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Business of the House

Volume 578: debated on Thursday 3 April 2014

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 7 April—General debate on justice and home affairs.

Tuesday 8 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 9 April—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 10 April—Statement on the publication of the 13th report from the Public Administration Select Committee entitled “Caught red-handed: Why we can’t count on Police Recorded Crime statistics”, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The Select Committee statement and the subject for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 11 April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 April will include:

Monday 28 April—Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill.

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

Thursday 10 April—Debate on police response to domestic violence.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I know that this Government aspire to shrink the state to pre-war levels and take us back to Victorian times, but do we really have to endure the return of London smogs? The chief medical officer has recognised air pollution as one of the top 10 health risk factors in the country. We all know there is little we can do about sand from the Sahara, but will the Leader of the House tell us what steps the Government will take to tackle the UK’s contribution to this problem?

As the much delayed and barely anticipated Queen’s Speech begins to loom closer, may I ask the Leader of the House about reports that the Government failed to consult the Queen about her most convenient date for the state opening and plumped for 3 June, despite a clash with the Buckingham palace garden party? One would think that with all the spare time this zombie Government have at their disposal, they would at least have been able to put it off for a day, but I have found the reason for their inflexibility—4 June is Eton founders day, so half the Cabinet would be unavailable. Given that the Government are so desperate for business that they have had to announce a general debate on Monday, will the Leader of the House confirm what we all know and admit that Prorogation will come sooner rather than later?

Yesterday we learned that the Prime Minister believes that he meets a better class of engaged and talkative shopper at Waitrose. As someone who holds an advice surgery in Asda, may I tell the Prime Minister that his snobbery is out of touch and misplaced?

I do not know whether the Saharan dust cloud is responsible for clogging up the machinery of government, but this week has been remarkable for the sheer scale of the incompetence emerging after this Government’s four years in charge. On Monday, we learned that the Government have got only 3,780 people into their flagship universal credit scheme, which was sold as a way of transforming the lives of people on benefits. That is 0.3% of the 1 million people the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was aiming for by now. So far, £140 million of public money has been written off, each user of the scheme has cost taxpayers an incredible £160,000 and £34 million has been wasted on IT systems that do not work. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House and explain why his Department is in complete and utter chaos, and why he is letting down vulnerable people as a consequence?

The Work and Pensions Committee published a report on Wednesday, which reveals that the bedroom tax is causing disabled people

“severe financial hardship and distress”.

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), the Minister responsible for the tax, claimed that it was saving money, but she has now been forced to admit that it is not saving anything.

The Liberal Democrat president, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), then issued a cynically choreographed announcement that the Liberal Democrats no longer support the bedroom tax. That is odd because, as the bedroom tax has made its way through this House, he has behaved like a true Liberal Democrat: as Liberal Democrat president, he has voted for it; he has abstained on it; and he has voted against it. Will the Leader of the House organise a debate and a vote in this House in Government time so that we can see what on earth the Liberal Democrat president and his party are going to do next?

The National Audit Office delivered a damning verdict this week on the Royal Mail fire sale, which has left the taxpayer short-changed by hundreds of millions of pounds and given a whole new meaning to the phrase “Cable theft”. It is so indefensible that one Conservative MP has described it has described it as a “debacle”, “unethical” and “immoral”. Despite the Prime Minister’s feeble efforts to defend the indefensible yesterday, if someone takes something worth £3.4 billion from us and sells it for £2 billion, it is fairly obvious that we are not getting a good deal.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was unable to say whether a gentleman’s agreement was reached with the so-called long-term investors, who actually cashed in their shares within weeks and made millions. Since the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has refused to answer, will the Leader of the House now tell us who the 16 priority investors selected by the Government are, whether any of them are Tory donors, and whether the Government will publish any correspondence? The country has a right to know.

With all the incompetence this week, it seems appropriate that we had April fool’s day. Some of the fake articles almost fooled me. I almost believed that Piers Morgan was the new press adviser to the Liberal Democrats, and I was taken in by the idea that Alex Salmond would want his face on a new Scottish pound coin; but I could not believe that the Chancellor’s best man made £36 million from the Royal Mail fire sale until I found out that it is actually true. How is that for a mate’s rate?

