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Business of the House

Volume 586: debated on Thursday 16 October 2014

The business for next week will be:

Monday 20 October—Remaining stages of the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, followed by motion to approve a Church of England measure relating to women bishops.

Tuesday 21 October—Second Reading of the Recall of MPs Bill.

Wednesday 22 October—Opposition day (7th allotted day). There will be debates in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, including on the National Crime Agency.

Thursday 23 October—Debate on a motion relating to repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, followed by debate on a motion relating to oral hormone pregnancy tests. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 24 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 27 October will include:

Monday 27 October—Second Reading of the Taxation of Pensions Bill.

Hon. Members will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the February recess at close of play on Thursday 12 February and return on Monday 23 February.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 30 October will be:

Thursday 30 October—Debate on the first joint report from the Committees on Arms Export Controls, “Scrutiny of Arms Exports and Arms Controls”.

May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and February’s recess date? I note, however, that he has not announced a date for this Government to stagger to their painful and inevitable end—or should I say dissolution?

Six weeks ago, the House gave a Second Reading to the Affordable Homes Bill, which mitigates the cruel effects of the bedroom tax. A week later the House also gave a Second Reading to the International Development (Official Development Assistance Target) Bill. However, there is still no sign of the money resolutions that would enable either of them to progress to Committee, and the Tory wing of the Government are using parliamentary tricks in an attempt to subvert the will of the House. Will the Leader of the House now give us a commitment that he will respect the decisions of the House by bringing forward those two money resolutions ahead of any money resolution for the European Union (Referendum) Bill, which makes its predictable reappearance on Friday? Or is he so scared by the UKIP threat to his party’s election prospects that he is desperate to let the EU Bill jump the queue?

Yesterday the Prime Minister failed to defend his own welfare Minister, Lord Freud, who claimed that disabled workers are not worth the full minimum wage and promised to go away and think about making them work for £2 an hour. This was not just an unfortunate slip of the tongue; it revealed the truth about this Government’s attitude to people with disabilities, and straight from the mouth of the Minister directly responsible. Why is he still in his job? Is it because too many in the Tory party secretly agree with him or because the Prime Minister is too weak to act? Will the Leader of the House arrange for the publication of all documents commissioned by the Government on the disabled and the minimum wage? As the welfare Minister has been mysteriously pulled from his scheduled appearance in the Lords today, will the Leader of the House ensure that he is available to make a statement in the other place sooner rather than later? The Minister for Employment said yesterday:

“Those words will haunt him,”

but is it not the truth that those words will haunt this Government until Lord Freud resigns?

Senior Tories finally admitted this week that their toxic reorganisation of the NHS has been their biggest mistake in Government—and they are right. Patients are waiting longer in A and E; they are waiting longer to see their GP; and cancer waits are up. Before the election, the Prime Minister promised “no top-down reorganisation” and then embarked on one that has caused chaos and wasted £3 billion. According to senior Tories, as reported in The Times, the Prime Minister did “not understand” the reforms, but he forced them on the NHS anyway. Does the Leader of the House agree that these actions have done profound and intense damage to the NHS? Will he ask the Prime Minister to come to the House to explain why on earth he went ahead with it when he did not even understand it?

I would like to welcome to the House the newly elected Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes). She will be a doughty fighter for her constituents and I congratulate her on her victory. I would also like to welcome to an entirely different place in the Chamber the hon. Member for Clacton (Douglas Carswell)—the new Member for Clacton who has the distinction of being the old Member for Clacton. He should be congratulated on managing to win an election as both the incumbent and the insurgent all at the same time. I note that we will have another by-election in just a few weeks’ time, so let me say to the Leader of the House that to lose one MP may be regarded as a misfortune, but to lose two is just reckless!

The Conservative party conference in Birmingham might have got off to a bad start with yet another defection, but the swansong address of the Leader of the House steadied the ship. May I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his 26th consecutive appearance on his party’s conference platform? Some of us remember his Wilsonian- style address as a precocious 16-year-old. The Prime Minister was so moved by the right hon. Gentleman’s final oration to the party faithful that he has proclaimed him as the greatest living Yorkshireman. This has caused much consternation. Teenagers think it is Louis Tomlinson from One Direction; Guardian readers think it is Alan Bennett and I, of course, think it is my dad. Deep down, however, we all know the truth. He spent years batting on a sticky wicket; he stood strong as his side was collapsing around him; and he made a return to the top team after years in exile. It is not the Leader of the House; it is Geoff Boycott.

