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Business of the House

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 3 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on managing flood risk, followed by a debate on Government levies on energy bills. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Third Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Managing Flood Risk, HC 330, and the Government response, HC 706; Eighth Report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee, on the Levy Control Framework: Parliamentary oversight of the Government levies on energy bills, HC 872.]

Tuesday 4 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on defence and cyber-security, followed by a debate on the private rented sector. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Sixth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2012-13, on Defence and Cyber-Security, HC 106, and the Government response, HC 719; First Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on the Private Rented Sector, HC 50, and the Government response, Cm 8730.]

At 7pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 5 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations and Adjustments) Bill, followed by a general debate on the Francis report: one year on.

Thursday 6 March—Statement on the publication of the ninth report from the Defence Committee on Future Army 2020, followed by debate on a motion relating to the security situation of women in Afghanistan, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The Select Committee statement and the subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 March will include:

Monday 10 March—Remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords] (Day 1).

Tuesday 11 March—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 12 March—Remaining stages of the Intellectual Property Bill [Lords], followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

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

Friday 14 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 10 March will be:

Thursday 6 March—A general debate on the contribution of women to the economy.

Monday 10 March—A general debate on an e-petition relating to stopping female genital mutilation in the UK.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business. We have all been watching the dramatic scenes unfolding in Ukraine and, as the new Cabinet is installed in Kiev ahead of May’s presidential elections, there are worrying reports of Russian troop movements on the border and ongoing signs of volatility, not least in Crimea. Will the Leader of the House give us his assurance that the House will be kept up to date with the situation as it unfolds over the coming weeks?

Next week, we will discuss estimates and focus on the particular issues chosen by the Liaison Committee. Does the Leader of the House agree that the process for dealing with estimates is arcane, obtuse and in need of reform? Will he support my call for new forms of effective financial scrutiny for the House?

Next Saturday is international women’s day. Will the Leader of the House tell us how he plans to mark the occasion? Judging by the Government’s record at the moment, I do not think we can expect too much. We have had the notorious all-male Front Bench, and we have learned that the Tory manifesto will be written by five men who went to Eton and another man who went to St Paul’s. And the Defence Secretary is unable to tell the difference between two women in the shadow Cabinet—and it was not me and my sister.

I am sure that everyone will wish to welcome the German Chancellor’s visit to Parliament today. She is certainly getting better treatment than the French President did; he was taken to a pub near the airstrip. There are many on the Tory Back Benches who will be especially interested in what the German Chancellor will say on the question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Given that the Leader of the House is a front-runner in the betting relating to the EU commissioner role that is about to become vacant, I am sure that he will take his own special interest too.

Last year, the Prime Minister was forced by his Eurosceptic Back Benchers to announce that he was going to hold an in/out referendum in 2017. Last month, however, the French President dismissed that arbitrary timetable for reforming Europe, telling us that treaty change was “not urgent” and “not a priority”. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary had to admit that no negotiations were currently under way on an EU treaty. Is it not the reality that the Prime Minister is powerless to make good on his grand, impossible promises to the growing band of Eurosceptics in his own party?

This week, Conservative central office launched an outlandish rebranding exercise, as the chairman of the party attempted to claim that it was now “the workers’ party”. So it is out with the huskies and the hoodies and in with the Bullingdon Bolsheviks. They have claimed to be the most family-friendly Government ever. They have also claimed to be the greenest Government ever and the most transparent Government ever, but their claim to be the workers’ party has to be the most laughable yet. Real wages are down by an average of £1,600 a year, record numbers of people are working fewer hours than they would like, millionaire hedge-fund donors are busy writing policies to slash rights at work and the Work and Pensions Secretary spent the hours before this latest rebrand defending zero-hours contracts. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on this latest Conservative mis-selling scandal?

The National Audit Office has this morning published a report on the Government’s supposed reorganisation of disability benefits. The report finds that the new personal independence payments will cost three and a half times as much to administer and double the amount of time to process as the disability living allowance.

