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Business of the House

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 2 March 2023

The business for the week commencing 6 March will include the following:

Monday 6 March—Committee of the whole House and remaining stages of the Social Security (Additional Payments) (No.2) Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.

Tuesday 7 March—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Public Order Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Alternative Fuel Payment Pass-through Requirement (England and Wales and Scotland) Regulations 2023, followed by a motion to approve the Non-Domestic Alternative Fuel Payment Pass-through Requirement and Amendment Regulations 2023.

Wednesday 8 March—Estimates day. There will be debates on estimates relating to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in so far as it relates to adult social care; and the Department for Education, in so far as it relates to childcare and early years. At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Thursday 9 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill, followed by a general debate on International Women’s Day, followed by a general debate on brain tumour research funding. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 10 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 13 March includes the following:

Monday 13 March—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

I also remind colleagues that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 15 March.

I thank the Leader of the House for the forthcoming business.

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister announced proposals for a public advocate to act on behalf of the victims and the bereaved after public disasters like Hillsborough, the Manchester Arena bombing and Grenfell, but I am afraid that, unlike the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), the public advocate will have no independence, there will be no data controller and they will not act only at the behest of families—they will effectively be directed by the Secretary of State. Anyone who has been following the infected blood scandal, for example, knows that a public advocate has to be truly independent. It should have been clear to the Deputy Prime Minister from the response to his statement that MPs on both sides of the House want him to go much further. Even Members on his own side raised significant concerns.

If the Deputy Prime Minister will not listen to the Labour Member for Garston and Halewood, who has worked tirelessly, will he listen to his own Back Benchers, including a former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and beef up his proposals? Will the Leader of the House please make it clear to the Deputy Prime Minister that this House wants justice for victims and the bereaved?

Labour’s successful motion on Tuesday called on the Government to end the 200-year-old non-domiciled tax status, which costs taxpayers £3.2 billion a year. The next Labour Government will end that tax dodge and invest part of the money in one of the biggest NHS workforce expansions in history, as part of Labour’s plan to grasp the root cause of the crisis in the NHS. The Leader of the House, the Prime Minister and the rest of the Tory party did not even bother to turn up to vote. They sided with wealthy tax avoiders over NHS patients and staff. I wonder why.

I asked the Leader of the House to explain to her constituents why she did not support a similar Labour motion last year. Unsurprisingly, she did not answer at business questions then, so perhaps she will have a go now. Why, in January alone, did more than 5,500 of her constituents and 7,000 of mine have to wait more than two weeks to see a general practitioner? If she will not admit the sorry state to which the Tories have brought the NHS, may I suggest that she at least goes back to the Cabinet to demand that the Government respect the will of this House and implement Labour’s plan to invest in the NHS workforce?

After that, we set out our plan to get Britain back to work. Recent employment support schemes have underperformed and underspent. As a result, the number of economically inactive people is higher than before the pandemic. What will the Government do about it? Labour is calling for the reform of disability benefit assessments, targeted help for people over 50 and those who have long-term ill health, and the devolution of employment support to local areas. Who could disagree with that? Well, not some Tory Back Benchers. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley), the leader of Nottinghamshire County Council, has said as much:

“Fixing economic inactivity needs a radical pro-devolution mindset.”

That is all part of Labour’s plan to grow the economy and to boost public finances and household incomes. Does the Leader of the House also agree with Labour? If not, where is the Government’s plan?

The right hon. Lady knows the importance I place on our role as scrutinisers. That includes timely and good-quality answers to written parliamentary questions. Why, to take one example, cannot my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, get answers on whether the Government’s existing policies are even making a difference? He has asked, among many other questions: how many people secure a job after taking part in the sector-based work academy programme? How much funding is allocated to each jobcentre? How many universal credit claimants are undertaking training or education that counts towards their work-related requirements? The list of unanswered questions goes on.

Perhaps the Leader of the House could give this a go, because responses such as “This information is not available,” “The information is not collated,” and, “No such specific assessment has been made,” are very familiar to Members on both sides of the House, but they are not good enough. Will she remind Ministers that they need to answer the questions they are asked? If Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions are not confident about their policies, perhaps they ought to clear their desks and make way for Labour’s brilliant Work and Pensions team, which has a bold plan to get Britain back to work.

