The business for the week following the recess will be as follows:
The provisional business for the following week will include:
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks in March will be:
It may also assist the House to know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to deliver his Budget statement on
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the week after the recess. I am grateful that the Children and Adoption Bill has found a place in the business of the House for that week.
The right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will have noticed that we will use our Opposition day on
In 1999, the Prime Minister gave a commitment that by the end of 2001 everyone would have access to an NHS dentist—a commitment on which he has failed to deliver. However, hon. Members may care to know that the Government have a radical and innovative answer to ending the queues of people waiting to sign up to a new NHS dentist. They are going to ban people from queuing and force them to apply by phone or post. We need a debate about the real answers to the problems, and we will give hon. Members that debate.
On the issue of cancer patients and the use of Herceptin, and following yesterday's court decision—which revealed that, despite the comments by the Secretary of State for Health last autumn, the Government had not changed their policy—will the Leader of the House ensure that the right hon. Lady makes a statement to the House on Herceptin before the debate on
We waited a long time for it, but I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House announce the date of the Budget today. It is a pity that it was announced on Sky News before he could announce the date in this House. Talking of long waits, when will the education reform Bill be published?
I realise that referring to the economy usually brings a torrent of statistics from the Leader of the House about inflation, interest rates and employment, but yesterday we saw the biggest rise in unemployment for 13 years, and there are serious underlying problems that need to be addressed, particularly the position of young people. Does he share my concern that over the past year there was a 28 per cent. increase in youth long-term unemployment; the number of economically inactive 18 to 24-year-olds has risen by nearly a quarter since Labour came to power; and that the number of young people who are not in education, employment or training has risen to 1.2 million? The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he would not be satisfied until the Government had removed the scar of long-term unemployment from the face of Britain. Yesterday's figures show that he is failing to achieve that goal, so will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on youth long-term unemployment?
Finally, on a day when a review of the work of the Electoral Commission has been announced, I note that the Leader of the House has previously said that in order to engage people in the electoral process we should force them to vote by making it compulsory and by fining people who do not vote. Is that still his view, or has he now realised that the more people who vote at the next general election, the bigger the Conservative majority?
I am grateful at least for the right hon. Lady's last, rather entertaining, comment. I suppose that Opposition Front-Bench Members have to live in hope, but that is all they will be living in.
On the right hon. Lady's specific points, I see no reason at all why right hon. and hon. Members should not make contributions about dentistry in today's debate. I am sure that one of the things that they will want to do is to note the fact that the Government have recruited the equivalent of 1,453 more dentists to the national health service, which has contributed to a net increase of 1,100 dentists; that overall there are 4,000 more dentists in primary care since 1997; that we are in the process of agreeing a new contract that will enable committed NHS dentists to earn an average of £80,000 a year; and that a third of dentists are already working under those new arrangements. There is significant progress, over and above the difficulties caused—in case the right hon. Lady has forgotten—by the reduction in the number of places for trainee dentists under the last Government. We inherited that problem and have sought to tackle it.
On the nonsense about queues and forcing people to register by telephone, I would have thought that in the 21st century the right hon. Lady might welcome the fact that it is possible to register by telephone rather than having to stand outside in a queue, but clearly the Conservative party is still looking backwards. I recognise that for some of its members the telephone is a new-fangled invention, but it is nevertheless one that most people in society have got used to using. I welcome the efforts of Mr. Cameron to modernise the Conservative party; perhaps soon it will use the telegraph rather than the pigeons that are clearly part of its internal communication system.
On Herceptin, I am sorry that the right hon. Lady raised the issue in the way that she did. Obviously, everyone has sympathy for those diagnosed with cancer and it is important that we try to ensure that the drug is made available, especially given the promising results of recent trials, but it is equally important that we have a proper process to determine how new drugs are used, and I would have thought that all Members would agree about that. It remains the case that once the drug is licensed it can be generally used, but before it is licensed the matter is for local decision. That remains the position, and I would have thought that Members would support and welcome it.
We have made it clear that the education Bill will be published before the end of the month. I have set out that position before and I am delighted to repeat it.
