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Business of the House

Volume 577: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 24 March—My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will update the House on high-speed rail, followed by a continuation of the Budget debate.

Tuesday 25 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

Wednesday 26 March—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will update the House following the European Council, followed by a motion relating to the charter for budget responsibility, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Bill [Lords], followed by a motion relating to the appointment of electoral commissioners.

Thursday 27 March—A general debate on the background to and implications of the High Court judgment on John Downey. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 28 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 31 March will include:

Monday 31 March—Second Reading of the Wales Bill.

Tuesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 2 April—Opposition Day [Un-allotted half day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument.

Thursday 3 April—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 4 April—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I also thank him for his written ministerial statement on the drafting of Government legislation today. There was great promise in the title given this Government’s woeful record on drafting legislation, but, as usual with this Government, the content was a complete disappointment.

The situation in Ukraine has continued to worsen. Crimea has been annexed and Russian troops appear to have taken control of several Ukrainian naval bases. During Tuesday’s debate in the House, there was cross-party agreement that the UK response needs to be much more robust than it has been so far. Will the Leader of the House confirm that if President Putin persists, the UK Government will support wider economic and financial sanctions against Russia? There is a meeting of European Council leaders in Brussels later today, and President Obama will be travelling to Europe next week. I ask the Leader of the House to confirm that there will be a statement from the Prime Minister on any developments.

I thank the Leader of the House for granting my request last week for an extra Opposition day to help fill the gaping holes in his increasingly threadbare legislative programme. Apparently, the void is now so bad that the Whips have resorted to e-mailing Tory Back Benchers to ask for suggestions to fill in the time. I think they might have forgotten what happened with last year’s Tory Tea party tendency’s alternative Queen’s Speech. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether, apart from our new Opposition Day, the rest of the time will now be filled with Europe, Europe and more Europe? Perhaps he is safer given all the yawning gaps he has left in the parliamentary timetable to us.

After the Prime Minister’s assurances that the House will have a say on his plans to bring back fox hunting, the Leader of the House keeps getting hon. Members excited by announcing unidentified statutory instruments. Can he tell us when we can expect the hunting debate to take place and how he and the Prime Minister will be voting when it does?

This week we learned the breathtaking extent of the hypocrisy on pay shown by this Government. Cabinet Ministers have been approving huge pay rises for their special advisers while imposing real-terms pay cuts on millions of public sector workers. The coalition agreement promised to cut the number, and cost, of special advisers, so may we have a statement from the Government on why they have done precisely the opposite?

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered the Budget and hoped that no one would notice what is going on with his failing economic plan. He said that he had cut borrowing but now he is set to borrow £190 billion more than he first forecast. He said that the economy would grow by more than 8% but it has grown by less than 4%, and he said that he would eliminate the deficit by 2015 but now he has admitted that it will take until 2018. Only this Government could announce a five-year plan that, as they have now had to admit, is already four years late and only this Chancellor could expect us all to congratulate him for it.

Last night, the Conservative party released an ad that reveals what was really meant by its claims to be the workers’ party a few weeks ago. Even the Chief Secretary thought it was a spoof. The reality is that the Tories are patronising and have an insultingly clichéd view of working people. All I can say is that what was trending last night on Twitter showed their view of workers. Posh boys’ den, No. 10; bankers’ heaven, No. 11. It is all about bingo, this Budget.

I do have one positive thing to say about the Budget. It was good to see the Liberal Democrats’ role in the coalition memorialised with the new pound coin. It has about as many sides as they have Members and it has two faces, just like them.

Last Saturday was the ides of March, and our classically trained Education Secretary took the opportunity to strike. He criticised the number of Etonians in No. 10 as “preposterous” and, after a few glasses of fine wine, he waxed lyrical about the Chancellor’s prime ministerial potential to Rupert Murdoch. I think, Mr Speaker, you would need more than a few glasses of wine to think that.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her questions, and particularly for her welcome for my written ministerial statement. We are pushing forward with the good law project to improve drafting. I am sure that Members will appreciate that after many years in which there has been a degree of confusion about the distinction in legislation between regulations and orders, we will be clear in future when they are regulations to avoid confusion and duplication of terminology.

