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Business of the House

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 4 December 2014

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 8 December—Second Reading of the Infrastructure Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 9 December—Consideration in Committee of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 10 December—Second Reading of the Stamp Duty Land Tax Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Wales Bill.

Thursday 11 December—General debate on the fishing industry, followed by general debate on Ukraine and UK relations with Russia. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 12 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 December will include:

Monday 15 December—Consideration in Committee of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill (day 2).

Tuesday 16 December—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill.

Wednesday 17 December—Opposition day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 18 December—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 December—The House will not be sitting.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I hope he is not too disappointed that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) is unable to be here today—although we are disappointed every week by the continued absence of the Government Chief Whip.

This morning the Procedure Committee publishes its report on proposals for the introduction of the joint Parliament/Government e-petition system. Given that a number of Procedure Committee reports are now awaiting debate, may I press the Leader of the House to say when he will find the necessary time?

The House recently voted overwhelmingly on Second Reading in favour of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) to scrap the top-down reorganisation of the NHS. This Government have a tendency to fail to produce money resolutions for Bills they do not like, so will the Leader of the House confirm that the money resolution for this Bill will be brought to the House before Christmas—and, if not, why not?

The Leader will be aware of early-day motion 454, which has been signed by over 250 Members from across the House.

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014 (S.I., 2014, No. 2848), dated 23 October 2014, a copy of which was laid before this House on 28 October, be annulled.]

Firefighters’ pensions in England have been seriously mismanaged by the Government, and we will have another strike next week. We need a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House against the regulations, so will the Leader of the House provide us with one, and will he tell us when it will take place?

This week the Ministry of Defence’s annual report showed that more than £5.5 billion has been wasted in the last year alone owing to a catalogue of procurement disasters—which, of course, is nothing new for this Government. In 2010, the Government, having scrapped HMS Ark Royal, sold Britain’s Harrier jump jet fleet to the US Marine Corps. According to the US official who completed the purchase, the deal was

“like we’re buying a car with maybe 15,000 miles on it. These are very good platforms.”

Now, just four years later, after a pair of U-turns on the carrier’s design that have cost the British taxpayer £100 million, the Royal Navy has been forced to go cap in hand to the very same US Marines to ask them to fly off our carriers, so they will be flying our former Harriers from our carrier because our replacement aircraft will not be ready for another three years. The Defence Secretary has refused to come to this House to explain what has happened, so will the Leader of the House now ask him to do so, and will he also tell the House when we can expect the Second Reading of the armed forces Bill that we were anticipating next week?

Is the truth not that on every test this Government have set themselves they have failed? Last Friday, the Prime Minister gave his latest speech to end all speeches on Europe, yet within hours Home Office Ministers were dragged to this Chamber to explain why their “no ifs, no buts” solemn promise to slash net migration had been broken. The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), in his ever-helpful manner, described the latest immigration figures as “catastrophic”. On the NHS, the Government promised no top-down reorganisation and then delivered one that cost £3 billion. On VAT, they promised no rises but then raised it to 20% and now will not rule out another rise. They promised a bigger Army but have sacked thousands of combat soldiers. Yesterday’s autumn statement proved comprehensively that this Government have failed every test and broken every promise they have ever made on the economy: they had a “five-year plan” to eliminate the deficit but their plan is now running four years behind schedule; they promised to bring down borrowing but they are going to borrow £12.5 billion more than they planned this year and next; and they promised that living standards would rise year on year, but their own figures reveal that those in full-time work are £2,000 a year worse off, while millionaires have seen their taxes fall. It is no wonder the Deputy Prime Minister felt the need to flee to Land’s End. He apparently said that he thought it would be a nice change to leave Westminster—I am sure his constituents will be glad to assist in May.

Instead of working to build a recovery that works for everyone in our country, this Government seem more concerned with smoke and mirrors, and with playing parliamentary games. This was a microwave statement—a reheating of leftover announcements that looks better than it tastes: on flooding, the Government just re-announced their announcement from last year; their roads announcement is a retread; and more than a third of their “new” NHS spending is old money being reallocated from within the Department of Health. To paraphrase a distinguished and retiring parliamentarian: its all right for them, some of them won’t be here in 30 or 40 weeks’ time.

