Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 26th January 2006.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 30 January—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill.

Tuesday 31 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, followed by a debate on pensions on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 1 FebruaryOpposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on police force amalgamations, followed by a debate entitled "Failure of the Government's 10-Year Transport Plan". Both arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 2 February—A debate on defence procurement on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 3 FebruaryThe House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 6 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Tuesday 7 February—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 8 February—Business of the House motion, followed by motions relating to parliamentary allowances and financial assistance for the representative work of Sinn Fein.

Thursday 9 FebruarySecond Reading of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Friday 10 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2 and 9 February will be—

Thursday 2 February—A debate on employer engagement in further and higher education.

Thursday 9 February—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on new developments in sexual health and HIV/AIDS policy.

Photo of Theresa May Theresa May Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Last week I asked the Leader of the House for an early statement on troop deployments in Afghanistan. That statement of course will be made today, and I should like to thank the Leader of the House for the alacrity with which he responded to my request. Dare I say it, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship—[Hon. Members: "Ooh."]—that is, of course, unless it is rudely interrupted by a Cabinet reshuffle.

Talking of which, as we have Cabinet Office business in the House in a couple of weeks, will there be a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in post by then? If not, I have a suggestion for the Government. Perhaps the money saved could be used to pay the Minister for women and equality. After all, a pay gap for the Minister for women and equality of 49 per cent. is hardly a good example for others.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give us the date of the Budget?

Given the constitutional implications of the Government of Wales Bill and the fact that so far only a quarter of the Bill has been discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House, will the Government give consideration to a further day of Committee debate on the Bill?

The Health Secretary's statement yesterday showed that Ministers have lost financial control in the NHS. Will she come to the House to make a statement on the financial position of the NHS? We heard only today of a hospital serving the constituents of my hon. Friend Greg Clark which, as in the "Yes, Minister" sketch, seems to think that it is okay to pay staff to keep operating theatres open but then cancel operations and leave theatres lying empty. May we have a debate in Government time on health issues and their impact on patients?

Last week there was an excellent debate on international development matters. Given the importance of the issues that the Department for International Development deals with, and the fact that its budget is now larger than that of the Foreign Office, will the Government consider giving more time to oral questions for DFID?

Finally, we now know that the Government's scheme for bus passes is giving real problems to local authorities, that libraries are being closed across the country because of financial problems and that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has spent £168 million on consultants advising on knocking down 168,000 houses. A survey of experts involved in the Thames Gateway found that only 13 per cent. described the Deputy Prime Minister's leadership as "effective or broadly ok". Today, a Select Committee report accused the Department of double counting on efficiencies and reported that 10 per cent. of staff felt bullied in the last year, and an earlier MORI opinion poll of Government officials said that the ODPM was lacking leadership and comparable to a "pantomime horse". Given that under this Government council tax has risen by 76 per cent., may we urgently have a debate on the burdens placed by Government on local councils and the implications for council tax payers?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am at least grateful that the right hon. Lady's shopping list today is shorter than it was last week—

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Well, I will leave others to judge whether it is a lot shorter: it is at least shorter. I am delighted to have the opportunity again to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office for the excellent work that he is doing on behalf of the Cabinet Office and the excellent way that he comes to the House to answer questions. I am sure that he is earning every penny, as is every other Minister.

The question of financial control in the NHS is of course routinely raised by Opposition Members and I understand why they have concerns about financial management in their local hospitals. Some three quarters of NHS bodies are in balance or in surplus and it is important to the Government that that should apply across the country. I am always slightly surprised when Opposition Members raise such issues, because if the Government were not tackling the question of the deficits in NHS bodies, they would all rise in righteous indignation to complain about that. We are of course tackling the problem and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced measures to assist those organisations to achieve financial balance and surplus. That applies just as well in Tunbridge Wells, and I was able to listen this morning to the chief executive of the primary care trust giving an extremely satisfactory explanation of the position. I suspect that the right hon. Lady did not hear that, because if she had, she might not have raised the issue today.