On Ukraine, we have had the debate that Members sought, and it was right for us to have done so. In future business, I and my colleagues will ensure that the House is regularly updated and, if it becomes necessary, we will look to secure a further opportunity for Members to give their views on the situation. The House will know that after the Prime Minister secured a strategy at the previous European Council, he will be trying at the European Council today to secure the strongest sanctions as regards the Russians’ interventions in Crimea and their transgression of international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He will get the strongest sanctions for which agreement can be secured and, as I told the House on Tuesday, there will be a meeting of G7 Ministers at the nuclear security summit in The Hague early next week. As I have told the House, I expect the Prime Minister to update the House next Wednesday.

I have to tell the hon. Lady that the business is not light, not least because I have announced in the provisional business for the week after next the Second Reading of two Bills, the Finance Bill and the Wales Bill. I am delighted to be able to say that the Wales Bill is being published and introduced today.

The reference to statutory instruments in the provisional business is simply to give the House an indication of what the nature of the business might be. When I announce the business next week, I will be able to give more details. I can tell the hon. Lady that they do not relate to a change to the Hunting Act 2004. No such statutory instrument under section 2(2) of that Act is before the House. If it is of any comfort to the hon. Lady, if there were it would have to go through the affirmative procedure and would require a vote of both Houses.

I am surprised that the hon. Lady had anything to say on the Budget, because her leader seemed incapable of finding anything to say about it. His speech yesterday consisted of an end-to-end collection of Labour press releases that we had known and forgotten. The first half tried to reheat arguments that had failed in the past, whereas the second half consisted mainly of things that he hoped we would have said in the Budget but that we had not. His principal attack seems to be, “Why didn’t you say this in the Budget, because then we could have attacked it?” I am afraid that that was not very compelling.

We did begin to get an idea of how the Labour party approaches such matters. Clearly, the Leader of the Opposition did not feel able to comment on the most important potential changes to pensions and savings for nearly 100 years. None the less, by the evening a Labour spokesman was on “Newsnight” giving it straight about what the Labour party thinks should happen in this country. I think it went along the lines of, “You cannot trust people to spend their own money.” That is what the Labour party thinks about the people of this country. We trust the people. The Conservative party has trusted the people and, if I may say so on behalf of our coalition partners, the coalition Government trust the people. We have worked together and I am looking forward to hearing the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), further setting out that pension strategy.

The plan is working and we are sticking to our long-term economic plan. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was able to say that the deficit is forecast to have halved by next year and if one looks at the Office for Budget Responsibility’s report one can see clearly that that is because we have taken the difficult decisions. It is not the product of economic recovery on its own, but is principally about making decisions on public expenditure and bringing down the costs of administration and the extent to which the people’s money is taken to pay for public expenditure and borrowing.

One of the most interesting numbers was the reduction of £42 billion in the cost of borrowing. That is a measure of the advance we have been able to make from the position we inherited from the Labour party, which borrowed so much. The Budget will help hard-working people by bringing 3.2 million people out of income tax altogether, with £800 for all basic-rate taxpayers. It is helping businesses to invest through the investment allowances and helping them to export through the export finance changes, and it is helping people to save through the changes in ISAs, pensioner bonds and other measures. It is giving people who have retired and are not in a position to change their circumstances so readily the security not only of the triple lock and the single-tier pension, which mean that they have a secure basic state pension that does not expose them to means-tested benefits, but the opportunity to use the money they have saved through pensions as they see fit to boost their standard of living in old age.