The hon. Gentleman was certainly right with his first sentence: we do miss the shadow Leader of the House. He was spot on with that comment, as she tends to be a little more entertaining. It is a shame because he can be very entertaining when he is not at the Dispatch Box, as he was in his wonderful interview on the World at One a few weeks ago, which bears revisiting. He said:

“The state that the Labour party is in right now is we are in a dreadful position.”

It is commendable honesty. That was only the beginning, because he went on to say that the Opposition have

“got to be honest about ourselves…The electorate looks at us and has no idea what our policies are.”—

[Interruption.] He says, “In Scotland.” So he is talking only about a large part of the Labour party. That is his defence. It is only the place where Labour has 40-odd Members of Parliament. He continued:

“We have a moribund party in Scotland that seems to think that infighting is more important than campaigning. And we have a membership that is ageing and inactive.”

There was something about his questions that was a little bit ageing and inactive.

Let me deal with the hon. Gentleman’s questions about the business of the House. On e-petitions, we look forward to the Procedure Committee’s report, which I believe is about to be published. I hope that we can ensure that in this Parliament, before the general election, we put in place a new system for e-petitions that will be helpful to the electorate, that will serve accountability and that will allow the House and the Government to run a system together. I look forward to that report and it will be important to debate it, but we cannot schedule such a debate until we have had the report.

I am not aware of any problem with the money resolution for the private Member’s Bill the hon. Gentleman mentioned. He will know that the Bill falls behind many other private Members’ Bills in the normal procedures for such Bills, but there is no issue at present with bringing forward a money resolution on it.

On early-day motion 454 and firefighters, the Opposition have now asked for a debate on this, but it was only in the past 24 hours or so that they did so. The regulations were laid on 28 October. The early-day motion was put down on 30 October. There have been three Opposition day debates since then, and it is only now that they ask for a debate. We will of course examine that request, but it has been made only in the past few hours. I must point out that Lord Hutton found the firefighters’ pension scheme to be the most expensive in the public sector and said that it has to be reformed to be sustainable. Members will need to bear that in mind.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Ministry of Defence budget. I should remind him that those of us who sat on the National Security Council in 2010 had to wrestle with a £38 billion black hole that had been left by the previous Government and an over-committal of the defence budget greater than the annual defence budget. The Ministry of Defence had to wrestle with that, but now, for the first time in many years, its books actually balance. It has also undertaken many important procurement programmes.

The hon. Gentleman asked about immigration while neglecting to mention the fact that the previous Government had a completely open door on immigration. Some 4 million people came to settle in the United Kingdom without any control or restriction, so we do not have to take any lessons on that.

The Second Reading of the armed forces Bill will take place, but we must ensure that yesterday’s announcement on stamp duty is enacted in law as soon as possible to give certainty to the housing market, so we have included it in next week’s business. None the less, we remain very committed to the armed forces Bill.

The hon. Gentleman managed to argue that the Government had failed every test on the economy. Given that the Government have cut the deficit by more than half, that employment has reached record levels, that inflation is low, that growth is strong, and that we have had such an excellent week for the economy, we are left wondering what the Labour party thinks the test for the economy is. Perhaps the test is whether we, like the previous Government, have bankrupted the country and left the public finances in an appalling state. That was the only test that was passed by the Labour Government.

I will finish by referring to one of the hon. Gentleman’s previous statements, which he made in a letter to Members and not on the “World at One.” He called for a statue of Tony Blair to be put in the Members’ Lobby as soon as possible. I am pleased that he did not revive that idea today, because the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) might reverse his decision to leave the House in order to prevent such a thing from happening. Of course the right hon. Gentleman could always lend the hon. Gentleman his doll model of Tony Blair in which he stuck pins for so long in place of a statue. But his economic record is not one we want to emulate. This Government are passing their economic test.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), the Leader of the House said, on English votes for English laws, that he planned to publish a command paper before Christmas, which we welcome, setting out the options. He then said that we would consider it together. Has he reached agreement with our coalition partners on the format of that debate, and is he aware that there is a very strong appetite among Government Members for a vote on the options?

