Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 11:37 am on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons 11:37 am, 19th March 2015

With permission, I should like to make a statement on next week’s business:

Monday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate. I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.

Tuesday 24 March—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, followed by a motion relating to section 5 of the European Communities Amendment Act 1993, followed by a motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 25 March—All stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 26 March—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by an opportunity for Members to make short valedictory speeches as recommended by the Backbench Business Committee. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received. All consideration of Lords amendments announced for next week will be subject to the progress of business. The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all Acts.

This is the last weekly business statement of this Parliament. Although I will be seeking to catch your eye on several occasions next week, Mr Speaker, now seems an opportune moment to thank the shadow Leader of the House for her good humour, her support for reform of the House and her commitment to the interests of the House. We worked together on many bodies, such as the House of Commons Commission, and she has always been a constructive colleague. I have enjoyed working with her.

I would also like to thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for his dedication and companionship, particularly on Thursday mornings. I praise his industry, because since becoming Deputy Leader of the House in September 2012, he has clocked up more than 114 legislative hours dealing with six different Bills. I wish him well. I thank other colleagues for their assistance and often their patience, particularly those who have regularly attended business questions and given close attention to our proceedings.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 11:39 am, 19th March 2015

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the final days of this Parliament, and, of course, for his extremely gracious and entirely typical thanks and tributes not only to me, but to all Members. I am sure that next week, during the “valedictory addresses”, we shall have an opportunity to repeat some of the graciousness.

I must say, however, that despite the heroic efforts of the Leader of the House since he took the reins, this is a Parliament that will be remembered for being so devoid of business in its second half that “zombie Government” has entered the political lexicon, and so badly managed that it has lost two MPs to UKIP, seven Cabinet Ministers, and no fewer than 103 votes in the House of Lords. No wonder the Tory Chief Whip cannot even organise his way out of a toilet.

Yesterday, we heard a Budget that people will not believe from a Government whom they do not trust. No amount of rhetoric can mask the Chancellor’s failure. He told us that the deficit was the most important thing, and promised to eliminate it by the end of this Parliament. He has failed. He claimed that we were “all in this together”, but he has given us tax cuts for millionaires and a bedroom tax for the most vulnerable. We have had tax breaks for hedge funds from a party that is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the tax avoiders, and, for the first time since the 1920s, working people are worse off at the end of a Parliament than they were at the beginning.

What did the Chancellor offer when he told us to choose the future? Extreme and dangerous cuts, the deepest for 50 years, which the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has described as a “rollercoaster”. It is no wonder that the Chancellor mentioned Agincourt more than he mentioned the NHS. It has been calculated overnight that he spent £80 million on bad jokes in his Budget speech. I can give you this promise, Mr Speaker: my jokes will always be cheaper than that.

It is no surprise that this week one Tory MP has been caught desperately trying to hide his true identity. He has come up with a cunning disguise, and has taken on a whole new persona. I am not talking about Michael Green. This week, Gavin Barwell contacted constituents, begging them to endorse him to their families and friends. So confident is he about the Government’s stunning record that he said:

“it'll be much more effective if it doesn’t mention the Conservative Party” or the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the Tory party chair, after years of denial and threatening to sue one of his own constituents, has finally admitted that he did, after all, have a second job while serving as a Member of Parliament. He created a brand-new alternative to “economical with the truth” when he apologised for “over-firmly” denying the facts. After five years, there we have it: the Liberal Democrats misadvise themselves, and the Tories over-firmly deny.

As this is the last session of business questions during the current Parliament, I thought it would be remiss of me not to take a few moments to poke fun at the Liberal Democrats, but, given what we have just heard from the Chief Secretary, I think that they have done it all by themselves. The Chancellor’s apprentice, the mini-me of the Treasury, came to the House to deliver his very own faux-Budget statement—and what did he say? That today he disagrees with everything that he signed up to yesterday. Apparently, he is so determined to feel important that he had his very own yellow Budget box constructed, and—absurdly—posed with it at the weekend. However, I hear that he has already taken it to a Liberal Democrat fundraiser and sold it off to the highest bidder, much like his principles. I understand that he got fifteen hundred quid for it.

