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House of Commons Hansard
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Business of the House
15 January 2015
Volume 590

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Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

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The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 19 January—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill.

Tuesday 20 January—Opposition day (13th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party on Trident renewal.

Wednesday 21 January—Opposition day (14th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by a motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism.

Thursday 22 January—Debate on a motion relating to the governance of the House of Commons.

Friday 23 January—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 January will include:

Monday 26 January—Remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by a debate on a motion relating to accommodation for young people in care. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 28 January—Opposition day (15th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 29 January—Debate on a motion relating to the Iraq inquiry, followed by a general debate on financial support available for restoration of open-cast coal sites. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 30 January—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of January will be:

Thursday 22 January—Debate on the third report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee on the green deal, followed by a debate on the first report from the Justice Committee on crime reduction policies.

Thursday 29 January—Debate on the second report from the Home Affairs Select Committee on female genital mutilation, followed by a debate on the second report from the Science and Technology Committee on UK blood safety and the risk of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

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May I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business, including all stages of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill next Monday?

Even those of us who feel that the unelected and supersized Chamber at the other end of the building is in need of more radical reform can welcome this Bill. Prior to the creation of Labour’s senate of the nations and regions, it is only right that the Lords Spiritual should consist of women bishops as well as men.

I also welcome the debate that the Leader of the House has scheduled for next Thursday on the report from the Governance Committee. I hope that the House will not only agree to the recommendations but agree on a timetable for implementing them so that we have a new management system in place before Dissolution. Will the Leader of the House tell the House how this will be accomplished if the motion is carried?

The Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill is due to conclude upstairs today, and the Leader of the House has announced that we will debate it on Report on 26 January. It is over seven months since consideration of the Bill began in the other place, so will he explain why last Friday 60 pages of amendments reforming the electronic communications code appeared out of nowhere? Why is the drafting of the amendments so bad that mobile phone operators have thrown into doubt the Government’s uncosted deal with them to extend mobile phone coverage? Will he now consider extending the Report stage to give the House the time it needs to improve these badly drafted amendments? Is this yet another example of this Government’s competence, or is it simply more chaos?

Despite repeated Government promises that free speech would be protected, last week the Electoral Commission wrote to a range of political blogs warning them about falling foul of the Government’s lobbying Act. Bishop Harries’ commission on civil society and democratic engagement has said that the law is already having a widespread chilling effect on campaigning by charities and other organisations in the run-up to the general election. When does the Leader of the House intend to put section 39 of the Act into effect, as he has only a few days left? Will he now admit that despite all the false promises from Government Front Benchers, this law is having the effect they desired in silencing criticism of the Government and suppressing healthy democratic debate? Does he accept that the only reasonable thing to do now is to repeal this disgraceful assault on free speech?

The Conservative election campaign continues to lurch from one embarrassment to another. First, we had the fiasco of the German road that, it now turns out, was airbrushed to remove all the potholes. This week the Conservatives have unveiled six election priorities, which, amazingly, make no mention of the NHS.

Such is the Conservatives’ popularity that they have been caught spending tens of thousands of pounds buying their own Facebook friends, and now they are so confident of victory that the Prime Minister is running scared of each and every chance to be held to account in debates. He promised to be interviewed by Bite the Ballot in front of first-time voters, which every other party leader has now done, including leaders of the minor parties, such as the Deputy Prime Minister—even he turned up to his appointment with Bite the Ballot. The Prime Minister, however, has suddenly pulled out, absurdly claiming that of the 111 days left until the election there are

“no dates that would work.”

Then we have the saga of the TV debates. The Prime Minister has been clucking for days that he will not do them without the Greens, but he is actually frightened that he would be in for a roasting. Is not it blindingly obvious that that is a fowl excuse?

The Liberal Democrats are not doing much better. After the Prime Minister rebuked the Tory Chief Whip for messing with his mobile phone in Cabinet, the Chief Secretary decided to take the secretary part of his job very seriously and leapt to reinforce the Prime Minister’s message, pointing out that he too had spotted others using their phones during Cabinet. Doesn’t everyone just love a teacher’s pet?

