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The business for the week commencing
The provisional business for the week commencing
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for after the Easter recess. I also thank him for finally providing, in a written ministerial answer earlier this week, what I hope will be the actual date for the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps he can now confirm that Prorogation will be at least a week, or even two weeks, early due to the Government’s chronic lack of business. Could I make the Leader of the House an offer? If he cannot think of anything to do with the acres of spare time the Government have left free, he can always give us more Opposition days.
On the first two days back after the recess, we will have the chance to debate the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail Bill. Will the Leader of the House explain how he plans to schedule the day and a half allocated to the Second Reading and the subsequent motions? Given the fate last night of Michael Fabricant, who was unceremoniously sacked as a Tory vice-chair for opposing HS2 and for his overly honest tweets, is the Leader of the House expecting any more trouble on his own side?
This week, the other place voted to introduce in the Immigration Bill legal guardians for victims of child trafficking. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Government accept this amendment, and when he expects the long awaited modern slavery Bill, which ought to have a bearing on this matter, to have its Second Reading?
I have here a copy of a blatantly party political letter sent out by the Prime Minister to millions of businesses across the UK days before election purdah. It is perfectly possible to keep businesses informed of tax changes cheaply and cost-effectively via a Government website. It is certainly not appropriate for Lynton Crosby’s Tory election soundbite to be posted directly to millions of voters on a No. 10 letterhead signed by the Prime Minister, at the taxpayer’s expense, just ahead of elections. Will Leader of the House tell us how much producing, printing and posting this blatant Tory propaganda has cost the public purse? Why did the permanent secretary at the Treasury, Sir Nicholas Macpherson, tell the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that he had absolutely no knowledge of it? Can we expect the Communities and Local Government Secretary to admonish the Prime Minister for this blatant example of propaganda on the public purse?
The past week has done serious damage to the reputation of this place and demonstrated the Prime Minister’s total lack of judgment. It was clear to everybody but him that Maria Miller, had to go from her post as Culture Secretary. On Friday, he wanted the matter to be left at that 31-second apology; on Monday, he was dismissing rising public anger, saying it was his job to pick the Cabinet; and by yesterday he was claiming it was all the Leader of the Opposition’s fault for not demanding the Culture Secretary’s resignation soon enough. After this fiasco, it is little wonder that the Prime Minister’s judgment is being openly called into question.
The number of women in the Cabinet is now at its lowest since the Tories were last in government. We have a Minister for Women who did not vote for same-sex marriage, and we have a Department for Women and Equalities that does not appear to exist any more. Perhaps they should just come clean and rename it the Department for very low Tory priorities. Will the Leader of the House tell us who now has overall responsibility for the Government Equalities Office? Can he tell us which Department the new Minister for Women will sit in and who she will report to? Will he now tell us which Minister is ultimately accountable to Parliament on these extremely important issues, as the Prime Minister’s official spokesman could not do so yesterday. May we have a debate in the acres of Government time on what has happened to the Prime Minister’s pre-election promise to ensure that one third of all his Ministers would be women? It is no wonder that women just do not trust this Government.
As this will be the last business questions before the recess, may I thank all the staff of the House and Hansard for the work they do and wish them a happy Easter? I wonder if the Leader of the House will ensure that while we are in recess, the House authorities conduct the necessary repairs to the roof in Portcullis House which, like this Government, appears to be well on its way to caving in. I am sure he would not want anyone to think he did not fix the roof while the sun was shining.
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the statement of business, and I am pleased to join her in wishing all the staff of the House a happy and restful short recess over Easter.
I was able to confirm this week the date of the state opening of Parliament. It will be
I cannot announce the date of Prorogation. It will be subject to the progress of business. I am surprised at the hon. Lady’s argument that we are not busy. We are busy. This week we considered the Finance Bill in Committee on the Floor of the House. On Monday, at the request of Members, including three Select Committees of the House, we provided time for a debate on the justice and home affairs opt-out. We concluded two hours early because there were not sufficient Members who wanted to debate it. The Government are happy to make available the time that the House is looking for, but it has been notable on a number of occasions, as I have told the shadow Leader of the House before, that her colleagues will not take the time available to scrutinise the Government. Perhaps they find it embarrassing to come to the House and attempt to criticise the Government, when they know perfectly well that they have no credible alternative. That may just be the way it is.