This Government’s incompetence is causing real hurt and distress to disabled people. This week we learned that the Department for Work and Pensions has stopped employment and support allowance reassessments because it cannot cope with the volume, and it did not even have the guts to announce it to the House. The disastrous introduction of universal credit stumbles from bad to worse. Today, the Work and Pensions Secretary is trying to justify, in a written ministerial statement, why we are set to have 400,000 more children in poverty by the next election. After the criticisms made by dozens of bishops last week, it seems that even divine intervention cannot prevent the incompetence at the DWP. Will the Leader of the House give us a debate, in Government time, on the growing chaos at the Department?

The Government tell us that they have increased flood defence spending when the national statisticians say they have not. They have an Environment Secretary who does not believe in climate change and a Deputy Prime Minister who thinks that he has a right to be in Government for ever. I think this Government might be living in a parallel universe.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her words. I entirely agree with her first point. This House has viewed the events in Ukraine with a degree of shock. None the less, it must be for the people of Ukraine to determine their future, and to do so, hopefully, in a democratic and peaceful way. Everyone else must give what support they can and should, while fully respecting the territorial integrity of the country. The Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House on Monday, and he will continue to update the House as and when necessary.

On the issue of financial scrutiny, while estimates days give us an opportunity to debate issues of importance that the Liaison Committee has identified from the estimates to be debated, this is less about the structure of estimates days and more about the work of Select Committees. As a former member of the Health Committee, I recall that there was, and there continues to be, an annual inquiry by the Select Committee into the expenditure of its Department. I do not know whether that is replicated elsewhere. As the hon. Lady will know from the work being done by the Public Accounts Commission, the future strategy of the National Audit Office prioritises the availability of its support to Select Committees to undertake work relating to the expenditure of Departments. As I have made clear at this Dispatch Box, we in the Government welcome that financial scrutiny, as we continue to strive to deliver the greatest possible effectiveness from public expenditure.

I look forward to international women’s day at the end of next week and its theme of inspiring change. As I announced in the business statement, the House will have opportunities to debate a range of issues of importance to women and to all of us, and I look forward to taking part and listening to those debates and to celebrating the role of women not only in inspiring change but in leading in the economy. We have more women in employment than ever before and more women establishing jobs. Like the Prime Minister, I particularly value women who set up businesses and are entrepreneurs and create jobs in our economy.

Talking of enterprising and impressive women, we very much welcome Chancellor Merkel here to Parliament later this morning. I look forward to hearing her speak to the two Houses of Parliament, especially about how our two countries together are working in partnership to deliver a more complete single market, greater competition and more free trade across the world. Those are things that we all value, and that are absolutely necessary not only to us but to the eurozone countries and the European Union as a whole.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it perfectly clear that, following the review of the balance of competences, it is the Prime Minister who, as leader of a party, will be setting out what he is seeking to achieve through the process of renegotiation leading to a referendum in this country. That is something for him to do as leader of the party and as current Prime Minister, but not on behalf of the Government, as neither the renegotiation nor the referendum are the policy of the coalition Government as a whole; they are the policy of the Conservative party and will be presented in that context.

The idea of the Conservative party as the party for workers in this country is not new—it is important but it is not new; I recall that in 1987 more trade unionists voted for the Conservative party than voted for the Labour party. I suspect that this week, at the end of which the Labour party will get together with the trade union bosses, many trade union members and many workers in this country who are not trade unionists will recognise that the Conservative party has their interests at heart. It is a party that is cutting their taxes, creating jobs and giving them a sense of security for the future. That is very important, because it is the Labour party that is in denial about all this. It is in denial about the deficit; the shadow Chancellor, in particular, simply will not accept that the Labour Government got anything wrong before the last election. I have to say in all kindness to the Labour party that we learnt painfully that if you do not understand why you lost, you stand no chance of winning.

As we look forward to international women’s day on Saturday, may we have a debate on encouraging more women into chemistry, given that two leaders of the free world have previously been research chemists—the late, great Baroness Thatcher and, of course, our guest today in Parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am always in awe of those who are very good at chemistry, having achieved what in those days was described as a grade 9 in O-level chemistry. Fortunately, the Secretary of State for Education is planning for a grade 9 in O-levels to represent success, but in my case it was abject failure and so I am in awe of those who have abilities in chemistry. Those who excel in chemistry often have exactly the kind of analytical intellect that enables them to succeed in many other walks of life.