“Absolution”, “Atonement”, “The Pickwick Papers”, “A Christmas Carol” and “Clockwise” were all films made in Shropshire. May we have a debate on making Shropshire the pre-eminent and premier—if hon. Members will forgive the pun—film location in England for British, American and international film makers? That will be good for Shropshire, for businesses and for tourism.

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I am not as knowledgeable on the relationship of the film industry to Shropshire as I should be. That is interesting. He and other hon. Members might seek such a debate, either on the Adjournment or through the Backbench Business Committee. Certainly, there will be other places in this country that also have a lot to say about the film industry, but I hope that it would also be an opportunity to demonstrate what a success this country now is in terms of our film and creative industries, not only as evidenced by the success of the film “Gravity” at the Oscars, to which the British film industry contributed so much, but by so many successful films that are being made in this country with this Government’s support.

Both general debates and votes on Back-Bench motions have led to some notable shifts and changes in Government policy, such as the forcing of the Prime Minister to recall Parliament before going to war in Syria, compensating the victims of contaminated blood, taking action on payday lenders, and the Hillsborough inquiry. What, then, is the criteria that the Government use to take decisions on when to listen to Parliament and when just to ignore it?

The Government always listen to Parliament, and we are always very clear, often in the debates that take place, about our position. The hon. Lady instanced in a press release of her own that debates on contaminated blood, fisheries policies, high speed rail, metal theft and fuel prices have led to Government responses and changes of policy. She will no doubt have noted in yesterday’s Budget that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Government will refund VAT on fuel for air ambulances and inshore rescue boats. That, of course, follows a review established after an e-petition on the subject, which had more than 150,000 signatures, and a debate held through the Backbench Business Committee’s decision in the House in July 2012.

May we have an early debate on the proposed teachers’ strike for next Wednesday? The National Union of Teachers is calling out on strike many fine and hard-working teachers next Wednesday, which will cause huge disruption to school children coming up to the exam period, and it is difficult for parents to find child care at short notice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if all parties in the House strongly urged the NUT not to go ahead with that action?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that between now and next week it will be possible, as he says, for not only Government Members to be clear that whatever one’s disputes may be, it is wrong to pursue those grievances by damaging the education of the young people whom we are there to look after. I hope that the Opposition spokesman will do exactly the same thing and advise the NUT not to proceed with this.

The Leader of the House will know that next Tuesday marks the third anniversary of the launch of the responsibility deal, of which he was the architect. He will also know that of the 40 pledges that businesses have to sign up to, none relates to a reduction in sugar. May we have a debate or statement on the progress of the responsibility deal to see whether we can include the reduction in sugar as one of the pledges that should be made?

Yes, I am very familiar with that, and I am proud of what the responsibility deal has been able to achieve in terms of the further reduction in salt content and the calorie challenge, which is relevant to the point to which the right hon. Gentleman alludes. The calorie challenge in itself—the reduction of the equivalent of 100 calories per person per day in this country on average—would bring the population to a sustainable weight, broadly speaking. That would make an enormous difference to our long-term prospects on morbidity in older age. There are other responsibility deal achievements that are too numerous to mention, but questions on the levels of consumption of fat and sugars are part of achieving that calorie challenge.

With the CBI noting that we need even more engineers to strengthen our already powerful, long-term economic plan, may we have a debate to encourage school governors to think more in terms of business links and developing relationships with businesses so that we can get schools to fill these extra engineering places?

My hon. Friend is quite right. It is very important that every school should engage fully with local employers and the professional community to get real work connections with employers. As my hon. Friend mentioned, employer involvement in school governing bodies, is one way of achieving that. The Government are funding a range of programmes to encourage young people to consider careers related to science, technology, engineering and manufacturing. The stimulating physics network aims to increase the take-up of physics A-levels, particularly among girls, and the STEM ambassadors programme raises awareness of the range of careers that science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications can lead to.

May we have a debate in Government time to educate those on the Government Benches that working-class culture is not just about beer and bingo, or for that matter, pigeon fancying, wearing a flat cap or having a whippet? If they are left in any doubt, perhaps a visit to Hull for city of culture 2017 might be in order.

