The business for next week will be as follows:
The provisional business for the week commencing
Given the interchange that we just heard in questions to the Solicitor-General, may I help the Leader of the House by suggesting that he arrange a debate on collective responsibility, in which Ministers could learn to understand what being part of the same team is supposed to mean?
I note that the Leader of the House has not given us a full two weeks' business. He will have noticed that there is considerable interest in the debate on the unprecedented preferential voting system that he is introducing on House of Lords reform. The press report that the debate might be held on
Before Christmas, the Leader of the House recognised the strength of feeling in the calls for a debate on Iraq. There is similar feeling for a debate on Afghanistan, particularly given the issues of troop deployment and resources and the Taliban threats reported today. May we therefore have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan?
Following the announcement by Colin Challen that he would not contest the next general election, despite earlier assurances to the contrary, we learned this week from the Chancellor's climate change adviser, Sir Nicholas Stern, that the Chancellor had appointed the hon. Gentleman to work with Sir Nicholas. Will the Leader of the House clarify the terms on which the hon. Gentleman was appointed by the Chancellor and what he will do in his new role and assure us that no other promise has been made of which the House, or perhaps another place, should be aware?
The Select Committee on the Treasury recommended that the date of the Budget be given two months in advance. We are now less than two months from the Easter recess: why the delay, and when will we be given the date?
My right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg has previously raised the question of the new arrangements for passports, under which people renewing their passports will have to be interviewed—up to 6 million interviews a year managed by the Home Office. We now know that the new e-passports might have to be reissued every two years, which would lead to a massive increase in the number of interviews required. May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on how the Home Office, which is not fit for purpose, will cope?
Finally, may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health? The Government have dropped a pledge to build or refurbish 50 community hospitals. The Department of Health has given the go-ahead for the refurbishment of only one community hospital and three health centres, while five community hospitals have been closed in the past year. At the same time, maternity units are closing, with even the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Mr. Lewis campaigning against closure of the maternity unit in his constituency.
The Secretary of State for Health seems to live in a parallel world. She has denied the impact of cuts and deficits and on health care. Last year, she even said that it was the best year ever for the NHS. Today, she has told the Daily Mirror that
"Closing NHS beds is a sign of success".
There have been 9,000 bed closures in the past 21 months —some success rate. That paper is not known for its opposition to Labour, but it asks:
"Is this the most extraordinary statement ever made by a Labour Health Secretary?"
We need a statement from the Health Secretary, so that she can explain why she measures success in bed closures, so that she can apologise to the patients who are suffering as a result of her policies and so that Members on both sides of the House can tell her exactly what they and the public think of the Government's cuts in the NHS.
I always listen carefully to the House—I am listening at the moment—but it is for the usual channels to decide the timing of a debate on Lords reform. When a recess is coming up, it is quite usual not to announce the full business for the week after the week when we come back.
The right hon. Lady asks for a debate on Afghanistan. We have just had a debate on defence in the world, which included a great deal of discussion of Afghanistan. Of course I understand the concern that she articulates on behalf of the House, but I cannot promise a debate very shortly, given that we have already had one debate, which I delivered in response to requests from the House, and a second debate in normal time in respect of wider defence issues.
The right hon. Lady asks me about my hon. Friend Colin Challen.
Is it an offence to smile? There is not much to smile about in the right hon. Lady's questions, but I think I am entitled to smile. She asks me about my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell.
If there is a secret, I do not know it. I am responsible for a great deal, but not for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's appointments, any more than he is responsible for mine, so I suggest that she table questions to him. [Interruption.] To each of us.
On the date of the Budget, it is often the case—it was under the previous Administration, or certainly during the 18 years of it that I witnessed—that the date is not announced anything like two months in advance. Of course, it is for everybody's convenience that it should be announced as far in advance as possible, and we will make an announcement about it as quickly as we can.
I am glad that the right hon. Lady asked about e-passports, because it enables me to bring to a wider audience an unusual statement from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Mr. Leigh, who said, in respect of a report on e-passports, that
"It makes a pleasant change to be able to welcome a project from the Home Office which has been delivered on time and budget, as is the case with ePassports."
The right hon. Lady shakes her head; I know that the hon. Member for Gainsborough is almost in a different party from her, and he recently said in The Daily Telegraph that the Conservative party, under Mr. Cameron, was going
"in the wrong direction."
The right hon. Lady needs to talk to her researchers—those famed researchers, whose knowledge of parliamentary procedure and pop songs is often so defective—before she comes back to the subject of e-passports.