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the business statement.

The hon. Lady accuses us of shrinking the state. What we are doing is trying to live within our means, which is a perfectly reasonable proposition. As it happens, we are taking Government spending back to about its level in 2004; it is nothing like as apocalyptic as she would have us believe. In truth, having inherited the largest deficit of the G8, it is necessary. It is part of what our long-term economic plan will achieve: it will reduce the deficit and, as a consequence, we will be able to have stronger economic growth to create more jobs and live within our means, including by capping the welfare budget.

I note that, having voted for the welfare cap, all we hear—once again—from Labour Members is that they do not believe in it, that they would vote against it and that they are against the measures within it. Frankly, they also now appear to be against universal credit, which will have the most positive characteristics of being able to support those people whose needs are greatest and to provide additional resources, not least to those on low incomes with children. It is being delivered carefully. We are seeing where the issues lie and dealing with them.

For the shadow Leader of the House to castigate the Department for Work and Pensions again this week is astonishing, when one considers that it is presiding over the most far-reaching and positive pension reforms that anybody here has seen in their lifetime, and that it has presided over an increase in employment of 1.3 million people and an increase in private sector employment of 1.7 million people since the election.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the reports on the spare room subsidy over the past week. Interestingly, much of the analysis showed flaws and inaccuracies in the BBC data. Frankly, if the Government had published the data behind the BBC’s announcement and had tried to make arguments on that basis, we would have been castigated. It would be best if it went back and did its numbers again.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Queen’s Speech and the date of Prorogation. As is customary for all Governments, the date of the Queen’s Speech is announced following full consultation with the palace. The date of Prorogation will be announced in due course and will be subject to the progress of business.

On shops, the Prime Minister, like all of us, visits various retailers in his constituency. There was a Waitrose in my constituency, but it got shuffled out of it in the boundary changes before the last election. I tend to get accosted in all the shops I visit, wherever I go, in a very positive fashion.

I visit the Tesco in my constituency at Bar Hill. When I visited Tesco as a new Member of Parliament—happily this does not happen these days—I was accosted by a shopper on the grounds that she recognised me. However, she thought that she recognised me as the manager because I was the only person there in a suit, and that I would therefore know where she could find her washing powder. Hey ho, things have got better.

On the issue of smog, we are hardly returning to Victorian times. Crikey, I remember being a boy in the east end and not being able to see the pavement as I walked to school because of the smog in the 1960s. It was, of course, a Conservative Government who introduced the Clean Air Acts to clear up that pollution. The UK meets the EU limits in this regard. However, as we have seen this week, a combination of events can still result in high levels of air pollution. We are investing heavily in measures to reduce emissions, in particular from transport. More than £2 billion of measures have been announced since 2011. Johnson Matthey, which is based next to my constituency and at which many of my constituents work, produces some of the leading catalytic converters. We should be proud of this country’s achievements in producing technology that enables us to reduce emissions. It is important that we achieve that.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Royal Mail sale. I am afraid that she was wrong again. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills responded on Tuesday to the shadow Secretary of State. She has not caught up with that reply to his questions. I will repeat what the Secretary of State said yesterday in response to the question about a gentleman’s agreement, for her benefit and for the benefit of the House:

“More than 500 would-be investors in Royal Mail were approached in the lead-up to the sale. A number of long-term institutional investors who knew the company gave us the confidence to press ahead”

with the initial public offering

“and were some of the larger investors on day one. This is standard practice for any flotation. We did not seek to lock them in as they would have paid less for a stock they could not trade. And there were no meetings between”

Ministers or officials and these investors. He said:

“There was no agreement, gentleman’s or otherwise.”

I note that the hon. Lady has not asked for a debate on some of the most positive things that have happened this week. The Opposition voted against the Finance Bill, but I thought that they might have had the good grace to acknowledge that one of the consequences of this Government’s policies is that the income tax-free personal allowance is going up to £10,000. That will take another 200,000 people out of paying tax altogether, and be worth £705 to some people. Fuel duty is now frozen again, and is 20p per litre lower than it would have been under the previous Labour Government’s escalator plans. This weekend sees the introduction of the employment allowance, which is £2,000 off the cost of national insurance for nearly 1.5 million employers across the country. That will further stimulate the business of this country to create the jobs that give people the greatest confidence and security for the future.

