I should like to make a statement about next week’s business, which will be:
Monday 26 January—Remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill [Lords].
Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by 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 general debate on financial support available for restoration of opencast coal sites. The subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 30 January—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 2 February will include:
Monday 2 February—Second Reading of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, followed by motion to approve the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedules 4 and 5 and Transfer of Functions to the Scottish Ministers etc.) Order 2015.
I thank the Leader of the House for his announcement of next week’s business. I thank him, too, for his announcement earlier that he has asked the Clerk to draft the necessary motion to allow the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford),which repeals this Government’s catastrophic top-down reorganisation of the NHS, to proceed finally to Committee. Since this Parliament is rapidly running out of time, can he clarify when that is now likely to happen?
The Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) to ban wild animals in circuses is scheduled, yet again, to have its Second Reading debate at this time tomorrow, after Conservative Members have made every effort to talk it out. A ban has widespread support across the country, it was backed by the House in 2011 and no less a person than the Prime Minister promised to introduce it in this Parliament. Will the Leader of the House now allow the Prime Minister’s promise to be delivered by granting the Bill Government time?
On Monday we shall debate the remaining stages of the Infrastructure Bill. Last week I raised the last-minute tabling of 60 pages of badly drafted Government amendments relating to the electronic communications code and asked for more time to debate them, which the Leader of the House refused. Last night the farce continued as the Government dramatically withdrew all the amendments. Can the Leader of the House tell us what on earth is going on with this farrago of a Bill? Is this his definition of competence, or is it, once again, total chaos?
We welcomed yesterday’s top-line figures on jobs, but for millions of families up and down the country, there is a grim reality lurking beneath the headlines. More and more people are unable to obtain the hours they need at work in order to pay the bills. Real wages have fallen by record amounts, and 5 million people are being paid less than the living wage. That shortfall in wages is being made up by hundreds of millions of pounds of extra spending on tax credits. Will the Leader of the House accept that a low-wage economy is not just bad for hard-working people but bad for public finances, and will he arrange for an urgent debate, in Government time, on the low-wage economy that the Government parties have sustained?
As Mr Speaker noted yesterday, we shall be celebrating a number of important anniversaries this year, including, this week, the 750th anniversary of the de Montfort Parliament. Let me take this opportunity to thank the members of the Speakers’ Advisory Committee for the 2015 Anniversaries for all their hard work on Parliament in the Making. I particularly thank the House of Commons Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), and—obviously—Mr Speaker himself.
Mr Speaker was right yesterday when he said that we must remember our history, but, when we look back at the de Montfort Parliament, it seems there are some lessons that the Conservatives have failed to learn even after 750 years. If you destabilise your leader with defections, and if you keep arguing with Europe, you will be in for a bloody end before the year is out. Simon de Montfort was a rebel leader who held the King hostage and governed in his place—no wonder he is an inspiration to the many Conservative MPs who have similar ambitions.
The Prime Minister has been brushing up on his history this week, in order to avoid a repeat of his failure, on prime-time US television. to know what “Magna Carta” actually means, but I am afraid that he bestowed an even worse embarrassment on the nation by insisting that the President calls him “bro”. Yesterday he failed a test on the radio to establish whether he was as cool as President Obama. I think we could all have told him what the outcome of that would be—it was fairly obvious before he began—but he did say that he enjoyed a Nando’s. That is hardly surprising; we all know that the Prime Minister is very partial to chicken.
Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister proposed his own constitutional change this week. He has decided that he would like to scrap Prime Minister’s Questions. Apparently, they are just “not a good use of his time”, and he would rather be
“out of the Westminster bubble”.
The Deputy Prime Minister keeps fleeing Westminster, so I thought that I had better look at what he has been up to in his own constituency, and in doing so I came across a leaflet. Alongside the obligatory dodgy Liberal Democrat bar chart, this leaflet contains—strangely—two photographs of the leader of the Labour Party, and absolutely none of the local MP, who happens to be the Deputy Prime Minister. In fact, I cannot see any mention of him at all. Moreover—this is the oddest part yet—it claims that the leader of Labour Party
“wants you to vote Conservative”.
It should be pretty obvious by now that the person who has been voting Conservative for five years is actually the Deputy Prime Minister.
As usual, I thank the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) for her questions. She asked about several Bills. As I made clear earlier, during Question Time, we will table a motion to allow the appointment of members of a Committee to consider the private Member’s Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford). Of course, a Committee of Selection will need to meet in order to make those appointments, but the Committee will then be able to do its work.
