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Business of the House

Volume 608: debated on Thursday 14 April 2016

If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will first say that the shadow Leader of the House, myself and the Scottish National party spokesman all have something in common this morning. We should feel slightly anxious after the march of the deputies at business questions just before the recess. I congratulate all three of them on doing a star turn. [Interruption.] There will be another opportunity shortly, as well.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 18 April—Debate on a motion on the introduction of the national living wage and related changes to employee contracts, followed by debate on a motion on educational attainment in Yorkshire and the Humber. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 19 April—Remaining stages of the Bank of England and Financial Services Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 20 April—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion on recognition of genocide by Daesh against Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities. Debate on a motion on record copies of Acts. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Thursday 21 April—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose an humble address, to mark the occasion of Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday; I am sure the whole House will participate.

Friday 22 April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 April will include:

Monday 25 April—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by debate on a motion on education funding in London. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 26 April—Remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 27 April—Consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 28 April—Debate on a motion on World Autism Awareness Week, followed by a debate on a motion on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ “Building our Future” plan. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 29 April—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 25 April will be:

Monday 25 April—Debate on an e-petition relating to the meningitis B vaccine.

I, too, congratulate my deputy, my absolutely wonderful and magnificent hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), and all her opposite numbers, on their impressive appearance at the last business question. I think that was the first time that all three Front Benchers at business questions were women, so in the words of Annie Lennox, “Sisters are doin’ it for themselves”. [Interruption.] I will come to the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) in a moment.

I also wish my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and her fiancé Richard well for their wedding on Saturday. I note that not many Tories are in the Chamber today. I gather that is because there is an away day for the Conservative party, or perhaps two away days in different parts of the country. Apparently it is a dress-down event, and I have a horrible image in my mind of the hon. Member for Lichfield preparing his outfit; I will leave that there. [Interruption.] I have seen it before, yes, and it is not very pretty.

Mr Speaker, on 10 March I asked whether you could hear the slow ebbing down the beach of the authority of the Prime Minister, and boy wasn’t I right?

“When there is so much still to be done to improve the life chances of the most vulnerable, it is difficult to justify putting middle class tax cuts before the needs of the working poor, and the socially disadvantaged”.

That is not me; it is the Conservative hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter). Even Tories admit that the Prime Minister is now a busted flush, and we had a classic example of that yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions. I bet the Prime Minister thought that he was giving a helpful plug for the production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. However, the author of the book, Mark Haddon, was absolutely horrified when he heard that, and he immediately tweeted his agreement with Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who wrote:

“David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don’t. I forbid you to like it.”

There are 63 private Members’ Bills on today’s Order Paper, and two new ones were added this week. When their proposers, the hon. Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), were asked, “Second Reading, what day?” by you, Mr Speaker, they replied “28 April”, even though they, you, I, and everyone else knows that we will not be sitting on that day or any other Friday this Session. Incidentally, why on earth do you say, “Second Reading, what day?” as if you are Yoda in “Star Wars”? Why can’t you just say it in proper English? Mind you, you do quite a good impersonation, especially when you call “Andrew Selooous”.

Yesterday there was an excellent debate on all these matters in Westminster Hall. Many hon. Members think that the current system of private Members’ Bill is a complete waste of time that frankly brings the House into disrepute. When the Procedure Committee produces its forthcoming report, will the Leader of the House make proper time for us to debate changes if that is what the House wants?

Will the Leader of the House do something about the small business Minister—I mean the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise—who has become terribly patronising of late? She called me “darling” on “Question Time” last week, and all I can say is that I have been patronised by much better women than her. I also have a terrible fear that she thinks she is becoming Maggie—Maggie Smith, that is, the dowager countess in “Downton Abbey”. She cackles away through debates so much that she almost makes me seem calm and reasonable.

On Tuesday, the Minister praised the role that the Community union has played in the steel crisis, which is absolutely right. However, she and her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are the very Ministers who are forcing the Trade Union Bill through Parliament, which is an utterly partisan piece of legislation that tries to cut the legs off trade unions and is being cut to ribbons in the House of Lords. Would she be far better off listening to Community, which says that the Bill is a bad piece of legislation that will severely damage the finely balanced relationships between trade unions and business?

May we have a debate—this cannot be an Opposition day debate, because the Leader of the House has not given us one—on boardroom pay? The chair of the remuneration committee at BP, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, is giving its chairman a 20% pay hike, taking his remuneration to £14 million in a year when the company has made its biggest ever losses and cut 25% of its workforce. What message does it send from the Government that Professor Dame Ann Dowling has been a non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills since 2014? Why do the Government not just have a great big sign printed and put up over the Department saying, “There is one rule for the rich and quite another for the rest of you”? In fact, why do they not just get 20 of them printed and put them over the Treasury, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and Downing Street? Fundamentally, that is the Government’s motto today, is it not?

