The business for next week will be as follows:
The provisional business for the week commencing
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. May I raise again the need for a statement on the case of the 80 or more Chinese children who have disappeared from a London care centre? We were promised a report to the House two weeks ago, since when we have heard nothing. There are some things in life that really are important, and this is one of them. What will the world say about our priorities if we fail to raise in this House this scandalous, shocking and vile trade in children that is going on under our noses? The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has asserted that Chinese children who arrive alone at a British airport are taken into local authority care and two thirds of them vanish within a week. To put it into plain English, for God's sake what is going on? Victorian campaigners stamped out child prostitution and now, in the twenty-first century, it seems to be back.
I know that the whole House will have welcomed your statement, Mr. Speaker, and the meeting you had yesterday on mass protests in Parliament square, which often block the road and the gates to Parliament. It is my understanding that the meeting focused on the immediate disruption that has been caused by the recent demonstration by Tamils, but there is a broader issue, because the whole area is deteriorating into a permanent shambles. Legitimate protest is fine and important, but permanently disruptive protest is not. The Leader of the House has so far failed to take a lead on this. Now that you have taken action, Mr. Speaker, may I ask her when we will get a statement and a plan of action on how to address this problem?
May I also ask the Leader of the House for a clear plan of action on the two inquiries that need to be conducted into the arrest of an hon. Member and the protection of parliamentary confidences? Members are becoming somewhat exasperated by her silence. She did promise to get back to the House, but so far she has not done so. This issue will not go away. What is stopping her from referring this issue to the Committee on Standards and Privileges in a motion, so that we can take time to reflect on the lessons that need to be learned? May I have a firm commitment today from her to take conclusive action before we rise for the Whitsun recess?
May we also have a debate on the announcement about the police made by the Prime Minister earlier this week? This was his first serious speech on crime since he became Prime Minister almost two years ago. One of his suggestions was that people who felt unsafe should be escorted home by police, but we now learn that the chairman of the Police Federation wrote to the Home Secretary to seek her clarification on how many times she wants the police to arrest, charge and convict the same people before the Government do anything about it. How on earth does the Prime Minister think the police will have time to tuck people up in bed if the Government are so badly mishandling persistent offenders?
May I again request a debate on the indignity of mixed-sex wards? Yesterday it was revealed that patients in many of London's hospitals were still being forced to sleep on such wards. I have raised this issue with the Leader of the House before and she said that "progress was being made". What kind of progress is it if top hospitals in the capital are failing to provide adequate care? The Leader of the House is a London MP and the Minister for Women and Equality, so may I ask what she intends to do about the issue?
Finally, may I once again—as I have done almost every week for months—request and demand a statement from the Government on how they will properly compensate the deprived policyholders of Equitable Life?
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of the protection of children and their suspected trafficking into this country. This issue was raised in Prime Minister's questions yesterday and the previous Wednesday. This is a matter of serious concern and we need to be sure that the local authorities responsible, the immigration authorities and the police work together to ensure that children who have travelled to this country on their own, and who are vulnerable thousands of miles away from their families, are properly protected. I understand the Home Affairs Committee is having a seminar on this issue in Portcullis House today and we look forward to seeing its report.
The hon. Gentleman talked about mass protests in Parliament square. He will know that you have made a statement on the subject this week, Mr. Speaker, and that you have also held a meeting this week involving all the organisations that have operational responsibility for allowing the right to protest and ensuring that members of the public and Members of Parliament can get to and from the House of Commons. Obviously, this subject will form part of the discussions about the governance of Britain, including those on the Constitutional Renewal Bill.
As I have told the hon. Gentleman on previous occasions, the House agreed that there would be a Speaker's Committee to consider parliamentary privilege. I do not think it is ever worth having two Committees when one can do the job. I am sure the whole House hopes that the discussion about the number of members for the Speaker's Committee and about how we can ensure it gets on with its work to see whether it can satisfy all Members' questions will be resolved as soon as possible.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister's speech on the police. I remind him that crime in this country across the board has fallen over the past 10 years. We should pay tribute not only to the work that has gone on in this House through legislation to give more powers to the police, but to the work that the police have done, working closely with local communities, to ensure that crime falls and fewer people become victims of crime. There has been a great deal of progress over the past 10 years, but the hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that a problem remains, particularly with persistent offenders. That has been the focus of Home Office concern, and he or other hon. Members can raise that point in Home Office questions next week.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the issue of mixed-sex wards is overdue for further action, and there will be further action.
