The Leader of the House will be most pleased when she reads what the hon. Gentleman said. She particularly asked me to mention the excellent
work that is being done by the Damilola Taylor Trust for deprived young people in London, and I am sure that she will be pleased to see his remarks about that.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the handling of the Finance Bill in Committee of the whole House on Monday and Tuesday. As he knows, we voted last Monday to devote two days to those proceedings. As he also knows, the selection of amendments is a matter for the Speaker, not for the Leader of the House. I am sure that we will balance the importance of this issue against the other important tax measures that we are to discuss. I do not, however, fully accept his characterisation of working tax credits, which, in truth, have helped and continue to help 6 million households and 10 million children.
Turning to the hon. Gentlemans questions about the Energy Bill, fuel poverty is of course one of the issues that can be raised in the debate next Wednesday. I am not sure from his remarks whether he is fully aware that the energy companies are now putting in £100 million, £125 million and £150 million to support vulnerable customers over the next three years. That has to be set alongside the perfectly legitimate questions that he raised.
I will take the hon. Gentlemans remarks about the importance of affordable house building as a suggestion for a topical debate, if I may. I am not sure whether he knows that the target for building 200,000 houses includes 70,000 per year that should be affordable.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that given the strong emotions, fears and opinions expressed by some about a few controversial aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, additional time should be allocated to debate those matters on the Floor of this House, not just in Committee?
Helen Goodman: I do understand the importance of the issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. That importance is the reason why all parties have agreed to give their Members free votes on the ethical issues that are contained within it. We will take account of my hon. Friends point when we come to the timetabling, which will be announced in the business statement of the preceding week.
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): When Sir John Baker reports to the House in the next few weeks on Members pay, will that be the last word that will be said on the next settlement, or will it merely be part of a report on the process for the future?
Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the last word will be had by this House when it debates the Baker report, which will, as I am sure he also knows, examine two thingsnot only the comparator and the settlement in the current year but how to establish an independent mechanism, which the whole House voted for in January. He can rest assured that he and all hon. Members will have an opportunity to come back before the summer recess to discuss that important issue.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab):
Will my hon. Friend allow the House an early opportunity for an oral statement or a debate on the effectiveness of British
humanitarian aid to Gaza? Those of us who were in that sad territory last week found that apart from food aid, no aid at all is being effective in that area because of the complete closure of the territorys borders that Israel has imposed. That territory is on the verge of total collapse, and I do not believe the aid that we have promised is getting through and doing what it should, whether it is bilateral, European or United Nations aid.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): May I revert to the question asked by the shadow Deputy Leader of the House as to whether there is to be an oral statement on the NATO summit, to which I am afraid we heard no answer? It seems irrefutable that on Sunday Russia shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle owned and flown by Georgia. Last week, Russia appeared to take legal steps to recognise separatists in Georgia. The Defence Committee has just produced a major report about NATO suggesting that there is a crisis of political will in NATO. What is happening in Afghanistan at the moment requires an oral statement on the Floor of the House. Why on earth is this the first time for decades that there has not been one?
Helen Goodman: The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I will consider his request. However, I just announced that a week on Thursday there will be a general debate on defence in the world, and he will be able to raise those issues then.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that it was a matter of public debate as to whether St. Georges day should become a bank holiday, so as part of and in the spirit of that, may we have a debate in this House so that Members can express their support for that long overdue measure?
Helen Goodman: I will take that as another request for a topical debate. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that under this Labour Government peoples entitlement to take bank holidays has already been increased by four days, and in a years time they will get a further four days guaranteed bank holidays.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP):
As diesel in my constituency costs up to £1.33 per litre, the Chancellor is probably getting more of that sort of revenue from my constituents than from anybody else. Could we have a debate on looking to introduce a system of fuel duty taxation in rural Scotland and the Scottish islands similar to that in rural France, where duty is cut by 3 per cent.? I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will make time for such a debate.
If such a measure were introduced, the Chancellor would still be getting more fuel duty from my constituency than anywhere else.