I think that the Business Secretary is jealous. After being unceremoniously dumped as economic spokesman from the farcical Liberal Democrat cabinet within a Cabinet that is apparently designed to shadow the Cabinet while actually propping up the Cabinet, he has insisted that he is still economic spokesman and that his demotion is just a “minor internal matter.” That sounds like how the Tories refer to the Liberal Democrats.

In just a few hours we will learn who has been nominated for an Oscar, and this year I think us Brits have got at least one in the bag: this Government will win the award for best farce.

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I welcome the opening remarks of the shadow Leader of the House: we are united in our support of the Lords Spiritual (Women) Bill and there will be a good deal of time to debate it next Monday. The allocation of time motion will provide for that, including a four-hour Second Reading debate. I hope it will enjoy the unanimous support of the House. We shall see.

When it comes to the debate on the governance of the House, it will be important for us all to listen to the views of the House. The hon. Lady and I have both signed the motion tabled by the members of the Governance Committee. There is a great deal of support for their recommendations, some of which will require legislation in order to implement them, but the majority of them can be proceeded with very speedily. If the motion is passed, the relevant authorities will be empowered and, in effect, instructed to get on with those actions and the necessary recruitment processes.

On the Infrastructure Bill, the Culture Secretary has been working on a tremendous improvement in mobile phone coverage in this country. The hon. Lady asked for more time on Report to discuss amendments. I might have considered that differently had the Opposition used the time they had asked for and obtained on other Report stages, but they did not do so. For instance, they asked for, and we provided, six days’ debate on the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, including two days on Report, but the House rose early on both of those days by several hours. I think the time we have provided will be adequate to discuss the Infrastructure Bill.

I will look at the point raised by the hon. Lady about section 39 of the transparency of lobbying Act, but some vigorous campaigning is already going on without anybody being silenced in the run-up to the general election campaign.

The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Government’s competence. I pay tribute to her, as I often do, because at least she can remember what she is meant to be talking about when she comes to the House. However, the Leader of the Opposition is having increasing problems recalling things, including whether he said he would “weaponise” the national health service, despite being asked seven times on television on Sunday and being challenged in this House. He could not remember the main issue—the biggest problem facing the country—in his party conference speech, and now he cannot remember what he said about the issue he has most often raised, which makes us wonder whether he would remember anything he was meant to do if he became Prime Minister of this country or, indeed, what the day was on any particular day. She is clearly in a stronger position.

I am sure that the Leader of the Opposition remembers that he promised to freeze energy prices, and that when he stood at the Dispatch Box only 15 months ago he said:

“Nothing less than a price freeze will do”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2013; Vol. 569, c. 912.]

Yesterday, the awful realisation at last dawned on the Opposition that had we had a price freeze when they asked for it, energy prices would not now be falling, as they are. The cheapest energy tariff is now £100 cheaper than it was a year ago, meaning that it would be £100 more expensive had we frozen energy prices when they asked for that. [Interruption.] It is no good Labour Members shaking their heads about wanting a freeze because it is all there in motions they tabled in this House. Such motions demanded nothing other than a freeze, including one on 18 June, which stated:

“That this House notes the policy of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition to freeze energy prices for 20 months”.—[Official Report, 18 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1185.]

Seven months later, energy prices are falling, which would not have been possible. Yesterday, they decided that a freeze meant a cap, but that was the first time they had done so. From my own experience, I can tell the Leader of the Opposition that reaching for a cap when in difficulty is not always a good idea.

I pointed out last week that the Opposition have dropped 12 policies in under 10 days, and they have now been joined by a 13th policy. The Opposition have started to announce their policies in secret, such as their latest one to carpet the countryside with unnecessary wind turbines if they win the next general election, to which they do not want to give any publicity.

The real story about what has happened this week is one of competence: the World Bank has confirmed that the UK is the fastest-growing G7 economy; UK manufacturing is now performing at levels not seen since 2002; and the pensioner bonds launched today will reward people who have worked hard and saved hard throughout their lives.

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Please may we have a debate on the accurate use of words and phrases? It would give Members the chance to make clear that there is a difference between the deficit and the debt, that positive action or positive discrimination is still discrimination, and that tax avoidance is legal while tax evasion is illegal.

