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House of Commons Hansard
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Business of the House
26 November 2009
Volume 501

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May I ask the Leader of the House to give us next week’s business?

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The business for next week will be:

Monday 30 November—Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill.

Tuesday 1 December—Motion to approve European documents relating to financial services, followed by a general debate on fisheries.

Wednesday 2 December—Remaining stages of the Equality Bill.

Thursday 3 December—A general debate on European affairs.

The provisional business for the week commencing 7 December will include:

Monday 7 December—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Tuesday 8 December—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 9 December—Statement on the pre-Budget report, followed by remaining stages of the Child Poverty Bill.

Thursday 10 December—Estimates Day [1st allotted day]. There will be a debate on students and universities and a debate on the relationship between central and local government. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Students and universities; 11th Report of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee of Session 2008-09 HC 170; Government Response—8th Special Report of Session 2008-09, HC 991. The Balance of Power: Central and Local Government; 6th Report form the Communities and Local Government Committee of Session 2008-09, HC33; Government Response—Cm 7712.]

At 6 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 December will be:

Thursday 10 December—A debate from the Work and Pensions Committee on tackling pensioner poverty.

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I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.

Today there is a written statement from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the local government finance settlement for next year. Last year, as in most years, there was an oral statement on the Floor of the House, allowing us to question the Minister on behalf of hard-pressed council tax payers in our constituencies. Why has that convention been broken for the last settlement before an election?

Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a debate after the pre-Budget report on 9 December? Given the delicate state of the UK economy, does she not think that the House has a right to debate the Chancellor’s plans?

Pursuant to the answers we have just heard, will the Leader of the House give a clear indication of when she expects to find time for the House to debate and vote on the recommendations of the Wright Committee—the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons? Unlike the right hon. and learned Lady, I welcomed the report when it was published, particularly since many of the ideas reflected what the Opposition had already proposed. In written evidence to the Committee in July, she said that she wanted a quick report

“so that the proposed reforms can be considered for implementation early in the next Session.”

I share that enthusiasm, so can we expect to have a debate and votes on the proposals before the end of January?

I see in the future business set out in today’s Order Paper that the right hon. and learned Lady has tabled a motion on the appointment of the chairman and other members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Given the speed with which we need to move if we are to get the authority up and running, will she give time next week for that debate?

Will the right hon. and learned Lady give a statement on the timetabling of her Equality Bill? Yesterday, on a point of order, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) noted that her Bill will have only one day on Report, despite the size of the legislation and the number of amendments, excluding Government amendments, that have already been tabled. The right hon. and learned Lady has given several promises to the House that her Bill will provide an exemplar of good scrutiny; we would expect nothing less from the parliamentarian of the year. Will she give an assurance that she will translate her fine words into action?

May I repeat my call for a stand-alone debate in Government time on Afghanistan? Yesterday, the former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, accused the Prime Minister of

“squeezing the defence budget for approximately eight years.”

The right hon. and learned Lady has said on several occasions that she recognises the need to find time for a debate on Afghanistan. As Downing street has briefed that a decision from President Obama on troop levels is imminent, will she promise to ensure that the House has an early opportunity to discuss the implications of that decision for our forces on the ground?

Finally, may I ask once again when the right hon. and learned Lady will give us the date of the Easter recess? She said last week that it would be announced “in the usual way”. If that is the case, why did she not do it in the usual way when she gave us the date of the Christmas and February recesses more than four weeks ago? Is her reluctance to announce the date in any way related to the careless whisper from the Home Secretary, who this week betrayed his fears that next year’s poll would be

“a watershed election, à la 1945, à la 1979, more so than 1997”?

Does the right hon. and learned Lady share those anxieties, or is she made of tougher stuff than the Home Secretary?

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The right hon. Gentleman asked about the written ministerial statement on the local government settlement. He will know that I have announced the date of the pre-Budget report; all the issues can be raised when the Chancellor is at the Dispatch Box on the occasion of the pre-Budget report.

The right hon. Gentleman asked when the pre-Budget report, which will be the subject of a statement, can be debated. I know that the House is concerned to ensure that we have a weekly opportunity to discuss the important issues of the economy and the public spending that is needed to support the economy as it comes out of recession and into recovery. I judge that the fiscal responsibility Bill, which will shortly have its Second Reading, will offer an opportunity to debate all the issues that arise on the pre-Budget report.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Wright Committee. I pay tribute to and thank all the hon. Members who have served on that Committee; they have done a very good and thorough job. Of course the House will need to debate the report. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was we who brought a motion before the House that enabled it to agree to set up the Committee.