Order. As usual, a large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. The House will know that my almost unfailing practice is to seek to accommodate everybody and call every Member at Business questions, but I remind the House that there are two Government statements to follow, a Select Committee statement and then two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. There is therefore a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike, and dependent on that we might, or might not, be able on this occasion to accommodate everybody. We will be led, I hope, with style and aplomb by Mrs Cheryl Gillan.

The Leader of the House carefully stopped his business announcement on 28 April with the Second Reading of the hybrid Bill on High Speed 2. I am sure that he and the usual channels would not want to short-change Members of this House or our constituents, so I am asking for a second day’s debate on 29 April. So many people’s lives, homes and livelihoods are affected, so much environment is damaged and there is such a high risk with this project, that the House deserves two days’ debate on Second Reading of this Bill.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I would never short-change the House, but I have announced the business up to and including 28 April, and that is as far as business can be announced at this stage.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report from the university of Bristol about the high level of mortality among people with learning disabilities. Is he aware of the disappointment of those who attended the NHS conference on Friday about the lack of substance and clarity over funding? May we have that issue clarified, and have the kind of debate that has already happened in another place?

If I may, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health to respond to the right hon. Gentleman about that, but from my recollection of when I was at that Department, our approach was to protect resources available for learning disabilities through local authorities. That made a big difference at a time when local authorities were otherwise having to make considerable reductions in spending.

My right hon. Friend is aware that Manston airport in my constituency is threatened with closure after fewer than four months of a promised two years under its present ownership. Manston is a planned search and rescue facility, and a major diversion field: only this week, a jet destined for Heathrow and running short of fuel had to be diverted to Manston. I am still hopeful that with good will it may be possible to secure a buyer prepared to keep the airport open, and if Manston does close I shall wish to raise the background to the matter in an Adjournment debate. In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that the Government gives consideration to how the predatory disposal of national assets with security implications might be averted?

I am sure the House will completely understand and indeed endorse my hon. Friend’s view of the importance of regional airports—in this instance Manston—in his constituency and in other neighbouring constituencies across Kent, and Thanet in particular. As he knows, my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport are well aware of the issue, and in addition to what he said about the desirability of a debate in the House, I know that they will want to keep in touch with him and with the owners and operators out of Manston airport, recognising all the while that it is a commercial matter, but that the importance they attach to regional airports is undiminished.

My constituent, Miss Perry, of Gracehill in Ballymena, recently received her house insurance premium, which is double what it was last year, and she was told by the insurance company that that is a direct result of the floods that affected England. Although those floods were terrible and awful, and thank God they did not affect Northern Ireland to the same extent, is it appropriate that premiums should be increased by that amount in Northern Ireland, and may we have a debate on the matter?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that by its nature insurance is a pool of risk. The insurer to whom one goes, depending on the parameters of the insurance offer, will sometimes pool risk across very large populations and very big geographical areas. The Government do not interfere with the commercial operation of insurance markets, but the Water Bill, which has just completed its consideration in the House of Lords, will ensure that people can continue to have access to flood insurance. Flood Re, as a reinsurance mechanism to back that up, is very important, but it does not in itself reduce insurance overall. The £10 addition across all insurance premiums is necessary to meet the costs of Flood Re.

You very kindly granted me a recent debate in Westminster Hall, Mr Speaker, on the tragic death of my late constituent, Eystna Blunnie, and her unborn baby Rose, who were brutally beaten and killed by her ex-partner. This terrible crime left the whole of Harlow in shock. Since then, a domestic homicide review has been carried out and is due to be published soon. It will be anonymised, despite the parents’ wish for their daughter and her child to be named. May we have a statement, and will my right hon. Friend speak urgently to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary on this issue?

I am aware of the tragic murder of Eystna Blunnie just days before she was due to give birth to her baby girl Rose in 2012. On behalf of the House, and for myself, I would like to take the opportunity, through my hon. Friend, to offer our condolences to Eystna’s family on their loss.

