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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the previous question, as an MP for a rural area for 12 years, I regularly contact the NFU in my
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area to track its concerns. Indeed, I am seeing the NFU as part of that schedule at Oaks-in-Charnwood on Monday morning. High on the agenda will be bovine TB, which is showing worrying signs of spreading towards our area and thereby posing a threat to herds, farm incomes and, potentially, health. I want to take this discussion to my local farmers, so will my right hon. Friend elaborate a little on his answer to the previous question?

Hilary Benn: In the interests of time and in keeping with the spirit of topical questions, I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend with further details. In the end, this is about doing things that will work. No one would thank us if we did things that did not work, although I understand just how difficult it is for the farmers who are affected by bovine TB. The testing programme that we have put in place is, in large part, about trying to stem the spread to other areas of the country.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) asked about DEFRA’s budget, could the Secretary of State tell us what informed his statement that his Department’s budget would be reduced from 2011 and say when he will publish details of what that means for DEFRA and the people whom it serves?

Hilary Benn: I did not say what the right hon. Gentleman has just indicated. What I was referring to last week was the published figures—they have been out for some time, although I realise that it has taken other people a little while to see them——which show the change between 2009-10 and 2010-11. As he will be aware, there are no budget figures beyond 2010-11, because that would be the subject of a future comprehensive spending review. What we are doing, as indicated earlier by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris), is spending money efficiently. However, like him, I am a little loth to take advice from a party that would cut budgets across the piece now.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend inform the House when Ministers last met the waste industry with a view to considering proposals to reduce the amount of packaging and waste produced, the amount of waste going to landfill and the amount going into the production of energy? If we reduce the amount going to landfill, we will have more for energy.

Hilary Benn: We meet representatives of the waste industry on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, as the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wansdyke (Dan Norris) indicated in answer to an earlier question, we have seen progress in recent years in increasing the proportion of packaging being recycled. However, my hon. Friend is correct: the other part of the equation is about trying to reduce the amount of packaging that goes on goods in the first place.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What steps is the Secretary of State taking to stop or at least mitigate the worst effects of the introduction of electronic sheep tagging, which will have a disastrous effect on the farmers and crofters in my constituency?
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NFU Scotland is seeking a face-to-face meeting with Commissioner Vassiliou. Will the Secretary of State use his office to get NFU Scotland that meeting, so that it can put its concerns straight at the heart of matter?

Hilary Benn: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have worked very hard to express the concerns of many people in the UK about the cost of electronic identification of sheep. He will also be aware of the changes that we have been able to get to the implementation of the directive under the slaughter derogation, and of the fact that the Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health is looking at the idea of third-party recording, which would lift some of the burden that would otherwise fall on sheep farmers. I recently wrote to all my fellow Agriculture Ministers urging further
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support, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State raised the issue with the Commissioner at the recent meeting of the Agriculture Council.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): As nationalisation is the flavour of the month, has the Secretary of State considered taking Dairy Farmers of Britain’s dairies at Bridgend and Blaydon into temporary public ownership?

Hilary Benn: No, we have not. However, as I told the House last week, we indicated to the receiver that we and One NorthEast would be prepared to offer financial support to keep the Blaydon dairy open while an effort was made to find a management buy-out. Unfortunately, it was not possible to achieve that and, for that reason, the dairy closed.

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Business of the House

11.30 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I invite the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming parliamentary business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 6 July—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Young People in the Recession”, followed by a debate entitled “ID Cards”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Tuesday 7 July—Remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 8 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill (day 2).

Thursday 9 July—Motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2009, followed by motion to approve the draft Council Tax Limitation (Maximum Amounts) (England) Order 2009, followed by a topical debate, subject to be announced.

The provisional business for the week commencing 13 July will include:

Monday 13 July—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 14 July—Remaining stages of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 15 July—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 16 July—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on the climate change preparation for the Copenhagen conference.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 16 July will be:

Thursday 16 July—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on housing and the credit crunch.

Alan Duncan: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business, and may I also thank her for at last getting this year’s draft legislative programme published? But will she explain what on earth has happened to the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill? The former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), championed it on Second Reading almost exactly a month ago, and resigned three days later. Two new Ministers turned up to steer the Bill through the Committee, one of whom, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), arrived on the first day from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and left on the last day for the Treasury. Now we learn from the draft legislative programme that there is to be a local democratic renewal consultation. Do the Government plan to run this consultation concurrently with the Bill? If so, what is the point of a Bill that precedes consultation? If not, are Ministers so ashamed of the Bill that they simply plan to junk it altogether?

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Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us what has happened to the motion that she agreed to table to refer the question of privilege raised by the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) to the Committee on Standards and Privileges? We were led to believe that this should have happened this week or even last week. After many months, this delay is not just annoying; it is beginning to get a bit rude. Will she definitely confirm that the motion will be tabled without further delay?

Talking about delays, may we have a statement on the time taken by Treasury Ministers to reply to Members’ letters? Apparently, in some cases, it has taken six months to get a response to what are often urgent constituency cases. That is shameful incompetence. I understand that the Ministers are all very busy trying to explain to the Prime Minister that there is no more money in the kitty, but may I ask the right hon. and learned Lady to remind them that their duty is to this House, and that Members who raise the plight of their constituents with them expect a prompt and full response?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

Yet later that day, No. 10 briefed that the Prime Minister had not confirmed a delay to the spending review. It is impossible to get a straight answer from anyone in the Government. Given that the Chancellor was forced to rebut the noble Lord Mandelson’s suggestion earlier this week that the autumn statement would be binned, will the right hon. and learned Lady tell us who is telling the truth and whether the Government will publish their spending plans before the next election?

