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Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
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The business for the week commencing
At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
The provisional business for the week commencing
Transport Committee, "The London Underground and the Public-Private Partnership Agreements"—Second Report of Session 2007-08, HC45.]
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. This morning the Home Secretary issued a written statement to the House on changes to the Government's policy on ID cards. She also made an oral statement to the media. Why has she not made an oral statement to the House?
The Prime Minister's senior aide has now warned that closing post offices will have an appalling impact on rural areas. The Leader of the House promised my hon. Friend Peter Luff a debate on his Select Committee's report on the post office closure programme. When will we have that debate?
Yesterday in the House, the Liberal Democrat leader flunked his first big test. He sat on the fence as a point of principle, divided his party after only a few weeks and created two classes of Front Bencher: those who have to resign for rebelling and those who do not. Weak, divided and vacillating—can we have a debate on the qualities of political leadership?
Two days after the Prime Minister declared that child poverty was
"the scar that demeans Britain", the latest report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions found that the Government are set to miss their target of halving the number of children living in poverty, and that one in five families with a disabled child are so hard-up that they have to cut back on food. The Government talk about helping working families, but they have not done enough. May we have a topical debate on the Select Committee report?
Six years ago, the Government set up a project to restore historical footpaths and rights of way in the countryside. Now the project has been scrapped. Not one single pathway has been reopened, and the project has cost the taxpayer £15 million. No wonder the Government are losing their way. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that waste of taxpayers' money?
On Monday, we learned that the NHS in England is heading for a surplus of £1.8 billion this year, but accident and emergency departments and maternity services face cuts, and average waiting times have risen from 41 days to 49 days, so may we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on improving patient care?
May we have a debate on standards in public life? Last December, in the House, the right hon. and learned Lady supported Lee Jasper, the London Mayor's former director for equalities and policing, who has been referred to the police for channelling public funds into organisations run by friends and cronies. The Labour Mayor has said that he trusts Lee Jasper with his life and would reappoint him, and the Prime Minister will not admit that anything is wrong, so will the Leader of the House make a statement on whether the Mayor and Lee Jasper still have the support of the Government over the scandal?
Lastly, may we have a debate on the Prime Minister's "Government of all the talents"? After repeatedly embarrassing the Prime Minister on his business and tax policies, we learn that the noble Lord Jones of Birmingham—Digby to his friends—is cutting loose. According to an e-mail, he has set up an office outside his Department. Where can he be found? At www.thebigblanket.co.uk. It is a move from the big tent to the big blanket, but with this circus, I am surprised that it is not to the big top. The Government have lost their moral compass and their way, and cannot deliver on their promises. When will they start treating the House with the respect that it deserves?
The right hon. Lady asked about the Home Secretary's announcement on ID cards. The policy on them has not changed; the Home Secretary has announced the rolling out of the policy on ID cards. It makes sense for passports to have biometric data and for visas for foreign nationals to include such data. It also makes sense to extend ID cards next year to people working in secure areas of airports, as the Home Secretary has announced today. If there were a question of extending them on a compulsory basis, the House knows that that would be a matter for its consideration. The Home Secretary made it absolutely clear that there would be a roll-out on a voluntary basis, and that is what she is putting in place. [Interruption.] It is not a change of policy, so it does not require a statement in the House.
The right hon. Lady asked about the post office closure programme, and there will be a debate on that matter in due course. She also asked for a debate about the qualities of political leadership; I suggest that she makes that a topic for an Opposition day debate.
We made child poverty a priority when the question of poverty was not on the agenda of the previous Conservative Government. Having a strong economy and high employment so that children are not brought up in workless households, as well as increasing financial support for low-income families, is the best way to tackle child poverty. We will press on with our commitment to tackling child poverty and we are glad that at last the Conservative party has joined us in that commitment.
