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My right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families was giving her personal view on how we might build on successful policies to try to make work much more flexible for millions of people. For example, the right to request flexible working has led to 47 per cent. of new mothers working flexi-time,
compared with just 17 per cent. in 2002a massive change. From this April, as the hon. Lady is, I am sure, well aware, we are extending that right to carers. I have sympathy with the view that we should go further, build on that and extend the right to other groups in due course, but we have to try to take the business community with us because the key to our success so far has been culture change and the fact that we have been able to maintain a consensus. We will of course keep the position under review.
Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the progress that we have made on flexible working, but would my right hon. Friend take the policy even further and consider a reduction in the number of hours that we work in this country? That would assist not only those who have requested flexible working, but those hundreds of thousands of families who struggle to maintain their work-life balance simply because of the length of working hours and the inflexibility of the working week.
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This is not just an issue for new mothers or, indeed, new fathers; it is about the number of hours that we all spend at work every week, sometimes as a result of a long hours culture in which ones presence at ones desk is seen as a sign of success. There is an important cultural issue there about how employers recognise the contribution that employees make, how they recruit and retain employees, which is desirable for pure business reasons, and how quality of life is valued as part of our social discourse. If we get this right, there are huge potential gains. One thing that we are doing is working with a group of exemplar employers to promote flexible working and quality of life, for sound business reasons.
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I welcome what the right hon. Lady says about the extension of flexible working not only to parents but to carers and others with family responsibilities. She has shown some understanding of the business community, but will she confirm also her understanding that businesses, especially small businesses, are very apprehensive about the duties that will be imposed on them and about the problems of flexible working? Will she undertake to publish guidance for business aimed particularly at small businesses, to reassure them that flexible working, properly implemented, is likely to be not a hindrance but a benefit to families and businesses alike?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that we have to take the needs of the business community into account. I think that there are good, sound business reasons for allowing employees to work flexibly, although of course there may in certain circumstances be very sound business reasons for turning down approaches to work flexibly. That is why we have a right to request, and in the vast majority of cases, those requests are approved. As we go forward, it is important that we maintain that consensus. The Equal
Opportunities Commission has done specific work not only on the transformation of work, but on how the small business community can implement and make more possible the take-up of the right to flexible working. We in Government will work closely with the commission as we extend the right to other groups, to ensure that it is done in a sensible and proportionate way.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Meg Munn): I will be speaking to Baroness Scotland next week to discuss women offenders and the female prison population.
Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that she is aware that there is no womens prison in Wales, and that women offenders are placed outside Wales, with terrible consequences for them and their families, and especially their children. Would she support the development in south Wales of a centre like the Asha centre or the 218 programme, which address the punishment of women offenders for the crimes that they committed, but which also consider the factors related to womens offending, including domestic abuse, mental illness and drug and alcohol misuse?
Meg Munn: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Women tend to be imprisoned further from home than men because there are fewer womens prisons, and maintenance of important family links is therefore much more difficult. As she will be aware, Baroness Scotland announced in March last year that Baroness Corston had agreed to undertake a review of women in the criminal justice system with particular vulnerabilities. We are looking forward to the production of that report in the near future, when there will be an opportunity to address the issues that my hon. Friend raises, and many others.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Given that 70 per cent. of women in prison suffer from two or more mental disorders, and 37 per cent. of them attempted suicide before going to prison, will the Minister consider introducing a system of court diversion, whereby women are assessed for mental health treatment before they are sent to prison, and not afterwards, as exposure to the prison environment is likely to make their condition much worse?
Meg Munn: The hon. Lady again raises an important issue. We know that 55 per cent. of all self-harm incidents in prison are committed by women, even though they comprise only about 6 per cent. of the total prison population, and the fact that there are underlying mental health issues for many women in prison is enormously important. As I said, the review that Baroness Corston has undertaken has looked into a range of issues, and I look forward to having more detailed discussions on the subject when we have the findings of that review.
Monday 26 FebruaryOpposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled State of the Royal Navy, followed by a debate entitled Integrity of the Electoral System. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion. That is followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Sustainable Communities Bill.
It may assist the House if I confirm that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer today announced that he proposes to deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 21 March. In addition, as I told the House on Monday, it is my intention to provide as much notice as possible of the various motions in respect of House of Lords reform, and those will be in the Order Paper tomorrow.
For the convenience of the House, that will give Members on both sides an opportunity to look at the motions and decide whether they wish to table amendments. Although the motions appear on the Order Paper, they do so in draft form, and I will take account of amendments and suggestions that are made, in an attempthon. Members may query whether I will succeed, given my track recordto arrive at a consensus on the number of motions.
Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House both for what he said about the motions on House of Lords reform and for giving us the future business. I note, however, that he did not tell us when the Prime Minister will present to the House the petition of 1.8 million signatures that he has received protesting against road user charging.
Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed that the British taxpayer will pay £305 million in fines to Brussels because the
Rural Payments Agency failed to pay farmers in time under the single payment scheme for a second consecutive year. In a written statement today, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs failed to mention that fact, so may we have a debate on the incompetence displayed by both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Rural Payments Agency?
That was not the only example of ministerial incompetence yesterday. The Department of Trade and Industry announced that the science research budget would be cut by £68 million because of a departmental overspend, so may we have a general debate on ministerial incompetence?
May we have a statement on the Governments policy on public consultation? Last week, Mr. Justice Sullivan ruled that the Governments consultation on nuclear power was misleading, seriously flawed and procedurally unfairyet more Government incompetence. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said:
I have to accept that we got it wrong.
