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Business of the House

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 30 January 2014

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 3 February—Second Reading of the Deregulation Bill.

Tuesday 4 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, followed by a debate on a motion relating to energy company charges for payment other than by direct debit. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 5 February—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on the NHS, followed by a debate entitled “Job insecurity and the cost of living”. Both debates will arise on an official Opposition motion.

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

Friday 7 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 10 February—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Tuesday 11 February—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 12 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 13 February—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 14 February—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing what little Government business there is for next week. An analysis by the House of Commons Library has revealed that this Government spend a third less time debating Government legislation than the previous Government. Is that because they have run out of ideas or because they are too busy arguing among themselves to produce any positive proposals?

The Immigration Bill was once considered the centrepiece of Lynton Crosby’s legislative agenda, but eight months on from the Queen’s Speech the Bill is in disarray. Having been in suspended animation for two months, it returns today with more than 50 amendments tabled at the last minute by a Government running scared of their own mutinous Back Benchers. Almost uniquely, it comes back to the Floor of the House without a second programme motion that would have guaranteed debate on all parts of the Bill. That means that we will not have time to consider crucial issues such as the wrong-headed abolition of first-tier tribunal appeals in immigration cases.

Will the Leader of the House now admit what I and many of his Back Benchers already know: that less than five hours is simply not enough time to debate the amendments to the Bill? Perhaps he could tell us why he has not scheduled more time when there is plenty of spare time next week to ensure that all amendments tabled get a proper hearing in this Chamber? Will he now schedule extra time? Surely he cannot be afraid of his own Back Benchers.

The winter Olympics in Sochi get under way next week and I am looking forward to cheering on our Olympic and Paralympic athletes, but we cannot ignore the homophobic laws that the Russian Government have recently passed and the resulting vicious crackdown. In an attempt to downplay that law, President Putin has assured us that some of his best friends are gay while praising Elton John as an “extraordinary person”. The mayor of Sochi has claimed that there are no gay people in his town at all. Surely when lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are oppressed, assaulted and killed in Russia, it is our duty to stand up for them. Will the Leader of the House outline what the Government will be doing to make our views on the unacceptability of that repression crystal clear to President Putin?

Nearly four years ago, the Chancellor predicted that by now the economy would have grown by 8.4%. This week, we learned that he has achieved 3.3%. Four years ago, the Chancellor promised he would eliminate the deficit by the end of the Parliament. He is now telling us that it will take nearly twice as long. Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England pointed out that the “consumer spending boom” that the Chancellor has unleashed is unsustainable and on Monday the Business Secretary broke ranks and warned that with no rebalancing in sight the Government are presiding over the wrong sort of recovery.

Instead of fixating on statistics in a doomed attempt to tell people that they are really better off, should not the Government be promising that there will be no further tax cuts for millionaires? Or will they just admit that under a Tory government all we will get is tax cuts for the few and falling living standards for the many? Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate in Government time on what on earth the Chancellor could mean by the phrase, “We’re all in this together”?

Recent floods have caused anguish for people up and down the country and the weather forecast means that things looks likely to get worse over the next few days. Last night it emerged that the Somerset Levels, which have been flooded for almost a month, will now get assistance from the military. It comes to something when it takes a PR disaster by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to get the Government finally to do the right thing for the people of Somerset.

The Environment Secretary claims that he has been spending more than ever on flood defences, but total spending on flood protection has fallen by as much as £100 million. The Government have almost halved spending on river maintenance, and it has emerged that a year ago they ignored a report that specifically mentioned the need for dredging in Somerset. He may have been outwitted by badgers moving the goalposts, but even so, may we have a statement from the Environment Secretary about what he plans to do to get a grip on his brief?

Mr Speaker, may I take this opportunity to congratulate the England women’s cricket team on their outstanding performance in retaining the Ashes? What does that say about never leaving men to do a woman’s job? I am sure that the Leader of the House will tell us how the Government plan to honour their success.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader for her response to the business statement, in particular for giving us notification of the debates next Wednesday so that the House knows them well in advance. I welcome the debate on job insecurity, which no doubt for the Opposition will be led by the shadow Chancellor.

