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Business of the House

Volume 573: debated on Thursday 9 January 2014

First, Mr Speaker, let me pay my personal tribute to Paul Goggins, a colleague held in the highest respect and affection throughout the House. His loss will be felt widely and for a long time.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 13 January—Second Reading of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by a debate on a motion relating to welfare reforms and poverty. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 14 January—Remaining stages of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 15 January—Opposition day [17th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, including on the subject of banking.

Thursday 16 January—General debate on child neglect and the criminal law, followed by general debate on nuisance calls. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 17 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 January will include:

Monday 20 January—Second Reading of the Intellectual Property Bill [Lords], followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 21 January—Opposition day [18th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, including on the subject of pub companies.

Wednesday 22 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2014.

Thursday 23 January—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 24 January—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 January will now be:

Thursday 16 January—Select Committee statement on the publication of the 10th report from the Justice Committee on Crown Dependencies: Developments Since 2010, followed by a combined debate on the second report from the Justice Committee on Women Offenders: After the Corston Report and the fifth report on Older Prisoners.

May I also take this opportunity to congratulate all those who were recognised in the new year’s honours? We take pleasure, of course, not only in Members of this House being recognised for their service but in the recognition of those who give service to Parliament and take part in voluntary and public service. They include Michael Carpenter, the Speaker’s Counsel, John Pullinger, the House Librarian, and Nicholas Munting from the Catering Service. I also congratulate those within government who have been recognised, including the principal private secretary to the Patronage Secretary, Mr Roy Stone.

I thank the Leader of the House for what he said about those who work in the service of the House and have been recognised. All of them are thoroughly deserving. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, Michael Carpenter and John Pullinger are especially well known to me, as I work with both of them closely and on a very regular basis. They are deeply deserving of the recognition that has been afforded to them.

I thank the Leader of the House for his tribute to Paul Goggins and wish to add my own. His untimely death this week has shocked and saddened all Members across the House. He was a kind and caring man who campaigned tirelessly for social justice, including his recent work securing the passage of the Mesothelioma Bill. All our thoughts are with his wife, his children, his family and his many friends.

May I also associate myself with the Leader of the House’s comments, and yours, Mr Speaker, about those recognised in the new year’s honours list? I cannot help wondering, given his appearance today, whether his hairdresser feels somewhat left out—perhaps it is an easier job with hair like his.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business—although, if we take away Opposition days and Back-Bench business, we yet again have very little meaningful Government legislation. Will he tell us whether that is what we can expect for the next 16 months? I note that the Government’s self-proclaimed flagship Immigration Bill is still mysteriously absent from future business, despite its consideration in Committee concluding on 19 November. Can we expect consideration on Report soon, or is the Prime Minister still running scared of the 69 Tory Back Benchers who have signed the rebel amendment?

We expect the Queen’s Speech some time in the spring, but the Government have yet to confirm a date. With the European and local elections scheduled to take place on 22 May, the pre-election purdah will be in force from the beginning of May. Unless the Government are planning a state opening with no announcements at all—I would not put it past them—it looks as though the Queen’s Speech will have to take place in June, after the Whitsun recess, the dates of which the Leader of the House has already announced. What conversations has he had with the Cabinet Secretary on the matter? Can he now tell us the date of the Queen’s Speech?

The universal credit fiasco continued this week as we discovered a war between the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Minister for the Cabinet Office over IT support. Last night the Minister for the Cabinet Office slammed the DWP’s implementation as “pretty lamentable”. Will the Leader of the House arrange for him to make a statement to the House on why the Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service have walked away from that costly chaos?

The Chancellor this week wished everyone an unhappy new year with a speech underlining his ideological obsession with rolling back social progress and shrinking the size of the state to pre-war levels. He announced his ambition for a further £25 billion of spending cuts in the first two years of the next Parliament, with £12 billion coming from the social security budget. The Deputy Prime Minister immediately called it a “monumental mistake”, and even the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions briefed against it. Treasury Ministers were unable to say which benefits would be targeted, but refused to rule out those for the sick and the disabled.

The Chancellor told us in his speech that 2014 would be a year when Britain faces a choice, and he was right—a choice between a Government who give tax cuts to millionaires while prices rise faster than wages, and a party that wants the economy to work for the many, not the few. He is doing his best to hide his failure to balance the Government’s books by 2015, but people across the country are £1,600 worse off under his watch and we will not let him rewrite history to cover up his failed economic plan. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor, rather than making these announcements where he cannot be questioned on them, to come to the House and tell us where his £12 billion of extra social security cuts would come from?

I hope that all Members had a good break over Christmas and have returned refreshed and ready for the new year. If the Leader of the House and his Cabinet colleagues had a new year’s resolution to be better at their jobs, I must say that they have made a pretty shaky start. We have only been back a week and we have already seen the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions rowing with the Treasury and the Cabinet Office about the gargantuan mess that is universal credit, we have seen the Education Secretary slapped down by his colleagues for trying to politicise the commemoration of the first world war, and we have had the spectacle of Liberal Democrats frantically trying to distance themselves from a Government they are a part of while simultaneously accusing the Tories of stealing their policies. All the Liberal Democrat press office can do is desperately retweet a BuzzFeed item listing

“ten reasons the British public will fall back in love with the Deputy Prime Minister.”

