May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming business?
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The business for next week will be as follows:
The business for the week commencing
In respect of Prorogation, I hope that it will be possible to prorogue no later than
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business.
Following on from this morning's Energy and Climate Change questions, I remind the Leader of the House that the Energy Secretary gave a commitment a month ago that he would require action from the energy companies on fuel prices, or would take action himself. One month on, no action has been taken. This morning, the Energy Secretary committed to give a report to the House on his meeting with the energy companies, which takes place on Monday. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that report will be given via an oral statement to the House to give Members an opportunity to question the Energy Secretary, and when will that statement be made?
The issue of the programme motion on yesterday's business has just been raised again in questions to the Leader of the House. I know that business questions are about future business, not past business, but I ask the Leader of the House whether she really learned anything from yesterday's debate. Does she not realise the strength of feeling in this House when the Government unnecessarily curtail House business in this way? Frankly, what happened yesterday was a gross discourtesy to the House and an example of gross mismanagement of business. Will she give a commitment that in future she will put the interests of the House ahead of those of the Government and give sufficient time for Back Benchers to be able to express their views?
This week, the World Economic Forum confirmed that the UK has, for the second successive year, fallen in world gender equality rankings. Taking into account issues such as the gender pay gap, economic participation and educational achievement, the WEF now ranks the UK below nations such as Latvia and the Philippines. The report highlights the importance of making use of the full potential of women in the workplace. Will the right hon. and learned Lady, in her role as Minister for Women and Equality, therefore make a statement to the House to confirm whether the Government will support our equal pay and flexible working Bill?
The right hon. and learned Lady has made much of the fact that the Government will bring forward an equality Bill in the next Session. As she is the Minister for Women and Equality, the expectation was that she would lead the Bill through the House of Commons, but we now learn that that will be done by the Solicitor-General—indeed, her headed notepaper describes her as "Solicitor-General and Equality Bill Lead". I understand from the Library that in the past two decades only four Bills have been taken through the House by a Law Officer. Why has the right hon. and learned Lady been sidelined in this way?
We very much welcome the independent investigation announced by the Government yesterday into the tragic case of baby P in Haringey. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the findings of that inquiry will be made public, and will the Children Secretary come to the House to make a statement on those findings in the new Session?
On a more general point, can we at some stage have a general debate on the social work profession? Most social workers do a vital job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but the chief executive of the NSPCC said yesterday that they did not have enough training and support and were heavily engaged in paperwork and bureaucracy. I think that a debate on social work would be appropriate and timely.
"an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London".
Within months, there was the first run on a UK bank for a century. In April this year, he said to the House:
"even in difficult global times, we are continuing to create jobs and continuing to bring unemployment down."—[ Hansard, 23 April 2008; Vol. 474, c. 1309.]
Figures released yesterday show that unemployment has gone up to 1.8 million—its highest level for 13 years—so it is now higher than when Labour came to office. People are losing their jobs, businesses are going under and homes are being repossessed. I ask the Leader of the House yet again: when can we have a general debate in Government time on the state of the economy?
The right hon. Lady asked about the Energy Secretary's meeting with the energy companies, and just a few minutes before these questions, the Energy Secretary has been held to account by the House. If he has any future specific announcements to make, he will no doubt bring them to the House.
The right hon. Lady asked about the programme motion yesterday, and whether I had learned any lessons. The reality is that we spent two hours discussing the timing—two hours of concern about the length of time given for debate. An amendment could have been tabled to our programme motion, which we laid before the House seven days before the matter was debated. If a proposal for an extra hour's debate on regional Committees had been introduced by the Opposition, or from those on our Back Benches, it stands to reason that we would have accepted it. They could have done that, instead of our spending two hours discussing timing. I have learned that the Opposition perhaps need to be encouraged to table amendments, rather than fulminate for two hours when they have failed to do so. That is what I have learned, and I would ask what the right hon. Lady has learned. We are all clearly in a learning environment.
