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Business of the House

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 11 December 2014

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 15 December—Motion relating to the Firefighters’ Pension Scheme (England) Regulations 2014, followed by 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, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill.

Wednesday 17 December—Opposition day (11th allotted day). There will be debates on Opposition motions including one entitled “The Immediate Abolition of the Bedroom Tax”.

Thursday 18 December—Statement on the publication of the fourth report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the operation of the national planning policy framework, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment as selected by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 19 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 January 2015 will include:

Monday 5 January—Second Reading of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords].

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 18 December will be:

Thursday 18 December—General debate on business investment in outer-city estates, followed by a general debate on the future of Carnforth station.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business and the business for the first day back in 2015. I also thank him for the debate that he has granted for Monday on the firefighters pension scheme.

On Wednesday, we will once more stage a debate on the pernicious and cruel bedroom tax. Will the Leader of the House assure us that if the House votes again to scrap the tax, he will actually act and abolish it?

This week, the Government achieved the dubious distinction of losing its 100th vote in the Lords. They were defeated for the second time on their plans to curtail judicial review, and four former Tory Cabinet Ministers voted against them. This was after the Justice Secretary had to admit that he did not understand his own Bill, and in an humiliating apology correct his assertion in this House that clause 64 maintained judicial discretion when it does not.

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether his Government will now see sense and accept the Lords amendments? After losing yet another judicial review last week, should not the Justice Secretary now accept that instead of trying to abolish judicial challenge, he should just get on top of his brief and stop trying to implement unlawful policies?

A week after the Chancellor’s autumn statement, the mask has slipped and his baleful plan for Britain’s future has become clear. He has failed every test and broken every promise he made on the economy, including his promise to balance the books before the election next year. He hoped we would not notice the choice that he has made to cut public spending to 35% of gross domestic product, which would take us back to levels reminiscent of the 1930s before we had the NHS or a social safety net.

In the week when we were reminded that 4 million people in our country are now at risk of going hungry, it seems that the Tory solution is to blame the victims and tell those who cannot afford to feed their families that they do not know how to cook. We all know that the real problem is low wages and in-work poverty. Instead of their ideological obsession with destroying 60 years of social progress, what we really need is a fair and balanced deficit reduction programme that combines common-sense savings with an effective growth strategy. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on these competing visions for the future of our country?

The Tory Chief Whip has had yet another bad week. It seems that some of his ministerial colleagues took his declaration of a three-day week a little too literally. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury was so amazed that he needed to be here on a Thursday that he very nearly missed his own debate on the Government’s flagship stamp duty policy. However, a generous offer from the Work and Pensions Secretary to lead the debate in his absence was enough to send him sprinting down Whitehall from the Treasury. While Government Back Benchers wasted time with points of order, he eventually arrived, flustered and visibly out of breath. What on earth were the Government Whips doing? Were they playing Candy Crush on their iPads? The Chief Whip is always bunking off; when he is here, he is causing trouble at the back of the class; and he never does his homework. I think the Education Secretary would be very happy to put him in detention.

The autumn statement appears to have had a peculiar effect on the Liberal Democrats. The Business Secretary told the Cabinet that it was “excellent”, with “Lib Dem fingerprints all over it”, before getting others to brief the newspapers that he really thinks that the cuts are simply not achievable. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury happily signed it off as a member of the quad, but then he called it

“a mix of unfunded tax promises, harsh spending plans and pandering to UKIP.”

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he is proud of the autumn statement, but he was so desperate to distance himself from it that he fled 300 miles to Land’s End. We are all used to celebrities having “show-mances” to make the front page of Hello! magazine, but this must be the first time in history that two partners have attempted a “show-vorce”. They are leaking lurid details of their rows to the papers, and they have moved into separate rooms in No. 10 so that they can spin against each other. They have even resorted to “masosadism”—inflicting pain on each other while inflicting pain on themselves at the same time.