Finally, may we have a debate on underachievement? Some people on the Conservative Benches seem to think that if you are not a millionaire you are a failure, but let me tell them who really achieve something in life. It is the woman who gets up at 4 am to walk two miles to catch the bus to clean a hotel for 13 hours for the minimum wage. It is the widower who does two jobs to make sure he can put food on the table for his children. It is the middle-aged woman who gives up her job to care for her elderly dad. It is the teacher, the squaddie, the nurse or the dinner lady who goes way beyond the call of duty. Frankly, I would be proud to sit in a House full of people like that, rather than have to face that bunch of real deadbeats over there: a Health Secretary who has completely alienated the whole of the NHS; a Business Secretary who does not know where Mumbai is; and a Chancellor who produces a Budget so unfair that it even made the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) cry.

May I first thank all those who were involved in organising the security stand in Portcullis House yesterday? I hope Members on all sides of the House will take advantage of the package and the equipment on display. I am very pleased to have learned that they ran out of equipment, such was the degree of interest. I am grateful to all those involved.

The shadow Leader of the House started by talking about poverty. Let me just remind him that under this Government child poverty and inequality are falling, and that the proportion of tax paid by the wealthiest in our society is rising. I will take no lessons from the Labour party after its shambolic decade in government left 2.5 million people unemployed and communities struggling with a failing economy. We have turned it around in a way that they could have never done.

The hon. Gentleman raised the Procedure Committee’s report on private Members’ Bills. It is, of course, open to any Select Committee to bring a matter to this House. I am very responsive to the thought that we should have a detailed discussion about the Committee’s recommendations. We should always look at ways to improve the system.

I was a little surprised to hear a “Star Wars” joke from the Jar Jar Binks of the Labour party, and I have to say it was a little unfair. I have always regarded you as a man of greater stature than Yoda, Mr Speaker, and I am surprised that the shadow Leader of the House would even make that comparison.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the purpose of the Trade Union Bill is to stop trade unions holding the public to ransom. We see time and again relatively small groups of workers bringing our transport system to a halt and doing damage to far more workers. That is why we are the party of the workers: we represent the millions travelling to work, not a tiny minority of trade unionists who want to cause trouble for our country.

On boardroom pay, it is of course a matter for private companies and their shareholders what they pay their directors, but I would never condone inappropriately large pay rises. I hope all those involved in scrutinising businesses and attending annual general meetings of shareholders will always look very carefully to ensure the message that boardroom pay sends out is consistent with a well-managed company and a motivated workforce.

I am very happy to have a debate on underachievement. Actually, we have one every Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, because the biggest underachiever in this House is the Leader of the Opposition.

I, too, will be joining the Conservative party away day this afternoon. The truth is that Labour would really struggle to hold an away day, such are the divisions in that party and the desire to remove its leader. It is extraordinary to see a once-proud party scrabbling to try to find an identity for itself, and to see Labour Members sitting stony faced behind their leader, who underachieves week after week after week—[Interruption.]

Finally, something that I think will unite all in the House except Tottenham Hotspur supporters: I would like to wish Leicester City good luck for their final games of the premier league season. It would be an extraordinary achievement for 2,500:1 outsiders to end up winning. Talking of rank outsiders, I have been trying to put a few quid on another one: I asked the bookies if they would let me place a bet on the shadow Leader of the House winning the battle, in due course, to succeed you, Mr Speaker, but they thought the idea so bizarre that they would not even take my money.

The European referendum campaign has kicked off with a controversy about Government leaflets, and now the local election campaign in Southend is also mired in controversy. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on local authorities’ conduct during local election campaigns, because it is claimed that mine, which consists of seven individual groupings, is sending out blatant party political electioneering letters about an energy company, and is printing articles in magazines without the appropriate election imprint?

There are clear rules on how local authorities and others should conduct themselves in referendum and election campaigns. In a local authority, it is for the chief executive to ensure that those rules are followed, and there are appropriate authorities to complain to if that does not happen. I hope my hon. Friend will do that. As regards the national leaflet from the Government, suffice it to say it contains a fine picture of Felixstowe.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, and I pay tribute to our efficient, effective and excellent deputies for the business questions we were unable to make a couple of Thursdays ago, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh), who was the undoubted star of the show.