Meanwhile, the former president and aspiring next leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron, tried to boost morale at the party’s spring conference by saying that he thought they might lose half their seats, and that they deserved a mark of just two out of 10 for their time in government. I think that that is a bit generous.

Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who is retiring from this place in just a few days’ time after 26 years of service. He has gone from blond bombshell to slick statesman. He commands respect across the House. Over his career he has befriended celebrities, he has written books, he has travelled the world, he has led his party, and he has been a hard-working and effective Leader of the House who I have enjoyed working with. Now that’s not bad for someone who was once rejected for a job as a special adviser by Margaret Thatcher, who wrote on his application form, “No, no, no.”

I know the right hon. Gentleman is off to a new house in Wales, which I gather has 10 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, and I am not sure how many kitchens—perhaps he will tell us. All I can say is that he is lucky a Labour Government will repeal the bedroom tax, although he may be less happy about our plans for a mansion tax.

Yesterday the Chancellor laughably claimed that this Government were helping the north, but what he does not realise is that he is about to lose the only northern powerhouse the Tories have ever had.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s touching remarks. As last week, I will not join her in making fun of the Liberal Democrats; I pointed out that I am going to wait a little while for that. I have spent a lifetime making fun of the Liberal Democrats, but I have had a five-year interregnum, and I am looking forward to it coming to an end. Since I will be released from this place anyway, I will be able to join in, but they are deeply valued colleagues—for another few days anyway—and I very much meant the tribute I paid to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House.

The hon. Lady asked about various matters including referring again—we have debated this before—to the Chief Whip and his experiences in toilets. I have explained that it is an essential part of the duties of a Chief Whip to know who is lurking in there at any one time.

I want to take the hon. Lady up on what she said about this Session of Parliament, because I believe when we come to the end of it next week a great deal will have been achieved: the Infrastructure Act that provides a nearly £4 billion boost to the economy; the small business Bill that will help businesses get credit from banks and ensure they can expand; the Pension Schemes Act that gives people freedom and security in retirement; the Criminal Justice and Courts Act that allows us to properly punish serious offenders; the Modern Slavery Bill, which will be a landmark piece of legislation; and the Childcare Payments Act that helps more parents with the cost of child care. These are all from this Session of Parliament. That is not a zombie Session of Parliament; that is real, constructive legislation that is of immense assistance to many people in this country.

I have all the great respect for the hon. Lady that I spoke of earlier, but I think she may have written part of her remarks before the Budget, because she said people would be worse off at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning of it, but as we now know from the Office for Budget Responsibility one of the achievements of this coalition—Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—will be that on average households will be £900 better off in 2015 than they were in 2010. So the script will have to be changed, albeit at the very end of the Parliament.

Talking of the northern powerhouse, I am very proud that, as the Chancellor pointed out yesterday, more jobs are being created in Yorkshire than in the whole of France. That is not remotely a surprise to those of us from Yorkshire, but it is part of the achievement of this Government that employment is at its highest rate since records began, and that 1,000 more jobs have been created every day under this Government. One particularly striking aspect of yesterday’s figures is that the rise in youth employment in the last year has been higher than in the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. It is very rare for a Government at the end of a Parliament to be able to say that—very rare indeed—and the Opposition, who voted for the charter for budget responsibility but are now unwilling to maintain any spending discipline, have to explain where the tax rises are going to come from in their programme. There will be a great deal of suspicion that there will be large hidden tax rises from a Leader of the Opposition who has that large hidden kitchen he did not want to speak about.

Such issues will be debated in the Budget debate, continuing until Monday, and in the general election campaign. We will do everything we can in the meantime to bring the business of the House next week to an orderly conclusion.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

My right hon. Friend and I were both born on 26 March but a decade apart. I wish him well, but I do think he is retiring at too young an age.