Since the privatisation of the railway industry there has been an explosion of capital works costs, both in track renewals and maintenance. Debt in the industry is reaching crisis proportions, and as and when interest rates begin to rise that crisis will surely be precipitated. May we have a full and urgent debate on the finances of the railway industry?

I cannot offer an immediate debate, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the House has often recently had occasion to ask questions about the rail industry and, in particular, to note the scale of the Network Rail investment in prospect. We are talking about a £38 billion investment, which is the largest rail investment in this country since the Victorian era. It is not just about High Speed 2—that is not even the largest part of it; there are schemes across the whole country, in response to the fact that the number of passengers on the railways has more than doubled since privatisation.

Bombardier’s recent contract award for Crossrail will employ 30 graduates and take on 80 apprentices from around the Derby area. With next week being national apprenticeship week and with youth unemployment falling, will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on what further steps this Government are taking to tackle youth unemployment?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, as she is absolutely right. There is some extremely good news in her constituency and neighbouring constituencies, and I am glad she is in a position to highlight that in the House. We are never going to be complacent about the number of young people who are not entering employment. That is why we are putting so much effort into apprenticeships, with 1.6 million apprenticeships planned during this Parliament, which is a significant increase. That will make a very big difference to young people in accessing the jobs that are coming through. Encouragingly, at the same time as we have record numbers of people in employment, we also have record numbers of vacancies, so people can be very optimistic about their prospects.

Council tax rises are one factor in the cost of living crisis, so may we have a debate on how the coalition’s funding distribution is giving the biggest cuts to the most disadvantaged communities and is deliberately calculated so that no matter what efficiencies are found by councils such as Hull’s, they are still having to increase council taxes and cut local services too?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady should raise that issue because at the moment councils across the country are taking difficult decisions while demonstrating that they can sustain, and in some cases improve, the public’s experience of local government services at the same time as they freeze the council tax. This complaint about council tax rises comes from a party which when in government saw council tax double, as I know from my own constituency. Under this Government, the resources being provided and the incentives to freeze council tax mean that hard-pressed home owners and those paying council tax are finding that their local government services are not costing them a great deal more, as they did in the past.

I do not like to be critical of the Government, but we have a lot of statements about things that have either gone wrong or allegedly gone wrong, and we do not have enough statements about all the very good things that are going right. This coalition Government are doing a fantastic job, many things are going right in the economy, and those on the Front Bench should do far more to boost this country and to put the optimistic case forward.

I accept my hon. Friend’s chastisement. I will encourage my colleagues to make more statements of the character that he describes, but I point him towards the Budget statement on 19 March, which I know will be an opportunity to present to the House many of the things that he and I recognise, and the House should recognise, have been a success under this coalition Government.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement on the long-term future of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and, in particular, on whether there is any intention to extend its remit into other sectors, such as construction?

I will of course discuss that matter with my hon. Friends. I do not know whether there is any plan of the kind that the hon. Gentleman describes. However, I will discuss the matter with them and see if they can not only reply to him but inform the House, as he requests.

May we have a debate on recent reports by Global Witness about Congolese conflict gold being traded through Dubai and then into Switzerland, where it goes into the European supply chain? Will the Leader of the House speak to his colleagues in the Government to ensure that the UK supply chains are robust and not vulnerable to conflict gold?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I will of course have that conversation with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because we always want to do whatever we possibly can to prevent such resources—conflict gold, conflict diamonds and the exploitation of mineral wealth—from feeding conflicts that are doing such immense harm to the people of those countries from which those resources come.

Recently I received an answer from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the number of overseas territory students studying in the United Kingdom. The answer refers to “the Falklands (Malvinas).” Can we have a statement from the Government as to whether or not there is a change of policy towards Britain’s overseas territory?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, I mean. I spend so much time talking to him that it just seems like he is an hon. Friend.

I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware there is no change in the Government’s position where this matter is concerned. It is the Falklands, it continues to be the Falklands and its constitutional status will remain the same.

May we have a debate on the proper role of Governments and shareholders in the setting of pay and bonuses in the private sector? We seem to be in a ridiculous situation where the Government want to lecture profitable companies in which they have no shareholding about their pay and bonuses, and yet they equally appear to be sitting idly by and allowing a company in which they are a majority shareholder to pay more than £500 million of bonuses, despite the fact that the company is costing the taxpayer more than £8 billion a year?