On the question of odds, I am interested in the challenge put to the shadow Leader of the House. I tried to place a bet in Scotland on who would succeed in the race to be the next First Minister, and the odds are better for him than the actual Conservative candidate, Ruth Davidson.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) mentioned the number of benefits investigators working in the Department for Work and Pensions as against the number working in the affluent unit in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. After appearing just a tad bemused and embarrassed, the Prime Minister seemed to doubt the robustness of the figures, and said he would have them checked out. My right hon. Friend might have got the figures a bit wrong, because it is reported in The Guardian this morning that the 3,200 figure he quoted—the number of benefits investigators in the DWP—has swollen to 3,700. That compares with 320 working in the affluent unit. May we have a debate about these numbers? If the Prime Minister is still minded to challenge them, he could come to that debate himself and tell us what the figures actually are.

The Prime Minister has consistently and repeatedly refused to come before the Liaison Committee to answer questions about the EU referendum. It is an absolute and utter disgrace. He has a responsibility and obligation to come before the Committee Chairs to answer these questions. I do not know what is causing this anxiety and nervousness, but I am pretty certain that with a gentle approach from the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister might just be encouraged to fulfil his responsibilities and have a quiet, friendly chat with the Liaison Committee.

We were promised several statements on the military action in Syria, but we have not had any at all. I perhaps know why: there is nothing to report. There have been no military operations since the beginning of March, and the fabled Brimstone system was last used on 18 February. We are supposedly engaged in Syria in supporting opposition forces fighting Daesh on the ground, but there is little evidence that that has been happening, so can we secure these promised statements, even if they are just the Defence Secretary telling us that nothing much is happening?

Lastly, Nessie has been found, but I am sorry to disappoint the House: it is not the fabled monster of lore but a hollowed-out old wreck that has been stuck in the deep for decades.

I could not possibly comment or add to that, but the fact that the chaotic Labour party is overtaking the Conservatives in an opinion poll is perhaps a testament to this Conservative Government.

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I have absolutely no expectation or desire to be the next First Minister of Scotland. Equally, however, I am convinced that the Conservative leader in Scotland would indeed be an excellent First Minister, and it is clear that, whatever the outcome of the Scottish elections, the Scottish people think that she would be a better First Minister than the current Labour leader in Scotland. I suspect that is something on which we could agree.

There are thousands and thousands of people in HMRC whose job, day in, day out, and week in, week out, is to ensure that the right amount of tax is paid by people in this country and elsewhere, and to secure that amount. This Government’s record is far better than those of their predecessors when it comes to securing the repayment of tax from overseas centres, and tightening the rules and closing loopholes—things that were never done when the Labour party was in power during the last decade.

I know that discussions are taking place between the Chair of the Liaison Committee and No. 10. Dates have already been provided, and dates are promised for the future. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will continue to give evidence to the Committee in a proper way.

The last statement from the International Development Secretary on Syria was made in February, and I expect there to be a statement from the Ministry of Defence in the near future to update the House on defence matters there, as is right and proper. Back in March, the House was able to question the Foreign Secretary on what remain very important issues. I think all of us in this country hope that the ceasefire in Syria—which has not been completely kept, but which has at least taken things forward a step—will continue.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nessie and the Labour party, but what he said also highlights the fact that exciting developments in Scotland are sometimes fakes.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for finding time for a debate on the important issue of whether we should continue to use vellum to record Acts of Parliament, thereby asserting the right of the House of Commons to decide such matters. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that although a Cabinet Office Minister will respond to the debate, this none the less remains House business, subject to a free vote—at least for the Conservative party—and offers us an opportunity to say to the House of Lords that we in this House feel strongly about these matters and want our view known?

It is, of course, custom and practice for Ministers to be in the House, week in, week out, to respond to Back-Bench business debates, and a debate of this kind is no different. The debate in question is on the Order Paper, as I announced earlier, and the House will have an opportunity to discuss the issues shortly. The hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) will clearly wish to speak against the proposal, and I think that the shadow Leader of the House will wish to speak in favour of it.

If I may continue the “Star Wars” theme, it is grateful that I am, Mr Speaker.

Members will have noted from the business statement that Back-Bench debates will take place on four days in the next two weeks. I believe that there could well be two more weeks of business after that before the Queen’s Speech. We are still some way short of our 27 days, but we anticipate an amicable accommodation over the number of days allotted to Back-Bench business before Prorogation.

I know that we have just had questions to the Minister for Women and Equalities, but one thing occurred to me when it was too late to submit a question. The White Paper on education proposes the removal of the requirement for parents to be school governors. Parents will still be able to be governors, but as members of other categories. The removal of that requirement will have a disproportionate impact on women, particularly in primary schools, given the number of primary schools that are yet to convert to academy status. May we have a statement from the Minister for Women and Equalities about the implications of the White Paper for women and other minorities?