I would like to disagree with the Mayor of London, who this week called the Deputy Prime Minister a “prophylactic protection device”. Now I know I am not the world’s greatest expert in this area, but I thought you were supposed to be able to trust contraception.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her further questions. I agree with her: listening to the debate on the Mesothelioma Bill earlier this week, I thought it was a cruel irony that Paul Goggins was not able to be there to see it come into law and to continue to pursue the campaign he had fought so very well on behalf of his constituents and others.

The hon. Lady asked about Government business. We still have 19 Government Bills before the two Houses of Parliament and we are making progress on a wide range of legislation, some of which is of considerable importance, including, as I have announced, the remaining stages of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. She seemed to dismiss it but it is a very important measure in achieving much higher levels of rehabilitation for those with sentences of below 12 months, which will contribute to overcoming the high levels of recidivism.

I cannot give the hon. Lady a date for the Report stage of the Immigration Bill—otherwise I would have announced it—or for the Queen’s Speech; both are subject to the progress of further business. I will make announcements in due course.

The hon. Lady asked about universal credit. It has always been very clear—I have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make it very clear to the House on a number of occasions—that the Government have welcomed what the National Audit Office has said and have taken steps to put it in place. Yes, there is an adjusted timetable for the roll-out of universal credit, because we have listened, learned and acted in order to make sure there is safe and sound implementation. Part of that was always in anticipation of the transfer of responsibility from the Government Digital Service to the DWP’s own digital team.

I thought the highlight of the hon. Lady’s remarks was her question on hairdressing. I am quite pleased that people up in the Gallery can have a good look at the—[Interruption]—try to get that one into Hansard, Mr Speaker. When I visit Mr Polito’s in Cambridge, as I perhaps will this weekend, he will be able to advise me. [Interruption.] Mr Polito’s is not a person but a shop. [Interruption.] Actually, it costs £15, so I am getting my hair cut cheaper than the Deputy Prime Minister, which just shows that you can come to the Conservatives for value for money.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Chancellor. The Chancellor will be here to answer questions on 28 January. In a way, I would rather he were able to be here more often. Every time he comes here he is, as the hon. Lady says, able to make very clear the choice, which will become increasingly apparent as we go through this year, between a Government with a long-term economic plan that is delivering sustainable recovery for this country and, as we have heard only in the past few days, leading to business confidence at close to all-time highs, with employment in the private sector up by over 1.6 million; or, under Labour, more borrowing, more debt, more taxes, and the consequences of a second Labour recession.

I welcome the “help for high streets” initiative announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement, which will undoubtedly help small businesses to flourish. Nevertheless, small district shopping centres such as Park Farm in my constituency are suffering as a result of seemingly flawed evaluations of rateable value by the Valuation Office Agency, with business owners in Park Farm paying up to £300 more per square metre of floor space than those in the centre of Derby. May we have a debate about our district shopping centres and how to ensure that the rates imposed on them are not too excessive?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important point on behalf of her businesses. I am sure that she, like me, welcomed what the Chancellor had to say in his autumn statement in support of small businesses, specifically in relation to rates, including the announcement of £1 billion of support for business rate payers and the £1,000 discount, which will benefit approximately 300,000 shops, pubs and restaurants. That is very important. My hon. Friend raises the issue of rateable values, which are assessed by estimating rental value in the open market at a standard valuation date, currently 1 April 2008. Of course, any ratepayer can appeal their valuation if they feel it is inaccurate. The Department for Communities and Local Government recently published proposals to help speed up that appeals process.

The Prime Minister promised—very vocally—action on minimum alcohol pricing, but that seems to have waned as influence from lobbyists has grown. Could we please have a statement in the House on the Government’s precise position on this policy area?

We have been very clear that we are not at this stage proceeding with proposals on minimum alcohol unit pricing. We are going to learn more, for example, about what the consequences of the introduction of such a policy might be in Scotland. I have two things to say to the hon. Lady. First, it was only ever part of an alcohol strategy that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced to the House, and a wide range of measures can have a substantial impact, including local alcohol partnerships, on reducing alcohol content. Secondly, when I had meetings with the drinks industry, they were not about lobbying against minimum unit pricing, but about getting a commitment from the industry to take 1 billion units a year out of the content of alcohol sold in this country, which would be extremely valuable.

Given the increasing violence and political instability in Niger, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, may we have an early debate on Africa and in particular on improving relations between the French and British Governments regarding capacity and governance building? There is good practice on counter-terrorism issues and if that could be extended to helping one another to build up civic society and political institutions, that would, I hope, play a part in reducing the violence.