I will, of course, talk to my hon. Friends at the Business, Innovation and Skills Department. However, I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think we are lecturing companies. We are being clear about what we regard as social responsibility, and that companies have a responsibility that extends not only to their shareholders and employees but to the wider society. All companies should recognise that. Where the Government have a substantial shareholding in a company, of course we should use that shareholding similarly—in a socially responsible way. We are aiming for, and have seen, a substantial reduction in bonuses in the banking sector, which I know is occurring in those companies in which the Government have a shareholding.

May we have a statement from the Health Secretary about the possibility of improving outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients through Abraxane?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary whether there is any opportunity to update the House. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer continues to be very serious. The hon. Gentleman knows that survival rates for pancreatic cancer are very low in comparison with those for many other cancers, on which we have made considerable progress. In the Cancer Research UK laboratories in my constituency, I have seen the work being done on potential routes to the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer, but it is early days and I fear that the number of projects with good lines of inquiry are still few.

The shadow Leader of the House says that we should have a debate on which is the workers’ party. I say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House: bring it on. Perhaps we can examine the record of the Labour Government, who drowned the country in debt, left 2.5 million people unemployed, and abolished the 10p tax rate, and compare it with the record of this Government, who cut taxes for 20 million lower earners, increased apprenticeships by 1.5 million, and extended the right to buy.

May I ask our proletarian comrade, the Leader of the House of Commons, whether, in his new capacity as a workers’ leader, he will arrange for portraits of the Tolpuddle martyrs to be displayed prominently in the House of Commons? Is it true that Tory central office is saying that those trade unionists, who were punished and deported to Australia, were leading officials of their local Conservative association?

I hesitate to get into a debate with the hon. Gentleman on these issues. I certainly know that, during the 19th century, there were many reasons why people were appreciative of a Tory Administration who brought in protection for workers through the Factories Acts and the like. In any case, his question about portraits is probably a matter for the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, rather than the Leader of the House.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that on Tuesday evening, the House finishes its business promptly at 7 o’clock, so that we can all get home, finish our pancakes, and have an early night, as on Wednesday, the first day of Lent, at 7.45 am, the Archbishop of Canterbury is celebrating Holy Communion in the Undercroft chapel? Everyone working in the Palace of Westminster is very welcome to attend.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that the House appreciates the opportunity to go to the Ash Wednesday service that he advertises. I think that there is nothing on the Order Paper at the moment that would require us to extend our proceedings beyond the moment of interruption at 7 o’clock on Tuesday.

I am disappointed that I have not received a response to my question to the Leader of the House of two weeks ago about the European solidarity fund. In the meantime, may we have an urgent debate on what “Money is no object” means, and whether it could apply to those waiting for personal independence payment assessments?

I endeavour to secure replies for hon. Members, but not inevitably within a fortnight; sometimes it takes a bit longer. I will endeavour to get a full reply to the hon. Lady.

I speak as a genuine working-class Conservative. [Interruption.] My local health authority is making a real mess of the reorganisation of health provision in my constituency, so could we have a debate on health provision across South Gloucestershire, especially in relation to Frenchay hospital, my local hospital?

Hon. Members should not be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman. I have known him for more than 20 years, and I can testify, from personal knowledge, that he was a distinguished ice-cream salesman in Bristol.

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.

I will, of course, ask my colleagues in the Department of Health to respond directly to my hon. Friend. I know from personal experience how long and difficult the issues surrounding the reconfiguration of services have been following the developments at Southmead and the reduction of services at Frenchay. He has taken a considerable interest in these issues for several years, and rightly so, and I shall encourage my colleagues to respond to him.

May we have an early debate about accident and emergency closures? The Leader of the House has a nice flat constituency, whereas I have a hilly one, and threats of the closure of the Halifax and Huddersfield A and E departments are serious for an area such as ours. May we have a debate about the importance of high-quality care, not of saving £50 million?

My constituency is fortunate in that it contains Addenbrooke’s hospital, with its fine accident and emergency department, but in the past year or so, the Government have invested additional resources to support A and E departments. Sir Bruce Keogh’s review for NHS England on the configuration of future accident and emergency services is not about cuts, but about improving services and ensuring that people are able to get the service they need, including specialised services, at the right place and the right time.