As it happens, when we return from recess, we have a busy two days, as the shadow Leader of the House correctly—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is disparaging the Wednesday. As I recall, we are considering in Committee the Wales Bill. I am sure that Members from Wales will note that the shadow Leader of the House thinks that consideration of the Wales Bill is not important, but there we are. There will be an opportunity on the Wales Bill to see whether Labour Members will turn up and criticise our proposal for further tax devolution in circumstances where they do not appear to have any policy. They are at sixes and sevens about whether they are in favour or against our plans for further tax devolution in Wales. We shall see.
The shadow Leader of the House rightly asked about the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill. I can confirm that on
In total, we are giving more than a day and a half for Second Reading, and not trying to push through all those issues of process and principles in the course of one day. I heard, as did my colleagues in the usual channels, that Members wanted additional time to debate the Second Reading of the HS2 Bill, and I think that makes a very good outcome.
I am not sure what point the shadow Leader of the House was trying to make about yesterday’s Government appointments, because we are very clear about them. The Equalities Minister and the Minister for Women are supremely qualified to speak on those subjects. They are senior Ministers who will have an opportunity to represent those interests at the Cabinet table. If anything, having two Ministers will strengthen the voice of women and equality issues for the future. The Minister for Women will report to the Prime Minister and the Equalities Minister is also the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. I think that is all very clear.
The shadow Leader of the House mentioned the Standards Committee report, which was published this time last week. Everyone in this House has a collective and individual responsibility. The process is transparent. We have not got across to the public the way in which this House’s expenses system works in this Parliament. There are more than 200 Members who were not in previous Parliaments, but none the less they are having to argue with their constituents about an expenses system to which they were never party. We have to fight a battle in order for the public to understand that we have reformed the expenses system. It is overseen and enforced independently by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. If there is an appeal, it goes not to Members of Parliament, but to a lower-tier tribunal, which is a judicial process. I think that that is what the public have wanted from the expenses system since May 2010 and that it is what they want for the future.
We know that there are legacy cases. Fundamentally, any sanctions under the standards process must come back to this House and we must be accountable for the quality of the enforcement of the Members’ code of conduct. When I responded to an urgent question on Tuesday, the Chair of the Standards Committee made clear that it will announce shortly the terms of reference for an inquiry into the current system that will draw on the report that its lay members published on Tuesday. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we should work with the Committee on a cross-party basis, in whatever way we can, to strengthen the independence of the system of scrutiny of legacy expenses cases, the independent input into any investigation, and the enforcement of the Members’ code of conduct.
We have also committed to introducing a recall Bill, which will provide for constituents to sign a petition in order to force a by-election in cases where a Member has been found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing. I hope we can work together on the issues, to give the public reassurance. I was disappointed that earlier this week the shadow Leader of the House sought to turn the decision of the Standards Committee into a partisan matter. I think that got the tone wrong. We need to work together to restore trust in the political system. That is a responsibility for the whole of this House, and individual political parties should not try to score political points.
Baroness Butler-Sloss’s amendment to the Immigration Bill was passed in the House of Lords and it raises important points. I listened to her speech, and at the end of it she said she wanted the issues to be addressed by the modern slavery Bill. The draft Bill has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny and the Joint Committee has produced a report on it, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to that.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about the vice-chair of the Conservative party and a letter. Those are matters for the Conservative party, and I answer for the coalition Government at this Dispatch Box. I will ask the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend Grant Shapps, to write to the shadow Leader of the House about the issues.
The Leader of the House will know that a number of the Procedure Committee’s fabulous reports are gathering dust at the moment, particularly those relating to programming and private Members’ Bills, while a couple of others are equally as deserving of time in this place. Will he find an occasion in the next few weeks to allow me to introduce those reports for debate on the Floor of the House in this Session?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Procedure Committee, makes a very good point. I assure him that the reports are not gathering dust; as he knows from our conversations, we are actively seeking to take forward his Committee’s recommendations—not least in relation to private Members’ Bills and programming—on the basis of consensus, as we always seek to do in this House. My hon. Friend has highlighted that there is pressure for business that we need to transact before the conclusion of this Session. I hope that I can satisfy him on that matter before the end of this Session.