On the Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, I certainly support that Bill and the Government do too, but it would be wrong for the Government to pick Bills out of the private Members’ Bill process and give them Government time. It would be an entirely different process if Governments did that, so the Bill will have to take its normal chances.
Last week the hon. Lady complained that amendments had been submitted on the communications code amendments, but now she is not happy that they are not going to be proceeded with. I think there is no pleasing her on this subject. Opposition Members asked me to provide additional time for the Infrastructure Bill so these amendments could be discussed, but it is a good job I did not provide the additional time because the Government do not now propose to add the amendments to the Bill. The Minister responsible in Committee, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), mentioned earlier that the Department had listened to some of the objections, so the Government need to consult further.
The hon. Lady mentioned the commemoration of anniversaries, which Mr Speaker informed us about yesterday. I was proud that one of the anniversaries he referred to was the 20th anniversary of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which I took through Parliament and which I regard as my main achievement in 26 years in Parliament—some may say it is my only achievement, but that is not how I see it. I am proud that that Act was mentioned and I join in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff) and Mr Speaker for the work they have done on the commemorations this year.
The hon. Lady talked about the lesson of 750 years of history being not to destabilise the leader. It might be awkward for Labour Members to embark on that subject, although in their case it is not so much destabilising the leader as that the leader has not stabilised himself in the first place or at any point in his time in office as Leader of the Opposition. The issue is not that the Prime Minister insists that President Obama calls him “bro”; it is that that the word the US Administration use most for the Leader of the Opposition is “who?” The hon. Lady might like to reflect on that instead.
The hon. Lady asked about an interview the Prime Minister gave in the United States, but I have noticed that the Opposition have had a disastrous week in terms of giving interviews. When interviewed by Andrew Neil on Sunday, Labour’s deputy leader was unable to answer questions on where £30 billion of savings were to be found by the Labour party, and the shadow Business Secretary walked out of the Sky News studio when asked questions by the interviewer on subjects he had not been briefed on. I can only say that if we all walked out of interviews when we were asked about things we did not know about in advance, there would not be much politics on television. The hon. Gentleman really needs to get a bit less sensitive. Most of us did not know we were allowed to walk out and have spent several decades valiantly trying to answer the questions, but the shadow Business Secretary has an entirely different approach.
We cannot be lectured on competence by a party that has had those experiences this week and that has now dropped 21 policies since new year’s day. It is now the 22nd day of the month, so that is one policy per day. The Labour party has still been unable to explain about “weaponising” the national health service, and the former Labour mayor of Doncaster has said of the Leader of the Opposition, whom he knows well:
“He is ignorant of the real values of ordinary working-class voters and holds his nose at their lifestyle.”
Also, the Labour party has still had “Freeze that bill” on its website for most of this week, so Labour headquarters is apparently unaware that the nation has moved on—that energy prices are falling, and that a “Freeze that bill” policy is precisely what people do not want when their energy prices are being reduced. Once again, we will not be taking lessons on competence from the Opposition.
The hon. Lady quoted President Obama, so I will finish by quoting him too. Last week he said:
“I would note that Great Britain and the United States are two economies that are standing out at a time when a lot of other countries are having problems, so we must be doing something right.”
The Iraq debate is scheduled for next Thursday. I welcome that debate as both Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq war and as a witness before the Chilcot inquiry. May I say that I share the deep frustrations felt in all parts of the House and across the country about the delays in the production of this report? I think we all acknowledge above all the anxieties and distress that the delays in publishing it are causing the families of those who lost their lives fighting for the United Kingdom in that theatre. Leaving aside for a moment the arguments about whether we could have appointed an inquiry earlier, which I do not think we could have done, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that, given that it was appointed in June 2009 and that the inquiry promised first that it would report by the end of 2010 and then by the end of 2011, there was a reasonable expectation from everyone that it would certainly have reported by the end of 2013? Will he confirm that witnesses, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair and me, had absolutely nothing whatever to do with declassification of sensitive material, and that, because the Maxwellisation process has only recently begun, witnesses have had nothing whatever to do with the delays that have taken place?