The Liberal Democrats must think that we have all fallen off a Christmas tree. Their cynical choreography has now reached such ridiculous levels that I am told that they are forming a Cabinet within a Cabinet in order to shadow their own Government’s Cabinet, and I bet there are still no women in it. It is less like Candy Crush and more like parliamentary zombie apocalypse.

Yes, we welcome back the shadow Leader of the House. We were entertained last week by her deputy, but mainly at his expense, so it is good for her party that she is back. She invented one or two new words in her question—[Interruption.] Well, to pick up on the Prime Minister’s invention a couple of weeks ago, we on the Government side know the definitions between those words: sadism is when the shadow Chancellor insists on giving us a speech; and masochism is when we ask him to read it out again.

The hon. Lady noted the debate on the firefighters pension scheme, which we have of course found time for next Monday. She asked about the spare room subsidy, which in our view is a basic matter of fairness, as has been explained many times. That will be discussed in the debate next Wednesday. She asked about the Government’s 100th defeat in the House of Lords in the course of this Parliament, which certainly shows a certain independence in the upper House, but of course that does not mean that the Government agree with its conclusions. It is crucial that judicial review continues to hold public authorities to account for the right reasons. In the Government’s view, the reforms strike a fair balance between limiting the potential for abuse of judicial review and protecting its vital role as a check on public authorities. We are disappointed by the outcome of the votes in the Lords and will now consider our next steps before the Bill returns to this House.

The hon. Lady attacked the Chancellor of the Exchequer for failing every test on the economy. Is not one of the tests reducing the huge deficit that was left behind by the previous Administration? Is not one of the tests reducing unemployment to a much lower level than we were left with? Is not one of the tests having 2 million apprentices in this country that we did not have before? Is not one of the tests keeping inflation under control? Should not one of the tests be having the fastest growing economy in the G7, as now confirmed by the OECD? I am not sure what the Opposition think the tests are if they think they have been failed. Those are the key tests of a successful economy, and they have come about only under this Government. She referred to poverty. The official figures show a reduction of 600,000 people living in relative poverty in the past four and a half years, including 100,000 in the past year. Only a continuation of our approach will succeed in continuing to reduce it.

The hon. Lady aligned her questions with the speech that the Leader of the Opposition is meant to be giving today, for which we should be grateful. It is clear that he has now finally remembered the deficit but is unable to think of anything to do about it. We understand from the now published recollections of the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), that the Leader of the Opposition does not get “much of a look-in” from the shadow Chancellor on economic policy. That is exactly the same kind of dysfunctional relationship that we saw in the previous Labour Government, and it ended up with Britain having its biggest budget deficit in peacetime history. If Labour Members have now finally remembered the deficit, I hope they will choose it as one of their subjects for next week’s Opposition day debate, because then we can ask them why, if they believe that the deficit should be lower, they have opposed the entire £83 billion of welfare savings in this Parliament. That would be a debate to look forward to.

Next week, will my right hon. Friend be publishing a Command Paper and making a statement to the House on English votes for English laws? Can he confirm that every party aspiring to government after the next election has addressed the English question? Will he promise that we will have a debate and an early vote on the options?

I do intend to publish a Command Paper next week setting out options on, among other things, the question of English votes for English laws, and I will certainly seek to make a statement about that. The same three parties that contributed their policies to the Command Paper on Scotland were asked to contribute to this Command Paper. So far, there has been no sign of the official Opposition supplying any policies or ideas to put into it, and it will therefore reflect the views of the two parties in the coalition. I hope that we can have an early debate and, indeed, a vote on these issues in the new year.

Earlier this week, the Austrian Government put on a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, and some Members of this House attended it. More importantly, 158 states were present, including the United Kingdom. Given that we are a major nuclear weapons state, will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the outcomes of the conference and the humanitarian consequences of the possession of nuclear weapons?

