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Business of the House

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 23 January 2014

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 27 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the European Union (Approvals) Bill [Lords], followed by a general debate on the law on dangerous driving. The subject of the general debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 28 January—Second Reading of the Consumer Rights Bill.

Wednesday 29 January—Opposition Day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on the UNHCR Syrian refugee programme, followed by a debate on teacher qualifications. Both debates will arise on an official Opposition motion, and will be followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 30 January—Remaining stages of the Immigration Bill.

Friday 31 January—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include the following:

Monday 3 February—Second Reading of the Deregulation Bill.

Tuesday 4 February—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 5 February—Opposition Day (20th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject to be announced.

Thursday 6 February—A general debate on Scotland’s place in the UK, followed by a general debate on international wildlife crime. The subjects of both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 30 January and 6 February will be as follows:

Thursday 30 January—A debate on the manifesto “The 1001 Critical Days” and early childhood development.

Thursday 6 February—A debate on the third report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, “Community Budgets”, and the Government’s response, followed by a debate on fire sprinkler week.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing yet another agenda that is jam-packed with thrilling Government business. I wonder what on earth he will do with all the endless spare time when the Backbench Business Committee has used up its allocation of 35 days.

I note that the elusive Immigration Bill has made a sudden and dramatic reappearance this morning. After nine weeks of radio silence, we now have an eleventh-hour change to Government business, which The Spectator seems to have managed to find out about before anyone else. I know the Leader of the House is an expert at pausing and rewriting Bills, so the House could be forgiven for thinking the Immigration Bill will look very different when it finally reappears in the Chamber next week. I hear that rebel amendments are already being tabled, and the Government’s highly unusual decision to table the Bill on a Thursday means a maximum of only four and a half hours will be available for that crucial debate. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is the case, and tell us whether the amendments mean that they have done a behind-the-scenes deal with their rebels? Will he also guarantee that Labour’s important amendments and new clauses on private landlords, on the minimum wage and on abolition of appeals tribunals will have time to be heard in that shortened debate?

Last week the Leader of the House refused to rule out scheduling the Queen’s Speech during pre-election purdah, giving the impression that the Government are still considering ignoring conventions and politicising the Queen’s Speech. Is the Leader of the House finally willing to rule that out, or is there another reason for him being so coy? Some reports have suggested the state opening might be delayed until well into June because the coalition parties have no idea what their legislative programme will be for the final year of this Parliament. Could the Leader of the House tell us what is actually going on? Does he now regret the Government’s rush to legislate for a five-year Parliament, and why did the Government settle on five years as the appropriate length for a fixed term given that it is obvious that they have nothing to do in the final year but fight and fall out?

This feels increasingly like a zombie Government marking time to the next general election. We all know this coalition of convenience is heading rapidly towards an inevitable and messy divorce. After all if they are not fighting each other, they are fighting among themselves. Last week 95 Tory Back Benchers signed a letter demanding that the Prime Minister deliver an impossible veto on all EU legislation. This week they were denounced as “thick” by an unnamed Tory Minister, and The Times claimed to have uncovered a fifth column of Tory MPs who want the Prime Minister to lose the election. On top of that, the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), a Treasury Minister, complained that the Tory message was far too negative, confirming what we all know already: the nasty party is well and truly back.

By comparison, the Liberal Democrats have been having a quiet time. The Deputy Prime Minister has been denounced by one of his most eminent colleagues for acting like a mixture of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un rolled into one, and Liberal Democrat peers seem to think the party is in need of a truth and reconciliation process similar to that used in post-apartheid South Africa. It is clear that the Deputy Prime Minister has no authority over his own party, so can we have a debate on whether he is capable of helping to run the country?

Not only have this Government run out of ideas for future business, they are running out of ways of hiding their record, too. This week alone we have learned that they are sitting on a report on EU migration because it does not support the nasty caricatures demanded by Lynton Crosby to fit in with his nasty election campaign plans. We have had to correct their misleading figures on flood defence spending. The crime figures have lost their kite mark because they cannot be trusted. This morning the National Audit Office has said the NHS waiting list figures cannot be trusted either, and there is still no sign of the reports on food banks, on garden cities and the risk assessment for Help to Buy. This Government have been ticked off for fiddling the figures more times than the Chancellor has had to amend his plans to balance the books. They have sat on more reports than the Liberal Democrats have sat on fences, and they have flip-flopped so many times that I keep thinking summer has come early—although if I listen to UKIP’s flood warnings I now realise why summer will never come for me.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader for her response. I am sure that the sun shines in many places in this country, contrary to the views of at least one member of UKIP.

It is curious—the shadow Leader asked me last week and the week before to bring forward the remaining stages of the Immigration Bill; this week I have done it and she complains. We are just bringing forward Government business. I explained previously that we have been dealing with other Bills and now we are proceeding with the Immigration Bill. I am afraid she chose rather a bad day to make a speech written in advance saying that the Government lacked ideas for future business when today we are publishing the Consumer Rights Bill and the Deregulation Bill and I have announced that we will debate those two Bills and the Immigration Bill next week. I am afraid that her prior argument has been thoroughly disproved.