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I am not sure, with only 40 sitting days until the Dissolution of Parliament, that there will be time for a debate, but it would be very beneficial to discuss such things at every opportunity. Of course, to know whether you are talking about the deficit or the debt, you must remember that you intended to talk about it in the first place, which is a particularly serious difficulty for the Leader of the Opposition.

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May I first invite the Leader of the House to examine the physics of freezing? Water can be frozen at any point between zero and absolute zero, which is minus 273° C, so I offer him the thought that our metaphor of a freeze is consistent with both prices being level and prices falling.

May I express my gratitude to the Leader of the House and his private office, as well as to my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, for their very active co-operation in working with my Committee to agree the motion—he has tabled motion 91, to which I have added my name—for debate on Thursday? I hope, if there is agreement, that we can indeed make rapid progress towards implementing the House of Commons Governance Committee’s recommendations, including for pushing the minor changes in legislation through both Houses.

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The right hon. Gentleman has given by far the best description from the Opposition Benches of what a freeze is meant to mean, but sadly it was not included in the motion on 18 June last year. I can see why Labour Members are thinking of water running out beneath them and ice cracking on top—I think that is what he was describing—because that is what is currently happening to their policy. Perhaps we have taken this physics discussion far enough.

I pay tribute again to the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for putting together such a well thought out report that commands a great deal of support across the House. It is on the governance of the House, and Opposition Members who were paying attention would have been able to follow that. As he may know, I am also looking at how, even this Session before the end of this Parliament, we can pass the small piece of legislation required by the report.

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Following a storm more than a month ago, BT has still not restored a landline service to many of my constituents. Mobile phone services are also affected—for example, it took Vodafone 20 days to repair a fault in December, and a large part of Argyll has been without a Vodafone mobile service since last Thursday. Such delays are unacceptable. May we have an urgent statement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on what can be done to make those companies carry out repairs more quickly in future?

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As I recall, this is the second time my hon. Friend has found it necessary to raise that issue, which is clearly a serious problem in his constituency, and I hope that BT and all those responsible will take full note of his raising the matter in the House. We have just had questions to DCMS Ministers, and I will alert them to the problem he raises.

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Might we expect a statement from the Government on the potential job losses announced by BP today? If so, will it include the implications of those job losses, and the potential impact on the supply chain for that sector across the United Kingdom?

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Overall, as the House will recognise, the reduction in oil prices is beneficial to the British economy and indeed the world economy, but as those announcements show it can also have a damaging effect on employment in the North sea industry. That is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor reduced taxes on the industry, and he showed considerable foresight in doing so. The Energy and Climate Change Secretary is in Aberdeen today discussing the situation with industry leaders, and the Government are taking the situation seriously.

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Will the Leader of the House please confirm that, as indicated by the Under-Secretary of State for Health (Jane Ellison) last March, there will be a debate on the Government’s proposed mitochondrial donation regulations before Members are asked to vote on them?

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Regulations to allow the clinical use of those techniques for the first time were laid in Parliament on 17 December, as my hon. Friend knows. The regulations are affirmative and therefore subject to a debate in both Houses of Parliament. We are working on how to schedule that debate and where it will take place, and I hope to update the House soon.

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May I support what the shadow Leader of the House said about having two days on Report for the Infrastructure Bill? When it came before the House on Second Reading, the Bill already covered areas that required great scrutiny such as shale gas, Highways Agency reform and zero-carbon homes. Since it has been in Committee, new amendments have been tabled on mayoral powers, reforms to the Electricity Act 1989, and a range of other areas, including the electronic communications code that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned. Some of those issues were not covered by the long title, or by debate in the House of Lords or on Second Reading. Is it too much to say that if those measures are to get the scrutiny they need, we should have two days on Report?

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I always take seriously requests for further time on important Bills, but as I stressed to the shadow Leader of the House, my experience in my short time as Leader of the House—six months so far—is that when additional time has been asked for on Report, the days have not been fully used, and that affects how we regard further requests for time on other Bills.

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Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity of noting the Westminster Hall debate last week on the economy of coastal towns? The importance of the coastal communities fund was raised by Members on all sides of the House. Can he find time for a debate on the future of the coastal communities fund, which is very important to constituencies such as mine?