The right hon. Lady asked about world gender equality, and mentioned the equality Bill. I am grateful that she will actively support that Bill when it is introduced after it is announced in the Queen's Speech. She also said something rather curious about my having allegedly been "sidelined" on equality, which shows a misunderstanding of the movement for women's equality. I do not own that movement, so it is not a question of my being sidelined. We should have more women Ministers, more women Members of Parliament, and more action taken by women in voluntary organisations throughout the country; that is not a question of being sidelined, but of the agenda being mainstreamed. I have overall responsibility for the equality Bill, and the Solicitor-General will lead the Bill through the House, just as the Attorney-General took the lead in the House of Lords on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. The Law Officers are able not only to give advice to the Government but to lead Bills through the House, and the Solicitor-General will do an excellent job. She will have my full support.
What is so terribly tragic about the case of baby P, the baby in Haringey killed by his parents, is not only that a baby should have been killed in such horrible circumstances, but that there appear to have been up to 60 missed opportunities to save that baby's life. There were 60 occasions when the family and the baby were seen by social workers, police and health professionals, which is why everyone finds this case so particularly tragic. We all want to ensure that lessons are learned. Children, Schools and Families questions will take place on Monday.
The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the economy, and particularly jobs. For any individual, in whatever circumstance, to lose their job is a matter of great concern. Many people worry not only when they will find their next job, but if they will lose their house in the meantime. That is why we are introducing extra help with mortgages and why we are putting extra investment into Jobcentre Plus, and into private and voluntary sector organisations that can help people to find their next job. In the summer, we had a record high number of 30 million jobs in the economy. In the last quarter, according to the available figures, there were still something like 600,000 vacancies in the economy. It is important that we try, by stabilising the economy, recapitalising the banks, taking international action, introducing public sector projects and helping small businesses, to ensure that people do not lose their jobs. However, if people do lose their jobs, we must ensure that every bit of help possible is available to them.
I said that we would have the pre-Budget report on Monday week. Shortly thereafter, on
After the matter was raised in last week's business questions, I looked back from the beginning of October till now, and found that there have been no fewer than 12 occasions on which the House has had an opportunity, whether through debates or statements, to raise economic issues. If Members have an opportunity to hold a Treasury Minister to account and make speeches, does it matter whether it is technically in Government time or in the debate after the Queen's Speech, which happens in Government time but for which the Opposition choose the subjects? It is important for the House to debate the economy, and for the public to see that we are doing so and holding Treasury Ministers to account. I will ensure that there is a continuous stream of statements and debates on the economy and that the House has plenty of opportunity to discuss it.
I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend had time to view the "Dispatches" programme on Channel 4 last night about children who have been mutilated, abused and killed in Nigeria because they were accused of being witches. The practice is blamed on the Church, which is involved in it, claiming that it is part of a Christian reading of the Bible. Has the world gone mad? May we have a debate on the crisis in Nigeria, and on protecting those innocent children?
I will raise my hon. Friend's point with my colleagues in the Foreign Office and in the Department for International Development. We want to support human rights not only in this country but throughout the world.
I thank the Leader of the House for assisting in ensuring that we have a statement today from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Post Office card account and that it will be made to the House first. That is welcome and appreciated.
As the Leader of the House plans future business, will she reflect on a matter that Mrs. May raised but that is of widespread concern? Yesterday, the Government were defeated once, withdrew twice and came within three votes of being defeated a second time. They managed to impose their will about the structure of Committees in England by using their majorities in Scotland and Wales—they have the majority of the popular vote in neither place. Will the Leader of the House reflect on whether she is serious about the sort of discussion that she hinted she is willing to offer on those controversial matters?