The hon. Lady asked about the Queen’s Speech—

I thought I had answered the point on the Immigration Bill. We have a running commentary from the silent one. Sometimes on days when we have remaining stages we lose time as a consequence of urgent questions or statements, but we will endeavour to do whatever we can to avoid any additional statements beyond the business question next Thursday. Of course, there will be opportunity through the usual channels to discuss the timing of debates. As the Opposition will know, we always attempt to ensure that subjects can be debated properly.

I told the shadow Leader of the House last week that last year I announced the date of the Queen’s Speech on 7 March. We are still in January; we are before the point at which on recent precedent the date of the Queen’s Speech is announced. When I can, I will tell the House the date of the Queen’s Speech. All this speculation is literally nothing more than that.

The shadow Leader of the House will understand that I will not comment on her points about the Liberal Democrats. I do not know whether she was commending Thomas Cromwell. Having read “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies”, we have not reached the point yet at which Thomas Cromwell became the Lord Privy Seal and, speaking as the Lord Privy Seal, I am quite looking forward to that moment for a little potential guidance. It might give me some forewarning of the point at which I might be the subject of what we might term my own Henry VIII clause.

The shadow Leader of the House did not tell us anything much about the recent good news. She might have asked me for a debate on some of the forecasting issues. It is quite interesting. We have heard the IMF forecast that Britain will be the fastest-growing major European economy this year. The OECD forecasts likewise. Business confidence, according to a Lloyds TSB survey this month, has reached its strongest level since January 1994. British Chambers of Commerce referred to manufacturing confidence and intentions being at their highest for several years. This week we had the unemployment data: unemployment is down to 7.1%, down 0.8 points since the election. The employment level is above 30 million. It would have been interesting for the shadow Leader of the House at least to have suggested a debate about forecasting since it contrasts with the forecast of the Leader of the Opposition that our economic plan would lead to the disappearance of a million jobs. On the contrary, we can see that it has led to the success of our economic plan and of enterprise in this country.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about crime stats and NHS waiting data. The crime stats this morning show that crime levels are down to the lowest level for 32 years. The shadow Leader knows perfectly well that in addition to those crime statistics, the British crime survey shows a similar substantial reduction in crime, which shows that our police reforms are working and crime is falling. As for NHS waiting times, she will recall that at the time of the last election 18,458 people had waited over a year for their treatment. Now that number has come down to 218. We have dealt with the people who are waiting the longest. We have reduced by 35,000 the number waiting beyond 18 weeks, and the average time that people wait is still low and stable.

The Secretary of State for Transport has not made a statement today on the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment relating to HS2, which many people will find surprising. An important aspect of that judgment pertains to the legislative supremacy of Parliament, which is being carefully examined at the moment. In that context, will the Leader of the House consider giving time to my own Bill, the United Kingdom Parliament (Sovereignty) Bill, in order to resolve those questions?

The Supreme Court handed down its judgment on those cases yesterday. It found unanimously in favour of the Government and rejected the challenges to HS2, both in relation to the strategic environmental assessment directive and on the question whether the Bill process breached the environmental impact assessment directive. So the Government won both those cases.

Given that next week’s Back-Bench business has been moved at extremely short notice, will the Leader of the House work closely with the Members affected to ensure that their debates can take place as soon as possible, and perhaps look into giving them time on a day other than a Thursday as compensation?

I am very happy to discuss that matter further with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, although I am sure she is aware that we have made a day available for Back-Bench business each week recently. We are also increasingly adopting the approach of trying to identify occasions on which there is scope for holding a Back-Bench-led debate on other days in the week, even though it is not the principal business on that day. That has been quite successful in recent weeks.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recently reported on rural communities and highlighted the importance of bus travel in those areas. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on any legislative changes that might be required to allow bus travellers—especially concessionary fare travellers—in rural areas to contribute to the cost of their bus service rather than losing it completely following the withdrawal of the bus subsidy?

I cannot offer an immediate opportunity for a debate on that subject, although I recognise that it is an important one. We have recently had a more general debate on rural communities, in which my hon. Friend was involved. I will none the less raise the issue with my colleagues at the Department for Transport, in the hope that they will be able to discuss it further with her.

Many people were shocked by the recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which showed that the majority of the people living in poverty in Britain were in working families—6.7 million people. Is it not time we had a debate on the need for real action on low pay, as Labour is proposing, given that, under this Government, employment no longer appears to be a route out of poverty?

I think we all agree that the principal route out of poverty is through work. The number of workless households has gone down to its lowest ever level, and the number of people in work is now above 30 million. People who are in work but low paid are increasingly seeing their tax burden coming down, because the personal tax allowance is now taking some 3 million people out of tax altogether.

