The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 9 March—Remaining stages of the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords], followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2015, followed by general debate on the forthcoming nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 10 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Deregulation Bill, followed by motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to subsidiarity and proportionality and the Commission’s relations with national Parliaments, followed by debate on a motion relating to school funding. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 11 March—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party. Subject to be announced.
Thursday 12 March—Debate on a motion relating to defence spending, followed by debate on a motion relating to education regulations and faith schools. The subjects for both debates were recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 13 March—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 16 March will include:
Monday 16 March—Motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by motion to approve the draft Drug Driving (Specified Limits) England and Wales (Amendment) Regulations 2015, followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.
Tuesday 17 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to counter-terrorism, followed by debate on motions relating to the reports from the Committee on Standards on the code of conduct and on the standards system in the House of Commons, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 18 March—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.
Thursday 19 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Friday 20 March—Continuation of the Budget debate.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of March will be:
Thursday 12 March—General debate on the relationship between police and children, followed by general debate on violence against women and girls.
Monday 16 March—General debate on a petition relating to veterans’ pensions.
Thursday 19 March—General debate on the future of local newspapers.
Monday 23 March—General debate on an e-petition relating to proposed increase in fees for nurses and midwives.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. On Sunday, we will celebrate international women’s day. We have our pink bus, which is generating fantastic enthusiasm wherever it goes in the country, and half our candidates in target seats are women. Will the Leader of the House tell us what the Conservative party is doing to involve women properly in politics?
On Monday, we will consider Lords amendments to the Consumer Rights Bill, including proposals for a crackdown on ticket touting. Despite widespread evidence of touts fleecing the public and calls for action from across the leisure industry, the Government have spent more than a year opposing the measures and the Culture Secretary described ticket touts admiringly as “classic entrepreneurs”. Will the Leader of the House confirm that following their humiliating climbdown in the Lords the Government will support these proposals in the Commons and finally protect the public from this exploitation?
There are strong and powerful arguments in favour of plain packaging for cigarettes, but this Government have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into accepting them. First, they were for a vote on plain packaging, then when they took tobacco lobbyist Lynton Crosby in to the heart of Downing street they were suddenly against it. Now after five years of inaction, in the dying days of this Parliament, they are for it again. I note that the plain packaging regulations will finally be taken in Committee on 9 March, but why did the Leader not schedule a debate on the Floor of the House? Is it because he knows that his party is split right down the middle on this important public health measure but he does not want the public to notice?
Yesterday the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to acknowledge his complete failure to keep his “no ifs, no buts” promise on net migration, which is not in the tens of thousands that he promised but nearly 300,000 this year alone. In a desperate attempt at a diversionary tactic, he treated us to a selective list of things that he thinks he got right, while continuing to refuse to make himself available for scrutiny on any of them in a head-to-head TV debate with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.
I greatly enjoyed the Leader of the House’s speech at the Press Gallery lunch last week, decoding what he called civil service-ese and revealing that when civil servants say, “We are scaling up our response,” they actually mean, “We never expected this to happen.” So I have been doing my own decoding of the Prime Minister’s pre-election promises. When he said:
“We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT”,
what he really meant was, “ I will raise VAT when the election is safely over.” When he said, “We will not balance the books on the backs of the poor”, what he really meant was, “We will not balance the books at all.” When he said in 2009:
“I have always believed in live television debates. I think they can help enliven our democracy.”,
what he really meant was, “I will only debate with people when I’m not scared I might lose.”
In his pre-2010 election contract with the British people, the Prime Minister wrote:
“If we don’t deliver our side of the bargain, vote us out in five years’ time.”
Mr Speaker, there are only nine weeks to go.
The Liberal Democrats are no better. This week we have learned what their red line in any future coalition talks would be. Having campaigned to scrap all tuition fees during the last election, only to vote to triple them after the election, they now plan to veto Labour’s plan to cut fees by a third and increase grants for poor students. I wonder whether we could have that in writing, because then we will know for sure that they will do the exact opposite.
