, did he not feel a certain amount of shame at being part of a Government who have presided over 500,000 people presenting to food banks? If so, can we have another debate on food banks so that he can express that shame?
It is undeniably the case that in the tough times that we faced and with the largest deficit in the OECD, it was necessary to reduce debt in this country. It is impossible simply to ignore the fact that living standards in this country have taken a hit as a consequence of what happened under the last Government. I am proud that this Government are leading the kind of economic recovery that holds the greatest prospect of giving the greatest number of people access to rising living standards in the future.
May we have a debate on the future provision of paediatric services nationally? Yesterday, the trust special administrator for the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust recommended the removal of many paediatric services, including in-patient and overnight paediatrics, from Stafford hospital. The main basis for that recommendation is that there are too few consultants to maintain a full rota of eight to 10 consultants. However, there are five or six consultants at the hospital and many services across the country run with far fewer than that. If that logic is pursued, there is a great threat that dozens of paediatric services across the country will face closure.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who continues to be a tireless advocate, on behalf of his constituents, for the services that are being provided at Stafford hospital in very difficult circumstances. I appreciate that. The points that he raises can be made to Monitor, which will consider the report of the trust special administrator. After Monitor has done that, a report will go to the Secretary of State for Health for a final decision in the new year. None the less, I think that my hon. Friend’s constituents will be comforted to know that the paediatric assessment unit, which has paediatric doctors, will continue to be available at Stafford hospital under the proposals.
In the spirit of the festive season, may we have a debate on whether Ministers should be obliged to make new year’s resolutions? I encourage Ministers to resolve always to make statements to the House before doing so to the press, to introduce well-thought-out and coherent legislation, and to smile a little more often than the Deputy Leader of the House.
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I have been calling for several weeks for a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment on the planning regulations for solar PV panels in rural locations. As the Leader of the House will know, in rural north Essex—the northern part of my constituency—more than 300 acres of solar PV panels are being planned, which will affect the villages of Liston, Belchamps, Foxearth and Twinstead. The matter is a continued aggravation to my constituents and they would very much appreciate a debate on this important issue.
Happily, Mr Speaker, so am I. My hon. Friend may wish to raise the issue with Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government when they answer questions early in the new year. In addition, since there will no doubt be Members elsewhere in the House who have similar concerns, my hon. Friend might try to use the good offices of the Backbench Business Committee to seek time for a debate on the issue.
I am sure that during his earlier exchange with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) about the merits of Nigel Farage, the Leader of the House simply forgot to say how delighted we all were that Mr Farage failed to get elected to the seat of Buckingham at the last general election. May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the amendment that stands in the name of the whole Procedure Committee, the chair of the 1922 committee, the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, and other hon. Members, to order No. 9 about the calling of amendments at the end of the Gracious Speech? Can the Procedure Committee therefore invite the Leader of the House to bring it on early in the new year?
I am, of course, familiar with the amendment to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and it has been on the remaining orders for some time. I confess that time is pressing but the issue is not pressing in that sense. If I may, I will advise the House in due course about when it would be suitable to debate that matter.
Further to the earlier question from the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), will the Leader of the House offer the prospect of a full statement, before the House rises, from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about what the UN Secretary-General has described as a deeply concerning situation in South Sudan, with more than 500 people dead since the weekend, 20,000 people seeking refuge with the United Nations, and violence spreading out from the capital, Juba? Will the Leader of the House give a full guarantee to concerned families about the safety of UK nationals who are still in that country?
I deliberately gave a fuller answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) than I might otherwise have done, because I am aware it is the final day before the House rises and there might not be another opportunity for Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers to update it. If the hon. Gentleman is in his place, and were he to catch the eye of the Speaker, it is open to him to raise the issue again during the pre-recess Adjournment debate that follows statements to the House. I took care this morning to ensure that what I said was up to date and full regarding the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s response to the situation.
Ministers have now admitted that there are delays in processing personal independence payments, which are impacting on people with long-term debilitating illnesses such as cancer. Will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate in Government time so that we can examine why those delays are occurring and what the Government are doing to remedy them?
The behaviour on the Government Benches yesterday during the food bank debate, with Members laughing at the plight of individuals having to go to food banks, was truly shocking to my constituents and many other people up and down this land. May we have a debate about the huge increase in the numbers of homeless people and people sleeping rough, and see whether that also causes amusement on the Government Benches?
I am sorry but I do not accept at all the hon. Lady’s premise about the debate yesterday. I think it best for Members not to assume that because they can see what is happening on the other side of the House, they can also hear what is happening. Frankly, that brings the House into disrepute unnecessarily, which is not something I would encourage. On rough sleeping and homeless people, the Government continuously try to ensure that as few people as possible are sleeping rough, and that support, including hostel places, is available for all those who are sleeping rough.
The Leader of the House will know that the Department for Transport has been promising all year to publish a Green Paper on graduated licensing for newly qualified drivers, to try to reduce the number of young people killed on our roads. This morning, in answer to a written question from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), essentially said that the matter is being postponed indefinitely. May we have a debate on that or a statement from the Department for Transport, so that the House can be informed about what is going on?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we have discussed this matter before in business questions, so I am interested in the point he makes. I confess that I have not seen that answer to that question. I will look at it and talk to my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport to see whether we can advise him further on their plans.
On Monday of this week, 615 of my constituents lost their jobs at Sharp’s solar plant in Wrexham when investment, which was hard won in 2004 under the previous Government, ended. May we have a debate on this Government’s chaotic investment policy on renewables, which is deterring international investors from bringing jobs to the UK for constituents such as mine, who will have no jobs this Christmas?
I heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, set out plans that are giving people increasing confidence in the prospects for renewables investment in this country. I will of course look at the situation the hon. Gentleman raises, which must be of concern to his constituents in Wrexham in particular, and ask my hon. Friends at the Department for their response. The general context, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, is that we are making tremendous progress on private sector jobs, with more than 1.6 million more private sector jobs since the election.
Happily, the hon. Gentleman may recall that during the autumn statement the Chancellor set out some of the ways Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is continuing to bear down on schemes that are clearly designed to avoid tax. If I recall correctly, they included issues relating to the question of employment and self-employment, and they will be pursued in that context.
Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to everyone in the House.
May we have a statement, as early as possible next year, from a Treasury Minister to tell us why millionaires are paying less tax this Christmas than they were last, before the Chancellor makes a decision in the Budget to ensure that millionaires pay less tax next Christmas than they are this?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I do not think we need a statement. First, as I said earlier, the 1% with the highest incomes are paying 30% of tax. Secondly, the highest rate of income tax is now higher than it was in every month of the previous Labour Government, except for the last month. Thirdly, 2.7 million of the lowest earners have been taken out of income tax altogether.