The Leader of the House will know of the importance of rural broadband. May we have a debate on that issue? Also, does he share my surprise that Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council has rejected the Government’s proposed co-funding for broadband in the area, given that Conservative-led Shropshire council has embraced it, helping local residents and businesses?

I completely concur with my hon. Friend on the importance of rural broadband, and I am surprised by what he says about the attitude of Telford and Wrekin council. In my own constituency and elsewhere in Cambridgeshire, the Connecting Cambridgeshire campaign has a contract and is aiming for 98% superfast broadband coverage by the end of 2015 or early 2016. Such coverage is tremendously important in rural areas, particularly for supporting the new enterprises that are setting up there.

Two weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House to make a statement on when the Government would publish their report on food banks. Given the fact that it has still not been published, may we have an urgent statement to tell us when the report will be made public?

I confess that I do not have a publication date, but I will, of course, speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and if he can update the House, I am sure he will.

May we have a debate on the housing targets used by local authorities? The housing targets used by Leeds city council are being challenged, including by Dr Rachael Unsworth at Leeds university and Wharfedale and Airedale Review Development. May we debate whether the targets are accurate before we see huge swathes of north Leeds and Wharfedale being built on?

What my hon. Friend says is interesting. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to look at it. One of the essential things for local authorities to do, as part of the national planning policy framework, is to ensure that they meet five years’ demand for housing in their areas. So what that demand is and what the targets ought to be are important questions, but of course, they can be challenged on appeal to the inspectorate if someone thinks that a local plan is inaccurate.

Just before the Offender Rehabilitation Bill was considered on Report, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), met the Liberal Democrat group and warned them not to vote for any piloting of the procedures because they were too far advanced. At the end of last week, he slipped out a written statement to say that the timeline has been set back two months. May we now have a debate in Government time on the Government’s lack of candour and complete incompetence with regard to the Bill?

The House has just debated the Offender Rehabilitation Bill and these issues were discussed. My recollection is that, in particular, the issue was not a lack of time, but that the related piloting—for example, in Peterborough—has illustrated the benefits of the approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the programme for a discussion on provision for young people with dyslexia? The Government have gone a long way, and we are publishing a new code of practice, but the issue is how things are working in schools and getting early intervention to help those with dyslexia to be able to perform adequately in schools.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that these are important issues. Indeed, there are often opportunities—I hope that they will continue—through the Backbench Business Committee to discuss them. Of course, in the wider sense for children with special educational needs, the Children and Families Bill contains important new provisions. It is in the House of Lords now, so to that extent, we have debated it here. Some amendments might come from the House of Lords in due course that will afford an opportunity to debate some of the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and I hope that he has that chance.

May we have an urgent debate on the complete failure of Capita in relation to personal independence payments? Many people have been waiting six or seven months for their assessments to get from Capita to the Department for Work and Pensions. The DWP helpline for MPs is in despair. The Capita website, contact e-mail and telephone numbers do not respond. What is happening to desperately ill people is awful. The Secretary of State has said that his policies are about changing lives, not just saving money. They are changing lives, but not for the better, and he is certainly saving a lot of money from desperately ill people.

I cannot offer an immediate debate on that, and the hon. Lady will know that questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions are—

Yes, exactly. Therefore, the next questions are some way off. To be as helpful as I can to the hon. Lady, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to address her specifically on the points that she raises.

Yesterday, we had a debate in Westminster Hall about the situation in Somerset. People are now looking at setting up gold command, which is one stage below a major incident. Surely, the time has come to have a debate in the House on the Environment Agency and flooding throughout the United Kingdom. We cannot go on, year on year, having a situation where emergency services are stretched and local councils are getting more stretched, yet we cannot get them to dredge rivers and live up to the job that they should be doing.

My hon. Friend rightly raised this issue last week, and I was glad that the business gave him the opportunity to raise it in Westminster Hall, as he says. I cannot offer him an immediate prospect of a debate, but I know that we will discuss this matter with the Backbench Business Committee, because, as I said last week, Members from across the House will want to debate it in the light of the exceptional weather conditions. I should say that in many cases they will want to do so not least to express their appreciation of the success of the Environment Agency and emergency services, as well as to identify where more needs to be done.

May we have a debate in Government time on the operation of, and criteria for inclusion in, the rural fuel rebate scheme, because, amazingly, despite Northern Ireland having the highest petrol and diesel prices in the UK—prices are the highest in Europe in some parts of the Province—no part of Northern Ireland qualifies under the scheme? It would be worth exploring that, if the Leader of the House could see his way to having a debate on the matter.

I cannot immediately promise a debate, but the right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting issue. I know that my Treasury colleagues will always be willing to discuss it with him, and I will encourage them to respond to him on that subject.

As the number of people in employment rises and the number of claimants falls—such progress has been made in my constituency that it now has just 95 young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance—may we have a debate about how we further target the benefits system to support people in getting back into work?