On the economy, the right hon. Lady is on rather weak ground when she criticises the Government about unemployment. We realise that the Conservatives are experts on unemployment—they created and fostered so much of it during their period in office. The truth is that since 1997, 2,341,000 new jobs have been created, filled by people who are working hard to contribute to the success of the country's economy—expressions that could never, ever have been used during the Conservative period in office. I would hope that, rising occasionally above party political rhetoric, the right hon. Lady might acknowledge that success and congratulate the Government on it.
I have always made clear my personal support for compulsory voting. It seems a modest commitment to expect of citizens in society, but I recognise that there are many views in that debate. I am happy to contribute to them.
As my right hon. Friend represents a former coal-mining constituency, he will know of the great progress that has been made on compensation payments to former miners. However, the issue of surface workers has yet to be satisfactorily resolved, so may we have a debate on that important matter?
As my right hon. Friend is in such a good mood, will he consider giving an extra day to the Government of Wales Bill?
I prefer not to be drawn further on my hon. Friend's latter question, but he raises an important point about compensation payments. The Government have provided enormous funds to ensure that those harmed as a result of their experience of working in collieries are provided with compensation, although more work remains to be done to ensure that the final payments are made. Certainly, I recognise that there is an outstanding issue in relation to surface workers. I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—who, incidentally, has just answered questions—will contact my hon. Friend with the details of this matter.
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the future of the Post Office card account? Is he aware that there is very great concern in many parts of the House about the news that it will cease in 2010—not only the fact of that, but the manner of it as well? Is he further aware that although the Government argue that it was always known that the card account would be temporary, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr. Plaskitt, said yesterday in Westminster Hall:
"Of course, it is a temporary arrangement"— but if we had told people that at the beginning, it—
"would have been interpreted as . . . a barrier to . . . taking up the account."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 15 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 496WH.]
So it seems to me that he has blown the gaff.
We need such a debate not only for the sake of the 4.3 million people who have those accounts and rely on the convenience that they bring, or, indeed, because of the £1 billion a year that the contract is worth to the Post Office, but—this is a very immediate point—because sub-postmasters who have reached retirement age who want to sell their businesses now discover that, as a result of that major blow, the business itself has a much smaller value and they are now struggling to sell. It is a very important issue and I urge the Leader of the House to make Government time available to debate it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also find time for a debate on local government reorganisation, as contradictory signals are coming from the Government about their intentions, about the time scale and about the process—not least from the Deputy Prime Minister, as we heard yesterday?
I do not know whether I am supposed to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities. Perhaps his hon. Friend Mr. Heath is out in the country campaigning for the write-in vote that I thought should be required of such an outstanding candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party, but we are all sorry that he is not here to receive our continuing support in his efforts to lead the Liberal Democrats.
The Government have always made it clear that the Post Office card account was an interim arrangement. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will accept that it is an arrangement whereby those who want to continue rightly to use their local post office to receive a range of benefits can do so. Between now and the end of the arrangement in 2010, it would clearly be possible—pilot schemes are already under way—to allow people, having learned from the experience of using a Post Office card account, to use many of the similar accounts made available by the Post Office. They operate on exactly the same basis as the Post Office card account and will enable them to continue to receive benefits that way. That seems a wholly sensible and straightforward arrangement, and it will allow post offices to continue to receive the same level and quality of business as they enjoy under the present arrangements.
We have heard the happy news from Opposition Members of the flurry of babies that have arrived, but may we have a debate in Government time on the contrasting attitudes in the Chamber to the family-friendly policies that have been introduced? Apparently, the Leader of the Opposition is on paternity leave, but someone very like him was seen in the voting Lobby yesterday. Perhaps we can find out whether personation has taken place. Among Government Members, we are seeing the use of family-friendly policies affecting those with coming babies and upcoming retirement in that, according to the TV bulletins, job sharing and hot desking are taking place on a grand scale in Downing street.