The right hon. Lady talked about the question of footpaths, and I will refer that to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
There are not cuts in maternity services or accident and emergency; there has been record investment in our health services, including maternity services and accident and emergency.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the Mayor of London. During the past eight years, while Ken Livingstone has been Mayor, London has been transformed for the better. At the elections in May, there will be a clear choice for Londoners. [Interruption.] Yes, there will. It will be the man from Oxfordshire offering cuts in the police and in transport and risking London's economy versus Ken Livingstone, who will put more police in all London neighbourhoods and who has massively increased public transport. When it comes to allegations of criminal offences, the police investigate, not the House, and the courts judge, not the House. That is not the business of the House—nor should it be.
In the autumn Budget statement, the Chancellor announced the launch of the competition for the carbon capture and storage demonstration project. Since then, an application has been made to build a new coal-fired power station—without any form of clean-coal, let alone carbon-capture, technology—at Kingsnorth in Kent. Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there is a clear contradiction between the expansion of new coal-fired power generation without carbon capture and the aspirations in the Climate Change Bill to reduce carbon emissions by at least 60 per cent. and possibly more? Would not the best way forward be to hold a public inquiry into that new application, and may we have a debate so that the contradictions can be explored?
In the Climate Change Bill there is not an aspiration but a requirement by law to reduce carbon emissions, and our energy policy will make sure that that is the case. We want more carbon capture and storage, which is important, and we want to make sure that our carbon emissions are down overall. That will be kept under review.
May I say to the Leader of the House that in the mayoral election, as in all elections, there are more than two choices? [Interruption.]
Before we have the Budget statement next week, may we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer or a debate to make sure that the Treasury has understood the concerns about the collapse in the bingo industry and the need for changes in tax regime to ensure that clubs in all our constituencies, which have hundreds of thousands of members, have a chance of survival?
On Monday night in the debate on the estimates, we have a debate on the failed private finance initiative scheme for Metronet. Will it be possible to debate then or soon afterwards the other apparent PFI scandal? Not only do we appear to have non-domiciled Members of the House of Lords, but it seems that because of the PFI scheme that the now Prime Minister brought in, the Home Office, the Treasury and other buildings have been built under PFI and the owners have moved to tax havens such as the Channel Islands and are not paying taxes. That is clearly scandalous and entirely inconsistent with other Government policy.
As we come to the end of the financial year, we gather that during the financial year the health service has made a profit of a sum approaching £2 billion. If that is the case, may we have a debate to explain how, at the same time as the health service is making a profit, many trusts are unable to fulfil waiting list targets and probably every local authority in England, including the one that the Leader of the House and I represent, must make cuts in social services for the vulnerable? The Department appears to be making a profit and at the same time pulling money in from local government, which is caring for people.
Can the right hon. and learned Lady explain the reports that there will be a cut in the budget for science and research, potentially leading to the closure of our seven radiotelescopes, including the world-renowned Jodrell Bank telescope, which costs only £2.5 million to sustain—the same as the expenses of the members of the Cabinet?
I have asked the Leader of the House three times, as Commonwealth day approaches, whether we may have a debate on the Commonwealth. I hope she will be able to give me a positive reply, given that Commonwealth day is next Monday.
I also ask, as last week, whether we could have a debate on Home Office matters, the citizenship Green Paper, and the immigration rules, which have come into force even though there is much opposition to them, and whether, as is illustrated by the case reported on the front page of one of our national papers today about a constituent of mine, the Home Office is still insisting that gay people should be sent back to countries such as Iran.
As I said to Simon Hughes last week, deportation of people to their country of origin is a matter for the rules and regulations laid down by the House and for the interpretation of the courts. People should not be sent back to their country of origin if they face torture or death there. If he wants to raise that individual case, perhaps he will write to the Home Secretary.
The hon. Gentleman raised three issues which I suggest he should raise in the Budget debate—tax in relation to PFI, our increasing investment in the national health service, and levels of investment in an area of great concern and importance to the Government, science and research. Those are three topics which he and his hon. Friends will have ample time to debate during the Budget day debate.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of bingo, which I noticed caused a great deal of mirth and laughter among members of the official Opposition. I agree that bingo is an important matter, so I will draw that point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is hoping that on the Liberal Democrat Benches he will be able to declare full house.
