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The business for next week will be as follows:
The provisional business for the week following the Constituency recess will include:
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for
I thank the Leader for the House for giving us the business for the coming week. He will not be surprised to hear me ask again about the date for the Budget, as he knows that the Treasury Committee recommended that two months' notice of the date should be given. We are less than two months away from the Easter recess, so that advice cannot now be met. Will he at least tell us when he expects to be able to give us the date of the Budget?
Can we have a debate on Lord Carter's review of criminal legal aid, which is being published today? As I am sure that the Leader of the House will know, that is a matter of real concern for high street solicitors.
Yesterday, a Standing Committee considered the new contract for dentists. As there is a shortage of 1,850 dentists, and only half the population are registered with an NHS dentist, will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a debate on dentistry and the problems faced by those who have no access to an NHS dentist?
The Government tell us frequently that they are family-friendly and interested in issues for working families. The Childcare Bill finished in Committee on
It was revealed yesterday that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has been holding talks with councils about scrapping next year's local government elections— [Hon. Members: "Disgraceful."] As my hon. Friends say, that is absolutely disgraceful. The Minister for Local Government has said that it is all pure speculation, but as constituents such as mine will want the opportunity next year to vote on the record of their local Liberal Democrat council, which is putting up council tax by 4.95 per cent.—an increase of 20 per cent. over three years—and given the backlog of business in the House, will the Leader of the House confirm that no time will be made available for the legislation necessary to scrap the council elections next year, and that next year's council elections will go ahead?
Finally, can we have a debate on the public appeal of MPs? I am sure that the Leader of the House will be aware that my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron has been voted one of the world's 100 sexiest men. [Hon. Members: "Who voted?"] I see that in a BBC poll conducted to find the sexiest Nottinghamshire MP—I have the right county this week—the Leader of the House came seventh. Top of the poll was my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer, second was "none of the above", and the Leader of the House even came behind my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Clarke. A debate would, of course, give my right hon. and hon. Friends an opportunity to give the Leader of the House a few tips.
As the shadow Leader of the House is in a good mood, let me draw her attention to the shadow Chancellor's proposals for what appears to be a forthcoming shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The shadow Chancellor has made it clear that by the time of the next general election there will be no one in the shadow Cabinet over the age of 50. Honour forbids me to reveal the right hon. Lady's age, but shall we say that if the reports are correct, she will be looking forward to a very early general election—but I have to say that she will be disappointed.
The date of the Budget will be made known very soon. As for the question of legal aid and high street solicitors, as one who has had ministerial responsibility for the distribution of legal aid in the past, I am confident that the Government will continue to ensure that it is available, and that the considerable amount of money contributed by the taxpayer to support the system will be used to maximum effect.
The right hon. Lady asked about the availability of dentists. I announced to the House that there would be a debate on tackling health inequalities on
As the right hon. Lady said, the Childcare Bill and the Children and Adoption Bill await time in the House of Commons. They will be presented as soon as business allows, but, as I hope I have made clear, we have a very crowded legislative agenda. We are determined to continue the pace of change that the country requires, and that necessarily means that there will be—as ever—significant business on the Floor of the House, not least next week.
"We expect and intend the 2007 elections to go ahead. The debate on local government reorganisation is gathering pace—we are having a mature discussion with local government—and we will make our position clear in the Local Government White Paper in the middle of this year."
I think that that deals with the various points that the right hon. Lady raised. I am grateful to her for raising them.
I do not know whether, while having his muesli for breakfast, the Leader of the House managed to glance at the Venezuelan media, but if he has had a media brief, he will know of the storm of protest in that country following the Prime Minister's perhaps somewhat incautious remarks about it during Prime Minister's questions yesterday. Will he find time for a debate on Venezuela, and on United Kingdom-Venezuela politics and relationships? If we cannot agree on Venezuela's international relationships, we might at least be able to celebrate its social gains following the removal of the divisions and inequalities that feature elsewhere in the third world.
I am always impressed by the learning and wide reading of my hon. Friends. I must confess that I managed to miss in my media brief this morning the latest revelations in the Venezuelan media, but that is my loss. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that I am sure he will have an opportunity to raise again at the next Foreign Office Question Time.
The Leader of the House referred to the very busy timetable, and I still think it very unwise to programme three potential defeats in one week, but there we are. I support the view that we need a debate on the Carter review, which is published today. It is not just small high street solicitors who are concerned about this issue; so is everybody who cares about the legal aid system. Indeed, this is a major issue in the context of our welfare state and it deserves proper parliamentary debate.