Helen Goodman: If the hon. Gentleman had serious proposals on the taxation of fuel, he should have tabled an amendment to the Finance Bill, and he could have had the opportunity to debate it properly next week. What he is saying is absolutely typical of the irresponsible approach his party takes to this matter.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend organise an early debate on the useor possible misuseof health service records? I am raising this issue because my constituents, Mr. Wood and Mr. Womble of Handsworth, Sheffield, received a survey asking for their views on the NHS. There is nothing strange about that, except that no one else in the area received it, and they had both recently had hospital appointments. My colleagues who are also Sheffield Members of Parliament have constituents who received the same survey, all of whom had recently had hospital appointments. I am asking for a debate and an inquiry by the Secretary of State because the surveys were produced not by any organisation connected with the health service, but by the Lib Dems in conjunction with their local election campaign.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend has raised an issue of huge concern. I know that the Department of Health is looking into the matter. It is absolutely vital that peoples personal information remain personal and that they can trust the NHS to look after it properly.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Has the Deputy Leader of the House or her right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House yet had time to reflect fully on the latest report from the Procedure Committee, which recommends that the House introduce a system of electronic petitioning? Does she agree that in order better to look after those whom we serve, we need to recognise that the internet is here to stay, and to amend some of our procedures accordingly? When can we expect a Government response?
Helen Goodman: I am not exactly going to give in to it, but I will respond to the helpful report from the Procedure Committee on this important question. Of course, it is vital that we maintain and strengthen connections between citizens and Parliament. Petitioning is clearly an important channel for doing that. We will study the matter seriously and come back with a response soon.
[That this House is alarmed by the proposal of INEOS to reduce the pension rights of the workforce at the former BP oil refinery and chemicals complex at Grangemouth, Scotland, from that which had been part of the terms and conditions of employment of the
workforce when INEOS bought the BP site; acknowledges that the INEOS proposal is to create a two-tier workforce with all new employees being denied a final salary pension; notes that as a result of the new proposal 97 per cent. of trade union members in an 86 per cent. ballot return voted for strike action after exhaustive negotiations; expresses concern at the aggressive tactics of INEOS senior management in undermining the agreed consultative processes; and supports the efforts of the INEOS workforce and their trade union UNITE to sustain existing pension arrangements on this very profitable complex for the benefit of all current and future employees.]
I thank the House authorities for organising a statement on the situation at Grangemouth after this Question Time, but could my hon. Friend ask the Scotland Office to co-operate with the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs to set up an inquiry into the promises made when BP sold the facility to INEOS, including the pensions now being attacked, and into the closures that have taken place on that site since INEOS bought the plant? We need to compare the promises made with the reality of that companys behaviour in Scotland.
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but he might produce a more significant result if he made it after the statement by the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which is to follow. Perhaps he would like to do that.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The hon. Lady has been very helpful with regard to the ongoing situation of Southwest One in the county of Somerset. I have subsequently learned something about it, so could we have a debate on the matter? The Governments consultancy body, 4ps, was brought in to sort out the deal in Somerset. It was fired, and another company was brought in. That company made it clear that it was accredited by the Governments consultants, 4ps, which is a blatant lie put out by the county council and the chief executive of the county. This matter has now cost the county of Somerset more than half a billion pounds and 1,400 jobs. Unless the situation is sorted out rapidly, through a debate in this House so that we can get to the bottom of the deal, it will rebound badly not only on the Government but on the taxpayers of Somerset.
Helen Goodman: I took up the matter when the hon. Gentleman raised it before, and I thought we had agreed that it was not a political matter. I do not know whether he has been in touch with the National Audit Office, as I suggestedI see that he has. To get to the bottom of the matter, we need to use the institutions available to us, and the NAO is excellent in such situations.