I would welcome such a debate, and my hon. Friend is right to seek one. It would give us an opportunity to examine how the Work programme has, according to industry figures, brought 444,000 people into work; to look at how the youth claimant count has been reduced by 114,000 since the election; and to celebrate the one and two-thirds million more private sector jobs created in this country since the last election.

We warned what the consequences would be of cutting more than 10,000 front-line police officers. Today’s figures show that theft was up in 24 of the 43 force areas, shoplifting was up in 28 and sexual crime was up in 40. Given those disturbing trends, taken together with today’s revelations that last year half a million crimes were screened out and not even investigated, will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on the growing consequences of the Government’s actions, as the thin blue line is stretched ever thinner?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is just in denial, as his party so often is on so many subjects. Both the crime statistics and the crime survey show that crime has fallen by more than 10% under this Government, which makes us the safest we have been for decades. It shows that the Government’s reforms are working and that police forces are rising to the challenge of delivering savings while reducing crime.

Empire, Golcar, Hand Drawn Monkey, Magic Rock, Milltown, Nook, Riverhead and Summer Wine are all microbreweries in my constituency. They employ dozens of people, and export to Australia and eastern Europe. We had a debate earlier this week on pubcos, but may we please have a debate on the role that microbreweries are playing in our booming food and drink exports?

It would be a joy to have a further debate; it seems that the Opposition day debate on pubcos the other day, for which we are grateful, has not assuaged the thirst for such discussion in this House. My hon. Friend makes a good point, because microbreweries are doing a fantastic thing in bringing innovation into an industry and really responding to customer preference. It is now such a joy for beer drinkers as compared with the time when I was but a lad; I recall taking Watneys Red Barrel to a party, but that was a day in the past.

I very much welcome today’s short Backbench Business Committee debate on Holocaust memorial day. However, given continuing holocaust denial and increasing anti-Semitic discourse, including the Anelka incident, may we have a debate on these issues in Government time?

The House is grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling a debate this afternoon. As I said last week, the recent European report highlighting the number of anti-Semitic incidents across Europe does give rise for concern, and it is something that we should continue to debate. However, although one incident is one too many, we can take some comfort from the fact that there is a relatively low number of such incidents in this country. That means that communities here can feel relatively confident compared with those in other European countries.

I have been contacted by several constituents who were the victims of theft, so will a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on whether the Government will consider the introduction of digital monitoring of blue badges as part of a drive to tackle misuse and assist genuine users?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will recall that the Disabled Persons' Parking Badges Act 2013, which was piloted through this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), secured its Royal Assent about this time last year. The reforms to the blue badge scheme are now delivering some comprehensive changes, which will include a national shared database of all blue badge holders. That will enable enforcement officers anywhere in the country to use handheld devices to check badge details in real time against that nationwide database. I hope that will help in the issues my hon. Friend raises.

Now that both coalition parties are in favour of new nuclear and offshore wind, may we have a debate in Government time on transmission and the national grid, so that the new connections can be looked at fairly and objectively when we are considering subsea, underground and overground proposals? That is a serious issue to which the Government have not given much time or attention.

Yes, it is an important matter. It should be noted that this Government are now making progress on the new nuclear build. About 10 years ago, the Trade and Industry Committee, of which I was a member, asked the previous Government for such a debate, but it did not happen. They kept saying then that they were keeping the door open, but skills, opportunity and investment were leaving the country. Now they are coming back. It is an important matter, especially at Wylfa in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I will, if I may, discuss it with my colleagues. Of course the grid and planning are partly an issue for the Welsh Assembly Government as well. None the less, I will raise it because I know how important it is to his constituents.

May we have a debate on the state of Britain’s roads because they appear to be getting worse, especially in Lancashire and the Ribble Valley? Annually, local authorities pay £30 million in compensation to motorists, so motorists themselves end up paying £2.8 billion in repairs because of the number of potholes and craters in the roads. A debate would enable us to focus on how much money is spent on the roads and to ensure that the money is spent equally in counties such as Lancashire, including in rural areas such as the Ribble Valley.

My hon. Friend knows that this Government have made available additional resources to assist highways authorities to deal with potholes, and I hope that that is making a difference. None the less, it is a constant effort, not least because of some of the exceptional weather conditions we have experienced this winter and the previous one.

The Leader of the House may recall that during the recent industrial dispute at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland, the Prime Minister, from the Dispatch Box, described as a rogue the then Unite union convenor, Stevie Dean. Since then, and following a police investigation, Mr Dean has been cleared of all the allegations levelled against him. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to come back to the Dispatch Box and apologise to Mr Dean and his family?

Perhaps in the first instance the Labour party would like to publish its own internal report relating to the events in Falkirk and then we will see where we go from there.