Yesterday's business was controversial and I am sure that more time could have been given for debating it. Today we have a topical debate on combating obesity, which is important but not topical, given that there are such issues as the safety of young children, youth unemployment, general employment and the state of the economy to discuss. Those are huge matters, which are much more topical, by any definition, than combating obesity. May we please have a structure for discussing the subjects for topical debates before they are announced? Even if the Deputy Leader of the House, using false constitutional arguments, claims that the House should not have a general business Committee, will the Leader of the House consider whether we can have a business Committee that is representative of the parties of the House to examine topical debates? At least we could then learn whether that was a good precedent that could be applied more widely.
Again, it is welcome that the Chancellor will come to the House to make a statement on the pre-Budget report on Monday week. However, it is nonsensical not to have a general debate about what the statement should contain, but simply to respond to it. I hazard a guess that the Chancellor will make some announcements that are intended to have effect before the Budget. I am sure that the Chancellor is not just going to tell us what his thoughts are for next year without wanting to do something now. Colleagues in the House ought to have an opportunity to debate that before Monday week. There is plenty of time next week, but if the Leader of the House can find no other way, may I ask that the topical debate next week, ahead of the pre-Budget report, be on the economy and be extended to the whole of Thursday?
Lastly, the Public Accounts Committee has today published an important report on energy prices, which has made it clear, among other things, that a large number of people pay higher bills when they change energy supplier. Please may we have an opportunity before the winter to discuss the urgent matter of energy prices, on the basis of the Public Accounts Committee report and the many other reports that show that we pay higher energy prices than almost any other country in Europe?
The hon. Gentleman raised the defeat in one of the votes yesterday. That was because the vote was on House business and was therefore on a free vote. That is the way of the world. When there is a whipped vote, we expect to win but do not always do so; when there is an unwhipped vote, we hope to win but do not always succeed. That is the way of things. It is rather odd that the hon. Gentleman is complaining that our position was defeated on an unwhipped vote. That should prove to him that there was a free vote. Indeed, I would have expected him to complain more vociferously if we had won all the votes, which last night we most assuredly didn't, thank you very much—says she with great good grace.
If something is controversial, that does not mean we should not bring it to the House and offer hon. Members the decision. Just because the proposal for regional Committees was controversial, it does not mean that we should not have the right to put it forward. So we put forward the proposal, and it was controversial, and strong arguments were advanced on all sides. We are proceeding, but let me remind all those who voted against proceeding—and who did not succeed in that vote—that we will be reviewing the proposal, which will run only for an experimental period. I hope that in that period even those who voted against the proposal will put themselves forward to join the Committees and make them work. Then we will see whether they are successful in holding to account big organisations that are important to their regions, but which are currently not properly accountable.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned topical debates and said that worklessness and the economy were more topical than the obesity report that we have chosen for today. However, I remind him that on
The hon. Gentleman made what I regard as a slightly novel proposal—that we should have a pre pre-Budget report. The problem with having an economic debate immediately before the pre-Budget report is that if it is just a few days before the Monday of the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor will not be able to say a great deal in that debate. The reason the Government introduced the pre-Budget report was that previously we had just the Budget in March—the announcement was made and that was it. This Government introduced the pre-Budget report, which was an innovation, so that the Chancellor could announce what would be in the Budget and make any necessary interim announcements. However, I hear the hon. Gentleman's suggestion for a topical debate on the economy. Bearing in mind what other hon. Members have said, let me assure him that we always keep our mind open to whether there should be a topical debate on the economy, irrespective of the upcoming pre-Budget report.