These are of course important issues in which the right hon. Lady has a long-standing interest. Members of this House called for the United Kingdom to attend that conference, including at business questions, and I am therefore sure that the House will be pleased to note that the United Kingdom did so. There has always been a good case, over the decades, to debate these issues. I cannot offer such a debate at the moment given the business that we face, but she may wish to make representations to the Backbench Business Committee.

May we have a debate on energy bills and the subsidy of low-carbon energy? The Committee on Climate change has said that households already pay an average of £45 a year to support low-carbon power, and that that will rise to £100 in 2020 and £175 in 2030. In such a debate, we could highlight the fact that the Leader of the Opposition, who has campaigned lots on high energy bills and the cost of living crisis, was responsible for the high energy bills and the cost of living crisis in the first place, because he set these increased energy bills in train when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and introduced the Climate Change Act 2008.

It is certainly true that energy bills rose sharply under the previous Government. This Government have taken action to ensure that people can buy their electricity on the lowest tariff and recently introduced policies that will bring about a reduction in energy bills. There will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change next Tuesday, so my hon. Friend will have an earlier opportunity even than a debate to raise the wider issues of renewable energy with Ministers.

Wednesday’s debate on the bedroom tax should be very interesting indeed. I remember when Tory MPs always referred to the poll tax as a community tax. Be that as it may, has the Leader of the House been given any indication of how the Liberal Democrats intend to vote next Wednesday? If they are so keen to separate themselves from the Tories, this is their opportunity to do so by voting against the bedroom tax.

I am sure the Liberal Democrats are able to express their own views on how they will vote in any debate. I will point out again that in the Government’s view this is a basic issue of fairness. For someone living in private rented accommodation and in receipt of housing benefit, these rules applied under the whole of the previous Labour Government and we had a situation whereby neighbouring households could be treated unequally. Those points will, of course, be made in the debate.

A report last week showed that Yorkshire got a £102 million boost from hosting the Tour de France in May, and I am delighted to have been involved in the bid that will mean that a leg of the Tour of Britain cycle race will come to Pendle and Ribble Valley next September. Could we have a debate on cycling, which would cover everything from continuing to fund Bikeability in schools to supporting fantastic British companies in the industry such as Hope Technology in Barnoldswick and Carradice cycle bags in Nelson?

My hon. Friend has some great businesses in this sector in his constituency and I have seen on visits to his constituency the great enterprise of his local business community. Cycling is phenomenally popular in Britain—I think we are now second only to Germany in the number of bikes sold each year in Europe. The Tour de France was certainly a great economic boost for Yorkshire. I wish my hon. Friend well with the work he is doing to make sure that further benefits come to Pendle. He is, of course, able to make the case for debates on such issues to the Backbench Business Committee.

Britain is suffering from major problems with addiction: there has been another report this week about the problems of gambling machines and addictive gambling; there are reports today about addiction to prescription drugs; and we have serious problems with alcohol, illegal drugs and even food. Is it not time that the Government gave time for a substantial debate on all of those issues and how the Government are going to address our major problems with addiction?

Those are very important issues—I absolutely acknowledge that and agree with the hon. Gentleman. Most of them have been debated in the House at one stage or another, but they remain very serious problems here and, of course, in many other nations as well. I cannot offer a debate in Government time, given that the time allocated for such debates is generally controlled by the Backbench Business Committee, but the hon. Gentleman has made his case and I am sure he will continue to do so.

May I first thank the Leader of the House for announcing a debate on the firefighters pension scheme following calls for such a debate from Members on both sides of the House last week? May I also ask him to allay the outrageous slur by the shadow Leader of the House that, because of the autumn statement, Liberal Democrats are saying one thing here and another thing elsewhere? Could he ask the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement to the House next week—if he can persuade him to come here—to confirm that that is an absolute slur, because Liberal Democrats have always said one thing here and another thing elsewhere? [Laughter.]