In July 2012, Sir John Holmes carried out an independent review of the national defence medal for the Cabinet Office. Since then, my constituent, Tony Morland, has been waiting patiently for the outcome. Will the Leader of the House make time for a Defence Minister to report to the House on progress so that Mr Morland will stop e-mailing me?

The Government, like my hon. Friend, recognise the great sacrifices made by all members of the armed services past and present. He referred to Sir John Holmes, whom the Prime Minister appointed to carry out a review of the rules and principles governing the award of military campaign medals. The first recommendations on recognition were for those serving on the Atlantic convoys, in Bomber Command and during the Yangtze incident, which were announced by the Prime Minister on 19 December 2012. Sir John continues to work on further campaigns and the broader policy behind the five-year and the double medalling rules.

May we have a debate on the role of the banks in our communities? Santander has announced that it will close 11 agency branches throughout Leicestershire and Leicester, including the branch at Highfields in my constituency, which is a densely populated area of some deprivation. Many of our constituents are getting fed up with how the banks operate.

The hon. Gentleman is right that these issues are difficult. Many Members will have constituents who are worried about the closure of bank branches—it is not just Santander, because Barclays has also announced closures. Of course, the situation is partly the result of changes to the structure of the industry because of the use of online and telephone banking. If I may, I will ask my Treasury colleagues to reply to him. Determining the structure of the banking sector as the changes I describe come into play is not a responsibility of the Government, but my colleagues will have an interest, as do Members on both sides of the House.

May we have a debate on exporting because as we rebuild our economy, we need to sell more goods in the international marketplace? Such a debate would help to highlight the value of such things as the Queen’s award for exports and the help that UK Trade & Investment can provide to companies in my constituency such as the Malted Waffle Company, which exports waffles to Dubai, and Cargo Marketing Services so that they can do better business abroad.

I give my congratulations to the Malted Waffle Company. I was involved in such things years ago when I was in the then Department of Trade and Industry, so I know that the Queen’s award for exports is not lightly given. The award suggests that a substantial achievement has been made, as was the case when the Cambridge Satchel Company, which is in my constituency, secured a Queen’s award. I do not know the size of the Malted Waffle Company, but it is interesting and encouraging that more medium-sized business are growing not just through the domestic market, but by developing their export markets. A British Chambers of Commerce report on companies throughout the country that was published about a fortnight ago showed an encouraging increase in companies’ confidence that they would increase their export orders in the months to come.

The Law Society has a rigorous conveyancing qualification for solicitors, but some mortgage lenders now require solicitors to undertake the conveyancing qualification scheme run by themselves and have a £5 million bond for negligence rather than the £2 million required by law. May we have a debate on how lenders are adding to the costs of conveyancing, reducing choice for consumers and driving small solicitors out of conveyancing?

We are keen to ensure that consumers have access to competition and choice, and hence the lowest possible cost. I am not in a position to comment on the particular points that the hon. Lady makes, but I will talk to my hon. Friends and see whether they can assist her in how she might take that forward. She may find that she has the opportunity to seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at some point.

May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s commitment to the virtual court scheme? I have just learned from Medway magistrates court, an excellent local court, that the Ministry of Justice has not confirmed funding post-31 March. It is important that it should have clarity and certainty on that. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend came back to me specifically on that court.

Yes, I will. I will raise it directly with the Ministry of Justice. I realise that Saturday is 1 March, so time is short. My hon. Friend must be concerned that the services in his constituency that he appreciates and are valued continue to be supported. I will ask my hon. Friends what the situation is.

May we have a debate on the Government’s expectations of joint commissioning teams, particularly with regard to respite care? I am concerned that in Birmingham they seem rather unaccountable and have a suspect strategy that does not seem to make financial sense and could result in the closure of purpose-built facilities, such as Kingswood bungalows, which are less than 15 years old.

The hon. Gentleman will recall how right from the beginning under this coalition Government we secured additional resources, notwithstanding all the pressures, for the provision of respite care. In the current circumstances, looking towards the new financial year, the better care fund, available to local authorities working with their NHS commissioners, offers £3.8 billion across the country specifically to try to join up health and social care, in which respite care, from the point of view of sustaining people in care in the community rather than frequent hospital admissions, can play a significant part. I encourage him to talk to his local authority about how it plans to use the better care fund for that purpose.