The hon. Lady asked about time spent on legislation. As far as I can see, the amount of time spent debating legislation in this Parliament looks set to be almost the same overall as in the last Parliament—about 3,200 hours, although it is not terribly sensible to measure the quality of legislation by the amount of time spent debating it, not least as many Public Bill Committees have finished early, and we have devoted more time to debate on Bills on the Floor of the House, as distinct from in Committee.

The shadow Leader asked about the Immigration Bill, which we brought back, as we anticipated we would in the programme motion—she said that there was not a programme motion—passed by the House on 22 October. Often, when we table additional programme motions that have the effect of inserting knives into the programme, we are criticised; when I do not bring a programme motion to the House and do not insert knives, the shadow Leader complains. It is perfectly normal to proceed on the basis of the programme motion set at the commencement of debate on a Bill.

The hon. Lady also asked about the winter Olympics. I was not in the House at that moment, but I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the matter, as indeed did the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have made clear to the House the support that we are giving to gay groups and organisations in Russia. I hope that our support for them and for human rights generally is transparent, including arguing for the defence of human rights in Russia.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the floods, which we have discussed in previous business questions in response to questions from my hon. Friends. She and the House will have heard in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday what the Prime Minister said we would be doing about that. I can reiterate that we are spending £2.4 billion in this four-year spending period, which is more than the £2.2 billion spent by the previous Government in the previous four-year period. The partnership funding approach has brought in a further £180 million of external money. That means that more is being spent on flood risk management than ever before.

The hon. Lady also asked about reducing the deficit. I thought that was probably a bit of an own goal on the part of the shadow Leader of the House, when it has become obvious that the Institute of Fiscal Studies has not only demolished Labour’s 50p tax rate policy but has found out the shadow Chancellor for the way he constructed his plan for reducing the deficit. It does not involve reducing the deficit at all—by no more than about a third of what is required—because it leaves out entirely borrowing for investment, which is absurd. The amount of borrowing is the amount of borrowing. We have to reduce the deficit. The Labour Government left us with the largest deficit in the OECD, and they continue not to understand the nature of the economic problems that they created in the past and would create again in the future. More borrowing leads to more taxes, which leads to cutting this country’s economic security, but we need to give people a greater sense of security.

We are only a month into 2014, and I wish that next week’s Opposition day did not reflect the Labour party’s desire to shift the debate away from the economy, which grew by 1.9% in 2013. There are 1.6 million more people employed in the private sector and, according to a Lloyds TSB survey, business confidence is at its strongest since 1994. Inflation has hit its 2% target and the International Monetary Fund has confirmed that Britain is the fastest-growing major European economy. We are pursuing a long-term economic plan that will reduce the deficit, cut taxes, create more jobs, make welfare work, and deliver better schools and skills, but all we have from the Labour party is more taxes, more borrowing and, I am afraid, more debt.

Order. As right hon. and hon. Members will know, my normal practice is to call everyone in this session to put a question. However, today we have important matters appertaining to the Immigration Bill to consider and a pretty constrained timetable in which to do so. I cannot do anything about that, but it would help if we had brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike. I warn colleagues in advance that it might not be possible to accommodate everyone at business questions on this occasion because I have to take account of the next business.

Will the Leader of the House, on behalf of the Government, take the opportunity to make a statement in defence and support of the Queen and the royal family, and the amazingly good value that they provide to the United Kingdom, and the territories and realms? Will he set out that any underfunding is due to a failure of Governments properly to fund the royal family, and dissociate himself from the disrespectful and unwarranted report published by the Public Accounts Committee?

The Government applaud the way in which the royal household has been managing its affairs more cost-effectively in recent years and securing greater value for money while living, in what are inevitably tough times, in a way that reflects the pressures that exist throughout the public sector and in many organisations. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was absolutely right to establish a new arrangement—my hon. Friend will recall it—that gives more certainty and security for future funding in relation to revenues from the Crown Estate.

Four weeks ago, I asked for a statement on the publication of a report on food banks, and last week I asked the same question. Will the Leader of the House get in touch with the Department for Work and Pensions to get it to publish that report? May I suggest that he sends some dogs in, because the Department has had the report for so long that it must be out of date by now?