I am trying to work out which part of my hon. Friend's observations has anything to do with me. I will probably resist a running commentary on the various issues that he has raised, but the Government are certainly committed to family-friendly policies. I am delighted that Mr. Cameron, whom I should congratulate on the birth of a child, has been converted to the cause of paternity leave. We all know that he voted against the provision when it came before the House, but we always welcome a conversion, and we seem to be welcoming a conversion of large parts of the Conservative party to Labour policies. Long may it continue.
The Leader of the House will know that the press and the public are excluded from the weekly meetings of the European Scrutiny Committee. The Committee asked to meet in public during the past Parliament, but the then Leader of the House did nothing to change Standing Orders to allow that. What is the right hon. Gentleman's attitude towards openness and transparency, or is this another issue on which the Government lecture everybody else—in this case about the need for public access—and then do nothing to alter our parliamentary procedures to permit it?
I have not received any specific request from those involved in European scrutiny during this Parliament, but it is something that I will look at carefully. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there are proposals from the Modernisation Committee to look at the way we scrutinise European legislation. Those proposals are under consideration, so perhaps we can have a fuller discussion once they have been published.
May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1654, which deals with the siting of three mobile phone masts outside St. Joseph's Catholic church in Evington?
[That this House notes with concern the construction of three telecommunication masts outside St. Joseph's Church, Leicester; calls on the companies building telecommunication masts to work together to reduce the number requiring construction; acknowledges that since the Stewart Report, published over five years ago, there have been significant advances and changes to mobile telecommunications technology; urges the Government to commission further research into the effects on health of telecommunications masts; and calls on the Government to carry out further consultations.]
As a result of that decision, the church is to lose the possibility of having a children's nursery because parents are very concerned about the effects on their children's health of having those masts so close to the church and its hall. Can we have a debate on the Stewart report and consider introducing guidelines so that mobile phone operators are able to share one site and mast, rather than creating three?
The Leader of the House will be aware that there is huge opposition in England and Wales to the restructuring of police forces. The so-called consultation, which has been an utter fraud and charade, ends in a few days. When that period ends, will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the subject in the House? Is he aware that Bernard Hogan-Howe, the chief constable of Merseyside, with which Cheshire is to be merged, has stated that if the merger goes ahead the people of Cheshire will have huge resources transferred to Merseyside, and Cheshire's council tax will increase dramatically? Is that not reason enough for a debate in this House?
The hon. Gentleman talks about huge opposition. I am certainly aware that there is some opposition. There is always opposition to this kind of change, which necessarily affects, in some cases, traditional boundaries and, in others, boundaries established for a number of years. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that we cannot simply say that there will never be any change in the organisation of our police forces. Indeed, the organisation of those forces throughout the country has been in a steady process of evolution over many years.
A proper subject for debate is the recommendation by very senior police officers—after all, the proposals come from a committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers—that there should be a reorganisation to ensure that police forces throughout the country are equipped to deal with the challenges that they face in the 21st century. I would be much more interested to hear from the hon. Gentleman and other Members who raise this issue why the Government should reject the advice from senior police officers that they need a reorganisation, rather than them simply making an argument based on traditional boundaries and a traditional way of doing things.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the co- ordination of the contents of Government reviews? I am sure that he will be aware, for example, of the publication two days ago of the waste review, which proposes a threefold increase in energy from waste between now and 2020—a fact that appears to be wholly absent from the considerations of the energy review, which is, at precisely the same time, considering energy supply up to 2020.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. A constant challenge for Governments organised on a departmental basis, and indeed any organisation that operates in that way, is to ensure that decisions taken in one part of the organisation are consistent with decisions taken elsewhere. This Government have spent a great deal of time and effort ensuring that there is co-ordination across government, improving cross-cutting efforts by different Departments. I recognise that there is still more work that we can do in that respect to achieve the ambition that my hon. Friend rightly sets out.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for time for discussion in this place of the facilities for Members, in particular the roll-out of IT equipment? I understand that after the allocation of equipment to new Members, existing Members are having it distributed in alphabetical order, and we are only at "C" at present, with some Members whose surname begins with "C" still not having had their equipment delivered to them. Those of us at the tail end of the alphabet will be more interested in pension arrangements than IT equipment by the time it is our turn.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point with characteristic style. I was not aware that the process was going so slowly, but I shall certainly investigate and write to him once I have found the answer.
