26 Apr 2012 : Column 1077

House of Commons

Thursday 26 April 2012

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Quality

1. Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): What plans she has to improve air quality. [105403]

5. Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What plans she has to improve air quality. [105407]

10. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): What plans she has to improve air quality. [105412]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): As you know, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for food and farming, is not here today as he is representing the UK at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council.

Air quality in the UK is much improved, though more needs to be done, especially in cities, where transport is the main issue. We must strike a balance between protecting health and the environment and supporting sustainable economic growth. Working with local authorities and others, we are investing significantly in cleaner, more sustainable transport. Underperformance against European vehicle emissions standards is making compliance on nitrogen dioxide challenging for us and many other member states.

Jonathan Reynolds: I welcome the Minister’s comments about air quality in cities, but I understand that air quality compliance in Greater Manchester and 16 other areas in the UK will now not be reached until 2020. Given the heavily congested roads, such as the A57, which goes through Mottram and Hollingworth in my constituency, I am not surprised. The A57 goes past Hollingworth primary school. How many children in England and Wales as a whole live or go to school within 150 metres of roads carrying 10,000 vehicles or more on average? Does the Minister feel that the Government’s strategy is adequate to improve air quality for them?

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1078

Richard Benyon: DEFRA does not hold information on the location of schools. Local authorities have duties to improve air quality and the responsibility is shared between Government and local authorities. We have provided funding for a range of possibilities, including green transport initiatives, and many local authorities are responding really well. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are real challenges in some urban areas, particularly with nitrogen dioxide levels. We are seeking to assist local authorities in trying to deal with hot spots, particularly when they are close to schools.

Mr Tom Clarke: Will the Minister tell the House the Government’s latest estimate, in percentage terms, of annual exposure to nitrogen dioxide for the poorest quintile of the population in England and Wales compared with the wealthiest?

Richard Benyon: The way in which member states quantify where they stand with regard to air pollution varies. In this country, we have a very rigorous system that divides the country into 43 air quality zones. If one area in a zone is failing, the whole zone is deemed to have failed. It is up to local authorities to work with the Government to deal with problems when they occur, when there are high levels of deprivation and, as the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned, around schools. It is important that local authorities with access to that information use the funding that the Government give to address problems with air quality.

John McDonnell: When people enter this country—for example, to visit the Olympics—they land in the most air polluted area of the country. The Mayor’s strategy does not seem to have worked, the local air quality management zone has barely scraped the surface and we need a fresh initiative. Will the Minister meet me, a delegation of local councillors and others to see whether we can launch a fresh initiative, particularly around the Heathrow area?

Richard Benyon: I know that the hon. Gentleman works closely with agencies in the area, particularly on air quality issues emanating from Heathrow. My noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who leads on this issue, will, I am sure, be willing to meet him and others to ensure that there are local strategies. I should point out that the Mayor, through his air quality strategy, has addressed many of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. We are starting to see improvements in a number of areas and I look forward to being able to report improvements in London for 2011.

Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Will my hon. Friend update the House on progress to improve air quality through the work of the clean air fund?

Richard Benyon: Clean air fund measures are locally targeted to reduce PM10s by 10% to 20%. They include green infrastructure, dust suppressants, retrofitted buses and dealing with traffic hot spots where the stop-start of traffic has caused severe or marked increases in air pollution.

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Unbelievable! This is the second biggest public health challenge that the country faces, but all we have are excuses and

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1079

inaction from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. With an estimated 29,000 premature—

[

Interruption.

]

We are talking about premature deaths, so I think that Government Members should quieten down. With an estimated 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK from air pollution, why does the only action taken by DEFRA try to weaken EU laws that seek to protect the public?

Richard Benyon: That last point is completely wrong. In fact, there is a meeting next week in Geneva on the measures that we have taken as part of the Gothenburg agreement that will result in further improvements in air quality. There is no doubt that air quality has a marked effect on people’s health, particularly if they suffer from heart or lung conditions. We have begun to improve things, but a big challenge remains in London. The Mayor inherited poor air-quality conditions and, as a result of his strategy, we have begun to see big improvements.

Dangerous Dogs

2. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. [105404]

6. Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. [105408]

9. Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. [105411]

12. Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. [105414]

13. John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): What her policy is on the control of dangerous dogs and tackling irresponsible dog owners; and if she will make a statement. [105415]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): I am pleased to say that on 23 April, the Government announced a consultation on measures to tackle irresponsible dog owners. These measures include extending the existing dangerous dogs laws to cover all private property in England and a requirement that all puppies be compulsorily microchipped.

Alex Cunningham: A number of residents in Stillington in my Stockton North constituency are angry that the police and everyone else feel powerless to deal with a dangerous dog in their village just because it has not yet attacked a human being. They fear that a child rather than an animal could be the next victim. Will the Minister explain to the people of Stillington how the proposed legislation will prevent an attack of that nature?

Mrs Spelman: The dangerous dogs legislation already provides powers for the police, and local authorities have powers to tackle the problem of dogs that are

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1080

dangerously out of control. The new measures will bring additional tools to the toolkit. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is absurd that policemen in that village have to think twice about going on to private property to investigate and pursue a possible dangerous dog case because they fear that they are not currently properly protected by the law on private property? The change in the law represents a significant step forward.

Mr McCann: Will the Secretary of State explain how microchipping puppies bred by responsible, registered breeders will deal with those irresponsible back-street breeders who churn out unloved and mistreated, dangerous, status and weapon dogs?

Mrs Spelman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that many animal charities, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, share with the Government a determination to stamp out irresponsible dog breeding. Responsible dog breeders, who already chip their puppies, set an example to all dog breeders on the importance of chipping new-born dogs. The proposed way forward is to encourage chipping of puppies to ensure that at the point of sale we can identify where they have come from.

Luciana Berger: Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), it has taken the Government two years to introduce measures to tackle dangerous dogs. The consultation on dangerous dogs concluded in June 2010, and it is now April 2012. Nothing announced on Monday will prevent dog attacks in the first place. Clarissa Baldwin, the chief executive of the Dogs Trust, said that she was “extremely disillusioned” with the lack of preventive measures in the Government’s announcement. Further to what the Secretary of State has said, the powers that will be extended to cover private property can be applied only when an attack has occurred—they do not prevent an attack in the first place. Will she tell the House how many dog attacks will be prevented as a direct result of the proposals that she announced on Monday?

Mrs Spelman: That is what I think is called a multi-part question. The hon. Lady is new, so she could be forgiven for not knowing that, while her Government recognised the inadequacy of existing legislation, there is a strong cross-party endeavour to deal with this terrible problem. It is complex, which is doubtless part of the reason why her Government did not get on and sort it out. We have proceeded with the consultation. What will help now is the £50,000 that I have given to animal charities and others to help to educate irresponsible dog owners on how to keep better control of their dogs.

Jessica Morden: I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that coverage of the recent dog attacks on police officers in east London was deeply shocking. When will she respond to the requests from the Police Federation and serving front-line police officers for dog control notices, which will help to prevent such attacks? Does she understand the deep frustration of the police at yet another lengthy consultation?

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1081

Mrs Spelman: All of us want to make sure that the police and other professionals are properly protected when they go about visiting private property in the normal course of their duty. The package that we are proposing, which was set out on Monday, includes the extension of powers under the Dangerous Dogs Act to private land. The police have asked for help from the Government with training. I have provided resources to the Association of Chief Police Officers so that every constabulary in the country can have a trained dog officer. Local authorities have at their disposal dog control orders, which they can use to assist the police in dealing with this difficult and complex problem.

John Woodcock: May I read the Secretary of State what Claire Horton of the Battersea Cats and Dogs Home has to say on the right hon. Lady’s disappointing proposals? She says:

“We question how much a priority tackling irresponsible ownership and improving public safety is for the Government. We fear this is just tinkering around the edges.”

Does the Secretary of State believe that Ms Horton and everyone else is wrong and that she alone is right?

Mrs Spelman: Organisations such as Battersea Dogs Home have a terrible problem on their hands. Dogs homes are full to capacity with dogs that have had to be taken from the streets—100,000 strays a year and, tragically, 6,000 of those have to be put down. I am sure Battersea Dogs Home would agree that the measures that we have put in place, giving discretion to the police in relation to impounding a dog, and measures to educate irresponsible owners, as well as the resources that I have given the Battersea Dogs Home to help us tackle this problem, will all be welcomed.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): I welcome the review and consultation. Will the Secretary of State extend the review to the Local Government Act 2010 to see whether the number of stray dogs has gone up since control passed to local authorities? Will she take the opportunity to close the current loophole with respect to attacks by dogs on other dogs and other animals, and extend the livestock provisions on worrying dogs to these other categories?

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee, makes some excellent points. Perhaps they are topics that the Select Committee might be interested in. The worrying of sheep, which is an understatement—it is often the death of sheep as a result of lack of control by the owners of dogs—is a very serious problem. I undertake to look at those issues.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): As a member of the Kennel Club, I can say that the Kennel Club, the Dogs Trust and other responsible dog ownership groups have for a long time argued for microchipping, so my right hon. Friend will no doubt have the full support of all those organisations. Has she had a single constructive suggestion from those on the Opposition Benches on how she might deal with the issue?

Mrs Spelman: The 2010 consultation did indeed show strong support in principle among the public for compulsory microchipping. We are asking people specific, practical questions about how that should be implemented, our

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1082

preference being the compulsory microchipping of puppies because of the additional advantage that it tackles irresponsible dog breeding. Yes, it would have been nice to have a little more cross-party support for an issue that is complicated and which, I know, Opposition Members have regularly taken up, to their credit, requesting the Government to do something. Well, we have, and it would be nice to have that welcomed.

Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Despite the Secretary of State’s well-meaning proposals, does she agree that there is a risk that not one single criminal thug who breeds illegal dogs will go tripping into the vet to have his puppies microchipped, and that her proposals will result in a wonderful database of perfectly legal, decent, middle-class dog owners? It will have no effect whatever on illegal dogs and illegal owners.

Mrs Spelman: Obviously we cannot legislate against every thug. When I visited the RSPCA’s hospital in Harmsworth, what struck me was the consequences of irresponsible dog ownership, both for animals and people. I am very sensitive to the concerns of Opposition Members such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), whose constituent John-Paul Massey was lost as a result of a dangerous dog attack. Perhaps my hon. Friend would focus on the fact that it is the suffering of victims that we are trying to address in this package.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): Who will have access to data on microchipped dogs?