Will my right hon. Friend please find time for a debate on the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013? My constituents Nick and Jane Winfield feel that all manner of people are collecting and selling scrap metal without a licence, and that something needs to be done to ensure that the law is being enforced.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

This is a very important issue that has affected rail services, and war memorials have been desecrated and church roofs damaged. We have taken action, as my hon. Friend knows, and there is indeed the 2013 Act. The licensing scheme is administered by local councils, and we fully expect them to take action where scrap metal dealers are found to be unlicensed or are failing to comply with the Act. I hope that is of some reassurance to my hon. Friend. I do not think it will be possible to add a debate about that issue into the remaining few days of this Parliament.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

I have known the right hon. Gentleman for a long time, and on Yorkshire issues we have got on very well indeed. I shall certainly miss the double act, which is one of the best I have seen in business questions over the years.

We have had the Budget and we are debating it, but I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give even more attention in the remaining few days to the reality out there:

museums, libraries and art centres are closing, as are hospitals—we are in a dreadful state. Is there an opportunity in the coming week to reconnect with the people out there, because they are not connecting with the Budget we heard yesterday?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

It is sad that the double act is coming to an end—although my jokes might be more expensive than those of the shadow Leader of the House.

I point out to the hon. Gentleman that part of the Budget debate can of course be about the matters he has raised. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will open tomorrow’s Budget debate, for instance, so the hon. Gentleman will have a further opportunity to raise those matters. He talks about the reality out there. The reality is that there are more people in work than ever before, and that we have the fastest growing of all the major industrialised economies. That, of course, allows us to have strong public services in the future, and without a strong, growing economy, we cannot have the public services the hon. Gentleman is talking about.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

May we have a debate on election conduct? As the Labour party clearly has nothing positive to offer, I fear that this will be the dirtiest election campaign on record. My right hon. Friend may be aware of some of the disgusting smears and lies that have been put out about our hon. Friend Priti Patel by the Labour candidate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is perfectly reasonable for political parties to point out the threats, as they perceive them, posed by the other parties being elected to government, personal smears, attacks and abuse of individual constituency candidates is not acceptable and brings politics into disrepute? Perhaps a debate next week in advance of the forthcoming general election would allow all the political parties to maintain that they will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I cannot offer a debate, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we believe in vigorous political debate in our elections, but I have seen comments made about my hon. Friend the Member for Witham that are offensive, malicious and often false, and which will be particularly offensive to women and to people of Asian origin. It is time the Labour party took that in hand in Witham.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I join others in paying tribute to the Leader of the House. He has clearly been one of the most outstanding parliamentarians, certainly in my time in the House. I played a small part in his career when I gave him his first job, as secretary of the all-party footwear and leather industries group, and look how well he has done! Next Thursday will be a very important day in the history of Leicester when the interment of Richard III takes place. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a ticket for the occasion, I can try to arrange one for him. May we have an urgent look at the criteria for boroughs and cities being permitted to use the title “royal”? Leicester must surely be entitled to use it—as Kensington and Chelsea, and Greenwich, have done—and to become a royal city, given our new connection with royalty.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The role I played as secretary of the all-party footwear and leather industries group was so crucial that I have completely forgotten it, actually. But it played a very important part in my career in the House a quarter of a century ago—

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

It was indeed a footnote to my career. I thank my hon. Friend for that.

There are periodic opportunities and competitions for towns to compete for city status and for cities to request an increase in their status. I do not think that that will be able to happen in the coming week, however. Leicester will have many important claims for advancing its status but I do not think that the connection with Richard III would be decisive, given that he lost the battle of Bosworth and that the royal line that flowed from him was rather weakened as a result.