The House will need to debate the report and come to a decision on any changes arising from it. It was published only two days ago, and the Government respect its complexity and its reach. We will give it full consideration and tell the House how we propose to proceed, but I want to allay any concerns that somehow nothing has happened since 1997, and that everything remains to be done. There has been a continuous process of reform and modernisation of the House; we have brought proposals to the House, and they have been put into effect. The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that the normal time within which a debate is held in the House after such a report is two months, which would take us to the end of January.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the appointment of the chair and board members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. We strongly agree with him that IPSA needs to be able to get on with its work as soon as possible. There is a chair-designate and an acting chief executive; the board members have been identified by the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; a motion has been laid before the House, and we expect to debate it next week so that IPSA can get on with its very important work.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of parliamentary scrutiny of the Equality Bill. Following hon. Members’ references to that issue on a number of occasions, I have looked very carefully into it. I would say that the Bill has received unprecedented scrutiny by the House—and rightly so. It was the subject of a report not only by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but also by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. There was a Public Bill Committee, in which evidence was taken from the public, and there were also many hours of debate. To make the Bill an exemplar of good practice my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, the lead Minister on the Bill, has already tabled all the amendments and new clauses that we seek to put before the House on Report. That was done yesterday, so the House has been given much more notice than usual of the issues that will come back to it for debate on Report.

It was not possible to debate in Committee one particular issue, so it will be put before the House on Report. That is the question of extending to Scotland clause 1, which gives public authorities a statutory obligation to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It covers England and was extended, by agreement, to Wales; I have had discussions with the Scottish Executive and they have now, I am glad to say, agreed that it should apply to devolved authorities as well as to reserved authorities. That is a late agreement, but with the agreement of the House we have proposed it in a new clause for discussion on Report, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with us and understand why it was not possible to introduce it in Committee.

The rest of the amendments are about crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on issues about which there is no quarrel; they are just technical issues. There is an ongoing discussion about religion, freedom of speech and sexual orientation, and there have been many hours of debate on those subjects. Indeed, I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) participated in that debate. There is no final agreement on the issue, but I am satisfied that the Equality Bill will be properly scrutinised, then go to the House of Lords and, I hope, pass into law.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of Afghanistan, and President Obama’s statement is expected next week. I know that the House will have an early opportunity to make its comments known and to raise issues on the Floor of the House after the President’s statement next week.

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rose

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Order. I remind the Leader of the House and the hon. Gentleman whom I am about to call that a very large number of Back Benchers want to contribute.

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The Leader of the House said that the House would have an opportunity to debate the President’s statement on Afghanistan, but as she sat down she did not quite make it clear how or when that opportunity will come. It would be extremely helpful if she could clarify that point.

It should be totally unnecessary for the Opposition to ask for a debate on the pre-Budget report. The fact that other financial matters are before the House does not mean that it should not scrutinise the PBR properly.

On programming and the Equality Bill, it is the Leader of the House who introduced the new scope, involving Scotland, and the House will need to debate that. As for the chances of dealing with all the other amendments, she may think that those involve dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but it is up to this House, when scrutinising the Bill, to decide whether the i’s and t’s have been dotted or crossed. Will she therefore ensure that the Bill receives the proper scrutiny that she promised?

The Leader of the House says that the Energy Bill will come before the House, but why has she scheduled House business that requires the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to be here when he should be in Copenhagen setting the agenda for a climate change conference deal? Why has that business been set to clash so that the Secretary of State has to be in two places at once?

Will the Leader of the House tell the House when the Flood and Water Management Bill will receive its Second Reading? My constituents experienced flooding in Stonehaven, and I know from that just how serious the situation is, but many constituencies in England have now experienced dramatic flooding, so the Bill will be an important step in trying to respond to the crisis.

Finally, will the Leader of the House show more enthusiasm for the Wright Committee’s report, and more willingness to take forward its agenda and ensure that this Parliament, in its dying days, delivers that reform to the people of this country?

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I have not been able to announce anything specific about the opportunity for the House to raise points following the announcement by the President of the United States on Afghanistan, but I am “signalling”, as it is described in the newspapers, that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the matter. However, hon. Members know that oral statements are not announced in advance—[Interruption.] We do not usually announce them in advance. Anyway, I am not doing so today; I am signalling that there will be an opportunity. We all know that every week in this House we need an opportunity to raise questions about Afghanistan, and we will ensure that next week, on the important occasion of the President of the United States making his comments, we will be consistent on the matter and ensure the House has the opportunity it needs.

