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1 Mar 2007 : Column 1065

Business of the House

11.31 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): Before I announce business for the next two weeks, may I wish all my Welsh colleagues and the people of Wales a happy St. David’s day?

The provisional business for the week commencing 5 March will be:

Monday 5 March—Second Reading of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 6 March—Debate on House of Lords reform.

Wednesday 7 March—Conclusion of debate on House of Lords reform.

Thursday 8 March—To mark international women’s day, a debate entitled “Women, Justice and Gender Equality in the UK” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 9 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 12 March will be:

Monday 12 March—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

Tuesday 13 March—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Statistics and Registration Service Bill.

Wednesday 14 March—A debate on Trident on a Government motion.

Thursday 15 March—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Friday 16 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should like to say a brief word about proceedings for the debate on House of Lords reform on Tuesday and Wednesday next week. It is a two-day debate which, under the terms of a business motion agreed by the House earlier this week, will come to a conclusion earlier than the usual finishing time on a Wednesday, ending at 5.30 pm, to allow more time for the number of Divisions that may be required. A total of nine motions have been tabled in my name. In accordance with the precedent set in 2003, and as permitted by the business motion that has already been agreed, the Government intend to move all nine motions, to allow the House to express its view on each proposition, even if one option has already received a majority, or appears to be inconsistent with the next option to be put.

The House will be aware that as part of the review of House services Members will receive a survey in their pigeonholes next week, and I encourage all of them to complete it. There are sometimes complaints about services provided by different departments, so if Members wish to contribute constructively to improvements, it is important that they fill in the survey.

Mrs. May: I join the Leader of the House in his best wishes to all Welsh colleagues, and thank him for acceding to our request for a debate on Welsh affairs today. I also thank him for giving us all the future business.

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The Government’s consultation on post office closures is due to end next week. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the results will be announced to the House in a statement before they are given to the media?

It was good to see the Chancellor make a rare visit to the House for Treasury questions just before the business question. On Tuesday he gave yet another leadership campaign speech, and said that immigrants should do community work before they become British citizens—but this policy was blocked by the Chancellor himself four years ago, on the grounds of cost. On Wednesday the Minister for Children and Families announced that the Chancellor’s youth opportunity card would be abandoned, again on the grounds of cost. It seems that the prudent Chancellor is not so prudent when it comes to his own leadership ambitions. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s policy proposals?

The Chancellor seems to be talking about all sorts of issues these days—perhaps that is why his colleagues are so ready to be open about what they think of him—but on the many issues for which he is responsible, he is surprisingly reticent. The Leader of the House will, as Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on the Olympic games, be aware of the budget for 2012. First, we were told that the games would cost £2.35 billion; then we were told they would cost £3.3 billion. Now we are told that the cost could run to £9 billion. Will the Chancellor come to the House to make a statement? He likes talking about hosting the football World cup. Why is he so shy about the Olympics?

Another matter that the Chancellor is not keen to talk about is the soaring deficits in NHS trusts. Three quarters of primary care trusts are restricting access to treatment, half are delaying operations and 60 per cent. of acute hospital trusts are already closing wards. All we have had from the Government is a guide on how to spin the news to the media. May we have a debate on the Chancellor’s NHS cuts?

Next week we will debate reform of the House of Lords. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for setting out the procedure that will be followed for the voting. House of Lords reform is another issue in which the Chancellor does not seem to be interested. Since he was elected on a manifesto promising

there have been 21 separate votes on that. How many times has the Chancellor voted? Not once. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on what will happen to Lords reform when the Chancellor completes his smooth transition? You never know—perhaps next week we will see him voting for an entirely elected House. After all, that is about the only way he can avoid giving the Prime Minister a peerage.

We have a Prime Minister who is in office and not in power. We have a Chancellor in the office next door longing for power. People want to see Cabinet Ministers running the country, not running political campaigns. Everyone is sick of “waiting for Gordo”, but if the Prime Minister will not go now, should not the Chancellor just get on with his job?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Never read jokes.

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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): She did not.

Mr. Straw: She did not read it; she made it up—it was entirely spontaneous. That is the problem.

