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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): The hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Mrs. Hodgson) raised an important issue about the funding for Rape Crisis centres, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). My constituents in Berkshire have no Rape Crisis centre in Berkshire, but they access one in High Wycombe, whose funding is also under threat. It may have to close next March. The Minister for Women and Equality has said:

We are committed to providing funding to Rape Crisis centres on a three-year basis, to give them greater stability in their funding. Will the Government now adopt our very sensible idea?

Barbara Follett: When the Government came to power 10 years ago, the funding for Rape Crisis centres was £500,000 a year; we have increased that to £3 million. However, I hear what the right hon. Lady is saying, and I will consider the matter in discussions with colleagues.

Government Policy

25. Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on co-ordinating Government policy on women and equality issues. [173633]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): Once again, I have regular discussions with colleagues across Government on that matter. We are working constructively together to implement the Government’s priorities for women, and I am committed to developing a cross-Government strategy on equalities and implementing our equalities public service agreement.

Mr. Fraser: The women and equality unit was previously part of the Department of Trade and Industry. It was then transferred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Now it is responsible to the newly created Government Equalities Office, which is an offshoot of the Department for Work and Pensions. Given this game of pass the parcel, does the Minister accept that the public do not believe that the Government take the issue seriously? When will responsibility move again?

Barbara Follett: I am afraid I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. What is important is the work that we do, not the structures within Government, which is an arcane and byzantine subject in which most members of the public are not in the least interested.

Flexible Working

26. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage workplaces to offer flexible working to full-time staff and to help with childcare arrangements during school holidays. [173634]

The Minister for Equality (Barbara Follett): We have given over 6 million people—parents of young and disabled children and carers of adults—the right to
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request flexible working, and more than doubled the number of registered child care places. We recently announced that we will extend the right to request flexible working to the parents of older children.

Ben Chapman: But is my hon. Friend satisfied that charges for child care are always reasonable? What about the arrangements during the school holidays?

Barbara Follett: As the mother of five, I understand the problems faced by parents during holidays; that was the moment when my heart sank. We have asked local authorities to assess whether they have sufficient child care for working parents. That, I hope, will help to address part of the problem.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Members’ Salaries

31. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): When she next plans to bring forward proposals for hon. and right hon. Members’ salaries. [173660]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): An announcement on the Senior Salaries Review Body review of parliamentary pay, pensions and allowances will be made in the new year.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply—not terribly helpful, but a little helpful. The Government have had the SSRB report for six months. Why have they delayed publishing it so that the House can debate the recommendations? As a long-serving Member of the House, I am concerned about the position of all Members of the House and their salary, which should be dealt with fairly. Bearing in mind the fact that the increases over the past five years have been below the retail prices index and the average earnings index, is it not appropriate that the recommendations of the SSRB should be put to the House so that the House can reach a decision?

Helen Goodman: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but I have looked back over what happened in previous years. It generally takes three to six months. That is because all Governments want to give the SSRB report proper consideration. The hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members will have an opportunity to make their views known in the debate in the new year.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that I have already made my mind up on the matter? We had a discussion about it last week in business questions. I find it odd that Tory MPs keep raising the matter. I am more concerned about nurses on 2 per cent. and police officers on 1.9 per cent. I have a good suggestion: make sure that the document goes to the Home Secretary so that she can have a look at it. Then she can put it where it belongs.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to table amendments before the debate. He is absolutely right that the Government’s pay policy is designed to be fair and affordable and to keep inflation down.

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Parliamentary Questions

32. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What assessment she has made of the quality of Ministers’ responses to written parliamentary questions. [173661]

34. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What assessment she has made of the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions. [173663]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): Ministers are fully aware of their responsibilities to the House in respect of written questions. The Leader of the House keeps the quality of Ministers’ answers to written parliamentary questions under continuous review.

Mr. Amess: That answer will not do. The hon. Lady may treat the general public with contempt until the next general election, but the House of Commons deserves a better response than that. The hon. Lady, together with the Leader of the House, knows perfectly well that the quality of responses is appalling. Only too often, Departments answer questions that they wish they had been asked, rather than those they actually were asked. I am asking the hon. Lady’s colleague, the Leader of the House, to undertake a proper review of the quality of Departments’ responses. If the right hon. and learned Lady finds that the quality is poor, she should do something about it.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; answers must be accurate, timely and truthful. That is fully set out in the ministerial code, which the Prime Minister reissued in the summer and which reflects the resolution of the House from 1997. The hon. Gentleman should also be aware that the Procedure Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into written questions. Its terms of reference are:

We look forward to receiving that report and to responding to any recommendations that are made.

Mr. Dunne: Is the Minister aware of the inconsistent treatment of questions asked by Members of this House? I am thinking in particular of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who on some occasions will choose to answer colleagues’ questions but on others will choose to send them to the agency concerned. At the moment, the Institute for Animal Health is being dealt with very poorly; it is expected to respond to some questions, although the Minister has answered others.