As for the debate on the pre-Budget report, the point here is the substance, not the form. The question is this: will the House have a chance to debate the issues raised on the pre-Budget report? The question is not about what form that will take, but about the substance, and I would say that it will be possible to raise the substance on Second Reading of the fiscal responsibility Bill. I have looked at these issues carefully and I am satisfied that that will be the case.

Obviously, the point of Report stage of the Equality Bill is not simply to repeat the 30 hours of debate that have already taken place—there has already been careful scrutiny by those who served on the Committee—but to deal with issues that have come forward from Committee. As I have said, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has ensured that the House can see the Government’s proposals for Report. I hope the Bill will have the full backing of the House.

As for the Copenhagen summit and the Energy Bill, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will know that the Prime Minister will be attending Copenhagen—as will President Obama, which is welcome news.

On the subject of the Flood and Water Management Bill, there was a statement in the House last week, and the Prime Minister dealt with the question of the floods. We will be introducing that Bill—and obviously, we pay tribute to all those who are working to protect people in the flood-stricken community in Cumbria.

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rose

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Order. No fewer than 42 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye—a record in my limited experience to date—and the House will be conscious that the continuation of the Queen’s Speech debate, to which there are lots of willing contributors, will follow, so I appeal again to each right hon. or hon. Member to ask a single short supplementary question, and of course, to the Leader of the House to offer us a pithy reply.

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Five young people are alive today because of the tragic death of a wonderful little boy, George Higginson. George was an organ donor. His father feels that it would be beneficial if people had an opportunity to sign up as organ donors while voting at elections, particularly the general election.

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It is a desperately sad and difficult decision for all families when a child dies, and it is an incredibly generous thing for them to agree to organ donations that can save other people’s lives. My hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion, and I will talk to the Justice Secretary to see whether cards for signing up for organ donation could be made available in polling stations.

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May we have a statement on a wider review of student visas? Only seven months after the rules were changed, all the language schools, particularly those in Bournemouth and Poole, are very upset about some of the proposals, which could mean their closure. That would be devastating for the local economy.

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I will refer this matter to my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue.

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May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to the threat to 200 very successful jobs in Llanishen in my constituency? The jobs are in Pelican Healthcare and Great Bear Healthcare, which make disposable medical products for the whole of the UK. Those jobs are at risk because of the differences in electronic prescribing practices between Wales and the rest of the UK. May we have a debate on the anomalies that are threatening those jobs in my constituency?

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I know that my hon. Friend is foremost in defending the jobs of people who live in her constituency, and I will raise that issue with the Health Secretary and ask him to liaise with his Welsh counterparts and with her.

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May we have an urgent debate on climate change and civil liberties, and in particular, the right of British people to eat beef wherever and whenever they want? Does she agree that trying to stop British people eating beef is like trying to stop the French eating cheese?

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We want to eat healthily, tackle climate change and be nice to animals, and we have to work together on all those issues.

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I heard what the Leader of the House said about the Equality Bill programme, but what will she do to ensure that we debate the important amendments that would end the scandalous exploitation of seafarers, which happens even when they are sailing on British ships between British ports? This is an issue that needs addressing.

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I know that my hon. Friend, as Member of Parliament for Dover, is an outstanding champion for those who work in the ports and seafarers. I understand that he has already arranged a meeting with the Solicitor-General to see what progress can be made on this issue.

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May we have a debate on education so that we can discuss the problems faced by Radcliffe school in Milton Keynes, whose future is uncertain because the Secretary of State is refusing to make his mind up about whether it should become an academy?

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I will raise that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman. If hon. Members want to raise questions about an individual school with me, they will get a more complete answer if they give me notification in advance. Indeed, following that practice might have saved the Leader of the Opposition yesterday.

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May I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for my earlier yellow-card offence?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify that the Government intend to table amendments to the Crime and Security Bill, which we will consider in the new year, to introduce a compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Bali, Sharm el-Sheikh and other international terrorist atrocities against British citizens, and to close the loophole that disbars them from compensation? The Government gave a promise. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear today—of all days, as it is the first anniversary of the Mumbai atrocities—that that will be done?