I, too, have received a letter from No. 10 Downing street this week. What is most alarming is that the information can have come only from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. At the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, the permanent secretary of HMRC acknowledged that it sometimes shares information with other Departments. Will the Leader of the House take more seriously the issue of how No. 10 and the Conservative party can send out letters to people using information from the HMRC database?
Why are the Government so frightened of giving Members of Parliament a decent time to debate the HS2 Bill on Second Reading? Quite frankly, giving us an extra hour, with an extra half day for the other motions on the Order Paper, is all well and good, but may I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to item 35 on the list of remaining orders and notices, which is a motion in my name asking for two full days of debate on HS2? After all, for the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken by a Government and after our constituents have been blighted by it for four years, that is not too much to ask, and not granting it will bring our procedures in this House into disrepute.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend feels that I have not responded positively to the representations that she and our other hon. Friends made at business questions last week. We have, indeed, responded positively. Up to seven and a half hours are available on
A Second Reading debate on a normal sitting day very often takes not the full amount of time, but sometimes—with statements and urgent questions—perhaps five hours or even down to four and a half hours. On this occasion, if we can minimise statements and urgent questions on
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:
“What we are trying to do with the personal independence payment is to introduce it gradually”.—[Hansard, 9 April 2014; Vol. 579, c. 264.]
My constituent Thomas O’Donnell originally made his claim eight months ago. He has only just had an assessment, and he is still not receiving any payment. He has serious epilepsy, and he cannot afford to eat. I have many other constituents who have waited months for an assessment. Please may we have an urgent statement from the Department for Work and Pensions about what it will do to ensure that my constituents and people everywhere get the support that they desperately need?
The hon. Lady is no doubt aware that a written ministerial statement on the independent review of personal independence payment assessment is on the Order Paper to be made today, so she will have the chance to look at that. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, the old system was broken: most claimants were getting indefinite awards without systematic reassessments. It was important to bring in a system that better reflects today’s understanding of disability and targets support to those who need it most. Last month’s National Audit Office report acknowledged that the reform started on time and on budget, and we have reduced risk during its introduction by rolling it out in phases.
As we approach the centenary of the great war, will the Government find time for a debate on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does a wonderful job across the world of looking after the fallen of the first and second world wars? Unfortunately, military personnel who have died in the past 68 years are covered not by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission but by the Ministry of Defence, through which funding is at a much lower level.
My hon. Friend raises an issue that I and colleagues on both sides of the House are keen to discuss. A large amount of impressive work, not least by Members, is going into securing a commemoration of the events 100 years ago, including the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since then, which was celebrated wonderfully in a recent book. I hope we will have an opportunity before the summer recess for a further debate that enables Members on both sides of the House to raise issues relating to that commemoration.
There are serious concerns about air pollution in our cities, notably London, and there is particular concern about the effect of diesel particulates on human health. It is now a matter of urgency to reduce diesel emissions, which could be achieved through a substantial modal shift of freight traffic from road to rail. Such a modal shift cannot happen unless there is major investment in large-gauge rail freight capacity capable of carrying lorries on trains. Will the Leader of the House seek to find Government time for a debate on this important matter?
I cannot immediately promise a debate. The subject might lend itself to an Adjournment debate or a debate through the Backbench Business Committee, as Members on both sides of the House, on a non-party basis, are rightly interested in these issues. HS2 affords a substantial opportunity to increase freight capacity on the railways, which should be part of the debate when we come back. It is not simply about a transfer from road to rail; it is about trying to introduce some of the new technologies that may dramatically reduce the impact of road traffic on air quality.