Tomorrow, stakeholders from across the south-west are meeting to discuss once again the future of the A303. Will my right hon. Friend allow time for a statement to confirm that the work will expedite a solution as quickly as possible, take advantage of the studies that have been undertaken over the past 20 years and ensure that Stonehenge and the stretch of the A303 around it will not be forgotten or decoupled from the work?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this matter with me again. As he says, a meeting is due to take place tomorrow with local authorities and local enterprise partnerships to consider the issue. I can tell him—I will ask my colleagues to follow up on this with him and other interested Members—that we recognise the need to find solutions to the issues on the A303/A30/A358 corridor. We commit to identifying and funding solutions in the future and to ensure that we build on previous and recent work, including that done by Somerset county council and others, rather than starting from scratch.

Earlier this year, my local former Scottish National party MSP, Mr Bill Walker, was convicted of 23 counts of domestic abuse and one charge of breaking a frying pan over his stepdaughter’s head. He was sentenced to the maximum sentence available, which was only one year, so the Scottish Parliament did not have the power automatically to expel him. Will the Leader of the House ask the Cabinet Office to consider the outdated rule that someone must have a jail sentence of one year and one day before they can be disqualified from this place or any of the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments?

Of course, these are matters for me. As regards this House, I would want to proceed on the basis of an understanding of consensus and I will be glad to discuss the question with colleagues, the shadow Leader of the House and others. In this House, we have already seen—I hope that this would be reflected in other Parliaments—that when Members are convicted of serious offences, even if they have not necessarily been given a sentence of more than 12 months, they have either resigned from the House or action has been taken against them on a recommendation from the Standards Committee.

Wolverhampton central youth theatre is one of many organisations that will have its funding cut if Wolverhampton council moves £1.6 million from the voluntary sector budget. Given that last night Wolverhampton council deferred the decision, may we use this pause to have a debate on the importance of voluntary sector organisations and wider civil society?

My hon. Friend raises an important point for his constituents, but there is a general point, too. In many cases, local authorities are making effective decisions about how they can reduce costs, increase efficiencies and maintain services for their public, but they should never take the easy route out. They should always look for the opportunity to reduce their costs while maintaining their ability to support the services and expenditure that are of most importance to their constituents.

There was a deeply disturbing report on the “Today” programme this morning concerning Oakwood prison in Staffordshire, the largest prison in the UK. In my constituency of Wrexham, an even bigger prison is planned by the Government but many major decisions concerning it have not yet been made. May we please have a debate so that we can consider prison capacity and the effectiveness of Oakwood prison and so that we know what the Government have planned for my constituency?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports the decision made by this Government to establish a large new prison in Wrexham. On the specific question of HMP Oakwood, he knows that the incident there was resolved successfully in the early hours of 6 January. I cannot comment further on that particular issue, but he will know from what my colleagues have said that large category C prisons elsewhere in the prison estate often operate very successfully. The number and type of incidents Oakwood has experienced over the past six months are not notably different from those experienced by other such prisons.

Tomorrow, as the Leader of the House travels to Corby to support the excellent Conservative candidate, Tom Pursglove, he will have to drive through my constituency. As he does, will he reflect on the fact that when Labour left power 2,757 people were unemployed and now fewer than 2,000 are unemployed? Would it be possible to ensure that there is not a debate on the economy next week so that the Opposition are not embarrassed?

I often drive through my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I look forward to doing so to visit Corby in east Northamptonshire tomorrow evening. Of course, the Opposition had an Opposition day available to them next week but chose not to debate the recent economic good news, so, as he correctly observes, they are not willing or keen to be embarrassed.

May we have a statement on what plans the Government have to support the north-east economy, in particular? Yesterday we saw that the north-east still has the highest level of unemployment in the country, with too many young people out of work and rising levels of long-term unemployment. I wish Portsmouth well, but who in Government is going to get to grips with the challenge that we face in the north-east?

I hear the sedentary comments from the Opposition. Let me make it absolutely clear that we do care. That is why we are pursuing a long-term economic plan which, among its many benefits, is getting many more people into work, with 1.68 million private sector jobs. We were left with an enormous deficit and we have had to deal with that. We said at the outset that that would necessitate a reduction in public sector jobs. Labour Members and the Leader of the Opposition said, “It will never happen. Jobs will be lost in the public sector but the private sector could not possibly create equivalent numbers of jobs.” There are now four private sector jobs for every public sector job lost. The hon. Lady and other north-east MPs should be on their feet extolling the successes in the north-east. This week, Nissan, with a new Qashqai model coming off its production lines, is a fantastic example of the potential in this country and in the north-east to produce world-beating manufacturing.

Many local residents and members of Medway council have raised concerns about the proposed closure of A block, based at Medway hospital and run by Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, which provides in-patient mental health care facilities. I know that the Government have done a lot on the provision of mental health care facilities across the country, but may I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on such provision across the country, looking at levels of in-patient and community-based treatment?

My hon. Friend asks his question at a good moment, not least because earlier this week my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister published the Government’s update of the mental health strategy, with some important further commitments on the availability of mental health services, especially the ability for services to become more seamless at the point at which young people are treated as adults, which makes a big difference. My hon. Friend raises an important local point. When the Secretary of State for Health decided on 20 November last year to support the Independent Reconfiguration Panel’s recommendation, he made it clear that the matter should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible. Knowing my hon. Friend’s local hospitals, I think that, for example, there is a very good in-patient unit at Darent Valley. I hope his constituents will appreciate that there continue to be high-quality in-patient services locally.