It is not surprising that the Lib Dem right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has decided that he needs to take matters into his own hands. On Tuesday he held an Adjournment debate on the plight of endangered species, and he has written about it on Politics Home. He laments:
“The facts are stark. … numbers have fallen … the poachers are highly organised. … we are in a race against time.”
Before long, the Liberal Democrats will be going the way of the woolly mammoth.
I have learned this week that the Conservative party is busy preparing for a Labour victory in May. The Chancellor has apparently hatched a long-term cunning plan to curb the regicidal instincts of the Conservative party—good luck with that—and keep the Prime Minister on as leader after 7 May even if it loses. According to one Back Bencher, “He either wins or he goes.” Once again showing his strategic prowess, the man he has chosen to assist him in this mission to avoid a leadership battle is the ever-absent Tory Chief Whip. Apparently they are going to form a protective ring around their leader and claim that he won a moral victory even if the Conservatives lose. Is this why the Chief Whip is never here, Mr Speaker? He is too busy forming a protective ring around the Prime Minister to bother to come to this Chamber. Having just listed some of their broken promises, I feel I should offer some comfort to the Conservatives. If there is one target that I am confident the Tories will not miss, it is the one on the Prime Minister’s back.
The shadow Leader may not be in a strong position this week to talk about party leaders since this is the week in which the Doncaster Free Press released its power list and revealed that the Leader of the Opposition was the fourth most influential person in Doncaster, ranking, interestingly, behind the star of One Direction who just happened to grow up in Doncaster. The right hon. Gentleman is regarded as having less influence on the town than that. We will return to these matters in a moment.
On the hon. Lady’s specific questions, she asked, rightly, about international women’s day, which we look forward to commemorating on Sunday. She referred to the pink bus that has caused so much amusement around the country and asked what the Government have been doing. We have been achieving more women in work than ever before in history—up by 839,000 since May 2010. There are more women-led businesses than ever before in the history of the country and 37% of start-up loans are now going to women. There are more women on FTSE boards than ever before in the history of the country, with no all-male boards remaining. More than half the people lifted out of income tax altogether—58% of them—are women, and the state pension reforms have particularly benefited women, who have historically done poorly under the complicated two-tier system of pensions. That is a tremendous record of achievement, which is superior to any previous Government’s record in assisting the welfare of the women of this country.
The hon. Lady mentioned students—rather bravely, in a week in which the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that Labour’s proposed reform of tuition fees
“sounds progressive. . . Sadly, it isn’t.”
“will mainly benefit mid- to high-earning graduates who would otherwise have been repaying all or most of their loans.”
That is the position bizarrely adopted by the Labour party on which it is now condemned to fight the election.
It was brave of the hon. Lady, too, to mention migration, as it was a completely open door under the previous Government which brought millions of people to settle in this country.
Following my extensive translation of civil service-ese at the Press Gallery lunch, the hon. Lady did a translation of Prime Ministerial statements, but I have my own translation of what the Leader of the Opposition was saying yesterday when he was calling for a debate, which means, “I am desperate because the election is slipping away from me and I have nothing else to ask about at all.” That is the translation of that. When I was Leader of the Opposition in 2001, I recall asking Tony Blair for a television debate. There was not even an offer of a debate from Tony Blair, not even the pretence of a debate. There was a very clear “No debate whatsoever.” This Prime Minister is offering a debate and that is an offer that should be taken up, which was never offered by Tony Blair in similar circumstances.
Talking of debates, the hon. Lady asked about the debate on the plain packaging of cigarettes. As she knows, because of EU procedures it has been possible to lay regulations but not to make them until after 3 March. That is the reason for the timing. It is normal for such statutory instruments to be considered in a Committee after going through the scrutiny procedures and, subject to the deliberations of that Committee, it will then be possible for the whole House to vote on the outcome of that Committee’s deliberations.
I should have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the Government’s move in the other place on ticketing. She did not ask about the economic situation in the country, but what has defined the past couple of weeks is what has happened on the economy. Today we heard that new car sales for February were up 12% on last year. This week we heard that average household incomes have returned to pre-recession levels. In the past two weeks we have seen growth in manufacturing and construction up, public sector borrowing fall, and small firms win more than a quarter of Government contracts—the highest percentage ever. That is very clear evidence as we move to the end of the Parliament that a long-term economic plan is right for this country and is working.