This is two for the price of one, because I am asking this question with the strong support of my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who cannot be here this morning. Given that women’s rights are currently so much in the minds of the Government and the Opposition, may we have an urgent statement on the continuing scandal of the cancellation of service widows’ pensions when they remarry or cohabit? The cost to the Ministry of Defence of removing this archaic rule would be £250,000—less than that when we take away the cost of policing the rule. This is an anachronism that ought to be removed as soon as possible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence to reply in detail. He will understand that if service personnel die as a direct result of service, their widow still receives their pension, even if the widow were to remarry or cohabit. The treatment of widows where the spouse’s death is not as a result of service is broadly the same as for other public service pension schemes. The armed forces pension scheme 2005, and the new pension scheme to be introduced in 2015, will continue to pay widows a pension irrespective of how their spouse died. There are further detailed points that I know my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Defence will want to convey to him and other Members.
Issues to do with the past in Northern Ireland are matters for this place as they are not devolved. May we have a debate in Government time on issues to do with victims of the troubles in Northern Ireland so that legislation accurately reflects what most people would reasonably regard as what constitutes a victim? This is particularly pertinent given that today the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland announced that Social Democratic and Labour party and Sinn Fein councillors in Newry breached equality rules by naming a children’s play park after an IRA terrorist.
I am not familiar with the issue in Newry, so I will refer it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I will ask her to respond to the right hon. Gentleman in more detail. I entirely understand the responsibility that we have in relation to victims. I hope that she will be able to give him some reassurance on that matter.
My right hon. Friend Mrs Gillan made a very good point. The problem in this House is that we have a dictator who decides the timings, even if it is a benevolent dictator in the form of the Leader of the House. Surely meeting the commitment in the coalition agreement to a House business committee would remove all these concerns. Will the Leader of the House make a statement next week to say that we will have a House business committee very soon?
My hon. Friend will be aware of the evidence that I gave to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee on the difficulties associated with the proposals for a House business committee. In a sense, we are a Committee of the whole House on business. Last week, I received representations about how much time should be available on Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill. As I have explained to the House, the time available is not just a day and a half, but more than a day and a half. It could amount to close to the equivalent of two days’ debate on Second Reading and the other motions.
My right hon. Friend is saying that there is one hour. There will be an additional hour on the Monday for Second Reading and there will be four hours on motions relating to the hybrid Bill on the Tuesday. That is a substantial addition. This has been discussed through the usual channels and we have listened to the voices in this House.
I say gently to the Leader of the House that, in extending the Monday sitting by an hour, I feel sure that he was taking pity on the Chair and did not want the Chair to be occupied beyond 11 o’clock. For my part, I would be quite happy to sit in the Chair until at least 3 or 4 in the morning if it facilitated the contribution of Back-Bench colleagues to the debate. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I mention that point purely in passing, but these are matters for him.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will have heard that there was a slogan after the first world war, which I think came from Lloyd George, that promised “homes fit for heroes”. When we get back to our constituencies, all of us in this House will hear people say time and again over the recess, “When will so many people get the opportunity of a home of their own, whether it is a privately rented home, social housing or a home that is bought with a mortgage?” This is a national crisis. May we have a debate on it as soon as we get back?
That matter came up a number of times in the Budget debate. An important point in that debate was that this Government are putting more and more effective resources into measures such as the Help to Buy scheme and the efforts of housing associations to lend to support additional house building. House building in this country hit a low under the last Government in the wake of the collapse in 2008 and in the midst of the Labour recession. We have built up the number of starts. If the hon. Gentleman would like to take a detour on his way to Huddersfield, he could see houses being built all over South Cambridgeshire.
Will the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport make a statement to the House on the provision of high-speed broadband in very rural areas? I fear that the success of the roll-out in Somerset and Devon will be undone by the failure to reach the last 10% of properties. That is partly because of the requirement for match funding, which is difficult to meet for sparsely populated areas, and partly because of the effect of the over-reliance on BT on areas to which it clearly does not want to or cannot provide a service.
I will raise the matter with the Secretary of State and I think that he will want to take it forward. The former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend Maria Miller, is to be congratulated on the steps that she has taken to bring our broadband programme to where it is, with 10,000 homes a week getting access to broadband and an investment of more than £1 billion in our broadband and mobile infrastructure. It will deliver a lot of additional connectivity.