Mrs Spelman: The database is held by my Department.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the burden on the NHS caused by injuries caused by dogs. Will she share with the House the figures for the number of people admitted to hospital with dog-related injuries in 2010?

Mrs Spelman: I am not sure about the number of people admitted to hospital, but the cost to the NHS is £3 million a year. Let us not forget that among the professionals whom we currently ask to take risks by going into private property are midwives and health visitors, and they will be better protected as a result of the extension we propose.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I recently met the father of a little girl from Chingford whose ear was chewed off in a horrific attack in a public park. It was simply heartbreaking to hear how the unrestrained dog attacked, circled and attacked again—like a shark, he said. Victims of dog attacks, together with police officers, health workers, vets and postal workers, have specifically called for powerful new dog control notices that could, for example, force owners to muzzle and restrain aggressive dogs and prevent attacks. Will the Secretary of State explain, not only to the House but to that father and all the victims of dog attacks, why the Government have rejected these new powers that have been demanded, which could tackle irresponsible owners and save young lives and limbs?

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1083

Mrs Spelman: Everybody in this House will want to express their sympathy for families whose children have either been maimed or lost their lives. It is tragic that four of the five most recent fatalities have been children under the age of five. I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s desire not to see that happen again.

With regard to the control of dogs in public places, the Dangerous Dogs Act gives the police powers to do that, including the ability to require the muzzling of dogs. These can be used as conditions for a dog owner retaining ownership of the dog. As I have said, local authorities can also use dog control orders.

Rivers and Waterways

3. Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): What steps she is taking to secure the long-term future of rivers and waterways. [105405]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): We are making excellent progress with our plan to transfer British Waterways’ navigations in England and Wales to the Canal and River Trust: funding has been agreed, the charity has been registered, the board of trustees is in place, the charity’s council has had its first meeting, and recruitment of members of the waterways partnerships is well under way. Subject to parliamentary approval, we plan to transfer the waterways in July, ensuring the network’s long-term future. Much is also being done to improve the quality of our rivers and their surrounding catchments.

Chris Skidmore: The River Avon runs through the bottom of my constituency. Alongside it runs the River Avon trail, a great example of how scenic waterways can be opened up for local people and visitors alike. Will the Minister accept an invitation to come to see at first hand the great work that has been done by those involved in this success?

Richard Benyon: I would certainly like to visit the trail, because I think that it is a wonderful example of how local people and riparian owners, working together, can really improve the quality of people’s lives and of the river. We recently launched our Love Your Rivers campaign, which I extol to Members on both sides of the House, because it is an opportunity to connect local people with their waterways and ensure that they understand that the water we rely on comes from the natural environment and how we can all be responsible for looking after it.

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Having chaired the all-party group on waterways for the past couple of years, I welcome the Minister’s willingness to engage with those who care for the waterways and with parliamentarians on these issues and the steps he has just described. Will he ensure that in future Ministers and officials fully respect the independence of the new Canal and River Trust and its trustees, as that is an essential part of the new structures he is putting in place?

Richard Benyon: May I put on the record my thanks to the right hon. Gentleman—I thank other Members too, but him particularly—for his work in supporting what we have been trying to do? He is a long-standing

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1084

supporter of the waterways. I absolutely assure him that the governance model we have introduced will create an independent organisation that cannot be tampered with by Ministers in future, and certainly not by this Minister, who passionately wants the charity to succeed.

Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): Currently boats are allowed to discharge effluent into rivers and watercourses. I recognise the difficulties with some locations, which are very remote from any practical answer to the problem, but what measures is the Minister taking to call a complete halt to this practice so that the quality of beach bathing water, particularly in the west country, is kept to the very highest standards?

Richard Benyon: Water quality is an absolute fundamental, and releasing pollutants into waterways can affect our ability to comply with the directives that we have signed up to, such as the water framework directive, so it is an absolute priority as well. We have allocated funding to improve water quality. I will certainly look at any regulations, and if the new charity comes forward with suggestions that require legislation on any level, we will certainly consider that.

Agriculture Council

4. Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): What meetings she has had with Ministers from the devolved Administrations to discuss the European Council meeting on Agriculture and Fisheries on 26 and 27 April 2012. [105406]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): May I take this opportunity to explain to the House that I chose to be with hon. Members in the House today rather than to go the negotiations on the common agricultural policy? It is because the next set of oral questions to my Department may clash with the Rio+20 summit.

Normally I would meet Ministers from devolved Administrations to discuss reform of the CAP and the common fisheries policy, which are the main agenda items at today’s Council. I look forward to continuing those discussions, and my next meeting with them will be on 2 May.

It is normal practice for UK lead Ministers to meet Ministers from devolved Administrations before Council meetings, and I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will have done so.

Jonathan Edwards: In a recent major interview with a European publication, the Welsh First Minister said of participation in European meetings:

“It is not enough to be in the room, we have to be at the table as well.”

I certainly could not agree more with him. Under what circumstances would English Agriculture Ministers in the British Government give up the table to Welsh Ministers in European Council meetings, or would Wales get to the table only as an independent state in the European Union?

Mrs Spelman: This matter was discussed in a memorandum of understanding when the coalition Government came into office. I regularly invite devolved

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1085

Ministers to attend Council meetings, and we have on one occasion invited a devolved Minister to speak on behalf of the United Kingdom, but I should like to make two points: the UK is the member state; and as with all devolved nations’ Administrations, when we throw the full weight of the United Kingdom behind the needs of a nation such as Wales, we are more likely to secure what the hon. Gentleman’s nation would like.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Given the global food shortage and rising food prices, in the Council negotiations with other Ministers is the Secretary of State focusing all her attention on how we ensure that we maximise food production by our farmers in order to tackle this crisis?

Mrs Spelman: I certainly am. The European Commission identifies food security and climate change as the twin challenges of CAP reform, but I am on the record as having said that what is proposed is not ambitious enough in that regard. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the United Kingdom is pushing very hard to ensure that the reformed CAP results in more productive and sustainable agriculture, whereby we produce more food both at home and for those in need of it abroad.

Drought

7. Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the extent of drought. [105409]

8. Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What recent discussions she has had on the extent of drought; and if she will make a statement. [105410]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Drought is a natural phenomenon, so with the Environment Agency and water companies we have been drawing up a contingency plan. Since May 2011 we have held three drought summits and established the national drought group to co-ordinate action to manage the impact of the drought. Water companies are taking action to conserve the public water supply, and that is why we put resilience at the heart of the water White Paper.

Bill Esterson: I think the public must question the competence of the Government when it comes to drought orders, given that we are having one of the wettest springs on record, but does the Secretary of State know anybody, or of anybody, who is using their hosepipe in spite of the hosepipe ban?

Mrs Spelman: I could be deluded into thinking that I had the power to make it rain on the basis of this week, but I know that no Government can make it rain. The Government saw the drought coming, warned farmers of the need to make preparations, and said that if we had a second dry winter we would be in a drought situation. The water companies have made the correct decision to introduce temporary restrictions for non-essential uses of domestic water supply in the parts of the country that are water-stressed.

Henry Smith: Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to create

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1086

water interconnectivity between the regions of the United Kingdom, so that we have more of a national grid of water supply?

Mrs Spelman: The Government made it clear in the water White Paper that we published last autumn that we want to see increased connectivity. Water companies are already joining up their sources of supply to help them to move water from areas of plenty to those of greatest need. For example, interconnection exists between United Utilities and the west-east link, and as my hon. Friend will have seen in the press, there is a bulk trading proposal between Severn Trent Water and Anglian Water. Local connectivity is the key, and Ofwat will bring forward proposals for the next price review that will encourage that.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on a shining and rare example of a successful Government policy. Since the drought was declared, it has been pouring with rain and she is in danger of doing a Denis Howell. Does she believe that people with boreholes should comply with any hosepipe ban in their area?

Mrs Spelman: In her kind remark at the beginning, the hon. Lady recalled the plight of one of my west midlands predecessors, Denis Howell, who will be forever remembered as the Minister for Rain who tried to make it rain in 1976. He is fondly remembered.

I encourage people who have borehole capacity on their property to follow the example of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and abide by the restrictions that apply to those who do not have a private supply of water. That is good practice.

Mary Creagh: There is some debate about the Under-Secretary of State’s hosepipe and whether it was left on. We know that the hosepipe ban has prompted—

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Misleading the House!

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) should not accuse another Member of misleading the House. That is improper. I say to him in all charity and kindness that, notwithstanding his great abilities and track record, in his capacity as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister his role is to fetch and carry notes, and to nod as required; it is not to shout and heckle from a sedentary position. He will remain silent.

Mary Creagh rose—

Mr Speaker: Order. I beg the hon. Lady’s pardon. Before we go any further, the hon. Gentleman should immediately withdraw the suggestion or allegation that anyone has misled the House.

Daniel Kawczynski: I withdraw it, Mr Speaker.

Mary Creagh: That is the first time that I have been accused of misleading the House when I have described something as a matter of debate.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1087

The hosepipe ban has prompted a borehole boom. Taking from the groundwater supply affects everyone, because that is the water that fills the reservoirs, rivers and aquifers used by the public mains water supply. The Secretary of State’s water White Paper that was published in December—her definition of “autumn” is slightly unusual—astonished the water industry, because it proposed delaying the reform of water abstraction until 2027. What plans does she have in the meantime to tackle unsustainable water use by the few to preserve drinking water supplies for the many?

Mrs Spelman: The reform of the abstraction regime has, in effect, commenced. At the drought summit in May last year, the stakeholders in the industry agreed that we needed to take a more flexible approach to the present 30,000 abstractions a year to ensure that the water gets to everybody who needs it. The Environment Agency was praised publicly by the stakeholders at the third drought summit for the flexibility and transparency that have been achieved in the existing abstraction system. That does not mean that there is no scope for further improvement. As I said in the water White Paper, because of the challenge of climate change, we need to reform abstraction.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): At the time of the last Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions in March, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sun was shining, and the Secretary of State set out some important measures on drought. I congratulate her on the wettest month in recent years. Notwithstanding that, groundwater and aquifer levels are still low, posing some threat to farmers and habitats in Norfolk. Will she take this opportunity to encourage families around the country to use water judiciously in the home and house to prevent the risk of drought this summer?

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend makes some very helpful points. Although we have had really heavy rainfall this month, that will not be enough to make up for two very dry winters in a row, so it continues to be important that everyone takes responsibility for saving water. The current conditions allow water companies and farmers to top up the reservoirs, which is a good thing, but it is important that we continue to make all the efforts we can to conserve water.