I end with another simple request. After the ministerial merry-go-round of the last few years, I might have thought the Minister for the Cabinet Office would be a dab hand at updating the list of ministerial responsibilities. It is essential that MPs, staff and our constituents have a clear understanding of who is responsible for what and how best to contact them. Following the latest reshuffle and Whitehall restructuring, I asked the Cabinet Office for an update, and I was told that one will be published in due course. That was more than 10 days ago. Will the Leader of the House give the Minister for the Cabinet Office a nudge? “In due course.” “Soon.” “Before too long.” That sort of language sums up the Tories’ answers to everything. “Just wait a little longer and it will all be okay,” is what they seem to think. We have had 13 years of this stuff. The British people should not have to wait longer. It is time for a fresh start and a Labour Government.

First, let me take this opportunity to place on the record, as I have been unable to do so this week, the fact that my thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the appalling train accident in Greece. I know that all Members would want to join me in that. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

I will run through the questions that the hon. Lady has asked me. With regard to the Deputy Prime Minister, there was a statement, in which he would have heard what Members have said and listened to their concerns. However, I will be happy to write to him and make sure that he knows that she has raised the matter this week.

As for the rhetoric we have had from Labour on national missions, I just say to the hon. Lady that a national mission for this country should be the strength of our NHS. If she really wants to get all minds working on that, across all sectors—public, private, philanthropic and charitable—just repeating the rhetoric that large swathes of the population do not care about the NHS is not helpful. We care very much about the NHS. Our record on investment speaks for itself, and she will know that a huge amount of work is ongoing to deal with the very real problem of backlogs because of the pandemic.

The hon. Lady could have spoken about the 92 community diagnostic centres that are open, with diagnostics being one of the main reasons why we still have those waiting list backlogs. She will know that we have massively increased access to GP appointments, with their number per day having increased by 120,000 since this time last year. That is due to the hard work of healthcare professionals, the modernisation that has been adopted, and the hard work of the Secretary of State and his team. She could acknowledge that and move the debate on from some rather outdated rhetoric. I will encourage Labour to do that at every business questions, in all other areas as well.

The hon. Lady invites comparison between the work of the Department for Work and Pensions now and the record of that Department under the last Labour Government, and indeed of the whole Government. I just remind her that we have got 4 million additional people into the workplace, with 2 million being women and 1 million being disabled people who would not otherwise have had those opportunities to work.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s gentle encouragement about the performance of Whitehall Departments. She knows that I take this matter very seriously. I have had permanent secretaries come to see me in my office, particularly, in recent times, the permanent secretary at the Home Office. She will know that we have achieved on the backlog on those questions and the casework that is so important to us in this place—70,000 more pieces of correspondence have been dealt with since this matter was raised in this House. Both Lord True, the Leader of the House of Lords, and I will be seeing all permanent secretaries next week, and we have a list of suggestions on how things can be improved. I will always want Members of this House to have timely access to information, and I shall continue to operate on that basis.

As my right hon. Friend will know, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is a warm and friendly ensemble of parliamentarians, which Ministers enjoy appearing before. I pay tribute to her for doing so, and to all current Cabinet Office Ministers, but is she aware that sometimes our cordial invitation falls on deaf ears when the Ministers concerned are in different Departments but there are matter of interest to our Committee and this House? While she is writing down her little list, may I ask her to add to it the need to remind her colleagues on the Treasury Bench that they should put scrutiny before this House as the foremost obligation in their in-trays?

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I also—to prove that I am in a good and charitable mood this morning—wish my right hon. Friend a very happy birthday for this weekend? It would be ungallant of me to say the age but, frankly, I cannot believe it.

I am the grand old age of twenty-thirty this weekend. I thank my hon. Friend for that very kind remark. He will know that, having been a frequent flyer before his Committee, I take what he says very seriously. I shall certainly ensure that any Secretary of State whom he has invited to give evidence is encouraged to do so.