May we have a debate on the effect of the credit crunch and the lowering of house prices on leaseholders who bought their flats on large council estates? As I know my right hon. and learned Friend is aware, many of them are on low incomes and face huge bills as a result of major ongoing works and, in particular, the decent homes programme, which in every other respect is to be welcomed.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Along with our hon. Friend Ms Buck, she has been a champion for the protection of leaseholders. Many people bought former council properties, but then, with the big investment in council estates following the decent homes programme, those on modest or low incomes, including retired people, were clobbered with bills of up to £40,000. While house prices were rising, it was possible for those people to have a charge taken on their homes, so that they would not have to stump up the cash immediately. With the fall in property prices, however, they have faced problems. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has been making the issue a priority, and I am aware that a number of hon. Members have had meetings with Ministers. Perhaps I should suggest a general meeting between the Minister and all Members with leaseholders in their constituencies who face such problems, and then perhaps we can come forward with an announcement. We are talking about people on very low incomes or perhaps in retirement who suddenly find five-figure sum bills arriving on their doormats and being told that they have to pay. That is something that, along with other problems in the housing market, we cannot turn away from.
I am not aware of a formal proposal from the Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances that it should be made a Committee of the House rather than being advisory to the Speaker, but if it did make such a proposal, it would no doubt be considered by the House and above all by the Speaker.
Today's news that there are problems with money transfers through MoneyGram and Western Union is giving the issue some long overdue publicity. A constituent of mine encountered a problem when she was trying to lease a flat. Although she was assured that no transfer would take place, one did take place—indeed, it went through the Post Office—and she was defrauded of money. Thankfully she has received the money back, but the problem is growing and affects many of our constituents. Will my right hon. and learned Friend have a word with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ensure that we are looking at regulation? Otherwise, the problem will continue to grow and many more people could be defrauded.
I know that this is a concern and, as a number of hon. Members have raised it, perhaps it would be a suitable subject for a Westminster Hall debate.
This week the Serious Organised Crime Agency shelved plans to name drug barons, people traffickers and other criminals who have had financial reporting orders placed on them, because doing so would breach their human rights. The purpose of naming them was to make it more difficult for them to reoffend, and to help the public to co-operate with the police in reporting suspicious financial transactions. Will the Leader of the House give us an opportunity to debate human rights legislation, which increasingly seems to distort the law in favour of criminals?
I am not aware of the specific case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. However, the purpose of naming those who have been made subject to orders or found guilty of offences is to ensure that those who might be at risk know the situation; to deter people by showing them that they will be named publicly; and to enable the public both to know that those who reoffend are under an order and to report them. I do not think that anything in the Human Rights Act 1998 prevents a proper and proportionate response to curtailing future criminal activities, but I shall look into the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and raise it with an appropriate Minister.
Yesterday, after a rather fractious afternoon in the Chamber, it was wonderful to see the House come together to welcome the setting up of the Speaker's Conference to improve representation in the House. May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on bringing that proposal forward and her opposite numbers on supporting it? What action is being taken to improve the representation of women, and members of the ethnic and black communities, on public bodies? That is often a very good preparation for parliamentary life, so if we can get that representation right now, we will have people who are prepared and ready to come into the House as soon as we have made a decision on how that can be done.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important for public bodies to have people who have been selected on merit, from the widest pool, with the broadest range of experience, to ensure that they can make the right decisions and give the right advice to Government and agencies. It is also an important role for people to choose before they step forward further into public life and enter the House. We have discussed with the Commissioner for Public Appointments a strengthening of her remit. That will be in the equality Bill, with the purpose of providing a more specific focus on ensuring diversity in public appointments.
The real missing voice in local councils is that of Asian women. There are something like 145 Asian women councillors; but to be representative in local government, there should be 1,000. We have set up an all-party taskforce under Baroness Pola Uddin and when she has concluded her work, we will report back to the House.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments on the Speaker's Conference, and pay tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for taking up this very important initiative. I believe that it will be an historic contribution of your Speakership.
The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a statement by the Chancellor on the pre-Budget report on Monday week, but she has not announced any time for a debate on it. Last year, there was no debate on the pre-Budget report, and she was good enough to concede to me and others that that was less than satisfactory. This year's pre-Budget statement is probably the most important statement that the Government will make in this Parliament, and it is quite wrong that we should have no time to debate it, and unacceptable that it should be rolled into a general debate on the Government's legislative programme. Will she reflect on her plans and make provision for a debate in Government time on the pre-Budget report?