I know that the Leader of the House is committed to having more women Members of Parliament, but may I suggest one practical step that he might take to make Parliament more family-friendly? I read in the newspaper that he is considering shortening the summer recess. Before he does that, will he ensure that it still fully covers the school holidays? There is a problem with the next recess as I find that at Easter my children's school holiday overlaps with the recess by only a week. That may not be a significant problem for him, but for my nine-year-old daughter it is.
I assure my hon. Friend that it is also a significant factor in the Hoon household, so I take her point very seriously. I have to say, however, that most of the criticism directed at the House is not that we are shortening the summer recess, but that we have far too long a summer recess. I recognise that that has provided significant opportunities for right hon. and hon. Members not only to spend more time with their families, but, crucially, to spend more time in their constituencies. That is something that we need to bear in mind. I assure my hon. Friend that the question of summer vacations is taken into account as we look at the dates for parliamentary sittings, but I also draw to her attention the consistent complaints from our Scottish colleagues that the summer recess very rarely takes account of Scottish summer holidays, so it cannot be an exact process that will satisfy everyone.
I hope that the Leader of the House has had time to read early-day motion 1637, which I tabled, regarding the Falkland Islands, following the hostile remarks of the President of Venezuela only a week ago.
[That this House completely rejects the suggestion that the UK should hand over the Falkland Islands to Argentina made by Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, on 9th February; believes that all matters relating to the Falkland Islands, especially sovereignty, are issues concerning the Falkland Islanders and the British Government alone; notes the illegitimacy of the Argentine claim on the islands; and urges the Government to rally round these loyal subjects of the Crown whenever their sovereignty is questioned and to declare that the Union Jack will permanently fly above Port Stanley.]
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the House not only on the defence of the Falkland Islands, but on all British territories overseas?
As someone who has had the privilege of visiting the Falkland Islands on a number of occasions, I recognise the hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that he will forgive me, but I have not read the early-day motion that he mentions. However, I can hazard a guess as to what it contains, and obviously I strongly support the continuation of the Falkland Islands as part of this country's heritage. It is something that we maintained absolutely as a priority in government, and we will continue to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on surplus school places and the way in which Conservative county councils such as Kent seem arbitrarily and unfairly to be targeting schools in deprived and low-income areas? Such a debate would allow us to expose the reasons why Kent has suddenly singled out Dover and said that it wants to close down St. Radigund's school, Melbourne school, South Deal school and St. Joseph's school in Aylesham, against the wishes of people in those areas.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue and one that clearly directly affects his constituents. I am sure, his having raised it in the way that he has today, that notice will be taken by Kent county council.
"around 44,000 disputed overpayments were awaiting a decision."—[Hansard, 14 February 2006; Vol. 442, c. 1849W.]
Each and every one of those disputed payments represents misery for a family with young children. Will the Leader of the House ensure that, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes his Budget statement on
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was referring in his opening remarks to hard-working civil servants serving the country with absolute impartiality and objectivity in the information that they make available. I am sure that that is what he intended to say, at any rate.
We all recognise that there have been difficulties with the implementation of tax credit arrangements. That is why such effort has been put into ensuring that the system operates fairly and efficiently—and for the great majority of people, that is indeed the case. The system provides opportunities and financial support for families that was simply not previously available. Crucially, it also helps very many single-parent families back into the labour market. That would not have been possible without the availability of tax credits. I recognise that more work has to be done to ensure that the system can in particular respond quickly to the sudden and dramatic changes that affect people in their daily lives—that is the reason for the difficulties that have arisen—and we will continue to monitor that.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to look at early-day motion 1661, which is in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mr. McGovern, and which states:
[That this House congratulates the Bishop of Dunkeld, Bishop Vincent Logan on the Silver Jubilee of his episcopal ordination; notes that Bishop Logan was ordained Bishop of Dunkeld in the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, Dundee on 26th February 1981; further notes that he was educated in Bathgate, Blairs and Drygrange and ordained to the priesthood in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh in 1964 and that he served Episcopal Vicar for Education in the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh; further notes Bishop Logan's continuing interest in education and in the formation of candidates for the priesthood; thanks Bishop Logan for his hard work in the Diocese of Dunkeld and beyond; and wishes Bishop Logan many more years of service.]