Order. Sorry, I thought that the right hon. and learned Lady had finished.
The right hon. and learned Lady should not draw breath—that is what happened, and I called someone else. Please answer, and then I will call Mr. Salter.
I know that this answer will be disappointing and annoying for many hon. Members who, like all of us, are very concerned about those people who lost out because of the mismanagement by Equitable Life over a number of years and because that mismanagement was not addressed properly by the authorities with responsibility for regulating Equitable Life. That is why, following the ombudsman's serious, weighty and important report, which took four years to compile, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury came to the House to make an oral statement. She said that even though no legal obligation to compensate has been ordered by the court—that is, despite the fact that it is clear that there is no legal obligation, and that was the subject of a court case—
A legal obligation and a moral obligation are different. I am simply stating the position in relation to a legal obligation. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that, notwithstanding the fact that there was no legal obligation, the Government apologised for the regulatory failures and believed that there should be financial recompense for those who had lost out. The question is how we establish a scheme to pay out to those many people who have lost out. Sir John Chadwick, who is a High Court judge, is establishing that scheme. He will shortly produce an interim report on how it will be framed, and at that point the matter will be brought back to the House for Members' information.
This had better be good! Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, for the third time and I hope for many more. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the use of the £35 million Short money that the Opposition have received since 1997? That debate should be seen in the light of yesterday's posturing by the Leader of the Opposition about the MPs' communications allowance, which he and 90 per cent. of all Conservative MPs have claimed but now want abolished.
Short money is public money that goes to the Opposition to help them to do their work and develop policy. That is important. We should acknowledge that public money underpins the political system in respect of the Opposition as well as the Government, but we must also recognise the role of the communications allowance. We need to be in communication with our constituents and to give them information about issues of concern to them. For example, we should tell them what help is available for those who lose their jobs and are worried about losing their homes. We should give them information about the mortgage protection schemes. We should give information to small businesses in our constituencies and tell them about the possibility of deferring taxes. It is not permissible to use the communications allowance to pass on party political messages, but I hope all hon. Members will use their allowance to give constituents the information they need. I support that, and I agree with my hon. Friend.
I am told that today is national dance like a chicken day, which may be apposite for activities in the House over the past week. While we have been obsessing—necessarily—about what has emerged in The Daily Telegraph, the world has continued: people have been losing their jobs, businesses have been closing, and people have lost their homes. We need to concentrate on that as well.
I understood the Leader of the House to have given a commitment a few months ago that each week there would be a debate or a Question Time on the economy. I cannot see either in next week's business or in the provisional business for the week after the recess. May I suggest that we might use one of the general debates in those weeks for a debate on unemployment? There are now 2.2 million people in this country who are unemployed, and we could discuss what we can do to address that.
I and various other hon. Members from all parties last week pointed out to the Leader of the House that only one day had been provided for the Report and remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill. That is clearly inadequate, and I hoped that the complaints made from all parts of the House would be recognised. We still have only one day for a Bill that is exceedingly complex, and it is almost certain that we will not reach key sections. Even at this late stage, will she look again at the timetabling of the Bill?
May we have a debate on class sizes? Departmental statistics were supposed to be released on
May we also have a debate on the state of our nation's roads? Anyone who drives around Somerset, Wiltshire and neighbouring counties will know that the roads have deteriorated very badly. They are full of potholes and there is a massive problem with the backlog of road maintenance—it is estimated that the average shortfall for each authority across the country is £6 million. The state of the roads causes danger and discomfort, especially to cyclists—I can vouch for that—and many people are concerned that money is being spent on compensation for road accident victims rather than on doing something about the cause of those accidents. May we therefore have a debate on the state of the roads?