I will try, as I always endeavour to do on behalf of Members, to secure a response to the hon. Gentleman as soon as I can.

Commuters on the south coast have been struggling with inadequate transport infrastructure for decades. Gosport is the largest town in the UK without a railway, it takes longer to travel on the fast train from Portsmouth to London than it does to go from London to Doncaster, and the A32 and M27 are virtually at gridlock. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the transport infrastructure in the Solent region?

My hon. Friend might like to pursue the broader question of transport links in her area through an Adjournment debate, if she is able to secure one, but I shall of course get a reply from a Transport Minister, which will reflect the fact that we are making the largest investment in this country’s railways since the Victorian era.

Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate on the introduction of the bobby tax, which has gone unnoticed by many Members, but will require young people to pay £1,000 to apply to join the police, which will be an insurmountable hurdle for many disadvantaged groups?

I recall this question being raised previously with the Prime Minister. If I may, I will endeavour to establish what reply the Prime Minister subsequently gave, and ensure that it also reaches the hon. Lady.

Reputable temporary employment agencies are being undercut by disreputable ones which incorporate travel and subsistence in basic remuneration. The Government are taking action to tackle these agencies, but further, faster action needs to be taken before more reputable agencies go out of business. May we please have a debate on what can be done in this unfortunate circumstance?

I will see what our hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are able to advise in relation to that. My recollection is that the rules on what is counted in the minimum wage are very clear about these matters, but I will take further advice.

Naloxone reverses the effects of opiate overdose but it currently needs to be prescribed. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has recommended that it be made more widely available to trained people such as hostel staff so that they can more effectively intervene in an overdose case. May we therefore have a debate, please, on the limitations created by the Medicines Act, which contains rules that are preventing this ground-breaking work from going further and more lives from being saved?

As the hon. Lady asks about the Medicines Act, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health about how that is applied in the circumstances she describes and whether anything can be done to help in the way she seeks.

Of the 144 hours that Parliament has sat this year, 33 hours have been spent on Government Bills. We have an Immigration Bill before the House today and there are nearly 50 pages of amendments on very, very important issues. I urge the Leader of the House to think again and to bring in at this late stage an extra day to debate exceptionally important issues.

My hon. Friend will know that so far in this Session the House has spent just over 500 hours debating Government legislation. I entirely understand the point he makes about Bills having two days on Report, and we have programmed that seven times in instances where that was programmed at the outset. I cannot give another day. We have to make progress with this business. My hon. Friend understands perfectly well, I know, that in order to be confident that the Bill will secure passage—and we must ensure that it does—we wanted to make sure that it was completed now.

May we have a debate in Government time on aviation and regional airports in the United Kingdom? With the ongoing work of the Davies commission, the impact that this has on the regions is extremely important. For Northern Ireland the link into long-haul flights and to London is particularly important.

My hon. Friends from the Department for Transport will be at the Dispatch Box next Thursday, if the right hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to ask them questions relating to that. I know that he and other Members will recall that the potential of regional airports was stressed very much when the interim report of the Airports Commission was published, and we continue to take that very seriously.

May I request an early and urgent debate on the role of dredging and regular maintenance of watercourses, both major and minor, in the prevention of flooding? In addition, may we discuss the further delay to the adoption of the sustainable drainage systems regulations? Sustainable drainage has a huge impact on the potential reduction of flooding and the regulations are long overdue.

I cannot promise an immediate debate, although I suspect the House will have opportunities relatively quickly now to debate and discuss the implications of the widespread flooding and, in particular, to receive an update in relation to the very difficult circumstances experienced in Somerset. I entirely take my hon. Friend’s point. I know from my own area the importance of internal drainage boards and the work they do in maintaining drainage. I do not wish to embarrass my hon. Friend, but may I say that her question is a further reflection of the very important work she does here on behalf of her constituents and others? She is a fine Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and we much appreciate the work she does in this House.

May we have a debate on the Deputy Prime Minister’s national pledge for free hot school meals for infants from September 2014, which of course was pioneered in Hull in 2004 by Labour but axed by the Liberal Democrats? Or is it likely to go the way of all pledges that the Deputy Prime Minister makes?