Rural Communities

11. Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): What steps she is taking to ensure that rural communities and businesses are fully engaged with the work of her Department. [105413]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): DEFRA’s new England-wide rural and farming network provides a means of two-way engagement between DEFRA Ministers and 17 rural and farming network groups representing rural communities and businesses. DEFRA Ministers are proactively seeking meetings with those groups to ensure that they are engaged with the work of the Department. DEFRA continues to invest in the rural community action network and holds regular discussions with Lord Teverson’s Rural Coalition.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1088

Nadhim Zahawi: I thank the Minister. Will he join me in congratulating all those involved in the successful bid from Coventry and Warwickshire for a rural growth network, and state how the Department will work with that network to improve engagement with the business community?

Richard Benyon: The cross-party board that examined the 29 applications from local economic partnerships and from some local authorities was really impressed by the rural growth network in my hon. Friend’s constituency. A credible, experienced set of partners brought it together, and it is a good network. Those partners are accustomed to delivery and believe that they will lever in £50 million of investment. That will mean jobs and technology-led industries, and I look forward to seeing how successful it will be in the coming years.

Topical Questions

T1. [105422] Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): My Department takes responsibility for safeguarding the environment, supporting farmers and strengthening the green economy. In that regard, it relies heavily on the scientific expertise of its key staff and, accordingly, I should like to record formally the appointment of Professor Ian Boyd as my Department’s new chief scientific adviser. Professor Boyd will take over from Professor Sir Bob Watson, whose experience and expertise have been tremendous in the service of successive Governments.

Henry Smith: Earlier this year, about 650 elephants were slaughtered in Cameroon for their ivory. Sadly, that is just one example of that vile, illegal trade. What work is my right hon. Friend doing in the international community to ensure that it is stopped once and for all?

Mrs Spelman: Yes, it is a despicable trade, and my hon. Friend, who has Gatwick airport in his constituency, will know how hard we work on our borders to deter it. We are working through the convention on international trade in endangered species to ensure that no further sales of ivory take place without firm evidence that such sales will reduce poaching. In the past year we have contributed £134,000 to Interpol and CITES precisely to combat the illegal ivory trade.

T2. [105423] Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): There are reports that the Mayor of London sprays suppressants on roads immediately around key air pollution monitoring sites to reduce pollution readings. Given that there are an estimated 4,000 deaths in the capital a year owing to the air quality, would that not be an outrageous and rather callous scam? Does the Minister support the policy of pretending an issue does not exist rather than using scarce resources to deal with it?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): Suppressants are used as part of a wide strategy for dealing with pollution, and if the hon. Lady believes they are only used around monitoring stations, she is entirely wrong.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1089

They are used at pollution hot spots as a temporary measure, and as part of a wider strategy. The Mayor should be applauded for the measures that he is bringing in.

T3. [105424] Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): Broadband for the Rural North is a community group in my constituency dedicated to bringing superfast broadband to a neglected part of our rural uplands. It is a real example of the big society in action, with hundreds of people coming together, putting their own money in, digging their own trenches and laying their own cables. What further help could DEFRA give, and will a Minister come to see what the group is doing to see how we can support it in fulfilling its potential?

Richard Benyon: I have heard of that noble initiative and many others, and can confirm that DEFRA has allocated £20 million as part of its rural broadband fund precisely to support such communities. I am keen to ensure that local initiatives fit in with Broadband Delivery UK and DEFRA’s role to ensure that we get superfast broadband to the hardest-to-reach communities. I praise my hon. Friend’s community for what it has done thus far.

T4. [105425] Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): PepsiCo, BT, the Co-op, Centrica and United Utilities all support mandatory carbon reporting to improve business environmental performance. The Secretary of State’s party supported it in opposition, but the statutory deadline for a decision has now been missed. They wanted to be the greenest Government ever, but when are they going to deliver on that?

Mrs Spelman: The support of the companies the right hon. Gentleman identifies is welcome in that regard. I issued a statement to the House about the delay. The difficulty is that those companies report their carbon on a different basis. We therefore need to take the time to find a common basis on which to measure how companies report carbon so that investors can compare like with like.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Great Cornish food and drink producers contribute £1.5 billion every year to the local economy. What can DEFRA Ministers do to help them export their delicious products overseas?

Mrs Spelman: Nobody disputes that the produce my hon. Friend describes is wonderful, but the challenge for small and medium-sized enterprises is how to overcome the hurdles of exporting to emerging markets such as China and India, which are sometimes quite complex. I am delighted to announce to the House that the Minister of State will visit Cornwall tomorrow precisely to discuss that, and in the following month, he will go to China precisely to advocate the kind of good-quality Cornish products my hon. Friend describes.

T5. [105426] Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Brighton and Hove city council on its resolution to become a One Planet council, which means, for example, that it will be run using sustainable procurement policies,

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1090

and renewable energy and biodiversity practices? Will she commit to adopting One Planet principles as a step towards keeping sustainability in all policy making?

Mrs Spelman: I am happy to extend a hearty congratulation to the hon. Lady’s council, and I understand that the Isle of Wight is about to declare itself an eco-council, which shows the important role that local authorities can play. She will also know that the UK is playing a leading part in the preparations for the Rio+20 summit—the 20-year anniversary of the original Earth summit—where we will strongly advocate the need to put growth on to a more sustainable footing. We have also given strong support to the Colombian proposal for sustainable development goals.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): I welcome the measures the Secretary of State has announced on controlling dangerous dogs, such as they are—we also need tougher penalties to tackle dangerous owners—but does she agree that we should do more to encourage local authorities to use tenancy agreements, to help manage dogs better in council-owned properties?

Mrs Spelman: My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I commend Ealing council for its “Dog Watch” initiative. There are many examples of local authorities taking innovative approaches to tackling that complex problem, including, for example, Wandsworth, which has restrictions on dog ownership in its tenanted properties. We believe in localism and that local authorities should be free to decide how to innovate, and those are both good examples of how to do so.

T6. [105427] Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): On Tuesday, we mark the 80th anniversary of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout. In Bolton West, we also remember the anniversary of the mass trespass at Winter hill in 1896, when 10,000 Boltonians trespassed on the moors above Bolton. However, all hon. Members know that the campaign for public access is not over. Will the Secretary of State inform the House when the process of designating the next stretches of England’s coastal paths will begin?

Richard Benyon: I visited one of the next phases of the coastal path earlier this week in Somerset, and saw some of the complications of integrating land management with access. We inherited quite a complicated system that we are trying to make simpler, and the first section of the path that I opened at Weymouth has a “lessons learned” report, which we are working on. The next five sections will be announced shortly.

Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall) (Con): Will my hon. Friend explore every opportunity possible to negotiate with our European partners to secure exclusivity for UK vessels within our 12-mile limit in the forthcoming negotiations on the common fisheries policy?

Richard Benyon: I am going to Luxembourg this afternoon to take part in the Fisheries Council tomorrow. My hon. Friend is the voice in my head on such matters—[ Laughter. ] You know what I mean. If I can obtain 12-mile exclusivity, it will be a great achievement.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1091

T7. [105428] Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): In the last year of the Labour Government, 42 community-owned shops opened, thanks mainly to support from DEFRA and the Plunkett Foundation. How many community-owned shops have opened in each year since the general election?

Richard Benyon: My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House says that he has one opening next month, and one opened in my constituency in recent weeks. Beyond that, I am afraid that I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the exact figure, but there is fervent support for the kind of initiatives that see community shops opening. We want to do our best, through big society support and other policies, to ensure that more happen.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), the Minister knows that the so-called historic entitlement of foreign vessels within the 12-mile zone is widely abused. In the forthcoming negotiations, will he ensure that the legal basis on which that historic entitlement is claimed is properly reviewed and the integrity of the 12-mile zone restored?

Richard Benyon: I want my hon. Friend and the House to understand that we are considering very seriously the suggestions that I have received in recent weeks, not least from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, about legal methods through which one could secure greater control. The most important thing is to get more regionalised and locally based management of our fisheries, and that is what I will discuss tomorrow in Luxembourg and will continue to discuss through the negotiations. I assure my hon. Friend that illegal activity in our 12-mile waters is something that I take very seriously and I want to ensure that enforcement is effective at every stage.

Mr Speaker: Mr Robert Flello, not here.

T9. [105431] Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): Farmers across the United Kingdom are looking to the Government to live up to their pledge to legislate for a grocery adjudicator. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she has managed to persuade her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Prime Minister to include this in this year’s Queen’s Speech?

Mrs Spelman: Obviously, I cannot tell the hon. Lady what is in the Queen’s Speech, but I invite her to look at the body language of the Deputy Leader of the House as a clear steer that she will not be disappointed.

Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): The farming community are very worried about the outbreak of the Schmallenberg virus. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether pan-European work will be done to produce a vaccine against this terrible disease?

Mrs Spelman: We are working on a co-operative basis with the other member states that have been affected. One of the lessons from the successful tackling of blue tongue for the farming industry and the vaccination industry is the viability of such a vaccine. It would take several years to produce such a vaccine as it is a new

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1092

virus and still requires a lot of science to make sure that we make the right decision. I give my hon. Friend the absolute assurance that, with the quality of our scientific base added to that of other member states, no stone will be left unturned.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission , was asked—

Neighbourhood Planning Referendums

1. Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): What recent assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the rules relating to neighbourhood planning referendums. [105432]

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): The commission is reviewing the draft regulations for the conduct of neighbourhood planning referendums and will respond to the Department for Communities and Local Government shortly. As required by the Localism Act 2011, the Department also consulted the commission on proposed questions to be put to voters at these referendums. The commission published its assessment of the proposed questions on 11 April and has recommended some changes to the wording to make it easier for voters to understand. It also suggested the need for supplementary information to be made available to voters to enable them to participate in an informed way.

Sajid Javid: The people of Bromsgrove are pleased that the Localism Act has given them unprecedented powers to shape their local community, but the wording in the referendums is crucial. Has the commission considered the best way to word such questions and will it be issuing formal guidance?

Mr Streeter: I am delighted to be able to give my hon. Friend a positive response. He makes the important point that in any referendum it is important that the question is right, clear and fair. The commission is conducting detailed research with experts, the public, political parties and campaign groups to ensure that the wording in the upcoming referendums under the Localism Act is unbiased and intelligible.