Lastly, a while ago I caused some grief to Dr. Howells when he was the Minister dealing with the Bill that became the Licensing Act 2003. He incurred the wrath of folk singers in Somerset, including the redoubtable Wurzels, when he set out his plans for live music. The number of venues for live music, and the number of pubs and bars that provide live music, has declined, as we predicted. The Licensing Act has brought some advantages, but it has also brought about a dire state in the provision of live music in pubs, and many difficulties for voluntary bodies such as village halls. May we have a debate on the operation of the Act, so that we can explore how we can improve the situation and revitalise the music industry in this country?
In respect of the Policing and Crime Bill, in business questions last Thursday, I undertook to review the decision that it should have just one day on Report following Committee, as is usual. I have done that and looked again at the matter, because I know that there were concerns about four aspects: the definition of gangs; the use of DNA; control for gain in respect of prostitution, and its definition; and lap dancing and controls on lap-dancing clubs. Those are very important issues; I do not demur from that at all. However, the provisions on control for gain and lap dancing were already in the Bill when it was brought before the House on Second Reading. The Government are bringing forward amendments as concessions on issues raised in Committee.
The provisions on gangs and DNA were new; they were brought into the Bill in Committee, and therefore were not considered by the House on Second Reading. Concessions were agreed, so it is important that on Report we focus on those issues. When it comes to a Bill getting on to the statute book, we must take account not only of business in this House but proceedings in the other House. We have to make sure that we provide time so that we can consider not only our views but Lords amendments. Looking at the business of the House ahead of us, I have not seen a possibility of making a second day available. If it were possible to do so, I would have done it, but it was for me to make a judgment. I know that there were discussions among the parties, that there was not satisfaction on the issue, and that there have been concerns about it, but I am afraid I could not really offer any assistance on that, although I tried.
We made it a priority when we came into government to reduce class sizes, particularly in primary schools. Part of the reason for our big investment in education, year after year, is to keep class sizes down, so that each child can have more individual attention. That is one of the reasons why, despite the fact that there is a global economic recession, we are this year increasing investment in education by 4.3 per cent. That is in stark contrast to the cuts proposed by the Opposition, which would affect important things such as class sizes.
The third point raised by Mr. Heath was about the importance of the House being able to discuss and debate and hold Ministers to account on what is being done to protect businesses, jobs and people's homes. I did say that the House would have an opportunity to discuss those issues more or less every week—and it has had that opportunity in the past—because that is the No. 1 priority. This week, we have had two days of discussion on the Finance Bill. On Tuesday, debate on the Bill went on until nearly 2 o'clock in the morning, and last night I think that it went on until about 10 o'clock. I would say that that was an opportunity to debate issues that affect the economy, so the House has had those— [Interruption.] If Opposition Members are saying that debate on the Finance Bill does not count as debate on the economy, and they want an additional opportunity to discuss the issue, I will think about making it the subject of a topical debate.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about people killed or injured in road accidents. He could more properly have put that question to the team of Transport Ministers, who were answering questions just before business questions. He challenged the Government on a reduction in the number of venues available for live music as a result of the licensing regime. The fact is that there was an 8 per cent. increase in premises licensed with live music authorisation between March 2007 and March 2008, so if his proposition—
Well, most people are concerned about two things. They are concerned about whether the places that want to provide music can get a licence to do so, and the answer to that point is that more people are getting licences. They are also concerned about ensuring that when those clubs or pubs have licences, all the people who are having a great time there do not deafen neighbours, and that the neighbours do not suffer a grim time as a result. The licensing regime is important, and more premises are getting a licence, so everything is absolutely fine, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said.
The hon. Gentleman also made a point about expenses; I suppose it was really a throw-away remark, but I know that he regards it as a very serious issue, as all hon. Members do. I do not think that anyone in any part of the House is in any doubt at all about the anger and outrage that there is on the subject. I think we all want to put things right quickly, because we all want to restore trust and confidence in Parliament. We are all united in our belief in the importance of Parliament to our democracy. This is a defining moment, and it is a huge challenge for all of us. The public who elected us, and whom we represent, expect us to sort it out. As Leader of the House, I want to say—on behalf, I hope, of the whole House—"We get it. We're going to sort it out." That goes for all of us. We are aware of the scale of anger and outrage. We all believe that the issue needs to be sorted out, and we will work together urgently to do exactly that.