I am sure that the House will have an opportunity to discuss that when we consider Lords amendments to the Children and Families Bill.

My constituents Mr and Mrs D’Costa-Manuel have been trying to get disability living allowance for their autistic son. Despite the fact that they have lived in this country for over three decades and their son was born here, they have been unsuccessful in the application, because of a short period of time spent in Australia. Will the Leader of the House ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to look into the case and make a statement?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concern for his constituents, but one of the conditions for entitlement to disability living allowance, as he will know, is that a claimant must have been present in the country for two of the past three years. He will understand that all decisions on benefit claims must be made in accordance with the relevant legislation, but if he provides further details I will ask the Department for Work and Pensions to look into the matter.

The Prime Minister has curiously contested the fact that child poverty had risen, saying he was not happy

“with the measure. I think we need a better measure.”—[Official Report, 29 January 2014; Vol. 574, c. 859.]

Will the Leader of the House allow a debate in Government time to discuss what the Government propose to do about the escalating problem of child poverty, other than fiddling the figures?

The House will recall that the Prime Minister said that the data the previous Government used to measure child poverty related to relative poverty and that, on that measure, it has come down. The figures for 2011-12, the latest period for which data are available, show the number of children in relative poverty to be 2.3 million, a fall of 300,000 from 2009-10, when the figure was 2.6 million. The latest data from this Parliament show that the number of children in relative poverty has fallen by 300,000.

May we have a debate on transport? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Government, at a time when they are seeking to spend billions of pounds to enable a few trains to run faster, have bizarrely announced that they want to lower the speed limit on certain sections of the M1 motorway, and for reasons other than road safety, which is without precedent? We already have the lowest road speed limits in Europe, and only 8% of travellers choose to travel by rail, so will the Government announce a new initiative—HSM1?

I remind my right hon. Friend that the Government’s investment in rail is intended principally to increase capacity, as demand on the railways has doubled since privatisation. We need more capacity. With regard to speed limits on the M1, I understand that the reduction is to be a temporary measure related to air quality, but I will of course ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill)—my right hon. Friend’s parliamentary neighbour—to respond to him on that point.

The Leader of the House recently arranged for a reply from the Department for Work and Pensions on a matter I raised about delays in personal independence payments, for which I am grateful, but yet again I have had a constituent raise the matter with me. May I again request a debate in Government time so that we can discuss and examine in detail the delays, which are affecting my constituents and many across the country?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We did indeed correspond following his previous question, and that confirmed that the Department does not have a target for completion of personal independence payment claims. It is a new benefit, and we are looking closely at how long the journey to completion of claims takes, against the original estimates. Where there are further opportunities to streamline those processes, we will certainly introduce them.

May we have a Treasury debate on regional cuts to air passenger duty for entrants to the long-haul market, which would stimulate growth, reduce the burden on the south- east and kick-start the regional economy? I echo what was said by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds).

I will not reiterate what I have said, but the point about regional airports is well taken. Taxes and duties are of course matters for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I will be glad to alert my hon. Friends at the Treasury to the point that my hon. Friend raises.

Will the Leader of the House trouble his Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to come to the House to provide a statement on the latest confusion in energy policy? Just last month, he described Ofgem as fit for purpose, but it is widely reported today that ministerial sources have said Ofgem is in the last chance saloon. Given that part of Labour’s policy is to reset the dysfunctional energy market, may we have a statement to help the Secretary of State to catch up with the reality of the system over which he is presiding?

If I may, I advise the hon. Gentleman to base questions not simply on press reports, but on facts.

On the Immigration Bill, will the Leader of the House clarify exactly what percentage of Conservative MPs will follow the Prime Minister today, or is it Liberty Hall on the Government Benches?

I am not sure that I quite understand my hon. Friend’s question. During the course of today, the debate will proceed and votes will take place in the usual way.

A couple of weeks ago, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) raised with the Prime Minister in the Chamber concerns about British involvement in the bloody assault nearly 30 years ago on the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar. Will the Leader of the House update us on the progress of the consequent inquiry? Will it report next week, and will he arrange for a statement either by the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary?