My hon. Friend will know that in April 2011 the Government placed domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing, so that every local report into a domestic homicide is reviewed and quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. Each review results in a tailored action plan delivered by the area in question to ensure that we learn and act on the lessons of individual tragedies. I understand that a domestic homicide review of this case is under way and will be published by the community safety partnership in coming months. For reasons of data protection, such reviews are anonymised to protect the identity of all involved, including the victims and their families. I will, as my hon. Friend requests, raise the issues he has raised with my right hon. Friends at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Last week, 45 members of staff at Hull’s office of the official receiver were told, after a three-week review, that the office was to close, and that all the jobs would be moved to Leeds in October. That will mean a loss to the economy in Hull of about £1 million, on top of the other cuts we have suffered recently. Hull has been trying very hard to regenerate the city. May we have a debate on why, when we are taking two steps forward, the coalition Government seem to be taking us one step back?

The hon. Lady often comes to the House to offer good news from Hull, the city of culture and renewable energy investment, so I am sorry that on this occasion she feels that there is bad news. I do not know the circumstances in detail. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends to look at the issue she raises and to respond to her, but she will understand that, when we are realising efficiencies in resources, there will sometimes be necessary and inevitable changes in public services.

The Leader of the House, as a former Secretary of State for Health, will be aware of the problems facing minor injuries units. Minehead community hospital in my constituency is having problems in recruiting and in improving ambulance response times. Nearly 300 people, who are worried about the future of Minehead’s minor injuries unit, attended a public meeting this week. May we have a statement on all Somerset hospitals that are suffering from the same problem? There seems to be a funding issue at the very highest level.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is on the Front Bench and will have heard what my hon. Friend has said. I completely understand. One of the objectives in devolving commissioning responsibilities to the local level, in my hon. Friend’s area and others across the country, is to allow a practical appreciation of the benefit of recruitment and retention of minor injuries units, because such units reduce demand on accident and emergency units and ambulance services. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends to reply specifically on the issues in Somerset.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House has had an opportunity this week to read a report from StreetGames about the lack of physical activity among young people in particular. It precedes a report from the All-Party Commission on Physical Activity, which will be published next week and presented to the Prime Minister. Will the Leader of the House have a chance to talk to his colleagues in other Departments to establish how the Government can best respond to what is, I am afraid, a crisis?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. I confess that I have not read the whole report, but I did see the press reports, which I found very interesting. I know, because of my former responsibilities, that the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and others have been working together to try to stimulate physical activity. I was specifically involved in the Department of Health’s support for the Change4Life sports clubs in secondary schools, which began under the last Government but has been extended to primary schools under this one. That should give young people the opportunity to become involved in games through their schools, but of course it is also vital for us to give them further opportunities by supporting local community clubs.

I welcome the Government’s success so far in creating extra private sector jobs which have increased the number of people in employment to 30 million. I also salute the Chancellor’s commitment to full employment. May we have a debate about the need for increased productivity to tackle both our need to export more and the cost of living? Productivity is the key, as well as full employment.

My hon. Friend is, of course, right. One of the most interesting aspects of recent years is that, notwithstanding assertions—not least by the Labour party—that the flexible labour markets that are so important to our economic prosperity would simply enable employers to lay people off, it is because we have flexible labour markets that employers have felt confident enough to take people on. What we need to do now is build productivity in those markets, and that depends on business investment. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s report forecasts strong prospects for business investment, and I believe that the doubling of the investment allowance that was announced in the Budget will enable it to be a strong element of our future economic prosperity.

Yesterday, following a resolution passed by its city council, Sheffield became the first city in the United Kingdom to support calls for the international recognition of Somaliland. Since 1991, the people of Somaliland have made great progress in establishing a stable country with a freely elected Parliament and an independent judiciary. May we have a debate on how the British Government can do more to use their influence in the international community in order to secure recognition of Somaliland?

I am, of course, aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He may have an opportunity to raise it with Ministers during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, and also with other Members who may be interested in Somaliland and Somalia, and, in particular, may welcome the progress that Somaliland has made in recent years.

May we have a debate on how councils spend taxpayers’ money? Having cut its care budget by £10 million, Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council has just squandered £1.2 million on a failed supermarket bid. Does the Leader of the House agree that there may be a case for an investigation by local district auditors of this squandering of taxpayers’ money?