I look forward to the opportunity to visit Hull as the city of culture. I would certainly appreciate that, but I am afraid I cannot agree with the hon. Lady on her first point. It does not patronise or disparage anybody to recognise that in a Budget we address the issues that people care about. We talked earlier about Back-Bench motions. There was a considerable Back-Bench effort on the part of Government Members to secure a reduction in bingo duty, and they got what they were looking for. In fact, they got more than they were looking for from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is in the context of a Budget that was about supporting hard-working people, not least because all of those who are basic rate taxpayers, by virtue of a personal tax allowance rising to £10,500, will have seen their tax reduced by £800.

I was recently in a pub enjoying a pint with local farmers, and I am delighted that I will go back and do it again. The topic we discussed then was water abstraction and the changes that are coming into force. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to discuss that matter, which was not particularly considered during the Water Bill?

My hon. Friend is the very person, in the sense of having recently had a debate on bingo duty. I congratulate my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the House of Lords is completing consideration of the Water Bill, and the future of abstraction reform may well arise on consideration of Lords amendments on that Bill.

Will the Leader of the House look into the case of my constituent Gordon Mansbridge, who is 90 and has terminal cancer. He flew some 33 Wellington bomber missions from an Italian airbase during the second world war. Sir John Holmes is investigating the possibility of recognition in the form of a medal clasp, but that review is not likely to be completed until the end of the year. Given the circumstances of my constituent, might the right hon. Gentleman explore with the Ministry of Defence whether that could be speeded up?

I will of course do that. I am pleased to be able to help the hon. Gentleman in relation to his constituent. In recent years, like many hon. Members, I have appreciated the recognition, through the Bomber Command medal and the Bomber Command memorial here in London, and in other ways, of the courage displayed by those who were part of Bomber Command in the second world war.

North East Lincolnshire council is proposing to close the youth centres under its control, which—needless to say—is extremely unpopular. The overwhelming local view is that the council is not using its resources wisely. This highlights the limited scope local authorities have in determining their budgets, because most of the services they have to provide are statutory. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate either on giving councils more freedom or on reducing the amount of statutory provision?

My hon. Friend will recall the debate on the local government finance settlement, during which it was illustrated that although every bit of the public sector, including local government, must do its bit to pay off the budget deficit we inherited from the previous Government, there are particular ways in which all administrations can focus on cutting waste and making savings in order to protect front-line services. Of course, we are enabling local authorities to keep council tax down. In particular, our “50 ways to save” document contains practical tips and guidance on making sensible savings and highlights how councillors can challenge officers to deliver savings and how taxpayers can challenge councils. I hope that he, along with his constituents, will be challenging his council to protect the front-line services that are most important to them.

My constituent Robert Barlow graduated with an honours degree and worked for some years as a microbiologist. He was then diagnosed with a serious heart defect and told that his working days were over. He was sent to Atos for an assessment. They stopped his benefits, which ended his access to free prescriptions. He was too ill to appeal. Robert died at the age of 47, struggling to get by. May we please have an urgent debate on the impact of too many of these Atos decisions on sick people, particularly when access to free prescriptions is taken away?

As the hon. Lady will know, the House has had many opportunities to debate how we are proceeding with welfare reform, and rightly so. I hope she understands that we are proceeding on the basis of reforming what we inherited, because it was the previous Government who put work capability assessments in place. We have gone about ensuring that they work more effectively for the future, which is a continuing process. Welfare reform, and indeed the need to maintain the downward pressure on what would otherwise be escalating welfare budgets, which were not controlled under the previous Government, is not the issue. We need to focus resources on the people who are most in need, and that is what we are doing. I will talk with my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Work and Pensions about the circumstances of the case she describes—[Interruption.] I completely understand that, but I will talk with them so that she can have a response on the circumstances and how we are addressing those issues.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Crawley borough council on its plan to plant Flanders and wild flower poppies in every single neighbourhood and park in my constituency later this year to mark the centenary of the first world war? Will he ensure that there are ample opportunities throughout this year for the House to commemorate that most important event in our history?