My right hon. Friend is known for writing bestsellers, in one of which he wrote about the history of Parliament sitting in York. One of the issues that will exercise both Houses in the next Parliament is where to sit while major works are taking place here. I hope that he will look no further than his and our main city of York for that purpose.
The suggestion is dear to the hearts of all us Yorkshiremen, although I have to tell my hon. Friend that it might not go down very well in Lancashire. If it becomes necessary for the House to move, I suspect that somewhere closer to its current location might be found. The important decisions on restoration and renewal need to be made in the next Parliament—it would not be appropriate to make them now—so I cannot give her a definitive answer.
Has the right hon. Gentleman seen my early-day motion 840 on Sejal Koyani and the London School of Business and Finance?
[That this House condemns in the strongest terms Sejal Koyani of the London School of Business and Finance, who has stolen thousands of pounds from a constituent of the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton, and has failed over a period of months to reply to letters from the right hon. Member; calls on the Home Secretary to remove any recognition from this criminal, on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to look into these larcenous activities, and on the Metropolitan Police to investigate; and advises any potential clients to have nothing to do with these thieves.]
Behind it lurks the theft of £3,600 from my constituent, which that thief and that college promised to give back 45 days after last October. They have not got back to him or to me, despite repeated letters. They still have that stolen £3,600, which belongs to my constituent. May we have action on that in the way I request in the early-day motion as a lesson to teach those people that they cannot steal?
The right hon. Gentleman speaks up strongly for his constituent and has obviously been pursing the case assiduously, as usual. I will certainly refer his early-day motion, and the fact that he has raised the matter on the Floor of the House, to my ministerial colleagues so that they, too, can investigate.
I think that there is a good chance that I will be able to do that. I have been working on the draft Standing Orders. Whether or not there is a debate, it is very important that people are able to see the detail of what is proposed, so I will give further consideration to my right hon. Friend’s request.
Opposition Members are proud of our policy commitment not only to reduce student fees from £9,000 to £6,000, but to increase maintenance grants. However, it is unclear what the Government would do to better support students and universities. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that my constituents can get a better understanding of what the Government would do? Will he also make a commitment that his party will not seek to lift the fee cap?
We have delivered record numbers of students and university applications, against many predictions, following the change in the policy on tuition fees introduced early in this Parliament, so that change is standing the test of time. Of course, these matters are legitimate subjects for debate in the general election campaign. Given that there are only three weeks remaining before Dissolution, it is becoming unlikely that we will be able to have an additional debate on the subject.
The Leader of the House was rather unfair to the Leader of the Opposition; he did indeed come fourth in the Doncaster power list, but it was churlish of my right hon. Friend not to mention that he has gone up two places since last year, when he was sixth.
Last August The Times reported that the Prime Minister had promised to double magistrates’ sentencing powers from six to 12 months by the end of this Parliament, which was a very welcome announcement. Given that we are rapidly running out of time, can the Leader of the House tell us when that will be brought into effect in the last few weeks of this Parliament?
On my hon. Friend’s first point, that is a faster rate of advance than normal by the Leader of the Opposition and it means that he may be in with a chance of running Doncaster by 2018. I welcome my hon. Friend’s analysis.
I cannot give my hon. Friend a specific answer about when the Government’s commitment will take effect, but I will draw his question to the attention of my ministerial colleagues and ensure that he gets a direct reply.
The Leader of the House is well aware that a number of colleagues have raised the issue of the Chagos islands many times during business questions. When he was Foreign Secretary, he commissioned the KPMG report on the feasibility of right of return. We are waiting for a statement to be made to the House so that Ministers can be questioned and the issue debated. It was promised that the issue would be resolved before the end of this Parliament, but we have only a short time to go.