It congratulates Bishop Logan on his ordination 25 years ago as a bishop in Scotland. It is his silver jubilee next week, and he is a well known and respected figure in Scottish society. Will my right hon. Friend join in with the congratulations?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in offering congratulations and grateful to him for telling me the subject matter of his early-day motion, as there seems to be a disturbing, recent trend of assuming that I have read every one of them.
I hope that the Leader of the House has had a chance to read a letter in The Times today from six professors of law at Cambridge university, expressing their concern about the extraordinary powers granted to the Government by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is now widely known as the "Abolition of Parliament Bill". Will he take steps to rescind the decision of the House last Thursday not to consider the Bill in a Committee of the whole House but to take it upstairs? Surely, given the Bill's massive constitutional importance and the seriousness of what part 1 does to the House's powers, all Members should have the opportunity to discuss it in detail on the Floor of the House.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is on temporary, sabbatical leave from the university of Cambridge. We are delighted to have him here for a relatively short time while he represents the people of Cambridge. I hope that he did not stimulate that letter in The Times from his former colleagues in the law faculty at Cambridge university. I know that he is a distinguished lawyer and anxious to get back to academic life as soon as possible, but before he does so he will of course have the opportunity to debate the Bill in Committee in detail, and we look forward to his observations.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a report is due out tomorrow of a major inquiry by Lord Carlile into the outrageous use of restraint, isolation and strip-searching of children in custody, which follows the death of a teenager in custody? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a debate on that important subject?
I have not yet seen the detail of the report, but from my hon. Friend's description, it obviously raises very important issues. I am sure that there will be opportunities to discuss it on the Floor of the House.
Does the Leader of the House not feel the slightest discomfort at the Government's committing a major deployment of troops to Afghanistan without any major debate in the House? May I suggest that he entertains seriously a request for a debate on Iran, which is contributing to the difficulties in Afghanistan? Is not it time that the Government held, in Government time, a full day's debate on the situation across the entire middle east, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, while we consider the very serious matter of this major deployment?
The hon. Gentleman knows full well that we have regular defence debates. Although they are given particular titles, the underlying arrangements have never changed, whereby right hon. and hon. Members can contribute across the range of defence issues. That has always been the practice. Debates on defence take place more regularly than those on most other subjects. There was an opportunity for discussion in the Chamber when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement on the deployment to Afghanistan, so I do not accept that there are no opportunities for Members to raise those issues. They are important and are discussed on a regular basis.
There can hardly be a Member in this House whose constituents, or at least some of them, have not been disturbed, harassed or, in extreme cases, threatened by the activities of Travellers. In Reading, we recently lost an entire week's worth of cataract operations because of a Travellers' encampment outside an NHS treatment centre. Given the wide disparity in approaches to that problem by police forces and local authorities, does the Leader of the House agree that there is a strong case for Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box to take part in a debate aimed at providing more efficient and tougher action in defence of the law-abiding community?
I know that in my constituency the issue causes enormous distress and anger among local people. That is why the Government have strengthened the law on trespass and ensured that local authorities have the power to take swift action. I can only encourage local authorities to use the full powers that the Government have made available.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to motion No. 49 on today's Order Paper, which has been tabled by Mr. Clarke and me, among members of five political parties in the House? The motion calls for the setting up of a Select Committee of seven Privy Councillors to look into the events and Government policy leading up to the conflict in Iraq and its immediate aftermath. Given that the motion is signed by no fewer than 155 right hon. and hon. Members across the House, is not it time to debate that matter urgently in Government time?