Well, I join the hon. Lady in congratulating the two new hon. Members introduced to the House this week, although both are evidently a bit too busy to bother with the business of the House for next week. We of course congratulate all democratically elected Members. The hon. Lady has been very nice about my 26 years—indeed, 37 years—of speaking at Conservative party conferences. The truly greatest-living Yorkshireman would, of course, be too modest to mention the fact, so I shall say no more about that particular subject, but I thank the hon. Lady for drawing attention to it.

The hon. Lady asked about private Members’ Bills. Money resolutions are being considered by the Government in the normal way. She said that the referendum Bill was making a predictable reappearance. It is predictable because of the efforts of Labour Members to prevent any referendum from being held, opposing the wishes of the people of this country to have an in/out referendum on Europe, which is what Conservative Members will continue to advocate.

The hon. Lady asked about the remarks of Lord Freud. I feel passionately about this subject. I hope the hon. Lady will recall that I took the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 through this Parliament and I remain passionate about the rights of disabled people. It is right for Lord Freud to apologise unreservedly, which he has done. He said he was foolish to accept the premise of the question, which I think is right. It is right, too, however, to judge the Government on their record on these matters. Let me point out that overall spending on the main disability benefits will have been higher in every year to 2018 than it was in 2010, and that the number of disabled people in work is now 70,000 higher than it was at the end of the last Government. Those are the really important points. We have provided £400 million for carers to take short breaks from their caring responsibilities. Those are the things that really help disabled people, and I think Governments should be judged on their records. Lord Freud has apologised for his remarks. The hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister was too weak to dismiss him; I can assure her that the Prime Minister is never weak.

Talking of leaders, I read in “Labour Uncut” that a move was being planned on the Opposition Front Bench—a move

“so bold that it would reset the political clock… and demonstrate Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials.”

We are talking really bold here: incredibly bold. The centrepiece was to be a reshuffle of those on the Opposition Front Bench—I am glad to see that the hon. Lady is still in her place—which, in turn, was to centre on the ejection of the shadow Chancellor from his position, the well-known “nightmare”, according to the Leader of the Opposition’s advisers. But now, following the Heywood and Middleton by-election, the Leader of the Opposition has apparently decided that he cannot carry out the planned reshuffle; so he is not even bold enough to carry out his own bold plan to be bold. It is no wonder that the Opposition are so riven with speculation about the position of their leader.

The hon. Lady asked about the national health service. The number of doctors and nurses is now higher than it was at any point under the last Labour Government. There are fewer patients waiting longer than 26 or 52 weeks than there were under Labour, and there have been many other achievements, including a 98% reduction in mixed-sex accommodation, which is something that the last Government never achieved.

I noticed that the hon. Lady did not mention the deficit. We knew that the Leader of the Opposition had forgotten the deficit, but we did not know about the creeping amnesia among Opposition Members. Today, we offer a cheer to the first Opposition Member who mentions the deficit, and who remembers the need to tackle the deficit. While they are at it, the Opposition might also remember the economic news of the last two weeks. We have seen the largest annual fall in unemployment in history, the International Monetary Fund confirming that Britain is the fastest-growing economy in the G7, inflation remaining low, and the state pension rising by £75 more than inflation. None of those things ever happened under the Labour Government.

The Leader of the House is fully aware that there is one problem in this country that we do need to debate, and that is coastal erosion. In my constituency, which has a vast amount of coastline, we have the Environment Agency, the Crown, national Government, local government—both district and county—and European funding, but no one has taken responsibility for co-ordination. We have a serious situation for which no one has taken responsibility. May we have some time in this place to discuss a problem that affects constituencies all along the coastline of the United Kingdom, but which we are not addressing?

That is a very important issue, and I know that it is important in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The whole issue of flood prevention and, specifically, coastal erosion is of enormous importance, particularly in view of the weather events that have taken place in this country over the last few years. As he says, in many parts of the country there are overlapping responsibilities. My right hon. Friends who are responsible for these matters have ensured that investment in flood defences in general has been increasing in comparison with investment under the last Government. However, I think that my hon. Friend is well equipped to pursue this topic in, for instance, a Backbench Business debate.