On the health service, which we are always pleased to debate, there is a serious point to be made about bed closures. Beds in some hospital wards have closed. Why? Because—
No, because patients are spending much less time in hospital, thanks to huge improvements in treatment, and thanks to the fact that many people who, even five years ago, had to receive treatment as in-patients now receive treatment as day patients. Conservatives may mock that, but it happens to be to true, and if they are serious about producing a health service when and if they form an Administration, I do not believe for a second that they would go into an election with a health policy that committed them to not closing a single hospital bed. I hope that they will go in to the election saying that they will increase spending on the health service, instead of cutting taxation. We know that they voted against every single spending plan, although those plans produced 85,000 more nurses and 32,000 more doctors, and meant that 157 new hospitals have either been built or are on the way.
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on police manpower statistics? Since the introduction of police community support officers and safer neighbourhoods teams, police visibility in my constituency has improved significantly, as has the ability to respond to community concerns. Given the success of those innovations in West Ham, can we not find time to discuss funding for neighbourhood policing, to ensure that policing levels are maintained, if not increased?
I shall certainly consider that, and, as my hon. Friend knows, the total number of police officers is now at a record high, having increased by more than 14,000 in the past 10 years. Alongside that, there are almost 7,000 police community support officers.
The reason the House is so keen to hold debates on the health service is that that is the only level of democratic accountability for the decisions that are taken. We share the concerns about community hospital closures and maternity units. I note that Dr. Sheila Shribman, the author of a report issued last week, said:
"If you have to travel to get the best care then families are more than willing to do that."
That shows a fine disregard for the fact that some families cannot do that, particularly in rural areas, where proximity is a key part of health care.
I add to those concerns the issue of dentists. We learned today that the number of calls to NHS Direct from people desperate to find an NHS dentist rose to well over 200,000 in the past six months. Some 2,000 dentists left the NHS last year, and a further 860 are in dispute. These are serious matters for our constituents and we ought to have the opportunity to debate them.
May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer—incidentally, can Government statements, which are pre-arranged, be arranged for days other than Opposition Supply days, which seems to have become a habit recently?—on the report from the National Audit Office, which reveals that of the £13.3 billion of savings trumpeted for the Gershon review, £10 billion are dubious or fictitious? This is a matter of some concern for the planning of Government finances.
May we have a statement on the outcome of the judicial review of the Government's refusal to accept the ombudsman's report on pension compensation? The Government have chosen to ignore the ombudsman, the European Court of Justice and the Public Administration Committee of the House. They surely cannot ignore a judicial review. In the interests of pension justice, we should have a statement.
The Leader of the House hinted a couple of weeks ago in response to a question of mine that we would have a debate on Scotland and the Act of Union. That seems to have gone by the bye. I anticipate that we will have a debate on St. David's day,
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's endorsement on whales. I shall think about his request.
He asked for a debate on the national health service. The Liberal Democrats had two debates yesterday and they wasted both opportunities. They were shredded by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East and by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Mr. Coaker. For someone who is occasionally friendly with the Liberal Democrats, it was embarrassing to read Hansard, and still more to have been in the House. The hon. Gentleman missed an opportunity, and there are plenty of other opportunities to debate the NHS.
The hon. Gentleman complains about the absence of community hospitals. I think he is the Member for Frome.
Exactly. Under our spending plans—not the Liberal Democrats' or the Conservatives' plans—a large amount has been spent building a new community hospital for Frome to replace the existing hospital, which is over 100 years old. The Liberal Democrats believe in magic wands and fairies. They want new community hospitals everywhere all at once. We are providing them as we can, but with a much higher level of resource than ever they or the Conservatives could.
The Gershon targets are targets, and the time span for the implementation of Gershon has not yet been fulfilled. On pensions, a judicial review is under way and I shall not anticipate the outcome. If the hon. Gentleman consults the record in respect of a possible debate on Scotland, he will find that I said that I would think about it, and I am still doing so.