My hon. Friend is right, as I know from the rural areas in Cambridgeshire. The Connecting Cambridgeshire programme will get us to 98% of homes, but it has required significant local authority funding to establish the contract with BT and attract the additional Government funding. I know that the Secretary of State will want to respond to him about these matters.
May we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s plans to fully privatise search and rescue? That would provide us with the opportunity to discuss moving search and rescue headquarters from the base in my constituency to Caernarfon airport, where according to the Environment Agency it will be built on a floodplain. We need to have such discussions before the Government rush ahead with their plans.
I cannot promise a debate immediately when we return, but I will discuss the matter with the relevant Ministers, particularly the circumstances that the hon. Gentleman raises, so that they might respond to him.
At the end of last month the Education Secretary announced a list of more than 20 children’s institutions to be investigated for links with Savile. That is on top of the growing list of more than 30 NHS institutions being investigated, with no date for the publication of the review, and the reviews of the BBC, the Church and so on. Given the Government’s continued refusal to have an overarching inquiry into historical child abuse, may we at least have a debate on what exactly has been happening and what is being done to restore public confidence in child protection in the United Kingdom?
I know my hon. Friend will understand that we have continued to believe that establishing an overarching inquiry, far from speeding up the process of finding out what happened so that we can ensure that it does not happen again, would delay it. It is important to make progress, because shockingly widespread evidence is emerging of the extent to which Savile obtained access to hospitals, schools and care homes. We need to get to the bottom of it, and I know that Kate Lampard is doing so in the health service. There is more to be done in the case of education, and the BBC is approaching two and a half months late in publishing the Dame Janet Smith inquiry. There is a lot to be done, and I will of course talk to the Ministers concerned about how we can ensure that as much as possible is done as quickly as possible.
Order. May I gently point out to the House that Members are supposed to be present at the start if they wish to participate in business questions? An hon. Member who happened to toddle into the Chamber, let us say, 32 minutes after the start—I mention that figure arbitrarily and in passing—would be indulging in a triumph of optimism over reality if they expected to be called.
As we approach the wedding season, many British citizens who have extended family abroad will become increasingly concerned about visa arrangements to ensure that their relatives, particularly from India and Pakistan, can be here to participate. Will the Leader of the House speak to both the Foreign Office and the Home Office to ensure that the consular arrangements are in place and that there is good staffing of entry clearance officers to cope with the influx of visa applications for that purpose?
As this is export week, will the Leader of the House grant time to discuss the value of local export drives such as the one that I am organising in Tamworth with UK Trade & Investment, and the help that local retail banks can provide in sponsoring and promoting those events? We often hear about the less attractive side of banking, but retail banks can help small businesses to export, and a debate would help to even up the balance.
My hon. Friend is quite right, and I pay tribute to UKTI, which, with the Government’s active support—not least that of our excellent trade Ministers—has dramatically improved the level of support available to small and medium-sized businesses in particular. I know that the Government are pushing hard for many medium-sized businesses to be given one-to-one tailored support that enables them to be active exporters. I hope we can achieve more of that, and I pay tribute to what my hon. Friend is doing with his colleagues in Tamworth to help to make that happen.
After four years of a Government who promised reform, we still have an election system that cheats all but the two main parties. We have peerages that can be bought by political donations, lobbyists who are free to buy favours and influence, and one civil servant who negotiated a £5 billion reduction in Deloitte’s tax bill retired months later and took a job with that company. Can we have a debate on whether the epitaph for this sorry Government should be, “They multiplied and allowed corruption to flourish”?
I think the hon. Gentleman is wrong in several respects. In particular, it is not possible to buy peerages, and the House of Lords Appointments Commission is clear about its responsibility to make sure that that does not happen. Additionally, the hon. Gentleman should recognise that the coalition Government had a coalition programme that included giving the public the opportunity to make a decision on changes to the electoral system, and the public—the people whom we represent—chose not to do so.
Sometimes my motives are misconstrued, but I always strive to be helpful, and I would like to help the Leader of the House. He has been very generous in allowing an extra 60 minutes for the HS2 debate, but if he were happy to test our stamina by lifting the 10 o’clock rule and having the vote the following day, those Members who did not want to stay until the early hours for a vote could come back then, while those of us who really want to push the case for or against HS2 would have ample opportunity to do so. That may be a way forward.