Today The Daily Telegraph reports the plight of my former constituent, Mrs Afsana Lachaux, who is stranded in Dubai having being abused by her former husband and who is now threatened with jail by the Dubai police and authorities. I have bid for an Adjournment debate on this matter, and I am seeking a meeting with the relevant Minister at the Foreign Office. In the interim, may we have a statement from the Foreign Office on the outcome of the representations that have been made by our consular officials in Dubai to Foreign Office staff?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman might have some success in his quest for a debate, because this is clearly a distressing matter for his constituents and their friends and families. I will of course talk to my ministerial colleague at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who will be in contact with the hon. Gentleman. I hope, too, that if there are wider issues the Minister will take whatever opportunity he can to update the House.

Farmers in Staffordshire and other parts of the country who have seen their pedigree herds slaughtered as a result of bovine TB face a double loss: the loss of their herds, into which they put so much effort, and a loss of compensation, because they are compensated at an average level. May we have a debate on fair compensation for farmers who lose their cattle as a result of this terrible disease?

My hon. Friend will know that we are doing everything we can to try to reduce the high incidence of bovine TB. This is a very important issue and whenever we debate the mechanisms of the badger cull we should never forget that it meets a very important purpose. I understand my hon. Friend’s point about compensation. I will raise it with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ask him to respond to my hon. Friend.

For some time I have been working with the pensions Minister—the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—and the Yorkshire Post to bring about a satisfactory conclusion to the Carrington Wire pension fund saga, which affects hundreds of pensioners in Yorkshire, including in my constituency. The case is important because it represents the way in which the Government protect UK pension holders. I believe it is our responsibility to ensure that our laws and regulations properly protect the public, but the longer this particular matter takes to be resolved, the less likely that appears to be the case. Will the Leader of the House ensure that we get the opportunity to debate the matter?

I will, if I may, talk to my hon. Friend the pensions Minister so that he can update me. I cannot promise a debate, but I will, of course, make sure that if there is anything we can do to assist in the matter that the hon. Gentleman has rightly raised, we will try to do so.

Could we have a long debate in Government time on jobs and growth? It would allow hon. Members on both sides of the House to highlight some of the remarkable statistics in the current numbers, such as the fact that workless households are at a record low, that the number of children in absolute poverty is at a record low, that the number of professional science and technical jobs are growing very fast, that long-term unemployment is coming down and, above all, that, unlike the previous Government, this Government are creating British jobs for British workers.

I thought that was an excellent application for a debate and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for it. Without repeating what she has rightly said is the basis for such a debate, it would, if we could find time for it, afford an opportunity to take particular note of her last point that, under the previous Government, in the five years up to the last general election the number of British people in a job dropped by 413,000, while the number of foreign workers in employment in this country went up by 736,000. By contrast, in the three years after the election, the number of British people in a job has risen by 538,000 and the number of foreign workers by 247,000. That trend is, if anything, accelerating. According to the most recent figures from 2012-13, 90% of jobs went to UK nationals, meaning 348,000 more British people in work and 26,000 additional foreign workers.

For more than two years I have been meeting Ministers and industry experts to look in detail at the issue of internet trolling. Just this week we have seen further evidence of the inadequate response of social media sites to online racist and misogynist abuse. Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on internet trolling so that Parliament can send a message to Facebook, Twitter and others that we are watching what they are doing and that thus far we are not impressed?

I cannot immediately offer a debate, but a lot of people have rightly been concerned about the character of internet trolling. I will, if I may, talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The House has had some opportunities to discuss the issue. We have focused in the past on the danger to and exploitation of children, but there are wider issues such as balancing freedom of speech with the general legal basis on which people have a right not to be abused.

Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 974?

[That this House recognises that Harlow Mecca Bingo is one of the biggest bingo clubs in the country, with 54,000 members; notes that their staff are second-to-none; further notes that Harlow Mecca Bingo provides an important role in Harlow’s community; acknowledges that despite being recognised as a soft form of gambling that plays an important social role within many local communities in the UK, bingo is subject to a gross profits tax of 20 per cent, as opposed to the 15 per cent charged on other forms of gambling; and therefore urges the Government to reduce this tax to 15 per cent in line with other forms of gambling, to ensure that Harlow Mecca Bingo continues to have a strong future.]

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Harlow Mecca Bingo club has 54,000 members, that 100,000 people have walked though its doors over the past year and that it has 10,000 active members? Will he do what he can and arrange a debate on the “boost bingo” campaign, so that we can secure a future for bingo clubs such as that in Harlow and ensure that they are on a level playing field and not taxed at 20% when other forms of gambling are taxed at 15%?