This subject was discussed in the House yesterday, and, as the hon. Gentleman says, we have just had Women and Equalities questions. Before any measures are formally introduced, the House will have further opportunities to debate them.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the subjects of future debates. As a Minister, I would not normally make a representation to the Backbench Business Committee, but if I may, I shall break that rule today. I think it would be a very good idea—there have been a number of requests for this over the weeks during business questions—for Members on both sides of the House to discuss the work being done by voluntary sector groups in their constituencies. I would venture to suggest to the Committee that providing such an opportunity in the next three or four weeks would constitute a very valuable response to those requests. Most of us have groups in our constituency that we value and to which we wish to pay tribute, and a day’s debate on the subject would, in my view, be enormously valuable.

According to polling by YouGov, 85% of the public believe that the Government’s recent EU leaflet was biased, and 58% disapprove of it completely. May we therefore have a statement from the Government, stating that no further such materials will be produced during the referendum campaign? Will they confirm that, following yesterday’s designation, the leave and remain campaigns will have parity on funding, spending power and media coverage?

The Government’s position is to support remaining in the European Union, and that was the context in which the leaflet was distributed. The leaflet has clearly provoked strong views around the country, in households where it has been discovered—in my household it was buried beneath the pizza leaflets. It will be fundamental over the coming weeks that both sides of the argument receive the appropriate support under the rules in the Acts that we debated and passed last year. I am sure that will happen and that the Government will ensure that it does. The broadcasters will also want to ensure proper balance between the two sides in the debate.

In the middle of all the work I have been doing on the steel industry and local transport, I received a phone call from a distraught couple who run a hedgehog rescue centre in my constituency. They are currently nursing back to health a hedgehog found in Sheffield the other week whose spines had been cut off with a pair of scissors. They expressed their frustration that the perpetrators of this wicked act are very unlikely to be brought to justice. May we have a debate on the need not only to extend and increase the population of hedgehogs, for which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) has very often called, but to increase protection for these wonderful creatures?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. I saw the shocking picture of that hedgehog. It beggars belief how low and unpleasant some people in our society can be—the act was utterly, utterly unacceptable. From time to time, we do find extraordinary examples of maltreatment of animals, and the law does allow for the prosecution of people who have committed such offences. I certainly hope that, if the perpetrators in this case are found, they will be prosecuted. That is a matter for the independent prosecution authorities, but I certainly urge them to take the issue very seriously. The Government will continue to look at ways of ensuring that we properly protect animals. I am sure that the hon. Lady will now join the campaign being led by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) to provide the protection that many tens of thousands of people clearly support.

May we have an early debate on the potential role of the House of Commons in providing information to the public in the EU referendum campaign? The public have given up any hope of getting objective information from the Government. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that to maintain trust in our institutions the House of Commons Library could have a role in producing information so that our constituents can see the facts on how much we pay to the European Union each week, the negative balance of trade with the European Union, the impossibility of delivering our manifesto commitments to reduce net migration, and so on? Could we not put that on a dedicated House of Commons site, which would be respected as being objective?

We all pay tribute to the work done by the House of Commons Library—an immensely valuable service that provides dispassionate analysis. It also publishes the work it produces, although it is for Members to ask for that work in the first place. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will seek that analysis so that it can be published and the public can judge for themselves the rights and wrongs of the case.

It has happened again: another young boy has been tragically stabbed to death in my constituency. Myron, a talented young rapper, was well loved by his family and friends. We had a Backbench Business Committee debate on the subject, and we were looking to set up a commission. The Deputy Leader of the House told me at the last business questions to go ahead and set up that commission. I will do that, but how do I access Government funds to ensure that it is successful, and how do we ensure that the Government respond to its recommendations?

I am shocked to hear what the hon. Lady has just told us. It is a tragedy every time we lose a young person in such circumstances, and for it to occur more than once in the hon. Lady’s constituency must be immensely difficult for her. I send all our condolences to the family and friends of the young victim. If it is helpful, I will ask Home Office Ministers to meet her to discuss the issue. We introduced further measures when I was Justice Secretary to tighten the law. A jail sentence is now the clear presumption where someone is caught carrying a knife a second time, and there are tougher penalties for aggravated knife crime. As much as anything else, it is about education and convincing young people of the dangers of carrying a knife—a task that should be shared across the House.