I am glad to see the Leader of the House in her place today—she has not been tempted away to the seaside, I believe, with her colleagues on their away day. Many happy returns for the weekend as well.

It is perhaps no surprise that the Prime Minister scheduled the away day on a business day. Let us face it, folk are starting to notice that there is an extremely light hand on the Government’s legislative tiller these days. Last night, again, business finished early, and it is happening more often despite the big backlog of Bills, along with last-minute filler debates. It surely exposes the Government as not being in control of their agenda or their Back Benchers.

This Parliament is almost unique in the world for the Government being able to control almost all the business of the House. The Leader of the House might point to Backbench or Opposition Day debates, but the Government can and do unilaterally decide to shift those debates as they see fit. Many other Parliaments have cross-party bureaux or corporate bodies that determine business, so why not this place? Why not explore an amendable and votable business statement, which would mean that Back Benchers from all parties could have some say in the final decisions, and that business would therefore reflect the majority view? If the Government cannot do the job, I am sure that the rest of the House would gladly take it on. Yes, even the SNP, as we work under the constraints of this place—before we leave for our independent Scotland.

The Leader of the House gave a speech yesterday entitled “Trust in Britain”—a bold heading these days. I agreed with quite a few of her points, including on the importance of freedom, for example, even while I marvelled at her ability to separate her Government and her party from blame for the problems that they have caused. She acknowledged that Parliaments are struggling to be effective and relevant in the modern world. Will she take up the challenge to reform, shake up and place her stamp on this issue? I would recommend the report from University College London’s constitution unit, called “Taking back control”—she would like it.

Secondly, there is some good news about Scotland, which I am sure the Leader of the House will welcome. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that the Scottish Government’s recent Budget means that the poorest 10% of Scottish families are set to be £580 a year better off than their counterparts in England and Wales. Can we have a debate on what the UK Government can learn from Scotland on protecting the most vulnerable? Surely they are prepared to learn from others on this issue.

Finally, I have a request for the Leader of the House, who likes to use these weekly important business questions —ostensibly about the conduct of her own Government —to answer the questions that she is asked rather than use it purely as a pulpit to attack other democratically elected Governments across the UK. She really needs to understand that the purpose of her being here is to answer for her own Government’s actions, even if that is, understandably, depressing for her.

Mr Speaker, I want it to be placed on record that the hon. Lady has asked me three questions, and I anticipate that I may have more questions from her honourable colleagues. As a consequence, I would like it placed on record that my space is no longer safe, but I will soldier on. May I just welcome the SNP’s U-turn on allowing media access to their leadership contest hustings and not restricting the candidates to just one question.

Let me turn now, ruthlessly focused, to the three questions that the hon. Lady has asked me this week. She says that we have no business going through the House at the moment. We do have some big Bills to come, and she will know that we have many Bills currently waiting with their lordships. Part of the reason we have not been sitting through the night is that there is quite a lot of agreement in the House about the legislation that the Government are passing. We have had a lot of support from the Opposition Benches, which is partly why she is not having to sit for longer hours and do more.

The hon. Lady asks why we do not have an amendable business statement. I understand why an SNP Member would ask that question, because to the SNP, government is about virtue signalling, dividing nations and political posturing, but government is actually about getting things done and passing legislation. For that reason, we are concerned to control the Floor of the House to ensure that we get done what the people of the country voted for. She and her colleagues might like to try that sometime.

Finally, the hon. Lady said that her constituents were much better off than those in other parts of the UK. I gently point out that her stated policy would make them considerably worse off, because if we ever did have Scottish independence—God forbid—they would immediately lose £2,000 a head, which is the calculated cost of independence to every man, woman and child in Scotland.

May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the disaster that is the ultra low emission zone and the discussions that he has had with Mayor Khan about his friends, family and funeral tax, which will have a huge impact on constituencies in outer London and its borders? The expansion of the ULEZ has more to do with raising funds than with improving air quality.

That is a recurring theme, and the concern is shared by not only Conservative politicians in this place but many politicians of all hues. When Commons business questions sounds more and more like London Assembly questions, something is going badly wrong in London.