I am always grateful to my right hon. Friend, not least when he is being helpful. The additional hour—if we are able to avoid urgent questions or statements—would give us substantial time for debate on that Monday. As a matter of principle, and especially on important matters, we should try to avoid separating the vote on an issue from the debate on it. It is also important for the House, notwithstanding your generosity, Mr Speaker, to try to achieve the conclusion of a debate and the vote at a time when our constituents might reasonably expect to be watching it.
The point is made: as long as right hon. and hon. Members are standing to speak in that debate, I shall be in my Chair.
We now have a women’s Minister who could not also have the equalities brief because she voted against gay marriage, and an equalities Minister who said that there were no women members of the Monetary Policy Committee because it was appointed on merit. May we have the novel innovation of a joint statement by the women’s Minister and the equalities Minister so that we can find out whether they are singing from the same song sheet?
May we have an urgent statement on internet security? Several experts have called for everyone to change their internet passwords because of a virus that has infected many websites. Indeed, earlier today I tried to change my password to “Labour’s economic policy”, but it was judged to be too weak.
My hon. Friend makes both a good comment and a good joke. I saw the press reports and we still have more to do to understand and combat the risks to security on the internet. I note that police forces need constantly to think about how they can acquire the expertise themselves. He makes a very important point.
Could provision be made for a debate on the performance of category B railway stations? Luton railway station is in desperate need of refurbishment and investment. It has actually gone backwards, not forwards, because of the Thameslink programme in terms of disability compliance.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have the largest investment programme in the railways since the Victorian era. Network Rail is investing £38 billion, which includes a substantial upgrade to many of its railway stations. If I may, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport, in consultation with Network Rail, to reply on the specific points relating to Luton.
Despite the considerable financial difficulty the Government inherited, we have none the less been able to prioritise capital infrastructure projects that will deliver our potential for growth. As my hon. Friend will know, towards the end of this year the Chancellor will publish the long-term capital plan. I will direct his points on those particular projects to my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport and the Treasury.
The Service Complaints Commissioner’s report for 2013 reveals that complaints about bullying, harassment and discrimination account for 43% of Army allegations, and that bullying was up by a third. Complaints are made disproportionately by female and ethnic minority personnel. Equality and diversity training in the Army consists of an initial two-hour training course and a half-hour refresher every year. May we have a debate on the report and on how to tackle an embedded culture of bullying, harassment and discrimination that is blighting the lives of many in our armed forces?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. I saw the Service Complaints Commissioner’s report. It is important that we further strengthen the role of the commissioner and raise awareness of all the issues to which she refers. I will, if I may, ask my hon. Friends at the Ministry of Defence to respond, but I assure her that I know, from my conversations with colleagues, that these issues are taken very seriously.
May we have a debate on the use of public money in murder cases, so that the House can consider whether it is appropriate for legal aid to be spent on paying for an appeal by one of the murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby? The public are rightly outraged by this and believe the money would be better spent on providing a fitting memorial for Fusilier Rigby.
My hon. Friend makes his own point. What happened in Woolwich last year was a sickening and barbaric attack. Our thoughts remain with the family of the victim and with the community. They are grieving for someone they love. They have lost a brave soldier. On legal aid, my hon. Friend will know that legal aid is available for all criminal cases in the Court of Appeal. However, a judge has to grant leave to appeal and the court can also grant legal aid.
Momentous changes are taking place in the housing market: the private rented sector has grown enormously and has now overtaken the social sector; owner occupation is in decline; and supply is not matching demand. I challenge the figures the Leader of the House gave to my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman on this matter. Homelessness is on the increase. May we have a debate in Government time on this important subject? It is critical to my constituents and to constituents in every area of the country.
It was under the last Government that the number of social houses fell by 400,000. It is this Government who are investing and planning to build 180,000 additional affordable homes, and housing waiting lists are currently falling. Those are important steps. However, we need to build more houses, and, in doing so, recognise the need for a vibrant private rented sector and a strong social housing sector, as well as the support for owner occupation that we are providing through the Help to Buy scheme.