This is an important report on an important issue and the hon. Gentleman and I have often discussed it. Indeed, as Foreign Secretary I set up the new feasibility study. A very extensive and detailed report has now been produced, and my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office are considering it in detail. It will also need to be considered across the whole of Government. I am sure it is better to look at it in great detail than to rush to decisions about it, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a timetable for any announcement, but I will tell my colleagues that he is asking about it and that there is interest in it in Parliament. We will consider it within Government as rapidly as possible.
Despite the fact that I have made it plain that I am standing down at the next election, inexplicably I am getting a lot of e-mails asking me to commit to opposing things in the next Parliament, particularly the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which, strangely enough, I have not seen the details of because nobody else has—it has not been negotiated yet. For the avoidance of doubt, yet again, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Government statement—he may care to make it right now—making it clear that TTIP has nothing whatsoever to do with any risk to the future of the NHS?
It is absolutely clear that it is for local NHS commissioners to take decisions on which providers should deliver health care services in the best interests of their patients. TTIP will not change that in any respect. I can give my hon. Friend not only a Government statement, but the statement of the EU Trade Commissioner, who said on 13 September:
“Public services are always exempted—there is no problem about exemption. The argument is abused in your country for political reasons but it has no grounds.”
That should be reassuring to people around the country who might think there is some merit in the arguments put by trade unions and the Labour party, which are designed to scare people not to arrive at a good trade deal for this country.
May I draw the attention of the Government and the House to a new film drama, “A Dark Reflection”, which is about air that is contaminated by organo- phosphates entering the aircraft cabin as a result of oil breakdowns in engines, which is where the cabin air is drawn from or, from auxiliary power units or even de-icing fluids. Is it not time to have a debate about fitting air detection systems to aircraft to protect passengers and crew from aerotoxic poisoning?
That is, of course, a wholly legitimate question to ask. We have just had questions to Transport Ministers and the hon. Gentleman’s question sounded a little bit like it had been left over from that. I have no doubt that Transport Ministers will notice that he has raised the issue. I cannot offer him a debate in the remaining small number of days before the end of the Parliament, but he has now managed to raise the issue on the Floor of the House.
I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party group on fire safety and rescue. Given that the Chief Fire Officers Association is very concerned that very few newly built schools have automatic sprinkler systems fitted, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue?
I am advised that the Government’s policy is that such sprinkler systems should be installed in new school buildings where there is a real and significant risk, as identified in a fire risk assessment. There will also be other situations where sprinklers are fitted because they form an integral part of the school building design and are good value for money. It is unlikely that we will be able to have a debate on the issue at this stage of the Parliament, but the House will have noted my hon. Friend’s strong interest in it and I have every confidence he will be able to return to it in the new Parliament.
May we have a statement on what constitutes “offshore”? The Health and Social Care Information Centre, the national provider of IT for health services, has apparently objected to CGI—a Canadian-owned but Bridgend-based IT company—bidding for a health IT contract on the very bizarre basis that Wales is offshore. May we have clarification? The Severn is wide, but not that wide.
Having recently purchased a property in Wales, I can confirm that it is not offshore. That can be regarded not only as a personal statement, but as an official statement from the Government. The notion of Wales being offshore seems a strange one in relation to the matter the hon. Lady raises. It would be best to pursue it directly with Health Ministers, and I will tell them she has raised it in the House.
The director of ExxonMobil Chemical, in my constituency, has written to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills about a threat to the industry caused by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to seek a further assessment of a plasticiser, a key product that has just been given a relatively clean bill of health by the appropriate European body. The director has yet to receive a reply, but the House needs an urgent statement from the Secretary of State about this threat to such an important industry in Hampshire.
The industry is very important for Hampshire and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom. I am sure it provides employment for many of my hon. Friend’s constituents, so he is quite right to raise the issue. I cannot give him an immediate answer, but I will refer his interest to my hon. Friends at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Although we do not have much of this Parliament left, there will be questions to the Business Secretary on 26 March. I will ensure my hon. Friend’s urgent interest is registered with BIS, and he may be able to return to it then.