My hon. Friend makes important points. The Government are working very closely with our allies and some of the multilateral mechanisms to try to deliver greater stability in this area. With regard to the Central African Republic, for example, we have welcomed the Africa-led security mission and December’s United Nations Security Council resolution. We continue to work with our partners in the UN and the European Union to support the Economic Community of Central African States and the African Union. Our working relationship with the French Government concerning the Central African Republic and the Sahel is a good one and that should continue.

Given the range of issues in the Sahel, central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, my hon. Friend makes an important point about whether there may be an opportunity for a debate at some stage on African issues. I cannot promise one in Government time, because there is pressure on Government time. [Interruption.] I have explained why previously. There may be an opportunity through the Backbench Business Committee. I will, if I may, take the issue away and continue to think about the possibilities.

May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s lost report on food banks? May I suggest that a search party be sent into the Department for Work and Pensions to track it down and then publish it? While that is being done, may I offer the Prime Minister the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency that is open, so that he can avoid doing what he did last time—when he visited a food bank in his own constituency that was shut?

The hon. Gentleman will know that both my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Prime Minister have repeatedly responded to questions about food banks, as we will continue to do. For my part, I know, having visited a food bank, the value of food banks’ work. It is important to recognise that, and we have supported them. That is why, when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State came into office, he changed the decision of the previous Government not to refer people from jobcentres to food banks.

In February 2009, Zac Knighton-Smith, who was five, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma and given only a few weeks to live without a new monoclonal antibody therapy. That treatment was not available on the NHS, but thanks to the efforts of the former health Minister Ann Keen, John Parkes of Northamptonshire primary care trust and the then shadow Secretary of State for Health—the Leader of the House—Zac received the treatment in Germany, which the NHS paid for. On Saturday, this lovely, full-of-life and happy little boy passed away. He will be sadly and greatly missed. However, without politicians of different parties working together, he would not have had the last five years of life. May we have a statement on how this Parliament can make a difference?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I recall the case to which he refers, and he is absolutely right that we in this House can make a difference, not least by working together, but especially where Members of Parliament pursue their constituents’ cases and concerns. I pay tribute to the way in which he did so on behalf of Zac’s family.

We can also make a difference by the policies we bring forward. In that respect, I am proud that as Secretary of State for Health in this Parliament I was able to introduce the cancer drugs fund, which has delivered treatments to 38,000 patients. We also decided to undertake investment in the delivery of proton beam therapy in this country, because the only way patients could otherwise access that treatment was by going to Germany.

As the Leader of the House will know, 15 world health experts have today launched Action on Sugar, a campaign to tackle obesity and diabetes. Given that the Prime Minister said last year that obesity was one of the biggest challenges facing our public health service, may we have an urgent statement on the content of food and drink, the amount of sugar in food and drink and the links between that and the deaths of so many people each year?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. In so far as the campaign announced this morning models itself on Consensus Action on Salt and Health and its approach, I will be very supportive of it, because I worked very closely with CASH and Professor MacGregor, and we have had significant success in reducing the amount of salt in food.

It must be understood that such campaigns will be achieved only by working with the industry on a voluntary basis—that is what the responsibility deal is about—and only on an incremental basis. The level of sugar in food cannot be slashed suddenly—otherwise, people simply will not accept it—but that is what the campaign intends and we should do that. However, inaccurate analogies do not help: I just do not think that the analogy between sugar and tobacco is appropriate. We have to understand that sugar is an essential component of food; it is just that sugar in excess is an inappropriate and unhelpful diet.

The Leader of the House will recall that on 19 December I raised with him the woefully inadequate 56 days given for people to respond to a 50,000-page environmental statement on High Speed 2, and I thank him for sending me a letter and making a formal correction to his response in Hansard.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it has transpired since I asked that question that information has been left off the memory sticks and the online and hard copies of the environmental consultation material, and that environmental groups are not able to get hold of vertical profile maps with contours, which are particularly important in the light of the decision to dump 1 million cubic metres of soil in an area of outstanding natural beauty?

Is the Leader of the House also aware of a report in the Lichfield Mercury about HS2 Ltd having confirmed that individuals can petition against the HS2 hybrid Bill only if they have responded to the environmental consultation by 24 January? I do not believe that that can be true—it would have been slipped in as a way to short-circuit the process and to reduce the number of people petitioning against HS2—but will he look into that report and tell me whether it is true? Will he also tell me how the consultation period can be extended, given all the administrative failures by HS2 Ltd and the Government?

In order to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. Friend and other Members who have a constituency interest in the procedure for the HS2 hybrid Bill, I will, if I may, look into the issues that she raises and, in co-ordination with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, ensure that we reply to her and place a copy of the letter in the Library of the House so that Members can see the procedure for the hybrid Bill.

May we have a debate on whether the commercial arms of fire brigades, such as community interest companies, should have to pay to receive publicly funded diesel for their appliances and vehicles, and whether such commercial arms have an unfair advantage over their competitors in the market?