I begin by congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend. I see on the Order Paper today, under the heading "Memorandum", that the Welsh Grand Committee is meeting on
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and he has raised it with me on a previous occasion. I apologise for not getting back to him about it earlier, and I will do so expeditiously.
Does the Leader of the House think that we could have a debate in the near future on the naming of political parties? She will be aware that in 19th-century America there was a party known as the Mugwumps. They were so called because they sat with their mugs on one side of the fence and their wumps on the other, and the iron entered into their soul. Would that not be a better description for that lot down there?
That is not a matter for the business of the House. The naming of political parties and how they appear on the ballot paper is decided by this House under the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
May we have a debate in Government time about the Security Industry Authority? This Government can be justifiably proud of their record in helping people move off benefit and back into work. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who want work, and have had lucrative offers of work, but cannot take them up because, despite having applied and paid for licences, the SIA has not yet processed their applications—for as long as 18 weeks in some cases. A debate would surely help us to determine what has gone wrong with that organisation, and help us to correct it.
That is an important regulatory authority, but it needs to do its work promptly. I will raise the matter with the relevant Minister and ensure that action is taken so that my hon. Friend is written to, in order to deal with that point.
In the last few weeks, tuberculosis has reached parts of my constituency that have not had it for 60 years. Farmers have recently heckled the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs badly. May we have a debate in this House about what we will do about TB? There is surely enough evidence to warrant the taking of decisions by Government. Now that the disease is inexorably moving faster and faster across parts of Britain, is it not time to sort it out?
The question of bovine tuberculosis is kept under serious review by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the question of whether culling badgers is the right way to deal with it is a scientific one. The matter should not be decided on party political terms; there is great concern about animal welfare, and that we should have security and confidence in the dairy industry and agriculture. That is something about which my ministerial colleague has given evidence to the Select Committee, and the matter remains under review.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that concern has been expressed about the dramatic rise in energy prices for electricity and gas. My constituent, Mr. Peter Seaman, recently came to see me to say that apart from the significant rise in base prices, changes in the structure of tariffs had resulted in a 44 per cent. increase in some of the tariffs in his bill. May we have time for a debate on those issues, recognising that although oil prices have risen—something that has underpinned this process—there have been other changes, such as a big increase in the profits of electric companies? Ofgem estimates that those companies will make a potential £1 billion windfall profit due to the fact that they got carbon credits and did not pay for them.
The question of people being able to afford their fuel bills and keep themselves warm is of great importance, and our winter fuel payments of £200 for the over-60s and £300 for the over-80s makes a contribution. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, however. We want to be sure that there is fair competition and a fair way for companies to go about their business in the energy industry. As he said, that includes the structure of tariffs, and metering as well. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, Ofgem is looking into those matters; they are matters of great national importance.
World war two lasted more than five and a half years. This month marks five years since the Iraq war started. The Nobel prize winner Joe Stiglitz reckons that it has cost $6 trillion. The Library says that it has cost the UK about £2.5 million a day. May we have a debate with a view to setting up a Committee of inquiry into this war, which may have cost half a million lives?
There has been much discussion in this House about the stage at which there should be proper consideration of our involvement and use of armed force in Iraq, and of our involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. For the moment, troop numbers are being reduced, the Iraqi army and police are taking over their responsibilities with the support of British troops, and we shall no doubt return to the question of a review at a future date.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time to debate the current crisis in Gaza? While we all deplore the rocket attacks by Hamas, the killing of innocent civilians, including women and children by the score, the economic blockade and the failure to let medical supplies through make up a completely disproportionate response. It is not only disproportionate but appalling. Israel is strangling Gaza to death.