Yes, I have seen early-day motion 974, in which my hon. Friend makes a point about Harlow Mecca Bingo, whose fame has spread far and wide. I suspect that there are probably even people in South Cambridgeshire who go to Harlow to enjoy bingo. Before the 1997 general election, when you and I first entered the House, Mr Speaker, the Bingo Association asked me whether I wanted to call the numbers at a bingo club in my constituency. Unfortunately, there was no bingo club in my constituency, so I lost out on that one, and my hon. Friend therefore has the advantage on me. I note that the fame of Harlow Mecca Bingo is so great that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) has signed the early-day motion, so the campaign is a national one. The question of duty is of course a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Government spokesmen now say that they intend to increase economic security for the average household. May we debate that so that I can answer my constituents who are wondering which is the better indicator— 25 people off the claimant count, or the fact that a place such as Birmingham, Selly Oak is now in the top 20% of constituencies for unemployment?

It is very important to give people a greater sense of security and peace of mind, and that is what we have set out to do. The fact that the number of households in which nobody is in work is at a record low makes an enormous difference. The fact that the latest data show that inflation is at 2%—it has come down to its target level—also gives people a sense of security. The fact that we are dealing with the deficit is not just some debate at a global or national level, but a practical matter: if we stick to the long-term economic plan to bring down the deficit, that will increasingly allow us to do what we have done with the money available, which is to relieve the tax burden, not least on the low-paid.

On Monday, we had the welcome news that Harrow council and the Department for Education are conducting a feasibility study with the aim of putting a brand new Hindu free school on Whitchurch playing fields in my constituency. May we have an urgent debate on the principle of religious schools, particularly in relation to their impact on Britain, so that Britain’s 1.6 million Hindus have the right to provide an education of their choice for their children?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I wish him well with the plans that his constituents are putting together. As he will know, our view is that there is a valuable long-standing tradition of faith schools in this country, and we support the contribution that they make. They are often high-performing schools that are popular with parents, and many of them are therefore over-subscribed. Two Hindu free schools have thus far been established—the Krishna Avanti primary school in Leicester and the Avanti House school in London, which opened in 2012. I hope that this continuing trend of support for faith schools will be sustained.

The Leader of the House has rightly commended the work of the emergency services in tackling flooding, and I particularly draw attention to the fire service. My local firefighters are somewhat bemused that they do not have a statutory duty to attend flooding incidents. May we therefore have a debate on the implications of there being no statutory duty, so that we can ask the fire Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), to explain why that is still the position?

I will gladly raise that point with the Minister with responsibility for fire services, and he may like to reply to the hon. Lady. I have to say that I do not think that fire services would generally regard themselves as in any way constrained by their statutory responsibilities in attending whenever they felt there was a public need for them to do so.

Last week, Thales UK won a £120 million export order to Indonesia, securing important aerospace jobs. That is just one example of the importance of the Government strategy to rebalance the economy by supporting manufacturing, promoting apprenticeships and exporting to high-growth countries. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the strategy’s most important consequences is the opportunity for young people, and that it is one of the major reasons why youth unemployment in my constituency fell by 45% during 2013? Does he agree that this is a good moment for a debate on youth unemployment to see what more we can do to maintain this encouraging momentum?

My hon. Friend is right. The rate of youth unemployment is lower than at the time of the election and the youth claimant count has fallen for 19 months in a row. That is a reflection of the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan. We can see practical benefits from that plan, not least for our young people, but it is also about businesses. We should always reflect on the success of enterprise and on the hundreds of thousands of new businesses that are being established. In particular, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills made clear in questions, we must support small businesses and increase the proportion of small businesses that are exporting, particularly to the fast-growing economies around the world, because that will drive growth in the future.

I urge the Leader of the House to arrange an early debate on the welfare state. The welfare state in this country has provided wonderful support for tens of millions of people. It is a wonderful creation. In the light of the Channel 4 programme, “Benefits Street”, I suggest that everyone in the House reads Caitlin Moran’s article in The Times on the benefits that the great welfare state has brought to tens of millions of people as preparation for that debate. The welfare state in this country is something to be proud of, not to be derided.

I suggest that Members would be better advised to read the speech that is being made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. They will find that we are returning to the original intention of the welfare state, which is to encourage people to be in work and to help those who are most in need, not to create the opportunity for a lifestyle of living on benefits. People must contribute the most that they can not only to society, but to their own family by taking up the opportunities for work that the economy is creating.

Although I fully recognise the need to invest in flood defences, I understand that the Environment Agency put a spade in the ground two weeks ago to start work on flood defences for Exeter—a part of the world that my right hon. Friend knows well, having been to university there—which could have a significant impact on the railways from Exeter to Plymouth and onwards to Cornwall. May we please have a debate on that matter?

I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I can tell my hon. Friend that Network Rail has identified 10 projects to improve flood resilience on its western route. That programme might take several years and the funding mechanism is still to be determined, but it will be important to him. Network Rail is liaising closely with the Environment Agency and will continue to do so.