I do not want to feel ashamed about the House, and I very rarely do, so will the Leader of the House assure me that we can have an urgent, full debate about the dreadful disease that is sweeping across Africa, the Ebola virus? The House has heard a statement, but we have not had a major debate. We owe Africa. Our forebears did dreadful things in Africa—slavery, and much else. We ought to take the matter seriously, but we are not acting fast enough to stop this dreadful disease.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the extreme importance of this issue. As he knows, the Secretary of State for Health made a statement in the House on Monday, and I have no doubt that Ministers will want to keep the House fully up date by means of statements and, if necessary, debates.

The hon. Gentleman talked, rightly, about our responsibilities to Africa. Let me reassure him. This country is now making an enormous contribution, a bigger contribution than any other European country, in sending 750 troops to Sierra Leone, in the work that we are doing to set up treatment and medical training centres there, and in the £125 million of assistance that we are providing. We are leading the way internationally in assistance to Africa: the hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt about that.

Will the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war report this side of the general election, or will it be like the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens—something we will expect in about 50 years’ time?

We always expect a literary reference from my hon. Friend. I am not in control of the timing of the report’s release, although Ministers certainly hope it will be available in the not too distant future. My hon. Friend will recall that in 2006 I was moving motions from the Opposition Benches calling for such an inquiry that were resisted for two years.

I supported the Welsh nationalists and they often supported me, but Labour opposed setting up an inquiry. Had it agreed to it, the inquiry would have reported long ago. I certainly hope it reports before the general election, but I am not in control of that.

Last week we had the dreadful announcement that JTI Gallaher intends to close its Ballymena Lisnafillan plant, with the loss of 900 jobs—£60 million gone from the local wage economy and a further £100 million in associated industries. It marks the end of all manufacturing of tobacco products in the United Kingdom. Those jobs are equivalent to 10,000 jobs on the mainland, but the Business Secretary has not bothered to come to this Chamber to make any statement on that devastating loss, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not bothered to come to the Dispatch Box and speak about that loss, either. The sense of hurt and the sense that there has been a turning away from even caring about those jobs is palpable. Will we now have a statement?

The hon. Gentleman speaks up very powerfully for his constituency, and understandably so. I will certainly draw the attention of the Ministers concerned to the remarks he has made in the House today, but I see that he has secured an Adjournment debate on this on Monday 27 October, to which, of course, a Minister will reply, so he will be able to set out the case more fully then.

When I used to travel to Africa my passport was date-stamped with a visa on entry and date-stamped again on exiting the country. To assist in tracking those at risk of spreading Ebola—particularly transit passengers and those with complex travel arrangements—will the Leader of the House suggest that the relevant Ministers speak to the Governments of the affected countries and ensure they return to a rigorous system of date-stamping the passports of those leaving the country at airports and ports? It would be simple and inexpensive, and we could require carriers to police the system so as to minimise the effects of any corruption.

I will draw my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of my colleagues. She will be aware that Border Force officers will determine the travel history of passengers who have recently travelled from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone at passport control, and they can ask additional questions, and they can, of course, examine passports as well. All of that will be done, and is being done already. No system is completely foolproof and there are, of course, passengers who use e-gates and there are some with more than one passport, and passport stamps are not always legible. I can think of many problems with this, therefore, but we should not dismiss any constructive ideas, and I will make sure my hon. Friend’s idea is relayed to my colleagues.

Earlier in the week Members on both sides of the House voted by a huge majority in favour of UK recognition of Palestine as a state. What is the point of these Backbench Business debates if the Government simply pay lip service to them?

I do not think anybody taking part in the debate was under the impression that it was binding on the Government, but the House of Commons certainly passed a resolution and had a full debate. As the hon. Lady knows, it is our policy to recognise a Palestinian state at a moment when it can make a contribution to peace, including through a two-state solution and the creation of a viable sovereign Palestinian state. That remains the position of Her Majesty’s Government.

With economic growth continuing as it is, one area we need to think about is logistics. Gloucestershire has a shortage of lorry drivers, so may we have a debate to promote lorry driving as a career for young people?

My hon. Friend might well want to promote a debate himself, which he can do through all the normal means. He is right about the implications of economic growth and the opportunities in the haulage industry. As he knows, we have seen 1.8 million apprenticeships start under this Government in the past four and half years, which is a dramatic increase. That can benefit all industries, but it is open to him to pursue the debate he calls for.