My hon. Friend expresses strongly the great concern throughout the House and within the Government about the very grave situation in Gaza. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called for restraint earlier this week. We continue to give economic and aid support to Gaza, but it is unacceptable that so many in Gaza have no option but to live their lives dependent on food aid. We work as part of the Quartet because the only solution is to try to make progress on the peace process.
Before the promised debate on post offices, will the Leader of the House undertake to look into the question of the three post offices in the Palace of Westminster itself? At a time when many of our constituents are facing problems with post offices being closed throughout the country, does she agree that it cannot be right for MPs not to face the application of the same disciplines to the facilities that we enjoy in this place? If one or two of them are to be closed, would she consider recommending to the Post Office that they are taken instead of some of the six under threat in my constituency?
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that as we sit in the House today, there is a demonstration outside to support Justice for Colombia? Atrocities are happening in that country, and trade unionists are disappearing from the streets. May we have a debate on that issue?
I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. Many of us in this House support the campaigns for justice, freedom and human rights in Colombia.
Would the Leader of the House consider a debate on London? My constituents in the suburbs have been facing increased demands for taxes from the Mayor, which seem to be squandered on what are at best dubious projects by advisers who are now subject to police inquiries. There are many other issues to consider, such as the closure of post offices. May I urge that we have a debate on what is happening in London?
On Monday we have a debate on the London Underground, but I will consider whether there should be a further debate on London as one of the topical debates.
On Wednesday of last week the Government published their second 10-year drugs strategy—in a written statement, unfortunately. Yesterday the United Nations launched its International Narcotics Control Board annual report for 2007. Please may we have a debate in Government time on that important policy area soon?
We have had several discussions through statements and oral questions in the House on the drugs strategy, but I will take my hon. Friend's proposal to consider that important issue again as a suggestion for a topical debate.
Will the Leader of the House explain or make a statement on the disrespect shown to the House in the way in which Departments answer named day questions? The office of the Leader of the House has an exemplary record in that every question in the past five years has been answered in five days. However, may we have an explanation of why the Treasury's replies on time have fallen from 79 to 51 per cent. and those of the Department for Communities and Local Government have fallen from 87 to 49 per cent., and why the Department for Children, Schools and Families does not even keep records, claiming that such information could be provided only at disproportionate cost?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is fundamental to the House's ability to scrutinise the Government that Members can table questions, which are answered fully and promptly. I want to place on record my thanks to our officials who help us to reply in such a timely manner to parliamentary questions. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Procedure Committee is looking into parliamentary questions. I will certainly raise his points about individual Departments with the Committee on behalf of the House.
When may we debate the need to prosecute GlaxoSmithKline for suppressing the truth about drug trials, which show that the drug Seroxat is not only useless but produces lethal side effects that have killed many people? The matter was last debated in the House in 2004.
The regulatory authority has failed to control GlaxoSmithKline. Such a debate would be an opportunity to congratulate "Panorama", Charles Medawar of Social Audit, the Seroxat Users Group, the charity Mind and certain hon. Members on a campaign which has sadly been ignored for five years.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health issued a written ministerial statement this morning on the matter. The Government prosecutors have decided that there is no realistic prospect of obtaining a conviction in the case and there will therefore be no prosecution. However, the process of investigation has revealed serious weaknesses in EU legislation as it stood and, as the written ministerial statement sets out, some immediate steps to remedy the situation are being taken, including through secondary legislation.
Is it possible to hold a debate on tourism next week, given that the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport decided on Tuesday to attack one of the great British institutions, the Proms, because not enough people from different backgrounds felt comfortable with it? Why did she stop there? Why did she not also attack Ascot, Wimbledon, the boat race, Henley regatta, Cowes week and so on? The list is endless. The Notting Hill carnival and the Glastonbury festival are not everybody's cup of tea, but all the events together help make Britain one of the greatest cultural centres in the world.
