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Business of the House

Volume 592: debated on Thursday 12 February 2015

The business, not for next week but for the week commencing 23 February—[Interruption]—yes, the next parliamentary week—will be as follows:

Monday 23 February—Remaining stages of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords]. I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.

Tuesday 24 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Pension Schemes Bill, followed by consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the House of Commons Commission Bill, followed by motions relating to Procedure Committee reports on business in Westminster Hall, Queen’s and Prince Of Wales’s consent and e-petitions, followed by a general debate on mental health and unemployment. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 25 February—Opposition day (18th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 26 February—Statement on the publication of the fourth report from the Culture, Media And Sport Committee on the future of the BBC, followed by debate on a motion relating to Equitable Life, followed by a general debate on epilepsy. The Select Committee statement and subjects for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 27 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 March will include:

Monday 2 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on Devolution in England: The Case for Local Government, followed by a debate on the next Defence and Security Review Part Two: NATO. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Devolution in England: The Case for Local Government, 1st Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, HC 503, and the Government response; Towards the next Defence and Security Review Part Two: NATO, 3rd Report from the Defence Committee, HC 358, and the Government response, HC 755.]

Tuesday 3 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, followed by a debate on children’s and adolescents’ mental health and child and adolescent mental health services. Further details will be given in the Official Report. At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

[The details are as follows: Support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system, 4th Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, HC 720 of Session 2013-14; Children’s and adolescents’ mental health and CAMHS, 3rd Report from the Health Committee, HC 342, and the Government response.]

Wednesday 4 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations And Adjustments) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, followed by an Opposition day (unallotted half-day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 March— Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 6 March—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of February and for 2 March will be:

Monday 23 February—General debate on an e-petition relating to ending non-stun slaughter to promote animal welfare.

Thursday 26 February—General debate on low-carbon electricity generation.

Monday 2 March—General debate on an e-petition relating to Harvey’s law.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the post-recess business.

On Tuesday, the Standards Committee published a review of the standards system in the Commons, led by the lay members. We need radical action to restore trust in our political system, so I thank the Committee for the report, which contains some sensible recommendations. Will the Leader of the House set out how he intends to take the report forward, and will he tell me if he will act on my suggestion and remove the Government majority on the Committee to address concerns about the Government protecting their own?

Yesterday’s report from Sir Robert Francis revealed that nearly a quarter of NHS staff have experienced bullying or harassment—a problem that is all too prevalent in other workplaces across the country too. Given that the Government were quick to welcome the Francis report but have made it their mission to make people pay to access employment rights and protection from bullying and arbitrary treatment everywhere else, may we have a debate on the protection that Britain’s workers deserve against bullying at work? May we especially have a debate about the 60% fall in employment tribunal cases since the Government introduced steep payments for access to justice in the workplace?

Yesterday we learned that a string of Tory donors banked with the Swiss arm of HSBC, which has been caught red-handed facilitating tax abuse. Since the Prime Minister became leader of his party, those donors have given him £5 million and HSBC’s chairman, Lord Green, was appointed a Minister in the Government after the scandal was public knowledge, with no questions asked about his oversight of this rogue bank. Does that not say everything about this Government?

On the Government’s own estimate, uncollected taxes rose by a massive £34 billion last year. Their sweetheart Swiss tax deal is full of holes and has brought in less than a third of what they promised, and they have cut taxes for millionaires and hedge funds, which have given them £47 million since the Prime Minister became leader.

With the election looming, our shameless Prime Minister travelled to the British Chambers of Commerce to steal a TUC slogan and suddenly declare that “Britain needs a pay rise”. Yet this is the first Government since 1874 who have left people worse off at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning. While he was there, he even decided to channel Lord Kinnock, but I would have used a different speech: “I’ll tell you what happens with impossible Tory pre-election promises. They’re pickled into a rigid soundbite, a code, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Tory Government—a Tory Government!—hiring chauffeur-driven limos to scuttle round Davos handing out huge tax breaks to its own donors.”

The Prime Minister has reportedly told the Cabinet that he is fed up of this zombie Government and that he wants Ministers to get back to work. Most appear to have responded by suddenly dumping hundreds of statutory instruments on the Order Paper, but the invisible man—the Tory Chief Whip—has responded in his own unique style. On a day when he failed to show up in Parliament—the day before Parliament adjourned five hours early—he gave a speech on the “myth” of the zombie Parliament. His key evidence was an increase in urgent questions under this Government. But, Mr Speaker, you grant urgent questions and you grant them when the Government are avoiding scrutiny.