The right hon. Gentleman and I would differ on whether the inquiry could have been established earlier, but, leaving that aside, as he says, the House will of course be able to debate this in detail a week today thanks to the choice of the Backbench Business Committee, and I think many of these points are best explored then. It is of course an independent inquiry, as the whole House acknowledges, so Ministers do not have much knowledge of the detailed reasons for the delays in its proceedings. I think I can say we all had a reasonable expectation that it would have reported by now, and while I cannot, given its independence, confirm some of the things the right hon. Gentleman has just said, I certainly have not seen any indication that the behaviour of witnesses like himself has been delaying the inquiry.
Further to the welcome announcement in the Adjournment debate last night by my the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), can my right hon. Friend say when the Government will lay the regulations so that we can make progress with the standardised packaging of tobacco products?
My hon. Friend the Minister who is responsible for public health did make that announcement yesterday. I cannot say exactly when these regulations will be debated, but they will be laid in good time to be debated in both Houses before the general election. My hon. Friend is also talking to the devolved Administrations about consent for the measure to be UK-wide. Because of various EU processes, these regulations cannot be laid until after 2 March, so they will have to be dealt with in the final month of the Parliament.
Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Communities Secretary about making a decision on the Gateway project in Coventry? We were promised a decision this month, but we have not had it. Will the Leader of the House stop the Communities Secretary travelling to China and other places, so that he stands up and takes a decision for a change?
I shall certainly inform my right hon. Friend that the hon. Gentleman has raised this question, and he may be able to have a word with him himself because a week on Monday, on 2 February, there will be DCLG questions, when the hon. Gentleman may be able to catch the eye of the occupant of the Chair and raise this point.
Will my right hon. Friend see whether there is an opportunity to debate radiotherapy so that I can make a plea on behalf of my constituents for a radiotherapy unit in the Lister hospital in Stevenage, rather than their having to travel miles to Northwood in Middlesex for their treatment? The Lister is getting lots of investment, but this extra item would be very good news indeed.
My hon. and learned Friend has very successfully raised the matter on the Floor of the House by asking that question, and as always speaks up strongly for his constituents. There are regular opportunities to raise health matters on the Floor of the House, and I have no doubt he will continue to do so assiduously.
Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition made a speech at the Titanic Centre in Belfast. The Titanic is known for being a sinking ship. Given the flooding occurring in the Members’ Lobby, can the Leader of the House do anything to ensure that repairs are carried out soon?
Having been in the Chamber for a couple of hours now, I have not witnessed this flooding. Since the Leader of the Opposition is evidently an expert on sinking ships—in all sorts of ways—we could ask him to have a look at it. However, given that the former mayor of Doncaster has pointed out that the Leader of the Opposition is sometimes unable to close doors and burned through the carpet in his house, we will not ask him. We will make sure that the House authorities are dealing with the matter, and after business questions I will make inquiries about it.
This week’s welcome fall in the unemployment figures reminds all Government Members how successful the Chancellor’s long-term economic plan really is. That is no better evidenced than in Buckinghamshire, where more than 30,000 registered businesses contribute £14 billion to the economy, and new business start-ups are 30% above the national figure. Can the Leader of the House find time before Parliament dissolves before the general election to debate the unsung heroes—those organisations that often provide the link between public policy and businesses? One example is Buckinghamshire Business First, which has been particularly successful in creating a dynamic business environment and was recently officially invited by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to be the first non-city growth hub in the UK, because of the trends developing in our successful businesses in Buckinghamshire.
I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Buckinghamshire Business First—and congratulate her on the rare event of her question being focused on something other than HS2. I thought I would mention that, since she did not do so herself, very unusually. Buckinghamshire is, like other parts of the country, sharing in the success of the Government’s long-term economic plan. We have this week seen unemployment in this country fall below 6% for the first time in six years, and three quarters of the new jobs created since the election are full time. Wages are rising faster than inflation, which is part of the answer to the points about pay raised by the shadow Leader of the House, so I absolutely agree with what my right hon. Friend has said.
As we have waited all these years to discover the truth about why this House sent 179 brave British soldiers to their deaths in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction, is it not a matter of urgency, to avoid future blunders, that we look now at why we took the decision to go into Helmand province in 2006, in the hope that not a shot would be fired? Four hundred and fifty-three deaths occurred. Should we not start that inquiry as soon as possible?
That is really a question—about policy on a future inquiry—to direct to other members of the Government. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have instituted regular quarterly statements in Parliament on Afghanistan, which I often delivered in my time as Foreign Secretary, and which the Defence and International Development Secretaries have delivered. We have thus ensured that in this Parliament there has been greatly increased scrutiny of our policies on Afghanistan. Any decisions about inquiries on top of that have to be taken in the future.
