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Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:05 pm on 20th January 2011.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 12:05 pm, 20th January 2011

I thank the Leader of the House for that statement. Given what we have just heard from the Minister for Immigration, will the Leader of the House please consider bringing forward the Home Secretary's statement to Monday, as has been suggested on both sides of the House.

The Second Reading of the Health and Social Care Bill really cannot come soon enough, because it has not been a very good week for the Government's NHS reforms, has it? On Monday, the Prime Minister was completely unable to explain why spending billions of pounds on turning everything upside down will actually help patients, especially when, as John Humphrys helpfully pointed out, we have seen big improvements over the past 13 years. On Tuesday, the Health Committee called the changes "disruptive", stating that they were creating "widespread uncertainty" and had taken the NHS by surprise. Could that be because the Prime Minister assured people before the election, when he was going around the country making promises as opposed to breaking them, that there would be no top-down reorganisation?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister could not answer a very simple question from the Leader of the Opposition. Three times he was asked to confirm that waiting times for NHS patients would not rise as a result of what he is doing, and three times he failed to do so. This is very strange. If all the upheaval really is about a better deal for patients, why can the Prime Minister not make that simple promise? Is not the truth that he just knows he cannot do so, because the Health Secretary took his colleagues by surprise with his plans, and the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, Mr Letwin, has to be brought in because No. 10 got the jitters. It is the same old story: the Tories in charge of the NHS spells trouble. Is that why the Education Secretary yesterday told people from the Dispatch Box to vote Liberal Democrat?

Moving on to another broken promise-namely, that those with the broadest shoulders would bear the greatest burden-may we have a debate on the plan to take the mobility component of disability living allowance away from people living in care homes? When the Prime Minister was asked about this last week, he said that

"there should be a similar approach for people who are in hospital and for people who are in residential care homes."-[ Hansard, 12 January 2011; Vol. 521, c. 282.]

That reply shows exactly why the Prime Minister does not get it. The right comparison for people in care homes is not with those who are in hospital, who do not plan to live there, but with those living in their own homes, and they will continue to get help with their mobility. The Government will have to change their mind on that issue, just as they had to on school sport and are in the process of doing on prisoners voting. It is wrong, it is unfair and it hits those whose shoulders cannot be described as the broadest, and, when those people find out that their current support, which enables them to go to the shops, to church, or to see friends and family, is being taken by the Prime Minister, there will be outrage.

Talking of which, may we also have a debate on the plans to sell off the nation's much loved woodlands and forests? The last time the Tories were in office, that is exactly what they did, and they are at it again-only this time with Liberal Democrat support. Now, that is very strange, too, because visitors to the Scottish Lib Dem website can find a page opposing the sale of forests. There is a photo on it of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, looking very stern and holding a placard that says "Save our Forests".

In case Members are somewhat puzzled, it seems that the Chief Secretary is passionately opposed to selling off forests in Scotland but wholly in favour of the sale of forests in England. If there is one thing that is even worse than breaking one's promise, it is saying one thing in one place and the exact opposite in another-but as all of us know, the Lib Dems are world-class at that. I know that the Leader of the House will agree to my request for a debate, because he supports the procedure whereby petitions with more than 100,000 signatures trigger a debate in Parliament. So if I tell him that the petition opposing the sale of our forests has 160,000 names on it, and it does, can he tell us on what date that debate will take place?

Topical questions have been very effective in helping to hold Ministers to account. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should extend them to those Departments that still do not have them?

Finally, on 8 March we will celebrate the centenary of international women's day. As the Leader of the House will be aware, for a number of years there has been a debate in the House on that day, so will he join me in encouraging the Backbench Business Committee to mark that special occasion?