There is a very strong appetite, including on my part, for such a vote. I have reached agreement within the coalition on the publication and the format of the command paper. Shortly, I hope to reach agreement on the contents of the command paper, so my right hon. Friend must bear with me. Once we have published the command paper, we will then be able to discuss how we debate it in Parliament and what the format and structure of any debate might be.

Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating the International Rescue Committee on becoming the charity of the year for the Financial Times? It is of course led by David Miliband, a former Member of the House. Indeed, my daughter works for the same charity, so I have a vested interest. We are facing two crises—on Ebola and on the running out of the food vouchers and stamps the UN provides to Syrian refugees. There will now not be food for those refugees. Does the Leader of the House not feel concerned that this House cannot have a major debate in Government time on either of those issues when there is so little business anyway?

I join in the hon. Gentleman’s warm words about the International Rescue Committee, which, as he said, David Miliband heads up, and I wish his daughter well in working for it. The committee does very important work around the world, and this country has a strong record of supporting that work. We are the second-largest donor to the refugees and others suffering in the Syrian crisis, and, as the House knows, we have led the way in tackling Ebola, particularly in supporting Sierra Leone. Over a long period, we have had regular reports from the Secretary of State for International Development; on Ebola, we have also had statements from the Health Secretary; and the Prime Minister has incorporated these matters into his statements as well. There is, of course, always room for further discussion. The Government do not have general time for debates following the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, but he could make a very good case on these matters to that Committee. I will also encourage my colleagues to make regular statements.

The Leader of the House knows there have been debates on the Home Office’s inquiry into child sex abuse, but is there time for a further debate so that we can explore the worries of my constituent who is a survivor of abuse and of many others? It would give us an opportunity to discuss the continuing concerns about the attendant experience of the panel members, as well as what is considered by some to be the still inadequate terms of reference. The problem is that while it remains a panel inquiry, not a statutory inquiry, there is no due process or due diligence in respect of members and therefore a lack of understanding by the survivors about how the panel members were appointed and why. I am sure he agrees it is important that the inquiry commands the confidence of the survivors and their representatives, and I would be grateful if he considered giving a bit more time to this serious issue.

I have listened carefully to my right hon. Friend. Of course, the House has just had a debate on these matters, so I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be determined to keep the House up to date on the progress of the inquiry, and I will tell her about my right hon. Friend’s remarks. After the difficulties with the previous two chairs, the Home Secretary is determined to ensure that the inquiry has the credibility and confidence of which my right hon. Friend rightly speaks. That has to be ensured in the appointment of the chair and the way the panel works together, and I will certainly encourage the Home Secretary to keep the House fully informed and up to date.

One of the most impressive features of the independence referendum was the participation of 16 and 17-year-olds, who made such a solid contribution to the national debate. The Smith commission proposes devolving electoral administration to the Scottish Government, meaning that 16 and 17-year-olds could be enfranchised for Scottish elections, but there are concerns it might not happen in time for 2016. Will the Leader of the House work with the Scottish Government to ensure that it will take place, including by considering a further section 30 order?

The Secretary of State for Scotland referred to that matter in his statement, so I think the hon. Gentleman has already had a clear answer. Whatever side we argued on in the independence referendum, we are all clear that young people played an active part and took their duty to vote extremely seriously, but I do not want to add anything further to the reply given by my right hon. Friend the other day, because I think he dealt with the matter definitively.

May we have a debate on the extensive use of bail in the criminal justice system? Mr Waqar Akhtar was sentenced with three co-accused to 17 years in prison for what the judge described as a “despicable and inhuman plot” to abduct a schoolteacher and rape her in a dark and lonely Bradford park. He was sentenced in his absence, however, having fled the country after giving evidence. Surely, somebody on trial for such a serious offence should be in custody during their trial and should not be allowed to escape the country. May we have a debate to stop such cases ever happening again?

My hon. Friend is assiduous in raising cases in which the operation of justice can be criticised, sometimes legitimately. He certainly raises an alarming case about which many hon. Members are likely to be concerned. Although I cannot promise an immediate debate, he will know that Justice questions will take place on 16 December, so he, in his usual energetic way, will be able to raise the matter with the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice just as he has today.