May I encourage the Leader of the House to call the bluff of the shadow Leader of the House and accept her application for more Opposition day debates? Indeed, may I encourage him to allow the Opposition a whole week of parliamentary time? Opposition day debates are badly argued and poorly attended, and demonstrate very bad preparation. If we had a whole week of them, the incoherence and inadequacy of the Opposition’s alternative programme for government would be plain for the world to see.
My hon. Friend tempts me, but there is a lot of business for us to accommodate before the end of the Session. In any case, I think that what he has said is not only true, but was amply demonstrated during the Budget debate.
Following the question from my hon. Friend Mr Love, may I ask the Leader of the House to answer another question? According to Generation Rent, which represents the interests of private tenants throughout the country, half those tenants believe that they are paying too high a rent, and two thirds of them believe that they are insecure in their assured shorthold six-month tenancies. Does the Leader of the House not think that it is time for the Government once again to review their whole policy on the private rented sector, given the excessive charges and rents and the deep insecurity that many private tenants feel? Can he not ensure that we bring some justice to the people—nearly 4 million in England alone—who are living in the private rented sector?
The hon. Gentleman made the same point, rather more briefly, to the Prime Minister, and I agree with what the Prime Minister said. We cannot start trying to distort the market or control rents, because that would destroy the private rented sector. The availability of private rented accommodation creates diversity in the housing market, and enables people to be more flexible in relation to housing supply. That is very important, not least because—as our country’s economy, unlike many other European economies, has demonstrated —housing markets can help to provide flexible labour markets.
When I opened the Harrogate beer festival last week—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Yes, it was an arduous task. When I opened the festival, I was told by local brewers Eric Lucas of Daleside and Simon Theakston of Theakston that the recent beer duty cuts had galvanised the industry into increased confidence. One of the effects of that has been the stimulation of export activity, and both companies are reporting very encouraging trends. However, the overall picture in this country is of a big food and drink deficit. Please may we have a debate about food and drink exports, and about how we can help this important sector to grow?
I am delighted to hear about the optimism among brewers in Yorkshire. My hon. Friend has also made a good point about the food and drink sector, which has reported export sales of £19.4 billion in 2013. That is a very big contribution to our economy and our exports. I cannot promise a debate about the sector immediately, but it would be good to have such a debate, because I think that this country has a great deal to offer the world through its food and drink exports.
I am sure the Leader of the House will be concerned to learn that the insurance premium of a small business that was flooded during the December tidal surge in Hull has been increased from £1,100 to £6,500, as a result of which it is unlikely to remain viable. May we have a debate about why the Government chose not to include small businesses in the coalition’s Flood Re scheme, and about what other support can be given to small businesses that may flood in the future?
The hon. Lady will know that in the debates on the Water Bill we were very clear that if we were to include businesses in the Flood Re scheme, the nature of the scheme would mean that the cost of that subsidy would have to be met out of other insurance premiums, and that would have taken the insurance premiums for everyone else on domestic premiums above the £10. We have set out the reason why we are not doing that, therefore, but, as it happens, we will, I hope, have an opportunity soon to consider the Lords amendments to the Water Bill. That might give the hon. Lady an opportunity to debate this issue.
The Football Association has launched its inclusion advisory board which is working to encourage more involvement in football by women and the minorities community. May we have a debate on that, and on what other sports are doing to address this? By way of a declaration, I should mention that I am a parliamentary fellow with the Football Association and prior to that with Sport England.
I have noticed that Members often ask for debates on matters relating to football and I agree with my hon. Friend that that is another important and interesting issue that would merit debate. We had a debate recently about participation in non-league football, but I think there is an as yet unmet need for debate about the governance of football and many other issues relating to football.
What the Prime Minister set out is that the Labour party before the last election was very clear about its commitment to bringing private capital into the Royal Mail. If we were going to deliver a successful Royal Mail, it was absolutely essential that its investment programme should be funded by private capital, and what we have achieved has done that—and the Labour party, after years of failing to do that while recognising it was essential, should just recognise that fact.