May we have an urgent debate on the plight of students from poorer families under this Government? In the Prime Minister’s first week in Downing street, he said that teenagers from less well-off families would be guaranteed greater support at university. Now we learn from a written statement from the higher education Minister that the Government have totally backtracked on that pledge. Student grants are to be frozen, while tuition fees are to be increased. Is that not just a further indication that the Prime Minister is incapable of being straight with people and that his cuts in financial support will undeniably mean that poorer students will struggle to get through their degrees?

I received a letter this morning from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Equitable Life. He says—slightly ambiguously in the manner of writing, I have to say—that there will be a statement before the House rises to update us on the progress of Sir John Chadwick, but will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that this will definitely be a full oral statement, which will allow the House the opportunity to question the Minister on the Government’s plans to compensate those who have lost out? Does she appreciate that a written statement would be an insult to this House?

Finally, may we have a statement on vandalism in this House? Indeed, may we have an inquiry into who has been regularly defacing the Dispatch Box opposite me and in front of the right hon. and learned Lady? It would appear—I can see it from here—that the culprit strikes once a week with a black felt-tipped pen, and detectives have already noted that the gravest occurrence seems to be on a Wednesday each week at around
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midday? Does the Leader of the House have any inkling of who the culprit might be, and is she prepared to reprimand him in the strongest possible terms?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked me about privilege and what happened with the office of the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). As he will remember, the House decided, following a request from the then Speaker, that a Speaker’s Committee would be established to look into search powers and the arrival of police on House premises. It was decided to set up such a Committee, but not before the police action had concluded, since when the shadow Leader of the House has asked for wider questions relating to privilege and criminal proceedings to be looked at. Discussions are under way on whether a two-pronged approach, involving the Standards and Privileges Committee as well as the Speaker’s Committee, may be necessary.

I have agreed with the hon. Gentleman that we should look more widely than at questions of search and seizure and take the whole question of privilege into account. What still needs to be finalised is whether we need the two Committees to achieve that or just the one. The shadow Leader of the House rolls his eyes, but I want to get right the number of Committees—not too many or too few—to deal with these issues.

We have agreed on the terms of reference, but we have not quite got there on the question of who should undertake the review. I hope and expect that we will get there in good time—possibly next week. With any luck, and if we can get agreement, we may not need a debate; we can just put it through on agreement, which is what I am aiming for. Sure as hell, if I put it through and get it wrong, there will be lengthy debates about it, which would be problematic. I know that the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members will co-operate fully to achieve consensus so that we will not have to debate it further.

Of course Treasury Ministers are accountable to the House. It is important for there to be full accountability both in relation to parliamentary questions, written and oral, and in relation to letters from constituents. I know that the Deputy Leader of the House keeps a close eye on the issue of responses to questions, and I will look into the position at the Treasury.

Incidentally, what was said about Business Ministers’ reply times confused the issue of letters from the public with that of letters from Members of Parliament. Obviously all letters should be answered promptly and effectively, but Members of Parliament must have priority.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about the spending review. As he will know, we have set out the plans for all Departments’ spending until April 2011. In the past, they were informed of their spending only yearly.

As for students from poorer families, since we came to power we have made increasing access to further and higher education a massive priority, particularly in constituencies such as mine where, in some instances, no member of the student’s family has taken part in it. In my constituency alone, there has been a 300 per cent. increase in the number of young people going into further and higher education. That is due to a combination of increasing investment from the public purse and increasing investment from students—they pay the money back, but only when they obtain jobs—as well as extra
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grants and loans. I think that our record in helping young people enter further and higher education speaks for itself, and I must point out that the Opposition have never proposed, or even supported, an increase in provision.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will update the House on Equitable Life. I cannot yet say what form the update will take, but I am in no doubt about the keen interest in the issue among constituents of Members in all parts of the House, and I shall make that clear to the Treasury.

Alan Duncan: And the vandalism?

Ms Harman: That is not a matter for business questions.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Many of our constituents rely on the services of Royal Mail, especially in rural north-east Scotland, and on the services provided by the Post Office. There has been a great deal of uncertainty and upheaval for both the Post Office and Royal Mail. We now hear that the Royal Mail Bill is finally dead, but what will the Government do to sustain the universal service and bring about the promised and much-needed reform of the regulator? Will another Bill be drafted in narrower terms to deal with the regulatory problems facing the Post Office?

The Leader of the House said—and I want to reinforce the point—that there should be an oral statement about Equitable Life from a Treasury Minister. It is rather worrying that it is not yet clear whether that will happen.

I am pleased that there is to be a debate on identity cards. I hope the Leader of the House will ensure that the Minister who responds to it will brief the House on just how much money has been wasted on them to date.

I hope that the Leader of the House has had a chance to study Hansard over the last three days. If so, she will have noted how difficult it was for Parliament to scrutinise the Parliamentary Standards Bill, and the trouble caused by the conflict with Parliament and privilege that resulted from its original drafting. Will she ensure that, when Lords amendments return to the House of Commons, there is plenty of time for them to be debated on the Floor of the House before the recess? It has not yet been announced when that will happen, but it is clear from the state in which the Bill left this House that a great many changes will need to be made in the House of Lords, and we must have time for them to be debated properly.

We will soon have a long recess in which Parliament will not be informed of events of national and major importance. Today, there is a major troop surge in Afghanistan. Will she make sure that the House is given a full briefing before we rise on the situation in Afghanistan and developments with that troop surge?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asks about Royal Mail. We remain concerned that there should be fairer arrangements between Royal Mail and private mail services, and about the unlevel playing field in regulation. That remains a problem, and it will need to be addressed. We are determined that the pension fund liabilities should be met. But, as the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills said in the Lords yesterday,

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