I return to the theme of Yorkshiremen. The Leader of the House will recall that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government sent PricewaterhouseCoopers to examine the audits and accounts of Tower Hamlets council some months ago. Is there any indication from the Department for Communities and Local Government that we can expect a statement any time soon?

I have not had any request from DCLG about making a statement in the House, but I entirely understand the hon. Gentleman raising the issue and asking for an update. I will convey that to my ministerial colleagues, including that great Yorkshireman who presides over the Department.

The Leader of the House has announced that on Tuesday we will debate the recall Bill. Looking at the Order Paper I can see that there is a motion for Second Reading and a money resolution but no programme motion. Is it his intention to table a programme motion between now and Tuesday so that when we debate the Second Reading we can pace ourselves for the Committee stage?

It is my intention that there will be a programme motion, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that point. It will be tabled in good time for the debate, so that right hon. and hon. Members can indeed pace themselves accordingly.

The Leader of the House announced earlier a debate on oral hormone pregnancy drugs, which were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s, causing babies to be born with severe deformities. Are the Government, or is the Minister who is to take part in a debate, prepared to make an announcement about either compensation or a proper investigation?

Of course the point of the debate is to enable these issues to be raised, and I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will seek to take part in it and to raise them. There are also questions to the Secretary of State for Health on Tuesday, so there are other opportunities for hon. Members to raise that issue and I believe it is Health Ministers who have to provide the definitive reply.

Can the most modest living Yorkshireman confirm, for the reassurance of the House, that there will be no change in the governance of this House, either on the Clerks side or for the building, until such time as the Select Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) has reported to us?

The right hon. Member for Blackburn happens to be in the Chamber at the moment. The motion to appoint the rest of the Governance Committee that will serve with him—as the House has agreed—is on today’s Order Paper. The House of Commons Commission will, of course, have to make sure that the temporary arrangements for the governance of the House are sufficiently robust, but every opportunity must remain fully to respect the wishes of the House and nothing should be done to pre-judge the outcome of the Committee,

I was going to ask the Leader of the House why the welcome Church of England Measure that we will debate on Monday allowing the ordination of women bishops, to which he referred, includes a clause, clause 2, that would carve the Church of England out of the Equality Act—a new amendment to that Act. I suspect he does not know the answer, so I shall ask him this instead: when will he table the money resolution for the Affordable Homes Bill? That was a point from the shadow Leader of the House to which he forgot to reply.

I absolutely did not forget to reply to it, although I have noticed that all Opposition Members have still forgotten to mention the deficit. The amnesia has spread almost to the entire Labour party. I said that the Government are considering the money resolutions, and of course they will continue to do so in the normal way.

I am not setting a date. I do not have a date for tabling money resolutions, which is the answer to the question. Therefore, that answer should be sufficient for the hon. Gentleman.

With our armed forces now serving in the skies over Iraq, does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a good time to look again at the introduction of a national defence medal to give proper recognition to our nation’s military veterans?

It is a good time to remember what the Royal Air Force and others do on our behalf, and we debated that in this House at the end of September. The full merits of the specific proposal to introduce a national defence medal was considered at length by the Committee on the Grant of Honours, Declarations and Medals, which concluded that a strong enough case had not been made at this time for a national defence medal, but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will continue to advocate it.

Going back to the urgent question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), the Minister’s response left a few doubts in my mind about his appreciation of the situation. He talked about Tata going forward with UK rail contracts, but that would not be the case if Klesch took ownership of the Scunthorpe works. That would affect contract workers not just in Skinningrove in my constituency but in Redcar and Beam Mill. They are very much concerned about their futures under the potential new ownership. Can we have further clarification from the Government that they will be talking to trade union representatives from all sites before they meet Klesch, because that is of the utmost importance?

I do not think that I can expand on what my right hon. Friend the Minister said in half an hour in this House. He answered many questions, including from the hon. Gentleman. I cannot add to what he has said, but he did stress the importance that the Government attach to the matter and indeed to the future of steel production overall. He will continue to keep the House up to date, and I am sure that he will be touch with hon. Members whose constituencies are affected.