In Hull, parents with children seeking a diagnosis of autism are told that they have to wait 20 weeks for that diagnosis, but in reality it takes 14 to 15 months. May we have a debate on whether the new structures in the NHS are serving children and parents well?

I cannot offer a debate on the subject, but health matters are regularly discussed in the House, as the hon. Lady knows. It is entirely right to raise such matters in questions to the Secretary of State for Health or to press for debates on health matters from the Backbench Business Committee. I am sure that there are many opportunities to raise these issues.

Thousands of young carers in Norfolk are at risk of falling behind their peers at school. May we have a debate on how best to support the education of those children who care for family members at home, including perhaps through the extension of the pupil premium?

This, like many of the issues raised already, is important and will concern many people around the country. My hon. Friend might wish to take up all the normal means of pursuing a debate. There is a Carers Trust reception in the Palace on 10 December that will help Members to understand these issues and to pursue them.

The credit union expansion project was supposed to help to provide an alternative to payday lenders, yet credit unions are now reporting that the cost of the scheme is rising and their contributions are having to rise in line with it. They are now questioning whether the scheme is even viable. Will the Leader of the House ask his colleague, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to come to the House to update Members on the progress of the project before it becomes the latest in a long line of DWP disasters?

The hon. Lady will have every opportunity to ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, as he will be coming to the House on Monday for questions. It will be Treasury questions the next day, so I imagine that there will be a good many opportunities to raise these issues next week.

May we have a debate on air passenger duty following the autumn statement and the Smith commission? My constituents were delighted yesterday by the changes in the autumn statement that mean that they will no longer have to pay £71 per child for under-12s, and for under-16s as we go forward. We need the regionalisation of APD for the northern airports, so that there is no problem with competition.

Airports in the north of England are benefiting from the decisions the Chancellor has made on APD, as well as from the reductions to long-haul rates from April, the four-year freeze on the short-haul rates and the very important announcement in the autumn statement about the abolition of APD for children. Newcastle airport is eligible for support under the regional air connectivity fund, which we have expanded. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave my hon. Friend a helpful reply yesterday, and I cannot add to that at the moment.

Last week, I attended a lobby of Parliament and a well-attended meeting in Parliament, which I chaired, on umbrella companies that use tax loopholes to rip off construction workers. The Chancellor specifically said in his statement yesterday that he will look at the use of umbrella companies. Will the Leader of the House find time in the parliamentary timetable for a debate on this issue?

The Chancellor and the Treasury take that issue very seriously. As the hon. Gentleman says, the Chancellor referred to it specifically yesterday; he feels very strongly about it. As I have mentioned, as it is Treasury questions on Tuesday, that is the first and obvious opportunity to ask further questions of Treasury Ministers, but the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the Chancellor wants to deal with any abuses that are arising through these companies.

Following the tragedy at the end of the Sri Lankan conflict, when thousands of Tamil women and children were killed, may we have a debate on the progress being made, since the United Nations resolution earlier in the year, towards an inquiry into what took place?

There would be a good case for such a debate. Terrible events took place at the end of that conflict. The United Kingdom has pressed consistently for the international inquiry; indeed, we won the vote in the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year to establish such an inquiry. We must now see what that inquiry produces, but there is a good case for a debate in the House and my hon. Friend might want to pursue that through the Backbench Business Committee as well as with Foreign Office Ministers.

The Leader of the House will be aware that earlier this week, the UN announced the end of the World Food Programme food voucher system for nearly 2 million refugees in Syria. Will he, or one of the Ministers, make a statement on the Government’s attitude to that serious and tragic issue?

These are very important issues. The scale of the refugee crisis, particularly as it affects Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, is extremely serious; I saw that for myself while serving as Foreign Secretary. I saw the importance of the support in the form of food being given to many of those refugees. This is, therefore, a legitimate concern for hon. Members and I will encourage the Department for International Development to make it clear to the House how we shall now proceed.