The Government have done a great deal to support culture and the arts in this country. The Proms has been a great success and it is important that the organisers try to involve and reach out to new audiences, as they do through Proms in the Park and the Electric Proms. The Government want all our great arts institutions to do that, and that is why, for example, we introduced free entry to museums. We want to support our long-standing cultural institutions but also enable them to reach out to new audiences.
May we have a debate on the development of housing on brownfield sites, following the decision of General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, to sell its site in Rushy Mead in Leicester but to put a restrictive covenant on it so that it can be used only for commercial and employment purposes, not housing? The site is contaminated, but should not companies that occupy sites for more than five decades clean them up before selling them on? May we have a debate on that matter?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which touches on Government concern for a good environment and more housing. He has raised the matter on several occasions and is campaigning on it. I will bring it to the attention of the relevant Ministers.
This year, money for the Government's preventing violent extremism scheme, which is paid to local authorities, has been ring-fenced. It has recently become clear that money in future years will not be ring-fenced. If it is not ring-fenced, some—perhaps many—councils may use it for other purposes. If they do that, it implies the disappearance nationally of the whole scheme. Has the Leader of the House any information that a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to update us on that interesting development?
It is important and right that, having set out priorities and increased year on year the funding available in real terms to local authorities, we should allow them more power to make decisions about the way in which they spend resources locally. While we ensure that they have more opportunities to make decisions about how to spend money locally, it is also important to keep the position under review.
I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend Mr. Singh. I also agree with my hon. Friend Dr. Iddon about the need for a drugs strategy. However, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend has seen yesterday's United Nations report. We should view our sentencing policy with some shame because we appear to have three verdicts: innocent, guilty and celebrity. That cannot be right for drugs policy. Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide an urgent debate to consider sentencing policy? It cannot come a moment too soon.
I take my hon. Friend's point. We want to ensure that we have good prevention policies, enable those who become drug abusers to get off drugs and support those who work with people who have fallen prey to addiction as well as having good police operations in respect of suppliers. The issue concerns hon. Members of all parties and I will consider it for a topical debate in due course.
In response to the request of my right hon. Friend Mrs. May for a debate on child poverty, the Leader of the House noticeably made certain statements but did not show a willingness to put them to the test in a debate. Given that, last week, the Government smuggled out an admission that they are unlikely to meet their child poverty targets and that this country has the highest number of children in Europe growing up in workless households, is not it right to hold such a debate as soon as possible?
Next week, there will be a Budget debate. When the Conservatives were in government, poverty was scarcely mentioned and tackling it was certainly not a public policy objective. The hon. Gentleman should wait and see what the Budget says, then he is free to join us in that debate in expressing our concern to tackle child poverty.
It is now almost one year since Mr. Moudud Ahmed, the former Prime Minister and Vice-President of Bangladesh, was seized by armed military personnel at his family home at the age of 67 and held under emergency powers. I understand that our Prime Minister is to meet Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief civilian adviser to the military Government in Bangladesh, on
The historic vote in Parliament last night on the abolition of the blasphemy laws will be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties because it will allow publishers, artists and others to use freedom of expression, including showing disrespect to or even ridiculing religious belief. Why did Baroness Andrews read into the record a letter that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had written to the Archbishop, saying that the vote should not be viewed as a licence for the expression of disrespect towards faith or those who hold religious beliefs? Will the Leader of the House give notice of when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to give us a lecture or exposition on why the Government feel that they should tell us to whom we should and should not show disrespect, and which specific religions should be especially privileged in not having disrespect shown to them?
There will be an opportunity to discuss the hon. Gentleman's points when we consider Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.
May we have a debate on how best to encourage young non-academic people into the world of politics? British politics is grossly over-represented by the academic world. If we are to be truly a party of the people, recognising all the talents, that should be reflected in our political structures, which should not be left to be monopolised by the toffs.
My hon. Friend raises two important points. We need to ensure that more young people have skills as well as academic qualifications and training, and we need to have more young people involved in politics. That is why it is important that we should have young councillors, as well as young Members of Parliament. I strongly support the action that we took to reduce to 18 the age at which people can stand for elected office in council and parliamentary elections.