I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman suggesting by implication that there has somehow not been a thorough investigation of circumstances leading to the conflict in Iraq. There has been a series of reports, both within the House and beyond it. I have to say that the conflict has been investigated probably more than any other in history.
Shortly before he took advantage of the Government's policy on paternity leave, which he had voted against, the Leader of the Opposition made an interesting proposal to abolish the royal prerogative. Given that nobody, not even the royals, appears to be opposed to the proposal, would it be possible to have a debate so that we could find ways of speedily implementing it? Would such a debate not also give us an opportunity to discuss other aspects of our constitution and progress on reform, not least of the House of Lords?
I am delighted that Mr. Cameron is examining a range of constitutional issues. As far as I can recall, we have never heard such a suggestion before from the Conservative party, so it is useful. Perhaps the Conservatives are recognising that they are in for a further and prolonged period of opposition, because those matters were never raised while they were in government—a point I have made directly to Mr. Clarke, who has been appointed to have responsibilities in that area.
My hon. Friend referred to the royal prerogative, linking it to the royal family. He will know, of course, that the royal prerogative is exercised by Ministers. Most constitutions have arrangements that allow for ministerial discretion. Indeed, most constitutions would say that those discretions are a necessary part of the process of government. Although it is important that we continue to discuss the extent of those arrangements, simply saying that it is possible to abolish the royal prerogative is a rather simplistic approach to a complicated subject.
May I thank the Leader of the House for responding positively to my business question last October by visiting Andover in my constituency earlier this week? It was much appreciated. On Tuesday, the Government avoided serious embarrassment by allowing a free vote on what had hitherto been a Labour party manifesto commitment. Would it not make sense to build on that important reform by having a similar dispensation for the education reform Bill?
I repeat my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman for his hospitality in his constituency. I had an extremely interesting and illuminating visit. I hope that I shall not be required to visit every constituency to which right hon. and hon. Members are gracious enough to invite me, but I found the visit very interesting.
As for the free vote on smoking, I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would congratulate the Government on delivering more than their manifesto commitment. Governments are usually criticised if they deliver less than their manifesto commitment. On this occasion, we delivered more than we promised the electorate, which seems a wholly sensible arrangement.
May we have a debate on the honours system? In 2004, the Public Administration Committee made a number of wide-ranging recommendations about getting rid of knights, dames and name-changing honours, but all that was shelved. There is growing concern that the system is open to abuse and that people are, in effect, buying honours. Is it not time that we had an early debate on the matter?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend has not given credit for the way in which the Government have opened up the process. We have ensured a great deal more transparency in the honours system and that many ordinary people can benefit from honours in recognition of the considerable service that they provide to the community, which is often unpaid and done on a voluntary basis. I should have thought that he would support an arrangement whereby we recognise the contribution that individual citizens make to the way in which our society works.
In social security upratings, there is something that is normally missed because neither the Government nor the previous Government have changed it. I refer to the anomaly whereby people who have state pensions in this country do not receive upratings for inflation if they go to Canada, but do if they go to the United States. If they go to South Africa or Zimbabwe they do not, but they do in many other countries in Africa. It is time that Parliament had a debate to see whether fairness can be brought on that account.
The hon. Gentleman is referring to long-standing arrangements put in place by the Governments of the respective countries. They have been in place for a very long time, under not only this but previous Governments. It would require a great deal of careful thought before we could replace such long-standing understandings.
My right hon. Friend will be pleased that I am not going to mention my early-day motion on Sunday trading, because I know who to go to on that and which Department to tackle. However, can he find time for a debate, and I would be grateful to know who is the relevant Minister, because I do not know who to tackle, on the costs and effects on the delivery of joined-up government services of the proposed simultaneous reorganisation of the fire, police and ambulance services, primary care trusts, education, and local government in my constituency?
