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Mention was also made by colleagues in the earlier discussions of the planning gain proposals in the draft programme. Again, as my hon. Friend the Minister will
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know, that legislation will be taken forward on a UK basis. There is some debate in England and Wales about the degree to which the funds raised by the planning gain supplement, if it is introduced, will be applied locally, as opposed to centrally. It is clear that, in England at least, by far the biggest proportion of any funds raised under the planning gain supplement will be spent locally to provide for local housing and infrastructure needs.

Although things may have moved forward, the proposals last year provided that in Scotland, the funds would be allocated directly to the Scottish Executive, with no provision to allocate them to the areas in which they were raised. When we have an Administration in Scotland who have proposed lots of spending plans without the means of paying for them, we have an Administration who are certainly very ready to take any extra finances made available to them, although those finances would be raised from local communities. I hope that a similar commitment to ensure that funds raised from local communities will be applied for their benefit will apply to Scotland as well. I hope that that Minister will take on board that point in the discussions on the planning gain supplement proposal.

Stewart Hosie: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman may not be aware that when we debated the matter previously I opposed the planning gain supplement process for Scotland, precisely because every penny went to the Scottish Government and not one penny was guaranteed to return to the locales from which it came—as he wants it to. I am sure that—given that the First Minister is present—the Scottish Government will take on board everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying, but having a little dig like that, when he is unfamiliar with the arguments that have been made in the House previously, was slightly inappropriate.

Mark Lazarowicz: I am very much aware of the arguments that were made in the House. In fact, I think—although my recollection may be wrong—that I was in the House for that debate at the same time as the hon. Gentleman. I think that we might even have intervened on each other. At this stage I do not want to argue for or against the planning gain supplement. I just want to make sure that the same principle as will apply in England—that the purpose of any planning gain tax is to assist local communities to develop their infrastructure—will also apply in Scotland. If the intervention from the hon. Gentleman, who seemed to be getting the endorsement of the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), means that that is also the policy of the Scottish Executive, I welcome that commitment and I am sure that colleagues in Scotland will take that on board in debates in the Scottish Parliament.

Flooding is an issue that has been at the forefront of all our minds over the last few days. The flooding reminds us that new housing has to take account of changes in the environment and should be constructed so as to ensure that it is energy-efficient and that the building sector can contribute to the reduction of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

That brings me to another issue: energy consumption by households and fuel poverty—an issue of particular relevance to parts of the UK where the
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climate is not always as warm as it is elsewhere. Whatever else happens, it is likely that energy prices are, in the long run, going to continue to go up—as a result of market trends and perhaps also of packages of measures designed to encourage reduced energy use. We all know that for some householders, rises in energy prices have led to more fuel poverty. Although there has been a drop in energy prices this year, the overall trend in energy prices has been, and will no doubt continue to be, upwards.

The Government have done a lot to tackle fuel poverty, but it is essential that vulnerable consumers are protected against the effects of the increases, both through financial measures and by helping to make their homes more energy-efficient. In the energy White Paper, the Government said, in effect, that they expected energy companies to do more to protect vulnerable consumers and that if they did not, the Government would consider making them do so by bringing forward legislation—for example, to promote the wider use of social tariffs by energy companies.

Some energy companies have risen to the challenge of recognising the social needs of more vulnerable consumers, but not all have done so. I hope that when the Government come to assess the degree to which the energy companies as a whole have responded to the call set out in the energy White Paper, they will decide whether there is a case for introducing in the energy Bill that we are promised later in the year proposals to ensure that all energy companies meet the needs of consumers who have suffered from the effects of rising energy prices.

I want to turn to two other areas of policy related to the environment. I was delighted to understand from the comments made by the Leader of the House that the marine Bill will be brought forward in draft form as part of the legislative programme. A long-running campaign, launched by WWF in particular, has had a lot of support. It highlights the fact that both wildlife and our citizens rely on a healthy and productive marine environment for their future well-being. There is a need for marine legislation. I know that marine legislation is a complex area, and the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have important issues to resolve between themselves, but I hope that draft legislation is brought forward at an early stage, so that the definitive Bill can be introduced soon after that.