Although I recognise that there remains an acute terrorist threat in our country, Britain can hardly be a police state if those who believe that can broadcast their views. Nevertheless, will my right hon. Friend find out how the lurid details of last week's detentions came to be leaked? If there are such allegations, they should arise in court when charges are made, and the charges should be made by the prosecution. There are some lessons from recent detentions that unfortunately have not been learned.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary takes very seriously any unattributed briefing about such matters, as have all Home Secretaries. I make two further points to my hon. Friend. One is that it is a simple fact of life and inevitable in any fair criminal justice system that some of those in respect of whom there is a reasonable suspicion sufficient to merit arrest are subsequently released without charge. That has to be the case, but it also happens, as figures from my right hon. Friend the Attorney-General have made clear, that the ratio of arrest to charge not just under the Terrorism Act 2000, but under other, more substantial offences, is higher than in respect of many categories of offence. The final point that I make to my hon. Friend is that we should give no excuse or quarter to those who claim that this country is a police state. That is utter nonsense. We live in a democracy and, sadly, we are engaged in fighting people who seek to destroy the very basis of our democracy. That includes, as part of our democracy, all of my constituents, 30 per cent. of whom are Muslim.
At Prime Minister's questions before Christmas, I asked the Prime Minister if he would make available resources to the families bereaved as a result of the Iraq war to be represented at coroners inquests. The Prime Minister responded that the families would get all the assistance that was necessary. Following that statement, I wrote to the Lord Chancellor and asked him to give substance to that undertaking. I received a reply from the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Vera Baird referring to various matters concerning legal aid, which did not help at all, so I wrote back to the Lord Chancellor and asked if he would give substance to the Prime Minister's undertaking. To date, that undertaking has not been honoured. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate so that we can discuss the resources given to the state to represent the armed forces through the Ministry of Defence at inquests, and the resources that are not given to the families who require representation?
I take very seriously what the hon. Gentleman says. I personally will look into the matter and write to him. On the subject of a debate, we had a wide debate on defence just last week, and he is fully aware that there are other opportunities to raise the matter on the Adjournment.
Through our many years of friendship, my right hon. Friend and I have rarely, if ever, disagreed on anything before. I welcome the fact that, as he said in reply to Mrs. May, he is still listening to views on the system of voting that we will employ on House of Lords reform. Is he aware that many of us want not only the opportunity to vote for what we want to happen, but the opportunity to vote against what we do not want to happen?
I am glad to hear that from my close right hon. Friend. As I said, I have always sought to listen to the House and I continue to do so. My one aim is to enable the House to come to a conclusion, which it was, sadly, unable to do last time.
Following the line of thought opened up by Mr. Winnick, there are few general opportunities in the House to debate the current state of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Is it possible to have a debate in Government time on integration and cohesion, which would provide the opportunity for a broader debate but would include the opportunity to consider that matter?
I cannot make a promise about that. The hon. Gentleman is aware of the pressures on time, but that is an idea that we should actively consider.
I will look into that. My hon. Friend knows that there are many opportunities in Westminster Hall and on the Adjournment to debate the matter. I think he is aware of all the efforts that our Government have made over the past 10 years to improve services to veterans, including the appointment of a Minister for Veterans.
This week the Prime Minister got his usual easy ride at the hands of the Liaison Committee, where we find that there is still no representation of the minority parties. The Leader of the House referred yesterday to something called cross-party consensus and consultation on his House of Lords reform. Again, we find that only the three main parties are involved in that. Will this Leader of the House dare to be inclusive and to ensure that all parties and constituencies are represented in all the institutions of the House?
The cross-party talks were not part of the House's operations but a Government initiative in which the other two parties willingly joined. I will consider the hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but if we are going to enter into cross-party talks we need to know where he is coming from. As far as I can tell, he wants to be on a completely different planet from the rest of us. If he is telling me that he has repented and now recognises the value of the United Kingdom Parliament, we can start on some business.
Given the possibility of a takeover of Sainsbury's, one of our major supermarkets, by a private equity conglomerate, could we have a debate in the House about the role of private equity organisations? They are mysterious and unaccountable organisations that employ nearly 3 million people in this country, and the House should know more about their workings.
The Northampton Herald and Post is looking to start a campaign to highlight the difficulties of cancer patients who can access life-saving treatments only in the private sector, not through the NHS. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can address that very serious problem?
Of course one understands the distress caused by particular cases in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as in mine or anybody else's. However, he must appreciate that there has been a phenomenal increase in the amount of money invested in the health service in the past 10 years—money that his party not only would not have provided but voted against. The result has been a huge improvement in mortality and morbidity rates; in other words, people are living longer and more healthily. We sought to establish fair assistance, through National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence evaluations and other systems, whereby resources—which at any level will be limited, although they are much more than they were or would have been—can be fairly allocated.
May we have an early debate on the appropriate use of referendums? Given that both major Opposition parties said in their last manifestos that they would introduce a directly elected element into the House of Lords, and lost, while the Labour party did not mention direct elections, and won, surely we cannot take the kind of radical action that my right hon. Friend proposes without a referendum of the people. Let the question be: "Do you want another 270 elected politicians—yes or no?"