We thought an end to the question similar to that was coming. At least the Liberal Democrats are not now saying one thing in one place and another thing in another place at the same time, which is perhaps an improvement on some past episodes. The Deputy Prime Minister gave very clear answers yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions—extremely clear, and actually extremely good answers—to all the questions asked by the Opposition. The answers included a clarification that the autumn statement was a statement for the whole coalition Government, with policies that we are pleased Liberal Democrats are also committed to.

Bearing in mind the debate next week on firefighters pensions, will the Leader of the House consider another item directly related to older people—the extension of the warm home discount scheme to Northern Ireland? Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK that does not have such a scheme. In its fuel poverty statistics methodology, the Department of Energy and Climate Change has described fuel poverty as “a partially devolved matter”. May we have a debate on that partially devolved matter, and on extending the scheme to Northern Ireland?

I think the hon. Lady has succeeded in raising the issue in the House without having a debate. I cannot offer any debates in addition to next week’s business, but questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will take place next Thursday, and she will no doubt wish to pursue the issue with the Northern Ireland Office and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Government said that they would review the decriminalisation of single dispensing errors by pharmacists. As my right hon. Friend knows, pharmacists can be sent to prison for such errors, but general practitioners do not have to face prosecution. The Government seem to be taking an age on this change, so may we have a statement or, for that matter, a debate to clarify when it will take place?

We remain committed to removing the criminal sanction on inadvertent dispensing errors by pharmacists, but the issue is complex and it is vital to get it right. I am not sure that a debate is necessary at this stage, as there will in due course be a consultation on the proposals. I will inform the Ministers handling this matter of my hon. Friend’s concern that it should be done as quickly as possible.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock), next February the Government will host a meeting of the declared nuclear weapon states in London ahead of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference next May, which unfortunately coincides with our general election. What plans do the Government have to make a statement to the House ahead of the P5 meeting in February, and will there be an opportunity to debate the British Government’s position ahead of the NPT review conference next May? The issues are obviously extremely important if we aspire to bringing about a nuclear weapons-free world.

These are very important issues. The last NPT review conference in 2010 straddled the last general election, but that did not stop this country making an important and very positive contribution to it, and Members from all parties will want us to do so again. There will of course be several opportunities to question Foreign Office Ministers in the House before then, but I will certainly point out to them the interest shown in the House about having clarity on the Government’s approach to the forthcoming conference before the general election.

Please may we have a debate on apprenticeships? This week, we have passed the significant landmark of 2 million apprenticeship starts in this Parliament. More than 2,000 of them have been in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency in the past two years alone. This week, there has also been an announcement about changes to the careers advice service to put a bit more emphasis on apprenticeships and vocational learning. If we had a debate, we could explore what more can be done to encourage people to consider apprenticeships as part of their future.

This week the 2 millionth apprenticeship has indeed been reached, and such apprenticeships are at the heart of the Government’s drive to equip people of all ages with the skills that employers need to grow and compete. A further boost was provided, particularly for young apprentices, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, and despite the efforts of Labour Members to deride them, such apprenticeships are real jobs with training. The locations and sectors where apprenticeships are available are determined by employers offering apprenticeships and recruiting apprentices, and there is a good case for a debate on the issue. I cannot offer one at the moment, but my hon. Friend may wish to make the case to the Backbench Business Committee.

Yesterday, Luton Town football club became the first league club to start paying everybody it employs, including subcontractors, the living wage. May we have a debate on why the really wealthy clubs—Luton is obviously not one of them—cannot also pay their staff the living wage?

I cannot add to the debates currently before the House, but the hon. Lady has made her point and I hope that other football clubs will take note.

The Leader of the House will be aware that the House is currently awaiting the Government’s formal response to the review by Sir John Jenkins on the Muslim Brotherhood. Will that review be made available to the public in full, and if not, why not, and will he agree to a debate in Government time to discuss the Government’s official response?

That work was requested by the Prime Minister and the former Foreign Secretary—that is me. It is a report to the Prime Minister—no longer to me since I have moved position—and no decision has been taken on its publication. I will update my hon. Friend on that report so that he is fully aware of the position.