I feel compelled once again to raise the matter of foreign lecturers working in Italian universities, known collectively as lettori, who have been discriminated against for decades on the basis of nationality. My right hon. Friend will know of this issue from his former role. He will also know that despite various assurances from the Italian Government that this issue will be resolved, nothing has happened. They promised to intervene in July but that did not materialise. May we have a statement from the Government on what further measures they can take to persuade the Italian Government to stop this practice of discrimination, which is in breach of all European treaties.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to continue to raise this issue. The Government have repeatedly raised their concerns. I did so as Foreign Secretary with Italian Ministers and with the Italian ambassador. Senior officials and Ministers continue to raise it. Our ambassador in Rome is seeking a further meeting with the Italian Education Minister and the head of the universities department to discuss the next steps. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will want to keep my hon. Friend up to date on this, as he has done in the past.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware from his previous role of the case of Mohammad Asghar, a 70-year-old man from Edinburgh who was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy. Recently, Mr Asghar was severely injured in prison after being shot by a policeman. The Scottish Government have now indicated that they might be prepared to agree to a prisoner transfer, which could be a way forward. Will the Government listen sympathetically to that proposal and arrange for a Minister to issue an oral or a written statement to give us an update on the case?

I do recall that very disturbing case, and the hon. Gentleman is quite right to raise it in the House and draw our attention to it again. I will have to refer his question to my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ask them to respond to him and to look at the idea that he has just promoted.

The Government passed the Localism Act more than two years ago and Plymouth city council, which is controlled by the Labour party, has identified Collins park tennis courts as surplus to requirements and might well seek to build on them. It claims that it has not made a decision, but has published a planning brief. Please may we have a debate on the progress that local communities and neighbourhoods have made in protecting green inner-city areas such as mine in Plymouth?

I think a debate on these issues would be most welcome to illustrate the opportunities that are now open. The Localism Act 2011 gives communities the opportunity to list valuable local assets and so far some 1,500 assets of community value have been listed. Green spaces are the second most popular listing, along with parks, village greens, open land and even, in one case, a mountain. I encourage my hon. Friend to pursue a debate on these matters.

Of course, we cannot get involved in individual planning applications, but I hope that I can be forgiven for saying that we need more tennis courts in this country and not fewer. That is a matter about which I feel very strongly, as does the Lawn Tennis Association and a great many other people besides.

May I agree with the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) for a debate on Ebola? The Health Secretary made a statement on Monday about Ebola and the targeted screening at Heathrow, Gatwick and Eurostar, but he did not refer to ports such as Hull, which are busy entry points and targets for illegal immigration. Would it be possible to have a debate on what more needs to be done to protect all our ports of entry?

The Government are looking at these issues constantly. As the Health Secretary mentioned on Monday, Cobra meets regularly and senior Ministers across government are giving their full attention to the issue. Of course, our efforts are concentrated on those points that have been highlighted so far because of the volume of passengers from the affected areas that might come through them, but the hon. Lady makes an understandable point about ports as well as airports. With such a dramatic and threatening issue, there will need to be regular updates to the House. I do not know whether that will next take the form of a statement or a further debate, but we will certainly bear her representations in mind.

May we have a debate on the ease with which foreign criminals can enter this country, particularly from the EU? Some very tragic cases have brought the matter into sharp focus in recent weeks. Hopefully, during the debate the House can resolve to start taking the DNA and fingerprints of all those who come from abroad into this country at the point of entry, which could then be linked to a criminal record, prevent them from returning after being deported and enable us to ensure that they are who they say they are and are not travelling on a false passport or using false papers. Surely taking DNA and fingerprints is a small price to pay for foreigners who want to enter our great country so that we can better protect the people who are already here.

My hon. Friend, like many people in the country, feels very strongly about foreign criminals and crimes committed in this country. On a related issue, as he knows the Government are making intensified efforts to ensure that foreign national offenders who are in our prisons are returned to their country of origin. These are important issues. I cannot promise off the cuff this morning completely to change all our border arrangements, but he makes an important point about the importance of this issue and it is open to him to pursue debates on it, too.

In this House yesterday, Christian Aid held an event to highlight the impact of climate change in some of the poorest countries of the world—I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) was able to attend. There was due to be a representative from Malawi at the event. As the Leader of the House will know, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa and one of the most reliant on agriculture. However, the representative was unable to secure a visa and, sadly, that is not an isolated incident. Huge numbers of teachers, charity workers and people working with churches have been unable to fulfil long-standing partnership engagements in my constituency and across the UK because of the move to a cashless system via Pretoria for applications for visas from Malawi. I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that international credit cards are simply not available to almost everybody in Malawi, so they have real trouble in accessing the system. May we have a statement or a debate from the Home Office on ensuring that the visa system is fair and equitable for people wishing to come to the UK for entirely legitimate reasons?