If I may, I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who has responsibility for fire services, to look at that issue and respond to the hon. Gentleman. Of course, we should always try to have fair competition in markets and there should be no unfair subsidies from the public sector.

May we have a debate on the minimum wage, which would enable many Members from all parts of the House to argue that it should be increased significantly now? The cost to the Government of any increase in the minimum wage would be largely met by more income tax coming in and fewer tax credits being paid out. An increase in the minimum wage could simultaneously help the lower paid and save money for the Treasury.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I cannot promise a debate immediately. I hope that there will be opportunities for Members to discuss issues relating to the minimum wage, including the situation for low earners, who have benefited from the Government’s approach to income tax. Changes to the national minimum wage are introduced on 1 October each year. I say gently that there are good reasons for that. Changes in October are an established part of the labour market and many companies operate their pay reviews to coincide with them. Although I completely understand the point he makes, I do not sympathise with the idea of accelerating the timing of any increase in the minimum wage.

I was among the many Members who wanted to speak in last month’s debate on food banks but did not get the chance to do so. The Meadows Advice Group in my constituency tells me that more and more people are being forced to turn to food banks to survive as a result of stagnant wages, rising debts, the bedroom tax and other benefit changes. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the Government’s response to the crisis in the cost of living before the Chancellor hits poor and vulnerable people with even deeper cuts?

The hon. Lady may not have noticed, but following the debate on the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords] on Monday there will be a general debate on welfare reform and poverty, which was selected by the Backbench Business Committee. I do not agree with her about the reasons people are accessing food banks, of which there are many, but the points she wishes to raise could legitimately be raised in that debate.

May I express my personal sadness at the loss of Paul Goggins, with whom I worked closely on the Intelligence and Security Committee over the past three years? He was a patriotic humanitarian who reflected the greatest credit on the Labour party and on Parliament.

May we have a statement from a Defence Minister on the slow progress of the sale of the freehold of Marchwood military port in my constituency for not very much money and possibly to a company, Associated British Ports, that poses a threat to the New Forest with its burgeoning plans to build a container port on the edge of that precious area?

My hon. Friend will recall that a commitment was made in the strategic defence and security review to sell Marchwood sea mounting centre during the current spending review period. The intention is to grant a long-term concession that will include the sale of a lease for the port and the delivery of sea mounting services. That will ensure that the military requirement can still be met, while allowing greater economic and commercial benefit to be realised from the site. A concession will be granted only if the Ministry of Defence is satisfied that it represents good value for money. On timing, a prior information notice was published on 29 November last year to initiate a market engagement process. Twenty-five parties have shown an interest in participating, although clearly we cannot identify who they are. The intention is to begin the formal sale process in the spring of this year.

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the disgraceful sentence of 12 months, suspended for three years, handed out to a terrorist involved in the despicable murder of two young soldiers in my constituency? That has outraged my constituents, and I believe it is worthy of debate in the House.

I can understand how the hon. Gentleman feels about these issues, but if I may say so, generally speaking I do not think it is appropriate for the House to debate individual sentences. That would be a constitutional intrusion by the legislature into decisions made by the judiciary. However, it is appropriate for him to raise the matter, and if he wishes to do so again my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will reply to questions next Wednesday.

The UK is currently among the fastest-growing economies in the western world, mainly due to the Government’s tough economic decisions. By contrast, the French socialist economic model that the leader of the Labour party so vehemently supports is crippling its country, with rising unemployment and a probable triple-dip recession. May we have a statement comparing the recent performance of the UK and French economies, which I am afraid would turn into a French tragedy?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Comparisons are of course odious, but I would say two things. First, I was interested to see the Centre for Economic and Business Research’s annual review of the world economic league, published on Boxing day. Among other things, it said that the United Kingdom was the west’s second best performing economy after the United States, and that by 2030 it was likely to overtake Germany and become the largest western European economy. That was partly attributed to its being a relatively low-tax economy. By contrast, the CEBR saw France moving to about 13th position in the world economic league by that point—that is only its view, not mine. Secondly, we have to ask the Leader of the Opposition, who said that what President Hollande was doing for France, Labour would do for Britain, whether the Labour party continues to adhere to that philosophy.

The Constantini family, in my constituency, recently fled Syria, where they had lived for many years. In normal circumstances, as refugees, their children would be granted home student status for fees. Unfortunately, or fortunately for them, the Constantinis are British citizens, and as such they fail to meet the residency requirement. I am sure the Leader of the House will share my concern about the fact that, unlike other refugees from Syria, British citizens appear to be disadvantaged in that circumstance. I wrote to both the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Home Office about 10 days before Christmas, and I have yet to receive a response. I would be grateful if he looked into the matter and tried to see that justice is done for people who have fled the conflict in Syria.

I will of course, as I always seek to do, try to expedite a helpful response from both Departments to which the hon. Gentleman has written.