May I ask the Leader of the House for an early debate on home schooling when the House returns after Christmas? For many people home schooling is a good way of educating their child, but for many others it is not. Has he seen the estimates that suggest we do not know where up to 100,000 children in our country are, what curriculum they are pursuing, or about their supervision, safety and security? In an age when we are ever more worried about child abuse and child protection, may we have an early debate, because that area has got out of hand?

I can see the case for such a debate. As the hon. Gentleman said, we live in an age in which we are extremely concerned about child protection. An important conference is taking place on that this week, and the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have announced further initiatives to protect children from abuse. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, and I am sure he will make the case either for an Adjournment debate or for the Backbench Business Committee to table a motion on that issue.

Recently I picked up a card in the restaurant for vegan month, and we have also had vegetarian week. The Leader of the House is a great believer in fair play, so given that excellent beef and lamb is produced on grass throughout the country, which helps to keep our green and pleasant land the way it is, could we have a red meat month so that we can eat red meat sustainably?

Every month is red meat month as far as I am concerned, and I always think it does me a lot of good. My hon. Friend makes a good case. We have a wonderful industry in this country, including an excellent beef farming sector, and its success is important to agriculture and the country’s overall prosperity. I will always do my best to promote its success, but whether we can institute a red meat month will be a matter for wider discussion among the House authorities.

The Leader of the House is standing down at the next election, so could we see more of his true self during business statements? When he and I were

“young and easy under the apple boughs”

many decades ago, he had a visceral dislike of the Liberals and the Social Democrats. If the Liberal Democrats cannot even be bothered to turn up to business questions, does he agree that they should receive the same treatment that they meted out to poor people who have a spare room in their home, and be evicted at the next general election?

I am surrounded by the Deputy Leader of the House, who is a Liberal Democrat, and the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the deputy Chief Whip and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, who is also a Liberal Democrat, so I think it is a little unfair to say that Liberal Democrats do not turn up for business questions, although it cannot be said that a lot of Liberal Democrats have turned up to ask questions. When the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) and I were students, we made common cause in ensuring that Liberals and the SDP were not very successful at Oxford university in the early 1980s, but circumstances change. There are no permanent allies, only permanent interests, as has often been said.

In July, my constituents, Eve Michell and Shannon Rudden from Rainham Mark grammar school, attended the Government’s YouthforChange event, which encourages young people to get more involved in the international movement for girls’ rights. May we have statement on what plans the Government have to build on that success?

I cannot offer an immediate statement, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. The Government will want to continue to support such initiatives, and to commend the good work taking place in so many parts of the world, to which he rightly draws attention.

On Monday, I attended the launch of the first direct flight from Manchester airport to China. I am sure the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating all those involved in securing that, including Cathay Pacific. With the Davies commission due to report in a few months, and with Treasury civil servants scurrying around working out the staggering public subsidy that will be required if a third runway at Heathrow is the decision, will the Leader of the House, as a fellow northern MP, bring the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Secretary of State for Transport to the House to explain to them that, pound for pound, it would be a better use of public money to spend it between the Mersey and the Humber estuary than on the public subsidy for Heathrow, which will make the northern powerhouse look like a drop in the ocean?

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating everyone involved in ensuring that there is a direct service from Manchester to China. I hope it will be an extremely well used and successful route. We need airports in the north of England to be more successful, building on the success of Manchester, for the northern powerhouse concept to be successful. As he will know, the Government have announced a great deal of transport infrastructure investment in the north. I would differ from him on only one point: it is my belief that if regional airports are to be successful, it is important that there is additional airport capacity in the south-east of England, because without that, the regional airports lose their landing slots in key UK hubs. For the north to succeed, therefore, we also need the airports of the south-east to succeed. We need both.

May we have a debate on what more the Government can do to reduce the illegal trade in wildlife—sensible actions that this country can take, although we do not necessarily need more regulation, which can have unintended consequences—following the conference that my right hon. Friend attended with the Duke of Cambridge earlier this week?