Earlier this morning, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and I received a report from the Dystonia Society, highlighting the impact of that painful condition on the lives of the 40,000 or so people across the United Kingdom who suffer from it. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend could find some parliamentary time for a debate in the House to highlight that little-known condition.
My right hon. Friend has brought the issue to my attention and that of the House through her question. I will bring it to the attention of Health Ministers. Perhaps she should seek an Adjournment debate, or a debate in Westminster Hall, on the subject; I am sure that other hon. Members would want to participate.
May I return to the subject of Equitable Life? Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that the reports—and they are in the plural—from the ombudsman include criticism of the Government of an unprecedented severity? It is crucial that we debate the issue very soon. We are told this week that an average of 15 Equitable Life victims die each day; that is more than 100 a week. We must debate the matter, and the Government must come up with their package. As I said earlier, the Government have a moral obligation, whatever their legal obligation, and the House expects the Government to fulfil that obligation.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the situation in respect of Equitable Life is unprecedented. It is unprecedented in the number of people affected. It is unprecedented in the amount of money involved; a lot of people have lost considerable amounts. It is unprecedented in that it affects not only the well-off but people on very modest incomes. It is also unprecedented in respect of its complexity. Those are the issues that we are determined to address. The Government do not seek to stand on their legal obligation, and we do not need to have our moral obligation explained to us. We are concerned about the matter. We are all concerned about the people who have lost out, and we will take action to make sure that the issue is addressed. I understand that on
Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for an early debate on the future of the east coast main line franchise? There are rumours regarding the financial viability of the main operator. I have been given an assurance by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that there will be no renegotiation, but as a railway enthusiast who uses that line at least twice a week, I feel that the anxieties linger on.
I know from the representations of a number of hon. Members representing constituents all along the east coast main line that this is an important issue. I do not know whether the matter was raised during Transport questions as I was not present throughout, but as it affects a number of hon. Members, an Adjournment debate might be appropriate.
May we have a debate in Government time entitled "The fallacy of atheism"? I defy any right hon. or hon. Members to refuse to believe in the existence of God having read today's edition of The Argus in which the most judgmental and sanctimonious Member of the House admits to having pocketed between £20,000 and £30,000 by paying rent to himself for a constituency office in his own home.
I have much admiration and respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a considerable battering at the hands of Norman Baker, but I urge him to resist the temptation to hit back, because we will make no progress. The public are angry and outraged. That is not just what I think; we all know that to be the case. As grieved as we might be that we have been subjected to accusations by other Members, that gives us no prospect of a way forward. The only way forward is to say to the public loud and clear, "We understand the anger. We understand the outrage. We had already taken some steps to improve the situation and we will take further steps to do so." We must do that to ensure that the public can once again have confidence not just in one political party or another, but in all parts of the House.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend, who expressed her views and gave voice to the House on the issue of the need to clean up the expenses system, urge the House authorities to provide Members on request with an electronic copy of our receipts and claims, with full access rights—not just a read-only copy—so that we can make the redactions that are indicated but not made on the electronic copy that we have? We can then put them on our websites or do what we want with them. Please will she ensure that that happens so that we have proper access to our own data and can manage it as we choose? [This section has been corrected on 19 May 2009, column 17MC — read correction]
Many hon. Members have been asked by their local newspapers, which are read by the constituents who elected them, to put details of their own claims and the payments received in the public domain so that the local newspaper can report them. Many hon. Members want to do that because, having been elected by their constituents, they feel that their constituents are entitled to know where their Member of Parliament stands amidst all of this. The difficulty is that the information on the claims and payments made that we have been given by the House authorities in electronic form cannot be given to local newspapers because it includes all sorts of information whose release would breach the freedom of information laws. For example, if I gave out the information about my expenses to the South London Press, which I want to do without having to wait for the House authorities to do so, I would be putting in the public domain the bank statements of my assistant, who is not at all keen that I should do that. I understand why, and it would be breaking the law.