I take the right hon. Gentleman's points seriously. Obviously, he is saying that there needs to be a statement with ample time, and an opportunity thereafter for debate, so that hon. Members can make speeches and the Treasury can respond. I will keep that under review.
At this time of year, we must ensure that there is enough time for the Report and Lords amendments stages of the many Bills that are coming back from the other place. The No. 1 priority for the Government is the economy. We certainly have no intention of having anything less than a full debate on it in the House.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the concern among companies that operate in many of the ports around the country, including Goole, over the new business rates arrangements and the fact that they are to be retrospectively applied to 2005. I and other hon. Members were grateful that the Prime Minister met us a couple of weeks ago and offered to look into the matter and give what assistance he could. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a statement to be made to the House, so that we can find out what that assistance will be and how those companies will be helped through these difficult times?
I know that my hon. Friend, and other hon. Members, have raised this matter on behalf of their constituents with the relevant Ministers and the Prime Minister. If there is to be a response from Government, there will doubtless be a statement.
As we move into this recession, we have seen unemployment rise massively in the past three months, and forecasts for the future are pretty gloomy. Given that it is our job to try to protect and preserve jobs, it does not appear to make a great deal of sense for the Government to press ahead with their support for the Lloyds TSB-HBOS merger which, it is reported today, could lead to the loss of 60,000 jobs. Edinburgh and Lothian Members, including the Chancellor, are conscious of that, and MPs in the Halifax area are also aware of the concerns in their constituencies. May we have a debate, in Government time, so that the Government can justify their continued support for the shotgun merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS, and the potential loss of jobs, and to hear the arguments from both sides of the House? Independent recapitalisation of both banks would provide as much stability as the merger, and it would preserve and protect lots of jobs.
We are very concerned about the protection of financial services, and ensuring that there is lending to small businesses, families and in the housing market. The service provided by the financial services industry is important, but it is also an important employer, so we are concerned when we see job losses. That is why the Chancellor has made it clear that he will do whatever it takes to stabilise and protect all existing financial services organisations, including taking over Northern Rock and the action that we have taken on Bradford & Bingley. When the best action to take is supporting and enabling a merger, as is the case with Lloyds TSB and HBOS, we will take it.
We are well aware of the impact that the situation is having in Yorkshire, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, with Bradford & Bingley and the Halifax, and the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber has been working with colleagues and agencies in the area. We are also concerned about the effect on Scotland. Certainly, we will leave no stone unturned, but it is not right for any Member to suggest that there is some sort of magic wand alternative to the Lloyds TSB-HBOS proposal. If there were, and if it stood up to scrutiny, it would be there for consideration, but we regard the merger as the best option.
In my right hon. and learned Friend's opening statement, she said that we were all in a learning environment. Will she consider setting up a series of seminars to help people who are not terribly experienced in the House—for example, to show them how to set out amendments, or to ensure that they know that it is proper to address the House through the Speaker?
As my hon. Friend will know, that is very much a matter for the Speaker.
Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the amount of compensation being paid by the NHS in relation to negligence claims? In London alone, in the past three years, that sum, including legal fees, has totalled nearly a quarter of a billion pounds.
May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall or the House on the matter? The first point of principle is that we do not want any mistakes in the NHS that cause pain and suffering, quite apart from financial loss. However, if there is negligence in the NHS, it is right for those who suffer to be compensated. This is an important issue, and the hon. Gentleman should seek an Adjournment debate on it.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the work of bailiffs? In the present financial climate, such work is sadly likely to increase. If her constituency mailbag is anything like mine, she will be learning of an increasing number of hard and painful cases. Being a bailiff is a difficult job, but the way in which they conduct themselves can make a difference to the dignity of people in financial stress.