There is a very good case for such a debate, and I hope my hon. Friend will make that case to the Backbench Business Committee. This country and companies based in this country can do a lot to prevent the smuggling of illegally obtained wildlife products. That trade is feeding corruption and even terrorism in other parts of the world, and is a moral outrage. I was happy on Monday to join His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge in Washington. He has asked me to chair the transportation industry taskforce on the issue, and I have been very happy to take that on.

Returning to the theme of saying one thing and doing another, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), may we have a debate in Government time on the impact of VAT increases on the UK economy? The Leader of the House will be aware that, before the election, the leader of the Conservative party categorically ruled out such increases, but he then introduced them. They are having a huge impact on small businesses in my community—my constituency—and particularly on the retail sector and restaurants. When a party of four go out for a meal, they have to take the Chancellor with them and pay his bill.

The Chancellor had to take action on the vast deficit we were left by the previous Government. Yes, VAT was increased, but since then inflation has come down and even more businesses have been created. The figures released in the past three weeks show that there are 760,000 businesses operating in the country, the largest number we have ever known, and it is very important to bear that in mind. Businesses are succeeding and the deficit has come down.

The UK currently faces a shortage of HGV drivers. One of my constituents, Mark, is an HGV driver. He contacted me to tell me—in fact, he showed me photographs—about the disgusting facilities that he and his colleagues have to endure at motorway service stations during their regulated breaks. May we have a debate on whether the Government should intervene to improve these essential facilities, and on whether to fund driver training for hauliers to attract much-needed new drivers into the industry?

The Government accept that there is an issue with the recruitment of HGV drivers, which is a significant concern to the industry. We welcome the steps that the industry has taken to recruit a new generation of hauliers. The Government are working with the industry to identify ways to improve the situation. On facilities, there is a Department for Transport circular requiring all motorway service areas and truck stops that are signed on, or from, a strategic road network to offer free toilets with hand-washing facilities and free parking for two hours, so I hope there will be an improvement. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this matter.

We cannot have Members slipping out, but on this occasion we will accommodate the hon. Lady, who is an illustrious denizen of the House.

The report is pertinent to my request, but I will take note and behave better in future, Mr Speaker.

Will my right hon. Friend find Government time to debate the recent annual report from the Government chief scientific adviser, “Innovation: managing risk, not avoiding it”, which concludes that, like thalidomide and asbestos, fracking could carry unforeseen risks? Such a profound allegation should be considered in Government time before any fracking applications are considered locally.

These are important issues. Hon. Members from all parties have strong views for or against fracking, and on the policies necessary to carry it out correctly. There will be questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change next week, so that is the earliest opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise the matter further in the House.

The Leader of the House will have noted the recent report from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which the Government have a majority, which supported the Labour party’s policy for a national framework for low emission zones to combat air pollution. I know there is pressure on Government business and that the Leader of the House will be reluctant to make time for such a debate, but could he perhaps just announce from the Dispatch Box now that the Government also agree with the Labour party’s policy on air pollution?

I think the Ministers responsible might get a little anxious if I made off-the-cuff announcements about changing Government policy on the spur of the moment, so I will resist the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation to do so. It is open to him—as I have said to other hon. Members, particularly in relation to a Select Committee report—to pursue the case for a debate with the Backbench Business Committee. That is partly what Backbench Business and Westminster Hall debates are for, so I encourage him to pursue the matter in that way.

Next year, we will have almost reached the 100th anniversary of the murder of 1.5 million Armenians. May we have a debate on that issue?

There is always a good case for a proper understanding of history—I am a great proponent of that—and that requires its discussion. We will be commemorating many events a century on over the next few years through the centennial anniversaries of the first world war, but I cannot offer a debate specifically on the subject that my hon. Friend raises, although I know it evokes strong feelings in this country and many other countries, so he might need to pursue the matter in other ways.