We said in our manifesto that we wanted a reformed House of Lords that was more representative. It is arguable, to say the least, whether it can be more representative without there being a democratic elected element. We did not promise a referendum, and there is no suggestion that we should do so. When we have a Bill, my hon. Friend will no doubt wish to table an amendment, and then we shall see.
The Leader of the House mentioned the response that he gave two weeks ago to the request by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath for a debate on the Act of Union. He told us just now that he would think about it, but what he said then was:
Does what he said just now mean that he consulted his right hon. Friend, who thought that it was a bad idea to have a debate on this important issue, or can we expect such a debate in the near future?
I do not think that there is much difference between what I said previously and what I said just now. I am thinking about it.
May we have a debate on the Electoral Commission? That body got £26 million last year, yet, having asked a large number of colleagues from all parties what it actually does, I cannot find an answer. I do not want to abolish anything, but £26 million is an awful lot of money, and if some of it was given for political purposes to democratic parties, that might obviate the need for the loans, offshore transactions and so forth which have caused a little difficulty for all of us in the past few months.
My right hon. Friend raises a very serious point. He will be aware that the Committee on Standards in Public Life has recommended significant changes in relation to the Electoral Commission, including a reduction in its scope and budget. It is also a subject of consideration by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs made a recommendation, but I told its Chairman that we will delay our response until we have received Sir Hayden Phillips' report. I am considering whether to make an oral statement on his report.
May we have a debate in Government time, as soon as possible, on the nasty and abhorrent inheritance tax? This week, I was visited by a constituent who bought his council house under the right to buy but, sadly, worries that current property prices mean that when he dies he will not be able to hand it over to his loved ones because inheritance tax thresholds have not risen with inflation.
There will be an opportunity to debate that when we come to the four-day Budget debate that is due before Easter. I do not know who the hon. Gentleman includes within the category of loved ones, but transfers between spouses on death are subject to special exemptions from inheritance tax.
May we have a debate on the weather? My right hon. Friend will be aware that throughout the country today—although not in Yorkshire, where we are tough—schools have been closed or are closing early. While that offers children welcome opportunities to practise their sledging, snowman-building and snow angel-making skills, there is an economic impact on businesses and public services—and indeed on this place, as earlier in the Committee Corridor I saw a child accompanying her father in her Wellington boots. We need to discuss what is the appropriate local, regional and national response at times when we have extremes of temperature, whether snow or excessive heat, to guarantee public services and people's health and safety.
Predicting a debate on the weather would be as difficult as predicting the weather itself. My hon. Friend makes a serious and important point. The judgment about whether to close schools is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I will not second-guess them. However, it is extremely important that we constantly upgrade our efforts to defy the weather, which after all, notwithstanding a day's snow, is much more moderate in this country than in many other countries that are able to cope with it a bit better.
Returning to the thorny issue of preferential voting on Lords reform, as the Leader of the House has admitted that he is in listening mode, I put it to him that many of us will be signing the early-day motion tabled yesterday by Mr. Howarth. Will he guarantee that before this radical idea is implemented it goes before the Procedure Committee; and can he assure the House that Government Back Benchers will not be put under a three-line Whip and there will be a free vote on this issue, which should be a House of Commons issue?
I cannot do the latter, but as well as listening carefully I am reading carefully.
I am concerned about how we can regulate profit-driven organisations that seek to portray themselves as charities. Last week, I was contacted by a constituent who had received through his door a flyer from an organisation known as Helpmates Ltd asking for donations of clothes which it said that it would forward to third world countries. What it did not say was that it would sell the clothes before they reached those countries. May we have a debate about how we can prevent that disreputable practice and protect our constituents from these fraudsters?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am aware that there are organisations, sometimes retailers offering services, that present themselves as not-for-profit charities but turn out to be nothing like that. I hope that my hon. Friend has specific cases so that we can draw this to the attention of the Charity Commission, which has investigatory powers. I wish him good fortune in raising the matter on the Adjournment either here or in Westminster Hall.
In 1996-97, the NHS spent £2,600 million on administrative staff. I congratulate the Government on increasing NHS expenditure, but is it not unfortunate that the sum spent on administrative staff has now reached £5.7 billion? May we have a statement or a debate on the NHS, especially spiralling increases in spending on administrative staff?
