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Business of the House

11.30 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the Business for the next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 30 January—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Government of Wales Bill.

Tuesday 31 January—Consideration of Lords amendments to Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, followed by a debate on pensions on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 1 February—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on police force amalgamations, followed by a debate entitled "Failure of the Government's 10-Year Transport Plan". Both arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 2 February—A debate on defence procurement on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 3 February—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 6 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Tuesday 7 February—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 8 February—Business of the House motion, followed by motions relating to parliamentary allowances and financial assistance for the representative work of Sinn Fein.

Thursday 9 February—Second Reading of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill.

Friday 10 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2 and 9 February will be—

Thursday 2 February—A debate on employer engagement in further and higher education.

Thursday 9 February—A debate on the report from the Health Committee on new developments in sexual health and HIV/AIDS policy.

Mrs. May: Last week I asked the Leader of the House for an early statement on troop deployments in Afghanistan. That statement of course will be made today, and I should like to thank the Leader of the House for the alacrity with which he responded to my request. Dare I say it, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship—[Hon. Members: "Ooh."]—that is, of course, unless it is rudely interrupted by a Cabinet reshuffle.

Talking of which, as we have Cabinet Office business in the House in a couple of weeks, will there be a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in post by then? If not, I have a suggestion for the Government. Perhaps the money saved could be used to pay the Minister for
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women and equality. After all, a pay gap for the Minister for women and equality of 49 per cent. is hardly a good example for others.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give us the date of the Budget?

Given the constitutional implications of the Government of Wales Bill and the fact that so far only a quarter of the Bill has been discussed in Committee on the Floor of the House, will the Government give consideration to a further day of Committee debate on the Bill?

The Health Secretary's statement yesterday showed that Ministers have lost financial control in the NHS. Will she come to the House to make a statement on the financial position of the NHS? We heard only today of a hospital serving the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) which, as in the "Yes, Minister" sketch, seems to think that it is okay to pay staff to keep operating theatres open but then cancel operations and leave theatres lying empty. May we have a debate in Government time on health issues and their impact on patients?

Last week there was an excellent debate on international development matters. Given the importance of the issues that the Department for International Development deals with, and the fact that its budget is now larger than that of the Foreign Office, will the Government consider giving more time to oral questions for DFID?

Finally, we now know that the Government's scheme for bus passes is giving real problems to local authorities, that libraries are being closed across the country because of financial problems and that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has spent £168 million on consultants advising on knocking down 168,000 houses. A survey of experts involved in the Thames Gateway found that only 13 per cent. described the Deputy Prime Minister's leadership as "effective or broadly ok". Today, a Select Committee report accused the Department of double counting on efficiencies and reported that 10 per cent. of staff felt bullied in the last year, and an earlier MORI opinion poll of Government officials said that the ODPM was lacking leadership and comparable to a "pantomime horse". Given that under this Government council tax has risen by 76 per cent., may we urgently have a debate on the burdens placed by Government on local councils and the implications for council tax payers?

Mr. Hoon: I am at least grateful that the right hon. Lady's shopping list today is shorter than it was last week—

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Not a lot.

Mr. Hoon: Well, I will leave others to judge whether it is a lot shorter: it is at least shorter. I am delighted to have the opportunity again to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office for the excellent work that he is doing on behalf of the Cabinet Office and the excellent way that he comes to the House to answer questions. I am sure that he is earning every penny, as is every other Minister.

The question of financial control in the NHS is of course routinely raised by Opposition Members and I understand why they have concerns about financial
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management in their local hospitals. Some three quarters of NHS bodies are in balance or in surplus and it is important to the Government that that should apply across the country. I am always slightly surprised when Opposition Members raise such issues, because if the Government were not tackling the question of the deficits in NHS bodies, they would all rise in righteous indignation to complain about that. We are of course tackling the problem and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced measures to assist those organisations to achieve financial balance and surplus. That applies just as well in Tunbridge Wells, and I was able to listen this morning to the chief executive of the primary care trust giving an extremely satisfactory explanation of the position. I suspect that the right hon. Lady did not hear that, because if she had, she might not have raised the issue today.

As for international development matters, it is important to devote the appropriate time to the very important work that the Department does on behalf of the United Kingdom, but if more time is made available for that, less time is available for other issues. That is the balance that must always be struck in the House.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned housing. I cannot resist making the point that investment in housing has risen from some £1.65 billion in the last year of the Conservative Government to more than £5 billion now. That is an astonishing improvement. It means that housing has been improved across the country. It also means that some housing has been demolished, but that is because that housing is incapable of being improved. Where it is possible to improve housing, it is being improved, but where demolition is necessary, there are demolitions. The space can then be used for better housing for people in the areas affected. There will be an opportunity next week for all hon. Members to ask questions of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on Wednesday, and I am sure that there will shortly be an opportunity to deal with matters affecting the NHS.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware of the questionable decision to withdraw support from Post Office accounts. That will leave 4.5 million pensioners stranded, the majority of whom were persuaded to give up pension books on the basis that Post Office accounts would be available. With no bank nearby, they will not be able to get their money. The decision will also put the viability of inner-city and rural post offices in question. Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate and at least draw the matter to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise what is an important issue, especially because it affects pensioners. I know that the matter has continued to cause great concern to hon. Members. I assure my hon. Friend that the arrangements that he describes are interim measures and that the Government are examining the ways in which the support that rightly must be given to pensioners is made available. I shall also ensure that his
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concerns are brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and that he is contacted directly.

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