I applaud my hon. Friend and Crawley borough council for the way they are commemorating the first world war. I can remember talking with my grandfather about the great war, so in a way I can conjure up a sense of what it must have been like. Younger generations should also have an opportunity to understand the nature of what happened, the character of those who went from this country to fight and what they achieved. I think that is well worth commemorating. The House had an important and constructive debate on the first world war at the end of last year, and I hope that we will have another opportunity between now and August to debate how to commemorate it.

On that issue, the European Scrutiny Committee has asked for a debate that would have freed up the Europe for Citizens programme, which is now frozen for the whole of Europe because we are the last country that has not had that debate and lifted the scrutiny. The House has passed a Bill to allow the programme to go ahead, and it has been granted Royal Assent, but it appears that since November neither the Leader of the House nor the Department has been able to find time for a debate to allow the programme to go ahead across Europe.

The hon. Gentleman will know that, contrary to some impressions, we have had difficulty scheduling a number of debates on the Floor of the House. I hope that the issue he raises can be considered in one of the European Committees very shortly.

I know that the Leader of the House has found time for debates on the Budget, but if he can find more time, I think that the full quotation he referred to earlier could be exposed more thoroughly. It was from a Labour party adviser, who said that

“you can’t trust people to spend their own money sensibly, planning for their retirement”.

He was an adviser at the beginning and end of the previous Labour Government, including several years in No. 10 advising Tony Blair. That sentiment says everything we need to know about that party and about the parties on the Government side of the House, because we trust people to spend their own money sensibly. The more times we say it, the better.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I wish that we had more time to debate the Budget, not least because the longer we debate it, the greater the chance that at some point we might find out what the Opposition’s alternative would be. I agree about the sentiments of the Labour party, as expressed in the claim that people cannot be trusted to spend their own money. That has been true in the past, is true today and, no doubt, will be true in the future.

May we have a debate on the pressures caused by councils such as Oxford and Newham relocating their homeless people to Birmingham while the Government simultaneously relocate Birmingham’s resources to places such as Oxfordshire and Surrey?

I cannot promise a debate on accommodation issues for people who are dependent on local authority housing. Of course, one of the answers to the hon. Gentleman’s point is our ability to build more houses. He talks about Newham. Just imagine what kind of progress we could make with the Government support the Chancellor announced yesterday for substantial additional developments in Barking and Barking Riverside.

The Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland air ambulance flies out of East Midlands airport in my constituency. It is funded totally by charitable donations and saves countless lives across the region each year. May we have a debate on the value that air ambulances add to our emergency services and the impact on them of the excellent news announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor yesterday that VAT on the fuel they use will be scrapped, something for which I and many colleagues on the Government Benches have been campaigning for some time?

My hon. Friend has indeed fought that campaign successfully, along with other Members, for which I applaud him. As there is a Budget measure providing for the relief of VAT on fuel for air ambulances, I hope that he and other Members might find an opportunity to raise the matter during the Budget debate.

May we have a statement on the delivery of the Department for Work and Pensions? Following big problems with the Work programme and universal credit, it now appears that the personal independence payment has dreadful teething problems.

We will have an opportunity in the Budget debate to look at some aspects of the Department’s delivery. As its title indicates, the Department is there to get people into work and to reform and improve pensions, and I think that it can be immensely proud of what it has achieved. We have 1.6 million more people in private sector employment—[Interruption.]