Another environmental issue that is moving higher and higher up the political agenda is the Government’s proposal for a Climate Change Bill. I am glad that it has been confirmed that the Bill will be in next year’s legislative programme, and I hope that it will be brought forward at an early date. The Joint Committee on the Draft Climate Change Bill had a thorough discussion on the proposals in the draft Bill. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I have been members of the Committee, so she knows that there has been thorough consultation, and because of that, there is an opportunity to bring forward the Bill at an early stage; I hope that that will happen.

When the Joint Committee examined the draft Bill, two things came home to me: first, I realised the overwhelming importance of taking action, and secondly
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I realised how pioneering the Bill is. In the Committee’s public sessions, comments from people in China, California and the European Union made it clear that our Climate Change Bill is likely to encourage other countries to follow suit. The Bill is a good example of the Government showing real international leadership, and I certainly welcome that. That is why I hope that the Bill will be introduced at an early stage in the Government’s programme for the coming year.

The Joint Committee’s public discussions underlined how potentially radical the draft Bill is as a driver for influencing and changing Government policy, and ensuring action across all areas of Government to make sure that we really succeed in cutting greenhouse gas emissions in this country. Even now, I am not sure whether everyone who supported the introduction of the Bill realises its potential power; it is an important measure. All credit should go to Friends of the Earth, Christian Aid and the other organisations that campaigned last year for Bill to be introduced. The Bill could be a powerful driver of change to Government policy and to the way in which we organise government and society. It is important to underline that it is not just the Bill that should be brought forward at an early date; the climate change committee envisaged in the draft Bill should be established as early as possible, too.

As well as undertaking an important advisory role, the climate change committee will need to help to make the case for the radical measures that will undoubtedly be necessary if we are to meet the objectives of the Climate Change Bill. I hope that that committee will be set up quickly once the Bill becomes law, and I hope that the shadow committee, which the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggested would be set up soon, will be established very quickly. It would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House gave some indication, today or later, of the possible timetable for the establishment of that shadow committee.

In the coming year, I would like the Government to make sure that the objective of tackling climate change is a theme that is reflected not just in the Climate Change Bill, important though that is, but throughout the entire legislative programme, the entire Queen’s Speech, and everything that the Government do. That needs to be done, because the challenge of climate change not only requires action across Government, but requires us to send a message that it is a theme running through all that the Government do. We need to send the public the clear message that we politicians are serious when we say that tackling climate change is a top priority. That is essential, because we all know that tackling climate change requires action not just by Governments—both ours and those of other countries—but by individuals. If we are to persuade the public to make their own personal contribution to tackling climate change, we have to show them that we parliamentarians, and the Government, mean what we say when we bring forward our policies, legislation and measures.

9.19 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). I shall focus my remarks tonight on issues that will be of particular concern to more than half the population—to women.

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It is thoroughly timely that the House should have the opportunity, thanks to the legislative programme, to review the arrangements for assisted reproduction and embryo research. That opportunity will be provided by the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. That is good news. There will be different opinions, as properly there should be, and those opinions should be given expression in the debates in the House.

I make no secret of the fact that I have always been on the side of what I call the progressives, in the sense that I reject the notion of a doctrinal opposition to embryo research. I take a pragmatic view, an instrumental view, an empiricist view, that if benefits can flow from such research, the effect of which can be to mitigate the effects of congenital diseases or disorders or to remove them altogether, we should welcome that. In the deliberations that lie ahead on the Bill, I hope that the Government and right hon. and hon. Members will be significantly influenced and informed in their consideration by the body of expert scientific and in some cases medical evidence that will be presented.

However, it is an open secret that there are many people who believe that the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill is an appropriate vehicle for another review by the House—a review of the law relating to abortion. I am not a lawyer—I say that as a matter of some considerable pride—and I am certainly not a Government lawyer, but my understanding is that the Government lawyers have advised Ministers that they would not be able safely to resist amendments on the subject of abortion in the context of the Bill. To seek to remove them or prevent their discussion or debate on grounds of scope would almost certainly fail in legal terms.