This morning I asked the Clerk of the House if we could have not only a read-only copy but one that we could pass on to our local paper with the genuinely personal bits crossed out, and he is discussing that with the House authorities. That is not the situation at the moment and hon. Members will just have to tell their local newspapers that they can either come in and read the hard copies, with the personal parts, such as bank account details, crossed out, or simply wait for the House of Commons to enable us to provide an electronic copy. All local newspapers should recognise that although many hon. Members would not feel obliged to respond to national newspapers, they do feel accountable to their local constituents. The local newspapers report to the local constituents and Members want to be accountable to them.
In her reply the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend Mr. Heath on the Policing and Crime Bill, the Leader of the House laid down an astonishing remarkable new doctrine that the Government will decide which parts of Bills the House scrutinises—she says DNA, gangs, prostitution and lap dancing—and that it will be up to the Government to decide that we do not look at the 12 clauses on police reform, the 14 clauses on extradition, the six clauses on alcohol, the 16 clauses on proceeds of crime and other matters. There are also 41 miscellaneous clauses. Is it now the case that the Government decide that we will be allowed to scrutinise some bits on the Floor of House and some that we will not? Furthermore, has she any plans to negotiate with Front and Back Benchers over where the knives go in the limited time that we will now have to non-scrutinise this important piece of legislation?
There will be consultation, as there ought to be, on the programme motion and the allocation of time for different parts of the Bill. In my comments earlier, I was trying to respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised in the House last week—gangs, DNA, control for gain of prostitution, lap dancing, and, additionally, alcohol. I in no way meant that those were the only issues that the House would want to debate. I was just reflecting and cognising that those were important issues that he raised last time, but certainly other issues are also important. We will have as much discussion as we can and try, if possible, to reach agreement on the allocation of time in the full day's debate on Report. I try to ensure that no statement or any other business cuts into that time.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on the confidentiality of Members' correspondence, on which we have had a number of discussions in the past and on which Mr. Speaker has ruled? In one of two recent incidents a firm that was supplying a service that the county council was involved in was in some difficulty, and I wrote expressing my worries and asking what would be done to replace that service should it collapse. I was shocked to find that my correspondence and the reply was circulated to county councillors at will, breaching confidentiality. Furthermore, when a councillor raised an issue, an officer told him that I had previously written and, I am told, allowed him to see my correspondence and the response. This is outrageous. My confidentiality needs to be respected, but more importantly, so does that of my constituents.
When Members of Parliament, who are democratically elected, deal with another public authority that is publicly accountable, such as a council, there needs to be a proper level of trust and respect. This is not a question of the nitty-gritty of the rules, but of those councils applying common sense and thinking things through. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which Mr. Speaker has addressed in the past, and I will consider whether any further action needs to be taken.
May we have a debate on the crisis in NHS dentistry? Some 1.2 million people, according to Government figures, do not have access to a dentist. The Government have accepted that there is a problem, which is why they are holding an inquiry, but could we have a debate on the matter to find out why not one single Minister in the Department of Health, including the Secretary of State, has visited a dentistry in the past 12 months? How can they know what is going on in the front line of dentistry if they have never visited a surgery?
One reason why we have determined to protect the health budget is that we know that although progress has been made, there is still more to do. That is why there will be an extra 5.5 per cent. in the health service budget this year, some of which will be available for continued improvements in dentistry. The policy of the hon. Gentleman's party's would be to make cuts and to say, "We can't afford this because of the recession." I cannot believe that no Minister has visited a dental surgery other than in a personal capacity— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman is holding up a parliamentary answer, which may be conclusive, in which case I will say no more.
May we have a debate in the House on the importance of manufacturing to this country? Unite, the union, has organised for this Saturday a major march and rally in Birmingham to highlight that very point about manufacturing. All right hon. and hon. Members are welcome. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that whatever else is going on, the Government will remain committed to helping the manufacturing industry through these difficult times?
I am aware of that important demonstration in support of manufacturing in Birmingham this week. It was organised by the unions, but it will involve employers from a range of organisations, not only from Birmingham, but from across the west midlands. The question of support for manufacturing was raised when the Cabinet met in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. The issue is raised constantly, as it is in questions to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Will the Leader of the House tell us when we are finally going to have an opportunity to debate the revised assessment of the costs and benefits of the Climate Change Act 2008, which was slipped out for the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change without a statement, as were his responses to my subsequent questions, even though it shows that the costs, at some £400 billion, will be about twice as high as we were told they would be when the measure was debated? That means that it will cost every household in the country about £20,000.