I welcome the £200 million announced by the Chancellor in the Budget for pothole repairs, but is my right hon. Friend aware that on the 125 miles of road in Harlow the number of defects has increased? There were 632 individual potholes in the first quarter of 2014 in Harlow alone. May we have a statement regarding any extra support being provided to local authorities to tackle potholes on our roads and to make the lives of Harlow motorists easier?
I did not know the precise number, but I am not surprised. I think many Members will know, as my hon. Friend does, how difficult the consequences have been of the very unusual—exceptional—weather we experienced this winter, and, indeed, the previous winter, both of which have had a substantial impact on the quality of our roads. That is one of the reasons why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided the additional £200 million to address the problem of potholes, £168 million of that being made available to councils in England. I would just remind my hon. Friend and the House that that is additional to the over £1 billion provided to local authorities this year for tackling highways maintenance. Of course local authorities must decide their priorities, but much of that money will go towards repairing the quality of these roads.
The Department of Health confirmed this week that in Halton the ratio of patients to GPs is much higher than the English national average. May I ask the Leader of the House to arrange for a debate so the Department of Health can tell us what it is doing to increase the number of GPs in disadvantaged areas such as Halton?
I cannot promise a debate immediately, but I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health to contact NHS England about that. One of its responsibilities is to commission those primary care services, and it has a statutory requirement to try to secure equal access to services, so equal access to general practice is one of the central objectives it has to meet.
Last January the Government committed to legislate to introduce a statutory code of practice for the large pub companies. The following consultation showed that 67% of those responding want the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee’s market rent-only option, which is also backed by the majority of MPs in this House. Considering that there has been something of a lack of Government business, it seems very strange that we have had no announcement. Will the Leader of the House tell the House what is stopping the announcement of this legislation coming forward and who is stopping that happening?
I must take issue with my hon. Friend on one point: there is no lack of Government business. We have three carry-over Bills that have just completed their Committee stage, for example. We have not yet been able to schedule an opportunity for them to come back to the Floor of the House. We have also had consideration on the Floor of the House of the Wales Bill and the Finance Bill, and the Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill has now been scheduled. A substantial amount of business is still being dealt with in this Session. In response to my hon. Friend’s question, we have had a consultation and we are considering the results. It will not surprise him to learn that I am not in any position to pre-empt the contents of the Queen’s Speech, in which the issues relating to future legislation will be clarified.
The first industrial city, Manchester, is proud of its trade links right across the world. They were established in the 19th century by the ship canal and are being continued by Manchester airport. Today, Manchester Airport Group announced the first direct flights for 16 years to south-east Asia, with Cathay Pacific flights to Hong Kong. Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the all-party support for this development, which has come from the chamber of commerce, the combined authority, the local enterprise partnership, the Manchester-China forum and my predecessor, Paul Goggins, who fought hard for it. Will the Leader of the House also talk to the Secretary of State for Transport about arranging for some time in the House to make this announcement?
I am delighted to have this opportunity to join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating that new route and acknowledging all those who contributed to making it happen. I remember my own experience of working with the Manchester chamber of commerce, when I was with the British Chambers of Commerce, and I know what a remarkable institution it has been for bringing people together, from the 19th century right up to the 21st century, and for looking outwards. That is what we need to do: we need more exports, and we need to win in the global race. We have the businesses, the capabilities, the innovation and the skills, not least in a great city such as Manchester, and this is an opportunity for Manchester to go out there and sell.
Will the Leader of the House agree to a statement on the decline of overseas student numbers, on how that is affecting the local economy, and on how Parliament and the Government can increase our educational exports?
That is an interesting issue, but I cannot promise an immediate debate. It is important to look at the statistics, which have shown variable results. Many universities in this country have successfully expanded their overseas student numbers in recent years, for example. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Minister for Universities and Science have made it clear that there is no bar on universities taking students from overseas for legitimate courses. We have clamped down on abuse, but there is no limit on the number of students they can take. Indeed, the numbers coming from many countries have grown. There is clearly a problem in relation to India and Pakistan, however, which is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary went there recently to make it clear that there is no limit on those countries’ students coming to our universities for their higher education.