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That was an important debate on coastal communities. It will have been an important opportunity for hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend, to raise many of the issues that come up in their constituencies. I cannot promise a further debate on these issues, but he can use all the normal means, including the Backbench Business Committee, to ask for such a debate. He is a very strong champion of coastal communities.

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For Tuesday’s debate on Trident renewal, would it be an idea to reorganise the furniture of the House, so that we have the Westminster establishment parties of Tory and Labour on one side arguing the case for £100 billion to be spent on Trident while indulging in austerity, and the progressive alliance of Greens, Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru on the other proving the case for why that money should be spent not on weapons of mass destruction but on social programmes?

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I am sure hon. Members will be able to take part in the debate from whatever point of view and wherever they are sitting. It will not be necessary to reorganise the furniture. Of course, the basic furniture of the British constitution was supported by the people of Scotland when they voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, including those who live in the area represented by the hon. Gentleman.

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Will the Leader of the House arrange a statement next week on the leaders’ debate? The Prime Minister is absolutely right that national parties should be included, including the Greens. I understand that the Scottish National party is considering running candidates in England. If so, could it be included in the debate? If it runs in north Northamptonshire it will get more votes than the Liberal Democrats.

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I think it is fair to say that that suggestion will receive a mixed reception in the coalition Government, but I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of the Green party also being able to take part in the debates if other parties that are not the long-recognised major parties of the country do so. I do not know why the Labour party is so afraid of having the Green party take part in the debates.

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I add my voice to the congratulations to the Leader of the House on the speed with which he has reacted to the Governance Committee report, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Those of us who were able to give oral and written evidence are very pleased, although I still remember the expression on my right hon. Friend’s face when I said that I wanted this place to be run more like John Lewis.

May I join the call for two days of debate on the Infrastructure Bill? Has the Leader of the House seen the Consumers Association analysis published this morning that the taxpayer and the traveller will be burdened with £200 billion-plus to pay for this infrastructure? Is it not time we reconsidered HS2, the costs of which are adding up to £80 billion, money that could be spent on the national health service?

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There was a lot in that question. I have not heard the governance of the House being linked to HS2 before. That was an artful journey through many different matters. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the Governance Committee report. Many right hon. and hon. Members contributed, as he did, to its thinking and they were right do so. I will look at the analysis from the Consumers Association. I will, however, make the point I have made before: the time requested for the Report stage of Bills has so far not been well taken up.

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The Ministry of Justice has a woeful record on answering parliamentary questions on time, to such an extent that it has been chastised by the Procedure Committee. On 18 November I asked the Secretary of State for Justice how many prisoners convicted of terrorist-related offences had been released on temporary licence in each of the past five years. It is bad enough that that question has still not been answered, but given the nature of the question and the appalling events in Paris is it not essential that the Government are on top of how many prisoners convicted of terrorist offences have been released on temporary licence? Will the Leader of the House urge the Justice Secretary not only to answer the question, but to make a statement to the House so that we can see what risk this country faces from these kinds of people?

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My hon. Friend knows that the Home Secretary made a statement yesterday about our preparedness to counter terrorist attacks. It is important that Departments give timely answers to questions. I certainly attach a great deal of importance to that, as does the Procedure Committee. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has explained to the Procedure Committee the measures that he is taking to improve the performance of the Ministry of Justice on this. While that is taking place, I will remind my right hon. Friend of the specific question that my hon. Friend has asked.

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At the end of this month, the Foreign Office will receive a copy of the consultant’s report on the feasibility of the Chagos islanders returning to their homeland from which they were disgracefully removed many decades ago. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is the case, that there will be an imminent statement from the Foreign Office shortly after the report is received and that there will be an opportunity before the end of this Parliament for a full debate on the situation facing the Chagos islanders and the assertion of their right to return to the islands from which they were so wrongly removed all those decades ago?

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The hon. Gentleman is a long-standing campaigner on this issue and I had discussions with him when I was Foreign Secretary. Indeed it was my decision as Foreign Secretary to set up this further feasibility study about the Chagos islands. It has always been intended that it would report at the beginning of this year; in other words, very soon. He will have to ask a Foreign Office Minister specifically about the Department’s approach. It is Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday, so he might have an opportunity to do so then, but I will remind the FCO that there is considerable interest in the House as to how the report will be handled and the FCO response to it.