My right hon. Friend has already referred to local government finance, but may we have a debate on how councils can better manage their affairs? Conservative-controlled Rugby borough council set its budget this week, and this successful district council, working effectively as part of the two-tier system in Warwickshire, is not just freezing council tax, but going further and reducing it by 3%—[Interruption.]—yes, 3%, without any reduction in services or staff redundancies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other councils should follow Rugby’s lead and look harder to find savings?

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because it might suggest that, presumably at their own expense, councillors in Hull, following the question earlier by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), should take a little visit to Rugby to see how it is done. The Government very much applaud those councils that are doing this and we are supporting them. As I said, we are providing extra funding for a council tax freeze in the next two years, which will make a total of £5.2 billion for five successive years of council tax freezes, which will be worth up to £1,100 for the average household—further help for hard-working families from this coalition Government.

The Leader of the House will be aware of a small lobbying group called the Football Supporters Federation, which wishes to see the introduction of what it spuriously calls safe standing areas in British football stadiums. Will he make time for a debate on the vexed issue of a return to standing, so that the merits and considerable demerits of any such move can be aired?

I am indeed aware of that important point and agree that it should be debated. I cannot promise a debate at the moment, and a BackBench business debate might be better for the matter, rather than one in Government time, which is limited, but I will raise it in any case with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport so that they are aware of it.

The number of apprenticeship starts in my constituency is one of the highest in the country, and the companies I have spoken with that have taken on an apprentice have told me about the difference it has made. Next week is national apprenticeship week, so may we please have a debate on the role that apprenticeships play in tackling our country’s skills gap? That would allow the House to celebrate the work of apprentices and highlight the fact that there are still more employers who are yet to take on an apprentice than there are those who have.

My hon. Friend makes some good points. Youth unemployment is lower now than it was at the last election, there are now vacancies and we will have 1.5 million apprenticeships over the course of this Parliament, all of which is very encouraging. I hope that it is increasingly understood that apprenticeships are not just for those who are not capable of academic achievement, because increasingly they are being recognised as a viable career move for those who might have had an opportunity to go to university but chose not to. I have met many apprentices who started working under an apprenticeship scheme, acquired additional qualifications in the fullness of time, up to and including degree qualifications, and were then extremely well equipped to move on to senior positions in the company they worked in.

Many dozens of my Clifton constituents have written to ask me to raise their cases in this House after the Energy Secretary’s panicked energy company obligation changes scuppered their much-needed solid wall insulation scheme, and indeed cost local jobs and apprenticeships. When can we have time to debate properly this Government’s disastrous policy, because at Energy and Climate Change questions this morning Ministers were in utter denial about the impact?

I was not here when the hon. Lady asked her question, but I will of course look at the record to see what reply my hon. Friends gave.

My flood-hit constituents are mystified at why the Government do not seem to be applying for EU funds that could assist them. May we have a statement to clarify the situation?

That relates to the point the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made on the use of EU structural funds. I will of course ask my hon. Friends about that. As my hon. Friend will recall, the Prime Minister explained at Prime Minister’s questions just over a fortnight ago that there are issues relating to the overall scale of the damage that gives rise to a claim for EU funds. There is also a concern about the impact such claims would have on the British rebate, as I remember from the past, so taking European money in those circumstances is not necessarily a cost-free option.

The overwhelming majority of the British public supports the Hunting Act 2004, which abolished hunting with dogs, yet that civilising piece of legislation, incredibly, is opposed by many Government Members, who want it repealed. Can we have an assurance today from the Leader of the House that any proposal to repeal the Act will be subject to a vote of the whole House, not an obscure Statutory Instrument Committee?

I am not aware of any circumstances in which what the hon. Gentleman describes might happen. The coalition programme was clear that the intention was for the question of the Hunting Act to be brought forward for a free vote of the whole House.