It is always important for auditors to ensure that councils get value for taxpayers’ money when they spend it. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s desire to see councils focus on how they can maintain the services that local people need most, and care services are often pre-eminent in that regard. Our better care fund, which begins in the current financial year, will provide £3.8 billion for care through local authorities, but, like the rest of us, those authorities must also find ways in which to save money. The Department for Communities and Local Government has published “50 ways to save”, which explains how responsible authorities can save money while also prioritising front-line services.

The Post Office card account is greatly valued by its users on benefits, particularly pensioners, and it is a vital support to the network of post offices across the country, but once again it seems to be under threat. Yesterday the Prime Minister seemed a little nonplussed when asked about this by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), although he promised to look carefully at what she had said. May we have a statement so that pensioners and Post Office workers, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses can be reassured about the long-term future of the Post Office card?

I thought the Prime Minister’s answer yesterday was very straightforward and clear: there is not a threat to the Post Office card account, and it is simply a question of the negotiation of the future contract.

At one of the public meetings I regularly hold in my constituency, and indeed again at last night’s Mill Hill Preservation Society meeting, I was asked about step-free access at Mill Hill Broadway, a station on the Thameslink line that is a direct connection to London and is used by many of my elderly and disabled constituents. May we have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to explain how the Government are ensuring that more and more train stations across the country are becoming step-free?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that many Members will rightly share his feeling that we should enable people who have difficulties with access and steps to have step-free access to stations. It is a major task, but happily the scale of Network Rail’s future investment programme is going to enable significant improvements to be made. If he has particular stations in his constituency in mind, I will get in touch with him and make sure my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport respond in relation to Network Rail’s plans.

The Treasury has creamed off in excess of £5 billion from the coal industry pension schemes. May we have a debate to discuss how the Government can best invest the miners’ own money and the continuation of the British coal industry—and perhaps the development and expansion of it as well?

I know the hon. Gentleman was in his place during Energy and Climate Change questions just now when these issues properly were raised. I cannot endorse the point he makes. It is important for people to be aware of the fact that the pension fund for any set of employees is designed to give them the maximum financial security in their old age. It is not intended necessarily to be an investment to be used simply in relation to their existing employment. Considerable risks are associated with that. None the less, these are matters for the trustees of any individual pension fund, but as he has raised these issues I will raise them once again with my hon. Friends at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who are in continuing discussions with the trade unions and the businesses concerned.

As we heard yesterday, Visteon pensioners have announced that they and Ford have agreed in principle a multi-million pound deal to settle claims for pension losses suffered by former employees. Since my election, I, the Visteon pensioners and the all-party group on Visteon pensioners in their support—and with your co-operation, Mr Speaker, which I am grateful for—have been fighting for justice. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider holding a debate that will enable interested Members to celebrate this great result, thank Ford for finally doing the right thing and, of course, congratulate Visteon pensioners on their dogged determination and, hopefully, delivering the justice they so rightly deserve?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and it allows us further to reinforce the point my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made about paying tribute to those who have campaigned and welcoming what has been offered now by Ford. I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend for leading the debate on 12 December last year on these issues. It is something of a novelty to be invited to have a debate not in order to ask for something, but to celebrate that something that has been asked for has been achieved. It leads us into new and happier territory for debates in this House. I cannot immediately promise that, but it is an engaging thought.

May we have a debate on the Royal Mail sell-off? Notwithstanding the Leader of the House’s earlier remarks, the National Audit Office has disclosed that 12 priority investors sold their shares within weeks for a fast buck. If that is true, we need to know the names of the investors and the full details of the transactions, so that we can work out whether the taxpayer has been ripped off.

I answered a question from the shadow Leader of the House on that subject earlier. So far as a debate is concerned, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills answered questions fully and effectively—rather more effectively than the shadow Secretary of State—when he made a statement on the matter earlier this week.