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of the expulsion and ethnic cleansing from the Kashmir valley of Hindu Pandits, who were forcibly removed from homes they had occupied for thousands of years. This weekend there will be a peace march ending at Trafalgar square, and in several Hindu temples across the country there will be services commemorating this evil event. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement or debate on this subject so that the attitude of the British Government to this terrible event can be put on the record?

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My hon. Friend will be aware of the long-standing position of the UK on this, which is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting resolution to the situation in Kashmir, taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. It is not for us to try to prescribe a solution or to mediate in finding one, but we continue to follow developments in the region closely. I know that my hon. Friend has raised the issue before in debate and he will be aware of the further opportunities there are to continue to bring it to the attention of the House, as he has done today.

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There is growing concern in Stoke-on-Trent and north Staffordshire about the awarding of a contract for a PET scanner to a private company, Alliance. Given that local MPs have asked for a meeting with the chief executive of NHS England about this and so far have not had a reply, may I ask for an urgent debate in the House on the issue of procurement in the NHS and the wider implications it has for the reconfiguration of services?

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As the hon. Lady knows, matters of procurement in the NHS are regularly debated with Health Ministers and regularly come up at Health questions. There are many opportunities to raise it. She mentioned that she has raised it specifically with NHS England and I hope it will respond to her. It will owe her a quick response, given that people are clearly concerned.

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We all know that ISIS is taking lives throughout Syria and Iraq, but what is less well known is that it is also trying to take the soul of the region through a systematic and epic looting of antiquities and works of art on a scale that has not been seen since the end of the second world war. What is more, this is believed to be the third-greatest source of revenue for ISIS after energy and bank robbing. It is a national security issue, as well as an issue of great cultural concern to the world. Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate in the House on the issue, and perhaps enlist the support of his friend Angelina Jolie to give some international support to what is a really important issue?

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My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this issue. I cannot pledge Angelina Jolie to engage with issues other than those on which I already work with her, but he is absolutely right that what is happening in that region involves the devastation of antiquities as well as so many atrocities inflicted on human beings, which are, of course, our top concern—particularly the enslavement of people and the tyrannical and brutal treatment of people living in areas taken over by ISIS, or ISIL. It shows the importance of the action we have taken with other nations, working with the Government of Iraq and with the Kurdish Regional Government. As my hon. Friend knows, that action is having some success in turning back the advance of ISIS, or ISIL. He will be able to raise the issue with Foreign Office Ministers at questions on Tuesday—if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker.

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We all want to sort out mobile telephony coverage around the country, but the way in which the Government have proceeded by introducing significant amendments to the electronic communications code at the very last stage of the Infrastructure Bill is a wholly inappropriate way of doing business. The mobile network operators are furious about it, and we will not be able to support the changes, even though we would love to see proper change. Without two days for Report, it is going to be impossible to get this right. The danger is that we will then not have the change that the Government, the Opposition, the mobile network operators and everybody wants. The Government may lose in the House of Lords and lose their Bill.

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The hon. Gentleman raises the same point as others, including the shadow Leader of the House. I do not have much more to add to what I said earlier. I said I would look at the evidence and representations on the matter and will always listen to concerns about adequate time for debating legislation. On any Bill for which representations are made for more time and more time is given, it is important to use that time—otherwise it takes up time to debate for other matters. [Interruption.] That has been the pattern so far.

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The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says that he will use it—assuming he catches the eye, of course.

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Is it possible to have an early debate on the plight of the dairy industry in the United Kingdom? I welcome the fact that inflation is running at 0.5%, but when supermarkets advertise milk at 89p for four pints—considerably cheaper than the price of water on their shelves—something is clearly going wrong. As my right hon. Friend knows, many farmers did not get paid for several weeks and the wholesale price they are paid has collapsed. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that the vitality of this important industry is preserved?

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My hon. Friend will be able to pursue the need for debate through all the normal methods, with which he is extremely familiar. Today, the farming Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, our hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is discussing with the industry and the National Farmers Union how to help manage the volatility of prices, such as through the creation of a futures market. We recognise that milk prices continue to fall and that it is a concerning time for British dairy farmers. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) will know that we have worked with the industry to open up new export markets, and exports are rising. We have given dairy farmers the opportunity to unite in producer organisations so that they have greater clout in the marketplace. As I said, the Minister is discussing with the industry and the unions what further we can do.