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My right hon. Friend is very persistent, and he has shown that in raising this issue for the second time this morning. It is a very serious issue, and we are at an advanced stage in considering the options for including provision in the Crime and Security Bill for a compensation scheme for victims of overseas terrorism. Compensation is available for victims of terrorism in this country, but my right hon. Friend is raising the case of victims of terrorism abroad, and the gap in the system. We are taking steps to deal with that.

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In business questions on 16 July the Leader of the House said that the Solicitor-General would discuss how to handle the Equality Bill on Report, and would consult Members. No consultation has taken place and we will have only one day, which is completely inadequate. Members on both sides of the House have tabled amendments that need to be debated. Will the Leader of the House ensure that they are debated?

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Amendments and new clauses have been tabled, and I am sure that they will receive sufficient debate. There have been discussions. We do not usually go into what happens through the usual channels, but I am confident that the substance and issues that need to be debated will be, and we can then all focus on putting the contents of the Bill into practice.

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Before the introduction of the flagship National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Government set up the Low Pay Commission. May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 191, which is supported by Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House believes that the Government should establish a High Pay Commission to examine the effects of high pay on the economy and society; acknowledges that over the last 30 years median earners have seen incomes increase at less than the average while the super-rich including UK chief executive officers have seen their pay increase to 76 times that of the average worker; notes three main concerns over the effect of high pay in Britain: the link between excessive pay and the financial crash, the questionable link between economic performance and high pay and the social effects of inequality due to the increase of wealth concentrated at the top of society; and calls for a public inquiry to bring all of the facts, evidence and arguments into the public domain.]

I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to provide Government time to debate that issue, to enable us to vote to set up a high pay commission so that we can tackle widening wage inequalities as a matter of urgency.

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There will be a debate this afternoon on the Queen’s Speech, to be led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which those issues can be raised. We need to ensure that top pay does not spiral out of control not only in the private sector but in the public sector.

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Notwithstanding climate change and beef eating, may we have a general debate on farming? Any change in stocking levels in places such as Exmoor and the levels will be devastating for management, and it will have an impact across the United Kingdom if the Government change their policy on beef eating.

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There is no policy change on beef eating, so the hon. Gentleman should not be alarmed.

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May we look forward to an early and positive response to all the recommendations in the comparatively short and clear report from the Wright Committee, on which it was my privilege to serve? May I urge the parliamentarian of the year to stand firm against the dark forces on both the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench who are already lobbying hard against a Back-Bench business committee, which is vital if this House is to re-establish public respect and control over its own affairs?

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We all recognise that, as well as restoring public confidence by dealing with the abuse of expenses by a very few Members, we also need to strengthen the work of the House. The Wright Committee—I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for his work on that Committee—will be an important step in improving the way in which the House works, and thereby in restoring and strengthening public confidence.

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May I add my support to the calls for a general debate on farming? In 2000 there were 1,144 dairy farms in Lancashire; today there are 634—a drop of 45 per cent. There has been a similar drop in my constituency. The Leader of the House knows how important dairy farming is for food security and the environment. Please may we have an early debate?

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I stress the importance of dairy farming and beef farming; I hope that my rather flippant answer earlier will not be taken be amiss. There is no intention to change policy: we strongly support not only healthy eating and tackling climate change, but farming and the countryside.

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The impressive Boing Boing website tells us that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is seeking to take delegated powers to allow him to amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. When will the Digital Economy Bill reach this House so that we can make the case for an independent regulator to do that job, and certainly not a politician?

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I—[Interruption.] I am sure I had that in my notes somewhere. Oh yes, here it is: the Digital Economy Bill, which was announced in the Queen’s Speech, was published on 19 November.

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Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the amount of money being paid out in medical negligence claims, which has ballooned in recent years?

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The Department of Health keeps under review the amounts paid out by the national health service in medical negligence claims. We want to ensure that patient safety is such that patients are not the victims of medical negligence. That is what the starting point should be. It is not just a question of saving the NHS money; it is a question of protecting the health of patients. The best way to reduce medical negligence pay-outs is to reduce medical negligence, and that is something on which all the professions involved in medicine and the Department of Health work closely.

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We read that a News of the World reporter bullied by the then editor, Andy Coulson, won a staggering £800,000 at an employment tribunal this week. May we have an early debate on workplace bullying to underline the fact that it is unacceptable, no matter where it comes from?

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I agree and I will have to reflect on how that can be brought forward in the business of the House.