I am delighted to debate the national health service any time, including with the hon. Gentleman. I look forward to the time when he recognises the huge improvements as a result of the increases in spending in his constituency. [Interruption.] He obviously does not know his constituency. Huge improvements have occurred for people living in his constituency as well as throughout the country.
May we have a full debate in Government time about the Government's record on crime, so that we can again expose, in the public interest, the ludicrous position of the Liberal Democrats, which was so clearly exposed last night?
The hon. Gentleman was ever a masochist. I recommend to hon. Members of all parties the excellent website, FibDem. It is brilliant and goes through all the promises that the Liberal Democrats have made about the fight against crime, and all their actions inside and outside the House to undermine and sabotage that fight.
Last Wednesday, the maternity unit in Oswestry closed. As far as I am concerned, the closure is temporary because the service conforms exactly to the ideas of community care that were outlined in the White Paper that the Secretary of State for Health published last autumn. I discussed those ideas with her and agreed with them entirely. I went to the strategic health authority in Birmingham to discuss the funds and arrangements that could possibly relaunch the service, but was dismayed to read in The Times that the White Paper has not been effected and there is doubt about where the allocated £750 million has gone. The White Paper contained some good ideas. The Secretary of State should come to the House and explain what is happening and where the money has gone.
I understand the discomfiture and concern in any constituency where the provision of a service is changed. However, the hon. Gentleman needs to appreciate the reason for the reforms to maternity services. They are happening in order to cater better for mothers' wishes about where they have their babies—there is greater demand for having babies at home or in small centres. At the same time, as anybody who has had an ill baby understands, what matters is having the very best services, which can only be specialist, concentrated and available in rather fewer centres than they are at the moment. [Interruption.] Mrs. May is wittering from a sedentary position. I repeat the point that she wills the end but not the means. She—and her party—keeps voting against all the increases in spending, which have enabled improvements in maternity services as well as other services.
Unlike some others, I offer the Leader of the House wholehearted support for the process that he is adopting for breaking the logjam in reforming the House of Lords. The current composition of the House of Lords is risible. At the last by-election for an hereditary peer, Viscount Montgomery of Alamein defeated the seventh Earl of Effingham—incidentally, of the second creation—by 11 votes to five on a single transferable vote. That is more like an episode of "Blackadder" than a proper constitutional process.
However, is it possible to include an additional vote in the process on whether bishops should sit in the House of Lords? Before my right hon. Friend says, as I suspect that he might, that that would mean disestablishing the Church of England, I simply point out that the Church of Scotland is also established but has no representation in the House of Lords.
As someone who was once a clerk in holy orders, and may still be so, my hon. Friend should know that the Church of Scotland is Presbyterian and therefore has no bishops. The question of their representation in the Lords does not arise.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for his support, and I am listening to all the voices on the happy issue. However, in the words of the hymn, with which he is familiar, "One step at a time". There will be plenty of opportunities if and when we introduce a Bill for him to table an amendment to remove the right of Anglican bishops to sit in the Lords. However, that can happen only when we reach the sunlit uplands, compared with where we are today.
May we have a debate on the conditions of service of Commonwealth servicemen in our armed forces? During the summer, I had the privilege of sharing a room with Corporal Charlery in Afghanistan. He had been recruited in Antigua and told that, after five years' service, he would be eligible for a British passport. However, he has subsequently been told that his service in Afghanistan—and, indeed, in Germany—will not count towards that five-year period. Is it right to discriminate against our servicemen in that way?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his continuing service in the military and knowledge of it. I know a little about the point that he makes. May I suggest that he takes it up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence? We have no wish to discriminate against Commonwealth citizens who serve in the armed forces. They play an invaluable role in our fighting capacity, as I have personally experienced. Meanwhile, I shall write to my right hon. Friend and let him know the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
My right hon. Friend may have seen early-day motion 692 about the environmental liability directive.
[That this House notes the special nature of the potential risks arising from the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and limited knowledge of their long-term environmental impacts; and calls on the Government to change its proposals for the implementation of the Environmental Liability Directive which is intended to protect biodiversity, land and water from environmental harm that may arise from the use of GMOs to ensure that there are no defences from strict liability for harm arising from the use of GMOs.]
The subject is getting an airing in all parties. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner generously said that there is a balanced argument about whether the Government should seek greater protection for some of our most important sites of scientific interest. Is not it right for this place to debate formally whether the Government should introduce greater protection? Would my right hon. Friend support that?