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Notwithstanding the representations made by the shadow Leader of the House and other hon. Members in respect of the Infrastructure Bill, would the Leader of the House consider having a specific debate about the merits of, and safety factors involved in, undersea coal gasification? I have raised the issue in questions with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and I am told that an internal working group has been established, but would it not be beneficial, in the interest of transparency, to have a full debate, perhaps in Government time, so that my constituents and others can better understand the merits and potential benefits as well as the risks to the local economy?

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It is perfectly reasonable to request time to debate such matters, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the main opportunities for debates of that kind are now provided by the Backbench Business Committee, the Adjournment and Westminster Hall, and I suggest that he use those channels. Government time is not available for such general debates, important and interesting though they might be.

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Tesco is pulling out of a planned store in Huddersfield, and Yorkshire-based Morrisons has announced that it is to close a store at Ravensthorpe, near Huddersfield. May we have a debate on the state of the UK’s supermarket industry, and its relationships with both suppliers and customers?

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Steps to promote independent retail were debated in Westminster Hall last year, but my hon. Friend raises the wider issue of supermarkets, and the grocery market is obviously undergoing a great deal of structural change. A further debate would allow the Government to give further details of our support for high streets and market towns—for instance, the £2.3 million that we are providing for the 27 Portas pilots and 330 town teams across England, the £10 million high street innovation fund, and our work on business improvement districts—so it could indeed be very beneficial.

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Today, in Nottingham, Rural Community Action Nottinghamshire will celebrate 90 years of partnership work in rural communities, and celebrations will continue throughout the country this year. Much of that work depends on rural community councils, and much of their own work depends on advice, support and funding from the rural community network organisation Action with Communities in Rural England, or ACRE. However, ACRE has been informed out of the blue, with no notice, that its funding will be discontinued from this March, and the decision may be made by Ministers behind closed doors as early as next week.

Will the Leader of the House urge the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—who is in China at the moment—or other Ministers in the Department to provide the House with a full impact assessment before any such decision is made, and to make a statement to the House? A decision that could cause as many as a third of rural community councils to shut up shop and a further third to restrict their activities should not be made behind closed doors.

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The Secretary of State is indeed in China, but I will of course inform DEFRA Ministers of the issue that the hon. Gentleman has just succeeded in raising on the Floor of the House. No doubt they will wish to respond to him directly.

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There are extraordinary pressures on A and E departments in Stoke and the north midlands, although the excellent staff at Stafford County and Royal Stoke University hospitals are working hard to deal with them. Furthermore, a speedy return to 24/7 A and E services in Stafford is essential owing to the long-term acute pressures that will result from the doubling of the number of people aged over 85 in south Staffordshire and Stafford by 2030. May we have a debate on regional A and E provision, in the light of the increased number of complex medical emergencies?

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There has already been a good deal of discussion in the House about A and E services—indeed, the Health Secretary spoke about them in the House last week—and my hon. Friend will be aware of all the action that the Government are taking to try to relieve pressure on those services, nationally and in his own region. However, he is right to refer to local pressures, and I shall ensure that the Health Secretary is aware of the point that he has raised.

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May I return the Leader of the House to the subject of the Infrastructure Bill? In an earlier answer, he mentioned that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was in Aberdeen today, talking to representatives of the oil and gas industry. What he will hear from them is that the implementation of the Wood review and the establishment of the new Oil and Gas Authority, which has the support of all parties, including the Scottish National party, should be seen as a matter of priority, given the urgency of the situation in the North sea. That is one of a number of issues raised by the Bill.

As several Labour Members have pointed out, there is a real risk that the authority will not be up and running when it should be, which would have a material effect on that industry. May I reinforce their pleas for a two-day debate on this important Bill on Report, given the range of issues that it covers?

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I can assure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the industry, that the Government are determined to ensure that the Infrastructure Bill is passed into law before our Session comes to an end in just over two months’ time, so I do not think there should be alarm in the industry about that. On the time for the debate, I made my point earlier and I do not want to add anything further to that at the moment.