As a result of his disabilities, my constituent Daniel Baldawi needs a ceiling hoist in his bedroom. Like everyone else, he likes to travel and would like to stay in hotels from time to time, but he finds that very few—including in even the largest chains—make provision in their bedrooms for his disability. May we have a debate on how large hotel chains can provide in all their properties at least one or two rooms with a ceiling hoist so that people such as my constituent can exercise their right to travel and stay in different parts of the country?

My hon. Friend makes a really valuable point, which has not been brought to my attention before. I encourage him to apply for an Adjournment debate and put these points to the Minister responsible. I hope that his simply bringing the issue up in the House will start to encourage hotel chains to think about doing something they might not have thought about doing in the past.

May we have an early debate entitled “Liberal democracy in the 21st century” to celebrate next Tuesday’s by-election for the hereditary section of the Liberals in the other place? Seven declared candidates will face an electorate of three—the noble Earls of Glasgow and of Oxford, and Baron Addington. Electoral Reform Services will conduct the count, and the full results, including the number of first preference votes for each candidate and the position after the transfer of votes, will be available in the Printed Paper Office. How long will a party that has been rejected by the people be kept alive through political life support by patronage? Does the Leader of the House really propose to reduce the size of this elected Chamber when more than 800 Members in the House of Lords participate in these farces?

I have the highest regard for the right hon. Gentleman. I always thought he would champion endangered minorities—but clearly not in this case. He asks about Liberal democracy in the 21st century. The answer is that there is very little of it left, but at least there is one election left that they will win!

Last week, I had the privilege of visiting Mumbai with Sewa International, and together we opened a new school for disabled children. This remarkable school started with 55 young disabled people living and being taught in a single room by incredible teachers. Thanks to donations from the India diaspora in this country, a brand new facility has been built to enable 100 children to live and be taught in the area. May we have a debate in Government time to celebrate the contributions of various diaspora in this country to making life better for people in their countries of origin?

What I proposed earlier would very much provide my hon. Friend, the vice-chair of the Backbench Business Committee, with that opportunity. I pay tribute to all members of the Indian diaspora who have been responsible for such valuable support. I saw during my visit to the Tamil market that the British Tamil chamber of commerce organised in my hon. Friend’s constituency last weekend further examples of first-rate voluntary sector work alongside exciting new businesses. I pay tribute to everyone involved in organising what seemed to me to be an enormously successful event.

Sir David Normington, having been liberated by retirement to tell the whole truth, said this week that he was approached in his office at least once a month by the Prime Minister and other Ministers and asked to favour Tory party donors, ex-MPs or other Conservative officeholders when making public appointments. When may we have a debate on patronage to discover why, for the past six years, the merit of applicants for key top jobs has been decided on the basis of their Tory party card or on the amount of money in their wallet?

There are times when I have to take a step back in amazement at the sheer cheek of Labour Members. Labour spent 13 years in government packing the public sector with its cronies and, six years later, we are still trying to achieve a sensible balance in our public services—so I will take no lessons from them. We are trying to provide a proper balance of expertise, background, gender and skills to ensure a properly representative public sector, not one simply packed with the Labour cronies we inherited in 2010.

A constituent tells me that a year ago he discovered that his energy supplier had been changed without his knowledge or consent, and that it took him a lot of time and effort to resolve the matter. It is still unclear whether this was a genuine mistake or an underhand marketing technique. This is a serious problem; it is estimated that there are 55,000 such cases every year. May we have a debate to consider the obligations on energy suppliers to prevent erroneous transfers and to ensure that they have a valid contract before they take over supply?

This is an important point. There are also vulnerable consumers who are convinced on the doorstep to make inappropriate changes, alongside the potential examples of fraud such as the one my hon. Friend describes. It is the role of the ombudsman to look at these issues and to deal with complaints against these organisations, but this is an example of the kind of consumer issue that should be brought regularly before the House, and I would encourage my hon. Friend to use one of the channels available to him to do that.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Andrew Stephenson) claimed in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that Lancashire County Council was proposing to cut all funding to nine women’s refuges, but a representative of the council tells me that the opposite is the case: the Government have pulled the Supporting People money and the council is filling the gap. May we have an urgent debate on the funding of women’s refuges? This situation is far too serious for politicians to distort it for their own political purposes.

I make two points. First, we learned in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that the Government have provided many millions of pounds to support refuges. Secondly, the hon. Lady has many opportunities to bring debates before this House, and if she wants to have a debate with my hon. Friends, she is very able to do so.

May we have a debate on the 2% levy that the Chancellor has allowed councils to charge for social care? It seems that Bradford Council is spending only a very small proportion of that money on the independent care home sector, despite levying the full 2%. May we have a debate so that we can find out exactly what the Government intended the money to be spent on, to ensure that councils up and down the country, especially Bradford Council, spend it on helping care homes to pay for things like the national living wage, which I thought was the intention, rather than on other things?