As for international development matters, it is important to devote the appropriate time to the very important work that the Department does on behalf of the United Kingdom, but if more time is made available for that, less time is available for other issues. That is the balance that must always be struck in the House.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned housing. I cannot resist making the point that investment in housing has risen from some £1.65 billion in the last year of the Conservative Government to more than £5 billion now. That is an astonishing improvement. It means that housing has been improved across the country. It also means that some housing has been demolished, but that is because that housing is incapable of being improved. Where it is possible to improve housing, it is being improved, but where demolition is necessary, there are demolitions. The space can then be used for better housing for people in the areas affected. There will be an opportunity next week for all hon. Members to ask questions of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on Wednesday, and I am sure that there will shortly be an opportunity to deal with matters affecting the NHS.

Photo of George Mudie George Mudie Labour, Leeds East

The Leader of the House will be aware of the questionable decision to withdraw support from Post Office accounts. That will leave 4.5 million pensioners stranded, the majority of whom were persuaded to give up pension books on the basis that Post Office accounts would be available. With no bank nearby, they will not be able to get their money. The decision will also put the viability of inner-city and rural post offices in question. Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate and at least draw the matter to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend is right to raise what is an important issue, especially because it affects pensioners. I know that the matter has continued to cause great concern to hon. Members. I assure my hon. Friend that the arrangements that he describes are interim measures and that the Government are examining the ways in which the support that rightly must be given to pensioners is made available. I shall also ensure that his concerns are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and that he is contacted directly.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Mr. Mudie is absolutely right and I am afraid that the Leader of the House's answer to his question was entirely complacent. Recent parliamentary replies reveal that 5 million people use Post Office cards each week, and the revenue to the post office network is £1 billion, so the Department for Work and Pensions proposes to scrap them. That will have a real impact on sub-post offices, so we need an urgent debate on the matter.

I also support the view that there should be a debate on health, not only to deal with the efficiency and effectiveness of health expenditure—I remind the Leader of the House that hospitals are there not to make surpluses, but to treat patients effectively and efficiently—but to deal with the issues raised by the Public Accounts Committee report on cancer, which shows that there are huge inequalities throughout the country.

May we have an early debate on the report—or should I say reports—of the Education Committee, which we anticipate will be published this evening? It would be extremely useful to know whether Labour Members support the Prime Minister, whether Conservative Members support the Prime Minister, whether Conservative Members support their position of only a few weeks ago—whatever. Such a debate would be a good expedition so that we could discover people's thoughts before the publication of the education Bill.

Lastly, may we have a debate on the Arbuthnot report? Many see it as a missed opportunity, but it is nevertheless of great importance to many Scottish Members. It would be useful if the House had the early opportunity—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House does not know what the report is about. That is unfortunate, but no doubt he will be briefed if I carry on talking long enough.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I do express considerable disappointment about the hon. Gentleman's decision not to stand as a candidate in the leadership election of the Liberal Democrats. All of us who routinely attend business questions on a Thursday devoted considerable effort to trying to persuade him to participate in what is quite a narrow race. There was a remarkable shortening of his odds. As I reported to the House, at one stage he was as far out as 100–1, and hon. Members piled in at those generous odds. The odds came down considerably, but he still resisted the opportunity that was made available to him. I hope he understands that I am answering his questions with the spirit of disappointment that is shared by all hon. Members, although sadly, apparently, not those in the Liberal Democrats, but then one cannot have everything.

I made it clear that the post office issue is important. All hon. Members face the problem in their constituencies. Pensioners and others throughout the country are affected, so the Government are determined to get the situation right.

The Government are delighted to debate health issues. We would be delighted to debate them every single day of the week, if only there were time, not least because we have a remarkable record of success on increasing available funding massively, dramatically reducing waiting lists and ensuring that the national health service is a national health service of which the country can be proud.

The hon. Gentleman made reference by implication to a recent report of the Public Accounts Committee. I thought that I might read him an extract from the report. It says that

"across the country significant improvements have been made in improving cancer services and managing them more effectively, in particular, speeding access to cancer diagnosis and treatment."

There is not a doctor in the country who does not recognise that there has been significant improvement, but that is not to say—no one on the Government Benches would in any way suggest—that there is not still more to be done. We are committed to improving the position, and certainly remedying inequalities.