I noticed that when the Leader of the House responded to Mrs. May on the question about local government reform, he did not rule it out. Many of us suspect that it will indeed happen, given the Government's passion for reorganising everything—be it the police, local government or health authorities—and making it as uniform as possible, but always bigger than the existing structure. May we therefore have a debate on that issue?
There will be a statement today on the Child Support Agency but at the same time, the Government are releasing the report of the CSA's chief executive, which might inform debate in this House. May we have a separate statement on that subject, or better still, a debate on it?
Lastly, I wonder whether there is scope for a replay of parliamentary debates. A couple of months ago, Clare Short introduced the Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, which deals with the royal prerogative and the power to go to war, but it seems that Mr. Cameron has changed his mind on that subject. When it was last debated, only two Conservatives could find their way to the Division Lobby to support such a proposal. Is it possible to introduce new procedures to deal with flip-flops?
The hon. Gentleman is obviously in lively mood now that the Liberal Democrats have started the process of voting for their new leader. I understand that there is a determined write-in campaign on his behalf to ensure that the current rather narrow field is expanded somewhat by his addition. Labour Members would strongly support that campaign, if only we had access to the ballot papers. Given that Liberal Democrat MPs, who can nominate two people, also get two votes in that election, I sincerely hope that they will use at least one of them to support his campaign.
I want to make clear the importance of the Carter review, which the Government will deal with very seriously. I have set out clearly our position on local government reform, and there will shortly be a statement and an opportunity for Members to ask questions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. As for replaying parliamentary debates, it would be useful for the House to hear from Mr. Cameron—probably daily; otherwise, we will not be able to keep track of the various changes in policy that he announces.
Will my right hon. Friend consider having an early debate on the BBC charter? This is a crucial time to discuss the role of the BBC in the coming years, and many of us are concerned not about the range of programmes that it provides, which is generally good, but about the independence of its news broadcasting. Many of us believe that it too often follows the 75 per cent. Tory-owned press, rather than giving a firm, independent and dispassionate view of the news, be it on Venezuela or anything else. May we have an early debate on the quality of the BBC news service and the charter?
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on South America in general, not just Venezuela, given the lurch to the left in recent years in that country and in Bolivia? Moreover, there are nine other presidential elections in that region. Is he aware of the potential renationalisation of British Gas assets in Bolivia worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and does he share my concern at President Fidel Castro's instigating what he calls a crusade against capitalism, which will undermine British investments in the region?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the subject of South America. It is an important part of the world, where significant events are not always well served, either by debates here or generally in the British media. I cannot offer an immediate prospect of an early debate, but I recognise that he raises an important matter that we should take very seriously.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Commons Bill has made progress in another place and is due to come to this House shortly. It contains a number of important provisions and closes a loophole affecting the registration of town and village greens across the country, including my constituency. Given its importance for a number of current cases and applications, will he ensure that the Bill comes before the House at the earliest opportunity?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, which is important for towns and villages across the country. The provision of public spaces is of vital concern to our constituents. I certainly undertake to ensure that the Bill is dealt with speedily, as soon as we are in a position to do that.
Will the Leader of the House join me in calling for a statement on the funding of local theatres next week? The Haymarket theatre in my constituency of Basingstoke is being threatened with having its Arts Council funding withdrawn. That would jeopardise its future, only eight months into a 36-month recovery plan. Will he make time for an urgent statement on the matter next week, so that we can get a commitment on Government support for theatre outside London, and ensure that the Arts Council's approach is constructive in all cases?
As a thoroughgoing provincial, I entirely share the hon. Lady's concern about the need to support the theatre and other arts around the country. I cannot offer her the prospect of an urgent debate next week on the theatre in Basingstoke, but I suspect that she has made her point as she intended.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will want to join me in welcoming this week's announcement of a knife amnesty, but will he also support the decision taken by the chief constables of many UK police forces to have an amnesty on airguns this year? My constituent Andrew Ross was shot in the head last year, and airguns have affected the lives of many of our constituents. Will he urge the Home Office to give the amnesty its full support? We need it to be successful, so that those dangerous weapons are taken off the streets.