On Monday, thousands of my constituents were put to great inconvenience and uncertainty as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers called yet another strike on the Northern line. The case was about one individual failing a breath test. While I would not speak about that specific case, may we have a debate on the Floor of the House to look forward to legislating to prevent huge parts of this country from being held to ransom by unions over specific issues?

My hon. Friend speaks up very well for his constituents, who should not be held to ransom in that way; they should be able to go about their business without such unnecessary and mindless disruption. There is a good case for such a debate, and I would encourage my hon. Friend to seek that by all the usual methods.

In December 2013, the groceries code adjudicator consulted on the level of fines she should be able to impose on companies transgressing the codes and regulations introduced by the Government—regulations that were welcomed by British farming—but 12 months later, we have yet to see the statutory instrument to enact the fine that she can introduce. Has the Leader of the House had any indication from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills when we might see the statutory instrument, and if not, may I prevail upon his good offices to inquire when we might see it?

The right hon. Gentleman can prevail upon my good offices. It is obviously important that these decisions are taken forward, so I will ask questions of the Business Ministers, and ensure that they are in touch with the right hon. Gentleman to explain what the position is.

Mr Speaker, you may have noticed the reports this morning that this year, the BBC at Christmas is showing more repeats than ever before. When I buy a DVD, I do not expect to keep paying for it year on year. May we please have a debate on the BBC getting back to its remit in its charter on public broadcasting, instead of lazily repeating more often than a hearty Christmas dinner?

Initially, when I saw the headline about the proportion of repeats, I thought it was talking about speeches by the shadow Chancellor, but it turned out to be about Christmas shows on the BBC. I am sure—I hope—that those in the BBC have been listening to what my hon. Friend says, so although I cannot offer a debate, and in any case a debate before Christmas would be unlikely to change the broadcasters’ Christmas schedules, I hope that they will be trying to give real quality to the public this Christmas season.

Some 79% of dentists lack confidence in the General Dental Council and are concerned about its impact on dental services. This weekend 28 local dental committees will be meeting to consider a vote of confidence in the General Dental Council. May we have a statement or a debate about the effectiveness of the General Dental Council in relation to dentistry in the United Kingdom?

I clearly cannot offer such a debate at present, although the hon. Gentleman is well aware of how to pursue such a debate, and he can raise the matter at Health questions. I do not want to be drawn into a controversy within the dental profession in any comment that I make now, but there clearly are some concerns and the hon. Gentleman will be able to pursue the matter in all the normal ways in the House.

I support the points made about the groceries code adjudicator. The only power she has is the power to levy fines. The fact that the statutory instrument has not been laid means that that important groceries code is toothless.

None of us wants to see a groceries code entirely toothless. There are clearly concerns on both sides of the House about this, so, as I said when the matter was raised by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I will ask Business Ministers for a report of progress on it.

The Glasgow office of the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards is a UK facility that is facing severe cuts and, I understand, possible closure, which would mean that the closest site was the one located in Leeds. Given the role of the centre in the event of a nuclear incident or emergency, its current proximity to the Clyde naval base, the home of the nuclear submarine fleet, is vital. May we have an urgent statement on the matter, please?

I cannot promise an urgent statement, but the hon. Lady has raised the case powerfully, so I will refer what she has said to the Ministers responsible so that they can consider it and consider how to keep her and the House informed about the situation.

We heard in Transport questions of the concern about congestion around school gates across the country. I recently joined pupils at Brownsover community school in Rugby outside in the rain at going-home time to look at the careless parking outside the school by parents collecting their children. May we have a debate to consider measures to improve road safety around school gates and to consider what the barriers are to parents allowing their children to walk or cycle to and from school?

Road safety around schools is a very important issue. My hon. Friend is right to raise it. Local authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide appropriate traffic management schemes, and they can put in place “school keep clear” markings, which are legally enforceable, to prohibit parking on a designated length of highway, including near a school, to improve road safety. I know that my hon. Friend will want to keep pursuing the issue with Transport Ministers, and they will be able to respond to him.

May we debate inequality? GDP per head in the poorest UK regions is lower than in any region of France, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, Finland or Denmark, and nine out of 10 of the poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK. With real income continuing to fall for the poorest, do the Government not need to do more to favour the weakest over the wealthiest?