The First Secretary of State has always seemed to me a pretty robust and courageous politician, so will he join me in calling for an early debate about what many people in my constituency and this country believe to be their right—to see the leaders of the great parties having a robust and courageous discussion on television so that the British people can make an informed decision? What is going on when this House remains nearly mute, after what has become almost a constitutional convention is taken away by one person—the not so courageous Prime Minister?
I do not think that constitutional conventions are set by broadcasters in this country. The hon. Gentleman, with whom I have debated so many issues over the years, was in the House throughout the time that Tony Blair was Prime Minister. When he refused to have any debates on television, I do not recall the hon. Gentleman rising to say that Tony Blair ought to reconsider his position, that such a debate was vital to the British constitution or that it was an important right of the hon. Gentleman, constituents during an election campaign. I assure him that his constituents will see a great deal of all the party leaders during the general election campaign—which can only improve the prospects of the Conservative party.
Just as time is running out on this Parliament, time is more poignantly running out on the young boys who suffer from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, such as my constituent Archie Hill, whose parents Gary and Louisa have campaigned tirelessly for a new drug called Translarna to made available for him and other sufferers. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether we have any time left during which we can bring more pressure to bear on NHS England? We have met the Prime Minister, who has written supportively, and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who is the Minister for life sciences; only NHS England stands in the way. How can my right hon. Friend help?
My right hon. Friend may well know that there is a clear process and timetable for this, and for rare conditions the decision to fund treatments and drugs is made by NHS England. A draft clinical commissioning policy on the use of Translarna for the treatment of DMD has been developed, and it is now being considered for funding. The consultation runs until 27 April, so it has another six or seven weeks to run. I urge my right hon. Friend and other colleagues who have raised this issue in the House to make their views known to NHS England throughout that process.
Joanna Michael, the daughter of my constituent Angela Michael, was brutally murdered in 2009. The Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that she was failed by the police, yet the Supreme Court has ruled that a negligence claim cannot be brought against the police because they have immunity. May we have a debate with a view to changing the law so that the police are held to account in the same way as doctors, teachers and the armed forces?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about a disturbing case. I will refer it to my ministerial colleagues, and there will be further questions to Ministers at the Ministry of Justice before the Dissolution of Parliament. I will ensure that Ministers consider the matter he has raised.
It is estimated that the elephant population of the Selous reserve in Tanzania has fallen from 55,000 in 2006 to about 15,000 now. As chair of the all-party group on Tanzania and a long-term resident of that country, that greatly distresses me and hundreds of people around the world. May we have an urgent debate in this House on the factors that fuel demand for ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products?
My hon. Friend is right, and this is a deeply disturbing situation not only in Tanzania but internationally. The British Government are playing a leading role in fighting this. As Foreign Secretary, in February last year I hosted an international summit on the issue, which the President of Tanzania addressed. I now chair a taskforce on how to prevent the transportation of illegal ivory, at the request of His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge. As my hon. Friend says, it is ultimately a matter of demand in countries such as China, Vietnam and Thailand, and it is welcome that such issues are being debated with China during the visit of His Royal Highness this week.
May we debate debating? I recall that when I succeeded the right hon. Gentleman many years ago as president of the world’s most famous student debating society, he was in favour of debating—indeed, he was in favour of it as late as 2001 when he was Leader of the Opposition, as he told the House today. If we had such a debate, would we at least get one more opportunity to see the Leader of the House in full flow, showing the skill he developed all those years ago of being able to defend the indefensible—namely, the Prime Minister’s craven approach to debating head to head on television with the Leader of the Opposition?
The Prime Minister has debated every Wednesday for years with the Leader of the Opposition, and he has almost invariably come off best in those debates. The hon. Gentleman’s characterisation is not right. He and I have always been committed to debating through our background in the Oxford union, and the Prime Minister has offered the terms of a debate to broadcasters and the other parties. As I pointed out earlier, such an offer was never made to me by the Prime Minister of the day when I was Leader of the Opposition.
Domestic drones were the must-have gift last Christmas—needless to say I did not get one, although I did get a Dyson cleaner. The usage of drones is governed by the Civil Aviation Authority, and there was a near miss between a drone and an A320 last summer. May we have a debate to ensure that rules on the use of drones are fully known, so that we can guarantee the serenity and safety of residents in the United Kingdom?