I will pass on the hon. Gentleman’s point to my Home Office colleagues, who have to ensure that our visa system is not only rigorous but efficient—certain changes have been made to bring that about. He makes a point that we should examine, however, so I shall refer it to my Home Office colleagues.

For 30 years, Abbey Homes has been sitting on the Stokesmead site in my constituency. It has been unable to develop the site, yet is unwilling to sell it to the borough council or indeed to local residents, who would like the site to be used as a village green. May we have a debate on such land banking, which does nothing to benefit our local communities?

Such issues create strong feelings in local communities, and my hon. Friend always speaks up strongly for her local community. As has been the case with other matters raised by hon. Members, it is open to her to seek an Adjournment debate or a Back-Bench business debate, and I encourage her to do so.

The Leader of the House said that there would be a cheer for the first Opposition Member who mentioned the deficit, so I thought that I would take him up on the offer—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Thank you. There is indeed a serious deficit growing in the earning capacity of many in my constituency who work in the construction trade. They previously would have been on the books of construction companies, but now find that they are subbed out to subcontractors, which sub out to agencies. The agencies take these people on to their books, but they are told that as they are self-employed, they must contribute towards annual holiday pay through deductions and employer’s national insurance contributions. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on bogus self-employment so that we can deal with the deficit in these people’s earnings.

I am not sure that that counts as mentioning the deficit—we are running out of time to get such a mention—but of course the hon. Gentleman raises an issue of importance to his constituents. It is open to him to try to secure a debate on such self-employment and the things that might be happening to people that were not intended, so I encourage him to pursue all the normal channels to achieve that.

Devolution in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London has been accompanied by electoral reform. May I ask, as one Yorkshireman to another, for a debate on the type of electoral reform that should accompany any possible devolution in England?

My hon. Friend may recall that we had quite a big debate three years ago called a national referendum, in which the entire country took part. Many millions of people voted and the result was emphatic. If a 55% result in Scotland is meant to be for a generation or a lifetime, which I hope that it is, a 67% result on electoral reform—I think that that was the outcome—might also last for a generation or a lifetime.

May we have an urgent debate and a statement about the application of existing laws on illegal Traveller encampments? Harlow has been under siege, with illegal encampments all over the town during the past year resulting in clean-up costs to Harlow taxpayers of £41,000. More than 1,700 residents have signed my petition calling for action. Will my right hon. Friend urge the Home Secretary to contact the chief constable of Essex and ask for a zero-tolerance approach to help to put an end to this intolerable situation?

This is a serious issue, and not only in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Operational decisions on the use of police powers are, of course, a matter for chief constables, as must be the case, but I will bring the issues he raises to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. My hon. Friend and others might also want to send representations to the Department for Communities and Local Government because it is consulting on a series of changes to planning policy for Traveller sites, including with regard to unauthorised development.

May we have an urgent statement on safety between junctions 1 and 4 of the M6? Many serious accidents take place on that part of the motorway, and its closure on numerous occasions has caused gridlock in my constituency as people have taken to A and B roads to get to the rest of the motorway network.

On Thursday next week there will be questions to the Secretary of State for Transport, so my hon. Friend will have a chance to raise that issue with Transport Ministers then. The Highways Agency continually monitors the safety of the network, and the schemes that are being pursued between junctions 2 and 3 have come from the safety monitoring, but I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will wish to continue to pursue the matter with Transport Ministers.

Yesterday, Mr Speaker, you, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and a veritable multitude of right hon. and hon. Members attended our annual Diwali celebration, which I had the privilege to co-host with the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that we had a debate in the House on the tremendous contribution that is made to Britain by British Hindus? Will he join me in wishing Hindus, Sikhs and Jains a very happy, peaceful, prosperous and healthy new year?

Yes, I absolutely join my hon. Friend in wishing Hindus, Sikhs and Jains a healthy and prosperous new year. I enjoyed the event enormously, as I am sure you did, Mr Speaker, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) for ensuring its efficient organisation—a tremendously enthusiastic event which reminded us of the immense contribution to this country of all the people represented and all their families and friends. I am not sure we need a debate as I do not think we would disagree about that, but my hon. Friend has done the House a service in reminding us of this.