My hon. Friend has campaigned assiduously on this important matter, and I hope that he accepts that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes the dangers posed by knives and airguns very seriously. The possession of such weapons is every bit as serious as their use, not least because unfortunately, people who take knives out with them tend to use them, with catastrophic consequences. The Government take the matter extremely seriously, and am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the review of public administration in Northern Ireland? We had a very short debate on it in Westminster Hall, when there was not even enough time for the Minister to reply. The issue is of critical importance for the future of Northern Ireland, and especially for the public bodies involved. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot find time for such a debate in the House, will he call a sitting of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee, preferably in Northern Ireland, to discuss the matter?
The hon. Gentleman has raised this important issue for the people of Northern Ireland with me on a number of occasions. I assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is keen to ensure that public bodies are able to discuss the full range of issues affecting the people there. The matter that he raises is part of that debate.
For reasons that I have never been able to understand, I have never been included in the list of the sexiest MPs. [Interruption.] As I say, the reasons are totally incomprehensible to me. However, I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the fact that Labour Members are pleased that agreement has been reached in respect of the House of Commons cleaners employed by outside contractors. This is an issue that has been raised only by Labour Members, but now the cleaners are going to get a pay increase, with new sick pay and holiday pay arrangements implemented immediately. That is very good, but will my right hon. Friend do all he can to see that a proper pension scheme is negotiated, too? We receive pensions, so it is only right and proper that those who clean up after us do too. It is an important matter, very much connected to last night's 100th anniversary of the parliamentary Labour party. We continue to fight for social justice, as we have done for the cleaners.
I suspect that my wisest course would be not to comment on my hon. Friend's first observation, but I am delighted that a difficult dispute has been settled. I am grateful to him and other hon. Members for raising an important issue, and it is right to ensure that those who serve us so well in this House, and in Parliament in general, are given appropriate recognition in their remuneration. In particular, we should recognise the importance of their pensions and other ancillary arrangements.
Surely the shadow Leader of the House is right to say that we ought to have a debate on the Carter review, which is a fundamental review of the legal aid system? We need to look at the spending priorities of the former Lord Chancellor's Department, now the Department for Constitutional Affairs. When my right hon. Friend was a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department in 1997, £700,000 was spent on outside consultants. Last year, however, the Department spent £9 million on consultants. This week, my hon. Friend Julie Morgan has raised the fact that there have been cuts of £3 million in specialist legal aid services. May we please have a debate on this very important subject?
I have made it clear that I regard this as an important subject, but my hon. Friend has also dealt with the administration of the legal aid system, and will know that although it is important to ensure that it works effectively on behalf of those of our citizens who require legal assistance, we must also ensure that the system works effectively on behalf of taxpayers, who fund it very extensively. It is right to ensure the most effective delivery of legal aid; that is why we set such store by holding a review, and I anticipate that in due course there will be an opportunity for the matter to be discussed and debated on the Floor of the House.
The Leader of the House may not yet have had an opportunity to read this morning's edition of The Herald. Had he done so he would have seen, in an article headlined "Ofgem Could Stem Tidal Energy Flow", that a former Minister for Energy has raised concerns about Ofgem's attitude to renewable energy. May we have a debate on Ofgem's role, as many of us are worried that its policies are undermining renewable energy resources?
There is a long list of newspapers that I have not read this morning, and the hon. Gentleman has mentioned one of them. However, I recognise the importance of this issue, and he is right to raise it. I am sure that there will opportunities to discuss it as part of a wider debate on energy policy.
"'Government promised the measures would deliver staggered closing times, more power for local people and a reduction in alcohol related crime'", and then said
"'We now know that none of this is true'".
Perhaps, at a suitable early opportunity, she will be able to tell us just how right we were.
I second the request by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on NHS dentistry, which is in crisis and disappearing fast. May we have a specific debate, because a debate on the Adjournment on all NHS matters will mean that dentistry will hardly be raised? I have seen the new contract, which is prescriptive and bureaucratic, and I am not surprised that many dentists will not sign up. Does the Leader of the House recall that previous experiments, in which dentists have been employed directly by the state, with the NHS paying all expenses, have cost the country twice as much as continuing NHS dentists' practices?
I will be here next Thursday and I am sure that the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to be here also. If she catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, she will have the chance to debate dentistry and the other aspects of the NHS that require discussion. However, I suspect that several of my right hon. and hon. Friends would point out the disaster that was dentistry under the last Conservative Government and make it clear that it has been the responsibility of this Government, since 1997, to ensure that the health service can move ahead. The hon. Lady will be able to make her points next Thursday.