I regret that I cannot advise the right hon. Gentleman and the House on the timing of the completion of that inquiry, although it is being proceeded with as a matter of urgency. As I have said, for that reason I cannot advise the House about the character of the statement that will then be made.

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the House early next week to make a statement on the latest idiotic comments from the Council of Europe that benefits levels in this country are too low and should be almost doubled? For how much longer will this Government allow the Council of Europe and unelected pseudo-judges in the European Court of Human Rights to decide things in this country that should be decided by this Parliament?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions would welcome the opportunity to come to the Dispatch Box on that subject. He might well say, as I do, that it is lunacy for the Council of Europe to suggest that welfare payments need to increase when we paid out £204 billion in benefits and pensions last year alone. Millions of people find that the welfare system in this country provides a valuable and fair safety net when they need it most—not least pensioners, who benefit from a triple lock that now represents the highest share of earnings received by pensioners in their state pension for more than 20 years.

I remember the days when the Leader of the House used to say that there ought preferably to be two full days on Report, or at least a day on which there is no statement. Today, a Thursday, is the one day when there will always be a business statement. It is the shortest day, and the most difficult day on which to have proper debate. Why on earth are we having the whole of the Report stage of the Immigration Bill in one afternoon? Since he has effectively conspired with the Chief Whip to make sure that their colleagues do not get to debate all the amendments, will he congratulate the Speaker on stitching him up like a kipper?

Under the previous Government—indeed, when the hon. Gentleman was Deputy Leader of the House—it was much less common for Bills to have two days on Report, while it was more common to have programme motions to insert knives into debates. As far as I am concerned, we have allocated enough time: Thursday is a normal sitting day—we start two hours earlier, and we finish two hours earlier—and it is entirely normal for questions, such as the business question, to be asked.

This week, Charlie Webster is running 250 miles and visiting 40 football clubs to raise funds for Women’s Aid and to encourage football clubs, players and fans to unite in the fight against domestic violence. May we have a debate on utilising the power of sport to tackle domestic violence?

I am very glad to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Charlie Webster on taking up that challenge, which will give not only financial support, but tremendous publicity to something that all hon. Members have collectively shown our commitment to, which is to try to reduce domestic violence in all circumstances and to give people a strong sense of its unacceptability.

Today, the Wales Audit Office has published two damning reports on unlawful payments made from public funds to the chief executive of Carmarthenshire county council. One relates to a serious charge about a pension arrangement that enabled that highly paid public official to evade tax. May we have a statement from the Treasury on guidance issued to public bodies across the British state about the moral obligation of senior public officials to pay their due tax, and about penalties for non-compliance?

I have seen what the Wales Audit Office has said about the lawfulness of those payments, and I hope that they are exceptional rather than typical. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been clear about the nature of payments made across the public sector, and he has moved us on from the practices of the past.

For 33 years, British lecturers working in Italy have been discriminated against in their employment rights and pay. The Italian Government have ignored six European Court of Justice rulings against them on the issue, but at the end of last year the lecturers, known as the lettori, had some hope when the Italian Foreign and Education Ministers said that they were looking for a solution at last. May we have a statement from the Foreign Office about how that long-running issue might be resolved soon?

My hon. Friend does indeed ask a very good question, and an interesting one. If I may, rather than detain the House now, I will ask my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign Office to respond to him. I will be interested in the reply.

May I begin by congratulating you on your double celebration this week, Mr Speaker—not just an honorary degree from City university but, more importantly, an honorary doctorate from De Montfort university, Leicester, which it was delighted to hand you?

I have learned well from my hon. Friend.

On the subject of education, may I ask the Leader of the House when we can have an urgent statement from the International Development Secretary about the Government’s decision to withdraw from the Government of Yemen £14 million of funding to help with their education system? We do not want Yemen to become another Syria, and the withdrawal of that funding is causing serious problems.

I will of course ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to respond to the right hon. Gentleman and, if appropriate, to inform the House by means of a statement.

When we spoke earlier this week, Mr Speaker, modesty clearly forbade you from alerting me to those splendid honours.