I read this morning that the Chief Whip has literally been back-seat driving, but not at the Department for Education: he has been taking vanity trips in his Jaguar to travel the 400 yards between Parliament and No. 10. He drove teachers round the bend, he has put this place on the road to nowhere, and his Government hold the record for the most U-turns. He certainly will not be allowed anywhere near our magenta battle bus.

On Monday night, the Conservative black and white ball raised millions of pounds and gave a whole new meaning to the term “by-election”. According to the Daily Mail, the Prime Minister partied with the kings and queens of sleaze, including a porn baron, the owner of a strip club and the boss of Ann Summers. Perhaps they should have changed their theme to black, white and a little blue. This year, in a doomed bid to limit the PR disaster, they banned ostentatious displays of tuxedos and champagne, but they did still auction a 500-bird pheasant and partridge shoot for tens of thousands of pounds; a bronze statue of Margaret Thatcher for £210,000; and, hilariously, a holiday in Cobblers Cove.

I have been inspecting the auction lots and if I had more money than sense I could have bought shoe shopping with the Home Secretary or a personalised cartoon from the Leader of the House’s private collection, where he is depicted as a “bionic babe”. Perhaps he could tell us what that went for. I could also have paid to take on the welfare Secretary in an endurance race across hills, woods, streams, hedges and hay bales. Surely I would be certain of winning that one, because, judging by his welfare reforms, that man has no hope of finishing anything.

I gather that the Liberal Democrats are organising their own fundraiser, too: instead of an auction, they are going to sell off their principles to the highest bidder.

I am always grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions. She asked about the Standards Committee report. The decision on it is primarily one for the House itself, but the Government strongly support the need for the highest standards in public life. We welcome the report, which follows the inquiry chaired by one of the independent, lay members of the Standards Committee. There are now two reports from the Standards Committee that we need to consider and debate. We will seek an opportunity in due course to provide time to debate this report, and we will then set out the Government’s view on how the Committee’s conclusions can be taken forward.

The hon. Lady raised a variety of other matters, including that the Chief Whip has the use of a car. She has seen that, as we all have, in the newspapers this morning. I think one newspaper report referred to the Chief Whip as a former Minister or ex-Minister, which shows a certain limited understanding on the part of the journalists about the role of the Chief Whip in the British Government. He is most certainly a Minister, and he remains entitled to the use of a car.

The hon. Lady said that the House rose five hours early the other night, but there was a time when Oppositions used to debate the benefits uprating order, the pneumoconiosis compensation regulations, the mesothelioma payments regulations or the guaranteed minimum pensions increase order. They were all before the House on Monday, and the Opposition chose barely to debate them. That is why the House rose five hours early.

The hon. Lady asked about the cartoon of me as the “bionic babe”. I do not know how much it went for, but since it is 38 years old, I had a lot more hair in the cartoon than I can display in the House today, so it is certainly a collectors’ item.

The hon. Lady said that the Conservative party received £5 million from certain donors, but she neglected to mention that since the Leader of the Opposition was elected, the Labour party has received £35 million from trade unions. Of the Labour candidates selected since then, 60% have union links and half of them are from Unite. There is only one party in this country in which policies are purchased, and that is the Labour party. There is no doubt about that.

On tax avoidance, under the rules left by Labour, thousands of the richest home buyers did not pay stamp duty—they now do; foreigners did not pay any capital gains tax—they now do; and private equity managers paid lower tax rates than their cleaners—we have got rid of that. The previous Government left behind a terrible mess of tax loopholes that this Government have now closed.

With the addition of the £100 billion in extra revenue as a result of action on tax avoidance and evasion, not only are the Government finances stronger, but it has been another good week for the British economy, which Labour Members do not like to raise and about which they do not like to ask for debates. There was strong manufacturing growth in January, there is an increased growth forecast from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just announced £5 billion of road and rail investment for the midlands. The hon. Lady criticised the Prime Minister for going to the British Chambers of Commerce conference, but it is no wonder that the Leader of the Opposition hid in his office while the conference took place just a few hundred yards away. They would have to hide him from 60 million people to have a real hope of winning the general election in May.