The Leader of the House has announced that there will be four days' debate on the Budget after the Budget statement, which I welcome. However last autumn, after the comprehensive spending review and the pre-Budget report, which are equally important statements of Government policy, we had no debate at all. Is there not a case for a better balance of financial debates throughout the year?
I think that there is. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman approves of the amount of time that has been allocated for the Budget. The question whether we have the right balance across the year for debates not just on financial matters, but on defence and foreign affairs, will be considered.
Further to the comments of Simon Hughes, may I make a bid for a topical debate on early-day motion 1108 on the private finance initiative and tax havens, co-sponsored by myself?
[That this House is concerned to discover that the ownership of billions of pounds worth of public assets, which are reported to include the Treasury offices in Whitehall, the new Home Office, the Inland Revenue's estate, 42 per cent. of the Colchester Garrison building, 90 per cent. of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, 85 per cent. of the Central Middlesex Hospital as well as schools in Gwynedd, the Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, Exeter Crown Court, 50 per cent. of a project for new schools in the Highlands and 26 per cent. of the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital have all been transferred to offshore tax havens in order to avoid tax obligations; urges HM Treasury to require the return of all such assets to ownership in the UK where tax obligations can be properly enforced; and suggests that all private finance initiative (PFI) contracts which do not return assets to the UK should be abrogated, and that all future contracts should specify that neither the ownership nor the company operating the PFI can operate from a tax haven in order to avoid their legitimate tax obligations in the UK, and that this policy decision should be supplemented by a requirement that all competitors for Government and local authority contracts should be registered in the UK and pay tax in the UK.]
Our early-day motion demonstrates clearly that PFI contracts are prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for the taxpayers, citizens and public sector workers in this country. Could we have a debate on that, to explain why, at least from the Government's point of view, those who bid for Government and local authority contracts should not be registered in the United Kingdom or pay tax in the United Kingdom, which is not happening anywhere near often enough?
Those are important points. We want to ensure fair treatment in tax matters. The issue is one that hon. Members might look to raise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget debate.
May we have a debate on the operation of the Greater London Authority Acts? If an employee of any other local authority in this country failed to declare that they were a director of a company that had applied to that authority for a grant, there would be a formal report to the authority's monitoring officer and disciplinary action. In the case of Mr. Jasper, a political appointee under section 67 of the 1999 Act, we now know that although the Mayor was notified of his failure to declare, no formal report was made to the monitoring officer and no disciplinary action followed. Does the Leader of the House accept that it is necessary to explain why proper probity does not appear to reign at city hall, as opposed to other local authorities?
There are proper rules for accountability and probity in the Greater London authority, which were passed by the House. The GLA operates under the rules that were laid down by the House. That was the agreement that was made and they are the rules that are enforced.
Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that we need an urgent debate in the House on matters relating to London, particularly the antics of the Mayor, Mr. Livingstone, in the light of his adviser and his declared intention, apparently, to reappoint that adviser, despite the scandal and the police investigation? Is it not time that the House debated that issue?
It is very important that, under the privilege available to Members of the House of the Commons, unsubstantiated allegations are not thrown around as part of a build-up to an election campaign. For all the efforts of Conservative Members, people in London will ask themselves at the election on
Yesterday, under the cover of the referendum vote, the Government sneaked out a statement saying that they would fail to meet not one, but two consecutive manifesto promises, namely to privatise the Tote and to give it to racing. Will the Leader of the House see whether the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport can come to the House and explain why the Government took an ordinary, viable business, nationalised it, bungled its privatisation and then admitted that they would have to sell it on the open market, thereby betraying the people of Wigan, the racing industry and the electorate, to whom they had made those promises?
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek to raise the matter as an oral question on Monday.