The population of the United Kingdom is 62.3 million. If it is not to rise to 70 million, net migration will have to be cut to 40,000 a year. The coalition Government have successfully cut non-EU immigration from 217,000 a year to 140,000, but Migration Watch has predicted this week that 100,000 people will come to our shores annually from the European Union. That means that our population will be heading towards 70 million-plus, and that the Conservatives’ commitment to cut immigration to tens of thousands will not be met. May we have an urgent debate on the Floor of the House about how the Government are going to get their immigration policy back on track?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This Government have taken significant steps that have reduced net non-European economic area migration into this country. Additionally, we have taken steps through regulation to reduce the incentives for others across the European Union to come to this country unless they are coming here to work. We will be able to do more, however, not least because of our party’s commitment to the achievement of a further renegotiation in Europe, and there are others across Europe who share our belief that the free movement of labour should relate only to work and not to benefits. As a consequence of such renegotiations, we would be able further to reduce the incentives for people to migrate between countries without being part of a successful economy. On the question of a debate, I remind my hon. Friend that amendments to the Immigration Bill will arrive here in due course from the House of Lords. That might afford an opportunity for debate on these matters.

The transition to a low carbon economy provides a huge opportunity for the UK to be a major source of jobs and growth, of which areas such as the north-east very much want their fair share. According to figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, however, investment in clean energy in the UK is due to hit a five-year low this year. May we have a debate to find out why that is happening?

I do not have the figures in front of me, but my recollection is that 14 major contracts for new energy investment are in prospect over the next 15 years. We are world leaders in offshore wind energy, and we now have some of the greatest prospects for investment in energy, not least as a consequence of the capacity market reforms in the Energy Act 2013, which will give investors the opportunity to come in and make their investments, confident about the nature of the market in the years to come.

I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has said. Did I just detect a hint that the Leader of the House was encouraging Back Benchers to amend the Immigration Bill to restrict immigration from the European Union? If so, may we have a statement from the Leader of the House next week to celebrate that fact?

I think what I said was that, in so far as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) wished to have an opportunity to debate those matters—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) agrees with him on that—the Immigration Bill will take us further in the direction of ensuring that there are no incentives for people to come here without good reasons or without the prospect of work. I am not encouraging amendment to the Bill as such, because a number of useful amendments are being made in the House of Lords. When the Lords amendments come back to this House, however, we will have an opportunity for that debate.

Given that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has just confirmed to the House that two of the last three deep mines are to close, and that a seismic survey last week revealed 23 trillion tonnes of coal in 20 seams under the North sea, would it not be opportune to have a debate about the role of coal in a diverse energy supply?

Of course I cannot promise an immediate debate on that. Securing our energy supply in a manner that enables us to meet our decarbonisation objectives is a proper and continuous source of debate, and I know there will be further debates on it. What I think the Minister of State was saying from the Dispatch Box was that he is thoroughly engaged with the company and the trade unions, and has been for some time, in considering the consequences of the prospective closures.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for regular debates on whether we should stay in or leave the European Union? Will he insist that the Deputy Prime Minister participates in each of those debates? Now that Nigel Farage has, unsurprisingly, twice wiped the floor with the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue, is it not clear that the more people hear the debate and the arguments about whether we should be in or out, the more likely they are to conclude that we should be out? It is equally clear that those who want to stay in are relying on dodgy figures, desperate scaremongering and personal, cheap insults.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I believe we should have a debate in this country about our future relationship with the European Union, but that we should have it once we have had the opportunity that only a Conservative victory at the next general election would afford us: to have both a renegotiation of our relationship with our partners, with that mandate behind us, and the mandate for a referendum in the next Parliament. That gives force to such a debate. In the absence of a referendum, there is no force to this debate.

Ofsted reports today that too many nurseries in England are failing to ensure that children are in a position to learn when they get to primary school. Worse, Sir Michael Wilshaw says that children from the poorest backgrounds are especially badly served, with only a third reaching a good level of pre-school development. May we have a statement on this damning indictment of the Government’s early years record, which is failing?

I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman characterise these things in that misplaced way. What they are is an endorsement of our determination to improve early years education, not least to enable primary schools across this country to have more teacher-led and education-driven—standards-driven—early years education. In that sense, they are very supportive of what we set out to do. Across the House we should be very clear that, as I know from my former public health responsibilities, whether children are school ready when they first go to school is one of the central measures of long-term prospective outcomes for children. We need to focus on that, and I hope the Ofsted report will enable us to do so.