I have heard it floated that the Government are prepared to consider such matters, and that they recognise that legally they would not be able, in parliamentary terms, to resist the discussion of such matters. What I have not heard is a confirmation of that highly salient point on the Floor of the House. If the Leader of the House—or the Deputy Leader of the House—can confirm when she winds up the debate, that what I have read in the popular prints is correct, I would greatly welcome that. There are differences of opinion on the matter, but it is right that if there is a legislative vehicle in the programme, an opportunity to consider these issues should be provided.

For my own part, I believe that the vast disparity in the availability of abortion services across the country between one area and another is a source of concern and an occasion for protest. In the latest year for which reliable figures are available, 2001, there appears to have been something of a lottery in terms both of the funding of abortion and of the waiting times to secure it. In 2001 in Coventry, 96 per cent. of abortions were funded by the national health service—lucky people in need of or making a request for an abortion in that part of the west midlands. If, however, a woman were so relatively unfortunate as to live in Kingston or Richmond, the chance of securing a publicly funded abortion in that year would have been only 50 per cent.

If we are to have a national health service, despite the avowed religion of localism that seems too frequently to be professed by members of all parties these days, I hope it would be conceded and, indeed, proudly proclaimed that there should be a commonality of provision across
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the country. Either we believe in the availability of an abortion service to women, on certain terms and conditions, or we do not. If we believe in it, as I confess that I passionately do and always have done, these marked differences—this postcode lottery, in effect—should not exist. I want that state of affairs to change.

I referred to the differential in funding, but there are also marked differences in how long people have to wait to secure an abortion. In 2001, someone who lived in north-east Lincolnshire might be quite impressed by the figures, because in that part of the country 79 per cent. of abortions were undertaken before 10 weeks had elapsed, whereas someone who lived in Great Yarmouth might be considerably disappointed, not to say horrified, by the fact that the figure was as low as 26 per cent. That simply is not right. We must make a public policy judgment in this House of Commons as to what we think appropriate.

I am not, as the House will be relieved to learn and you will be pleased to discover, Mr. Deputy Speaker, inclined to dilate tonight on all the issues relating to the potential amendment of the law on abortion. That titillating opportunity will doubtless present itself at a later stage in the course of the consideration of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. I would, however, like to say something specifically about a crucial challenge for the Government and the House concerning early abortion.

The vast majority of abortions in this country are, and should be, undertaken early, but we need to do a great deal more to improve access to early and safe abortion for women who have decided that that is what they want. I put it to the Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House that it is vital, in terms of the scope of the Bill and the time allowed for debate on potential amendments when it is forthcoming, that we should have a chance to consider all the germane issues.

For example, I cannot for the life of me see any justification, in 2007, for the arcane—dare I say it, almost antediluvian—requirement that a woman who seeks an abortion should have to obtain the signatures of two doctors. That might sound like a prosaic requirement that can be easily fulfilled, but that is often not so. Doctors will sometimes say, “No, you’d better go elsewhere; it’s not convenient for me to see you at the moment,” or “There’s quite a long waiting list in this area.” All sorts of difficulties can arise. If the basic will of Parliament is that women should be able to access abortion, they should not be put in the invidious position of having to traipse around, possibly in a condition of considerable personal and even physical distress, to access what should be their legal entitlement and what is certainly—I believe that right hon. and hon. Members would judge—their moral due. The “two doctors” requirement should be removed, and we should at least have a chance to table, debate and vote on an amendment to that effect when the legislation is considered.

Similarly, there should not be long delays. If we are to have targets in other fields, why not in this case? I would suggest a target of 72 hours from the time that the woman makes the approach to request the abortion to the time that the procedure is undertaken. At the very least, it should not be more than a week. We
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should not in a modern, decent, civilised democratic society entertain the idea that women faced with a very difficult situation, and possibly having to make a harrowing decision, should then have to wait for week after week, and possibly longer, before they can give effect to the decision that they have made perfectly properly, honourably and in all good conscience.