Photo of Greg Mulholland Greg Mulholland Liberal Democrat, Leeds North West

Will the Leader of the House welcome the new manifesto for change which calls for justice for the victims of criminal driving? This is a hugely important issue, and a number of changes need to be made in order to bring justice to many people. I should like to thank the many people who have contributed to the process. May we have a debate on this new manifesto, which is backed by Brake and other organisations as well as by a number of MPs from both sides of the House, so that Parliament can discuss how we can get the changes that we need?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I welcome the continuing debate on this matter and on the many concerns that have been raised. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has increased the maximum penalty for causing death while disqualified from two to 10 years, and created the new offence of causing serious injury while disqualified, which carries a maximum penalty of four years. That does not mean, however, that all the concerns have been dealt with. This is a welcome campaign and manifesto, and I will certainly ensure that ministerial colleagues are made aware of my hon. Friend’s work, alongside the Government review. Although there is not time to debate the matter further in this Parliament, I am sure that it is an issue that the next Parliament will want to return to.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Limehouse

I should like to associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the right hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend Ms Eagle, his shadow. I do not expect the Government to comment on the outcome of elections in other countries, but will there be a statement on Premier Netanyahu’s announcement that he will not support a two-state solution? Might the Prime Minister refer to it at the European Council and then comment on it in the House next week? The two-state solution has been the policy of the UK, the US and the EU for some time, and the statement by the Israeli premier must have disappointed the Government as much as it has disappointed so many people in this country.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

Support for the two-state solution is a very important part of our policy on the middle east peace process, and it is common across the House of

Commons. I did a good deal of work on this as Foreign Secretary, although the greatest amount of work has been done in recent times by Secretary John Kerry and I salute all the work that he has put into the process. I have often said in the House that time was running out for a two-state solution and, sadly, that remains the case. The best opportunity to ask Ministers about this will be when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gives a statement to the House next Monday or at Prime Minister’s questions next week, when this would be a perfectly normal thing to ask him about.

Photo of Julian Smith Julian Smith Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

The Leader of the House is not only one of the finest Foreign Secretaries and parliamentarians that Britain has ever had but a much-loved and respected local North Yorkshire MP. May we have a debate about North Yorkshire, its people, its businesses, its beauty and its beer?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

Everybody is being very kind, but none of this will persuade me to stay. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for all his support and co-operation on North Yorkshire issues. There would be a great deal to say in a debate on North Yorkshire, including about the beer. I understand that a beer has been launched in my honour called Smooth Hague and I have already tasted it. We could debate all those things, and I hope, if I manage to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, at the end of the valedictory debate next week, to say a few sentences about the great people of North Yorkshire and what a privilege it has been to represent them over the past 26 years.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

I first met the Leader of the House when I was 18 and I went to his 21st birthday party, which I remember was subtitled “wine, women and song”, so it is with mixed emotions that I congratulate him on leaving the House. We will miss him, but we are all looking forward to some wonderful new books, as he is a very fine writer. He says that he will keep up his campaign against the use of sexual violence in war and we all praise him for that, but who knows, perhaps he will appear down the corridor in a few weeks’ time in another guise.

May I ask him about the use of LIBOR fines announced yesterday? I gather that more announcements are coming today. Of course we support the Government’s announcements on how they are being given out, but it feels a bit like pork barrelling at the moment, as Treasury Ministers, without any formal process, have just been doling out cash to organisations that have not even asked for it. Would it not be better to go through the Arts Council or the Heritage Lottery Fund?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known since he was 18, when he was a Conservative—[Interruption.] I hate to break the news to the Opposition, but he was a member of the Oxford university Conservative association, albeit in favour of PR

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

No, the hon. Gentleman was in favour of PR, which made him rather a suspicious character in the eyes of the rest of us.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I had already given up my support for proportional representation at that point, but yes, I have known Chris Bryant for a very long time and I am grateful for his remarks. He mentions my work on preventing sexual violence, which I will continue outside this House, but that is another illustration of the use of LIBOR money. Last month, I was able to announce £1 million of that money going to the London School of Economics to create a centre for women, peace and security. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just joined us, and I do not think that it is fair to say that that is pork barrel use of money. That is an example of how well used the LIBOR funds are. They are, of course, available only on a temporary basis, so setting up a whole structure to disburse them is probably not the way forward, but I will be able to pass on to the Chancellor what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee

I join colleagues in paying tribute to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for the work they have done, on the House of Commons Commission in particular. Much has been achieved together and it has been great working as part of that team.