At the beginning of the year, the Cabinet Office released documents under the 30-year rule relating to the miners’ strike. The documents clearly show that the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and senior Cabinet Ministers interfered greatly in the miners’ strike, deliberately misled the country and potentially misled Parliament. May we have a debate on that matter?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of 1984. I was a civil servant at the time, so I was completely non-partisan in those matters, but I remember them. I remember well that the Government were making absolutely sure that the economy of this country was not held to ransom. That was really important.

Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jenny Willott) whether it was fair that a woman who is discriminated against at work because she is pregnant has to pay £1,200 to enter a tribunal. The Minister said that that was not true. Given that it is true—this is not a point of order, Mr Speaker—may we have an urgent debate on how the Government’s decision to introduce fees for employment tribunals is choking off access to justice?

I think the hon. Gentleman should simply have listened to the reply given by my hon. Friend earlier today.

In Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, average weekly gross pay has fallen by 32.5% since 2010, and the number of under-25s who have claimed jobseeker’s allowance for more than 12 months has increased by 223% since December 2010. May we have a debate on the cost of living, and on yesterday’s news that the unemployment count in the north-east went up by 1,000?

There were regional variations in the employment data yesterday, but having predicted the loss of 1 million jobs, it ill behoves the Labour party not to celebrate the fact that there are one and two-thirds million more private sector jobs in this country than there were at the general election. I am afraid the Labour party is in complete denial about the inevitable fact that, as a consequence of its policies, the deepest recession this country has experienced took the equivalent of about £100 billion from the country’s wealth. It is not possible for everybody in a country to have more money at the same time as it has been made £100 billion poorer.

A young man in my constituency has a zero-hours contract, but when he has worked he impressed his employer who offered him a six-week training course, leading to a permanent job. I am sure the Leader of the House will want to join me in celebrating that young man’s success—except for the fact that he has been told by the job centre that he has not been on the Work programme long enough and cannot take up the offer. May we please have a debate on the mess that is the Work programme, which—not for the first time—has denied one of my constituents a proper job with real prospects?

It is the Government’s intention to support young people back into work, and that is what the Work programme and our Youth Contract are all about. It is the largest such programme to support young people, and as a consequence 114,000 fewer young people are among the claimant count. If the hon. Gentleman sends me the particular circumstances of his constituent, I shall of course ask for a response from my hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions.

One supermarket in my constituency offers free newspapers and coffee, another has opened a new carwash and dry cleaner as it competes for customers, and that of course has a significant effect on local independent retailers. May we have a debate on the balance needed between the actions of the supermarkets and the need to look after our small shopkeepers, and on how we provide support for local independent retailers?

It is important for the hon. Gentleman to recognise that competition is, as they say, the tide that lifts every boat. In his constituency, as elsewhere, competition will in the end deliver the best consumer benefits.

Everybody wants this country to maintain its economic improvement, but may we have a debate about cuts to local government education budgets? It seems contradictory to demand an increase in skills to compete with the world, while also cutting education at its source.

Notwithstanding the fact that we had to deal with the largest deficit of any country in the OECD, this Government made the commitment—among others—to protect school budgets, which we have done. The hon. Gentleman should celebrate the fact that, together with our coalition colleagues, we have put about £2.5 billion into the pupil premium to ensure that schools with some of the most disadvantaged children have additional resources to help them achieve success in future.

In September I asked the Prime Minister whether he would adopt a similar approach to that of Sweden and other European countries in accommodating Syrian refugees. He dismissed me, simply saying, “No, we are not going to do that.” Will the Leader of the House assure me that should the Government have a change of heart in the next few days, the Prime Minister will come to the Chamber to make any announcement?

I hope the hon. Lady was in her place yesterday and able to hear the Prime Minister make it clear that this country is making the second biggest contribution to meeting the humanitarian needs of refugees from Syria, and proportionately we are doing more than anybody else to support those refugees. We are responding to and fully meeting our commitments to those seeking asylum, and as she knows, last year there were around 1,100 asylum applications from Syrian refugees. The Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that we will look at individual cases, but we will not do what some other countries have done who think that taking a relatively modest given number of refugees away from refugee camps somehow meets their obligations to the millions of refugees who want to be supported in their camps, and not to leave and give up hope of returning to Syria soon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) called for a debate on welfare. We had a debate on welfare just 10 days ago, when the House of Commons voted by a majority of 123 in favour of a commission of inquiry into the Government’s welfare reform policies. When I asked the Leader of the House last week when he was going to establish the commission, he rather derisively told me that he had no plans to do so. The House voted for a commission. Will he to agree to set up such a commission, or is it the Government’s policy that Back-Bench motions are ignored and to be of no account whatsoever in this House?

I think the hon. Gentleman imputes a motive to me that certainly was not there. He asked the question last week and I will repeat my answer today. The Government consider carefully all motions approved by this House. As I told him last week, I was not in a position to advise him that we had any plans to establish such a commission.