It is as well for the House continuously to recognise how we as a country are leading the way in helping Syrians suffering from the humanitarian crisis. Although we contribute in many ways, including by seeking to protect humanitarian convoys taking aid into Syria, there are of course refugees. In the year up to September, we accepted more than 1,100 Syrian asylum claims made in this country in the usual way.

May I say how much I will miss Paul Goggins in the House? He was not only one of the most able people in Parliament but, crucially, he was also one of the nicest. I will miss him greatly.

I understand that the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are conniving to prevent the European Union (Referendum) Bill—so expertly steered through this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)—from coming into law. If they are successful in blocking the Bill going through the House of Lords in this Session, as they seem to intend, will the Leader of the House introduce a carry-over motion to allow the Bill to be taken forward in the next Session?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said, not least about our former colleague. I hope that the House of Lords will consider the European Union (Referendum) Bill, but also recognise that it has responsibility to consider it timeously—[Interruption.] Timeously; it is a perfectly normal word, I think—in good time. The Lords should consider the Bill so that it can be passed in this Session of Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Timely!”] Hon. Members must not make me laugh; it makes me cough. Not least, the will of this House must be respected. My recollection is that the Bill passed Third Reading in this House by 304 votes to nil, which I think was a powerful expression of its view.

Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions in an answer to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister said that he was very concerned about fixed odds betting terminals. He also stated that a report would be coming forward in the spring, which I understand is March and April, according to sources. Will the Leader of the House guarantee that when that report comes forward, it will be in spring and that the House will debate it?

I am proud to be part of a parliamentary party that is seeking to legislate to let Britain decide through the European Union (Referendum) Bill. In the meantime, may we have a debate about greater EU democracy, and in particular the idea that the UK should directly elect its commissioner?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I fully agree with him about giving the British people a say. Given the particular circumstances of this year, I do not think it possible to contemplate what he proposes for the nomination of the next European commissioner. Speaking at the Dispatch Box it is probably sensible for me to say that I do not necessarily subscribe to the view that the Prime Minister is not best placed to make a decision about who our next commissioner should be.

May I declare an interest as a patron of Gate Safe, for which there is no financial remuneration? Gate Safe was set up following a number of deaths of children, including Karolina Golabek in my constituency. It was to ensure the safety of electronic gates across the industry, which had led to the crushing to death of a number of children. Today I have been contacted by a company that has had its invoice rejected because it followed Gate Safe’s standards, which were said to be merely an attempt to increase prices. May we have a debate on how we can ensure that industry-wide accepted standards can be enforced when it comes to paying bills?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and if I may I will raise that issue on her behalf with colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. There may be a case for a debate, but it may be that my colleagues can take action to help the hon. Lady.

At the end of this month the Transport Minister will unveil the next generation of Thameslink trains, delivered as part of the £6.5 billion Thameslink programme. Although that will be welcomed in my Hendon constituency and other parts of the country, it comes at a price. May we have a debate to look at rail fares, and consider how the programme has been delivered at the same time as the Government have limited the cap on average regulated rail fare increases to RPI for 2014, and see what further action the Government can take to keep rail fares down?

I am glad my hon. Friend raises the Thameslink programme, which is part of the Government’s long-term strategy to transform the rail network. He and other Members will know that this is the most significant investment in rail since the 19th century. However, for all its benefits in terms of capacity and reduced journey times there is an implication for underlying costs to the system, which is why we have to look constantly at protecting the families and hard-working people who use the railways and why we have reduced the average regulated fare rise to RPI—to which he referred. We will continue to look at that. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I can promise that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport will continue to look at how we can reduce underlying costs to protect those who are necessary rail users.

This week my constituents Mr and Mrs Mann were refused medication for their baby Harley by a supermarket pharmacist because the directions to the parents written by the GP were in Welsh. A greater proportion of public services are now being delivered by private organisations from outside Wales, so may we have a debate on those organisations’ adherence to the principles and requirements of the Welsh Language Act 1993?

This comes a short while after the sad death of Wyn Roberts, who was such a passionate advocate of the Welsh Language Act and the use of the Welsh language in services, which we have to ensure is maintained. I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales to ensure that the intentions of the Act are being seen through.

May we have a debate on effective political representation? The Leader of the House will notice that, while we have the honourable presence of Members from minority parties in the Chamber, there are no Back-Bench Members from the Liberal Democrat party in their place. They apparently have no interest whatever in the future business of the House, and there were no Liberal Democrat Members present at the important debate in Westminster Hall on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration just before Christmas. Is it true that the Liberal Democrats have passed a new year’s resolution to take Thursdays off? Is it not clear that there is very little point in people voting for Liberal Democrats, because they do not turn up and represent them?

I hear what my hon. Friend has to say. I take an alternative construction, which is to say that Members of the Liberal Democrat party are, as part of this coalition Government, so content with the proposals for business, as brought forward by the Deputy Leader of the House and me, that they do not see any need to question them.