Yesterday, at the Women and Equalities Committee, the Minister for Women and Equalities suggested that the recommendations of the Committee’s recent report on the menopause were driven by “a left-wing perspective”. The Committee is cross-party and the report reflected evidence taken from external bodies and individuals. May we have a statement on the appropriateness of a Minister accusing a Select Committee of political bias?

First, I say to the hon. Lady, who has campaigned so much on that issue, that I do not think that is quite what the Minister said; I think she was talking about an approach to a particular aspect of policy and the Government-run pilot on menopause leave.

On the substance of the policy, however, the hon. Lady knows better than anyone how the Government propose to take the issue forward. We have massive cross-party consensus on it, which is welcome—as a post-menopausal woman, I can tell hon. Members that it is about blinking time. As she knows, the clinical lead who will take it forward will look at what is happening in workplaces and what is good practice, and there will be measures to ensure that all employers are adopting those sensible approaches, which is what we should be focusing on. I want us to continue working cross-party on the issue for women who are yet to go through what we have been through.

Can we have an early debate in Government time on how this House can continue to hold the Government to account and scrutinise their actions, when we seem to be in an era of government-by-WhatsApp, which is secretive and irrational, and is denying us our opportunity to hold the Government to account on an evidence basis?

I would first point out that it is a good week to say that WhatsApp is secretive. This is deeply regrettable, I think. I would just hope that, on such serious matters as the covid inquiry, the Westminster bubble can rise to the challenge of dealing with this in the manner in which it deserves to be approached.

My hon. Friend will know that the Cabinet Office has very clear policies about WhatsApp messages—what can be decided and how those things are captured and stored—and my understanding is that people’s WhatsApp messages have been captured, and are being captured, for that covid inquiry.

By the time that we come to deal with the alternative fuel payment pass-through requirement regulations on Tuesday, can the Leader of the House assure me that the Minister will be able to answer the very basic questions that my constituents are asking?

The payments started landing last week, and people who did not expect to get them are getting them, while people who are obviously entitled to them are not. I am being inundated with questions, with people asking me whether that money will be clawed back. They will want answers to those questions. They should have had them by now, but will they at least get them next Tuesday?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that important question, and I will ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what he has said today. Anticipating this type of question, I did look at what was on, and if one searches for “help with your fuel bills”, there is quite a comprehensive set of answers on there, including for this new scheme. However, if there are specifics that he needs in a timely way, before he has a chance to speak to the Secretary of State directly, I ask him to please let me know, and I will do my best to ensure that he gets answers.

Can we have a debate on the blight of litter and fly-tipping, and its effect on our communities? Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking the Huddersfield Litter Bandits, the Holmepride community group, the Honley village volunteers, and many more, who are going out and clearing up other people’s mess? Finally, would she join me in supporting the Kirklees Conservative group, which is proposing longer opening hours at recycling centres to help tackle, in part, the blight of fly-tipping.

I am very pleased to join my hon. Friend in congratulating all those community organisations that care so much about their local environment. I thank them for all their work. Indeed, my hon. Friend’s Conservative group is absolutely right. Part of solving this problem is to make it easier for people to deposit their rubbish in appropriate places. I wish them good luck, and hope that common sense prevails.

Although not announced today, I understand that the small-boats legislation will be coming to the House shortly. The Home Affairs Committee carried out a two-year inquiry into the small-boats issue and made a number of recommendations, some of which the Government are now taking up, including dealing with the asylum backlog. We also visited northern France in January to look at what was happening on the ground.

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that it might be helpful if the Home Affairs Committee did some pre-legislative scrutiny of the small-boats legislation? We want to ensure that the Bill is properly considered, looking at the evidence, as should happen with all Bills coming before this House. It might also help to avoid further legislation having to be brought forward again to deal with the same problem.

I thank the right hon. Lady for raising that and for illustrating the value of the work that Select Committees do in this place. A huge amount of work and thinking has been done, and I know that the Home Office will have looked at all those pieces of work in arriving at its conclusions. She will know that I will announce business in the usual way, but I would also just say to her that, as well as getting the Bill right—this is such an important matter for everyone in this country —we also need to get it done swiftly. I hope that she will look at the Bill and be content that it does the right things. I urge all Members of this House to pass it swiftly —with scrutiny, and with improvements, if necessary—when it arrives here.