We have increased the regulation of bailiffs. This is a case in which what is sometimes derided as red tape is important to protect people who are very vulnerable. It is not only important to have the right regulation in place, but to ensure that it is properly enforced. I will ask the Minister concerned to write to my hon. Friend to explain not only the current state of the regulations, but how they are being effectively policed.
May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on progress towards publishing MPs' expenses? It was supposed to happen this autumn but, so far, there has been no sign of it. Will she confirm when MPs' expenses will be published, and explain the delay?
The House authorities are in the process of formulating the data for the last five years for Members' expenses, to put them into the public domain in a proper manner. As the hon. Lady can imagine, it is a major undertaking, and the authorities are working on it, with additional staff, as fast as they can. At the same time, they are paying out current expenses, which we do not want to be delayed. That work is very much under way.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent contribution on the Speaker's Conference last night?
May we have a debate on adequate funding for public services? If we have learned anything from the recent by-election in Glenrothes, it is that people respect and want decent public services. Although it sounds popular to announce a council tax freeze, it comes with consequences, which often affect the most vulnerable people in our society. Given that the official Opposition are going down the same route, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the Government will not be tempted to do likewise?
I would certainly like to pay tribute to and welcome Lindsay Roy, who was introduced to the House yesterday. When I was up in Glenrothes, I felt very strongly that it is not only elderly people themselves who are worried about increases in charges, as whole families then become concerned about their older relatives. We all need to recognise that care and support of older people in their own homes—it is called adult social care, but it is really the common-sense issue of looking after elderly people—should move much higher up all our political agendas.
As you will know, Mr. Speaker, many pensioners are in dire straits, as about 1.8 million are judged to be in poverty, we have pretty much the lowest basic pension in Europe and recent interest rate cuts have hit them massively in respect of their often very small investments. Will the Leader of the House consider—and with some urgency—having a debate on the position of our pensioners, who are facing, as I said, such serious challenges?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we remain very concerned about the position of retired people in the current economic climate. I responded a few moments ago to a question from my hon. Friend Emily Thornberry about leaseholders. Many of them are people who, on retiring with a lump sum, bought their council property as leaseholders but now find themselves facing bills. That is just one example of the problems they face in the current economic climate. We know the increase in energy costs is particularly difficult for older people who spend more time at home, need more heat as they move around less, and often have less disposable income than younger people. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very much focused on the concerns of retired people. I would also remind him, however, that we operate from a position that is now much better than it was in 1997. If we take into account all the different categories of people—single people without children, couples without children, couples with children, retired people and so forth—we find that the people whose income in percentage terms has increased most among the whole population are single women in retirement. I am not complacent about that, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that although we have more to do, we have done a great deal since his party were in government.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time to debate the behaviour of Dover Harbour Board, whose chief executive wants to get rid of 200 port workers and whose actions have led to the Unite union taking strike action next week? Does she agree that such action by the board, without any negotiations with the unions, is thoroughly irresponsible?
At this time, public authorities should not be making people unemployed. We want all public authorities not only to provide the services that they should, but to refrain from doing anything that will make unemployment worse. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, who I believe is responsible for the port authorities, to look further into this matter forthwith.
May I ask the Leader of the House for an early debate on work in prisons? She will know that one of the best ways in which to reduce reoffending when people leave prison is to find them a job. One of the saddest things to have happened over the past few weeks is the closing down of the Barbed project at HMP Coldingley. That project provided real and well paid work for a number of prisoners, but it has been closed down as a consequence of the Government's introduction of the core day. That is utterly regrettable; may we have a debate about it?
I recognise the hon. and learned Gentleman's long-standing interest in these issues and the sophistication of his approach, which he has demonstrated again today. It is important to do whatever we can when people are in prison to ensure that they do not promptly reoffend when they come out of prison, so I will raise the hon. and learned Gentleman's point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.