What is actually happening, of course, is that many more people are getting into work. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have record levels of employment, and since 2010 there are 600,000 fewer people in relative poverty and 670,000 fewer workless households than there were just four and a half years ago. That is real progress in addressing poverty in this country, and we can continue to address it only if we have a growing economy and strong finances, which is the basis of the statement that we heard yesterday.

I had wanted to ask the Leader of the House why money resolutions for two private Members’ Bills have not been laid, despite the convention of the House, but there is a more important matter: the debate on firefighters. May we have a wider debate on firefighters so that I can offer my thanks to the firemen and women of Northamptonshire, who do such a great job, and to the Government for their very good record on firefighting?

I am sure that in any debate on firefighters my hon. Friend will be able to make that powerful point about the strong performance of firefighters in Northamptonshire, and indeed in so many parts of the country, and about the Government’s good record. If we have such a debate, I will look forward to hearing him make those points again.

May I begin by congratulating Alloa Athletic, which last night beat Rangers 3-2 and found a way to the challenge cup final?

In 2010, I served as a Front-Bench spokesperson on the Postal Services Bill, which paved the way for the privatisation and sell-off of Royal Mail. I told the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who was leading for the Government at the time, that it would lead to the ending of the current universal service obligation. We have now heard the chief executive of a privatised Royal Mail predict just that. Will the Leader of the House commit to a statement or a debate in Government time on ending that disgrace?

I do not think that the chief executive would necessarily agree with that interpretation of what has been said, but I cannot speak for Royal Mail at all. The universal service is of course an important issue for hon. Members across the House and their constituents, and it will be wholly legitimate for the hon. Gentleman to pursue that with Business Ministers and to seek debates on the matter by all the normal methods.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s independent feasibility study into resettlement of the Chagos islands is due to be published early in the new year. May we please have a debate in January on the Floor of the House to ensure that the matter is properly discussed?

I am sure that the House will want to discuss that in some way. Until we have seen the feasibility study and the timing of its publication, we cannot make any decisions on it. However, I take my hon. Friend’s request as an early bid. I set up the feasibility study when I was Foreign Secretary and, like him, am looking forward to seeing its results. We are committed to ensuring that the review of any potential for resettlement is as transparent and inclusive as possible. I hope that will be welcomed by the many people of Chagossian heritage and origin who live in his constituency.

The Chancellor said yesterday:

“We have shown in this Parliament that we can deliver spending reductions without damaging front-line public services”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 309.]

We need only look at the destruction of youth services, the closure of Sure Start centres and the slashing of support for disabled people, among so many other things, to see that that patently is not true, so may we have a debate on the damage that this Government have done to front-line services?

I am sure that we will discuss the economy and all the implications of Government policy a great deal, but the Chancellor pointed out yesterday that when the shadow Chancellor complains and says that the deficit should be brought down even more quickly, Opposition Members always say that more should be spent on a whole range of items. It is not sustainable for the Labour party to have it both ways: to criticise the Government on the deficit, yet to oppose every reduction in spending that makes it possible to control the deficit. The hon. Lady is falling into the same trap.

May we have some parliamentary time to consider the disused railway line between Cheddar and Wells, which could provide a much safer alternative for pedestrians and cyclists who currently have to use the very dangerous A371? All the preparations have been done, involving hours of voluntary time and slugs of taxpayers’ money, by way of county council officers’ time, but the county council has prevented the Strawberry Line campaign submitting its planning application because it says that funding for the path is not in place. Will the Leader of the House encourage the council to dust the application off, as it is shovel-ready and funding is available, but it is dependent on planning permission?

My hon. Friend has made her case. I do not think that we in this House would be able to tell the county council what to do. She is clearly campaigning and putting forward her arguments on this issue, and no doubt she will be able to discuss it further with the county council and others. I cannot offer her a debate, but I know she will continue to pursue the issue until it is resolved.