This wont affect the policy at all.
a master of ambiguity,
but I would describe the Prime Ministers response as unambiguous. It is, dare I say, unambiguously arrogant, so will the Leader of the House make a statement on public consultations by the Government?
The Prime Minister says that he wants the five-year mandatory sentence for carrying guns to apply to 17-year-olds. The Leader of the House used to be Home Secretary, so he knows that the Government can do that very easily, as the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows them to amend firearms legislation by parliamentary order. Yet when the Appeal Court ruled that the five-year jail terms could not apply to anyone under 21 the Home Secretary failed to close the loophole. That ruling was made in March, almost a year ago, so may we have a debate on the gross incompetence displayed on an almost daily basis by the Home Office?
One thing at which the Government are competent, as everyone knows, is spinning and the Chancellor is spinning that he will end the spin. May we have a debate on political appointments in the civil service? The Chancellor claims that he wants to end the culture of spin, but he has just appointed yet another special adviser. The ministerial code says that Cabinet Ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers, but the Chancellor does not have two special advisers; he has 12, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £1.1 million. The House deserves a debate on the Chancellors taxpayer-funded spin doctors; otherwise people will rightly ask what he has to hide.
Let me just run through those items in turn. First, on road pricing, I am discussingthe matter is being examined by the Procedure Committee, tooways in which the House of Commons might follow the ground-breaking example of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to ensure that we, as well as Downing street, are up-to-date in encouraging petitions. It is a
long-standing practice for people to deliver petitions to Downing street as well as to Parliament. Indeed, I used to do so myself in another capacity about 40 years ago.
The right hon. Lady would be well advised to read the response that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sent to all those 1.6 million petitioners, informing them that there are now 6 million more cars on the road and that it costs £30 million per mile to build a new motorway. If the Conservatives are serious about getting into government, they will have to deal with that issue as well. I note that the Leader of the Opposition, who is a far greater master of ambiguity than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, told the Oxford Mailprobably in the hope that no one else would notice; Oxford is rather keen on measures to control motor cars
We should also look at road charging. There isnt an endless pot of money.
I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) nodding in approbation of what I have just said. He knows very well that the Conservative leader is currently making pledges on which he cannot possibly deliver. Indeed, Grant Thornton, a distinguished firm of chartered accountants, says that the total bill for pledges currently being made by the Conservatives amounts to £8.3 billion a year and would require an income tax increase of 4p in the pound.
We have doubled the science budget in the last 10 years. The previous budget was lamentable. The issue of the Rural Payments Agency is not a good storythe right hon. Lady and everyone else knows that, and we do not pretend that it is a good storybut my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is dealing with it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry dealt with the question of nuclear power during Question Time.
As for the Chancellors special advisers, I think that they and his council of economic advisers are brilliant value for money. Let us consider what has been achieved in the last 10 years; we have enjoyed the longest-ever sustained period of economic growth and Britain has risen from the lowest place among the G7 countries to very near the top.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): May we have a debate on the unfair charging practices of the major banks, particularly now that Barclays has recorded profits of £7 billion? My constituent Mr. Aranda, a small business man who is gravely ill with stomach cancer, is being charged £80 a month for four medical certificates to release the monthly premiums of the insurance that he has paid for years against his loans. It is bad enough that his GPhis local NHS GPis making those charges.
Mr. Straw: I note what my hon. Friend has said and will bear her request in mind. There is widespread concern, not so much about the banks profitswe would all be lamenting if big British companies were making lossesas about the way in which they treat their consumers, both in overcharging and in making it difficult for them to move their accounts.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): May we have a debate on youth-on-youth crime? In the last fortnight we have seen its tragic consequences in Peckham, Clapham and Streatham, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. What is not reported so much is that last year in London 14,000 11 to 16-year-olds were recorded as having been mugged, including 271 children aged 10 or under. We know that only one in five real muggings ever makes it into the police figures. May we debate the serious problem that faces the countrythe fact that our current generation of teenagers simply cannot walk the streets feeling safe?
Mr. Straw: I should be delighted to arrange a debate on the matter. In fact most crime, particularly street crime, is youth-on-youth: it was ever thus. The difference between now and the time when my children were growing up on the streets of London is that the streets are very much safer than they were and the number of police officers availableincluding those in Lambeth and Southwarkis much greater, as not just the Mayor but the Metropolitan Police Commissioner will tell everyone.
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): On 9 January it was revealed that there was a backlog of 27,500 case files of offences committed by British citizens abroad that had not been added to police databases. Of those, 140 were serious offences. The Home Secretary said on 10 January that a full investigation would be completed within six weeks. Those six weeks elapsed yesterday. Will the Home Secretary be reporting back to the House on the investigation to explain the disarray and denial that characterised the response to warnings about this serious failure?
Will the Leader of the House encourage his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on the outcome of the Security Councils deliberations on Irans compliance with resolution 1737? Does he still think that it is inconceivable that there will be military action against Iran?
Given that the Mayor of London has already leaked the headline figures of the revised Olympic budget, when will the Government publish the detailed revised budget for the 2012 games? Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will be a full parliamentary debate on it? Does he agree that the predicted huge cost increases should not fall on the shoulders of hard-pressed London council tax payers?
Finally, may we have a debate entitled False economies in the national health service, so that we can explore, among other things, why my local NHS trust, Epsom and St. Helier, has decided to remove one in every three light bulbs across the hospitals in the trust?
Mr. Straw: On foreign national prisoners, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and his colleagues continually update the situation. I accept that six weeks from the date mentioned elapsed yesterday, but my right hon. Friend has given a great deal of information to the House and will continue to do so.
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