Yesterday, a group of all-party MPs met senior staffers from the Senate offices in Washington to discuss issues of climate change. One point that was made forcefully to us was that labour organisations and unions in this country are so much more ahead and part of the debate than they are in the United States. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find ways in which we could encourage further dialogue between labour organisations here and in the US, to ensure that we progress the climate change agenda?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recognises, as does my hon. Friend, that it is not just the work of national Governments that matters, as it is also important to prompt work internationally and for organisations in civil society to work in partnership on climate change issues. I will raise my hon. Friend's point with my right hon. Friend.
This is going to sound very trivial, but it is actually quite important to our landscape and countryside. May we have a debate on conkers or, perhaps more properly, on invasive pathogens on native British trees? Horse chestnuts are being assailed by Phytophthora, leaf miner caterpillar and, most seriously of all, by Pseudomonas syringae—a new and very aggressive disease, which has affected possibly 50 to 75 per cent. of the native horse chestnut population. We do not want to see the same sort of depredation that happened to elms as a result of Dutch elm disease, so may we have a debate to discuss what can be done?
Just as elms were part of and defined the landscape of England, Wales and Scotland, so, too, do horse chestnuts after the demise of those elms. The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is partly to do with viruses and partly to do with the effect of climate change. Indeed, this is just one manifestation of climate change, which is why we must step up all-party action on it, both nationally and internationally.
For the best part of 40 years, since the Government of Harold Wilson established the excellent Girobank, the Post Office has been involved in one way or another with banking services. In view of last week's interesting suggestion by Lord Mandelson about a possible future role for the Post Office in banking services, and regardless of what our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions says in his statement at 12.30, does the Leader of the House agree that the credit crunch has completely transformed the debate about the future of the Post Office? Once we have absorbed what our right hon. Friend's statement means in its entirety, would it not be useful if we had a topical debate on the future role of the Post Office in the banking system?
My hon. Friend is right that the credit crunch has provided an imperative to think afresh about the delivery of financial services. He mentions the Post Office's role in providing such services, but there is also the issue of credit unions. My hon. Friend referred to the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, who is already aware of those issues, and our hon. Friend Jon Cruddas has also made some proposals; they will be under active consideration.
Returning to the theme of being in a learning environment, several of my constituents are as a result of computer problems having difficulty getting into one because they cannot get the education maintenance allowance to which they are entitled. I took their cases up with the Learning and Skills Council on
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will answer questions on Monday. The hon. Gentleman can raise the matter then to establish whether the Secretary of State has anything to add to the written ministerial statement that he has already made on this topic.
Last Tuesday I had the honour of opening the new search and rescue force headquarters at RAF Valley in my constituency. On that day, an international conference took place enabling delegates from all over the world to learn from the British way, which is the best way when it comes to rescue.
My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that the search and rescue force works with a number of partners, including the police and agencies such as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Will she join me in applauding that agency's professionalism? May we have a debate on the wages and conditions of those professional people, many of whom survive on an income just above the minimum wage?
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the search and rescue organisations and the partnership which, as he said, includes both the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I also join him in acknowledging the work of that agency, which is not just about search and rescue but about regulation—not red tape, but important regulation that preserves the safety of vessels at sea and protects the environment by ensuring that goods are transported safely.
May we have an early debate, in Government time, on the losses of depositors in the Isle of Man banks? I realise that we had an Adjournment debate on the subject last week, but that is not sufficient. I myself do not call for Governments to compensate in the absence of fault, nor are Governments the guarantors of last resort; but the House must have an opportunity to explore whether or not the Government were at fault. There are issues of parity to be considered. Furthermore, the question arises of whether the Government should loan money to the compensatory authorities in the jurisdictions, to enable those jurisdictions to compensate to the extent of the schemes then in place.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made a substantial point about a situation that is both very complex and, for the people whose money is frozen or lost or who are worried about it, very simple indeed. I shall raise it with my colleagues in the Treasury to establish whether a written ministerial statement is necessary in respect of those with deposits in Isle of Man financial institutions.