The hon. Lady knows the confidence I have in her. I call for her to have more control over her colleagues. She would not have offended the country’s nuns on television a week ago. If she had been in charge of the biggest campaign on women’s issues ever launched by the Labour party, she would not have led it from a 17-seater minibus. In the week of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, it is 50 shades of pink embarrassment for Labour Members.

With other colleagues, my right hon. Friend rightly criticised the delay before the setting up of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war. Is he not perturbed that there is now a similar delay by our own Government in considering the lessons from the war in Afghanistan? I initiated a short debate yesterday, in which the Minister for the Armed Forces lamentably failed to answer any of the questions. We will have a strategic defence and security review this autumn. I urge my right hon. Friend to get a grip of the Government so that the Ministry of Defence and other Departments can begin a study on this important subject now.

My hon. Friend initiated an important debate. He is experienced in military matters, and I assure him that in all the Government’s deliberations, including weekly deliberations in the National Security Council, we are learning the lessons of what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is possible to see the benefits of learning those lessons in the way we have worked in Somalia in recent years, for example, with a different model of intervention. However, it will be vital over the coming months to continue to learn lessons, and I will convey the importance of what my hon. Friend has said to my ministerial colleagues.

Does the Leader of the House recall a fabulous part of England called Yorkshire? It lies between, and is worried about, the increasing power and wealth of London and the south, and the growing power and independence of Scotland, since Yorkshire has very little of any of that. Does he welcome the manifesto for Yorkshire by the all-party group on Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, “Devolution for Prosperity”, and is it about time we had a debate on Yorkshire and its ability to speak with one voice and have accountable government?

I have just announced an estimates day debate on devolution in England and the case for local government, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be able to make his case in that debate. As a proud Yorkshireman, it has always been my view that we do not aspire to govern Yorkshire—we aspire to govern the world, and it is important that we retain that global role in Yorkshire’s involvement in world politics.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the criteria for the creation of cities? Given that he once made a memorable visit to Southend, does he agree that it is absolutely ridiculous that the place is not already a city, especially since it is generally regarded as the finest seaside resort in the country, if not the world?

I did indeed make a memorable visit to Southend—it was so memorable that I actually remember it and will never forget it. I am a big fan of Southend, and it will never have a greater champion than my hon. Friend. As he knows, city status is a civic honour occasionally granted by the monarch to mark certain royal anniversaries. I recall that Southend submitted an enthusiastic and strong application at the diamond jubilee. That was not successful, but Southend did succeed in securing a significant city deal that will provide it with further investment. There are no plans at the moment for a new competition on city status, but I am sure Southend will have another opportunity to bid for it in the future.

Thanks to the Backbench Business Committee there will be the first full-scale debate on Yemen on 24 February. The Leader of the House will recall his pivotal role in ensuring that Yemen remains on the path to democracy, including a memorable visit to Sana’a to meet the President. He will also know that the American and French embassies, and yesterday the British embassy, have been evacuated. May we have a quarterly statement on the situation in Yemen and the Gulf, as we do on Afghanistan, because that country plays an important role in our national security?

The right hon. Gentleman is assiduous in pursuing matters relating to Yemen, and as he says, as Foreign Secretary I was heavily involved in events there and visited that country. We have temporarily suspended embassy operations in Sana’a, and withdrawn diplomatic staff until the security situation becomes clearer—as the House will appreciate, that is a consequence of recent events. It is good that the Backbench Business Committee has chosen that topic, and important that my Foreign Office colleagues keep the House up to date on Yemen and developments throughout the Gulf. I will tell them of the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and remind them of the need to have regular updates in the House.

We had a rather unedifying debate in this House on tax evasion, but there has also been enormous public concern about the issue. May we have a debate on the role of audit? Large accountancy firms are being paid enormous amounts of money for external audit, yet they do not seem to notice what is happening in the banks and they do not seem to notice the tax arrangements of their corporate customers. I wonder whether they are actually fulfilling their statutory duties in terms of regularity. Should the House not ask the accountancy companies exactly what they are doing for that money?

My hon. Friend makes his point very powerfully. A good case can be made for a debate. After today, we have only 22 sitting days before Dissolution, so I am not in a position freely to distribute debates on various topics, but he is able to pursue this matter at various question times and through the Backbench Business Committee.