Dairy farmers in Argyll and Bute produce a very high-quality product, but the falling price of milk is causing them and the entire British dairy industry serious problems. May we please have an urgent statement on what the Government can do to help this iconic British industry to survive? Extending the scope of the groceries code adjudicator to include dairy farmers is one action that could help.
My hon. Friend raises what is a very important issue in many parts of the country. I agree with what the Prime Minister said yesterday: legislation should be introduced to enable the groceries code adjudicator to impose a financial penalty. The Government are also considering the GCA’s remit, which is subject to a statutory review in March next year. We do understand the concerns of British dairy farmers about the current pressures on milk prices. The only good news is that, of course, exports have risen and we are giving dairy farmers the opportunity to unite in producer organisations, which in the longer term could give them greater clout in the marketplace.
The Public Accounts Committee has stated today that more than 100,000 young people aged between 16 and 18 have simply disappeared from all relevant public systems and records. Can we have an urgent debate in Government time on how these young people can be tracked and helped, and how we can ensure that we do not continue to have an ever-growing invisible generation?
This too is an important issue, and the hon. Lady might wish to make the case for a debate on it to the Backbench Business Committee. At the end of 2013, the last year for which we have figures, 89.6% of 16 and 17-year-olds were in education or work-based learning, including apprenticeships—an increase on the previous year and the highest rate since consistent records began in 1994. The Government plan to invest £7.2 billion this year to fund education and training places for 16 to 19-year-olds. So a huge amount is happening, but that does not mean the problem has been completely solved, and the hon. Lady may well wish to make the case for a debate.
I draw the attention of the House to early-day motion 705, which stands in my name.
[That this House notes that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair remains, in part, a public servant, but considers that his conduct since leaving Downing Street is in breach of the code of ethics established in 1994 to regulate public life which he himself, whilst in Parliament, enforced so vigorously against others; calls for an urgent debate into the former Prime Minister's commercial and business activities, leading to legislation that mirrors controls over the executive that exists in countries such as the US; further notes that such legislation would control, restrict and regulate a former incumbent of No. 10 Downing Street in the interest of national security and protecting the reputation of the UK among the UK's friends and allies, by limiting his or her ability to work for foreign nations once out of office; and finally believes that it is an essential function of Parliament to do its utmost to safeguard and protect the integrity and reputation of the UK, including the conduct of the holder of the highest executive office in the land.]
It calls for a debate on whether former Prime Ministers should be covered by the Nolan principles on standards in public life. As my right hon. Friend will be well aware, former Presidents of the United States are covered by a very strict code of conduct after they leave office, and introducing similar rules here would protect the reputation of the office of Prime Minister and of our country around the world.
My hon. Friend has successfully drawn attention to his early-day motion. There are of course rules that apply in this country to former Prime Ministers and Ministers for two years after leaving office regarding the need to seek approval for business appointments. After that, we rely very much on the good judgment of those former Prime Ministers and Ministers. That is the current situation, and we should look to them all to exercise that good judgment.
At the beginning of this Parliament, the Government signed up to 20 biodiversity targets. Most of those had to be completed by 2020, but three were due to be completed by 2015. One of the targets concerns coral reefs, and the right hon. Gentleman will know of the importance of the Pitcairn Islands in that regard from his days at the Foreign Office. May we have a statement on the Government’s policy on putting in place a marine protected area around the Pitcairn Islands to protect and restore those coral reefs?
The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue and I am certainly familiar from my work at the Foreign Office with the relevance to it of Pitcairn. Marine protected areas have been introduced in other seas around our overseas territories, including around the Chagos Islands; indeed, from memory, I introduced such an area around the South Sandwich Islands. So we have made a lot of progress on this issue, and it will be up to my hon. Friends at the Foreign Office to answer any questions on it or to make a statement, working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I will refer to them the hon. Gentleman’s question and request for an information update.
This is a very important issue, because local residents look to councils to use their funding wisely and responsibly, according to local needs. There certainly will be opportunities to raise this issue further in the House. As I mentioned earlier, DCLG questions will take place a week on Monday, when my hon. Friend will no doubt wish to pursue this important matter for her constituents.