Treasury questions on Tuesday will provide an opportunity for my hon. Friend to raise that question directly with Treasury Ministers. He identifies something that we often encounter ourselves—that Labour councils spend money not on the services that matter but on bloated bureaucracies and on their own interests.

Huge portions of the Standing Orders of this place are frankly mince. They go out of their way to prevent scrutiny and representation, and instead ensure stacking in favour of the Government. The Procedure Committee has reviewed Standing Orders on a number of occasions, and it produced a comprehensive series of suggestions last year. Will the Government commit either to taking on the Committee’s suggestions or to ripping up the Standing Orders and starting again with something a lot more workable?

We have been open to change since we first entered government in 2010 and have made extensive changes to the way in which the House works. We have been open to new ideas. I am open to new ideas, and I listen carefully to and regularly discuss the thoughts and issues raised by the Procedure Committee. In the time allocated to the Backbench Business Committee, the House has an opportunity to express its own thoughts on what needs to change, so I dispute what the hon. Lady says about there being no opportunity for Back Benchers to get their views heard. As Leader of the House, I am open to considering how we do things better.

May the force be with you, Mr Speaker. I look forward to the Conservative love-in later today. May I recommend a similar no-knives-allowed event for the Labour party? Your biggest regret as Speaker is probably that you cannot attend.

One name that will not be on anyone’s lips at the love-in is that of Fraser Cameron, a Eurocrat who, since the Dutch referendum, has said that the EU should ban any further referendums on anything to do with the EU. Will the Leader of the House make a statement from the Dispatch Box now to inform Fraser— to avoid any doubt, we will not call him Mr Cameron—that we live in a democracy and believe in what the people say, that this Conservative Government have given the British people a referendum and that the British Government will decide when we have referendums on such matters?

My hon. Friend has found an item on Europe on which the shadow Leader of the House and I would agree. The idea that we would deny people across the European Union the opportunity to hold referendums on issues that are important to them is absurd. There is a time and a place in a democracy for referendums and for consulting the people. The idea that we would not do so in future is ludicrous and the author should be profoundly embarrassed by his comments.

May I offer an apology to the Leader of the House? During Foreign Office questions earlier this week, certain members of the anti-Europe brigade on the Government Benches shouted at those who were pro-Europe and I called them a bunch of grumpy old men. I realise now that that was a deeply ageist comment, for which I apologise.

May we have an early debate on consumer power? Through social media, we can now take on the likes of BP that pay disgraceful wages to their chief executives and the companies that are cutting ordinary workers’ perks to compensate for the national living wage. May we have a debate on empowering consumers to punish these greedy people?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. When people ask for a change in the law on this or that, it is always worth remembering that one of the most powerful weapons available today, through the emergence of social media and mass communication, is direct consumer pressure on companies. If consumers disapprove of corporate behaviour, they can take their business elsewhere, which has an impact on performance, requiring such companies to learn lessons quickly. The power of the consumer is perhaps greater today than it has ever been.

Earlier this week the National Crime Agency stated that northern ports, particularly those on the Humber such as Hull, Grimsby and Immingham, were being targeted by people smugglers. When I last raised the matter with Ministers, they assured me that adequate resources were in place. In view of what the NCA has said, will the Leader of the House arrange for a Home Office Minister to make a statement?

I know that this is a matter of concern to my hon. Friend and, I suspect, to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn). We do not want smaller ports to be used in such a way. If they are, the extra measures that must be put in place may disrupt legitimate trade. The Transport Secretary is here next week, so I suggest that my hon. Friend take up the issue with him first of all, but I will ensure that Home Office Ministers are aware of his concerns.

The Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, may recall my recent Adjournment debate on the staffing crisis at Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, where staff had confirmed they were unable to deliver basic care owing to a lack of trained personnel. I was therefore highly alarmed to learn this week that the A&E department at Dewsbury and District Hospital was operating with less than half the minimum safe staffing requirement. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should have an urgent debate on that alarming issue?

Clearly, the hon. Lady raises a significant problem for her and her constituents. I will make sure the Secretary of State for Health is aware of her concerns. She may wish to initiate a debate, but in my experience it is probably best to go to the Department straightaway and say, “There is an issue here. It has been raised in the Commons. Can you take a look?” I will do that for her, and I hope she has a happy birthday on Saturday.