May we have an urgent debate on Burma? I understand there is no time for constitutional reform before the Burmese elections, but in a written answer I was told that the British Government are giving money to the Burmese army, some members of which were responsible for raping and killing two teachers in Kachin state. Will the Leader of the House look into this matter?

These are very important issues. Under the auspices of the preventing sexual violence initiative, which I continue to work on, we have worked hard to bring Burma into the initiative by getting the Burmese Government to sign up to its principles. That is partly so that the world will be able to expect a better performance and behaviour from the Burmese army. It is always difficult to make decisions about whether to give training to an army where crimes have been committed or alleged, but part of the argument for that training is to ensure that such crimes are not committed in future. That is why such decisions have been made in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. FCO questions are on 3 March. The hon. Lady may be able to pursue this matter further then.

The number of injuries and fatalities in the agriculture and farming sector is still too high: there were 27 deaths last year, including in Shropshire. May we have a debate on how the National Farmers Union, the Health and Safety Executive and the industry as a whole, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can work better together to ensure a reduction in fatalities and injuries?

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. The Health and Safety Executive is working with the industry to try to reduce the number of accidents across agriculture. It delivers an annual programme of safety and health awareness days targeted at small and medium-sized farms, and it works at the European level on improvements to the design and maintenance of agricultural machinery. This is an important issue and there are still too many deaths and injuries in agriculture. A debate would allow us to consider what else could be done. There is a good case for such a debate.

Will the Leader of the House consider a debate on the funding of political parties, or perhaps he will explain why he believes that 10,000 individuals giving £10 each to a political party is an affront to democracy, but a single donor giving £100,000 to a political party—the right hon. Gentleman’s party—to shoot 500 pheasants is an exercise of civic responsibility?

We have had many debates on party political funding over the years. They have often generated a great deal more heat than light from all sides. We are all able to make our points in such debates and I remind the hon. Gentleman that 69% of all Labour’s donations under its current leader have come from trade unions. In any debate, that is a point we on this side of the House will certainly want to make.

May I join my right hon. Friend in aspiring for Yorkshire to govern the world? Does he accept that we are slightly handicapped by not necessarily having a good mobile signal in the hills, and that in some cases, in his area and mine, just under 20% will still not have broadband? Given the short window for applying for basic farm payments, will he join me in applying for a debate in this Parliament on superfast broadband for north Yorkshire?

North Yorkshire has led the way on superfast broadband in rural areas, which is a great credit to local councillors and others who have worked on that. However, as my hon. Friend rightly says, there are areas where it remains difficult to provide and where mobile phone coverage is not good. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is doing fantastic work on addressing the lack of mobile coverage in parts of this country. It is DCMS Question Time on the first Thursday back after next week’s recess, on 26 February, so she might wish to pursue the matter then.

The Leader of the House will have seen the tragic news this week that another 300 migrants have died in the Mediterranean trying to get from Libya to Lampedusa, while only 105 were saved by the intervention of Mare Nostrum on behalf of the Italian navy. At one level, it is easy—and correct—to blame the people traffickers for forcing on to boats people who later die. However, thousands have died in the Mediterranean fleeing war, poverty and oppression from all over the middle east and north Africa. Will the Prime Minister raise this issue at the European Council? Mare Nostrum was trying to save people, but the EU has responded by withdrawing it and instead putting in place a frontier force whose purpose is to keep people out, rather than save lives. Can we, first, raise the question of the source of this migration—the poverty, desperation and oppression—and, secondly, reinstate the principle of saving people at sea, rather than waiting for them to drown and wringing our hands? Vincent Cochetel, from the UNHCR, said Europe had done “too little, too late”. Can we now put that right and act?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. The whole House will be conscious of these heartbreaking reports and the extensive loss of life not only on this occasion but on many other occasions in the Mediterranean. The Prime Minister is going today to the European Council and, as I said in the business statement, he will make a statement a week on Monday, on the House’s first day back, so the hon. Gentleman might wish to pursue the matter directly with the Prime Minister. This immense problem is the reason we have done so much work on trying to stabilise north Africa. We have not yet been successful in many parts of north Africa, but that is why this is such a focus of our policy. The EU has decided on its approach to migrant boats at sea. However, this is a very legitimate issue, and he can continue to raise it on the Floor of the House.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a short debate on the UK biopharmaceutical industry, particularly its dependence on the border inspection post at London Heathrow? My constituent Jenny Murray, of Antibody Production Services in Wilden, has raised with me the impact of the proposed imminent closure of the private facility at the airport. I would be grateful for the opportunity to raise the wider issues facing very large pharmaceutical companies as well as the smaller niche companies that, in my constituency, demonstrate a diverse and rural economy under this Government.