We have learned in the past 24 hours through leaks to the media that the Cabinet Office has accelerated the withdrawal of the Government Digital Service from the universal credit programme. On a point of order yesterday, I inquired whether the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), would be making a statement to the House. I was therefore surprised to see him making a statement on ITN news last night, not in this House. I was not surprised when he said that the implementation of universal credit had been lamentable and that money had been wasted, but is it not discourteous of him to have made the statement to the media last night? When will he make a statement to this House on the role of the Cabinet Office on universal credit?

No, there was no discourtesy involved. The ministerial code is clear that when Parliament is sitting Ministers should make announcements of policy to this House first. The Minister for the Cabinet Office made no announcement of policy; he was simply reiterating the fact, which I told the House a few moments ago, that it was always the intention for the Government Digital Service to transfer responsibility to the Department for Work and Pensions’ digital team.

I was visited by two constituents late last year who adopted their children in 2005. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a statement to explain why children adopted before 1 January 2006 do not qualify for the pupil premium, whereas those adopted since then do?

As ever, my hon. Friend is assiduous in representing the interests of his constituents. The Government took the decision to link eligibility for the pupil premium to adoptions under the Adoption and Children Act 2002, which was implemented on 30 December 2005, to ensure consistency with the Government’s policy on priority school admissions for children adopted from care, and in the light of the need to balance competing funding priorities during the current difficult economic climate. The criteria for the pupil premium are reviewed annually. As part of that process, the Government will revisit the decision to limit access to the pupil premium to adoptions under the 2002 Act in time for the 2015-16 financial year.

May we have a statement on the use of non-custodial sentences for serious offences? The public are rightly questioning why some people found guilty of very serious and violent crimes are avoiding prison. Victims of crime need confidence that those guilty of serious crimes will be properly punished, but there is growing concern that one reason for the many non-custodial sentences is cost.

The issue that the hon. Lady raises is one about which we all feel strongly. I remind her, however, that the sentencing regime we had was substantially inherited from the Labour Government. We have taken action to improve the very things people are concerned about. For example, if someone commits a serious crime under this Government, they are nearly 10% more likely to go to prison than in the last full year of the Labour Administration, and the average sentence for sexual offences is nearly one year longer than it was in 2008 under Labour and two years longer than it was in 2002.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a pastor in the Central African Republic describing the entire destruction of his village and the slaughter of many innocent men, women and children. This is occurring in many communities across the country. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) has already rightly talked about the brave involvement of the French and other forces there doing important work, but may we have a debate on the speed of the UN’s reaction and the implementation of its responsibility to protect? Sometimes I feel it is too slow to respond.

I will not repeat what I have said previously, but in the light of the points that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) have made, I will talk to Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who fully share the concerns of the House and are working with our partners, pressing for the political progress necessary, including the implementation of the agreement in April. Time is not on our side, and our concerns increase day by day.

May I say how much I will miss Paul Goggins? I was looking forward to working with him this year on holding the Government to account on the promises they made to mesothelioma sufferers in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—an issue that I know was very dear to his heart.

Has the Leader of the House seen The Times’ letters page, particularly the letter from the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, who complains that in interviews this week the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), who has responsibility for legal aid, has exaggerated barristers’ average earnings by more than 300%? Is not the problem that, while making the biggest attack on the criminal justice system in a generation, the Government have allowed no legislative time or debate? Will the Justice Secretary now table a debate in Government time so that at least we can get to the bottom of some of these dodgy statistics?

I know that my hon. Friends would never use dodgy statistics. At nearly £2 billion a year, ours is one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. I understood there to be consensus across political parties that savings needed to be made. That is why we are taking these steps. Previously, the Leader of the Opposition said that his party supported cuts in the legal aid budget. If he and his hon. Friends are changing their position, it would be helpful if they would explain how they would pay for it. It is of course open to the Opposition—and to the hon. Gentleman to tell his Front-Bench team this—to raise these matters: they have two Opposition days in the next two weeks, and if they wish to raise these issues, as they have done before, they can do so.

With the economic recovery taking hold, some businesses are now experiencing rapid growth. Oracle Finance in Knaresborough, for example, is dramatically increasing the size of its sales team. This period of the economic cycle places great pressure on companies in terms of recruitment and skills, operational issues and especially cash flow. These challenges are compounded for businesses facing particularly rapid growth, so may we please have a statement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on what it is doing to support companies facing such challenges?

I know that my hon. Friend works hard with his local community and local businesses to stimulate the economy, which is doing very well in Harrogate and surrounding districts. We will continue to put weight behind training initiatives, including the new traineeships, the expansion of the number of apprenticeships and support for local enterprise partnerships in delivering focused training to meet the needs of employers. It is also for employers themselves to invest in training. In that respect, one of the many positive results reported in the British Chambers of Commerce economic survey for the fourth quarter of 2013, which was published this week, was that manufacturing intentions to invest in training were at their best level since the third quarter of 2007, while service sector intentions to invest in training also rose to the best level since the fourth quarter of 2007. Companies are thus seeing the intention to invest both in plant and equipment and in training for the future.