May we have a statement on the Government’s position on humanist marriage? During the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, there was strong support across both Houses for the principle of humanist marriage, but there are now reports that the Government are receiving spurious advice that it is not possible to proceed with legal marriage on the basis of licensing a celebrant rather than premises. May we have a statement soon from the Government as to their intentions and the advice that is being received by Ministers?

Many people will be interested in this issue. I cannot offer the hon. Lady an immediate statement or debate, but it is a long-running issue and a legitimate subject for discussion, so I encourage her to keep pursuing it in all the normal ways. I will tell my ministerial colleagues what she has said so that they can also respond to her.

May I take the Leader of the House back to the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014? I recently met a large delegation of firefighters from King’s Lynn who do a superb job in protecting our community. Does he agree that this subject warrants a debate on the Floor of the House, or at least a full debate in Committee? I have written today to the relevant Minister. Will the Leader of the House ensure that I get a quick reply, and will he support me in this quest?

I am certainly always in favour of hon. Members receiving quick replies from Ministers. My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to his local firefighters. I remind him that the reformed pension scheme for firefighters remains one of the very best in the public sector. As I said earlier, Lord Hutton found that the firefighters pension scheme is the most expensive in the public sector, and that has to be reformed. It will be important across the House to bear these points in mind.

The debate on the fishing industry will be welcomed by fishermen and fishing communities, and it is nothing less than they deserve. However, there are wider issues. For the past 18 months, I have questioned the accuracy and transparency of data that the Marine Management Organisation is supplying to the Government, and the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) has called for an independent review. There is a wider issue about the importance of accuracy and transparency of data across Departments, because clearly Government decisions on investment depend on accurate data. May we find time for a debate on the collection of data for Government?

As the hon. Lady acknowledges, a debate on the specifics of the fishing industry will take place a week today. That is a general debate, so if she is able to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, she will be able to make those points in so far as they relate to the fishing industry. I cannot offer a wider debate on data collection. She can make her case to the Backbench Business Committee, but the Government do not currently have any time to allocate to the subject.

My right hon. Friend will recall that the previous Government, in their desperation to appease the IRA, brought forward measures to give Sinn Fein MPs, who do not recognise this House, do not play any part in this House and do not look after their constituents in this House, all the privileges, allowances and pay of this House. Will he now make time for the House to revisit that decision and ensure that people who do not recognise this House should not be rewarded for not being here?

As the House knows, it is established in legislation that only MPs who choose to take their seats by swearing the Oath are eligible for an actual salary of a Member of Parliament, and I do not detect any appetite for a change in those arrangements. Sinn Fein Members do not qualify for Short money either, as they have not taken their seats and therefore cannot participate in parliamentary business. Since 2001—the House passed a resolution on this in 2006—they have been able to claim some expenses in relation to what is called representative business. It would be a matter for the House to change that, or not to change it, in future. My right hon. Friend has made his point very well.

About 15 years ago, Langtree Group purchased the Oldham Batteries site in the centre of Denton. It demolished the buildings and promised a large-scale urban regeneration scheme based on retail and leisure. Since then, it has done nothing and left the site to rot. Could we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on what the Government intend to do to clamp down on land banking so that no community in the future faces the uncertainty, dereliction and blight that Langtree has left us in Denton?

No community wishes to suffer dereliction and blight, and I absolutely understand that this is an important issue for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. There will be questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 15 December—in 11 days’ time—so I encourage the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue directly with DCLG Ministers on that occasion.

Following the autumn statement, could we have a debate on manufacturing? We heard yesterday that manufacturing is growing faster than any other sector of the economy, and manufacturing is doing particularly well in Pendle, with a number of major employers expanding at present. We have also seen 3,810 new apprenticeship starts since 2010 and unemployment has now fallen 52% since its peak in August 2009, so could we have a debate on manufacturing and the Government’s long-term economic plan?

I hope those issues will feature in all our debates and discussions about economic matters and in questions to Treasury Ministers next week. My hon. Friend points to some very important trends and huge improvements in economic performance around the country, including in his constituency. I know from visiting his constituency what a strong advocate he is for local businesses, apprenticeships and employment in his area, and his constituents benefit greatly from his work.