Thanks to Mr Speaker’s own magnificent decision making, there will be a demonstration next Thursday on Speaker’s Green of land mines and their removal by some of the most important bodies in the land, including the HALO Trust, from Scotland. Given the importance of this humanitarian effort, may we have a debate in this Parliament about the impact of the conflicts going on throughout the world in terms of the subsequent clearing-up of the detritus of war?

As we know, land mines have created horrendous injuries and many thousands of people around the world are living with the consequences of them. The work that has been done by people across our society, from members of the royal family downwards, to help clear land mines and support their clearance around the world is immensely valuable. I pay tribute to those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in the rest of Scotland who have been part of that. The Secretary of State for Defence will be here on Monday, so the hon. Gentleman may also want to highlight the value of that work to him and talk about ways in which the UK Government can continue to help it.

I was recently contacted by my constituent Rita Cuthell, whose father Ronald Volante sadly died while waiting nearly two hours for an ambulance to arrive after he suffered a heart attack. Mr Volante lived in a housing scheme that had a lifeline service, which he first contacted after experiencing pain. The inquest identified that despite the lifeline service provider having Mr Volante’s full medical history, it failed to convey any information to the ambulance services. Had the provider done so, his previous heart problems would have been identified and that would surely have led to a greater priority being given by the emergency services staff who took the call. May we have a debate on the need to introduce a new standard for lifeline services so that any relevant information they hold is conveyed when a 999 call is made?

That is a shocking and very disturbing story, and we send our sincere condolence and good wishes to Mr Volante’s family and convey our distress about the fact that this could happen. Clearly, one would wish the housing association involved to be acting quickly to make sure on the ground that that cannot happen again, but I will also make sure that my colleagues in the Department of Health are aware that this happened and ask them to look at whether there are lessons to be learned for the future.

May we have a statement from a Minister on the crisis in funding for local services? How can it be fair that every household in Audenshaw, Denton and Dukinfield has lost £414.74 in Government grant since 2011 and every household in Reddish and the Heatons has lost £297.35 in that same period, yet every household in Epsom and Ewell has lost only £13.12? We are not all in it together, are we?

The hon. Gentleman quotes the change figures, but he may wish to look at the absolute figures. We attempt to provide a fair balance of funding around the country. We take difficult decisions that ensure that local authorities have funding they can use to deliver necessary services while also enabling us to meet our national targets. I assure him that councils in many parts of the country still receive far less than councils in his area.

When the House rose for the recess, a local shopkeeper in my constituency, Asad Shah, was tragically killed. He was a much loved, gentle and friendly man, and he will be sorely missed by many in the Southside of Glasgow. He was also a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and the police have identified that there was religious aggravation behind the killing. May we have a debate on the persecution that the Ahmadiyya community faces in this country and around the world, and what the Government are doing to tackle this cancerous form of sectarianism?

First, let me say how deeply shocked we all were by that terrible murder and we were even more shocked by the motivation behind it. I know the Ahmadiyya Muslim community well. I have met His Holiness and members of the community, and I know the good work they do in our country, the positive role that they play in our communities and how they want to bridge gaps between different communities in this country. The fact that shortly before his death Mr Shah had published a message of goodwill to Christians is a sign of what a valuable part of our community the Ahmadis are. The hon. Gentleman is right. As you will know, Mr Speaker, they are persecuted around the world. We should always be willing to be their defenders.

The Leader of the House will be aware that we have just had Women and Equalities questions. I hope he is also aware that the Minister for Women and Equalities informed my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) that she is happy to have topical questions as part of that Question Time to allow Members to raise issues that have come up after the shuffle. Can he give the House any indication of when topical questions might be implemented for Women and Equalities questions?

I have said previously that I am open to change, and that change of this kind may be possible as we move into a new Session. We will have discussions about a number of issues, and I have talked about whether we should consider merging business questions and Leader of the House questions. There are a number of other areas in which we could make changes to the time allocated. We are considering these things and will have cross-party discussions about them. We are certainly open to making that kind of change.

The case for reform of the private Members’ Bill system was made by myself and other Members during a Westminster Hall debate yesterday. There is clear demand in this place and a public appetite for a fairer system. Frankly, the general public think that it is a farce. Will the Leader of the House introduce plans to reform timetabling of private Members’ Bills?

I do not think that most of the general public have any idea what we do and how we do it as regards private Members’ Bills. Sometimes there are examples of the system working immensely well, as we saw with the debate on assisted dying, which I thought was this House at its best. Equally, there have been cases of people saying, “I don’t understand why that is happening.” The Procedure Committee is considering all this now and I have talked extensively to the Chair of the Committee about some of the ideas coming forward. I am receptive to looking at ways of improving the system and am waiting for the Committee to report so that we can have the discussion.