I understand that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is about to order Birmingham to undertake “all out” local government elections in 2017, without any consultation with the elected councillors or Members of Parliament or indeed with any of the people of Birmingham themselves. May we have a debate on this matter? If not, will the Secretary of State provide a statement on it next week? If he will do neither of those things, may we at least have a meeting between the Birmingham MPs and the Secretary of State to discuss the implications of what might prove to be a rather rash decision?
I believe that this matter is still being discussed. As with other matters relating to DCLG that have been raised today, I will ensure that the Secretary of State is aware of the hon. Gentleman’s question. I reiterate that DCLG questions will be on 2 February—a week on Monday, which is not far away—when there will be an opportunity to raise the matter directly with Ministers.
In this year of anniversaries, may I draw to the Leader of the House’s attention the fact that today is the first anniversary of the European Scrutiny Committee’s request for a debate on European papers relating to the free movement of people? In the past couple of weeks, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe have all appeared before the Committee and told us that, although they have a particular love of parliamentary scrutiny, they cannot explain why the motion has not been brought forward. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend, as First Secretary of State and therefore senior in the hierarchy, might be able to bring this delay to an end, or are Her Majesty’s Government in fact celebrating this anniversary by a party enjoining upon itself the joys of evading parliamentary scrutiny?
This was an anniversary that Mr Speaker unaccountably omitted to mention yesterday. My hon. Friend has an acute sense of the seniority within the Government, which I appreciate. As he well knows, the European Scrutiny Committee has submitted a number of requests for debates on the Floor of the House and in Committee, and we are working to ensure that some of those requests are dealt with. I have also agreed to come to the Committee to discuss these matters.
Earlier this week, I tabled a question to the Prime Minister to ask about the work of his special representative on preventing sexual violence in conflict, particularly in relation to the changing situation in Sri Lanka. I have just had a letter from No. 10 telling me that my question has been transferred to the Foreign Office. I am not sure whether that means that the special representative, who is a truly admirable man, now reports to the Foreign Secretary. Will the Leader of the House advise me on what mechanisms are available to Members wishing to have a discussion with the special representative on his important work?
Generally, such questions will be referred to the Foreign Office, because the officials who work on this are in the PSVI—preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative—unit, which is part of the Foreign Office, and one of the Foreign Office Ministers has responsibility for this matter. It is also possible, however, to table questions directly to me, as Leader of the House, including at oral questions to the Leader of the House. This has happened in the past, although as we had just such a question session a couple of hours ago, the opportunity will not arise again for another few weeks. There are certainly opportunities, however, and I am happy to answer such questions in the course of business questions as well.
May we have a debate on the answering of parliamentary questions? I have here a handy 15-page internal guide from the Ministry of Justice entitled “Parliamentary questions guidance”. It gives a list of all the people that an answer must go through before it can be signed off. They include special advisers, the head of news, the deputy head of news, press officers and, as if that were not enough, “your designated press officer”. Surely a parliamentary question should simply be responded to with a factual answer. Why does it need to go through so many spin doctors? I have no idea how many of the other Departments run this kind of operation. May we have a debate on this, or a statement from the Ministry of Justice on why it goes through this rigmarole? It is no wonder that it gets so far behind in answering our questions. If the Leader of the House will not grant us such a debate, will he intervene to stop parliamentary answers being subjected to this kind of spin?
The fact that the answers go through so many wise people before they get to my hon. Friend probably explains why they are so good. The important thing is that they should go quickly, in a timely way, through whomever they need to go through. By the end of my time as Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Office had a 100% record of answering questions on time. That simply requires all the officials who need to examine these things to do so speedily, and I encourage other Departments to do the same.
We are now in the second major dairy crisis in three years, and the viability of small and medium-sized dairy farms is threatened. The call is going out loud and clear here and outside this place for the solution to include a review and reform of the powers and remit of the groceries code adjudicator. On 25 April 2013, Royal Assent was given to the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, under the terms of which a statutory instrument was to be laid to give the adjudicator the teeth to impose financial penalties. We are still waiting for that SI. Where is it? Will it be laid before Parliament dissolves?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue about which, as we have noted, there are strong feelings across the House and among all parties. I have mentioned—as did the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions—that we agree that the legislation to introduce financial penalties should be brought forward, so I will keep the House up to date on that. Urgent work is going on in that regard. I also mentioned earlier that the Government were considering the remit of the groceries code adjudicator, so I hope that there will be further developments before the Dissolution of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend will be fully aware of the campaign surrounding the children’s heart unit in Leeds. I welcome the new review and I am confident that the unit can meet the new standards, but the fact that disproportionate funding has been allocated to other regions in the past might need to be addressed in order to create a level playing field. Also, there is no mention of patient access in the standards, yet they formed an important part of the independent reconfiguration panel’s report. May we have a debate on these questions to ensure that they are properly addressed and that we get this absolutely right this time?