I hope my hon. Friend finds his Dyson cleaner easier to control than some people find their drones. I am sure he will. This will be an important subject for consideration, but I cannot offer a debate before the Dissolution of Parliament. Important privacy and air safety issues are at stake, which I know have been considered by the Civil Aviation Authority. This activity will continue to develop, so I would be very surprised if Parliament did not consider it in the coming months—most likely, of course, in the new Parliament.
Some villages in Coedpoeth and Brymbo in my constituency face very large bills through no fault of their own because they have to fund remedial work resulting from historic lead contamination. This is an anomalous situation, as our law generally follows the principle that the polluter pays, but here there is no traceable polluter. Last year in Blanefield in Scotland, the UK Government reached a deal with the Scottish Government and the local authority jointly to fund work in a parallel situation. The Welsh Government would like a similar solution in this case. Will the Leader of the House grant an urgent debate, to be answered by a Treasury Minister, so that the UK Government can lay out a consistent position on funding criteria?
The hon. Lady raises an important issue for her constituents. I do not know what the prospects are of the consistent position she has called for emerging, but Treasury questions take place next Tuesday, 10 March, providing an early opportunity for her to raise the matter with Treasury Ministers. She will be able to pursue it with them by every other avenue. I think it unlikely that we will be able to have such a debate before Dissolution, but the hon. Lady has those opportunities to raise the issue.
My right hon. Friend will be greatly missed by the House. He has done outstanding work and left a lasting legacy on the issue of sexual violence in conflict. It is important to address issues relating to women and equalities. I ask him, perhaps as a parting gift, to urge all hon. Members to support the establishment of a Select Committee on women and equalities, so that we can carry on scrutinising these issues, holding the Government to account on them and ensuring that we make progress for women in this country and elsewhere throughout the world.
I am very grateful for my hon. Friend’s remarks, and I pay tribute to her and the work she has done on preventing sexual violence. I have seen her working in her constituency and across London on this issue, and I know her work is appreciated by other London Members. As I mentioned earlier, I have a lot of sympathy with the case for establishing an equalities Select Committee of some kind. The establishment of Select Committees will have to be decided in the new Parliament. I add that the number of other Select Committees would have to be reduced by one in order to accommodate this one.
The major supermarkets, Eurotunnel, major hauliers and others support the building of a dedicated rail freight line capable of carrying full-size lorry trailers on trains and linking all the major economic regions of Britain with each other and the channel tunnel. There is such a scheme, called the GB freight route, which could be built easily, quickly and economically and would take 5 million lorry journeys off our roads every year. This is significant for a number of Government Departments, including the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Transport. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to encourage Ministers from all those Departments to consult the relevant companies about advancing this scheme?
I will certainly inform my ministerial colleagues in the relevant Departments of the matter the hon. Gentleman has raised. As I said earlier, we have just had Transport Question Time, and I think I shall have to make a list for Transport Ministers of the questions left over from it and asked during business questions. I am happy to provide that service on this occasion, and the hon. Gentleman has managed to raise the matter on the Floor of the House.
This is not a transport issue, but may we have a debate in the short time left on recent changes to the rules governing community amateur sports clubs, with specific reference to rate relief thresholds? The York Railway Institute, which provides fantastic sporting facilities to many of my constituents, is under financial threat as a result of the changes. It could close or be broken up to offset them, after serving the public of York since its foundation in 1889.
The Government have given local authorities the power to offer business rate discounts beyond predefined reliefs at their discretion, including to sports clubs, to be funded 50% by central Government and 50% by local authorities. I recommend that the club discuss this with its local authority. The Treasury would expect local authorities to take full account of the funding provided by central Government for discretionary rate relief when making their decisions.
Birmingham and other midlands licence fee payers contribute £942 million to the BBC coffers, but less than £80 million of that was invested in our region last year. That is less than it manages to spend in London over 12 days. May we have a debate before the end of this Parliament on the renewal terms for the BBC charter, so we can agree some rules for fair funding and an end to our subsidising the London luvvies broadcasting corporation?