Church Commissioners

The hon. Member for Banbury , representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

VAT (Listed Buildings)

2. Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): What representations the Church Commissioners have made to Her Majesty’s Treasury on the proposed extension of VAT to approved alterations to listed buildings. [105433]

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1093

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Tony Baldry): The Bishop of London and I met my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury on Monday. It was a helpful and constructive meeting. We made it clear why we believed it to be in the best interests of the community to continue to exempt alterations to listed places of worship from VAT. We gave the Chancellor a full written submission, a copy of which I have arranged to be placed in the Library. The Chancellor undertook to consider our submission carefully and made clear the Government’s commitment to ensuring that listed places of worship are not adversely affected by the Budget proposal. I anticipate a further meeting with the Chancellor and the Exchequer Secretary in due course.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his actions, intervention and report. I have the privilege to be the Member of Parliament for two historic cathedrals—Southwark and St George’s—as well as many churches. Other colleagues share my concerns. Will he ensure that he continues to update us on this matter? I will continue willingly to apply pressure on this point, because it is important that the Government understand that simply extending the scheme’s remit to give money, when the budget has been cut, does not solve the problem, unless the rules are changed.

Tony Baldry: My right hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. One reason we are keen that the Chancellor maintains the VAT exemption for church alterations is the certainty it brings. However much money is put into the listed places of worship scheme, it has its own inherent volatility and uncertainty, and no one is sure until after the event how much the refund will be. In the last quarter, for example, only just over half of the money for the listed places of worship scheme was refunded.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman’s remit applies to the Church of England, but he will be aware that churches throughout the UK, including many in my constituency, will be affected by the VAT changes. Does he agree that if any arrangements are made to assist the churches to meet their extra costs, they should apply to churches throughout the UK? Will he make that point in his discussions with the Chancellor?

Tony Baldry: Of course. I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the listed places of worship scheme extends to every church, synagogue and meeting house—to every listed place of worship. We are trying to make such buildings as adaptable as possible for wider community use. This is often about humble but important things, such as putting in kitchens and toilets to make such buildings as available as possible to the whole community.

10. [105441] Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for the representations he has made to Ministers. Will he take note of the objections raised by many members of the Church of England in my constituency, including members of St Peter’s church in Congleton and St Mary’s church in Sandbach? Will he consider two points? First, the Treasury has said that there will be an exemption from the new rules for contracts that have already been signed, but many

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1094

churches have already undertaken ongoing works. Could there be some flexibility in that respect? Secondly, if the grant scheme is to be reviewed, could it be so over a period of several years, not just one or two years, so that there can be certainty? Works often take many years.

Tony Baldry: My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important to get the transitional relief right. We made it clear to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that if he was not minded to follow us on continuing the exemption, but wanted to increase the grant under the listed places of worship scheme, we would want to see certainty over the sum, not just for this year but for a whole number of years to come.

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): Quite a number of projects will not go ahead if the proposal stands. The reassurance that the hon. Gentleman has received from the Chancellor is encouraging, but does he accept that that reassurance can be delivered only if the proposal is abandoned altogether?

Tony Baldry: The right hon. Gentleman is a former Treasury Minister, and I am sure that he will have understood from the substantive answer that I gave at the outset that the Chancellor and his officials are considering carefully the submissions and representations that we put to them. They obviously want to consider the legal implications of a VAT exemption just for alterations to listed places of worship. Discussions with officials are ongoing, and the dialogue is constructive and positive.

7. [105438] Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): Of the 312 churches across the diocese of Truro, 56 are carrying out repairs and alterations this year. The proposed VAT changes would add £405,000 to the bill. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that churches such as St John’s in Truro that are making alterations to enable greater use of their facilities by community groups such as the Truro Homeless Action Group might be deterred by the prospect of having to find an extra £5,000 just for the VAT?

Tony Baldry: I have visited St John’s; it does excellent work. This is a good example of the kind of alterations involving such humble things as toilets and kitchens that are being carried out to serve the wider community. As every colleague in the House will know, £5,000 is a lot of money to have to raise through jumble sales and coffee mornings, and such funds are all being raised by local people working voluntarily. We should not underestimate the impact of the change on our communities, should it go ahead.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work on this matter so far. When the Prime Minister was asked about it at Prime Minister’s questions, he made a rather obscure reference to adding swimming pools to stately homes, but the fact is that nearly half of all grade 1 listed buildings in England and Wales are Church of England churches. Alterations are made to them to facilitate wider community use, and St John’s in Godley, Hyde,

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1095

has so far raised £47,000 to carry out the work that it wants to do. Should not the Government think again on this?

Tony Baldry: The Prime Minister said, not so long ago, that the big society was

“the biggest possible opportunity for churches up and down the country to have a real social mission”.

I have no doubt that he appreciates the potential for churches and church buildings to be open not just for a few hours on a Sunday but throughout the whole week, to provide a basis for real social activity.

8. [105439] Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Historic churches across North Wiltshire, such as those at Castle Combe and Hullavington, will be relieved to hear what my hon. Friend has said, in a tentative way, about the possible increase in VAT to 20% on alterations. Does he agree, however, that replacing VAT exemption with a discretionary grant would not do, because it would not go to all churches? It would go only to those churches chosen by commissioners or other individuals, and lots of churches that currently have the exemption would therefore no longer have it.

Tony Baldry: I hope I have made it clear to the House that we share those concerns. That is why we are pushing for full exemption. The listed places of worship scheme is welcome, but it is very volatile and uncertain at the moment because people are never quite clear how much they will receive back under the scheme.

6. [105437] Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefit to listed places of worship from the planned changes to gift aid next year will be more than outweighed by the proposal to charge them VAT on alterations? I do not know of any listed places of worship that are planning to install a swimming pool, but I know that many churches and cathedrals are planning to carry out alterations. Does he therefore agree that it would be best to leave things as they are and to allow the exemption to continue?

Tony Baldry: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but, in fairness, so does the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That is why he made clear, at the meeting that the Bishop of London and I had with him on Monday, the Government’s commitment to ensuring that listed places of worship would not be adversely affected by the Budget proposal, and I am sure that he will do everything he can to deliver on that commitment.

Electoral Commission committee

The hon. Member for South West Devon, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Police and Crime Commissioners

3. Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of arrangements for the elections for police and crime commissioners in November 2012. [105434]

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1096

Mr Gary Streeter (South West Devon): On 15 March, the Electoral Commission submitted its response to the Home Office consultation on the draft statutory instruments for police and crime commissioner elections. A copy of the response has been placed in the Library of the House of Commons. The commission’s main concern is the Government’s proposal to create a website to host information from candidates. It believes that this is not the most effective way of ensuring that all voters, especially those who do not have regular internet access, know about the candidates standing in their areas. The commission also made a number of other recommendations to ensure that the elections are well run.

Robert Halfon: Harlow residents are hugely excited about these elections, not least because Essex Conservatives are encouraging any resident to apply to be our candidate if they are up to the job. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Electoral Commission will help candidates with leaflets and in other ways, rather than be a bureaucratic hindrance?

Mr Streeter: As we have learned to know in this House, where Harlow leads, others will follow. My hon. Friend endorses the main point made to the Government by the Electoral Commission—that a website alone will not be enough for individual candidates, many of whom were not well known previously, to get the message across. I very much hope that the Government will listen to the Electoral Commission’s proposal that leaflets to every household are also important.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): Is there anything that the Electoral Commission can do to provide that information if it is not possible to get the Government to change their mind about the leaflets and a free post to every household?

Mr Streeter: It is certainly not the job of the Electoral Commission to fund a free mail-out on behalf of candidates, but what it will do as part of its £3.6 million awareness campaign is to ensure that a booklet goes to every household in the 41 areas where these referendums are taking place to inform people about the elections, and it will include a reference to the Government website.

House of Lords Reform (Referendum)

4. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): Whether the Electoral Commission has had any discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister on a referendum on the Government's proposed reform of the House of Lords. [105435]

Mr Streeter: The Electoral Commission has had no such discussions. If there should be a referendum on House of Lords reform, the commission’s priorities are that any referendum should be well run in every part of the UK, and that the questions put to the voters should be intelligible and unbiased.

Jeremy Lefroy: Given the effective and efficient way in which the Electoral Commission oversaw the referendum on the alternative vote system last year, does he agree that the commission is indeed well equipped to handle a referendum on the House of Lords or, indeed, any other matter of momentous constitutional change?

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1097

Mr Streeter: I agree with my hon. Friend. It is, of course, a matter for this Parliament whether or not there will be a referendum on House of Lords reform. When it comes to it, the Electoral Commission will do all it can to ensure that the success of the alternative vote referendum last year is replicated. I am not necessarily talking about the outcome of the referendum—although I am really—but about it being well run and about the question put to voters being clear and unbiased.

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): In possible discussions between the Electoral Commission and the Deputy Prime Minister, will the point come up that any election to the House of Lords will rebalance the powers between this House and that House—a constitutional matter that I submit should become automatically liable to a referendum for popular approval?

Mr Streeter: My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I am afraid that it is not a matter for the Electoral Commission.

Voter Registration

5. John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): What assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the effectiveness of its recent campaign to increase voter registration. [105436]

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1098

Mr Streeter: The Electoral Commission’s recent campaign was targeted at audiences, including home movers, individuals from black and minority ethnic communities, students and service voters. The full evaluation of this year’s campaign will be made available in the summer, but initial indications are that during this campaign, there were more than 500,000 visits to the commission’s “About My Vote” website and more than 100,000 registration forms were ordered or downloaded.

John Glen: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, and I think the adverts were excellent. What role, however, does the Electoral Commission have in ensuring that electoral registration officers play their part in making sure that people who cannot easily be reached are able to register?

Mr Streeter: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although we have all seen the Electoral Commission’s TV adverts encouraging people to register to vote, it is the day-to-day task of electoral registration officers in each locality to maximise voter registration. Performance can be patchy, and the Electoral Commission is working with the poorest performing EROs to try to support them in doing a better job.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1099

Business of the House

11.33 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 30 April—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Sunday Trading (London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games) Bill [Lords], followed by if necessary consideration of Lords Amendments.

Tuesday 1 May—The House may be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Leader of the House for his comprehensive statement. I also thank the staff of the House for all the hard work that they have done for Members during the current Session.

In the week of Shakespeare’s birth, we should pay tribute to our greatest dramatist, who has had such an enormous impact on our culture and our language. Looking at the Government, however, I have to say that even Shakespeare could not write a farce like this. Where does one start?

The Culture Secretary came to the House yesterday to try to explain himself. He failed. He said on Tuesday evening that now was not the time for knee-jerk reactions. On Wednesday morning, he kicked out his special adviser. The Culture Secretary may have thrown his aide to the wall, but the ministerial code is crystal clear: the Secretary of State is responsible for the conduct of his special advisers. Will the Leader of the House now answer the following questions, which the Culture Secretary conspicuously failed to answer yesterday?