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Chiswick school in my constituency has done some excellent work in linking up students with local businesses, which is of course incredibly important in encouraging aspiration in the next generation, but there is often inconsistency in establishing such links in London and across the country. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Education to look at the progress being made in careers advice in schools and also to see how many schools have a business champion on their governing bodies?

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These are important issues, and the Government’s focus is on preparing young people for the world of work more effectively and ensuring that businesses are engaged with schools in meaningful ways. Governors have a very strong role to play in that. As my hon. Friend knows, on 10 December last year the Education Secretary announced the establishment of a new employer-led careers and enterprise company with a specific remit to build up all this work. The Education Secretary also gave evidence on this to the Select Committee on Education recently, and I am sure that there will be other opportunities to raise these matters in the House.

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My constituent Julie Hambleton and her family, along with the families of all the victims of the 1974 pub bombings in Birmingham, have been suffering for 40 years and continue to suffer as the perpetrators of that heinous act have not been brought to justice. They have tried to make an appointment to see the Prime Minister but that has not been possible. May we have a debate in this House so that the Home Secretary can directly address this issue, to at least give them some comfort?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue for his constituents and he will have opportunities to raise this, such as with the Home Secretary at the next Home Office questions. I will of course make sure that the Home Office is aware of his concerns. I know my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister take these matters very seriously, so I will make sure they are aware of the point the hon. Gentleman has made today.

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Perhaps because I am a vexillologist MP, I have been approached by the office of the majority leader in the US House of Representatives to see whether it might be possible to facilitate an exchange of the Union flag flying over the Victoria Tower and the flag flying over the US Capitol to mark the long historical and friendship links between the United Kingdom and the United States. I would be grateful for the advice of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—and indeed you, Mr Speaker—as to how that might be facilitated.

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Personally, I am a great enthusiast for reinforcing and commemorating the intimate links between the United States and the United Kingdom. The US is our most important bilateral relationship and our greatest ally in the world, so we must take this request seriously. I will have to discuss—no doubt with you, Mr Speaker, and others in the House—how we go about facilitating and deciding on any such flag exchange, so I will come back to my hon. Friend on this point.

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May I congratulate the Leader of the House on his decision to move to Wales when he leaves the House? I hope he and Ffion are very happy at Cyfronydd hall.

May we have a debate on improving Members’ knowledge of “Erskine May”, because the right hon. Gentleman will know—as will you, Mr Speaker—that on 19 March 1872 the Speaker condemned the imitation of the crowing of cocks and other barnyard noises in the House? If hon. Members knew their “Erskine May” better, would they not be less likely to greet the Prime Minister with a chorus of chicken noises for ducking the leadership debates?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his personal good wishes. My wife and I are looking forward to spending a good deal of time in Wales after the general election, and I thank him for his welcome. I am also grateful to him for pointing out the importance of “Erskine May”. There were some farmyard noises in the House yesterday, and I am sure that when the Labour party has stopped being chicken about debating with the Green party, there will be less need for such things in the House.

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There has been a lot of discussion recently about the impact of falling oil prices on energy bills, but does the Leader of the House agree that transport companies should also be urgently considering how they can pass on any savings to their passengers? May we have a debate on that subject?

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This is an important point. People immediately think of the price of fuel for motorists, which is vividly displayed on every forecourt around the country, but it is also important that companies right across the energy sector pass on any reduction in prices. As we discussed earlier, the suppliers of energy to households are starting to do that, but it will be important for transport providers to do so as well, and I know that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Energy Secretary will be keen to promote that.

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rose

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What a delicious choice! I call Diana Johnson.

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Disappointingly, Morrison’s have decided to close their store at Bransholme in Hull, which will involve a loss of jobs. Surprisingly, I have just received an e-mail from the site managing agent criticising me for raising concerns about those job losses. This is at a time when the 14 new jobs at Siemens in Hull attracted 1,000 applicants. May we have a debate on the jobs situation, especially in northern cities? Also, two years ago, the Government scrapped the gathering of statistics to show how many jobseekers were chasing each vacancy. May we have those figures reinstated, please?