As I failed to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, during Education questions, may I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on adult education? The Government's cuts in adult education have left Bradford college with enrolments down from 8,249 to 5,437 and the courses available down from 944 to 579. In Wharfedale in my constituency, enrolments are down from 1,813 to 915 and the courses are down from 200 to 110. I am sure that the Leader of the House understands our concern. May we have a debate to ascertain whether such cuts in adult education in all our communities throughout the country are the will of the House?
I continue to serve as a governor of one of the country's finest further education colleges—Blackburn college—and I am not aware that our budget has been cut. Indeed, I know that the budget has increased significantly. Of course, there are pressures on, for example, some aspects of non-vocational adult education. There is an issue about choices, which we must all face if we are to improve the overall skill level of the British people. Those choices would confront any Conservative Government—more so, because they would spend less—whom the hon. Gentleman supported.
Let me revert to House of Lords reform. My concerns are not about the voting system that my right hon. Friend proposes for this House but the voting system for any elected Members of a reformed House of Lords. Will he ensure that there will be an opportunity for Members of this House to choose between different voting systems for elected Members of a reformed House of Lords? Otherwise, some of us who may want to vote for an element of election to the House of Lords might find ourselves voting against election altogether if we are not satisfied with the voting systems that will be employed.
I understand my hon. Friend's point; it is a crucial one. Three alternative systems are outlined in the White Paper, which marks the start of this phase of the debate about the reform programme. There will have to be a huge amount of debate between now and any Bill becoming law, to pin down all the crucial aspects of the process and to ensure the widest possible consensus.
Given that the A-10 tapes showing the death of Lance Corporal Matty Hull reveal no technology secrets but only incompetence, does the Leader of the House understand the strength of public concern that the Government are showing crass hypocrisy when dealing with British servicemen and their families? On the one hand, they praise the servicemen at the Dispatch Box, while on the other, they refuse to help their grieving families when they need to get to the truth.
I certainly salute the families concerned. I happened to see the interview with Mrs. Susan Hull last night on the BBC news, and it was one of the most dignified and moving interviews of that kind that I have ever seen. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's second point. We have been profoundly concerned about this matter. He will appreciate, not least from his own military experience, that because the evidence was in the hands of an ally from whom we had to obtain it, there were difficulties in so doing.
Has my right hon. Friend considered the new gender equality duty that will come into force in April this year, and its impact on the operation of the House of Commons—in particular, on the hours that we sit?
I have not looked specifically at that matter, but I would be happy to do so. Only recently, another female new Member told me that she preferred the current balance of hours because she found them family friendly, rather than working nine-to-five every day of the week. I am pleased to have had the opportunity—thanks to spending 18 years in opposition—to participate in the upbringing of my children, and it was the old hours that enabled me to take my children to school and to see them while my wife was working a nine-to-five day. If we had had our current hours at that time, my opportunities to bond with my children would have been far fewer. I do not wish to disagree with my hon. Friend, but there are many different opinions on this matter. It is not a question of people being either reactionary or progressive. We are all in favour of ensuring that the House is as family friendly as possible. One of the things that we have changed completely—thank God—is the practice of sitting without purpose into the small hours of the night. That is a really important change, because that practice was very disruptive. In terms of being able to balance work and family life, particularly if there is a working spouse, I personally think that we do not need to go any further with these so-called new hours.
May I back the call for a debate on cancer services in the NHS? I am sure that we have all encountered situations in our own constituencies in which, owing to the fact that the NICE has not adjudicated on a particular drug, it is up to the primary care trust to determine whether to provide it. My constituent, Mr. Keith Ditchfield, is having to spend thousands of pounds of his own money to get a drug called Nexaver. The drug has the backing of the National Cancer Research Institute, yet the local primary care trust will not pay for it. May we have an urgent debate to ensure that we stop this postcode lottery and reinvent what was the national health service in this country?
If the hon. Gentleman is talking about reinventing the national health service as it was when it was being run by the Conservatives for 18 years, we do not want to go there. He knows very well that we had to have fairer systems for making judgments about the availability of treatments, and that is what NICE is there for. He will also be aware, as he shares a constituency boundary with me, that, for decades, the whole area was calling for a new general hospital to serve the whole area, and that it took a Labour Government to provide the funds for that. It is under a Labour Government that the new Blackburn royal infirmary—serving his constituents as well as mine—has opened.
May we have an urgent debate on the threatened break-up of the United Kingdom, and the subsequent cost to the taxpayer? My right hon. Friend might be aware that figures released today suggest that the cost of independence in Scotland alone would run to some £8 billion of taxpayers' money. Does he agree that that £8 billion would be better spent on enhancing our public services and defending our country?