Was News Corporation informed about the content of a parliamentary statement before that statement was made to the House? Although the Culture Secretary told the House on 3 March that he had published all the exchanges between his Department and News Corporation, the e-mails that were disclosed at the Leveson inquiry demonstrate that he had not done so. That is not a matter for Lord Leveson; it is a matter for the House, and the House needs answers. Far from acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, the Culture Secretary has been acting like a dodgy football ref who not only favours one team, but is in the dressing room with them planning the tactics. Apparently he is at the Tower of London today, awaiting his fate.

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Prime Minister has asked the independent adviser on the ministerial code to investigate the Culture Secretary’s actions, and if not, why not? Will he also tell us whether the Prime Minister has indicated his intention to come to the House to correct the record that he placed in the Library on his meetings with Rupert Murdoch? The Prime Minister recalled just two, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said yesterday, Mr Murdoch revealed to the Leveson inquiry that he had met the Prime Minister more often than that. The Prime Minister apparently “forgets” the majority of his meetings with Rupert Murdoch.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1100

The Prime Minister also said that he had not been involved in “any of the discussions” about News International’s bid for BSkyB, but it now emerges that he did discuss it with James Murdoch—over a cosy Christmas dinner with Rebekah Brooks while the phone-hacking scandal was in full swing. And then there is Raisa the police horse. The Prime Minister could not remember whether he had taken her riding, before finally remembering that he had. We know that this Prime Minister doesn’t do detail, but his lapses of memory are beginning to look a little bit too convenient.

The Public Administration Committee has been examining the leadership that the Prime Minister has given the Government. Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read its report? According to the Committee, which is chaired by a distinguished Conservative Back Bencher, there is a “strategic vacuum” at the centre of this Government. The report concludes that the Government’s aims were

“too meaningless to serve any useful purpose”.

Another Conservative Back Bencher, the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), has put it even more bluntly. Now that Government Members recognise what Opposition Members have been saying for some time—that this is an incompetent, out-of-touch Government —will the Leader of the House be making time for a debate on the Committee’s report before Prorogation?

The current long parliamentary Session is finally crawling to a close. It began with extravagant boasts by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In June 2010, presenting his first Budget, the Chancellor told the House that by today the economy would have grown by 4.3%. He also told the House that unemployment would peak in 2010 and fall in each subsequent year, and that public sector borrowing would fall each year. Will the Chancellor now be correcting the record?

The economy is back in recession. The Chancellor has presided over the worst performance in our economy for a century. Unemployment is higher than it was when the Government came to power, and they are borrowing £150 billion more than they had planned to borrow. This is a double-dip recession made in Downing street. The Chancellor has bungled his latest Budget just as he has bungled his economic strategy, and hard-working families up and down the country are paying the price.

“The economy is stagnant. The Government is misfiring. The Budget was a shambles. Tory MPs are unhappy. Downing Street is incompetent.”

That is not my assessment; it is the assessment of The Daily Telegraph .

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. For the avoidance of doubt and for the sake of good parliamentary order, I assume the hon. Lady’s question relating to the details of the conduct of the Culture Secretary and Prime Minister are couched in terms of a request for a statement or debate next week?

Ms Eagle indicated assent.

Mr Speaker: Indeed. [Interruption.] I am seeking to clarify the position, and that should be welcomed by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1101

Sir George Young: Let me respond to what the shadow Leader of the House has said. The business statement was, indeed, brief, but you, Mr Speaker, are always asking Ministers to make brief statements, so I hope that found favour in at least one quarter.

I endorse what the hon. Lady said about the House staff. On Shakespeare, I think “All’s Well That Ends Well” is a good work to remind the House about. On special advisers, the hon. Lady rehearsed a number of issues that were raised yesterday. I cannot remember which Minister resigned when Damian McBride had to leave No. 10 Downing street.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will, of course, reply to the letter the Deputy Leader has written to him, but may I remind the hon. Lady of what Lord Justice Leveson said on Tuesday? He said that

“although I have seen requests for other inquiries and other investigations and, of course, I do not seek to constrain Parliament, it seems to me that the better course is to allow this Inquiry to proceed. When it is concluded, there will doubtless be opportunities for consideration to be given to any further investigation that is then considered necessary.”

I think Lord Justice Leveson has given good advice.

On the question of meetings with Rupert Murdoch, I understand that Rupert Murdoch has produced a new list this morning, which has not yet been published but which will be published in due course. The Government stand by the list we produced on a quarterly basis, which we were always clear included only formal meetings, rather than, for example, being at a summer party when it would obviously be impossible to know the full list of those attending.

Chris Bryant: Pathetic!

Sir George Young: However, I am sure the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) will want to reflect on what he did yesterday when he raised evidence in this House that had not yet been released by the inquiry, a clear breach of the restriction order placed on it by Lord Justice Leveson, and which Lord Justice Leveson deprecated in his opening remarks this morning. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will want to reflect on what he did, and possibly apologise to Lord Leveson.

Finally, on the Public Administration Committee and all that, I shall tell the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) what the Government have been doing. We have been carrying forward important reforms that the country needs on welfare, immigration, planning, education, health, energy, legal aid, the financial sector, the costs of Government and transforming local democracy—all of them reforms that her party ducked when in government. We are having to do this in a less benign economic environment than the last Labour Government had, and we are having to do it at the same time as we pay off their record budget deficit. Against that background, we have boosted businesses, cut corporation tax, helped hard-pressed families and given pensioners the biggest increase in the state pension for over 60 years. The truth is that this two-party Government have done more for the country in two years than her party managed in 13.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): Last week, DCA Design International, a business based in my constituency, won the Queen’s award for enterprise in international trade. At a time when we need to

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1102

rebalance our economy and increase exports, DCA is an excellent example of what can be achieved. Will the Leader of the House join me in congratulating DCA, and will he find Government time for a debate on how we can promote exports by small and medium-sized enterprises?

Sir George Young: I commend what DCA has done. This is exactly the sort of rebalancing we want to see, and I applaud the work that has been done. I would be misleading my hon. Friend if I were to say I could find time for a debate on that subject in the relatively short period that I anticipate being available between now and Prorogation, but I hope that, perhaps in a debate on the Loyal Address when the House reconvenes, there may be an opportunity for him to make his case again and for the Government to set out the actions we have taken to promote SMEs, exports and the rebalancing of the economy, which is so desperately needed.

Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House consider granting an early debate on giving to the arts and culture? Now that we are in a double-dip recession, with the Chancellor targeting those who give and local authorities cut to the bone, galleries, museums and theatres are under threat. They need to understand what more the Government have in store for them.

Sir George Young: The Government have taken a number of steps to encourage charitable giving. We have made changes to the inheritance tax regime and made it easier for charities to claim back tax on small donations. As the hon. Lady knows, discussions are under way to see whether we can minimise the impact of the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget on charities that depend on large donations. However, it is right to expect those on high incomes to make some contribution, through income tax, towards the overheads of the country.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Leader of the House will know how important business in the north-east of Scotland is to the Scottish and UK economies. May we have a debate on the roll-out of superfast broadband, to recognise the higher than average take-up of broadband in the north-east the first time round, to build on that demand and to recognise the importance of ensuring that those communities that were left behind last time are not left behind again?

Sir George Young: As a Member with a rural constituency, I understand how important it is that people in such constituencies should be able to compete on equal terms with those who live in cities when it comes to accessing fast broadband. I welcome the roll-out in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I would welcome a debate early in the next Session, when we can outline the steps we have taken through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to encourage BT to roll out broadband and, where that is not an option, to encourage alternative suppliers.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): Southern Water, which serves my constituents, loses over 92 million litres of water a day. That is enough to supply more

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1103

than 600,000 people, or 26% of its domestic users. Can we have an early debate on what action the Government will take to increase the leakage reduction targets for water companies, and to increase the percentage of profits that Ofwat can require them to invest in reducing leaks if they do not meet those targets?

Sir George Young: The hon. Lady reminds the House, very aptly, that at a time when there is still a water shortage, it is vital to do all we can to reduce the amount of water lost through leakages. There has been one drought summit, and I believe another is planned next month. Part of the agenda is to take further action to reduce the amount of water lost through wastage. I will certainly draw the hon. Lady’s concern to the attention of my the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), to ensure that, in the case of Southern Water, every possible step is taken to minimise the loss of water through leakage and wastage.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): Staff at the Worcestershire Health and Care Trust have been working very hard to reduce waiting times for young people awaiting a mental health assessment. Given that hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that waiting times are an important measure of the performance of our national health service, may we have an early debate on the important topic of waiting times?

Sir George Young: I welcome what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency, which shows that it is possible to make progress, notwithstanding the somewhat gloomy forecast that we have heard from Opposition Members. Waiting times generally have remained broadly constant since the general election, although there are many more people to treat, both as in-patients and out-patients. I applaud what has happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency to reduce the time that local children have to wait to receive a mental health assessment. For a child who is developing, a delay of months—or in some cases even years—can put back their education, so I applaud the initiative that is taking place in Worcestershire.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): In 2009, the Labour Government reduced the qualifying period and increased the cash limit for support with mortgage interest payments. Unfortunately, the Budget was silent on what the Government are going to do about the scheme, which finishes at the end of the year. We know that it has already helped more than 250,000 people to stay in their homes, which is important. Given the concern about increasing mortgage rates, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate or statement, so that Ministers can say what they are going to do about this important scheme?

Sir George Young: One of the things we have done is to enable mortgage interest rates to stay at a much lower level than they would be, had we pursued the economic policies recommended by Opposition Members. I am sure that all those who have a mortgage will welcome the fact that interest rates are at record low levels. I will

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1104

make inquiries at the Department for Work and Pensions, if that is the appropriate Department, on the question of support for mortgage interest payments for those on benefits, and ask the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): In February, I organised a jobs and apprenticeships fair in Colne, working closely with students from Nelson and Colne college, so I was pleased to see that in March unemployment fell in Pendle. Sadly, however, unemployment remains too high, despite the increase of 275,000 in employment across the country that we have seen since the general election. Can we therefore have a debate on some of the measures that the Government are taking, such as the youth contract and the back to work programme?