I should like to add my voice in support of the suggestion that my hon. Friend Mr. Randall made for a general debate on London. I raised the issue with the right hon. and learned Lady some time ago and she promised that we would have one. There are so many issues in London to be debated, including the proposed closure of another post office in my constituency, in the Brampton ward, crime, housing and the matter that my hon. Friend Robert Neill raised. May I urge the right hon. and learned Lady to reinstate the annual debate on London as a matter of urgency?
I will consider London for a forthcoming topical debate, because I know that hon. Members who represent London constituencies will want to discuss making even further progress on reducing congestion, increasing the amount of affordable housing available, increasing police numbers and reducing crime. A great deal has been achieved in London and we want to make further progress, continuing with a Labour Mayor.
In 1997, when the Labour Government sadly came to power, there was a consultant-led maternity unit in Hemel Hempstead hospital. That unit was quickly closed. In 2001, a birthing unit was opened in an attempt to protect the then Labour MP from losing his seat. Straight after the 2005 election, when I was elected, that was closed, too. It is therefore not true that no cuts have been made in maternity services, as the Leader of the House said. They have. We must have a debate on maternity services, because cuts are being made throughout the country.
We want to ensure that we give mothers more choice about whether to have their babies at home, that we improve community midwife services and that we improve in-patient services, including specialist neonatal services. Nobody should imagine that maternity services were perfect when we came into government in 1997 and needed no change. That was far from the case. We needed change and improvement. There needed to be more midwives trained and more investment in the health service, and that is indeed what has happened.
May I put it to the Leader of the House that her response to my hon. Friend Robert Neill was wholly inadequate? We know that in the Mayor's office rules are being broken. We know that there are serious questions about how local government structures set up by the House are working in practice. We were promised a beacon of transparency; we have got the stench of corruption. May I press her to do more than just consider a debate on the governance of London and confirm that we will have one?
I do not have anything further to add to my response to Robert Neill. There are rules in place, and they are quite clear. They were decided by the House and they will be enforced.
Following the serious and well-publicised problems in Scotland last May, when we had multiple elections, will the Leader of the House ensure that a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box next week to assure us that the European and local elections—and, possibly, a general election next year—will not all take place on the same day, causing confusion?
The Scottish elections were the subject of a review, and action has been taken in respect of that. The question of future elections will be considered by the Government, and also by the Electoral Commission. The Ministry of Justice will also shortly produce its review of the different electoral systems. One of our concerns has been to review how the different proportional systems that we have introduced have operated in European elections, in the devolved Assemblies and in councils in Scotland.
Has the Leader of the House had a chance to read the Work and Pensions Committee report on eradicating child poverty, which was published on Monday? Paragraph 55 states that the gender pay gap is contributing to child poverty and that some Jobcentre Plus advisers are pointing women—particularly lone parents—into low-paid employment. That is unacceptable on a day when we are celebrating international women's day. Will the right hon. and learned Lady therefore confirm that we can have a topical debate on child poverty in the next week or two, so that we can discuss the contents of the report? What has happened to topical debates over the past week or two? They seem to have dropped off the Order Paper.
The Government will issue a response to the Select Committee report in due course. Of course it is the case that low pay and unequal pay among women contribute to child poverty. That is one of the reasons why we introduced the national minimum wage, which has done more than anything to narrow the pay gap, and has seen the pay gap between men and women at the bottom of the labour market all but close. I suggest that the hon. Lady seeks an opportunity to speak in the debate on international women's day, which will follow immediately after business questions.
May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on the way in which rail franchises are granted, particularly in respect of disabled passengers? My constituent, Adrienne Staniford, used to be able to take her wheelchair on to Silverlink trains. Now, London Midland has told her that she is not allowed to take the same wheelchair on to identical rolling stock. The Government are telling us, quite properly, that we need to get more disabled people into work, so why should my constituent lose her job when the trains are the same and the wheelchair is identical? Why was this not spotted during the franchise process? Is this not a disgrace?