I am well aware of the campaign. No decisions have yet been made about how the services will be provided, but I believe that NHS England’s consultation on new standards and service specifications ended on 8 December. I understand that NHS England is now reviewing all the responses that it received and considering what changes might be needed. It expects to begin commissioning services against the new specifications during 2015-16, with a view to their coming into effect in April 2016. We debate health matters regularly on the Floor of the House, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, who speaks up well for his constituents on these issues, will be able to pursue this matter further in those debates.
May we have a debate on the issuing of national insurance numbers? This is an important matter for young people; it is a sign of their coming of age and it is important for those who might want to start a part-time job, for example. Those 16-year-olds in my constituency whose parents have opted out of child benefit do not automatically receive a national insurance number, and have to jump over various bureaucratic hurdles with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in order to get one. Traditionally, the process was based on the child benefit list and provided national insurance numbers automatically.
This sounds like an important issue that needs to be pursued. The most immediate opportunity to do that will be at questions to the Chancellor and Treasury Ministers next Tuesday, 27 January, in the House. The hon. Gentleman could also make a case for an Adjournment debate or a Back-Bench Business debate on the matter.
May we have a debate on the discrepancy between the time limits on tax refunds and refunds of overpaid benefits? The constituent who had to take early retirement from teaching, through no desire of her own, found that she had been overpaid incapacity benefit for a number of years, on all of which she paid income tax. She returned the overpaid benefits in full, but was only refunded the tax she paid for the statutory four years, and thereby lost several thousand pounds, which she could ill afford, to the Exchequer.
It is right in principle that, where overpayments of benefits have occurred, it is the policy to recover them to prevent loss to the public purse. I am not able to comment immediately on that individual case, which does seem to be complicated by the issue that my hon. Friend raises. But I will ask my ministerial colleagues to write to him in response to the concerns that he has raised.
Given that Responsible Gambling Trust research into fixed- odds betting terminals showed that four out of five gamblers staking the average £13 spin exhibited problem gambling characteristics, can we have a debate on the Floor of the House to discuss whether the Government’s proposals will have any impact whatever?
Again, that is an important matter. There will be other Members concerned about that as well. I cannot offer a debate in Government time between now and the Dissolution of Parliament, but, as I have said to one or two other Members, my hon. Friend may wish to pursue the matter through an Adjournment debate or a Back-Bench business debate as well as having raised it here today.
Yesterday, the mayor of north-east Lincolnshire, who is also the council’s armed forces champion, and I met the veterans Minister to discuss the military covenant. The mayor and council take their responsibilities under the covenant particularly seriously. One unique thing they do is to allocate housing to veterans. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the military covenant and on how local authorities up and down the country deal with it?
It would be good to have such a debate. I am not sure whether there will be time for it in the remainder of this Parliament, but it would allow us to reiterate that the covenant is a very important priority for this Government, and I know that it is strongly supported by my hon. Friend. We have committed £105 million over the past four years to support its aims. He is right that councils have an important role to play in supporting the covenant. The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has now written personally to every chief executive and every leader of every council to encourage all councils to rise to the standards of the best on this issue, and we strongly encourage them to do so.
May we have a debate on how communities can take advantage of major sporting events? The Leader of the House will be aware that the rugby world cup is being held this year. Does he agree that, with the support that Rugby borough council is providing, there is a great opportunity for my constituency to benefit as rugby enthusiasts from around the world will be attracted to the birthplace of the games and will spend their money in our shops, restaurants and hotels?
It is a great birthplace. I am sure that the whole country will be delighted that the rugby world cup will return to us in September and October. My hon. Friend’s constituency, with its unique link to the tournament as the birthplace of the sport, will have an excellent opportunity to benefit, especially as it has been given host status. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to champion the town of Rugby where visitors to the world cup will be able to discover more about the place and where it all began way back in 1823 when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran. The rugby world cup will have a huge positive impact on this country.