May I associate myself with calls for a second day to debate the HS2 Bill on Second Reading? May I also ask the Leader of the House for a debate on university technical colleges, which are a tremendous way for young people to gain the industry-specific skills they need? Will he encourage Jaguar Land Rover and JCB to co-sponsor a midlands UTC, so that the midlands and Tamworth remain the home of the manufacturing sector?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that university technical college, and the support of JCB and others for it. I know that we are now talking about some 45 UTCs across the country. What is so compelling about them as a thought is that not only are they focused on giving young people the opportunity to have access to vocational qualifications in an abstract sense, but they are focused in given areas on knowledge of where those skills will be taken up by local employers. That gives tremendous confidence to young people going to UTCs.

I am sure the Leader of the House would agree that the matters being investigated by Ofsted in certain Birmingham schools are deeply worrying. Will he ensure that the Ofsted and Birmingham reports are published swiftly, and that thereafter there is a swift statement to this House?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right, and Members across the House will share his concerns about the timeliness of the matter. I will, in consultation with my hon. Friends at the Department for Education, ensure that the House is informed as soon as possible, subject of course to the inquiry being carried out thoroughly.

The Leader of the House will know that, a couple of days ago, the House agreed, without a Division, a programme motion for the Finance Bill. I had originally thought that that was a good idea, but having listened to him this morning, I think that perhaps another day’s debate would serve to remind the House that the Opposition voted against all of our excellent tax changes—our tax cut for working people and the freezing of fuel duty. An extra day’s debate to remind the British public of that might be a good use of this House’s time.

Well, my hon. Friend tempts me. Two days, as the programme motion specifies, is the right answer for the time being. Of course if we were able to go beyond that, it would allow us to find out what it was specifically that the Labour party objected to that caused it to vote against the Finance Bill. Otherwise, we will have to tell the British public that it is against the increase in the personal tax allowance, against the reduction in corporation tax for businesses and, I am afraid, against the long-term economic plan that is delivering for the people of this country.

In the context of raising the participation age, may we have a debate on whether it is still appropriate for 16 to 18-year-old learners to be funded 22% less than pre-16 learners?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Minister for Schools has answered that question on a number of occasions. It relates of course to the necessity of managing within budgets for those who are of that age in that sector. As he raises it again, I will ask my hon. Friends to return to him with any additional information that they can give him.

May we have a debate on the 50th report of the Public Accounts Committee on the rural broadband programme? It is a totally successful programme, but there are issues with British Telecom, exemplified in my constituency by it leaving out villages such as Glasson Dock in pursuance of attempting to box in the only other operator in the area, Broadband for the Rural North, which is a social enterprise and a not-for-profit organisation.

My hon. Friend might find it useful to note that there will be a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 8 April entitled, “Broadband and the north of England” in which he may have an opportunity to expand on some of his important points. It is widely recognised among Members that while we are making tremendous progress on broadband coverage— 10,000 additional homes per week—we are all focused on trying to ensure that people do not get left behind.

The Leader of the House might know that I am a Labour/Co-operative Member of Parliament. Did he see last night’s BBC “Newsnight” programme in which there were shocking revelations about the pressure that the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills put on the Co-op and the Co-op bank to take certain measures that destabilised the Co-op bank, which has a proud tradition of being a very different bank?

I did not see that programme, so I cannot comment directly on what the hon. Gentleman alleges. My recollection is that the Treasury Committee is continuing to undertake an inquiry into the Co-operative bank. It is not for me to refer such matters, but he might like to refer any information he has to that Committee.

May I add to the call that was made a few minutes ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for a debate on the UK’s set position in the European Union? Next Tuesday will see the announcement of the winner of the €100,000 “Brexit” prize, which is organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs. We have seen debates on the television and in the think-tanks. It seems bizarre to the public that this House is not debating what life would be like for the UK outside the EU. We should have an urgent debate before the European elections.

My hon. Friend asks for a debate before the European elections, but it seems to me that the European elections are about who we send to the European Parliament. The debate between now and the European parliamentary elections should be about sending Conservative Members of the European Parliament, as we have in the past and will again in the future, who will go there and fight for British interests, vote against measures that are not in this country’s interests and promote competitiveness and deregulation in the European Union. That is what the European parliamentary election is about. At the same time, we might have a further opportunity in the course of the next Session in this House to debate through a private Member’s Bill how the people of this country can have their say in a referendum. That is a critical issue in getting such a debate to happen.