I am sure that in due course there will be significant opportunities for debating education. I am sure that all hon. Members will welcome that. I can confidently say that that will be happening sooner rather than later.

When I find out what the Arbuthnot report is, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is written to about it.

Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett PPS (Rt Hon Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State), Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to holding a debate to mark international women's day, which this year falls on Wednesday 8 March?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend has raised this subject with me on a previous occasion. I know that the request will have wide support around the House. I will try to consider the request favourably, but I cannot guarantee that time can be found to hold the debate on the Floor of the House on the appropriate date. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will find time for a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall.

Photo of Owen Paterson Owen Paterson Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

May I pick up the points of the hon. Members for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about sub-post offices and the impact of withdrawing the benefits card? I was involved in this at meetings with Ministers, on a constituency basis and in working with the all-party group. At no stage was it ever mentioned that the card, despite all the Government's attempts to bully people into direct payments, once established, would not be permanent. Driving down on Sunday, I heard some form of ministerial pond life suggesting that the card was only temporary. [Interruption.] I did not catch the Minister's name. I am amazed that the Leader of the House says that it was intended to be a temporary scheme. At no stage was it ever discussed. I rang Colin Bateman of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters on that basis. Could we please have a statement—

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I can see that we are going to have an interesting linguistic debate. The word that I used was "interim" rather than "temporary". The hon. Gentleman has used the word "temporary" to suggest somehow that the scheme was always designed to come to an end, with the risk that somehow it would fall over the edge. Temporary arrangements have that sort of feeling. If the hon. Gentleman had used the word "interim", which was the word that I used, he would recognise that we were talking about moving from one sensible arrangement to another. I know that the use of that language might appear to be something that the hon. Gentleman would not entirely share. If he thinks about the matter carefully, he will agree with what I have said.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1479?

[That this House recognises the pleasure given to early rising listeners to BBC Radio Four by the subtle and evocative medley of British folk tunes in Fritz Spiegl's UK Theme which starts daily broadcasting and has become embedded over the years in the affections of listeners; and urges the BBC to reconsider its decision to drop this popular medley and to continue to use the UK Theme in the proud place it has occupied with such success and charm for so many years.]

The motion has received support across the House. Interestingly enough, it now has support from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the previous Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Blunkett. In the light of that, can my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate so as to get some sense into the BBC management for restoring the UK theme to Radio 4?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The one thing that I notice about this particularly important debate is that it divides those who get up early from those who stay in bed. I know well from my hon. Friend's time in the Ministry of Defence that he is an early riser. I have always been impressed by how well the theme was put together. It is certainly a startling beginning to the day. It is important that people who are listeners to Radio 4 at that time in the morning are given the opportunity of expressing their views clearly. Unfortunately, I suspect that many people who are not up at that time in the morning are also expressing their views.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Leader of the House may be aware that the Scottish quarterly GDP figures were published yesterday, which are equivalent to the UK index of production. The figures show three consecutive quarters of falling manufacturing output, the manufacturing recession in Scotland. Given the three consecutive quarterly falls in manufacturing output, can the right hon. Gentleman organise an early statement from a Treasury Minister to explain what more can be done to turn around the competitive situation in the Scottish economy and end the manufacturing recession?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

We have just had Treasury questions and the hon. Gentleman would have had the opportunity of raising that matter with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure that he would have received a robust and prudent answer. The Government take the position of manufacturing industry extremely seriously. We have given a great deal of support, not least in relation to training and education to provide the British people with the appropriate skills to contribute to our highly successful manufacturing industry. Where there have been closures—I know that some have recently been announced in Scotland—a significant level of assistance is given to those companies to ensure that their work force have the opportunity of retraining and developing the skills that they require to participate in an economy that is still very healthy. As I have seen in my constituency, when closures occur they are a huge shock and worry to the people affected, but in the healthy economy that we have, it is remarkable that those people are able to get opportunities of retraining and, crucially, of finding alternative employment.