Along with many other hon. Members, I met firefighters yesterday. May we have a debate on the Floor of the House about the conditions in which our firefighters are now expected to work? I was extremely concerned to learn that there has been no hot-fire training for established firefighters in Hertfordshire since 2001, and that many are still expected to use communication equipment that does not stand up to heat. I understand that there are 40 outstanding policy recommendations relating to firefighters and firefighting incidents, and I believe that we need an urgent debate to discuss the future of our firefighting services.
I welcome what the hon. Lady has said, and will draw it to the attention of relevant Ministers.
Once again we have heard about the beneficial effect of regulations. This is not red tape or a health-and-safety culture, but proper regulation to protect people who are doing a very important job, and I welcome the fact that an Opposition Member has supported that rather than decrying it.
The Leader of the House will be as concerned as I am to learn that troops who are being deployed with ever-increasing amounts of heavy equipment are exceeding troop flight weight limits, which means that their personal kit must be left behind to be sent on at some later date. I have also learned, from a memo dated
A priority for us in Government is the support and protection of our troops in theatre. I will raise the specific points made by the hon. Gentleman with my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence, and will ask them to write to him.
Treasury Ministers have been extraordinarily generous with their time in allowing themselves to be held to account in the House, given that they are trying to manage one of the most significant financial crises in the last 100 years. When might I have an opportunity to raise the important issue of pensioners who have suffered a considerable reduction in their incomes? HSBC is currently targeting pensioners with a bonus-option account paying just 1.5 per cent. in interest.
Will the Leader of the House also tell me when we can raise another important issue? The Paulson plan in the United States seems to be failing. It has now begun bailing out credit card and student loan debt, which is a sign that the financial crisis is becoming a great deal worse.
As I have just told the House, the Chancellor will present his pre-Budget report on Monday week. I am sure that the important points raised by the hon. Gentleman can be raised again on that occasion.
In September 2006, a 16-year-old child came to this country from eastern Europe expecting to be given work in a bar. In fact, she was sold into sex slavery. She was raped, beaten, held at gunpoint, and moved from brothel to brothel. Thankfully, the Metropolitan police unit that deals with human trafficking rescued that young girl, and I am pleased to say that the trafficking gang were given a total of 52 years in prison. What is very disturbing, however, is that the unit has now been disbanded. May we have a statement from the Home Office explaining why it has done that?
There is no lessening of the work done by not only the Metropolitan police, but police authorities throughout the country, to deal with the trafficking of young girls. I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman has consistently done on the issue, both as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on trafficking of women and children and in raising it in the House.
The case to which the hon. Gentleman referred is the Plakici case, which I referred to the Court of Appeal. That is why there was such a large increase in the sentence. A sentence of 22 years sends the deterrent message that the courts in this country will not tolerate human trafficking.
As the hon. Gentleman may know, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced that she will be presenting legislation to deal with human trafficking. We must not only tackle the traffickers—who must be prosecuted and given big deterrent sentences—and protect the victims, but recognise the responsibility of the men who pay for sex in brothels up and down the country. We must tackle what is described as the demand side of this terrible trade. My right hon. Friend's legislation will ensure that men who have sex with victims of trafficking are prosecuted, found guilty and brought to justice.
This week the independent monitoring board for prisons highlighted the problems caused by the use of mobile phones by prisoners in prisons for the purpose of organising crime, particularly relating to drugs, both inside and outside prison walls. When may we have a statement from the Ministry of Justice about the action that it intends to take to tackle the problem, which I hope will include the installation of mobile phone blockers in Her Majesty's prisons?
I shall raise the hon. Gentleman's important point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, and will ensure that my right hon. Friend writes to him. Obviously prisoners need to communicate with their families to ensure that they do not break down while a family member is in prison, but the last thing that anyone wants is for them to organise crimes from their mobile phones in prison.