May we have a debate on the impact of universal credit on eligibility for other Government schemes? A recent inquiry from a heating company in my constituency to Ofgem found that people who transfer to universal credit will apparently not be eligible for energy company obligation funding, which is designed to make their homes warmer and more efficient and tackle fuel poverty. As a shadow energy Minister who represents one of the pathfinder areas for universal credit, I would be extremely concerned—as would many other Members—if that were the case, so I would welcome any clarification that the Leader of the House could obtain for me. It seems yet again that with this Government and universal credit, no one really knows what is going on.

On the contrary, I think that some of the decisions about passported benefits in relation to universal credit have been very clear. If I may, however, I will inquire further with my colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions on the hon. Gentleman’s particular question. It is, of course, open to him to raise the issue with Ministers when they respond to parliamentary questions on Monday.

Has the Leader of the House seen the recent BBC report showing that councils in England are holding £1.5 billion in unspent section 106 moneys, which are funds paid by developers for community projects when planning permissions are granted? In some cases, failure to spend the money has meant that councils have handed it back to developers. At a time when budgets for councils are particularly tight, people will find it hard to understand that money is being wasted in this way, so could we have a debate to consider the matter further?

I did see the BBC survey, albeit not in detail. I shall ask my colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government to respond to my hon. Friend in detail, but it is important to recognise the benefit that the community infrastructure levy will bring in relation to future practice, as compared to section 106 agreements in the past.

International women’s day is on 8 March. At a time when the women of the world do two thirds of the world’s work and earn only 10% of its income, when rape is used daily as a weapon of war and when the Prime Minister admits that he has failed to reach his target for promoting women to the Cabinet, may we have a debate in Government time on international women’s day?

I cannot at this stage clarify the arrangements for debates at or around the time of international women’s day. I hope that the hon. Lady will recall that the Government, the Opposition and the Backbench Business Committee worked well together last year to ensure that Members were provided with an opportunity to debate issues relating to women. Last year, we were able to debate particular issues such as violence against women and girls, and I know that important themes will be taken up this year, too.

Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 908?

[That this House is disappointed that the Co-operative Energy company has contacted its customers to say that they will be charged an extra £63 if they do not begin to pay their bills by direct debit; notes that the Government is taking measures to reduce energy bills by an average of £50; further notes that this move will hurt the poorest the most; believes that energy companies should not try to recoup this money by raising money in other areas; and calls for Co-operative Energy to treat all its customers fairly, regardless of their chosen payment method.]

It condemns the way utility companies charge extortionate rates for consumers who do not pay their bills by direct debit. One of my constituents was charged £63 by the Co-op which, amazingly, is at the lower end of the scale. Some consumers are charged as much as £100. This hurts pensioners, the poorest and the most vulnerable. May we have an urgent statement on this issue?

I have seen my hon. Friend’s early-day motion, and I think that many Members will be concerned by the issue he raises. As so often, my hon. Friend identifies an issue that is of importance not only to his constituents, but to those on the lowest earnings and those most in need. I will take this issue away and discuss it with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to see whether they can assist him in any way. We want to make sure that we do not impose the greatest costs on those who have the least.

I shall certainly sign the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), because I have been campaigning on the same topic for some time in the House. Following the power disruption over the Christmas period, may we have a statement, or indeed a debate, about the power distribution companies? Many of them are making huge profits and pushing consumer prices up, but they did not provide adequate cover over Christmas, and numerous households have suffered as a consequence.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is currently undertaking a review. We hope that within two months we shall see a report on people’s experiences over the last few weeks of the storms and the response to them by the power companies, not just in relation to reconnections, but more especially—given the sentiments that were expressed in the House on Monday—in relation to the extent to which the companies communicated with customers. I should add, however, that when I was in Anglesey on the Thursday and Friday after Christmas our power was off for 16 hours, and I thought that it was reconnected reasonably promptly.

As my right hon. Friend may know, Plymouth’s truly excellent Theatre Royal, which is in my constituency, is one of only five production companies in the United Kingdom, and the principal theatre in the south-west. Shortly before Christmas, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport published its response to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on creative industries. May we please have a debate, in Government time, on the coalition’s arts policy and on regional arts funding?

I am very glad to acknowledge the excellent work of the Theatre Royal in Plymouth, for which the Government provide more than £1 million a year via Arts Council England. We also support Attik Dance Ltd, the Institute of Digital Art and Technology, the Plymouth Arts Centre and the Barbican theatre, all of which are in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The issue of the distribution of arts funding is inevitably complex, but the Arts Council is seeking to achieve a better balance between public funding and lottery investment throughout the country. I cannot promise a debate at present, but other Members may share my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue, and may wish to ask the Backbench Business Committee to allocate time for a debate on it. My hon. Friend will recall that the Opposition Front Bench chose arts and the creative industries as the subject of a debate in the middle of last year.