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Tetley’s ales have been brewed in Leeds since 1822, but now the parent company, Carlsberg, is seeking to close the brewery and brew under licence at another brewery, rumoured to be Black Sheep in Masham. May we have a debate on honesty in product promotion? Tetley’s can only be a Leeds beer if brewed in Leeds with Leeds water: anything else would not be Tetley’s.

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I will ask Business Ministers to liaise with the hon. Gentleman about whether anything could or should be done about this.

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May I press my right hon. and learned Friend again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee? She will know that the window of opportunity is narrow and the forces of inertia are great. Can she give the House an assurance that measures to implement the proposals will be introduced before Prorogation?

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I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that having set up the Committee we are very impressed with the work that is being taken forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We welcome the report. We are pleased by how quickly the Committee has been able to reach its conclusion, by how substantial that report is, about how it has set out the process for how the report should be dealt with, as well as about the substance of the change that the report asks for. It was published only two days ago, and we will bring forward our proposals on how to deal with its consideration. We instigated this report, and we want to see changes brought forward.

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Thanks to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, an urgent question about First Capital Connect was answered by the Secretary of State for Transport, who said that he would monitor the situation. Since then, the disruption on its routes has spread and the operation of its timetable is still severely compromised. When can we have a debate on this problem and about the franchises that are causing it?

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It is Transport questions next week, so I suggest that the hon. Lady raises that matter with Transport Ministers.

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Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the corrosive campaign that is being run against the BBC by the Rupert Murdoch empire of BSkyB and News International, in league with the Conservative party? Can we have an early debate about the independence of the BBC and how important it is not to sell off large chunks of it?

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There is a major point of substance in my hon. Friend’s question. We want to defend strongly the BBC and public service broadcasting, and not allow it to be picked apart in order that somebody who does not even live in this country should make a whacking profit.

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In The Times this morning, an indication was given that the Government may be trebling the level of their telephone tax in connection with broadband extension, and that the details of this were to be published in a finance Bill scheduled for early in the new year. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether precedent will be broken in that a finance Bill will be published ahead of a Budget, and if so, what does early in the new year mean?

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I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer what is obviously a serious point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, so I will have to write to him about it. However, I would say again that if he is going to raise something that I might not be able to predict, will he be able to predict that I cannot predict it and make sure that he tells me in advance?

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I wonder whether the Leader of the House would not only support, quite rightly, the Government’s objective in rolling out high-speed broadband for everyone, but an important experiment that is to take place in Swinton, where we are going to have free WiFi. Will she support the provision of free WiFi in the Chorley and South Ribble constituencies as a north versus south experiment, and could we have a debate on that?

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I will draw my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of Business Ministers. I think that progress on the digital economy will offer huge opportunities for all areas of the country, and I know that he will want his constituency to benefit from it.

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I have called for a debate on the 2012 Olympics on many occasions, and each time the Leader of the House fobs me off. Given the astronomical cost of the event and the fact that the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority has said,

“Next year is set to be our toughest yet as activity on site reaches a peak”,

will the Leader of the House give time for this important debate as early as possible so that we can discuss in this Chamber the true cost of that event?

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As well as raising these issues with the Olympics Minister during Question Time, he can take the opportunity to do so when the Chancellor comes to the Dispatch Box as soon as business questions is finished.

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May I support the call by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) for a debate on education so that we can discuss the concept of “hard” and “soft” federations? One of my local schools, Rushey Mead, is the best performing in the city, and it is to be federated with a School that is the worst performing. Does the Leader of the House agree that consultation with parents is absolutely vital in our education system?

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It is Department for Children, Schools and Families questions next week, so I suggest that the Schools Secretary is the right person to ask that question.

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In every single previous year, the appropriate Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box to give an oral statement on the local government settlement, and there has been, entirely separately, a pre-Budget report from the Chancellor. Why is that not happening this year, and what have the Government got to hide?

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I understand that there has been cross-party discussion on this, and there is an answer. [Interruption.] This is a serious point. This settlement is the final one of the first three-year settlements, and it is unchanged from January 2008. Therefore, following discussions with Opposition Front Benchers, the usual procedure was not seen as necessary. A letter was sent to Opposition spokespeople about this on 12 November, and there have been no objections from Front Benchers. [Interruption.] No, I see that that is not so. Ignore what I have just said—I will look into it.