This week, Travellers illegally occupied the Chandos recreation ground in my constituency, creating a climate of fear among residents and concern among people using the park legally. Harrow council has taken prompt action to get them evicted. May we have a statement or a debate in Government time about what further action the Government can take to stop that scourge on our society?

My hon. Friend will recall a recent statement from Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government on policy relating to Travellers. They take the issue extremely seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday on policy relating to Gypsies and Travellers, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) might well find it helpful to raise the matter then.

Is the Leader of the House aware that at this very moment, the Icelandic Government and Kaupthing Bank, aided and abetted by the accountants Grant Thornton, are filching hundreds of millions of pounds from the UK taxpayer? May we have an early debate on that? It is losing our taxpayers an enormous sum, and nobody in the Treasury seems to care about it.

In my experience the Treasury cares a great deal about caring for the money of the people of this country, and Treasury Ministers certainly do. Rather than venture into areas with which I am not entirely familiar, I will ask them to respond to the hon. Gentleman about that issue.

May we have a debate in Government time about regional infrastructure, so that we can spell out again the significance to the far south-west of the Paddington rail link, press for improvements to the franchise arrangement so that we can attract greater private sector investment and tell Network Rail and the Environment Agency to stop dithering, start acting and sort out our flood resilience?

I will not go on at length, but my hon. Friend and other colleagues from the south-west have—quite rightly—stressed the need for resilience and improvement in connections through the south-west, both road and rail. The Environment Agency is currently considering a number of studies on that rail route, and the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency are considering a number of expediting studies relating to the route from the A30/A303.

May we have a debate on how the Metropolitan police investigates fraud? That will allow Members to contrast the cosy relationship between the Met and big business—whereby it assists private prosecutions in return for a share of the compensation—with the treatment of my constituents who have to report even substantial frauds online to Action Fraud. Its pro forma response is, “It’s not possible for the police to investigate every report they receive.” People only hear from the police now if they are able to progress the investigation further. The rest is silence.

The hon. Gentleman might like to initiate an Adjournment debate on that subject, although I suspect we have just heard the speech.

May we have a debate on why the lobbyist John Murray, chief executive of the Specialised Healthcare Alliance—an organisation totally funded by powerful drug companies—has been allowed to co-author NHS policy on £12 billion of specialised services, including cancer radiotherapy treatment, with James Palmer, clinical director of NHS England?

Over many years I have known John Murray to be, in personal terms, somebody who is very expert on specialised health care issues. Whoever happened to be party to the authorship of the policy, the responsibility lies within NHS England. Its job is to ensure that it exercises a dispassionate and impartial approach to the making of policy.

There has been talk of a debate on infrastructure, but is it not time for a debate on the proper roll-out of broadband? Swathes of the country are having problems, despite billions of pounds of public money, and even in Shoreditch we have problems with connectivity, speeds and not-spots. Is it not time for the Government to hold a debate to consider how to embrace new technology and find better ways of using Government money to support infrastructure for a modern country?

From memory, that issue has been raised repeatedly during questions and in debates. Indeed, it was raised in questions earlier today, and the hon. Lady will have heard—as I did—that Ministers are pursuing every avenue to ensure that we tackle not-spots, as they are described, and meet the fastest possible timetable for the roll-out of superfast broadband.

Has my right hon. Friend seen my early-day motion 937 on the stealth taxes that energy companies charge the poor and pensioners if they do not pay by direct debit?

That this House notes that 17 energy companies are effectively charging consumers extra for not paying by direct debit; condemns those companies for that practice; further notes that four energy companies offer other payment methods at no extra cost; concludes that many companies are charging excessive fees to consumers using alternate payment methods; and therefore urges Ofgem and the Government to investigate those charges.

He will also be aware of the Backbench Business Committee motion in my name, signed by more than 170 MPs, which calls for action on that issue. Will he urge the Government to make a statement on what they can do to help the poorest in our society?

I have seen the early-day motion and the impressive number of signatures on his Backbench Business Committee motion. I am pleased that the House will have the chance to debate that issue on Tuesday, and the Government will make a statement in the course of that debate.

May we have a statement on the scandal of revolving-door pay deals in the NHS following reorganisation? One manager was paid £370,000 despite not leaving the health service at all. Who is responsible for that incompetence?