Everyone will sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's point. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to look into that individual case and to seek a solution for it. As to whether further action needs to be taken, we want to be absolutely sure that disabled people do not suffer discrimination, whether on transport or in any other services, and whether or not it affects their opportunity to work. I hope that he will join us in supporting the further measures to tackle inequality and discrimination in the equality Bill that we will introduce later this year.
Today, for the first time in 150 years, members of Her Majesty's Coastguard have gone on strike. Responsibly, those manning helicopters are still at work. May we have a debate in Government time, or even an oral statement, so that we can understand how this unfortunate situation has come about?
It is an unfortunate situation, and we all hope that a settlement of the dispute will be reached shortly. In the meantime, we can be reassured that contingency arrangements are in place to ensure that no lives are at risk as a result of the dispute.
May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on small businesses, in recognition of the fact that such debates used to take place at least once a year as a matter of course? Given that 99 per cent. of companies employ fewer than 100 people, and that they account for 50 per cent. plus of the private sector work force and generate no less than two fifths of our national output, would it not be timely for us to have a debate in this Chamber to seek to establish how best we can create a balanced and equitable legal framework that requires companies to do what is right by their employees and by the community while simultaneously facilitating a situation in which they can still be the seedcorn of our prosperity?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could raise those issues in the Budget debate if he so wished. I agree that small and medium-sized businesses have played a major part in the growing prosperity of this country and the growing strength of the economy. I should also mention that the Modernisation Committee is looking at the question of departmental debate days, to which he referred.
I will draw the hon. Gentleman's points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
Will the right hon. and learned Lady give due and proper consideration to early-day motion 1127, on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill?
[That this House believes that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill raises important issues of conscience which merit the full consideration of the whole House; notes during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 the issue of embryo research, abortion and Schedule 2 was debated and voted on in a committee of the whole House; further notes that the Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryo (Draft) Bill noted that 'when what is now the 1990 Act was before Parliament the issue of embryo research was put to a free vote' considered 'that the creation and use of inter-species embryos for research purposes is a comparable issue and recommended that the issue be put to a free vote; and calls upon the Leader of the House and usual channels to ensure that a committee of the whole House is arranged to consider issues of conscience arising from the Bill.]
The motion was initiated by my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes and calls for the Committee stage of the Bill to be held on the Floor of the House so that the important issues raised by the legislation can be discussed by as many Members as possible.
We are considering how to ensure that that very important Bill can be properly debated in the House, including perhaps having part of the Committee stage upstairs in Committee and part on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill has now concluded all its stages in the Lords and is now waiting to be brought to this House for its Second Reading. We regard the Bill as immensely important. We want our scientific community to be able to make progress and to contribute to finding treatments and preventions for major health issues such as Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries. This is a very important Bill, and we want it to be fully debated in the House.
Thank you for getting us all in, Mr. Speaker.
The right hon. and learned Lady will recall that, a few weeks ago, I raised the sad case of Simon Mann, who was unlawfully kidnapped and taken in chains to Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps we should have a wider debate on the plight of British and EU citizens who are unlawfully imprisoned abroad. More specifically, may I ask whether our envoy in Equatorial Guinea has been to see Simon Mann? Does Mr. Mann have access to legal assistance? Is he being humanely and fairly treated?
I know that our consular officials have been involved in that case. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise those wider issues, may I suggest that he put in for an Adjournment debate on the case?
While I agree with the Leader of the House that matters that are subject to a police investigation should rightly be outside the scope of parliamentary debate, it is still a fact that the Government office for London administers huge sums of public money to be given to grant-giving organisations and to the London Development Agency. Given the importance of this matter to all London constituents—including hers and mine—in the run-up to the election on
I think all London Members feel extremely strongly about those issues, and I have said that I will consider making London the subject of a topical debate. We are all pleased to know about the bigger investment in police in London and in agencies that provide London with important services across the board. I do not know about the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but in mine, grants and other financial support have been provided for small voluntary organisations that do so much to keep communities together. I would like to pay tribute to the work put into building and supporting communities in London, particularly those in inner London.