Yardleys school in my constituency has been closed for three weeks as a result of asbestos contamination from the site next door, where there was a fire in a warehouse. It is an academy school on a private finance initiative site with the local authority as a partner and it is unclear who is responsible for declaring and ensuring that the site is safe. May we have a debate on patterns of responsibility for schools so that we can ensure that the interests of the children are put first and representatives of the school are involved in meetings about the safety of the school?

Well, we can have a debate if my hon. Friend pursues a request in the normal way. This is a matter for Birmingham city council and the school to resolve, but I will draw the attention of my colleagues at the Department for Education to the fact that he has raised the matter, and it is open to him to pursue a debate on it.

May we please have a debate on the method of electing police and crime commissioners, given the astonishing news that the Liberal Democrats were apparently unable to find a single person willing to stand as their candidate in the present by-election for a new PCC in south Yorkshire, despite the fact that that area contains the Sheffield, Hallam constituency represented by their own party leader? We can then debate changing the system of electing PCCs to the tried and trusted first-past-the-post method, which people understand and which might help increase voter confidence and turnout.

It may be too early to change the voting system for something that was established only a few years ago, and the alternative vote system used in those elections predates the referendum that I mentioned a moment ago. I am not sure whether the absence of a Liberal Democrat candidate in south Yorkshire will make a huge difference to the outcome of the election, whatever it is going to be in south Yorkshire, although some of my hon. Friends may disagree with me on that. It may not make a vast difference. [Interruption.] I know I am in government with them but they do not mind being teased now and again—at least, I enjoy teasing them, whether they mind it or not. I am sure that in due course we will have to look at the voting system for these elections.

My right hon. Friend was quite right to mention one of the most significant political and economic developments that has affected our country in the past 100 years—namely, the largest annual fall in unemployment. This is a hugely significant fact. I am amazed that much more is not being made of it by our national news and media outlets. In Kettering, unemployment has fallen from 2,088 when this Government came to power in May 2010 to 1,275—a fall of 813 or 39%. May we have a full day’s debate on the Floor of the main Chamber to discuss this hugely significant issue?

There is a good case to be made for that: record levels of people are now in work; there are more people in private sector employment than ever before; we have seen the largest annual fall in unemployment on record; unemployment is down by 538,000 since the election; and we have seen the largest fall in unemployment in the G7. It is a remarkable record. It shows that the benefits of pursuing a long-term economic plan will be there. There is quite a lot of legislation approaching us at the moment, which will make it difficult to have a full day’s debate, but I think that my hon. Friend makes a good case.

The transatlantic trade and investment partnership has the potential to bring huge opportunities for British businesses to trade more easily with our biggest trading partner. May we have a statement from the Government to bang the drum for the agreement, update the House on where we are with it and nail some of the dodgy myths that have been put about in recent weeks?

A lot of myths have been put about, including the suggestion that it would somehow endanger public services, and it is important to demolish those myths. There is an opportunity for another major step forward in free trade that could raise the prosperity of all nations. Although I cannot offer an immediate statement or debate, I can tell my hon. Friend that hard work is being done on this in the Government, the European Union and the United States. When there are important developments, I know that my ministerial colleagues will want to update the House.

Returning to the question of Ebola, may we have a statement on direct flights between the UK and Sierra Leone? This week the last remaining direct commercial flight was stopped. I understand the reasons for that, but I point out that, as a result, people travelling between Sierra Leone and the UK are coming via transit points, which makes them more difficult to identify. I have been approached by British businesses and Sierra Leoneans from the diaspora living in the UK who think it would be much better to have arrangements for direct commercial or charter flights between the UK and Sierra Leone that could be properly monitored at both ends and enable them to go to and from their country.

The Health Secretary set out for the House on Monday all the precautions we are taking. My hon. Friend is right that there are now no direct flights between the United Kingdom and the countries most affected by Ebola—Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Of course there is a balance to be struck in these matters, and it is important for our aid workers to be able to access the region and so on, but I cannot offer him the hope that direct flights will be restored at the moment. There is a case to be made for that, which he has done, but at the moment there would also be great risks. However, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who is heavily involved in these matters, is here and has heard his remarks.