Personally, I have a good deal of sympathy with the need for the BBC to invest around the country. We had a statement just last week by the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, so there have been recent opportunities to raise the implications of that on the Floor of the House. I am sure there will be other debates on the future of the BBC, but I cannot offer one in the remaining 14 days the House is sitting before we come to the general election campaign.
I bring good news from Kettering, where the £4 million upgrade of the maternity department at Kettering general hospital has just begun, due for completion in December. Ten babies a day, on average, are delivered at the hospital. This is part of an £18 million investment package for the hospital, which comes ahead of a potential £30 million for developing a new urgent care hub facility on the site. Will my right hon. Friend encourage our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to include in his Budget statement a paragraph making it clear that such massive investment in our local NHS hospitals is possible only because of the success of our long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend has again brought important good news from Kettering, as he has done in recent weeks concerning the economy, employment and the success of the town, and all that is related to the success of this country. He mentions investment in the national health service, which is now conducting 1.3 million more operations, 6 million more out-patient appointments and 3.5 million more diagnostic tests than it did five years ago. His central point is important and absolutely correct: such investment is only possible with a growing economy. That is what is at stake in the coming general election.
When can we debate early-day motion 839?
[That this House is appalled at the demeaning spectacle of Prime Minister's Questions, where the Leader of the Opposition’s questions are not answered by the Prime Minister, who uses the occasions as a bully pulpit for his own chosen issues; notes the widely expressed public revulsion at this ill-mannered, pointless spectacle; and calls for its replacement by meetings where the Prime Minister will answer questions from 20 randomly-selected backbenchers in a committee room in an atmosphere of calm and dignity.]
This House was brought into further disrepute by the disgraceful behaviour of two senior Members recently, who shamed themselves and this House on the “Dispatches” programme. However, weekly the House is brought into disrepute by the spectacle of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which consists of little more than repeated tedious mantras, crude insults and answers that do not reflect the questions asked. Prime Minister John Major and Neil Kinnock made a valiant effort to reform question time, as has the present Speaker, but I believe the present format is unreformable and we have to look to a new way of presenting Prime Minister’s Question Time—in a manner that is robust, but calm and dignified.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the two right hon. Members in question have referred themselves to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. That has been the correct thing to do, and the matter will now be investigated.
On Prime Minister’s questions, I am sure that in future Parliaments—in the next Parliament—the Procedure Committee and the House as a whole can consider any suggested changes. We can always change and improve our procedures, and it is always important to have an eye on doing so. I would only add that in my experience all over the world as Foreign Secretary for most of the past five years, our Parliament and its proceedings are widely admired. Many people in countries all over the world have expressed to me the wish that they could question their Head of Government in the same way we can here in this House, and so we must not lose that central aspect of our proceedings.
Reports this week of a woman acting as a surrogate to give birth to her own son’s baby have shocked many people, not least because the procedure was reportedly carried out in a clinic licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Will my right hon. Friend, as one of his final acts, find time for an urgent debate on the actions of the HFEA and the fertility clinic involved in this case? If an urgent debate is not possible, what will he do?
Given the time constraints that I have mentioned several times, an urgent debate is not possible. I do not know the details of the case my hon. Friend has raised. Nevertheless, I can understand the debate and concern about such issues, so I will inform my colleagues at the Department of Health of his interest in this matter and the fact that he has raised it, and ask them to respond to him.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the offer of a cup of tea earlier. That is the closest thing I have had to an offer of a hot date in a very long time.
May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the future of the Planning Inspectorate, which seems to be wantonly ignoring the views of local people and going against adopted local plans, especially, for example, in the village of West Haddon in my constituency?
There are debates on planning. In fact, there is a debate today in Westminster Hall on the national planning policy framework, so my hon. Friend may be able to raise such matters during it. I cannot otherwise offer a debate in the time available. Communities and Local Government questions will take place on 16 March—a week on Monday. There are therefore a few remaining opportunities for him to raise the issue in the House.