The reforms of the NHS have led to 7,500 fewer managers working in the NHS and, from memory, there are about 10,000 additional clinical staff in the NHS. On the managers, it is completely wrong to interpret the fact that positions become redundant and people leave those jobs with the implication that they are not people who, on a personal basis, should fill posts in the NHS in future. It was always clear at the time—I remember it—that there needed to be a substantial number of people who did not leave the service but transferred elsewhere, and that happened. If a small number came back into employment having taken redundancy, that was a product of the Labour contract from 2006, not a consequence of our policy.

With the encouraging news that the manufacturing sector grew by 0.9% in the past quarter, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate on the measures the Government are taking to improve productivity, because progress on that front will lead to higher standards of living for all?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. Many people are looking forward positively. My friends at the British Chambers of Commerce reported only this month that manufacturing balances are at an all-time high in terms of positive sentiment, which will lead to business and manufacturing investment. Alongside the steps the Government have taken to support manufacturing, the sector itself, through that investment, looks set to increase productivity and hence competitiveness.

Given the news of the Crown Prosecution Service’s attempted prosecution of three people who took discarded food from a skip at the back of Iceland—the prosecution has now been dropped—may we have a debate in Government time on the absolutely scandalous levels of food waste in this country in which we can ask the Government to get behind the supermarkets’ attempts to reduce it?

If the hon. Lady raises that with my hon. Friends at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs when they next respond to questions, she will find them to be sympathetic, as many hon. Members are, to the idea of reducing food waste. Some retailers have taken significant steps in recent weeks to try to reduce waste.

May we have a debate jointly with the Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice on how we can limit the lethal nature of helium canisters, which are generally available on public sale, and which are responsible for a growing number of deaths? Can we work with manufacturers on how to reduce the lethal nature of the helium for those who are so disturbed as to use it?

I cannot immediately promise a debate, but the hon. Lady makes an important point that she might like to pursue by way of an Adjournment debate. Ministers in different Departments will be glad to work together to address the problem she describes.

May we have a debate on encouraging business start-ups, and will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating Councillor Eva Philips on her “Make Change” initiative, which launches in my constituency tomorrow, and which brings together NatWest, Social Entrepreneurs Unlimited, Social Breakfast and Hot 500 to offer advice and financial support to young people who want to start their own business?

I am glad to take this opportunity to join the hon. Gentleman in supporting enterprise in his constituency. If there were an opportunity for a debate, I would welcome one, because we have in excess of 400,000 more businesses in this country. The rate of creation of new businesses is at its highest, I believe, since records began, which bodes well for the future.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills has found a worsening shortage of skills hindering UK businesses. The amount that employers spend on training has decreased from £1,680 per employee in 2011 to £1,590 in 2013. May we have a statement on whether that is linked to the £56 billion decline in investment in small and medium-sized enterprises since 2010?

Part of our long-term economic plan is to ensure that we have better skills to support industry. Bringing people into jobs creates many opportunities for those skills to be related directly to work opportunities—we have the highest level of vacancies. However, we are working continuously to ensure that the appropriateness of skills to employment is improved.

May we have an urgent debate on why action on the Corston review on women in prisons has stalled across Departments?

The hon. Lady will forgive me if I am wrong, but my memory is that we had a debate on the Corston report in Westminster Hall. I will check on that and see to what extent I can ensure that the relevant Department adds a response on the issues she raises.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister ruled out giving more tax cuts to millionaires. In the interests of balance, will the Leader of the House arrange a statement on how much more tax people on incomes of under £10,000 pay as a result of increases in VAT and employees national insurance?

On the contrary, the Prime Minister rightly stressed the coalition Government’s priority. In tough times, we are ensuring that those with the highest incomes pay a higher proportion of tax, and that low income earners and the lowest paid have their tax reduced by £700. Three million people are out of tax altogether, so those on lower incomes benefit the most from the Government’s tax policies.

Order. I must thank the Leader of the House and Back Benchers for their succinctness. Thirty-nine Back Benchers contributed in 34 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time, which shows what can be done when the pressure is on us.