The change in how VAT is charged on digital products, which is due on 1 January, is causing sole traders and small businesses great concern, as it will impose on them new, onerous record-keeping requirements, data protection and other costs, and potential exposure to unanticipated HMRC liabilities. Could we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills so that he can explain why he will not use his discretion to exempt small payments or uphold the VAT threshold for digital products, and to reassure us that he is not unnecessarily damaging our digital micro-businesses?

I cannot promise an immediate statement, but my hon. Friend is clearly concerned about the implications in a few weeks’ time, so I shall draw his point to the attention of Ministers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and ask them to respond to him directly.

One of the most significant elements of the autumn statement was the progress on the northern powerhouse, covering many different policy areas, infrastructure investment, support for the economy in terms of exports, manufacturing and skills, and the devolution of decision making and budgets. That is very good news, but we have not yet had the chance to debate it, so please may we?

I hope there will be many opportunities to do so, although the Opposition are not very good at choosing the economy for Opposition day debates. It does not happen very often. There will be Treasury questions on Tuesday. My hon. Friend is right to say that the further announcements about the northern powerhouse, including in particular the improvements in rail services across the north of England and the proposals for a new advanced material science centre in and a new sovereign wealth fund for the north of England, are all major proposals. They add up to the strongest platform for the north of England that any Government in modern times have presented, and I hope we will have many opportunities to debate it.

Recently my constituent Tommy Willan was named regional trainee of the year for 2014 for his hard work during his electrical apprenticeship, organised by JTL, which has also arranged 31,000 extra apprenticeships around the country. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate on the excellent work the Government are doing on apprenticeships around the country, equipping our young people with the skills to succeed in life?

I join in congratulating my hon. Friend’s constituent on his award, which I am sure was very well deserved. Although we will not be able to accommodate a separate debate on every aspect of the economy, a debate on this subject would be extremely welcome and would help to highlight the positive effects the 1.9 million apprenticeships starts in the past four and a half years have had on our economy since the election. Of course, many of us hope it will be possible to go on in the next Parliament to have 3 million apprenticeships and to abolish youth unemployment entirely, and that is what the Chancellor is setting out to do.

We now pay more than £10 billion a year as our annual membership fee to the European Union, and we have recently received a demand for £1.7 billion more; yet the UK’s trade deficit with the EU is increasing at an alarming rate. The Government’s own figures, released this week, show that our trade deficit with the EU was £28.5 billion in 2010, as much as £56.2 billion in 2013, and already £25.5 billion in the first half of 2014. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House, opened by the Business Secretary and closed by the Foreign Secretary, in which we demolish the myth that 3 million jobs in this country are dependent on our membership of the European Union? The figures prove that they are not.

Our trade with all parts of the world, including Europe, is an extremely important issue. Given the poor performance of the eurozone and the flatness of our export markets in Europe, which is driving some of the figures that my hon. Friend cites, the proportion of Britain’s exports going outside the European Union has increased in recent times. There have been particularly sharp increases in our exports to countries in the far east and to some countries in Latin America. It is vital to continue that, and to improve our export performance overall. That is why the Chancellor yesterday announced further resources for the Foreign Office and UK Trade & Investment to do that. This is one of the important issues to discuss in all our debates on yesterday’s autumn statement.

As we approach small business Saturday, may we have a statement on white van woman? Under this Government, more women than ever are in employment, 20% of small businesses are now run by women compared with 14% under the previous Government, and the majority—55%—of apprenticeship starters are now female. Given those figures, is it not correct that this Government are the true Government of white van woman, and may we look at what further help can be given?

Yes, absolutely. We do not know where the former shadow Attorney-General, the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), is at the moment, but she might be in training to be a white van woman after what happened a couple of weeks ago.

My hon. Friend has coined an important new phrase. It is very important that we continue our progress in making sure that women participate fully in our economy, and that is happening under this Government. The gender pay gap for those under the age of 40 has been closed for the first time. There are now women on the boards of all the FTSE 100 companies, which was certainly not the case when the previous Government were in power. I think that white van woman must also play her part, and the measures announced yesterday—to support small businesses, encourage enterprise, and help people who work hard and try to get on in life—will be very supportive of white van woman.