Helen Goodman: I was not aware of that particular problem. If the hon. Gentleman writes with specific examples, we will be happy to look into them.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Long-serving colleagues tell me that although the quality of written answers has not deteriorated since 1997, it
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has not improved to any great extent. What advice would my hon. Friend give those treated with replies that are cursory to the point of disdain in trying to hide information—replies, for instance, to questions about the entertainment and hospitality record of senior civil servants with the private sector, which I have been pursuing for some weeks now? It should not be necessary to obtain an Adjournment debate or engage in extensive correspondence with Ministers to pursue such issues, should it?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend, a particularly assiduous Member of the House, is right. I am sure he is fully aware of all the routes that can be explored—further questions, writing to the Minister, contacting the Leader of the House and referring the issue to the Public Administration Committee. However, I agree that that should not be necessary.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): We will, of course, wait for the Procedure Committee’s report and recommendations. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), for example, has given evidence that fewer than half of questions on tax credits got proper answers, and the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) has said that fewer than a quarter of the questions tabled for a named day to the Ministry of Defence were answered on the named day. Performance must improve next year. To link to an earlier question, would the Deputy Leader of the House consider performance-related pay for Ministers that would depend on their performance in answering questions to Parliament?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman will be free to make that suggestion in January. As we consider the performance of different Departments, it is important that we take account of the fact that it can vary over time, depending on the sorts of issues that Members are interested in and whether Departments have to answer a particularly large number of questions. One of the things that the Procedure Committee will address is the impact of the doubling or trebling of written questions in the past 20 years.

Oral Statements

33. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the procedures for oral statements by Ministers. [173662]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): Oral statements are one of the most valued and effective parts of the House’s proceedings. The Government have no plans to propose any changes to present procedures, although we are always open to representations from hon. Members on this, as on other matters.

John Bercow: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House, but I fear that she has not yet caught up with herself, for there has at least been one change recently, and that is the move to notify right hon. and hon. Members some days in advance of the intended date of statements. May I, however, put it to her that the change will remain in practice more symbolic than real if the Government continue their usual incorrigible
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practice of telling the world’s media the contents of statements well before they inform the House? Would it not concentrate minds if such conduct constituted a breach of the ministerial code?

Helen Goodman: On the hon. Gentleman’s first point, that was, as he says, an innovation made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice only at the beginning of this year. I think that if the hon. Gentleman looks at the facts he will find that under this Government there has not been a large number of pre-announcements to the media. [ Laughter. ] There has not. If he has specific examples, perhaps he could give them to me.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Can the Speaker bring a few examples?

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am happy to oblige the House myself with an example that occurred only this week. On Tuesday, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary told The Guardian that every secondary school pupil would have a personal mentor, told The Times that head teachers will have to work with social workers and the police, and told The Daily Telegraph that he would use e-mail and text to monitor pupil attendance. Then he came to the House to make a statement. If Ministers respect Parliament as she and the Leader of the House say that they do, why was this widely leaked before it was announced to the House, and why do Ministers behave like this every single week?

Helen Goodman: If the right hon. Lady is complaining about the media putting together well researched news stories on the basis of consultation documents and White Papers that have already been issued, that is a matter for her. Had she been in the Chamber to hear the Secretary of State’s statement, she would have known that the House was the first to hear about the allocation of more than £200 million for graduates in nurseries, the decision to allow Ofsted to lead a review on special educational needs, the proposal to spend £220 million on play facilities in 3,500 playgrounds across the country, and the decision to make all schools zero carbon by 2016.

Voting Rights

35. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on right hon. and hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies voting on matters relating to England where responsibility for such matters in Scotland has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament. [173664]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The Prime Minister set out the Government’s policy to the House on 3 July. The Government do not accept that there should be any discrimination in the rights of hon. Members to take part in the business before the House. English votes for English laws would lead to the break-up of the Union. This Government believe in the Union and will do nothing to harm it. Constitutional issues are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

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Mr. Evennett: I am naturally disappointed by the Minister’s response. As a great supporter of the Union, does she share my concerns about the growing sense of unfairness felt among English voters about this issue? Surely the Government should be doing something to address it for the sake of our democracy.

Helen Goodman: I think that the hon. Gentleman tabled his question before the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made his speech in Edinburgh on Monday, in which he said:

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Food Allergies

36. Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): What policies the Refreshment Department has to cater for people with food allergies. [173665]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): Dishes suitable for those with gluten allergies are identified and indicated on all menus, as are dishes suitable for vegetarians, and healthy options. If applicable, menus will state that dishes contain nuts or traces of nuts, and further training for all catering staff on allergen awareness will begin in March and run through till May of next year.

Jo Swinson: I appreciate that reply, but like so many restaurants and catering outlets these days, the House Refreshment Department covers itself with a legal disclaimer on every menu that says:

Given that well over 50 people working on the Commons estate have a nut allergy, is it not ridiculous
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to expect them to ask every day which dishes have nuts? Would it not be easier to have a small symbol on the menu indicating those dishes?

Nick Harvey: I am aware that my hon. Friend is among those who suffer from nut allergies. The House is developing its processes and practices in consultation with experts in the field. If my hon. Friend has some particular point she would like to suggest that would improve the practice, I will be pleased to arrange a meeting with the director of catering.

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