There are other oddities about the current fusty law, one of which is the requirement that the procedure take place in rather prescriptively specified locations. I believe that modern law should be rather more flexible than that. The principle that should govern the amendment of the law to localise provision and provide for a range of community settings in which abortion can take place should simply be this: clinical governance and quality assurance procedures should be comparable to those that apply to any other medical procedure that an individual might undertake within the national health service. I do not see why abortion should be set as a class apart—much more difficult to obtain than other operations and far more difficult to access, logistically or possibly even geographically.

Such considerations must be looked at in the context of the law, as should the suggestion, which I think is sound, that we widen the range of people who can undertake the procedure. I see no good reason why qualified nurses who are perfectly capable of undertaking the abortion procedure should not be empowered to do so in law.

Whatever hon. or right hon. Members listening to this debate think about my views on the subject, I hope that people feel it right that the House of Commons should consider such matters—a very long time after it last did so. I have been in the House since May 1997. To my knowledge, there have been no debates on substantive legislation on this subject during the 10 years and two months I have been here. There have been ten-minute rule motions put forward on the issue, but that is a wholly unsatisfactory basis on which to seek to determine the future of public policy on this subject.

I hope that the Government will be open-minded on the matter. They might not want to whip their own side; I rather imagine that on the Conservative Benches there will be a free vote. As far as I am concerned, all votes are free and I tend to do what I want anyway. I am not overly preoccupied with what any Whip might think about these matters. I hope, however, that there will be votes, and an opportunity for decent debate leading up to them.

Secondly, and very much more briefly, I did not expect a single equality Bill in the draft legislative programme, but I confess that I think that there is a compelling case for one. After all, we have had the discrimination law review, and we have a single equality body. Many people—not all—think that a logical corollary of the creation of a single equality body is the creation of a single equality Act, the purpose and effect of which would be to simplify, synthesise and distil all other anti-discrimination legislation into a single corpus of law that would be easier for citizens to access and more readily understandable by the public and private agencies responsible for adhering to it.

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Simon Hughes: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we need to do much better at consolidating law, not just in the equality field. One of the remaining problems is that we do not have a codified system of laws, and often people have to look in lots of places in order to find information, whether it is about equality or any other range of similar issues.

John Bercow: The hon. Gentleman and I can join forces in a campaign for simplification. I say three cheers to that.

Let me make it clear that a duty on the private sector to attack the principal causes of the pay gap between men and women would be a good feature of the Bill for which I am calling. I have pontificated on that issue many a time and oft during the past few years in debates in Westminster Hall and in questions to the Minister for Women. A duty has been placed on public authorities, and that is important, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is persistent and, in some cases, severe discrimination in the private sector as well. Of course, we have to be careful not to overload the system, not to achieve a counter-productive result and not to frighten business, but if we know that there is serious discrimination, we have a responsibility to face up to it and be prepared to do something about it.

That discrimination takes several forms: in pay; on the ground of pregnancy; through occupational segregation; and—whether deliberate or inadvertent—against people who have caring responsibilities. The insertion in such a Bill of a positive duty on the private sector, suitably calibrated to take account of what private companies can bear in the short, medium and long term, would make a great deal of sense and create equality between the public and private sectors.

The final issue that I wish to consider—simplification—will again warm the cockles of the heart of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). The Government have championed their employment simplification Bill. My understanding is that at least part of its purpose is to bolster the machinery for enforcing the national minimum wage. I said at the outset that I wanted to focus on subjects of particular interest to women. Let us not forget that, in 2006, 870,000 women benefited from the increase in the national minimum wage. Nevertheless, it is striking and salutary that no fewer than 202,000 women did not get the national minimum wage to which they were entitled. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. It is not only unfair to those women but corrodes the principle of the rule of law and the effect of the will of Parliament. In 2004, approximately 1,798 cases demonstrated that people did not get their entitlement, but only 62 enforcement notices and no penalty notices were issued. It is important that several criteria be fulfilled if the employment simplification Bill is to deliver effectively for women.

First, we need to publicise much more widely people’s exact entitlements. Many people, especially those who operate in the twilight zone of low-paid and high-pressure jobs, will not know what is their due. Secondly, there needs to be a much more proactive enforcement policy if people are to get their due rather than be denied it. Thirdly, we need a robust regime of penalties to discourage rogue employers and encourage good practice.

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