I am sure that my hon. Friend does know who to go to, but I appreciate that he is trying to save on postage costs by not contacting a number of my right hon. Friends. I recognise that there is a requirement for reorganisation in a number of areas—I am tempted to say that he has mentioned all of them—but it is important that such changes continue to deliver effective services to his constituents, my constituents and people across the country. Those reform processes are a necessary consequence of the significant investment that has been made in each of the services that he mentioned. The country rightly expects more money to be made available for those services, but it also expects that money to be used efficiently, wisely and successfully. That is why those reorganisations are necessary.
Slavery has been abolished in this country for a very long time, but young women are being trafficked from central Europe to this country to be sold as sex slaves, and they are working in the most appalling conditions. However, the Government have failed to sign the European convention on action against trafficking in human beings. I believe that that is a fit subject for a debate.
When may we have a debate on the world shortage of diamorphine, which means that anyone dying in a third-world country has only a one in 20 chance of gaining access to that vital pain reliever? Would it not be more sensible to employ our troops in ensuring that the Afghan farmers can be licensed to use their poppy crops to supply the world with diamorphine, rather than using them to destroy the only means of livelihood for farmers in Helmand province, which will lead to great danger for our troops and will not add to the world production of diamorphine?
I was not aware that there was a shortage of diamorphine. I recognise that, in some parts of the world, the cost of the drug will probably be beyond the means of many people who would benefit from its use. I am not sure, however, that I agree with my hon. Friend's observations about Afghanistan. Far too much of the Afghan economy is already based on the production of opium, and it is vital that we persuade farmers there to adopt alternative livelihoods so that, in the future, Afghanistan is not a country that is totally dependent on the production of a harmful drug.
This week, we have seen the first operation of the office of the alternative Prime Minister, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer making speeches on Government security policy. Bearing that in mind, and given the job share that is taking place between No. 11 and No. 10 Downing street, what alterations will the Leader of the House make to the operation of Prime Minister's Question Time to enable us, where appropriate, to question the alternative Prime Minister?
I see that Opposition Members are in a light-hearted mood as they approach the recess. They are providing us all with regular entertainment. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is fully engaged in his responsibilities. Inevitably, as one of the longest-serving and most successful Chancellors that this country has ever had, he is necessarily involved in looking across the board at the impact of our very successful economic policies, and it is right that he should do so. I have indicated to the House that he continues to concentrate on the economy, and he will do so when he makes the Budget statement in due course. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would want to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his successful stewardship of the economy over such a long period.
May we have a debate on the reorganisation of the health service in the midlands, specifically the west midlands? Earlier, my right hon. Friend said that more money should be provided, but that people should receive value for money. If we were able to hold a debate on the reorganisation of the health service in the west midlands, should not Members be allowed to test the relationship between restructuring, value for money and costs?
I am sure that, once any proposals for the reorganisation of the health service in the west midlands, or, indeed, any other part of the country, are decided, there will be opportunities for my hon. Friend and all Members to have their say. I emphasise that by 2007–08 the Government will treble the amount of money spent on the health service. Alongside that, it is necessary to ensure that that money is spent successfully and effectively, and provides value for money for taxpayers—the people who contribute to that excellent health budget. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with that approach.
Will the Leader of the House ask the Deputy Prime Minister or one of his Ministers to make a statement on noise and disruption caused by construction works, particularly overnight working, the powers of the local authority to control that through planning and environmental health measures, and perhaps the moral duty of contractors and developers such as Asda, which is building a supermarket in my constituency, to compensate people kept awake at night because of the necessity of overnight working?
I recognise that construction can cause temporary disruption to people's lives, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter directly with the company concerned. I have sympathy for those affected, but I am sure that he would welcome the employment prospects provided by construction and the opportunities provided by a new supermarket for employment in his constituency.
Now that we have banned smoking in all enclosed public places and private members' clubs, is it not hypocritical that the House is exempt and that Members will still be able to smoke in the Smoking Room? What does my right hon. Friend propose to do about that?
I am used to answering questions on matters for which I have absolutely no responsibility, but I recognise the importance of that matter to the outside world, following the votes in the House the other day. It is my strong personal view that although it is not formally subject to the legislation, the House should apply the decision that we have taken for other people to our own arrangements here. I look forward to suggestions as to what the Smoking Room will be called in future.