Photo of Peter Kilfoyle Peter Kilfoyle Labour, Liverpool, Walton

The Leader of the House may be impressed by the way that the UK theme is put together, but like many colleagues I am not very impressed by the way that the Criminal Records Bureau has been put together. It is a valuable resource, but it has been bedevilled by problems since its inception. Within the past couple of days in my area alone, I have come across three major bungles, including one of identity theft. Can the Leader of the House provide some space wherein we may debate how the Criminal Records Bureau is functioning, or at the very least, will he arrange for one of the Ministers at the Home Office to make a statement to the House?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that everyone can rely with absolute certainty on the records and statistics compiled in relation to crime. I accept that from time to time there are difficulties in that respect. That is one of the reasons why, for example, the Home Office recently launched a review of the way in which criminal statistics are compiled. That does not entirely deal with my hon. Friend's concern about the accuracy of the information supplied by the CRB, but I know that the matter is taken extremely seriously in the Home Office and by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Conservative, Tunbridge Wells

May I support my right hon. Friend Mrs. May in her request for the Secretary of State for Health to be brought to the House to explain the crisis in NHS financing? Two weeks ago the Department of Health said:

"There is no question of doctors being asked to play games to improve finances and we have always said that improving financial management does not mean compromising patient care".

In Tunbridge Wells operations are not taking place and out-patient appointments are not been given, except in urgent cases, until 31 March. That is compromising patient care, and it exposes the gulf in perception and understanding between Ministers and doctors and nurses on the ground, who are very concerned about that.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

If there were the kind of crisis that the hon. Gentleman describes, Ministers and Labour Members would share his concern, but he must face up to the fact that huge sums of extra money have been put into the national health service, including in Tunbridge Wells. It is important that those responsible for managing that extra money do so successfully. As I told the House earlier, if the Government were not taking action to ensure effective control of that extra finance, Opposition Members would be complaining about it. I accept that it is important to deal with these matters. From what I heard from the chief executive of the PCT on the radio this morning, action is being taken in Tunbridge Wells to deal with the situation.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the early-day motion signed and tabled by members of the Scottish National party which states that Scottish hon. Members should not vote on issues that do not directly affect Scotland. May we have a debate on that motion, which would allow the Scottish National party in particular to tell us how the Government of Wales Bill directly affects Scotland and why its Members felt compelled to vote on such burning Scottish issues as the name of the Welsh Assembly?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend has made his point more effectively than I can, but as someone who believes in the Union and in the importance of the House reflecting opinion right across the United Kingdom, and who does not believe in separation and independence in the way in which the Scottish nationalists do, I believe that that is the best for this country and the best future for this country.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP, Belfast East

Will the Leader of the House reflect on the wisdom of tabling a motion for Wednesday 8 February to provide funds for IRA-Sinn Fein, and not only to provide them with the representative funds that they had on a previous occasion, but to give them a bonus of the Short funds? I expect that the Government know the outrage in Northern Ireland at the fact that at a time when IRA-Sinn Fein continue to use the proceeds of the largest bank heist ever to take place in the British Isles, and while the police are reporting the high level of criminality within the republican movement, the Government intend to reward them.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Having just indicated my support for the Union and the importance of ensuring that the views of all parts of the United Kingdom are properly reflected in our debates here, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept from me that it is vital that we encourage organisations that have in the past engaged in terrorist activity to participate effectively and peacefully in the work of this country. We shall have the opportunity to debate these questions and vote on them on 8 February. This is a matter for the House to decide, and one that I am sure will be fully and thoroughly debated on that occasion.

Photo of Julie Morgan Julie Morgan Labour, Cardiff North

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Legal Services Commission has announced the ending of all its specialist support services from July this year, without there being any apparent immediate replacement? The Welsh specialist support service provides expert advice to solicitors and front-line advisers on issues such as housing, debt and welfare benefits. Those issues are all tremendously important in Wales because of the poor housing stock and the pockets of deprivation there. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on this matter, so that we can discuss whether this decision can be reversed? It is causing extreme concern in Wales.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. It is a matter with which I am familiar from previous ministerial responsibilities, and I know how important such specialist advice services are. I will certainly ensure that the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs, my right hon. and learned Friend Ms Harman, is made aware of my hon. Friend's concerns.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

May we please have a debate on brain tumours, with particular reference to early-day motion 1424?