Further to that issue, in a week when we are told that the asylum applications of thousands of illegal economic migrants will be fast tracked, and when yet another hotel in my constituency has been taken to house illegal entrants to the UK, will the Leader of the House please confirm when we will get a chance to fast-track legislation that deters illegal entry to the UK by providing that anyone who arrives here illegally does not get a passport, and anyone arriving from a safe third country is immediately sent back there? I assure my right hon. Friend that, such is the appetite on the Conservative Benches, we would sit until any hour on any day to accommodate any timetable she may have to deal with this urgent matter.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we will bring forward a Bill that will do precisely as he asks. I am glad that we have it on record that he will support the Government.

The Leader of the House may be aware of an article in yesterday’s Financial Times about the funding cliff edge faced by universities across the United Kingdom at the end of structural funding in March, which will end 166 projects. In Swansea, we will be looking at a loss of 24 projects and 150 jobs, and she had promised to raise that issue with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, although there have been a couple of BEIS Secretaries since then. As that funding is desperately important for green growth—and shared prosperity funding goes to local authorities rather than to universities—will she urgently raise this matter with Cabinet colleagues, particularly those from the Treasury, ahead of the Budget, so that we can get the green growth research and development that we need to make Britain strong again?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has already raised that with the Chancellor but—belt and braces—I shall make sure that the Chancellor has heard him.

I was thrilled to see in the written ministerial statement that the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the Ministry of Defence have jointly agreed to initiate a review into the outputs of Veterans UK. I place on the record my thanks to all Members who supported the survey of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans, including the hon. Members for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) and for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who are both here. May I also thank the Leader of the House for her support for that work, as well as the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), who has done some outstanding work on this? The review is a great step forward for our veterans, and I look forward to seeing what it has to say.

May I thank the hon. Gentleman for the work that he and his APPG have done? The survey had a good response, and it is welcome that it focused on all sorts of experiences, particularly the financial concerns that veterans have. I am glad that he has got his praise of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and the MOD on the record. This is a step forward: we must ensure that everyone who has served this country is taken care of by this country.

While we are celebrating, I welcome the Leader of the House to the twenty-thirties. Will she join me in congratulating Historic Environment Scotland on its announcement of the opening of more than 30 historic and ancient sites in Scotland—notably, the ancient Dumbarton Castle in my constituency—that have been closed owing to the impact of climate change? Can we have a debate about the impact of climate change on our historic environment and on how we can work together across these islands to maintain that historic environment for future generations?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue and for his kind remarks about my imminent birthday. He will know how to apply for a debate in the usual way, but I shall also make sure the Secretary of State has heard what he said.

Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on clean air charging zones? Parliament must not allow regional Mayors in areas such as Greater Manchester to impose excessive, economically damaging taxation on hard-working people during a cost of living crisis. The clean air zone in Greater Manchester and the ULEZ in London are a tax on jobs and aspiration and clearly not fit for purpose.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The focus of this and the reason it is a difficult issue is that we want to make progress on the environment, and we want people to be healthy, but that cannot be done through revenue raising exercises or clobbering households, tradesmen and businesses, which we know is happening. We need innovation and smart policies that allow the acceleration to take up new technologies or buy more recent vehicles, and one way we can do that is allowing businesses to have enough liquidity to invest in this new technology. Taking money off them is not the answer.

Following the question from the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), I also warmly welcome the Government’s statement today on welfare services for veterans in response to our APPG’s veterans survey. Can we have clarification on whether the review will independently analyse the armed forces compensation scheme and war pensions processes? Will the Leader of the House facilitate the meeting promised to me and members of the all-party group at the previous Defence questions?

I thank the hon. Lady for demonstrating the cross-party support that there is to look after our veterans. I shall certainly raise this with the MOD and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs. My understanding is that it is, but I shall confirm that.