May we have a debate on equine welfare? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is talking about a horse welfare crisis in England, with more than 900 horses being abandoned in 2014 and 3,000 being illegally grazed? Will the Government consider what the Welsh Assembly Government have done, which is to introduce better traceability and enforcement through the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014, or similar legislation?
My hon. Friend raises an important question. Earlier, we discussed private Members’ Bills in this Session, so he will be aware that one very positive private Member’s Bill that is making progress and has recently completed its stages in this House before going on to the other place is the Control of Horses Bill. Other issues concerning equine policies can be raised next Thursday at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions at which my hon. Friend will also be able to pursue his question.
Harrow’s Labour-run council is currently consulting on closing four community libraries, including the Bob Lawrence library, which is a popular community hub. That library is attracting a great deal of attention and a strong campaign from local residents, which I have been assisting. More than 5,000 residents have already signed a petition opposing the closure. May we have a debate in Government time on the importance of libraries as community hubs and the importance of local authorities honouring their statutory duties to provide such facilities?
My hon. Friend speaks up well for his constituents on this and all other issues. He is right that there is a statutory duty. Legally, local authorities have to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. It is for them to decide how to do that. The decision by Harrow council on this is anticipated at the council cabinet meeting in February. I know that my hon. Friend will continue to speak strongly for the views of his constituents. I cannot offer a debate on local authorities on this subject, but he has made his point very well today.
I bring further good news from Kettering. The Leader of the House might be aware that, in May 2012, there were 2,042 unemployed claimants in Kettering. Yesterday, it was announced that that number has fallen to exactly 1,000. Given that many of my constituents were very alarmed by claims from Her Majesty’s Opposition that unemployment would climb by more than 1 million because of the policies of this Government, can we have a debate in Government time on unemployment in which the halving of unemployment in Kettering could be highlighted?
My hon. Friend brings a steady stream of good news from Kettering as the weeks go by, and he is absolutely right to do so, because it represents the tremendous economic progress that is being made in this country. The previous Labour Government left nearly half a million more people without a job. The Leader of the Opposition predicted that our economic plan would lead to the disappearance of 1 million jobs. There are now more than 1.75 million more people in work than there were in May 2010, and I am pleased that Kettering is sharing to the full in the benefit of that.
May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on the call for a debate on the continued fall in unemployment? Not only can we highlight the successes in Kettering, but it will give Government Members the opportunity to nail the myth that the new jobs being created are all part-time, low-paid and zero-hours contracts when the reality is that three out of four jobs are full-time and three out of four are in either the managerial or professional sectors.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it is indeed the case that three quarters of new jobs created since the last general election are full-time. It is also the case that, as we saw in the figures released this week, wages are rising faster than inflation. These myths are steadily being punctured. My hon. Friends the Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) have asked about having a debate. We will of course be able to debate such things extensively when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer presents his Budget on 18 March. That may be a very important time to debate these things.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaign against sexual violence in conflict. I am sure that, like me, he will have been disturbed by the reports emerging from Iraq and Syria of sexual violence, sexual slavery and rape by ISIL and other groups operating in the region. Will he consider a debate in Government time, before the end of this Parliament, and give us his assurance that he and others will continue to campaign on this issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and would love to have a debate on these issues, although I cannot promise one at the moment. I strongly support what he says about ISIL’s appalling use of rape as a weapon of war and the summit we held last year was a major success, bringing together more than 120 countries and producing new plans to address sexual violence in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and throughout the African Union. We launched the first international protocol and that summit came in under budget at £5.2 million. That was money well spent and countries were brought here for a good reason, given the opportunity we have to try to prevent these appalling crimes.
It is now almost five years since the brutal murder of three of my constituents, Mohammed Yousaf, Pervez Yousaf and Tania Yousaf, who were killed in Pakistan on 20 May 2010. I led a debate in this Chamber on the murders in October 2010 and have kept up pressure ever since, even getting the Prime Minister involved in the case in 2012, yet the family still do not have justice. May we have a debate on this horrific case and what further pressure we can bring to bear on the Pakistani authorities?
These murders were a terrible tragedy and the thoughts of the House will be with the family whose grief over the past five years can only have been exacerbated by the fact that they have not had justice. I understand that a trial is going on following the arrest of two suspects who are now on bail while three other suspects have been declared as absconding. I will ensure through my hon. Friends at the Foreign Office that consular officials follow up with the family and that high commission staff in Islamabad again press the Pakistani authorities to ensure that progress is made as quickly as possible, making clear the strong interest of the British Government in this case.