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The peak of UK oil production in the North sea was passed some years ago. In recent weeks, a growing number of international experts have said they believe that the peak of global oil production may already have been passed. There is a growing consensus that in 2012 there will be a crunch in oil supply across the planet, with all the terrifying consequences for global security and national economies. Will the Government give the same kind of international leadership on the issue of oil depletion as they have given on climate change, and can we have a debate in Government time on the economic consequences of oil depletion?

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My hon. Friend makes a number of very important points, and I will raise them with the relevant Ministers.

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In the light of the recent increase in dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland, the murder bid on a young police officer in Fermanagh, and the bomb planted outside the Policing Board in Belfast, can the Leader of the House find time to have an urgent debate on the security situation in Northern Ireland and the threat that that poses to the peace of the United Kingdom?

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The whole House would want to share the hopes for the peace process, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of people on all sides in Northern Ireland. Those who support any party, and those who support none, all support the peace process except a very small minority who should not be allowed to prevail. I will discuss with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he supports the hon. Gentleman’s view that there should be a debate at this stage. Obviously, we want to be able to ensure that the House can scrutinise the work of the Northern Ireland Office and that hon. Members can debate and air their views, but we also want to ensure, above all, that we do what is conducive to the peace process.

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In the light of today’s Daily Mirror report, and that of The Independent last week, about the buying of influence in the Caribbean and in Britain, can we have an early debate on that monster from the Caribbean deep, namely Lord Ashcroft, and his influence on politics—[Interruption.]

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Order. I say very gently to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, that moderation in the use of language in the Chamber is always desirable. Whatever he thinks about the noble Lord, he should not call him a monster.

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If “monster” is now an unparliamentary term, Mr. Speaker, then we are limiting our vocabulary.

May we have an early debate on this gentlemen, who forces right hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to dissemble on his tax status and uses gagging writs to intimidate newspapers. It is only in the House of Commons that this man’s corroding and, I believe, corrupt influence on Caribbean and British politics can be debated and explored. [Interruption.]

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Order. The right hon. Gentleman has put his views very firmly on the record, but I urge him not to use the word “corrupt”—I do not like it.

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There are Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next week, at which issues to do with the Caribbean could be raised.

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I am sure that the Leader of the House is ready for me to ask a question about Buncefield, as the fourth anniversary is next week. May we have a debate on the safety of oil depots in this country? I am sure that the House will be surprised that even though the oil depot is completely cleared—it is a clean piece of land apart from the pollution—the control of major accident hazards safety licence still exists, and thus the oil companies can rebuild it any time they wish. May we have a debate on how the safety of our communities is affected by COMAH licences?

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I will ask my ministerial colleagues to liaise directly with the hon. Gentleman on his specific point about Buncefield. I know that from his constituency experience, he will have had great reason to thank and pay tribute to the fire services, and I should like to take this opportunity to pay my tribute to them, as they have done a remarkable job in my constituency this morning. More than 150 people had to be evacuated because there was a massive fire, which spread from a derelict site and set fire to a block of flats in which they were asleep in their beds. We are very hopeful that no life will be lost, and if that is the case it will be an absolute tribute to the fire services. I will raise the issue of Buncefield with my ministerial colleagues.

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May we have an early debate on changes to immigration regulations to prevent mainly young men from acting as sponsors of a wife from abroad following the acquisition of indefinite leave to remain and possibly an Islamic divorce?

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That might well be worth raising at Foreign Office questions next week. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work in protecting vulnerable women from being pushed into marriages and exploited.

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In supporting the responsible calls for a further day on the Equality Bill, may I make a request of the Leader of the House for a debate on the textile industry? In 1997, the number of employees in the industry in Great Britain stood at 313,000. By 2007, it had been reduced to just 93,000. It is a strategic industry, so may we have a topical debate on it at an early date?

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The textile industry is indeed an important part of our manufacturing, which is a very important part of our economy. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman could take the opportunity to raise the issue with Treasury Ministers or seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, in the debate that will follow immediately after business questions.

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The Leader of the House will be aware that a number of changes to the membership of Select Committees proposed by the Committee of Selection have been objected to and as a result not passed in this House. Will she make Government time available to decide the membership of Select Committees?

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As my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House reminds me, there is to be an Adjournment debate on that subject shortly, and of course we asked the Reform of the House of Commons Committee to examine the selection of Chairmen and members of Select Committees. Good work has been done on that, and I am sure that the points that concern my hon. Friend and hon. Members throughout the House will be addressed.