[That this House notes that 16,000 people, including 450 children, each year are diagnosed with brain tumours; is disturbed that brain tumours have become the biggest single disease killing children; acknowledges that survival rates have not increased in line with the rate for childhood leukaemia and some other adult cancers; applauds the work of scientists and clinicians; supports the efforts of United Kingdom brain tumour charities which support research and raise awareness of issues surrounding brain tumour care; further notes that NHS expenditure on brain tumour patients is well below that devoted to other cancers; recognises the problems faced by brain tumour patients in accessing treatment; seeks improved NHS funding and care, including approved access to radiotherapy and rehabilitation services and treatments, such as carmustine implants and temozolomide, which are better tolerated, offer the best hope of improved survival and/or rehabilitation; and calls upon the National Institute for Clinical Health and Excellence to act quickly to approve clinically and cost effective new treatments so that they are available to all NHS patients.]

Given that 16,000 people a year are diagnosed with brain tumours, and that such tumours have now overtaken leukaemia as the biggest single cancer killer of children, would the Leader of the House accept that a debate on the matter would allow hon. Members to express their concern at the preliminary recommendation of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence that carmustine implants and temozolomide should not be used in the treatment of newly diagnosed high-grade glioma? There is widespread concern about this issue, and the denial of such treatments would be a savage blow. The matter ought to be aired fully on the Floor of the House, sooner rather than later.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman has made his point with his characteristic fairness and shown detailed knowledge of the issue. I suspect that, now that he has done so, we shall not need a debate on the subject. Nevertheless, I assure him that that matter is taken extremely seriously by the Government. We have sought always to support hon. Members' concerns about the way in which treatment in the national health service is distributed. There will be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the issue again next week in Health questions. This issue is always taken very seriously by the Government.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

If it were possible to have a debate on international women's day, as my hon. Friend Barbara Follett suggested, it would provide an opportunity to press the case for proper payment for the post of Minister for Women and Equality. It would also provide an opportunity to remind the House that, until very recently, the Tory shadow Minister for Women and Equality was actually a man.

What I really wanted to ask my right hon. Friend was whether he would endorse the calls for a debate on the Post Office, and particularly on the way in which it renews its franchises. My constituency has been without either a sub-post office or a main post office for nine months, in spite of frequent correspondence between me and the Post Office, and between the leader of the local council and the Post Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is completely unacceptable? May we have a debate on the Post Office to consider all these controversial issues?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I think it is fair to say that questions of ministerial remuneration are above my pay grade—one step above my pay grade, anyway. Nevertheless, I will certainly ensure that that matter is drawn to the attention of the appropriate person. On the question of post offices, I do not believe that I can add to what I have already said to the House on that matter. It is an important issue, and the Government take it very seriously. It has been an issue over a number of years, and I believe that the Government have found the right answer, but that answer will need to be updated in the light of changing circumstances. That is the Government's position.

Photo of Lorely Burt Lorely Burt Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

May we have a debate on the level and allocation of this year's revenue support grant for local government? It cannot be right that some of the most deprived areas in the country, in the borough of Solihull, receive £237.86, while next door in Birmingham the rate is almost double at £560.40. We need a debate on the Floor of the House so that we can discuss that gross imbalance in local government finance.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

It will take place on 6 February.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate on Lancashire county council's disgraceful proposal to withdraw funds for hot meals from the Women's Royal Voluntary Service? Thousands of volunteers in Lancashire go out to ensure that old-age pensioners have a hot meal during the week. It is not just the hot meal that those pensioners require; it is the contact with those who visit. All that is being put at risk for the sake of a few thousand pounds.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I share my hon. Friend's admiration for the excellent work of the meals on wheels service. It does a tremendous job up and down the country, and I am sure that it does a tremendous job in Lancashire. My hon. Friend has made his point, and I entirely agree with him.