Will it be possible to have a debate on the provision of communication infrastructure by BT? It has been suggested recently that that should be hived off from the company. In the highlands of Scotland, in my constituency, I have received 45 complaints, such as that from John Sinclair of Caithness Creels, who has been waiting for more than three weeks to get broadband. The residents of Lothmore have been waiting for up to six weeks to be reconnected. There is a clear shortage of engineers and BT seems to regard that as perfectly acceptable. I wrote two weeks ago to the chairman, Sir Michael Rake, pointing out the potential reputational damage to BT; I never received an answer from him. The high-level complaints team has however told me that it will look at the issue, but that it might take some time. That is not acceptable from the provider of a national infrastructure and I believe we should be concerned about that.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to the tremendous work he does for this House, which I have seen at close quarters. We have been able to work together very well in the House of Commons Commission, so I thank him very much for that. He raises an important issue. The Government of course have a very strong record on the development of superfast broadband around the United Kingdom, particularly in rural areas, but he is right about the difficulty in some of the remotest areas. I see that in North Yorkshire, and he highlights the difficulties in the extremely remote areas that he represents. Although there is not time for a debate, I think he has succeeded in raising the matter on the Floor of the House, and I hope that BT will take that very seriously and attend quickly to the matters affecting his constituents.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

The Leader of the House will be remembered in Wales as one of the most agreeable alien governor-generals we have had, in a period when he had the great good fortune to meet the wonderful Welsh woman who was to become his wife. Can he add further lustre to his reputation today by looking at a profoundly anti-democratic measure that was blocked by several voices last night? It would remove from the local authorities their powers to control drilling and the dumping of toxic waste, including nuclear waste, in their country. Would it not be an affront to democracy if that measure passed through the House on a deferred decision by a thinly attended House? Should the measure not now be withdrawn, for consideration by the next Parliament?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful for the nearest thing to a ringing endorsement from the hon. Gentleman. I have fond memories of being Welsh Secretary. The Prime Minister who appointed me to that role, Sir John Major, asked me to take Wales to my heart. When, a year later, I married my private secretary, he said, “I think you are taking this a little bit too literally now.” Of course I have been deeply fond of Wales ever since.

On the measure the hon. Gentleman refers to, we must follow the procedures with all matters before the House, including the large number of orders in the remaining few days of the Parliament, so I cannot offer him an additional debate, but he will be able, as ever, to use every possible procedure of this House—he is very skilled at that—to make his views known. I am sure he will continue to do so on that matter.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

My first question in this House resulted in £2 million being awarded to Jewish schools in my area to enforce their security. Yesterday, I was pleased to present the petition signed by more than 2,000 people seeking that sum again to be renewed. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to confirm the Prime Minister’s announcement last night that not only has that money been extended and increased, but that it will now also cover independent schools, synagogues and Jewish cultural centres such as the JW3 centre on Finchley road?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

The Jewish community is a vital part of British life. Although we meet additional security costs at state-funded Jewish schools, we recognise that a wide range of independent establishments face the same risks, as my hon. Friend has said. We are therefore widening eligibility for the grant to cover those schools and colleges, so that their pupils and students can have the same degree of security as those attending state schools. The new package announced by the Prime Minister is in addition to the existing Department for Education grant, which will also continue in the next financial year. So we remain staunchly committed to tackling anti-Semitism wherever it occurs, and I can confirm the announcement, as my hon. Friend says.