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Not content with ripping off their customers with extortionate charges, high street banks now want to charge people for accessing their own money via cash machines. If that is not bad enough, they are also, despite protests from business and community groups, planning to abolish the cheque. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is about time that the banks were reminded that their job is to serve their customers, not the other way round? Will she find time for a debate on these urgent issues?

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Many people will have been very disappointed that the case against the banks in relation to charges on overdrafts and other matters did not succeed in the Supreme Court, but that does not let the banks off the hook. People can apply for ex gratia and discretionary payments, and the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that we give every protection to the consumer. The banks need the trust and confidence of the public, and they need to do a good job. They provide the lifeblood of small business and support the economy, and they should not be ripping the country off.

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In respect of the Wright Committee on the reform of the House of Commons and the “signals” that my right hon. and learned Friend talked about earlier, she will recall that the Committee is the first in this House to be elected secretly by Members of all parties. She will also know that it has reported in record time. However, the signal was that the setting up of the Committee was delayed until two days before the House rose for the summer recess. Will she take this opportunity to be very clear about when the House will not debate but decide yes or no on some of the recommendations? May I offer her this stage on which to make the most enthusiastic signal possible about the reform of this House?

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I have always supported positive reform of this House since I came into it in 1982, when it needed massive change. I have always played my part in being an agent for change, not for the status quo. This House is very good, but it could do with improvement. I take the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to thank him for his work on the Committee and his consistent work on this agenda. I know that he was part of Parliament First, which instigated the Committee. One reason why people are pleased with the Committee’s work is that it is chaired not by myself as Leader of the House and a member of the Government but by a Back Bencher, and that its members were elected. It therefore has great credibility in the House, and we look forward to bringing the matter forward for debate.

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Yesterday, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families visited a children’s centre in a deprived area of London. One of the key problems that the staff identified was the lack of council housing, leaving children and their families living in expensive, overpriced, damp, often temporary and unsuitable private accommodation. May we have a debate on the need to fund a massive programme of council house building? The 3,000 council houses announced by the Government will do nothing to tackle a waiting list that has gone up from 1 million in 1997 to 2 million today.

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I strongly agree with the sentiments that lie behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments. That is why we have introduced the decent homes standard, under which homes in my constituency in London have been renovated and improved, damp tackled, roofs repaired and better lifts and windows put in, and why we have made it a public spending priority to have more public home building. That is important not only for those who will live in those homes but to support the building industry as the economy comes out of recession. Such projects would not be possible under the Opposition’s plans, nor, I am afraid, if we went forward with savage cuts in public spending, as the leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party suggests.

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Who is preventing the Leader of the House from doing the decent thing and announcing today a guarantee that we will be able to vote on the Wright Committee report before the end of January?

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I have said that the normal time for debating this sort of report is not two days after it has been published but within two months. I have said that I welcome the report, and we respect its depth and reach. We will need to consider it, and then we will bring the matter forward to the House. I hope that hon. Members will not talk themselves into a sense of mistrust and anxiety, because there is no need for it. We brought to the House the resolutions to set up the Committee and identify its members. We have asked for this work to be done, it has been, and we will take it forward with the agreement of the House.

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A few weeks ago, there was a tragic death in a social housing property in Torquay—I understand because there was no smoke detection. By contrast, last week in my constituency Steve Pettit was saved by his neighbour Mike Maynard, who heard a smoke detector, broke into the flat and rescued him. Considering the praise by the Leader of the House for the fire services a few questions ago, may we have an urgent debate on the need for smoke and fire detection in social housing?

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That is an issue that I have discussed with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I will see whether there is an opportunity to discuss not only the work of firefighters but fire prevention.

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Although we all recognise that individual police officers do their best in very difficult circumstances, may we have a debate in Government time on the recent report from the chief inspector of constabulary, which states that British policing has lost its way due to the noise and clutter of Government targets, initiatives and new laws?

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And indeed that might be an opportunity for us to discuss his belief that if there were elected representatives of the police, it would totally trample over the very important and valuable operational independence of the police. That might be something that we look for a topical debate on shortly.

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May I reiterate the request by the shadow Leader of the House for a free-standing debate on Afghanistan? There is a real sense of drift, about which we are all deeply concerned. We need to know more about the Government’s strategy for handing over security to the Afghan national forces and about their sense of a timetable.

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The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have a sense of drift, but the Government do not. We are absolutely clear on the military, political and economic strategies, and we ensure that, every week, there is an opportunity for Members to express their views on, and ask about, Afghanistan. It is one of the foremost priorities for the Government and the country, so it is a foremost priority for the House.