Through the Leader of the House, may I express my thanks for the great courtesy shown by the Downing street police and staff at the door to a group of second world war veterans handing in a letter yesterday to the Prime Minister on behalf of the widow of the late Lieutenant Norbury, who was wrongly denied a war pension? I hope that my meeting on the subject with the veterans Minister this afternoon will lead to a positive outcome.
May we have a statement or debate on the way in which criminal sentences are described to the public when they are imposed? Last week we saw a great deal of publicity that Abu Hamza had been sentenced to seven years in prison, whereas the reality is that he will serve three and a half years. Would it not be more honest to tell the public that people have been sentenced to a range from three and a half to seven years, so that people will not be disillusioned when they see that those whom they thought had deservedly been put away for a long time are out on the streets all too soon?
The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is regularly discussed in the House and with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Although my right hon. Friend would accept that there are various circumstances that can lead to a reduction in a sentence, those reductions are not automatic. They are a necessary part of our sentencing system. They provide proper control over prisoners in prison, and although the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that some people are not aware that discounts are available for good behaviour, the great majority of the public are aware of that. Indeed, in my experience most people assume that the discounts are rather greater than they are in reality.
In the last round of post office cuts, more branches were closed in Worsley than in any other constituency in Greater Manchester. Now there is a threat to one of the remaining branches in Roe Green. A series of management problems have led to post office counter trading in an otherwise empty shop, and my constituents rightly fear that that is the forerunner of another closure. In view of that, will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the accessibility of post office branches now and in the future?
My hon. Friend has made her point, I think, but I recognise the importance of post office counters to people throughout the country, particularly to those who cannot travel further afield for the range of services that the post office provides. I know that the Post Office keeps the matter under regular review, and it is of enormous importance to our citizens and our constituents.
May I add to the right hon. Gentleman's reading list by drawing to his attention early-day motion 1499 on abuse of the elderly, which the motion rightly describes as a national shame?
[That this House condemns the abuse of older people as a national shame; supports the Help the Aged campaign, which is being taken forward in partnership with Action on Elder Abuse, to raise awareness of abuse and increase recognition that all of us need to take responsibility for putting a stop to the abuse of older people; believes that older people have the right to live free from fear and harm; urges immediate action to prevent and tackle elder abuse; and calls for improved mechanisms to address elder abuse through more effective regulatory systems and law enforcement, vetting and barring of health and social care workers and increased access to advocacy and support for people affected by elder abuse.]
The elderly have the right to live free from fear and harm, and an early debate would allow us to highlight the important issue of abuse of the elderly in our society, particularly attacks on the elderly, which many hon. Members know are increasing weekly. I should be grateful if the Leader of the House spared Government time to debate this important matter.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue that is important throughout the country. There can be no excuse for such appalling attacks. He has highlighted the issue in his early-day motion, and we shall continue to watch it carefully. I assure him that the Government do not take the matter lightly. We want to see it dealt with and we want the appropriate authorities to take appropriate action.
My right hon. Friend is aware that there is great pressure on home owners, with a potential rise of 25 per cent. in energy prices. Has not the time come for someone who buys a new home to pay no VAT? People who renovate their homes to try to create warm homes have to pay full VAT. This anomaly needs to be dealt with. We should encourage people to maintain their properties and keep them at a good standard, so let us remove or reduce the burden of VAT.
I feel sure that the Leader of the House will recognise that the speech today by the chief executive of the RAC has made a significant contribution not just to road safety but to improving our environment. Mr. King pointed out that we suffer a severe road sign overload. Can the right hon. Gentleman give me some assurance that when the House returns after the recess a Minister will make a statement on changing the regulations so that there is better planning guidance to local authorities and to the Highways Agency?
I have seen press accounts of the speech and recognise that the chief executive of the RAC raises an important issue that affects road safety across the country. Obviously there is a balance to be struck between the need to ensure proper communication of information to motorists in order to provide for their safety, while not overloading their understanding at a time when they are concentrating on driving safely. I am sure that the speech will be considered carefully by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.