Many of my constituents agreed to have a smart meter installed to receive data on real-time energy usage, which a growing number of people rely on to ensure they can effectively budget and find ways to reduce their energy bills, but British Gas only provides a 12-month warranty on its smart meter monitors, and if they break after that, customers cannot even pay to have a new monitor installed. British Gas claims that this is not a problem because people can access the data online or via a smartphone. However, as we know, many of our constituents are unable to use a computer or do not have a computer or a smartphone. Clearly, these people are being let down by their energy supplier, and they are struggling to budget for their bills. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on increasing the statutory minimum period during which energy firms must provide technical support for this technology, so that my constituents can trust that they can rely on a smart meter for more than 12 months?

I thank my hon. Friend for shining a spotlight on this. This situation is completely nuts. We have made huge efforts to get people on to smart meters, with all the benefits that it might bring them, and then they are unable to continue using them and have to take manual readings—it is an insane situation. He is right to point out that the legislation covers the first 12 months, but we have reserved the right to introduce further legislation if required. I sincerely hope that that will not be necessary, and I urge British Gas and other such companies to think about the service they are giving their customers, particularly those who have mobility issues and who do not have access to the internet. This is an easy thing to sort out, and they damn well should.

If the Leader of the House was in the Chamber just before the start of business questions, she will have heard me raise a point of order on a letter I received from the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), relating to an issue that I raised in Transport questions. He was announcing that we would get extra train services off-peak on our local lines and said he had written to four MPs. I received that letter just after I asked my question. It has now emerged that Conservative MPs who received that letter were tweeting about it at 9 am this morning. Clearly, there has been favourable treatment of Conservative Members over Opposition Members. As Leader of the House, what does she have to say about that?

The hon. Gentleman credits us with a level of organisation that would be surprising! In all seriousness, I shall certainly look into that on his behalf. We have just had Transport questions, he has made a point of order, and he has raised the issue with me. The hon. Gentleman has done his due diligence and duty, and I will certainly look into it.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK lost 370,000 businesses last year—that is a very big number. Many of those businesses went under because they were unable to cope with the rise in energy costs. In Bath, our business sector is rebounding well, with last year’s Christmas market raising £50 million for the local economy; however, it is extremely worrying that the Government are planning to jeopardise that recovery through cutting business energy support by 85% in April. Can we have a debate in Government time about this emerging national crisis?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that. Our business sector is incredibly resilient. We obviously supported businesses through the energy bill relief scheme, and as she will know, we are bringing in the energy bills discount scheme from April this year for the following 12 months. She will also know that the Budget is coming up, and I know that the Chancellor will be wanting to support local businesses in many ways. I encourage the hon. Lady to make representations to the Chancellor before the Budget.

Yesterday, during the urgent question on testing of care home residents during the covid pandemic, I asked a question of the Social Care Minister, the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately). I raised the fact that on 2 April 2020, I wrote jointly with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) to the former Health and Social Care Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), highlighting the urgent need for testing in care homes for staff and residents, and for patients being discharged from hospital. I also highlighted that in June 2021 I asked the right hon. Member for West Suffolk why the Government had not taken up the offer, made early in the pandemic by care providers, of new and unused care facilities to isolate people discharged from hospital before admitting them to care homes.

I have to say that the reply I got from the Social Care Minister yesterday was perfunctory, and overall her responses were lacking in empathy with the bereaved. These questions need to be debated now, in order to help the grieving families of the tens of thousands of residents and hundreds of staff of care homes who died after contracting covid. Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate in Government time on matters around the heavy death toll of residents and staff of care homes from covid?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that I am very aware not just of the formal correspondence that she received but, having spent much of the first year of the pandemic on the phone every day to colleagues from across this House on those early-morning calls, of all the concerns, representations and ideas that were forwarded by Members from across the House to the Government throughout that time.

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is important that we have the covid inquiry, which will look at all of these matters. We also need, as has happened with the national resilience team in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that if—God forbid—a situation like that occurred again tomorrow, we would be in the best place and best prepared, and had had those immediate learnings. It is crucial that the covid inquiry is able to address those matters; speaking as someone who may be a witness to that inquiry, I think that is incredibly important. I will make sure that the Department of Health and Social Care has heard what the hon. Lady has said.