I would like to add my voice to the calls for an urgent debate on the provision of A and E services at Huddersfield royal infirmary, which is in my constituency, and Calderdale royal hospital. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who also asked about that, actually uses the HRI, but I had to use it last summer when I fractured my elbow while running the Honley 10 km race, and I was given excellent service. Please bear in mind that my constituents’ memories are scarred after the downgrading of maternity services at the HRI under the previous Government.

I remember, not least through having spent time with my hon. Friend in his constituency, the issues that arose on the downgrading of maternity services. To reiterate the point I made earlier, in that case it was far from clear how the changes that were to be undertaken would deliver an improved service for the patients and communities served, which is what we are setting out to do as regards A and E. I cannot comment on the circumstances in Huddersfield and neighbouring communities, but I know what Sir Bruce Keogh’s report said about the issue, because I was involved at the outset in understanding the nature of the problems in A and E departments. Those problems are often caused by a large number of patients with the most serious conditions being brought into A and E departments that do not necessarily have the specialist skills required to give them the most effective treatment as rapidly as possible. We need to deliver that treatment while not limiting access for the great majority of patients to A and E services in their local community.

The Prime Minister speaks highly of the work that food banks do in all our communities, so will a Minister, or even the Prime Minister, explain why Tory MEPs voted against a £3 million fund for food banks? Thankfully, the Tories lost heavily by 592 votes to 61, but even so, the Prime Minister still will not allow UK food banks to apply to that fund. Why?

I am not familiar with the vote in the European Parliament or with the character of the European fund. While we absolutely welcome and applaud the work that food banks do, the hon. Gentleman will understand that with any European scheme there are issues that relate not to the desirability of the objective but to the appropriateness, on the grounds of subsidiarity, of a European scheme for the purpose.

Non-payment of television licence fees represent an estimated 12% of all magistrates’ cases, with more than 190,000 cases in 2012 alone. May we have a debate on the burden on the state of prosecuting those cases? May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the new clause I have submitted to the Deregulation Bill that would decriminalise non-payment of the television licence, making it instead a civil offence? We should end the ludicrous situation whereby those who genuinely cannot pay are criminalised merely for being poor.

My hon. Friend, who has put forward an amendment to the Deregulation Bill, makes a point that I know will interest Members of the House. If I may, I will defer to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who is serving on the Bill Committee and will have an opportunity in due course to respond to my hon. Friend on this issue.

For those of us in a state of disbelief at the Conservative party’s claim to be the party of the workers, may I invite the Leader of the House to demonstrate this new-found commitment by intervening in the pay deal that has been offered to the staff of this House, who keep the business of this House going? After four years of a freeze, they have been offered 1%, but actually it is not even 1% because they are being asked to work two more hours, so their hourly pay is going down. Will he intervene and sort this out?

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that as a member of the House of Commons Commission I am one of those whose responsibility it is to employ members of staff of this House. We continue to regard the staff of this House as among its principal assets. We value what they do. The pay award that is now available to them is one which we believe brings it into line, as we are statutorily obliged to do, with the pay environment in the civil service more generally; that is particularly true in relation to hours. But we also think that it is as generous as we can make it, and I think it would be in the interests of members of staff of this House to accept it.

In the run-up to the Indian elections, it appears that opponents of Narendra Modi will stop at nothing to smear him, including using rooms in this House to publish thoroughly scurrilous reports attacking him personally. May we have a debate on the relationship between Britain and India—and in particular on the Indian elections—which would give the Foreign Secretary an opportunity to welcome Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister of India?

India is the world’s largest democracy, and the question of who should be its next Prime Minister is one for the people of that country to decide. I do not think it is one for the United Kingdom to interfere in, or even that it is proper for us in government to debate the merits of that. That is for them to decide. We enjoy excellent relations with politicians in India from across the political spectrum and a number of Indian Chief Ministers have visited the United Kingdom in recent years. We have very much welcomed them.

With all the passion for working people demonstrated on all Benches in the Chamber today, I am sure the whole House will want to celebrate with me the birthday of the only party ever set up to represent working people 114 years ago today—the Labour party.

Ministers gave cast-iron, black and white guarantees that the independent expert panel report on the failed badger culls would be produced to this Parliament before the end of February. That gives us today and tomorrow. Does the Leader of the House have any news?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, as the expert panel is an independent body, the timing of the completion and submission to Ministers of its reports is ultimately a matter for that panel.