Given the impending end of the Parliament, there might not be time for such a debate, but my right hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government appreciate the importance that the biopharmaceutical industry attaches to the maintenance of inspection facilities for animal products at Heathrow airport. I understand that discussions are taking place between various interested parties, and the Government will follow developments closely and provide any advice needed to assist the possible development of other animal product inspection centres at the airport. I will also ensure that my colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are aware of his remarks.

Yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, in answer to a question about the learning tax on sixth-form colleges, the Prime Minister appeared to say he would take the matter away and have a look at it. May we have a statement on fair funding for 16 to 18-year-olds, whatever institution they are in?

I cannot add so quickly to what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions, but the hon. Gentleman continues to raise the issue assiduously, and I will certainly remind my colleagues in the Department for Education that he has raised it again.

The Government are to be congratulated on initiating the independent feasibility study into the resettlement of those in the British Indian Ocean Territory. As my right hon. Friend will know, the report was published earlier this week. May we have a debate on the resettlement of the Chagos islanders on the Floor of the House at the earliest possible moment and in Government time?

My hon. Friend always speaks up for the concerns of the Chagos islanders. This is an important report, a feasibility study that I initiated when I was Foreign Secretary, and, as he says, it has now been published. I know that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire), plans to meet my hon. Friend and other members of the Chagos all-party parliamentary group on 23 February to listen to their views ahead of any Government decision. I cannot offer a debate at the moment, but that meeting might lead to a decision on how to take things forward in Parliament.

First, to correct a point from a few minutes ago, it is of course Cleethorpes that is the country’s premier seaside resort. I do not know whether the Leader of the House noticed my ten-minute rule Bill, proposed on 13 January, which suggested that greater fairness be brought into the planning process by allowing objectors to be able in certain circumstances to appeal to the planning inspectorate. Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this matter, so that we can hear the Government’s position?

Having been nice about Southend, I am able to speak up for Cleethorpes as well. I visited and enjoyed the beach at Cleethorpes as a child, so I can absolutely recommend this resort as well. Other hon. Members will agree with what my hon. Friend says about the ability to appeal to the planning inspectorate, but that is a matter that would, of course, have to be pursued with the Department for Communities and Local Government. As with so many other subjects, I cannot promise a debate before the Dissolution at the end of the next month, but my hon. Friend will be able to pursue his desire for a debate through all the normal channels of Adjournment and Backbench Business Committee debates during the remaining weeks of the Parliament.

May we have a debate on the fragmentation of the NHS at local trusts, where the silo mentality is impacting negatively on patients, as shown in the appalling and disgraceful case of what is happening in the Haven in my constituency? The Haven is a success story being destroyed by NHS mandarins, so may we have a debate on the reality of local NHS silo decision making rather than the adoption of a “one NHS” approach?

This is, of course, an important subject, but we have had many debates on the NHS and statements by the Health Secretary in recent weeks. I have no doubt there will be more, and that my hon. Friend will be able to pursue these issues. We are very much trying to get away from any silo decision making. The NHS will transfer £3.2 billion to social care services over this Parliament, and my hon. Friend will know that, importantly, we are introducing from April a £5.3 billion pooled budget for health and social care—something that the Opposition have not wanted to introduce. We are bringing in this better care fund, and I hope it will lead to major improvements to meet my hon. Friend’s concerns.

The need for better transport in my Kingswood constituency is a serious concern that needs to be addressed if we are to prevent local roads into Bristol, already inadequate through getting jammed up, from getting worse. We also need a M4 link to the Avon ring road, on which I continue to campaign, and a better bus network because many of my constituents are struggling to get across from Kingswood to Southmead. Can time be found for a debate on transport in the Bristol region, so that all local MPs can discuss the need to improve our local areas’ road, rail and bus networks?