I would also welcome a debate on the Carter report. Would it be possible to have a debate about the protection given to people who have bought council flats, exercised their right to buy and have long leases? In Tongwynlais in my constituency, owner-occupier constituents face bills for thousands of pounds because Cardiff council has mended the roofs of the blocks of flats, even though the residents thought that the repairs were not necessary. They have been landed with huge bills. In one case, the person is considering selling his flat to pay for the liability. The landlord and tenant legislation is very convoluted, so may we have a debate on that important issue?
My hon. Friend raises a wider question about the nature of shared ownership and the relevant legal provisions. I know from my constituency that that causes problems for those who have purchased former council accommodation. The Government take it seriously and I am grateful to her for raising the issue.
May we have a debate on Government waste, following the publication by the Taxpayers' Alliance of a book—I am sure that it is on your bedside table, Mr. Speaker—identifying what they claim is £82 billion of Government waste, including more than £800,000 on policing the street meeting held by Abu Hamza after his mosque was closed down and £150,000 spent on new art for the Home Office building? Such a debate would give us a chance to find out how much of the £21.5 billion of savings that the Gershon review identified the Government have actually recovered.
The hon. Gentleman usually raises issues of general concern to the population, but before he relies on that report he might like to check on its provenance. The chairman of the organisation is a Tory councillor, one of the authors of the book is a Tory researcher and the other was a Tory candidate at the last election. That so-called objective report has been described by someone who would probably regard himself as a conservative commentator, Mr. Neil Collins of the Evening Standard, as
"playing fast and loose with the figures" and as using examples of waste compiled over the last eight years, when it is supposed to be an annual report. Before citing such nonsense—and this report is nonsense almost from start to finish—the hon. Gentleman should have regard to the reality of Government spending. We have produced 32,500 more teachers, 86,000 more teaching assistants, 27,000 more doctors, 78,000 nurses and a record number of police officers. That report appears to suggest that none of that extra spending should have been made. The hon. Gentleman should check the Conservative party's position with Mr. Cameron, because it is not clear at the moment.
As a non-practising solicitor, I urge my right hon. Friend to have a debate on the Carter review of legal aid, but I caution him against having too early a debate. Legal aid is one of the pillars of our society. When the iron curtain came down, there were two main calls, one for parliamentary democracy and the other for the rule of law. One cannot have the rule of law without a proper legal aid system and I would not wish any changes to the present legal aid system, which is under some strain, to be rushed. Therefore, I caution my right hon. Friend against an early debate, although we should perhaps have a debate some time just before the summer recess.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who puts the point in a more measured way than I have been able to do. I should note that this is the first time since I have been in this job that someone has asked for a later debate on a subject.
We need at least two debates on the NHS, to discuss dentists and the purchaser parity adjustment. The phasing out of the purchaser parity adjustment will cost Birmingham £19 million next year, £28 million the year afterwards and £38 in the year after that. It will also affect the constituencies of other hon. Members, so we need an urgent debate on that issue.
That subject also falls within the terms of the debate that I have announced for next week and the hon. Gentleman will be able to join in. Perhaps I will check that he is here next week to make his speech on that subject. I look forward to reading it.
I have pressed my right hon. Friend previously about a case that has been held to be sub judice because the Crown Prosecution Service has not made a decision and the inquest could not be concluded. The CPS decided before Christmas that no prosecution would be pursued, but no date has been set for the resumed inquest because the file seems to have got stuck in the system. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is outrageous that two years after the death of a young boy it should be impossible to hold the Government to account for what happened because of delays in the administration of justice?
My hon. Friend has raised this issue on several previous occasions and I do not wish to test the patience of the House by repeating what I said on those occasions. It is always possible for hon. Members to raise issues in general terms, such as the delay and the time taken by an institution to resolve a problem. We should be careful about commenting on particular cases before they have reached a conclusion. Although my hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about that particular case, there would be difficulties if that approach were adopted generally for most cases. I know that my reply will disappoint my hon. Friend, as it has on previous occasions, but that is an important safeguard on issues that are sub judice. It may not always provide a proper reply as far as she is concerned, but it is right in general terms that we adopt that approach.