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The hon. Lady is entitled to raise issues from her constituency, including concerns about local employment, and I defend her right to say whatever she wants on that. On the question of employment in general, there will be job losses even in a growing economy, and there have been big changes in the grocery sector, as we were discussing a few moments ago. Nevertheless, the overall outlook in all regions of the country is very strong, with record numbers of people in work, including across the north and in Yorkshire and the Humber. The unemployed claimant count is down nearly 600,000, and is now at its lowest since July 2008. So the overall outlook is very good, and we will always be able to discuss that when we discuss economic matters in the House.

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May we have a statement on street lights in Essex? I am currently campaigning for Essex council to allow Harlow council to turn the lights back on, following Essex council’s decision to turn them off after midnight. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter, and will he ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to speak to Essex council, to see how Harlow can be helped?

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My hon. Friend has raised this issue before, and I welcome the work that he does on behalf of his constituents—as I am sure they do—on this important matter. He understands all too well that street lighting in Harlow is the responsibility of Essex county council, as the local highway authority, and that central Government are unable to intervene in local matters such as this. I encourage him to continue to make representations to the county council so that it can consider this important issue further and perhaps reach an agreement on street lighting in Harlow.

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The Electoral Commission has written to political blogs, including the excellent “LabourList”, to warn them about complying with the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 and telling them that what they do could be interpreted as regulated campaign activity. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that blogs are not prevented from reporting and commenting on the election campaign as they see fit, just as the mainstream print media will be able to do?

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We have had many debates. During the passage of the relevant Act through the House, it was extensively—if not exhaustively—debated, with many different opinions expressed. Nevertheless, it did not lack for debate and it was passed by Parliament. I have not noticed any reduction in the vast variety of opinions, information and disagreements coming forth on the blogs, all engaging already in the election campaign.

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I bring good news from Kettering, because the shops in Kettering had a great Christmas. Footfall in the main shopping centre in Kettering town centre was up 6.5%. In the month before Christmas the footfall for the east midlands rose by 12%, nationally by 15%, but in Kettering by a massive 24%. With far fewer empty shops than the national average and falling car parking charges, it is clear that Kettering is outperforming its rivals. May we have a debate in Government time about the optimistic future for our town centres, against the background of rapidly falling unemployment, increases in real living standards and the fastest growing economy in the G7?

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I pay tribute to the retailers of Kettering for attracting all those people, and to my hon. Friend for his encouragement of them. Perhaps all that footfall is people visiting Kettering to shake the hand of the Member of Parliament and to catch a glimpse of him themselves. He raises an important point. The Government have done a great deal to help retailers, particularly with the measures that the Chancellor has taken on business rate relief and the removal of employers national insurance for small businesses. These things are helping our high street stores, and I hope they will go on to even greater success in Kettering.

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I have been talking to staff at our local hospitals this week and it is clear that the pressure remains relentless. One of the biggest problems is that hospitals are not able to discharge elderly patients back into the community. Despite what the Secretary of State for Health said earlier this week, the system is not working. Will the Leader of the House find time to allow the Secretary of State to come back to the House next week to make an urgent statement on what is being done to try to solve the problem?

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As the hon. Gentleman says, the Secretary of State for Health did refer to the issue and set out what the Government are doing on it. On the question of whether or not such things are working, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State for Health will want to return to the House whenever appropriate on all these issues, particularly if there are continuing problems. I will make him aware of the concerns raised in the House today.

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Last week I visited Marton-cum-Grafton primary school, a fantastic village school in my constituency, to congratulate the team on its outstanding Ofsted result. Please may we have a debate on how we can further support rural schools to improve their standards in the way that Marton-cum-Grafton has, as these schools often face very different challenges from urban schools?

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Rural schools do indeed face different challenges. My hon. Friend and I, in our work in north Yorkshire, have always strongly defended rural schools, some of which can be very small but still do an extraordinary job. It is important that they are maintained for the future, given some of the distances involved. We value small schools, and we recognise that they are often essential to the communities they serve. We have introduced a sparsity factor to allow local authorities greater flexibility to target funding at small rural schools, and local authorities can choose to apply this factor if they wish and target further funds as well. The Government are very committed on these issues, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for being such a strong campaigner for the rural schools in his constituency.