Photo of Karen Buck Karen Buck Labour, Westminster North

As a former political child star, I am sure the Leader of the House will join me in wanting today’s young people to grow up informed and active participants in the political process. Will he find time for a debate on how we might do more to encourage young people to become involved? Pending that, will he join me in endorsing today’s BBC school report news day, which has involved 1,000 schools and 30,000 teenagers at schools in making the news? The Westminster and Paddington academies in my constituency are taking part, as are schools right across the United Kingdom. Does he think that is one important way in which we can get young people actively involved in citizenship, news making and understanding politics?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

Yes, I absolutely join the hon. Lady in welcoming that initiative. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be marking this day with one of his own schools later today. It is important that all parties keep up the work to engage and inform young people. The new education centre, which you, Mr Speaker, have always strongly supported, will be available to encourage that work. One of the most impressive moments of the past year for me as Leader of the House was when the Youth Parliament gathered in this Chamber. Its representatives set quite a good example to all of us who are not so youthful, and we should be greatly encouraged that, in this country, we have great young people who will be the leaders of the future.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

I shall communicate colleagues’ shared enthusiasm for youth participation when I meet the students of Holland Park school this afternoon. Those students will be comforted and reassured to know of the esteem in which their involvement is held.

Photo of Bob Russell Bob Russell Liberal Democrat, Colchester

I am confident that I speak for all members of the other coalition party when I pay tribute to the Leader of the House and endorse the comments made by the shadow Leader of the House that the right hon. Gentleman is a remarkable parliamentarian who will be missed in this House. Perhaps he will find a perch at the other end.

Is there time to have a quick debate on the geography of the United Kingdom? The reason I ask is that the Conservative party has issued a leaflet in my constituency, which has Colchester on the coast. Mr Speaker, you will be aware that Colchester is on a tidal river. Although the Conservatives may be at sea, I am not.

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I doubt that we will find time in the remaining five days for a debate on the geography of the United Kingdom. How close to the coast anywhere is in the United Kingdom depends on the scale of the map. If it is small enough, we are all on the coast; this is an island. I am sure that he will bear that in mind.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

May I reiterate the tributes to the Leader of the House? I wish him, very sincerely, good luck for the future. I was particularly delighted with his remarks about the Office for Budget Responsibility. I wondered whether they meant that the Government had had a change of heart over the OBR scrutinising manifesto spending commitments. If they have, will he enlighten us?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks about me. As for the OBR, it is an important innovation that was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. There was no such independent auditing of Government Budgets and statements before. It has produced an extensive report that goes with the Budget, but it would be in some difficulty assessing the policies of the Labour party, because we do not know what all the tax rises would be in order to fill the gaping hole now left in its finances. That is something that it will have to explain.

Photo of David Morris David Morris Conservative, Morecambe and Lunesdale

Will my right hon. Friend indulge me while I say that he is the finest Prime Minister we never had? I feel that I have grown old with him, because he has been there on the mantelpiece for successive elections since 1997. Talking of growing old, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has just taken his place, said yesterday that we should provide for people in their old age, as they have paid tax on what they have earned. In the future, could we have a debate on council tax reduction and exemption for the over-75s?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I have known for a long time. He says that we have grown old together, but I do not feel very old. I have enjoyed all the work that we have done together over the years. He is quite right about the importance of council tax and other fixed costs for older people, which is why it is so important that, under this Government, councils have had the opportunity to freeze council tax for the entire period of this Government, whereas it doubled under the 13 years of the previous Government. That freeze, on top of the reduction in the scheduled increases in fuel taxation and now falling energy prices are major benefits for older people.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

I bring good news from Kettering. International food manufacturer Alpro has opened its new extension to its UK production facility at Burton Latimer. Alpro’s sales in the UK are increasing by 25% year on year, and its £30 million investment will double production in its drinks made from almonds, hazelnuts, soya, oats and coconut, and create 50 additional jobs for the local economy. That investment is a vote of confidence not only in the UK, but in the local economy in Kettering. Before Parliament is dissolved, can we have a statement from Her Majesty’s Treasury about how much foreign investment this country has attracted over the past five years as a result of the success of this Government’s long-term economic plan?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

My hon. Friend has been absolutely assiduous, particularly in recent months, in bringing good news to the House from Kettering and in creating, through his work as an MP, great good news for Kettering. He has missed only one week, which was, I think, last week. His absence caused much concern about Kettering, but I know that he was working on additional good news. Again, Kettering is a microcosm of what is happening in the country as a whole with the remarkable growth in employment, of which I spoke earlier. He is right about the importance of foreign investment, which has, in the UK over the past five years, far outstripped foreign direct investment into other countries in the European Union, and it will continue to do so provided that we stick to a long-term economic plan.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