Of course, because we had data yesterday showing that it has gone up. There are something like 1.4 million more jobs in this country—I will be corrected if I am wrong—and the smallest number of workless households. Our pension reforms, which the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), has been steering through, are delivering for the people of this country the triple lock, the single-tier pension, auto-enrolment and, following yesterday’s Budget, a dramatic new potential for people to use their pensions funds as they think best. We are also ensuring that where we are reforming—this is true of personal independence payments—we are doing so carefully and steadily, recognising where there are difficulties and addressing them.

On Tuesday, the Work and Pensions Committee published a report which, in addition to reporting on the delays in assessments, also showed that the Department for Work and Pensions is distorting statistics, which is denigrating to people such as the person my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) mentioned. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority at least twice. Does the Leader of the House agree that the ministerial code of conduct is not worth the paper it is written on unless it is enforced, and will he report back to the House on exactly what he is going to do about this matter?

No, I do not agree with that. I cannot see any evidence that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has breached the ministerial code of conduct. There are often, rightly, debates about policy and, indeed, about the statistics that support policy, but I do not see any basis for the accusation that, in using the arguments that he has, he has in any way breached the code.

May we have a further debate on the effectiveness of the green deal? In Wales this week, we have had figures showing that with a population of almost 3 million people, only 4,202 green deal assessments have taken place and only 382 projects have been signed off—fewer than 10 per constituency. Providers in my constituency are now saying that the Conservative coalition has wasted two years, with fewer homes being insulated and real damage being done to the insulation industry.

I cannot offer the immediate prospect of a debate. In any case, one has to look very carefully at the way in which the green deal is developing. It is developing in terms of assessments, which are not always turning into contracts, but that does not mean that, as a consequence, people are not taking the energy-conserving and carbon-reducing measures that are the basis of the assessments.

May I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1156?

[That this House congratulates Age Cymru on its timely and vital campaign to protect vulnerable older people in Wales from scams, such as postal scams, nuisance calls, investment scams, fake PPI recovery offers, internet repair scammers, courier scams and internet scams; and calls for the Government to examine the case for drastically increasing the scope and the scale of No Cold Calling zones to protect older people from rogue traders and high pressure salespeople on their doorstep and for internet service providers to work with other service and product providers to supply easily and affordably higher levels of security capable of blocking or quarantining scams.]

The EDM supports the campaign by Age Cymru to draw attention to the many callous and cruel scams against the vulnerable and the elderly to try to rob them. May we have a debate so that we can find out how to publicise the nature of these scams, some of which are very subtle and very clever and which do so much damage and rob so many elderly people of their hard-won money?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. I recognise that his EDM has secured support from a number of Members on both sides of the House, and rightly so, because it is a concern for our constituents that they are not subject to these exploitative and damaging rogue traders and others. I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I will of course raise the matter with my hon. Friends to see whether they can reply to him and other Members or inform the House a little more about how they are addressing some of these issues.

Last week the Government announced that they plan to introduce an early access to medicines scheme. Such a scheme was a central point in the recent report by the all-party group on muscular dystrophy. Will the Leader of the House provide some time to debate the scheme, and will he ask the relevant Minister to meet me, patients and representatives from the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign to discuss it further?

I will of course ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health whether they might be able to meet the hon. Lady. I cannot promise an immediate debate, but this is an important issue, and I hope that we may have such an opportunity before too long. The early access to medicines scheme, like the breakthrough fund in America, raises the real possibility that, in addition to what we have already done through the cancer drugs fund, which provides the ability to access licensed medicines, drugs that have evident efficacy and safety can be made available through the NHS, even before the point at which they have been through all the formal licensing processes, for patients who often have relatively few other opportunities.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is currently in session, as it has been throughout most of March, and there are a lot of important issues on the agenda. Will the Leader of the House advise on whether there will be a mechanism for us to debate what is decided at the HRC? Will the Foreign Secretary be making a statement, or will there be any other opportunity for us to discuss its outcomes?

I cannot say that there will be a statement to the House, but I will talk to my hon. Friends at the Foreign Office to see how the House might indeed be informed of the outcomes of the Human Rights Council.