This 20 March marks 20 years since the beginning of Operation Telic. Regardless of anyone’s views about the Iraq war, I am sure the Leader of the House will understand the importance of commemorating the service and sacrifice of the 179 brave servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country. What plans do the Government have to ensure that those people are remembered, and what opportunities will there be for Members in this House to pay our respects?

May I first welcome this question from the hon. Gentleman? I also welcome that it is he who is asking this question, and I put on record our thanks, including to him personally for the service he gave in that part of the world. We are fortunate to have many Members in this place—about 10% of the Members of this House—to have served in our armed forces, and many of them will have been on Op Telic and served in that part of the world. He is right that it is incredibly important that we remember, educate, commemorate and give thanks for the service that was given, in particular by those 179 armed forces personnel who lost their lives. I know that Mr Speaker will be keen that we mark the anniversary in this place, and I shall write to the Ministry of Defence to make sure that it has heard the hon. Gentleman’s invitation today.

I have been campaigning on the fact that Scottish football fans have to pay to see the men’s national team on TV. Indeed, during a Scotland game, Scottish fans could turn on their TVs to see the England team on free-to-air television—heaven forfend. Today, the Scottish Affairs Committee published a report calling for that issue to be addressed. Can we have a debate on that report? Will the Leader of the House give the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer) a nudge for me? Back on 1 December, her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) agreed to meet me to discuss this subject, but her successor has not yet replied to my letter asking her to honour that.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. I encourage him to raise it at Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions on 9 March, but I shall certainly ensure that the Secretary of State has heard what he has said today.

The Leader of the House will be aware that there is extensive consensus across all parties to the effect that the homicidal maniacs and clerical fascists of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps should be proscribed and banned. I get that impression from Minister after Minister from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office, who come to the Dispatch Box and express sympathy with proscribing the organisation, but it does not quite seem to happen. Has there been any indication from the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of State that they are about to make any kind of decision or an announcement from the Dispatch Box that we will finally ban the IRGC?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that very important matter. It is an opportunity to put on record that all Members of the House are deeply concerned by what is going on, and we will remain focused on exposing the brutality of what is happening. I can confirm that this matter is being looked at, and I shall certainly make sure that the FCDO and Secretary of State have heard his concerns again today.

On 2 December, the Government announced that it would publish and consult on their disability action plan. Does the Leader of the House know when that will be published? When it is published, will the Leader of the House commit to providing a debate in Government time on this very important piece? If not, perhaps the Leader of the House might want to explain why not.

We have a record in this place of debating these matters, and I know they are of concern to all Members of the House. There is an opportunity on 6 March to ask the Secretary of State directly about the timetable. I am happy to make those inquiries on the hon. Lady’s behalf, as she has raised it today, and the Government Equalities Office of course has an interest, too.

Why have the Government not made time, as they really should have done, for a debate and a vote on early-day motion 794, which prays against the negative statutory instrument, the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill (Prohibition on Submission for Royal Assent) Order 2023?

[That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, praying that the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill (Prohibition on Submission for Royal Assent) Order 2023 (S.I., 2023, No. 41), dated 17 January 2023, a copy of which was laid before this House on 17 January 2023, be annulled.]

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on such a precise question. He asks why we have not tabled a debate on it; it is because that is not usual practice. The hon. Gentleman knows how to apply for one. If he has any further concerns, he can raise them with my office.

Can we please have a debate on children’s access to education? I often have parents coming to see me who are struggling to get their children into school—their children may have complex needs or mental health issues, or are awaiting an education, health and care plan or a mental health referral, if they can get a referral at all. Parents are really struggling with some of those issues. When we hear Cabinet members suggesting that parents should have their benefits dropped if they cannot get their children into school, that shows a real lack of understanding of some of the struggles parents are facing. I think a debate would be really useful for Members to be informed of some of those challenges.