May I appeal to the Leader of the House not to allow any further debates on the commemoration of the first world war? I am sure that much of the nation has been appalled by attempts to politicise the event over the past week, and by the unedifying trench warfare that has emerged between the Government and the Labour Front Bench. May I appeal to both Front Benches to cool it, to show some dignity and respect, and to ensure that the centenary is marked sensitively and with decorum?

I felt that the debate that took place in the House late last year exemplified the importance of commemorating the events of 100 years ago. Although I cannot confirm that there are plans for another debate on the subject, I can say that there is probably a case for further such debates in the future.

Over the last year unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 25%, from 903 to 682. May we have a debate in which we can consider the policies that have delivered such a spectacular result, and ensure that we continue those policies in order to build on it?

I think that the figures cited by my hon. Friend are testimony not only to the achievements of businesses in his constituency, but to the effectiveness of the long-term economic plan that the coalition is pursuing. Flexible labour markets are also important. There have been widespread pressures on many economies throughout the world, some of which have manifested themselves in rapidly rising unemployment. The fact that we in this country have been able to produce 1.6 million extra private sector jobs is testimony to the fact that we have been prepared to make difficult decisions in controlling public sector expenditure and the reduction of public sector jobs, and maintaining a flexible labour market.

Members who have walked through New Palace Yard in recent weeks will have noticed a large number of ministerial cars sitting with their engines running for up to an hour at a time. Not only is that an absurd waste of taxpayers’ money, but it sets an incredibly bad example in the context of climate change. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Department for Transport to announce to all drivers, and confirm to the House, that the practice will cease, given that it is bad for both the environment and the taxpayer?

I must confess that I had not particularly noticed that, although I spend a lot of time in New Palace yard coming and going, but I will talk to the Department for Transport, which is responsible for the Government Car Service, and see what its view of this is.

When meeting with the Education Committee before Christmas the Education Secretary gave a commitment to publish the impact assessment on the cut in funding for 18-year-olds. This commitment was reiterated by Ministers at the Dispatch Box on Monday. Having checked with the Vote Office and Committee members, it is my understanding that that still has not been published. One would think that at the time of making a decision the impact assessment would be available. May we have a debate as soon as possible on the impact of this decision to damage the education of 18-year-olds?

I was in the House and I heard what was said and I will ask the Department when it intends to publish in the way proposed.

May we have a debate on the Government’s relationship with their public health responsibility deal partners, and not just on alcohol pricing and the issue about sugar, which was raised earlier today? An authoritative report was published last year about the link between fast food consumption and childhood asthma, yet the public health Minister has said that she sees no reason to discuss that with the companies that are responsibility deal partners. If they are not there to discuss issues like that with the Government, what are they there for?

I am responsible for establishing the responsibility deal, which is there for the Government to work together with health organisations and experts and the industry in order to improve public health. There is a programme of measures under the responsibility deal. That is why the issue of sugar is coming forward. We took action on salt and on fast food with the publication of calorie data—there has been an enormous increase in the visibility of calorie information on fast food and at food outlets on the high street. The hon. Lady’s response may simply reflect the fact that this is not intended to be a wide-ranging debate on all issues relating to public health; it is a focused agenda agreed between the parties.

May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s failed bank levy, which we now discover has fallen £2 billion short of what it was supposed to collect at a time when the Chancellor is speaking with relish about taking billions of pounds off the most sick and disabled people in this country? Is it not typical that it is not those with the broadest shoulders who get targeted; it is those who are limping already?

My recollection is that in the autumn statement the Chancellor further increased the contribution from banks through a special levy, but, to respond to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I have announced that the Opposition are intending to have a debate on issues relating to banking next Wednesday during which he will no doubt have an opportunity to make his point and hear the reply.

This week Russia blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the Syrian Government for their use of air strikes against civilians in Aleppo. The House last debated Syria in August last year, and an oral statement was provided in October last year. When might we expect a debate in Government time on the issue of Syria?

If I may, I will just say that I expect that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will update the House shortly on the situation in Syria. I cannot promise a debate, but the hon. Gentleman will know that we have regularly kept the House informed and we will do so again soon.

As reported in the media last weekend, TPIM—terrorism prevention and investigation measures—orders on all individuals will end this month because of the way the legislation was drafted. May we have an urgent statement about what the Government’s approach will be to these individuals who will be in our communities without any restrictions, rather than read about it in the weekend papers?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to respond directly to the hon. Lady and, if necessary, to inform the House.

Mr Speaker, I am sure that the whole House was pleased when you chose to grant the urgent question on the written statement on the provisional local government finance settlement, which was put before the House very late on 18 December. Given the scale, pace and deep unfairness of the cuts in many areas of the country, will the Leader of the House confirm that when the final settlement is announced, there will be a proper oral statement in the House so that Members will have the opportunity to question it.

The publication of the provisional local government finance settlement by means of a written ministerial statement was not unprecedented; that has happened before, including under the last Government. My recollection is that it would be virtually unprecedented for the final settlement to be the subject of an oral statement, although it will be the subject of a written ministerial statement at the very least.