Sir George Young: Again, I would welcome such a debate, perhaps at the beginning of the next Session and in the debate on the Loyal Address. The youth contract, launched this month, has provided an extra 250,000 work experience or sector-based work academy places. We also have the Work programme, which will help more than 3 million people in total, as well as work experience and apprenticeships. We have a portfolio of schemes designed to get young people back into work, and there are already signs of success, with about half of those who have gone through a work experience course having come off benefits. That seems to me to be a very encouraging initiative.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): In 1628, the Government were in the midst of a “clustershambles” and they decided to prorogue Parliament immediately, so that there could be no further criticism of them. It would seem that the Leader of the House is, in effect, going to do that on behalf of Her Majesty on Tuesday. May I suggest that it would be much better to provide a whole week of Back-Bench business, so that all the matters that I am sure Government Members would like to debate, such as why the European Commission is demanding an increase of 7% in its budget, and all the issues that Opposition Members would like to discuss, such as the double-dip recession, can be put not only to Ministers, but to the Prime Minister, who will be avoiding Prime Minister’s questions for another two weeks?

Sir George Young: The previous Prime Minister was absent at Prime Minister’s questions roughly twice as often as the current Prime Minister, who has spent more time answering his questions than almost any other Prime Minister. It seems to me perfectly reasonable, once Parliament has discharged the legislative programme, for the House to prorogue and then start a new Session. There will be an interval of perhaps three sitting days between the end of this Session and the beginning of the next one, which is roughly in line with what happened previously—[Interruption.] I just say to the hon. Gentleman, who is chattering incessantly from a sedentary position, that when he was Deputy Leader of the House he did not introduce a Backbench Business Committee. The freedom that he is now asking us to give to the House was one that he denied Parliament in the previous Parliament.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1105

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): In my constituency, tethered horses are frequently escaping on to the highways and causing serious accidents. Will the Leader of the House update me on the possibility of allocating time for an urgent debate on the responsibility that local authorities have to tackle the issue?

Sir George Young: Obviously, this is an unacceptable risk to other road users, and of course we want to take any steps we can to promote road safety. I will raise this issue with the appropriate Minister and ask him or her to write to my hon. Friend, just to make sure that local authorities have all the powers necessary to prevent this unnecessary hazard in his constituency.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for us to be updated on electricity market reform? A delay in getting final announcements is causing considerable uncertainty for developers of new plants, including the developers of the Carrington power station in my constituency.

Sir George Young: This is an important matter. I cannot anticipate the Loyal Address, but there may be an opportunity when we have a debate on it for hon. Members to speak about how we are undertaking electricity market reform, which is a vital measure necessary to secure energy supplies in the medium term.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The specialised Ministry of Defence police protect our bases and other sensitive installations against disruption and even terrorist attack. Given that, as part of the defence economies, they are facing the loss of several hundred officers over the next three years, may we have a statement from a Defence Minister confirming that the alternative proposals put forward by the highly experienced Defence Police Federation, which would result in fewer losses and less degradation of the level of security provided and also in savings equivalent to those proposed, will be properly evaluated by the security department of the MOD?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Like him, I have received correspondence from the Defence Police Federation. Those counter-proposals are now being considered by the chief constable of the MOD police. A helpful meeting has taken place between the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), and the chair of the DPF. We are now taking this forward with a view to ensuring that the best possible use will be made of MOD police at those defence sites where there is a clear requirement for constabulary powers as part of the overall protective security arrangements.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): Overnight, we have heard yet more reports of acts of violence against civilians undertaken by the Syrian regime. This fictional ceasefire is clearly not working. Will the Leader of the House have an urgent conversation with the Foreign Secretary? Can we get a statement on Syria before the House prorogues?

Sir George Young: I would be misleading the hon. Gentleman if I said that we could get a statement on this very important matter before the House prorogues.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1106

He will know that the Foreign Secretary has made it absolutely clear that the current regime in Syria should stand aside, that political prisoners should be released, that there should be a cessation of hostilities and that relief aid should be allowed into those cities in Syria that desperately need assistance. Together with our allies in the United Nations, my right hon. Friend is now reflecting on what further measures can be taken to stop the slaughter taking place in Syria.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): There is widespread concern in my constituency following the debate about VAT on static caravans, which has again highlighted the fragile state of some of the local economies in our seaside towns. Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate on such a matter?

Sir George Young: I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that the answer, exceptionally, is yes. Today’s Adjournment debate, standing in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), is on static caravans, so if my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) is around later, he will have an opportunity to share with the House his concerns on this matter.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In ancient times, the most dishonourable act was for a senior officer or official to sacrifice a junior person to save his own life. Can we add a day’s sitting next week to have a debate on this, because the media can discuss it and Leveson is discussing it, but Parliament is not. We began this Session with the cancer of Coulson and we are finishing it with the stench of sleaze at the heart of government. The Culture Secretary is living on borrowed time, as we know. We must debate this and clean up this matter.

Sir George Young: I say to the right hon. Gentleman that we did have a long statement and exchange of questions and answers on this matter yesterday. I just ask him this question: which Minister resigned when Mr Damian McBride had to go because of his activities at No. 10?

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): May we have an early debate on the injustice faced by a number of my constituents, and indeed by people up and down the country, who have had land stolen from them by people who have failed to register the change of ownership with the Land Registry? The law does not allow someone to sue persons unknown, so my constituents and others have no ability to seek justice. Will the Leader of the House please raise this matter with the appropriate Minister?

Sir George Young: This is potentially quite a complicated legal matter, and I will raise it with my ministerial colleagues at BIS and the Ministry of Justice. If it is simply a matter of trespass, the freehold can be recovered by court action—the MOJ may be able to give more detail. I have a lot of sympathy with the farmer who is confronted with this problem and I will raise it with the appropriate colleagues.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): When can we have a debate on this country following the examples of Canada, the Netherlands and now Australia, and taking an independent decision on withdrawing its troops from

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1107

Afghanistan? The extraordinary result of the Bradford West by-election shows that there is a great dislocation between opinion in this country and opinion in this House. Should we not debate the fact that our soldiers should not be in Afghanistan for a day longer than is necessary?

Sir George Young: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the green screen of the annunciator, he will see that there is shortly to be a statement on troop levels in Afghanistan. I very much hope that he will be able to stay in the Chamber for a little longer, as he will get an authoritative reply from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that it is illegal to grow cannabis but perfectly legal to purchase the equipment for growing it. May we have an early debate on this to assist in the law being changed, so that Nottinghamshire police can continue to stamp down on this dreadful crime?

Sir George Young: That is a helpful suggestion from my hon. Friend, which I would like to share with the Home Secretary, who shares his concern that the consumption and growing of cannabis should be discouraged. As my hon. Friend says, it is indeed illegal and I will see whether it would make sense to change the law in the way that he has just proposed.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): I raised this matter on a point of order, Mr Speaker, and you suggested that it would be best raised as a business question. Will the Leader of the House look again at programme motions and, in particular, at the programme motion for the Financial Services Bill? Programme motions, quite rightly, enable the Government to get their business through, but to balance that they should ensure adequate scrutiny of proposed legislation. The whole thrust of the Financial Services Bill is corporate responsibility and the one clause that we did not reach dealt with that. The Bill will be considered for a second day, but would it be possible to extend the period allocated to ensure that we deal with the matter of corporate responsibility? Otherwise, this House looks irrelevant.

Sir George Young: I was in the Chamber when the hon. Gentleman raised that point. In my view, the time that the Government allocated on Report for the Financial Services Bill was adequate. Speaking from memory, we allocated two days, which is quite generous compared with the time that is normally allowed. When what I would regard as adequate time has been allowed, it is up to the House to make intelligent use of that time. If people speak at length during the earlier debates, it is inevitable that a price must be paid in the later stages. As a business manager, I genuinely believe that the overall amount of time that we allocated was adequate so long as the House behaved in an intelligent and disciplined way that enabled all the relevant bits of the Bill to be covered.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Colin Brannigan of Ripon is having his sleep badly disturbed by unsolicited marketing fax calls to his home phone.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1108

He has tried Ofcom and the Information Commissioner. May we have a debate on banning unsolicited marketing fax calls in the middle of the night?

Sir George Young: My understanding is that if one registers with the telephone preference service it is then an offence to telephone that number after a gap of 28 days. I will need to check whether that applies to faxes as well as phone calls, but there is protection from unsolicited phone calls when someone is either registered with the TPS or has made it clear to the caller that those calls are unwelcome. It is illegal under privacy and electronic communications regulations. I will clarify the issue about faxes and somebody will write to my hon. Friend.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The estimable Hansard Society released a report earlier this week that said that the number of people volunteering in the country had gone down by 8%. May we have a debate on why the Big Society is shrinking under this Government?

Sir George Young: I read the Hansard Society report, which I thought was more about engagement in the political process than the overall propensity to volunteer. I can only speak for my own constituency, where I have seen no reduction in the numbers of people coming forward to volunteer. On the contrary, I think that there has been a growth in the breadth and support of voluntary organisations, certainly in my constituency. I am sure that my constituency is not alone.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The Leader of the House has today published a Green Paper on parliamentary privilege with some perfectly sensible proposals based on the work of seven Select Committees. Would it not be worth while having a debate so that the House can address how we deal with the terminology and language of parliamentary privilege? As the Green Paper says:

“Parliamentary privilege is an often misunderstood concept. It is not helped by its name; the connotations of the word ‘privilege’ are unfortunate, as it is associated with special treatment for individuals. The term ‘parliamentary privilege’ might superficially imply, to those not familiar with it, that there are special rights or protections for parliamentarians, perhaps even to the extent that MPs and peers are ‘above the law’.”

That is clearly not the case, it has never been the case and it should never be the case, but we are confounded by the language of parliamentary privilege and the Bill of Rights. Perhaps it is now time to rethink through the whole of that language before we can get through to sensible proposals for reform.

Mr Speaker: For a moment, I thought that the hon. Gentleman had opened the Second Reading of a Bill on the matter.

Tony Baldry: It was difficult dealing with the chuntering of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) while I was getting through it, Mr Speaker.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the written ministerial statement and the publication, and I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who did all the heavy lifting on this document. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) is right; what we

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1109

plan to do is set up a Joint Committee to consider the issues raised in the document. I know that my hon. Friend’s guidance and advice would be welcome on that Committee. One issue is the language that we use about privilege, which implies our privilege whereas it actually is about protecting the rights of those we represent to ensure that this place operates without outside interference. We are trying to start a consultation and I am sure that my hon. Friend’s point about language is important. It is right that we should have a Government-led review of privilege on the basis of the Green Paper.

Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The most important issue for my constituents is the double-dip recession, which was made in Downing street. May we have a debate next week or a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer so that we can explore this urgent issue and how we can get this country out of recession and back to jobs and growth?

Sir George Young: We have had a number of days debating the Budget, the Finance Bill and the Financial Services Bill, so it is not the case that the Government have sought to avoid discussion of the economy. The hon. Gentleman asks what we are doing, and we are creating 400,000 apprenticeships, we are helping people into employment with the Work programme, we are cutting corporation tax, we are setting up 24 new enterprise zones and we are investing billions in transport and communications. If we do not deal with the deficit that we inherited, we will lose our triple A rating and the average family on the average mortgage might find that their outgoings go up by £1,000 a month. I am sure that that is the last thing the hon. Gentleman wants to happen to his constituents.

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): On Friday 18 May, I am looking forward to taking part in the launch of the Keighley and Worth valley branch of the National Autistic Society. Autism is a lifelong condition that affects about 1,000 people in my constituency and some half a million across the country. Will the Leader of the House invite the Secretary of State to describe what the Government are doing to support people who suffer from that disability and the people who look after them?

Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern and I applaud the work of the National Autistic Society, what it does in early diagnosis and early treatment and what it does to encourage many schools to provide support to those who suffer from autism. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister takes a very keen interest in how we can do more for those with special needs and there might be an opportunity when we return after Prorogation for some debates about the steps we are taking to enable children who suffer from autism to recover and do well at school.

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): I respectfully remind the Leader of the House that Government Ministers are accountable not to the Leveson inquiry but to this House, just as ordinary Members of this House—including my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—are accountable not to the Leveson inquiry but to their constituents. Does the Leader of the House agree with the wording in the ministerial

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1110

code of conduct on the relationship between a Secretary of State and a special adviser or do the Government intend to make a retrospective amendment to the code?

Sir George Young: We have no plans to amend the ministerial code in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. It makes sense to allow the Leveson inquiry to continue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is sometimes accused of having made up his mind before hearing the evidence; there is a real risk of Opposition Members making that mistake by coming to a conclusion before they have heard both sides of the case. I honestly think it makes sense to proceed with the Leveson inquiry before jumping to conclusions.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): May we have a debate about the correlation between the size of the state and economic growth? Evidence from around the world shows that economies with a smaller state sector have faster and higher economic growth. My constituency is the 10th least reliant on public sector employment, has less than half the national average of unemployment and is one of the 20 fastest growing districts in the country. Does that not demonstrate to the Leader of the House that the Government must press on with measures to rebalance our economy as a matter of urgency?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right that if we want sustainable growth and secure, well-paid jobs we must rebalance the economy so that it is less dependent on public sector employment and more dependent on private sector employment. I welcome the way that my hon. Friend’s constituency has diversified and is less dependent on public sector employment. He has just outlined the advantages of a relatively high employment rate and a relatively low unemployment rate. That is the transition that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is seeking to promote in other parts of the country, with assistance for those parts that are at the moment over-dependent on the public sector through the regional growth fund and with other measures.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank the Leader of the House for his help over this Session. Perhaps he could help me once more in finding the £500 million missing from the NHS budget. In the 2011-12 budget, £900 million was saved; £400 million has gone back into the 2012-13 budget. May we have an urgent statement, debate or just a letter to say where the £500 million has disappeared to?

Sir George Young: I would be surprised if that had disappeared. I would expect it to be reinvested in the NHS, but I am sure that I can generate a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to explain the accounting procedures to which the hon. Lady has just referred and to give her the reassurance that the money that Parliament has voted to the NHS will indeed be applied to the NHS.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): During the Easter recess, the Government released £600 million for new primary places across England and Wales. I looked with great interest to see who had got the money— £382 million has gone to London; I know that £30 million

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1111

has gone to the London borough of Brent, which is extremely welcome—and I looked for the allocation to the London borough of Harrow, only to find that it was zero. I then made a series of phone calls to find out who was responsible, only to discover that the incompetent Harrow council had failed to supply the data, and therefore received no money. Despite many efforts, we still do not have an answer on how much money will be available to provide much-needed primary places in Harrow. Will the Leader of the House offer the House an opportunity of a statement so that we can clear up this matter once and for all?

Sir George Young: I cannot offer a statement, but I commend my hon. Friend’s energy in seeking to ensure that the children in his constituency get a square deal at school. There is an issue between the London borough of Harrow and the Department for Education about the school capacity data that Harrow provided to the Department in 2011. That issue is under investigation, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to write to my hon. Friend to bring him up to date. I want to assure other colleagues that that will not affect allocations to other local authorities.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): In the summer, the Department for Transport will decide its programme for capital investment in our railways. In Blaenau Gwent, where we have 25% worklessness, we are seeking electrification of the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line. May we have a debate on transport investment and the boost that it can give to local economies?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have made a commitment to electrify the line to Cardiff, and he will welcome that decision. I cannot promise an early debate on transport matters, but I hope that there will be an opportunity, perhaps in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, to touch on transport-related issues. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport can outline the investment that has been made in Wales to promote rail travel and follow up the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): May I pay tribute to Councillor Angus Adams of Dudley council, who was also chairman of Centro, who has sadly died? He was a much-loved character and a passionate advocate of local rail transport in the west midlands, as well as an advocate of the benefits of high-speed rail. May we have a debate on the economic benefits of HS2 and what it will bring to the west midlands, including jobs and employment in my constituency?

Sir George Young: I am sorry to learn of the death of my hon. Friend’s constituent. I would welcome such a debate. As he knows, we are committed to HS2, not least for the reasons that he outlined of jobs and employment in the west midlands. I understand that HS2 could support employment growth of more than 8,000 jobs in the west midlands and would help to regenerate Birmingham’s east side. The Curzon Street station would create 1,400 jobs, and the Washwood Heath rolling-stock depot would create 400 jobs in

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1112

construction. That is why I believe that HS2 is a project that should be supported by Members from all parts of the House.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Tempers are starting to fray in parliamentary offices following an e-mail from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority on 16 April at 17.18 asking right hon. and hon. Members to send a letter on to their staff about a change in their contract. That change does not apply to those members of staff who are on the old parliamentary contract. There is confusion among staff. The timetabled deadline is Monday next week. Some MPs have not sent the e-mail on; some members of staff do not know what they should do about their contract. Could we have at least a statement by Monday telling us whether Members have to send that e-mail on to their staff and what members of staff on the previous contract should do about the change in arrangements?

Sir George Young: I am sorry to hear of the confusion experienced by the hon. Lady’s staff. From memory, I think that that was a beneficial change by IPSA to improve redundancy arrangements for staff. IPSA is an independent organisation, as she knows, but I will relay to it the concern that she has expressed. I regret any uncertainty among staff who work for Members of Parliament, and I will see whether the clarification that she seeks can be sent to her as a matter of urgency.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): Companies such as E-Tech in Great Yarmouth have offered apprenticeships to young people which can give them experience that takes them all over the world. In Great Yarmouth alone, apprenticeships have almost doubled under this Government to 730. May we have an early debate in the House to highlight the positive opportunities offered by that excellent programme, which gives young people an excellent opportunity for work?

Sir George Young: I am delighted to hear of the increase in apprenticeships in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We are committed to helping more people to benefit from high-quality apprenticeships. As a demand-led programme, it is dependent on employers coming forward. My hon. Friend has done a great deal to encourage them to do so and bid for apprenticeships. That is something that we can all do in our own constituencies to give the programme added momentum.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The Government’s double-dip recession has made life hard for hard-working families in Nottingham South. Now, the Government’s shambolic housing benefit reforms mean that those families will have to compete with displaced Londoners for homes, jobs and school places. Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for a debate on the housing crisis that his Government have caused?

Sir George Young: The principle of a cap on housing benefit was supported by the hon. Lady’s party as well as by mine. We have a cap of £21,000 a year, which is a reasonable level of housing benefit, bearing in mind the rents that people in work may be asked to pay. She will know, too, that there is a transitional fund of £190 million to help the process of adjustment from where we are now to the regime that is being introduced. That

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1113

is the right way to approach a bill that was soaring out of control. Among the measures that we have had to take to control public expenditure, a housing benefit cap was a proportionate and reasonable step.

Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): Leek further education college in my constituency has received an additional £2 million from the Skills Funding Agency, which it is using to invest in new engineering training. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the support that the Government have given to vocational training to give our young people the best start in life?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who complements the point made by another of my hon. Friends about the initiatives that we are taking to equip young people with the skills that they need. I was delighted to hear of the extra £2 million invested in my hon. Friend’s college, which I know will be well spent. She reminds the House of the steps that we have taken to enable young people to compete in a competitive job market.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): How can we not have an urgent debate about the state of the economy before we prorogue? If the GDP figures yesterday had been positive, the Government would cite that as proof that the strategy was working, but they were not—they were terrible. Should the Government not think again, show some humility and give the House a chance to debate that?

Sir George Young: I say to the hon. Gentleman what I said a few moments ago. We had the Budget, followed by several days’ debate on the Budget. We then had Second Reading of the Finance Bill, followed by two days of debate on the Floor of the House on measures in the Finance Bill. We then had a debate on the Financial Services Bill. It honestly is not the case that the Government have denied the House an opportunity to debate the economy. On top of that, the Opposition are allotted regular Opposition days, which they can use if they want further debates. The answer is that we have debated the matter. We would welcome further debates, and there may be an opportunity in the new Session when we debate the Queen’s Speech for a further exchange about the economy.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): The Nuneaton-Coventry rail upgrade, A5 improvements at Nuneaton, the A45 toll-bar island upgrade, and the A14/M1 upgrade are all vital infrastructure projects that the Government have introduced to support the midlands economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that investment in transport infrastructure is vital to generate economic growth, and will he agree to a debate on the future of transport infrastructure?

Sir George Young: One of the decisions that the Government made on taking office was to preserve the capital programme that we inherited and, in fact, to add to it in certain parts and to make the necessary reductions in revenue expenditure. That is why the projects to which my hon. Friend referred could go ahead. It enables the country to be more competitive in world markets if we modernise our transport infrastructure as he outlined.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1114

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): As chair of the all-party group on the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, may I ask the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on procedural deficiencies at the UK Border Agency, with particular reference to its interface with SO15—Counter Terrorism Command—which may be preventing the pursuit of people living in our country who have participated in genocide and crimes against humanity?