My question is one that I would have liked to ask as a topical question to the Women and Equalities team. This year, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to maintain the ban on abortion even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Women accessing an abortion in those circumstances face a sentence of life imprisonment. In the light of the criminalisation in the last month of a vulnerable young woman who elsewhere in the UK and Europe would have received help from healthcare professionals and not faced imprisonment, and as it is the responsibility of this House to uphold the human rights of women in Northern Ireland, may we have a debate on this issue, as I think that many hon. Members would like to contribute?

I absolutely understand the hon. Lady’s concern. I am not personally in favour of women who seek an abortion being punished for doing so, but, of course, this is a devolved matter. We have taken a conscious decision to pass that matter into the hands of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and I am afraid that we cannot easily have it both ways. We cannot say that it is the Assembly’s decision, but that if we do not like that decision we will start to debate the issue ourselves. I agree with the hon. Lady, and I think we should make the sort of statements that she and I have just made, but ultimately this is a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Will the Leader of the House consider having a statement or debate in Government time on the future of supported and specialist housing provision? It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) a few moments ago and in PMQs yesterday. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday at which a number of Opposition Members were in attendance. It is an important issue. It is important for the victims of domestic violence, for veterans, for elderly people, for people with learning disabilities and for people with mental health issues. There is a huge question mark hanging over the viability of specialist and supported housing, so if the Minister could make a statement or we could have a debate it would be very helpful.

I understand the importance of such housing. I visited a refuge in Gloucestershire a couple of weeks ago and I understand the nature of the challenge. We listened carefully to the representations made when the issue was debated in the House a few weeks ago, but I will make sure that the relevant Ministers are aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. As we have extensive opportunities over the next month to debate such issues, perhaps he might like to have a discussion with the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee and ask that Committee to table a debate on the subject.

It is now two years since the abduction of more than 200 young schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and I am sure everyone in this House sends our sympathies to their parents. We can only imagine what that must be like. I would welcome a statement about what kind of support, if any, we are giving from this country to try to recover those girls.

I endorse what the hon. Lady says. It was a shocking incident and it remains a matter of deep concern to the international community. I can reassure her that we have been seeking to provide as much assistance as we sensibly can to the Nigerian Government to identify what may have happened and to help them identify ways of freeing the girls, and we will continue to do that. I can assure the hon. Lady that it is a matter of great concern for the Foreign Office. Of course, first and foremost it is a matter for the Nigerian Government, but we stand four square with them as a fellow Commonwealth country to try to address a challenge that remains an international blight that must be resolved.

During the recess I spoke at the Gwent St John Ambulance conference in Cwmbran in my constituency and saw the wonderful work that volunteers of that organisation do. May I add my support to the calls for a debate on the role of volunteering, including the incredible 191 million hours that volunteers contribute annually to the Welsh economy?

I pay tribute to that work around the country, not just in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Those volunteers turn up at events all over the country, week in, week out, year in, year out, and we are immensely grateful to them for what they do. Fortunately, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is still in his place and will have heard that representation.

In Women and Equalities questions the Minister for Skills indicated that he would welcome a debate in this Chamber on maternity discrimination. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on that subject in Government time?

There are a number of ways in which the hon. Lady can bring an important issue to the Chamber. I have just described one way; another is the Adjournment debate system. If she feels strongly, I encourage her to request such a debate and you, Mr Speaker, or the Backbench Business Committee might select the topic for debate.

The one exam board that offers GCSE and A-level exams in Gujarati and other so-called minority languages has confirmed its intention to stop doing so in the summer of 2018, despite Ministers’ promises last year that those exams would continue. May we have a debate on what action we as the House of Commons can take to stop the language of Mahatma Gandhi, of Prime Minister Modi and, crucially, of many of my constituents being downgraded?

I understand the concern that the hon. Gentleman raises. The Secretary of State for Education will be here on Monday week and he will have the opportunity to raise that issue then. We want to make sure that we have a good range of international languages—given the ties that we are building, have built and will continue to build with India, that is important—but we also want to make sure that the quality of education across the piece is right for those in migrant communities as they meet the employment challenges of adult life in this country.

The Brexiteers suggest that because the UK has a negative balance of payments with the European Union, we should be seeking to leave. With that in mind, may we have a debate about the UK’s place in the world? Given that we have a global trade deficit, perhaps we should be seeking to leave it, too.

We currently have a trade deficit with the European Union and a trade surplus with the rest of the world. It is the Government’s strategy to try to improve our trade ties around the world, both inside Europe and elsewhere.