The right hon. Lady must have a crush on my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. She kept obsessing about him in every other sentence, and she has just had an hour of ogling him. It is curious. Apparently he never comes to the House—but he has just been here, answering questions in his normal robust style.

The right hon. Lady wants a debate on spending. We can have a debate on tax and spending any time. There will be four whole days of opportunity to debate tax and spending in the Budget debate. That will be a great opportunity for us to debate the latest shift in approach by the Conservative shadow Chancellor. According to The Daily Telegraph, which, as we know, is accurate when it comes to the Conservative party, members of the shadow Cabinet have been “read the Riot Act” by the shadow Chancellor and told to stop making spending pledges without checking with him first. I am not surprised, because last week Grant Thornton said that the increase in spending promised by the Conservatives was £8.9 billion. [Hon. Members: “Is this business questions?”] They ask whether this is business questions, but this is the question that I was asked. I was asked about spending, and I have given the answer.

On the costs of the Olympics, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will make a statement—[Hon. Members: “When?”]. As soon as we have settled the issue. The Conservatives backed the Olympic bid, and now they are trying to back away from it. The simple fact of the matter is that the Stratford site is one of the most complex anywhere, and the costs are bound to be revised in the light of experience. There will be a statement as soon as we have pinned those costs down.

The right hon. Lady asked about deficits in the national health service. She will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health recently made a statement saying that, allowing for the use of contingency, it looks as though there will be a small surplus this year of £13 million, so I do not know where the right hon. Lady got her point from.

The right hon. Lady then made some spurious comments about debate taking place in the Labour party. There is a debate in the Labour party about its future— [Interruption.] She talks about leadership campaigns, but I have to tell her that that debate is comradely in the extreme compared to what I read on the blog of the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) about what is going on— [Interruption.] No, this week, too. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am just wondering about next week’s business.

Mr. Straw: Indeed, Mr. Speaker. Part of my duty, however, is pastoral care for all Members, so they ought to be aware that I take a close interest in all Members’ blogs. What we are told is that inside the Tory party, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron)

and also that

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And that is about his own side. I look forward to next week’s business.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): Can we have a debate on party finance? Some concerns have been expressed on this side of the House recently that our party’s links with the trade unions have been underemphasised. Earlier this week, the Scottish National party claimed that the Short money that it receives from the state was actually raised by the party itself as part of its campaign fund. Surely a debate would allow us to cover those issues and ensure that our voice is heard early in the process.

Mr. Straw: I would be delighted to have a debate on the funding of political parties. I would be very happy indeed for the relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions to be scrutinised. The Neill committee pointed out in 1998 that the system was working well, and there is no evidence of any impropriety since then. As for the Scottish National party, I am not surprised if it makes claims that do not turn out to be entirely accurate. That, after all, is how it has always operated.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Leader of the House said that he was not sure where the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) had got her details on the health service. I suggest that one possible source that might be the basis for a debate is the survey of NHS trust chief executives published today in the Health Service Journal. It corroborates the right hon. Lady’s points and goes on to reveal that 47 per cent. of trusts are making redundancies and that 69 per cent. of chiefs think that patient care will suffer as a result of short-term financial decisions. When asked about the Government’s handling of the national health service, the chief executives—the people running the health service—said decisions were “knee-jerk” and Ministers “consistently dishonest and disingenuous”. One said:

We need a debate on what is happening in the health service.

While we are talking about incompetence, let us move on to the consultation on post office closures. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will actually answer the question about whether we are to have a statement. As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead said, consultation is to close on 8 March. Is it not extraordinary that neither the Government nor the Post Office thought it appropriate to send the consultation document to the people most affected—the men and women who run sub-post offices around this country, none of whom has received the consultation document unless they have applied for it themselves? If they have received the document, it will have come from a Member of Parliament such as me, who has sent them a copy. Is that not extraordinary incompetence on the part of the Government?