Simultaneously, the Secretary of State admitted that his predecessor had overlooked nearly £1 trillion of benefits. Those are the largest financial errors ever made by a Minister. When will we have the opportunity to debate them? They cast doubt on the whole climate change alarmism thesis. Every time the theory contradicts the facts and the figures, they simply change the figures.
I will raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and ask him to write to the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman is calling for a debate, and I will consider whether the matter should be the subject of a topical debate.
When can we have a debate on the UK Border Agency's treatment of urgent cases? My constituent, Dr. Anjali Shetty, who is a consultant microbiologist working in south Wales, has been trying desperately to get indefinite leave to remain and to have her passport returned from the agency. Her mother, who is very ill in India, has taken a turn for the worse, and Dr. Shetty needs urgently to return. She was told yesterday by the agency not to make any travel arrangements and that it would deal with the matter as quickly as possible. How can we send a message to the agency that it is dealing with tragic human situations, not just bits of paper? What can hon. Members do to ensure that such cases are dealt with urgently?
I will bring it to the attention of the Home Office Minister responsible for immigration that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of Dr. Anjali Shetty in the House. My hon. Friend could seek a meeting with immigration Ministers, but I also remind her that Home Office questions on Monday might give her an opportunity to raise the matter with them.
Last week, the Leader of the House rejected a request by me and other hon. Members for a debate and a vote on Equitable Life, and this week she has rejected hon. Members' entirely legitimate calls for more time to debate the Policing and Crime Bill. If there is not enough time in the current Session for those important debates, why can we not add an extra week to the Session at the end of July?
With respect, the hon. Gentleman has mixed up two issues that are not the same. I have not rejected anybody's concerns about Equitable Life. I explained the process: as soon as John Chadwick's interim report is ready, it will be brought to the House. I am not rejecting anybody's concerns; indeed, I share those concerns—we feel strongly about the matter and will bring it back to the House.
I have also not rejected the concerns that were raised by Mr. Heath and others about the Policing and Crime Bill. It is not so much an issue of this House. The issue is how we make sure that the Bill completes its passage through this House, but also the House of Lords, and that we have an opportunity to deal with Lords amendments. It is not just a question of when we are in recess but what happens when the Bill goes from this House to the House of Lords and returns in time so that we can consider Lords amendments.
Many workers up and down the country are this week celebrating the 10th anniversary of the national minimum wage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share the view of many hon. Members across the House that a Conservative Member's attempt to introduce a Bill that would enable workers to be paid less than the minimum wage is an absolute contempt?
My hon. Friend illustrates well that we are united on the question of the importance of democracy precisely because there are choices to make and differences in political views and between parties. As he said, one of the most stark differences is our strong belief that there should be a minimum wage by law. The suggestion from Conservative Members, which appears in the private Member's Bill that will be debated tomorrow, that employers should simply be able to opt out would blow a hole in the national minimum wage.
The Leader of the House just talked about of democracy. In support of Mr. Heath, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who requested a second day to debate a Bill, does she accept that the only opportunity that a Member has to participate in the passage of a Bill, if they are not called on Second Reading or if they are not appointed to the Public Bill Committee, is on Report and at remaining stages? Does she agree that Members who want to participate should be enabled to do so, and that the tight programming of Report and remaining stages of big and important Bills is unnecessary and damaging to the authority of the House in scrutinising legislation?
I have said that we will have discussions to make sure that we can try to reach agreement on programming so that hon. Members are able to debate all the important parts of the Bill. I have also said that I will try to ensure that there is no oral statement on that day so that we do not lose an hour.
My right hon. and learned Friend will recall that the Select Committee on Public Administration published its report on lobbying in the first week of January. The report, which called for a statutory register of lobbyists, was followed by an early-day motion from my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, who is a fellow member of that Committee, calling for urgent legislation. The motion has been signed by 162 hon. Members.