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One of the strange reasons that the Government are now using to justify their decision not to transfer responsibility for air weapons to the Scottish Parliament, which was a Calman recommendation, is that there is no legal definition of an air gun. To be helpful, therefore, and to avoid such student politics and school-boy errors, will she have the appropriate Minister explain to her colleagues the precise purpose and workings of part 2 of the Firearms (Amendment) Rules 2007 entitled “Particulars relating to air weapons”? Will the Government get on with transferring the responsibilities and stop making silly excuses?

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The Government have undertaken an unprecedented devolution of power so that there can be what has been described as “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems” and so that Scottish people can make the decisions affecting them in their Parliament. The depiction of us as being on the back foot over this agenda cannot be right. I do not know the technical issues about firearms, but I am sure that the matter has been looked into very carefully. However, I am also sure that if the hon. Gentleman requested it, he could have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

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May I take the Leader of the House back to the Equality Bill, about which I wrote to her yesterday? I also phoned her private office to draw the matter to its attention, so I hope that it drew it to hers. She gave a cast-iron commitment in the House—Official Report, 25 June 2009, column 962 —to open negotiations with Opposition parties. To date, neither she nor the Solicitor-General have had those discussions either with Opposition Front-Bench Members or through the usual channels about the timetable—[Interruption.]

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Order. I say to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) that he is an immensely experienced Member. It is plain bad manners to witter away when another colleague is addressing the House.

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Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House gave those commitments, but those discussions have not happened. She repeated again this morning that they have taken place, but they have not. I suggest that those negotiations be opened by her, that they take place and that we ensure adequate time to discuss the Bill.

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I am sure that Members who are concerned about the Equality Bill, who want to play a part on Report and who played a part in Committee will be able to talk to the Bill Minister about how the debate will be arranged. However, in my view there has been sufficient debate prior to, and in, Committee and there will be sufficient debate on Report. If hon. Members who are spending so much time raising the question about the debate in the House spent that much time outside the House campaigning for equality, we would all be much nearer our goals.

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May we have an early debate on the work of the UK Border Agency, which would doubtless allow many hon. Members the opportunity to ventilate their frustrations in dealing with what is probably one of the most inefficient and inhumane agencies of government? It would also allow someone from the Home Office to explain why the agency will not engage with, or take representations from, Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland or Assembly Members in Wales, despite taking representations from MSPs. Surely it is not for bureaucrats to determine to whom people should turn when faced with the intransigence of such an agency.

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The UK Border Agency has a very big responsibility on behalf of people in this country and has greatly improved the work that it does. The hon. Gentleman raised a point about those from whom it will receive separate representations, and I will ask ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to deal with that point. It is a point of substance and we want to ensure that the agency takes representations where appropriate.

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The ballot for private Members’ Bills is taking place today, and several Members will be extremely happy. What they perhaps do not know is that in item five of today’s Order Paper, the Government are trying to change Standing Orders so that the number of days allocated to private Members’ Bills will effectively be reduced from 13 to six. May we have a proper debate on that and prevent the Government from sneaking it through at the end of the day?

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It is anticipated to be a shorter Session, so this is a question of proportionality.

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Under the right hon. and learned Lady’s leadership of the House, fewer new clauses and amendments—including to her Equality Bill—have been reached, debated and voted on than under any other Leader of the House in history. Is she not embarrassed by that, and does she not recognise that the way to deal with the embarrassment is to provide the time needed on her Equality Bill—the exemplar—and to accept the recommendations in the Wright Committee report to deal with the problem so that the House gets to scrutinise in legislation what it needs to, rather than the Government choosing what the House scrutinises?

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Obviously, the House must scrutinise all Bills and it must do so effectively. Also, the Government, elected and commanding a majority in the House, must get their business. One of the bits of business that we want to get through not only the House of Commons, but the House of Lords, is the Equality Bill. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports it, and I look forward to a good debate on Report.

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May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport regarding England’s 2018 World cup bid? Football fans across the nation cannot fail to have noticed the rancour, division and bitterness that is dominating the bid. Should the Secretary of State not be banging some heads together?

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I shall raise that point with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

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I would like to thank and congratulate right hon. and hon. Members. No fewer than 44 Back-Bench Members have questioned the Leader of the House, which in my experience is a record. It is a tribute to both succinctness and a co-operative spirit.