My hon. Friend will be aware that under this Government we are seeing major investment in the road and rail network. A programme of investment for the coming five years adds up to about £56 billion, which is benefiting all parts of the country. My hon. Friend will be able to pursue with Ministers at the Department for Transport the specific needs of the Bristol area, for which he always speaks up so well. It is open to him to pursue such debates through all the normal means.

The police treatment centre in my constituency is a fantastic charity that works with ill and injured police officers to help them to return to work It recently received about £500,000 from LIBOR fines, which it is using to create a new outdoor exercise area and generally refurbish its facilities. Would it be possible for a statement to be made giving details of where all those fines have been used, so that we can see which good causes are benefiting throughout the country?

That is not a bad idea. The latest allocation from the LIBOR fund, of £35 million, adds to the money we have already given to military good causes benefiting armed forces personnel and their families, and veterans, and to many other good causes. The police treatment centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency is another good example. This week I announced the creation, with a £1 million donation from the LIBOR fund, of our first academic centre on women, peace and security at the London School of Economics—something a bit more substantial than a pink bus going around the country—and we will continue to use LIBOR money to benefit such excellent causes.

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on aid to India? On 9 November 2012, The Guardian was one of many newspapers to report that

“The government will stop all financial aid to India by 2015”.

It now seems that the Government are stopping aid to the Indian Government, but are continuing to supply other aid to India. Given that India has its own space programme and is spending $35 billion a year on defence alone, surely we should be telling the country that it is responsible for looking after its own people, rather than saying “Keep on spending all this money on building up your military arsenal while we look after the people for whom you should be responsible.” I believe that most of my constituents thought it was right to end aid to India, and will be horrified to discover that that is no longer the case.

There has been a big change under this Government. On coming to office, we found that some British aid was going to Russia and China, for instance, but DFID has stopped those programmes. What the Secretary of State for International Development announced in 2012 was that all financial aid grants from the United Kingdom to India would cease in 2015, after which DFID would provide support only in the form of private sector expertise and technical assistance, and that is exactly what is happening. The financial aid grants to India will end this year, and any new projects will be supported by development capital investment and technical assistance. No doubt DFID will be able to expand on exactly what that involves for the benefit of my hon. Friend.

As you know, Mr Speaker, Question Time is one of the most important times in the week for Oppositions, because it enables them to scrutinise Ministers of the Crown. However, some very bizarre things are now happening. All the questions in the second half of business questions today have come from Government Members, but over the last few weeks something has been happening to the most important Question Time of the week, Prime Minister’s Question Time. After the Leader of the Opposition has given his views and been beaten up by the Prime Minister, swathes of Labour Members disappear. Yesterday a third of the seats were empty, while poor Conservative Members were having to stand. Just to prove that the Chief Whip is a Minister, will he make a statement giving dispensation to Conservative Members so that they can fill the empty seats to make it look as though there is an Opposition?

That is a characteristically creative idea from my hon. Friend, although I think that the spectacle of Conservative Members crossing to the other side of the House might have its disadvantages. He is right to draw attention to the vast expanse of space that exists on the Opposition Benches today—as it has during many debates—and develops quite rapidly during Prime Minister’s Question Time. It makes one wonder whether there is some zombie meeting place where they have all gone to have lunch, and whether they have to get there before the end of Prime Minister’s Question Time.

I bring good news from Kettering, where Mr Graham Parr and his wife Karen are celebrating the fifth year of successful trading of their business, Bright Sparks. Over the last five years, they have increased their turnover threefold and increased their customer base 10 times. They are now looking to appoint their first apprentice. Can we have a statement from a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Minister about the importance of small, family-run businesses such as Bright Sparks not only in generating the wealth that this country enjoys and can then spend to improve public services, but as an engine of growth to provide more jobs for our young people?

As ever, my hon. Friend brings good news from Kettering. That is not only good for Kettering but representative of what is happening in many parts of this country. Since 2010, there have been 760,000 additional businesses in the UK and the great majority are small, entrepreneurial businesses. Since 2010, 2.1 million apprenticeships have started in the UK, and many of those apprentices are working with small businesses. That is why it is so important to continue to have policies that promote business and employment, rather than the deep hostility to business that we see on the Labour Benches.