Photo of Grant Shapps Grant Shapps Co-Chair, Conservative Party

Jack Saywood, a 14-year-old in my constituency, found that his details were on the national DNA database, although he had committed no crime whatever. It was purely a case of mistaken identity. I was shocked to discover that 24,000 other people were in exactly the same position—all of them children who had never committed a crime. Their details should be removed from the database. Will the Leader of the House ask a Minister to come to the House and tell us when they will be removed?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I have seen a number of references to the issue in the media. The hon. Gentleman has been assiduous in raising the case of his constituent and other such cases. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is currently considering the matter.

Photo of Rob Marris Rob Marris Labour, Wolverhampton South West

The Leader of the House may know that some avaricious train operating companies are talking of getting rid of saver tickets. The first-class return fare from my constituency is about £182, the standard return fare is about £105, and the saver ticket—which I try to buy to save the taxpayer money—costs £37.50. May we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Transport?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I have seen a number of rather mischievous headlines on the subject, and I have had cause to discuss it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I understand that the Department for Transport remains committed to saver tickets and to off-peak travel. The Government's ambition, in which we have largely succeeded, is to ensure that more and more people use our railways, and that will continue to be the case.

Photo of John Hayes John Hayes Shadow Minister (14-19 Reform and Apprenticeships)

As the Leader of the House will know, in December schools across Britain received important assessment and performance data which is considered vital both by schools and by Ofsted. It has become clear that that data was flawed and misleading. Students who received A* results at GCSE were counted as failures, and GNVQs were not included at all.

The Department for Education and Skills has said that it will withdraw and reissue the data. I want to know from the Department—I hope that the Leader of the House will arrange for a statement accordingly—how that fundamental error occurred and what it has cost the taxpayer. I also want to elicit an apology to all the teachers and students whose efforts and achievements were disregarded by the Government, and, if I may, the definition according to a simple—[Interruption.]

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful for your consideration, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will drop a note to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, whose responsibility that is. I take entirely seriously the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has expressed. This needs to be thoroughly looked at and investigated, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be contacting him about it.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

May I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 1481, which refers to the dispute within the Department for Work and Pensions?

[That this House notes with concern that members of the PCS trade union working in the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have felt that they have no other option but to take industrial action in the face of the Government's proposals for 30,000 job cuts and the adverse effect this is having on the DWP's services; further notes the staffing requirements of the Government's incapacity benefit reforms and that the DWP is running ahead of its job reduction target having already cut 15,000 jobs; and therefore calls upon the Government to introduce a moratorium on job cuts within the Department to enable an objective assessment to take place, in full consultation with the unions and service users concerned, of the DWP's staffing needs for delivering services.]

Today and tomorrow, a number of members of the Public and Commercial Services Union are out on strike because of the job cuts that have been imposed in their Department. Is it not appropriate that we discuss those job cuts in this place, ensure that union members are properly consulted and treated with dignity, and, more particularly, realise that those who use jobcentres and other such services within the benefit service need the best reception from people working in the service? Maybe this is not the way to go ahead. We should treat those people with dignity, because disputes do not help anyone.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend is right. It is important that those who provide a vital public service are properly consulted. As I understand it, they have been. It is important that we ensure that proper support is given in the important work that they do, but may I make it clear to him that the adjustment in numbers in the service is directly the result of the significant reduction in unemployment and the significant technological improvements in the delivery of the service? I am sure he accepts very fairly that the money we devote to the Department is best paid to those who are in need of its assistance. That has to mean a balance between those who work in the service and, crucially, those who receive the benefits. Obviously, the more money available for benefits, the better the service will be.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the review of public administration in Northern Ireland? The Government propose to remove the 26 borough, city and district councils and replace them with seven regional councils. That proposal is supported only by Sinn Fein-IRA. When will the Government unlock themselves from Sinn Fein-IRA and back the democrats?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

May I invite the hon. Gentleman to stand back a little from the rhetoric and consider the proposal? I will give him the same answer that I have just given my hon. Friend Mr. Drew: in the delivery of all public services, whether national services of the kind dealt with by the Department for Work and Pensions or local government services, it is crucial that as much as possible of the money provided by the taxpayer is spent on the service, and as little as possible on unnecessary bureaucratic support. The more sensible and rational the delivery arrangements, the better it is for his constituents and those of all Members of the House.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Labour, Sheffield, Attercliffe