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When can we have an educational debate in the House to inform the Conservatives about one of this Governments best reforms? Probably one of the most serious reforms to go through this House in the past 10 years is the establishment of the UK Statistics Authority, which in its compilation and publication of statistics will be free from interference from political parties or any political narrative. Is it not disappointing that less than a month after it was set up, the Conservative party is trying to interfere with the work of the authority
Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is right in that the new independent Statistics Authority that we set up under legislation earlier this month will firmly guarantee the independence of statistics. He may also be aware that scrutiny of the authority will be carried out by the Public Administration Committee. I hope that it will be able to consider the authoritys work. As he knows, all Select Committee reports may be debated in Westminster Hall.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May we have an urgent debate on the activities of the Driving Standards Agency and its attitude to public service? The agency is about to close the driving test centre in Trowbridge, which means that my constituents will have to make a 46-mile round trip to Chippenham, not only to take a test but to practise for one. When the new enhanced motorcycle test begins later this year, they will have to go to Exeter. To put that into context for people who do not know the geography of the west country, that journey is equivalent to someone from central London having to go to Maidstone for a car test and to Eastbourne for a motorcycle test. Is that an acceptable standard of public service?
[That this House calls for an investigation into Newcastle-under-Lyme's Conservative- and Liberal Democrat-led Council's handling of the writing off of business rates owed by companies co-owned by Peter Whieldon, a Conservative councillor for the Seabridge ward; notes that on 28th March 2007, the Borough Cabinet agreed to write off amounts of £16,618 and £13,300 in business rates owed by two of Mr Whieldon's insolvent companies in respect of the Albion Pub in Newcastle; notes, too, that on 26th March 2008 the Cabinet agreed to write off a further £13,441 owed by another insolvent company, also co-owned by Mr Whieldon; recognises further that Mr Whieldon is still trading through new companies at several licensed premises in Newcastle and Stoke-on-Trent, including the Albion; notes that the Conservative and Liberal Democratic leadership of Newcastle Council has so far kept these write-offs confidential, notwithstanding his status as a councillor; regrets, therefore, the shameful failure of the council to bring this to the attention of council tax and business rate payers in the borough, and electors in Seabridge ward, through a public statement; believes that this failure exhibits a gross error of judgment by the Council, which also is to the detriment of local businesses that compete fairly for trade, pay their business rates and settle all their debts; and further calls, therefore, for an explanation in the public interest by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership of the Council of its handling of this affair.]
May we have a debate on that motion and early-day motions 1364 and 1365, which I tabled this week? They concern the conduct of Newcastle-under-Lyme borough councillor, Peter Whieldon, whose companies have left a trail of debt across north Staffordshire, including more than £100,000 in business rates owed to Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent councils.
Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that it would be entirely proper to have a debate in this place on what constitutes unethical behaviour by councillors, and on the importance of strong political leadership in exposing such conduct in the public interest, which has been sadly lacking in the case of Newcastle-under-Lyme borough council in this case? It knew about his conduct, and wrote off his business debts behind closed doors, making no public statement. Disgracefully, Mr. Whieldon is again standing as a Conservative council candidate in these elections.
Helen Goodman: I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend on raising that serious matter of quite disgraceful behaviour by the individual in question and the council. I will take his proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Most of our constituents and most of us accept that we will need more houses in our country over the next 20 years. My democratically elected district council decided that we would need about 6,000 in Salisbury. The South West regional assembly said that we might need 8,000. The Government then imposed 12,400 without consultation. Last night, there was a meeting of 1,000 of my constituents in Salisbury city hall to express their outrage at this top-down planning imposition. May we have a debate on the local development framework and preferred housing options to see whether the Government really believe that housing problems can be dealt with by imposition from Whitehall, rather than by organic, sustainable growth from the bottom up?
Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman must appreciate that there is a serious housing shortage in this country and that, if we are to alleviate it, houses must be built. The Governments targets for house building are designed to ensure that everybody can live in decent homes. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly free to apply for an Adjournment debate.
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Last week, I was privileged to lead the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Israel and the occupied territories, to which my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) has already referred. The seriousness of the crisis is demonstrated by Shifa hospitalthe main trauma hospital for the Gaza stripwhich already regularly generates its own electricity. It pointed out that if its electricity supply failed, it would lose 80 patients in 30 minutes, and that if electricity failed for a week, an additional 250 dialysis patients would also die. The Quartet meets next week in London, where another important meeting will also take place of those who donate money to help Gazans and others in the occupied territories. May I echo my hon. Friends request for at least a statement after those two meetings, the week after next?