May we have an urgent debate on water charges? I live in a village that is not on mains water, and sometimes has no water at all, but those who do have a water company will be alarmed to see that water bills are going up yet again, by up to 10 per cent. Indeed,
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South West Water bills will soar by an average of £44, to £483, the highest in the country. Is it acceptable that we can have hosepipe bans and leakage at the same time as rocketing water bills, on top of higher council tax bills and winter fuel payments?

Lastly, may we have a debate on agricultural education? I do not know whether the Leader of the House saw the survey carried out by Dairy Farmers of Britain this week, which revealed that one in 10 eight-year-olds do not know that pork chops come from pigs. A similar number do not know where bacon comes from, and suspect that it may come from sheep. Astonishingly, 2 per cent. think that cows lay eggs. Is it not important that people understand where their food comes from, and the importance of the agriculture industry? Perhaps that is a lesson that would be well learned by Ministers as well.

Mr. Straw: We are delighted to debate the national health service on any occasion. As the hon. Gentleman is quoting the survey, he may like to note that, on reform, 90 per cent. of those surveyed apparently think that the Government need to hold their nerve on difficult reconfigurations. If we are debating the health service, what we need to debate is the very significant improvements in the quality and amount of care provided for our constituents. In his constituency —[ Interruption. ] I said this last week because he does not say it often enough, and I am having to do his job as a constituency Member for Frome. Thanks to somebody—but obviously not him—£100 million is now going into a new hospital configuration in his constituency.

I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman’s indolence; he has just admitted that there is sometimes no water at all in the village where he lives. What is the local MP doing about that? On a serious point, I am not here to defend the water companies. They are private companies that need to be strictly regulated. There is great concern across the country about the level of water charges and the need for Ofwat to be vigorous in regulating the companies. I look forward to his making strong representations to the water companies, as I do in my area. On a matter of fact, winter fuel costs have gone down this winter because the price of fuel has fallen—but I do not expect that the facts would be of great concern to him.

On post offices, I apologise to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead for omitting to answer her question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who has been assiduous in coming to the House on this and other matters, will of course make a statement. I cannot guarantee at this stage whether it will be an oral or a written statement, but I say to everybody who is concerned about the formation of the number and distribution of post offices that there needs to be a slightly higher level of debate. Recognition is needed that the reason why the Post Office is facing this shrinkage is the internet, and people’s changing habits. We have put an astonishing amount of money into rural post offices, and we will continue to do so, but there has to be some change.

The last thing that the hon. Gentleman asked for is a debate on agricultural education. I agree, as I remember having a discussion some years ago with a child who told me that he was vegetarian. I said that in
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that case he would not be eating the sausages, and he said, “No, that’s different; they come from somewhere else.” The level of appreciation is rather limited, and I will talk to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills about what we can do about that.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Yet again, throughout my constituency residents are receiving bullying letters from ground rent and chief rent companies asking for information, and sometimes for substantial amounts of money to which they are not entitled. Can we have an urgent debate on this important issue, which is causing a great deal of anxiety to many local residents, particularly pensioners?

Mr. Straw: I am aware of that problem, which is particularly serious in the north-west. There are clear legal rights for people who are in that position to commute the ground rent for a relatively small fee. I encourage my hon. Friend to make use of an opportunity to debate this in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House has confirmed that next Wednesday we will vote on Lords reform—again, and at some length. He has often said that the best should not be the enemy of the good, so can he confirm that he will not only support the 50 per cent. option in his White Paper but vote for the higher elected options as well, and encourage his right hon. and hon. Friends to do the same?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I can. I will not vote for a wholly elected Chamber, because I am against that, but I will certainly vote for 50 per cent. and the higher options.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend find Government time for a debate in this Chamber on the use of privilege? We all know that privilege is used to stop rich individuals out there using the threat of legal action to prevent Members from raising issues here, but it cannot be right for Members to make allegations against ordinary working people in this country. That cowardly use of privilege only detracts from the status of every Member of this House.

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend raises a very important issue, and I am aware of the background. There are opportunities to debate this matter. I would advise my hon. Friend, if he has not already done so, to talk to the Clerk of the House and, through him, to the Speaker, about whether it could be referred to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

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