The genuinely shocking news about the use of heroin by a nine-year-old is further proof that there has never been so much heroin on the streets of Britain at such a low price, in spite of the courageous and professional work by our soldiers in Afghanistan. Should we not have a debate and a vote on the deployment of further troops in the Helmand province in Afghanistan, as that is likely to be mission impossible? There is certainly a grave danger that local farmers will be driven into the hands of the Taliban and the lives of our troops will be put in grave peril.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend in raising that important issue and, indeed, in highlighting the prevalence of heroin use, particularly by very young children, but I am puzzled about his subsequent comments. Clearly, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence suggested when he announced the deployment to Helmand, part of the purpose is obviously to reduce lawlessness in that part of the world, particularly to reduce therefore the ability of those who trade in heroin to take advantage of that lawlessness. It is important in that process that we restrict the opportunity of the Taliban to continue with their appalling terrorism, but that is part of the wider process of ensuring that an elected Government in Kabul have the ability to control the whole of Afghanistan, with necessary benefits not only to the people of Afghanistan but, as my hon. Friend was also implying, to the people of Europe, who suffer so much from the trade in heroin.
As the Leader of the House used Government time yesterday to ensure that over £500,000 would go into the hands of those who do not come to the House—I am speaking about Sinn Fein-IRA—will he use Government time to allow those of us who do come to the House to debate the issues that affect our constituents and to hold direct rule Ministers to book, whether in respect of health, education or other issues?
There are clearly opportunities for the hon. Gentleman, who is assiduous in the use of parliamentary time, to hold Ministers not to book, but to account, which is obviously what he does very successfully. There are opportunities during Northern Ireland questions to raise such issues, and I am sure that he will take full advantage of them.
My right hon. Friend may have heard this morning's announcement that Unilever is to sell off its Birds Eye frozen food industry across Europe, including the factory in Lowestoft, where 800 people work—a big slice of our local economy. The Lowestoft food factory is one of the most efficient and productive in the country. It received factory of the year and manufacturer of the year awards last year. It should therefore be an attractive part of the business for a new buyer. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to stress the positive attributes of Lowestoft? Will he ensure that the Government and the East of England Development Agency do all that they can to encourage prospective buyers? May we hold a debate on food processing in this country, so that we can understand what is going on in that industry?
As someone who has been a fairly regular visitor to my hon. Friend's constituency, I know what a thriving and vital place Lowestoft is and the importance of that factory to the local economy. An early resolution is essential, given the obvious uncertainty that the announcement must have caused the people of Lowestoft. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would be willing to see my hon. Friend to discuss these matters and to find out what help the Government can provide.
There are real concerns across London about health, education, the environment, transport and how the Government have failed to deal with those issues for the capital. Will the Leader of the House therefore find time to hold a general debate on London issues on the Floor of the House in the near future?
I will certainly add the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the long list of other suggestions that I have received. I recognise the importance of London, but I do not entirely recognise his description. The Government have provided significant support to the people of London, to its infrastructure and to ensure the effective delivery of public services in our capital city.
As chair of the parliamentary group of the Transport and General Workers Union, I congratulate my right hon. Friend and all those involved on bringing about a satisfactory conclusion to the cleaners' dispute, but does he agree that low-paid workers and more vulnerable workers are also concerned about the ever-rising cost of energy? He may be aware that British Gas has trailed in the press a price increase of up to 25 per cent. That will cause tremendous concern among low-paid workers, pensioners and businesses. Will he arrange time in the House for a debate on those proposed increases, so that we can investigate the reasons behind them?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for referring to the resolution of the dispute involving our cleaners. He has played a significant role in that process and I congratulate him on his efforts. It is important that the House continues to debate the wider issues of energy. We have recently held debates on energy. It is obviously a matter of great concern, particularly to the poorest members of our society, that energy price increases might significantly affect their ability to enjoy other aspects of their lives. That is obviously part of the wider Government commitment to ensure that we use our energy efficiently and effectively—something that the Government take extremely seriously.
May we have a debate that is dedicated exclusively to cancer care, so that we can address cancer patients' access to the most effective and appropriate drug treatments, such as Herceptin, so that we can tackle the postcode prescribing lottery and so that Essex MPs can ensure that we save our excellent cancer centre at Southend-on-Sea hospital?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that important issue, which affects every family throughout the country. The Government have given a great deal of priority to cancer care. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not refer directly to Herceptin. As two judicial reviews are under way, it would not be right for me to make any observation about those cases at this stage. However, I absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government know that cancer care is vital. We have put enormous extra resources into cancer care, and I am delighted that that extra money is having some effect in improving the care of and results for those who suffer from that dreadful disease.
Several hon. Members rose—