I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to a comment that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), made at a policy group. I would certainly welcome any debate on the Floor of the House that highlighted the number of children playing truant under a Labour Government. In my constituency alone, I had 600 children who were out of school for more than three months of the school year—that is Labour’s record. When we came in in 2010, a huge effort was made to get those children back in school, and we have had considerable success at doing that, but I am always interested in what more we can do to ensure that all children are getting access to not just education, but the tailored education they need.

It is almost two years since the Government announced that LGBT veterans who were shamelessly dismissed from the armed forces due to their sexuality could apply to have their medals restored. My constituent Richard Davidson’s great-great-uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Sidney Rumbold, was a hero who fought for our country in world war one, but who was court-martialled and dismissed because he was gay. Richard has applied to have Sidney’s medals restored, but has not received a response in about a year. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Minister responsible comes to the House to explain why my constituents and others have not had their hard- earned medals restored?

That was an appalling wrong which I am very pleased we have righted. In addition to veterans being stripped of their medals, the manner in which it was done was the most appalling thing, and incredibly brutal to those individuals. It is right that we correct that. I thank the hon. Lady for getting that name on the record in Hansard. I will certainly write to the Ministry of Defence and the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to ensure that this particular case is dealt with swiftly.

Our constituents often exhaust other avenues before contacting their Members of Parliament, so when they do contact their Member of Parliament and we write on their behalf, we should expect a response in a reasonable time. There are lots of cases where that does not happen, but the worst, as far as I am concerned, is a letter I wrote to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 5 November last year, which was transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 23 November. Since then, despite eight chase-ups, my office has not received a substantive response. After I tabled a written question on 24 January, the response from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), was that I would receive a reply in due course. That was on 30 January; it is now 2 March. It has been four months since the initial inquiry, and I have still received no substantive response. I know that the Leader of the House is concerned about this issue because it has been raised in the past. Could we have a debate on this issue so that we can see how widespread it actually is, and do something about it?

I am very sorry to hear that. That is not an acceptable situation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for the detail he gave in his question and, if he would pass those details to my office, I will raise the matter when I see the permanent secretaries next week.

We are now less than a month away from a new financial year. Over the past few weeks, councils have been setting the budgets that they have been working on for months now, but we still do not have the public health grant for England allocated to local government. Will the Leader of the House crack the whip with the Ministers responsible and get that information out to local governments so that they can finalise their public health allocations in their budgets, and will she apologise to councillors of all political persuasions for this sorry affair having dragged on for so long?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. He tried to get an urgent question on it. He will know that I have raised the matter on his behalf with the relevant Departments. I would just say to him that it is not unusual—there are reasons for it—for those funding allocations to be published this month and sometimes later. I will again make sure that the Department has heard his concerns, but it is not an unusual situation. Of course, we want to make sure people have information in a timely way to make those decisions.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has already raised the issue of access to the alternative fuel payment and some of the chaos around its application. It is the second day of meteorological spring. People who are off grid, and people who do not have a direct relationship with their electricity supplier, are still waiting for the portal through which they can apply for a payment to go live. These are some of the most vulnerable people—in some cases, they are in park homes or canal boats—and they have not had any help with their fuel bills for the whole winter. So can we ask for a statement from the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero on how and when these people can expect some help with their energy bills?

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. Again, I would refer her to the website. I will certainly follow up after this meeting and ask someone from the Department to get in touch with her office and her caseworkers to make sure she has the answers.

There are many things across the world that need to be highlighted, whether it be Nigeria’s elections and the allegations of fraud, the persecution of Christians in India, or the escalation of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But this morning, I would like to ask a question about the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies having reported that February saw a surge in militant attacks, and the targets of these attacks are the Government and religious minority communities. During the recess, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief, I led a delegation to Pakistan, and we saw at first hand the impact on Ahmadis, Christians, Hindus, Shi’as and other minorities in the country. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning these attacks and issuing a statement of support for Pakistan’s religious minorities?

I would be very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in sending that message. We place great responsibility and focus on freedom of religion. We know that, where there is intolerance, this has a huge impact, with many people displaced and, of course, appalling violence and conflict. That is why the FCDO and other Departments invest so much in combating that. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting that on record today, and for all the work he does to ensure that people around the world can enjoy freedom of religion.