Can my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on the future of regional casinos? Before the election, the House concluded that there could be regeneration benefits from such casinos and that we should run a pilot scheme, but, unfortunately, we agreed that that pilot should be simply one project. I am not sure that I could find one Member of the House who now thinks that one is the right number. What might work in an old industrial area such as the lower Don valley in my constituency will not necessarily work in seaside resorts or in London. Can we have a debate so that we can reach a sensible conclusion? Yes, we should have a pilot project, but the number involved should be eight, not one.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I recognise the importance of those questions for a number of areas that are looking to achieve the regeneration benefits that the provision of larger casinos can provide. I assure him that I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport responds to him directly.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

The right hon. Gentleman is an excellent and assiduous Leader of the House, so he will be aware that there is rising public concern about the funding of children's hospices. I know he will be sympathetic to this concern as well: some children's hospices get just 2 per cent. of their funding from the authorities, the rest having to be raised through charitable good-cause work by excellent volunteers. Is he expecting the Secretary of State for Health to come to the House in the near future to make an announcement on Government policy changes on the funding of children's hospices?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, surprising though they are, and for raising that issue. I have been routinely involved not in the question of children's hospices, but in supporting a local hospice. I know—he put it better than I can—the excellent work done by volunteers, with the support of the national health service, in hospices up and down the country. He is right to draw attention to the work that they do.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

Could we have an early debate on the progress of the Lisbon agenda? In six weeks' time, there will be a European business summit, at which EU leaders will look at the progress of the agenda over the last five years. We have reached seven of the 17 quantifiable benchmarks, whereas France has reached only three. Could we have a debate on this important issue?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend worked assiduously as an effective Minister for Europe in promoting the Lisbon agenda, something that has been at the top of the Government's agenda for the EU. Providing that we continue to concentrate on the forward-looking programme that Lisbon set out—not least because it emphasises the importance to Europe and the EU of concentrating our scarce resources on investment in skills and training and on the challenge of competing with far-eastern economies—that is still the Government's agenda, and we want to see progress. But, obviously, we must persuade our partners to put the same emphasis on it as we do.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Despite being dropped from yesterday's business, and despite the fact that we finished in Committee early, back in mid-December, the Childcare Bill still does not feature in forthcoming business. Will the Leader of the House explain why that business was mysteriously dropped and replaced with a Bill that collapsed early yesterday in any case? Also, the Children and Adoption Bill, which left the other House back in November, still has to rear its head in this House. When might we see it? May I return yet again to the subject of the Mental Health Bill, which for three years has been in draft form one, draft form two and at the pre-legislative Scrutiny Committee stage, and still we have no mention of it? Is it going to appear in this Session or not?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I take the hon. Gentleman's observations as being a considerable tribute to the energy, hard work and determination of the Government in passing a whole series of important measures to improve child care and mental health in this country, but each has to take its place in a crowded and busy programme, one that the Government will deliver during this Session, as we have set out. Obviously, the management of the business is a sometimes difficult and challenging task and that is something that business managers must take account of in bringing business to this House.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

The minerals extraction and building materials industry is economically crucial to north-west Leicestershire and to the UK as a whole in the role that it plays in delivering new and improved infrastructure, public buildings, economic growth and so on. In light of the seriously slowed construction product activity in my area, is it not time that we had a debate on the progress towards the Government's key targets? There is a debate next Wednesday on transport in Opposition time. Could we have a debate on housing in Government time within the next two or three weeks? Also, what has happened to the Health Bill? Has it disappeared in a puff of smoke?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I know that my hon. Friend would accept that the construction industry has boomed in recent years as a result of considerable Government investment in new hospitals, roads and schools, providing a range of opportunities for the industry. Necessarily that has implications for my hon. Friend's constituency. On the Health Bill, I hope not to delay my hon. Friend too long on a matter on which we will be able to give information to the House in due course.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I was glad to hear the Leader of the House say that he would like to see more debates on the health service in this House. May I therefore ask him for a debate on mental health services in this country, in which the Government could explain to my constituents why, yesterday, our primary care trust announced cuts of nearly £3 million in mental health funding?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has taken up these issues on previous occasions and he is right to point out that, sadly, mental health has not always received the focus within the NHS that it deserves. That is something that the Government are determined to put right. I cannot answer his specific constituency point but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be able to do so.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee, Chair, Regulatory Reform Committee