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is bidding for foundation trust status so that it can take advantage of the Government’s hospital closure programme and sell off half of Charing Cross and Saint Mary’s hospitals, which the people who pay for the NHS, my constituents, do not want. May we have a debate on NHS land sales, and may we have it before 22 May and the local elections? Since Labour made this an election issue, the decision to close Charing Cross has unaccountably been put back to the week after the poll.

One might imagine on hearing the hon. Gentleman that foundation trust status had been introduced by this Government when, of course, it was introduced by the previous Labour Government. It certainly gives freedoms but, as it happens, it does not give a trust any greater freedom to sell property than it would have as an NHS trust. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman’s description of the purposes of acquiring foundation trust status does not match up with what Imperial College Healthcare itself believes. Many other trusts, including Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in my constituency, have used their freedoms to enable them to invest in additional capital, including new buildings, to improve the quality of the service they provide for patients.

Roslyn Earle has been forced out of her flooded home because her insurance was placed with an Icelandic company that had its licence withdrawn at the point at which she made the claim. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister about how the Government will address such issues and ensure that my constituent can get the payout she thought she had paid for and she clearly deserves?

My hon. Friend rightly raises his constituent’s concerns and I am sure that people share them, but individual cases are not matters that Ministers can engage with directly. We have created a proper framework through the Prudential Regulation Authority for the regulation of institutions that accept deposits or effect insurance contracts. The PRA is fully operationally independent in carrying out those statutory responsibilities, so, if I may, I will ask it to write to my hon. Friend on this matter.

As part of its bid for part of the £2 billion local growth fund, the Leeds city partnership has produced an excellent video in which it highlights that it is the second largest economy in the UK, with 106,000 businesses, the largest manufacturing base in the UK and eight universities, and that it has the drive, confidence and ambition needed to help rebalance our economy. May we have a debate on the local growth fund to highlight such excellent work aimed at rebuilding our economy?

I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that issue, which is important. I remember—this is going back 30 years—that when others were bemoaning the loss of manufacturing and economic changes, Leeds simply said that those things were changing and that it would therefore become a city focused on the development of financial services. That process was Leeds-led, not imposed from outside. The point of the Government’s work with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities is to enable exactly that kind of local leadership to define a strategy for each area. The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is responsible for cities and the constitution, is leading negotiations with all the local enterprise partnerships between now and July with a view to signing a growth deal with each one, including a share of the local growth fund for projects that will start from April of next year. I am confident that the Leeds city region will be prominent in those deals.

Last week the European Commission finally approved the Government’s plan to offer tax relief to video games producers in the UK. This relief will provide a huge boost for the industry, especially the many games industries based in Silicon Spa in my constituency. May we have a debate on the contribution of the creative industries to the wider economy?

I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I know that one would be useful because it would allow us to highlight exactly what my hon. Friend refers to, which is a great success story for this country, with the creative industries exporting £15.5 billion in 2011—some 8% of total UK service exports—accounting for 1.68 million jobs and more than £70 billion of output: more than 5% of the whole UK economy. It is not just large but highly competitive, and it has a comparative advantage in this country. It is one of the sectors where that is increasingly true, and it is our job to create the framework for it to succeed in the future.

You, Mr Speaker, will know that the Government Whips Office normally operates like a well-oiled machine, yet on this occasion it appears that the Whips believe that there is no interest in HS2 and Second Reading can be held on just one day, even though 40 Members of Parliament will be affected by HS2, it will cost £50 billion and many Members of the House are both for and against it. Can you pass on to the Government Chief Whip that that is not the case, that many Members of Parliament want to speak both for and against HS2 and that it will require at least two days for Second Reading?

Order. I simply note in passing that the hon. Gentleman may believe that the halcyon days were when he was a member of that Office. I know not.

I have to tell my hon. Friend that the efficiency and effectiveness of the Whips Office is undiminished. The Whips will have heard what he had to say. For my part, I have announced the business up to and including Monday 28 April, and I will announce the business beyond that day in due course.