Last week, the deposed elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a corrupt court. Although it is believed that he is safe in Dhoonidhood, it is expected that when he is moved to Maafushi island, there will be real concerns for his safety. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Foreign Office is doing all it can to highlight the concerns of Nasheed’s supporters, and can a statement be made to the House about sanctions and whether they should be taken against this much-misunderstood set of islands?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

The Government are deeply concerned about the sentencing of former President Nasheed of the Maldives. We have called on the Maldives to follow due legal process. The Foreign Office Ministers were the first to make a strong statement, making it clear that we are monitoring the case closely. We are pressing the Government in the Maldives to give international observers access to any appeal hearing and to allow them to visit the former President in prison. We continue to urge calm across the country, to encourage political parties to act with moderation and to appeal to the Government of the Maldives to ensure that they work within the bounds of the law.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Members' Expenses Committee, Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

It has been a privilege to serve with the Leader of the House, and I appreciate the advice that he has given me over the years. I wish him a wonderful retirement, which I am sure will be as energetic as his time here in Parliament.

In Windsor and across the country, unemployment is at the lowest level that I have ever seen, which means that young people are getting livelihoods and life chances that they have not seen for a very long time. That has been driven by private sector businesses competing with each other in a very enterprising way. They have been set free by the pro-enterprise policies of the Government. Can we have a debate on how markets work, largely for educational purposes for the Opposition party?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

That is not a bad idea. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about me. He is quite right about employment. I pointed out earlier how the rise in youth employment over the past year has been greater than in the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. We have also seen in this Government more than 750,000 new businesses created in the United Kingdom. We have a strong economic future ahead provided that we continue to follow a long-term plan. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity of the Budget debate—[Interruption.] Oh, he has already done so. He has spoken in the Budget debate and so has already been able to contribute to the education of the Opposition, but they clearly need more educating. As the shadow Chancellor has just arrived, they could do with a bit more educating in the next half hour.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

As a relatively new Member, may I say to the Leader of the House that it has been an immense privilege to see not only an outstanding parliamentarian, but someone with immense integrity and humour?

This week the first council houses to be built in Medway for 40 years were officially opened in Gillingham, and last month MHS Homes in Medway was shortlisted for a UK housing award for its construction of shared ownership apartments in Rainham. Will he join me in wishing MHS Homes every success for the award ceremony, and may we have a statement on the excellent work that this Government are doing to build more homes?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, although it is getting a bit embarrassing—I am beginning to think that I might have died. Of course, had I died, hopefully I would not still be here. He makes an important point about affordable homes. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new, good-quality and affordable homes, and over the next Parliament we will build more of those than were built in any equivalent period in the past 20 years. That includes a £400 million rent to buy scheme for up to 10,000 homes. That is very important work that the Government have done, and I know that my right hon. Friend has done great work to encourage such developments in his constituency.

Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford

May I associate myself with the tributes to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House and wish the Leader of the House a very long life? [Interruption.] Of course, I wish that also for the shadow Leader of the House.

Many of my constituents are facing problems with blight because of High Speed 2. Although there is an exceptional hardship scheme, which I must say in some cases works reasonably well, some people, particularly those who have difficulty negotiating with the scheme or who might have real personal difficulties because of illness or disability, find this a very troubling time, and I believe that sometimes they end up with a less than satisfactory outcome. May we therefore have a debate on ensuring that the compensation for people who have been put in that position through no fault of their own is full, fair and speedy?

Photo of William Hague William Hague First Secretary of State and Leader of the House of Commons

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He raises an issue that of course is very important to his constituents. As he will be aware, the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is receiving painstaking consideration, and that will continue into the new Parliament, so there will be further opportunities to raise those matters. They are matters that would naturally fall to Adjournment and BackBench business debates, but no more of those are available in this Parliament. However, he will be able to pursue the matter in the next Parliament, to which I am confident he will be returned.