It is customary for the Government to respond to such reports within two months. The response was deferred until after Easter, but it is now well after that time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask her colleagues in the Cabinet Office to respond and to come with forward with at least a reply and, I hope, legislation, as soon as possible? May I also suggest that such legislation would help to raise public esteem for Parliament once again?
My hon. Friend might take the opportunity to raise that matter directly with Ministers at Cabinet Office Questions on Monday. He will know that questions that touched on the subject of lobbying were the subject of various parts of the draft constitutional renewal Bill, which was scrutinised by a Committee of both Houses.
A debate on defence in the world is always to be welcomed, but may I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the date on which she proposes to hold the next one, which is the date of the local and European elections? That could be perceived as lowering the priority of defence, bearing in mind that in the past week, when both politicians and the media have been over-indulging in navel gazing, four young men have lost their lives in Afghanistan and the lives of their families and friends have been changed for ever. Can we get our priorities right?
Absolutely no disrespect or lack of priority is indicated by our scheduling the defence debate on that day. The subject is one on which there is so much agreement in the House, albeit a keen determination to debate it, that it will not divide the House. If elections are taking place—European elections and council elections are being held on that day—the usual practice is not to put on whipped business or business that will result in a vote. The defence debate is a general debate—such debates are keenly supported by hon. Members—and there are not such divisions that it will end in a vote. That is the explanation, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Lady says.
A delegation of the Chinese National People's Congress is visiting the House this week, and it would be good if the House had the ability to express concern about the fact that, yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested—yet again—and is to be put on show trial, so that the Burmese authorities can detain her for a further period.
That is the substantive point, but will the Leader of the House consider a process point, as well? Could consideration be given to introducing a system whereby, if enough right hon. and hon. Members sign an early-day motion—250 or 300, perhaps—we could vote on it as we do in the deferred votes on Wednesdays, and, by such a mechanism, express the will of the House of Commons? People such as the Chinese Government, the Burmese authorities and others would be able to see that the House of Commons has expressed its will, without our needing to hold a full debate, followed by a resolution. We in this place, unlike those in other legislatures, are rather restricted in how we express our will.
Early-day motions are important for that reason. They allow hon. Members to put their names to motions tabled to show support for a particular position.
We are all concerned about the arrest in Burma. We have always held that the detention is illegal, and that has been confirmed by a UN working group. We cannot speculate on whether the regime were behind the US swimmer incident, but they are clearly exploiting it for their political advantage. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise the matter again at Foreign Office questions next week.
I understand that the Leader of the House has come up with what can only be called a prime ministerial solution to the second home problem. I understand that she has identified a site that is rent-free and very close to Parliament and can accommodate hundreds of MPs. Is it true that, next week, she will issue hon. Members with tents and order them to camp on Parliament square?
The hon. Gentleman knows the answer to that question. Of course we all support the principle that there should be probity and integrity in the system, but we also support a principle for which the Americans have a much better expression than we do—from log cabin to White House. It should not be necessary to be wealthy to become a Member of this House.
A point on which we also all agree and on which the hon. Gentleman's question touches is the importance of the constituency link. That is a uniquely important feature of the House of Commons: not only do we do our business here, but we are linked with our constituents in our individual constituencies. That is the main reason why we have the allowance. We have to sort out the system, but we must respect and support the constituency link in doing so.
The Speaker's Conference is doing exactly that. It has members from both sides of the House and we look forward to its report and recommendations.
May we have a debate on the funding of successful, expanding sixth forms in England, such as the one at Highdown school in my constituency? Many hon. Members have already raised the funding formula cut, which the Government have now put right, but the Learning and Skills Council is still not properly funding successful, expanding sixth forms and this is causing great concern to many parents and students in my constituency.
The hon. Gentleman will know that, despite the massive increased investment in further and higher education, there have been major problems with the LSC, which have affected sixth forms and colleges in all constituencies. We shall continue to increase the budget for apprenticeships, colleges and Train to Gain, but as he rightly points out, there is still some sorting out to do in the Learning and Skills Council. The problems are causing uncertainty and we want to resolve them as quickly as possible.