My right hon. Friend might have seen an article in The Daily Telegraph today that reports that

"three Appeal Court judges ruled that publication of" certain

"documents by the newspaper was in the public interest and that their authenticity had never been challenged."

Would it not be helpful if those documents were made available to the Library and if we had a debate on the public interest issues to which that article refers?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

My right hon. and hon. Friends are showing more than considerable skill in bowling obscure balls to me this morning. I have not had the joy of reading The Daily Telegraph today, but no doubt I will do so in due course, and I will be able to answer my hon. Friend's question more effectively.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Lancaster and Wyre

Some three weeks ago, the Government announced by written statement that they would begin the process of privatising Qinetiq. Today, they published the brochure, effectively, for investors. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate or asking the Secretary of State to make a statement on the future of Qinetiq? A number of questions need to be answered, such as why members of the British public are being denied a right to buy a stake in the company when it is floated, whether it is likely that the chief executive will get a £22 million bonus for a £150,000 investment, and what protection there is from the family secrets being flogged to the highest bidder overseas.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman could have raised all those questions in Defence questions earlier this week, but I am grateful that he has saved them up for today. Certainly, it is important that the British taxpayer gets the best value from such sales. It is somewhat ironic that Conservative Members are raising questions of privatisation in relation to something that was done in a proper, perfectly competitive way, unlike some privatisations, of which I could give him a long list. I will simply park that. What is vital is that the process delivers the best return for the British taxpayer while safeguarding important research done by British scientists. That was part of the original way in which Qinetiq was organised. As well as the return to the British taxpayer, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to see that the money invested through Qinetiq delivers material that can be sold competitively and used for the greater interest of the British taxpayer. I assure him that that is the position.

If I may deal with this point, the hon. Gentleman has revealed that he is a regular reader of The Daily Telegraph. I think that even readers of The Daily Telegraph would accept that what is important is to deliver the best return to the British taxpayer. This arrangement will do that.

Photo of Mark Lancaster Mark Lancaster Conservative, North East Milton Keynes

Can we have an early debate on the future funding of fire authorities? Buckinghamshire fire authority has one of the lowest precepts in the country, and yet no account has been taken by Government of the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes. In addition, the blanket 5 per cent. cap disproportionately affects low-charging authorities such as Buckinghamshire rather than higher-charging authorities elsewhere in the country.

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

I have indicated that there will shortly be opportunities to discuss local government financing. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the important issue of the fire precept. The Government keep such matters under constant review. Where there are changes in population, the ways in which financial assistance is calculated are appropriately adjusted.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Leader of the House will be aware that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has said that he is considering withdrawing emoluments and allowances to Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, because even though they do their representative work, they do not engage in the Assembly. How on earth, therefore, can the Government justify bringing forward a motion to restore allowances, and increase them, for Sinn Fein Members for their representative work, when they do not attend the House? Will the Leader of the House give a commitment on behalf of the Government that if the Independent Monitoring Commission report confirms that, as the Chief Constable remarked recently, the IRA is still involved actively in criminality in Northern Ireland, he will withdraw the motion?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

That is an opportunity for the House to determine important questions about allowances, and I am not making observations about other institutions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made clear the importance of finding a way back to the arrangements that previously operated in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares that determination, but I accept his argument entirely. If organisations are not committed to a peaceful process and to democratic work, they should not be entitled to those allowances.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on laser weapons? Is he aware that they can act not only as a useful offensive weapon but as a defensive measure against incoming missiles?

Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal

Yes, I am aware of that.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

Order. The hon. Gentleman came in very late. If hon. Members want to ask a question following a statement, including the business statement, they must come in to hear the statement. If he comes in early next week, I will call him early on.