Sir George Young: This is an important matter which, of course, I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman wants to make sure that those who are charged with genocide are intercepted when they arrive in this country by the UK Border Agency and then, if necessary, arrested. I will certainly pass that on to the Home Secretary, and I applaud the work that the hon. Gentleman does on the all-party group.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): May we please have a debate on the outcome of last week’s Brighton conference on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights so that Members can have the opportunity to examine the extent to which the new arrangements may reduce the number of Court rulings which directly oppose the wishes of this House?

Sir George Young: There was a written ministerial statement on—I think—16 April which summarised the outcome of the Brighton conference. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers are to be complimented on what they did in a relatively short window—six months—in getting agreement for reform of the European Court, strengthening subsidiarity, improving the efficiency of the Court and raising the quality of the nomination process for judges. There are a number of outstanding issues which I know my hon. Friend is concerned with and which I know the House will want to return to in the next Session.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): In a double-dip recession, drugs education is even more important, so may we please have a debate on why the Government have scrapped the £69,000 going to the drugs education forum, which includes more than 30 organisations, among them the Association of Chief Police Officers and the NSPCC, sharing and providing good practice to schools? Why, when I wrote to Lord Henley, did he refuse to deal with the issue?

Sir George Young: I am sure my noble Friend Lord Henley would want to respond to any representations from any Member of Parliament, particularly on this serious issue. On support for education, we have maintained constant in cash terms the support for children and we have complemented it with the pupil premium. We have had to take some difficult decisions on public expenditure which, in all honesty, the hon. Lady’s party would also have had to take, had it got into government and been faced with the deficit. I will see whether I can elicit from the appropriate Minister a response on support for the project she mentioned.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1115

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): I have constituents who are suffering from phone scams where companies acting as third parties are selling contracts that are very expensive. The people involved are being sent to jail for fraud, yet the consumers are still being held to pay the vastly inflated bills by phone companies. May we have an urgent statement on the matter from the Minister with responsibility for consumer affairs?

Sir George Young: I am sorry to hear that a number of my hon. Friend’s constituents are being confronted with very high phone bills as a result of activity which sounds to me highly immoral. Of course I will raise it with the appropriate regulator, Ofcom, or the Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who has responsibility for consumer protection, and see whether we need to build in additional safeguards to protect people from exorbitant telephone bills for calls which they are not conscious of having made.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): May we have a debate on the work of food banks? The Leader of the House may have seen early-day motion 3006 praising the work of the volunteers and staff at Harlow food bank, not least because it has now given food to more than 5,000 people and been nominated as Dods local charity of the year.

[That this House celebrates the nomination of Harlow Foodbank for the 2012 DODS Local Charity of the Year Award, and urges every hon. Member to vote for them; commends Harlow Foodbank for supporting individuals and families in crisis by providing free emergency food; further notes that since 2009 it has provided food to over 5,000 people; welcomes what the Secretary of State for

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1116 Work and Pensions has done to allow jobcentres to give this foodbank vouchers; and recognises the work of Harlow Foodbank in really making a difference to people’s lives in Harlow, as a lifeline to people who are going through a period of difficulty or crisis in their life.]

Will the Leader of the House vote for it and urge all hon. Members to do so as well?

Sir George Young: I applaud the work of the Harlow food bank. My hon. Friend asks me to vote for it. There is an Andover food bank in my constituency, and I think the people there would be distressed if I were to vote for another food bank, but I applaud the work that food banks do in constituencies throughout the country, making help available to people who, for whatever reason, have no cash at the end of the week, and I commend the work that is being done in Harlow.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): At least three of my constituents had their final divorce settlements agreed on the basis of their Ministry of Defence spouse’s pension levels, as agreed by the actuaries in the MOD. They have recently received letters informing them that their pensions will be significantly reduced. Will the Leader of the House urge one of the Defence Ministers to come to the Dispatch Box, apologise and take corrective action so that these three women can have a decent pension, as they imagined they would?

Sir George Young: It so happens that there are three Defence Ministers sitting on the Front Bench, all of whom heard that question. The nod of assent from the Secretary of State indicates that he has that problem on board and he will make urgent inquiries. If any injustice has taken place, he will ensure that it is put right.

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1117

Afghanistan (Troop Levels)

12.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on future force levels in Afghanistan.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the commitment, professionalism and bravery of the men and women of the United Kingdom’s armed forces deployed in Afghanistan. Since UK forces first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, over 100,000 personnel have served on operations there, many for more than one tour, and many more, military and civilian, have supported the mission. Since the surge in the international commitment to the mission as a whole in 2009, which boosted the forces available to ISAF—the international security assistance force—by 30,000, the United Kingdom has maintained an enduring level of conventional forces in Afghanistan of 9,500, the great majority of whom are now in the UK area of operations in central Helmand.

This has been a critical period for the mission, for UK forces, for ISAF and, significantly, for the Afghan national security forces—ANSF. Our combined efforts have arrested the momentum of the insurgency, diminished its capability, and weakened its strategic position, but it still represents a threat to the people of Afghanistan and to the security of Afghan territory. It retains the ability to launch significant operations, as the attack on Kabul on 15 and 16 April demonstrates. The response of the ANSF to that attack demonstrated just how far they have come in their capability and ability to undertake major operations autonomously. They are justifiably proud of their performance.

Our aim in Afghanistan is to build Afghan governance and security forces to the point where they are resilient in the face of any residual threat from the insurgency, confident in their ability to protect their own citizens and able to deny safe haven to terrorists who seek to use Afghan territory as a base from which to threaten international security. Significant progress is being made across Afghanistan and the monthly progress report for March, published today by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, sets out more details. Nowhere is that progress more obvious than in Helmand.

There are now 12 district governors in Helmand’s 14 districts, up from just five in 2008. Thirty extra schools have opened since 2010, with another 46 currently being built. Twenty-nine extra health clinics have opened. There are more roads and more bridges, and bazaars re-opening, meaning more commerce and opportunities for ordinary Helmandis. In the past year alone, income levels in Helmand have increased by 20%. Prosperity will be a critical weapon in the battle against the insurgency.

All this social and economic progress has been made possible by the improvements in security across the province. This has been facilitated not just by the surge in ISAF troops, but by the increasing number and quality of Afghan national security forces. The size of the Afghan national army in regional command south-west, which includes Helmand province, has increased by 30% in the past 18 months. Two of the three districts in Task Force Helmand’s area of operations have now

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1118

entered formal transition. The security situation in those districts is unrecognisable compared with the start of British operations in 2006.

The whole of Lashkar Gah district and the most populous 60% of Nad Ali is now completely under Afghan control. The ANSF has demonstrated repeatedly its ability to provide security in these areas and, as a result, 36 of Task Force Helmand’s checkpoints, patrol bases and military positions have been handed over to the ANSF in the past six months, while a further 16 new posts have been constructed and occupied by Afghan forces.

This has enabled Taskforce Helmand to reduce its basing footprint by 50%. As circumstances allow, UK and ISAF forces are progressively moving towards the support role of training, advising and assisting.

During 20th Armoured Brigade’s recent tour, the campaign moved to being run on an Afghan-formulated campaign plan, written in Dari by the Afghans and executed by them. Seven major operations were carried out in central Helmand over the six-month period of Operation Herrick 15—a pace that, in the words of the UK brigade commander,

“sometimes left us running to catch up with our Afghan colleagues.”

In the recent Operation Now Roz, more than 1,000 members of the ANSF, supported by British forces, cleared insurgents from a key heartland within the Helmand river valley. While UK forces secured the flanks, the Afghans cleared more than 200 compounds, made safe 44 improvised explosive devices, found seven bomb-making factories and confiscated more than 145 kg of home-made explosives. It was the fourth major ANA operation in central Helmand in four months, and the largest and most complex so far. The success of the operation further demonstrated the ANSF’s increasing professionalism and capability.

Helmand remains difficult and challenging and the insurgency remains a constant threat, but the progress we have made demonstrates that we are on target to meet the transition objectives agreed by President Karzai and the international community at Lisbon in November 2010. Maintaining that momentum will be the challenge of the transition process between now and the end of 2014. There is no room at all for complacency and much work needs to be done to maintain the momentum of progress in building ANSF capability, but the reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. That allows ISAF, including UK forces, gradually to reduce force levels and change their role.

The Prime Minister announced in July last year that we would be drawing down UK forces by 500 to 9,000 by the end of this year. The Chief of the Defence Staff has now provided military advice on how those reductions will be achieved. The House will understand that it would be inappropriate to go into exact operational details or talk about specific capabilities, but I can give a general overview of how the manpower reductions will be achieved.

First, I can confirm that the majority of the 500 being withdrawn will be combat troops, reflecting the reduction in the need for ISAF ground-holding capabilities as transition progresses and the Afghans take over positions. Secondly, we will merge the UK forces headquarters in Nahri Sarraj North and Nahri Sarraj South to align better with the increasingly important Afghan

26 Apr 2012 : Column 1119

administrative boundaries and the civilian control structure, which will deliver efficiencies and manpower savings. Thirdly, there will be a reduction in support personnel and enablers, commensurate with the changes I have set out. Finally, we will withdraw some combat support capabilities for which there is no longer an operational need as a result of the availability of alternative weapons systems in theatre. Those measures will reduce the United Kingdom’s enduring conventional force levels to 9,000 and will be completed by the end of this year.

I can also inform the House that, in addition to the overall reduction in numbers, a further 200 combat troops will be transferred from ground-holding roles to security force assistance teams working with the ANSF. For the avoidance of doubt, I should be clear that whatever role is being fulfilled, including the training of ANSF forces, British forces in Afghanistan will retain combat capability until the end of 2014.

The details I have announced today are consistent with our intention to move out of a combat role by the end of 2014. They demonstrate our commitment to the process of transition and the increasing capacity and capability of the ANSF, reflecting its real achievements on the ground. As the ANSF grows and gradually takes lead responsibility for security across the country, ISAF’s military footprint, including that of the United Kingdom, will reduce further. We will keep the House informed of future plans for further reductions in UK troop numbers as conditions on the ground permit.

Our combat role will end by December 2014, but the United Kingdom’s commitment to Afghanistan is for the long term. That is demonstrated in part by my announcement last week at the NATO ministerial meeting that we will commit £70 million a year to the funding of the ANSF after 2014, and by our commitment to run the Afghan national army officer training academy, which we are building outside Kabul.

Each nation has its own constitutional processes in which to consider its contribution as transition moves forward, but all agree that ISAF cohesion must be maintained. The UK will continue to work and plan closely with our ISAF partners, particularly those operating alongside us in Helmand, including the United States, which provides the bulk of coalition forces. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday: