There were questions on Energy and Climate Change yesterday.
Henley MP John Howell (right) asked about fuel poverty:
"Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?
Edward Miliband: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty."
It is, of course, a lie to say that you can't freeze or even cut a department's overall expenditure whilst concurrently increasing spending on certain individual projects.
Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark went on the same issue:
"The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?
Edward Miliband: I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.
Greg Clark: Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?
Edward Miliband: I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances."
The House of Commons returned yesterday, and launched into questions to ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Kettering MP Philip Hollobone ensured that he won't get an invitation to join the front bench any time soon:
"Given that we spend far too much time in this country celebrating cultures other than our own, is it not time to start redressing the balance by creating a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day?
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): I commend the hon. Gentleman for the work he does in promoting Englishness and the flag of St. George. I would have to discuss with Government colleagues the idea of holding a public holiday to celebrate St. George’s day, but I hope that people will follow the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and celebrate St. George’s day, while also remembering that we will also be celebrating the birth of William Shakespeare."
Shadow DCMS Minister Tobias Ellwood asked about lapdancing clubs:
"As the Minister will be aware, the so-called designated premises supervisor is legally responsible for the conduct of any pub, club or lap-dancing establishment. However, there is no requirement for that supervisor to be present in his establishment at any time; he can verbally hand over responsibility to an untrained manager with no qualifications. Will the Minister examine whether that is the best way to ensure that pubs, clubs or lap-dancing operations are run properly? The feedback from local authorities with vibrant town centres is that it is not.
Mr. Sutcliffe: Designated door supervisors have been a force for good in the sense of working with establishments, the police and local authorities. I made an enjoyable visit in my Bradford constituency to police on the licensing route late one Friday night, to see at first hand how door supervisors were working. [ Interruption. ] No, lap dancing was not on at that venue that evening. We are trying to ensure that local authorities, the police and the industry are working together in trying to protect the public."
With Congleton MP Ann Winterton in the chair, Westminster Hall hosted a debate entitled "Investigating the Oceans" yesterday. The now defunct Science and Technology Committee published a report with the same name back in 2007. Eighteen months later, MPs were back for a progress report from ministers!
Shadow DEFRA Secretary Nick Herbert spoke for the Conservatives:
"We face an unprecedented crisis in the marine life in our seas and oceans. Research predicts that the world will run out of seafood species that it can fish by 2048 and that the associated loss of marine biodiversity will destroy the ocean’s natural ability to adapt and self-repair. A strong science base is therefore essential if we are to respond to the challenges to our marine ecosystems.
It is possible to identify five key challenges to the marine environment. First, and perhaps the most significant, is climate change and its impact on sea levels. The world’s oceans absorb more than one quarter of the carbon dioxide that the human race generates, and half of that is absorbed in the Southern ocean alone, so oceans and marine systems play a key role both in the debate that we must have about climate change, and in regulating climate systems. There is a danger that meltwater could interrupt the oceans’ natural currents and a particular concern that the gulf stream could slow down or even shut down, meaning less heat for north-west Europe and, therefore, harsher winters.
The second key challenge is fishing in our seas and oceans. Some 70 to 80 per cent. of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, and 15 of the world’s 17 largest fisheries are so heavily exploited that their reproductive cycles cannot guarantee continued captures. Demand for fish next year is expected to reach 110 million tonnes, which will outstrip supply. The global crisis is mirrored in our waters. We need to reconnect fisheries domestically, in the European Union and internationally with environmental interests, to ensure that fishing can be conducted in a sustainable way.
Health questions were put in the House of Commons yesterday.
The situation at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, which has been slammed by the Healthcare Commission for "appalling" emergency care at Stafford Hospital, stood out. Between 2005 and 2008 about 400 more people died there than would ordinarily have been expected.
Stone MP Bill Cash expressed his profound concern:
"Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the Secretary of State take account of the fact that I am repeating my call for an inquiry into this whole matter under the Inquiries Act 2005? Will he also make it clear that all those in that trust who are culpable, as set out in the Healthcare Commission report—that includes other senior management besides the chairman and the chief executive at the time—must be removed and not merely suspended on full pay?
Alan Johnson: As I just said, the investigation will involve everyone who has any position of authority within that trust—the whole board and all the executive directors. It will be a proper investigation and it will be fair, and the action taken will result from that inquiry, not from any knee-jerk reaction by me or anyone else."
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley (above right) went on the same topic:
“we should be spotting these issues much earlier and getting rid of incompetent chief executives or chairpersons who, fortunately, are in the minority, rather than waiting for a report such as this, by which time, frankly, most of the damage has been done.”—[ Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 571.]
The Secretary of State knew about the failings at Stafford in May 2008, so why did he not intervene then and there?
Alan Johnson: I ask the hon. Gentleman to look at the Healthcare Commission’s report carefully. The difference between what happened in Stafford and in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and the fact that the Healthcare Commission took into account those words and what others said at the time, is that as soon as commission staff went into Stafford and saw the problems—in May 2008—they immediately called the chief executive to a meeting, put their concerns to him, and started to see the process of improvement. That is the job of the Healthcare Commission while it carries out its inquiry. The staff cannot say at that stage that they have come to any conclusions, and it would be unfair, one day into an inquiry, to reach conclusions and say that heads must roll and recommendations must be made. We made that specific point to the Healthcare Commission at the time of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, so in Stafford staff immediately introduced measures to put things right, rather than wait for the end of the process and the report to be published—as I said they should do in that quote.
It was Welsh questions yesterday.
Congleton's Ann Winterton asked about manufacturing:
"Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the state of the manufacturing sector in Wales. 
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Paul Murphy): The manufacturing industry is, of course, very important to Wales. According to the latest available figures, the sector employs about 13.5 per cent. of the Welsh work force.
Ann Winterton: The manufacturing industry in the UK has taken a very hard hit in the recession, and that is perhaps even more true of Wales. Is the Secretary of State aware of the concerns of many in the manufacturing work force in Wales who work for foreign companies that there may be plans to offshore employment? Examples of such companies include Toyota in north Wales and Corus in south Wales; Corus has a plant in the Netherlands. What discussion has he had with other Ministers, and with the Welsh Assembly, to ensure that that does not happen?
Mr. Murphy: The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I have of course had discussions with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, and with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Wales. I have also discussed the issue of Corus with the chief executive of Corus. The point that the hon. Lady makes about foreign-owned companies in Wales is well taken, but I have no reason to believe that that will be a disadvantage to us in Wales in the months to come. In my constituency, for example, thousands of people work for car component manufacturers that are American-owned, and so far, so good. Obviously, they are feeling the pinch, like all manufacturing companies, and particularly those in the automotive industry, but I very much take her point on board."
Shadow Deputy Secretary of State for Wales David Jones had a follow-up question:
"The Secretary of State will know that Toyota announced today that it is putting its factory on Deeside on short-time working and its staff on reduced pay. He has already mentioned the importance of the automotive industry to the Welsh economy. Given that importance, does he know precisely when the automotive assistance programme, which was announced with so much fanfare in January, will be implemented? Is it another case not of real help now, but of jam tomorrow?
Mr. Murphy: No; the hon. Gentleman is aware that some of the schemes are to operate at different times. For example, in April at least six schemes are due to go live, including help for the automotive industry. There are other schemes that have already started. I cited to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) the excellent ProAct scheme that works in Wales. The schemes are staggered in time scale, but they are about real help for people. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) is right that the delivery of such schemes must be a main priority of Government, whether here in London or in Cardiff. Help is available, and it is up to the industry to apply for that help."
Yesterday saw questions to Transport ministers.
Congleton's Ann Winterton (right) - who is an assiduous attendee of oral questions - asked about rail prices:
"What recent assessment he has made of levels of rail fares. 
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to regulate rail fares to balance the protection for passengers and taxpayers while allowing significant investment in rail. We have made it clear that the average cap—usually the retail prices index plus 1 per cent.—will be applied next year even if RPI is negative, leading to lower regulated fares in January 2010. From January 2010, the cap will also apply generally to individual regulated fares.
Ann Winterton: The Secretary of State will be aware of the horror expressed by commuters and passengers about the huge hike of more than 6 per cent.—the figure is much higher in some areas—in rail fares this year. I welcome his reaffirmation on behalf of the Government that fares next year will be pegged to the standard formula, but will he also assure us that rail companies will not cut services?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady refers to regulated fares. To deal with her last point first, the services are governed by the franchise agreement entered into by the train operating companies. Of course, we will not allow those agreements to be changed without a clear, good reason. To deal with the generality of her observation, support for railways comes from two sources: fare-paying passengers and taxpayers. If we are to maintain the level of investment in our railways that I think we should have, we have a clear choice. We can either allow fares to be increased according to the consistent arrangements that have operated for many years, or we can increase the subsidy from the taxpayer. If she is unhappy about the balance that we have struck, she needs to say so, as does her party. Instead of simply making generalised complaints, I want to hear what specific proposals the Conservative party would make about fares and the level of taxpayers’ subsidy."
Shadow Transport Minister Stephen Hammond posed a follow-up question on the same subject:
"The facts show that the Passenger Focus report published in February this year highlighted value for money as the most serious concern for passengers. The facts also show that the most packed trains are running at more than 170 per cent. capacity and that, since 2003, regulated and unregulated fares have risen by a third. Do not the facts show that after a decade of Labour control, the story is one of overcrowded trains, value for money falling, and the taxpayer having to pick up the tab?
I would not want the Conservative party to feel that I was letting it off the hook after the comments that I made about the Liberal Democrats. If the hon. Gentleman gets his way and eventually ends up on the Government Benches taking the decisions, he will have £840 million less to spend on the railways and on transport in general than has been spent by this Government. He and his party have to explain how they will manage to continue with investment in much-needed projects such as Crossrail at the same time as cutting the railway budget."
Questions were put to ministers from the Department for Children, Schools and Families department yesterday.
The very last question of the session was from John Bercow, Buckingham MP, and addressed the loathsome phenomenon of bullying:
"Given that approximately 6,000 children a year exclude themselves from school after suffering extreme bullying, approximately 50 per cent. of whom have contemplated or attempted to commit suicide, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and a delegation of interested parties to consider the case for funding the network of Red Balloon learner centres across the country? They are doing fantastic work in restoring the self-esteem of those damaged children, and getting them back into school, into further education, on to university or into employment. They need a bit of help.
Ed Balls: I had the opportunity two weeks ago to meet a group of young people from Norwich and Harrow who were being given chances to get back into school through the support of Red Balloon. Such decisions are made by local authorities, and I urge all local authorities to support Red Balloon and such new opportunities for children. I would love to meet the hon. Gentleman and a delegation again, so that I can hear further inspiring stories of young people getting back into education because of this important voluntary organisation."
Mark Pritchard, who represents The Wrekin, asked about means testing:
"Does the Minister accept that there needs to be more flexibility in the means-testing criteria? For example, the circumstances of a household on an income of £30,000 with a single child in full-time education are entirely different from those of another household on the same income but with five children in full-time education. Such issues have an impact on whether some children fulfil full-time education.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The problem is that the more flexibility that we put into the system, the more complex it becomes. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, but there will not always be the same number of young people in the 16-to-18 age group. It is that particular age group that we are trying to attract with the education maintenance allowance."
The House of Commons had Energy and Climate Change questions yesterday. Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark was very concerned about Britain's gas reserves:
"On 20 February this year—two weeks ago—Britain hit a new low, with just four days-worth of gas in storage in the reserve. Does the Minister consider that an acceptable margin for safety?
Mr. O'Brien: It is not about how many days worth of gas there are. The amount of gas in storage at a given point cannot meaningfully be assessed in terms of days. Stored gas is not used on its own to meet UK demand in any way. The North sea gas reserves put the UK in a position unlike that of other countries. Yes, we need gas storage, and we will need to increase the amount of storage as our imports increase, but we still have a substantial amount of gas coming from the North sea. That means that we do not need quite the amount of storage capacity that other countries do, although we will need to improve gas storage capacity in future as North sea gas depletes, and imports rise.
Greg Clark: That is a remarkably complacent answer, because every country in the world is content to denote their storage in days—apart from Britain, apparently. For the second time in only four winters, we almost ran out of gas, and almost did not have sufficient gas to meet demand. According to a written answer that the Minister gave me only this morning, only the depressed state of the economy, due to the recession, saved us from running out. Even the official regulator thinks that we do not have enough storage. In the Energy and Climate Change Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) asked the regulator whether he thought that enough storage was being planned, and he said:
“I am not happy to talk about this...we were hoping”—
“and we have barely moved.”
Mr. O'Brien: That is a stunning statement the week after Centrica announced a £1.2 billion proposal to create the second-biggest gas storage facility at the old gas field in Baird in the North sea. We hope that that will come on stream from 2013. There are 17 other projects, too. That is one of the main areas for us, and the Government are setting out their priority of bringing gas storage on board. Let me be clear. The hon. Gentleman’s claims that we were suddenly about to run out of gas take no account of the fact that the Norwegian gas fields were pumping vast amounts of imports into the country. We were therefore able to manage successfully and capably the issues that arose as a result of the recent cold snap and the Russia-Ukraine dispute."
Other Conservative members asked interesting questions too.
Yesterday the Commons hosted questions to the Home Office. The new Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling (right), had a chance to shine.
Shadow Justice Minister David Burrowes asked about drug prevention:
"Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Last month, the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse published figures that reveal that nearly 25,000 young people aged under 18 are in treatment for drug and alcohol problems. Is that not an indictment of the fact that the Government did not do more earlier on drug prevention, and the fact that just 12 per cent. of the drugs budget was spent on prevention? There is no evaluation at all of many of the activities.
Jacqui Smith: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise the progress made by those working in the drugs field over the past 10 or 11 years. Overall drug use and class A drug use among young people are now at their lowest levels ever, as measured by the British crime survey. Among school pupils, overall drug use has fallen. The rate of frequent drug use among pupils has also fallen. The people involved in that work should be congratulated, unlike the hon. Gentleman’s party, which proposes cuts to the Home Office budget; that would certainly impact on our ability to counter the harms caused by drugs. I hope that he will back up his words with words advising his Front-Bench team to put back that money."
Maria Miller, Shadow Minister for the Family, received a similar answer to her question, which answer again poured scorn on the Conservatives' spending plans:
"The Basingstoke rape and sexual abuse centre, along with many other rape crisis centres, does an excellent job to support victims. Why do the Government not do one thing that would really help those centres and adopt a three-year funding cycle, as suggested by colleagues on the Opposition Benches, to try and put an end to the financial uncertainty that so many of those crisis centres still face?
Mr. Campbell: The Government provided £1 million extra this year to rape crisis centres, and I am informed that no rape crisis centre has closed since that period. We value the work of rape crisis centres and are working with local partners to see how best they can be funded, but coming from a party that will cut investment, suggesting a commitment to a three-year period is asking a lot."
Let us take a deep breath and patiently say this once again: when a budget is large and complex it is possible to make overall savings whilst increasing or maintaining spending on specific areas!
Here is the latest batch of interesting written answers from the House of Commons.
Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions Andrew Selous had a written reminder that ministers are supposed to make big announcements to Parliament first when it is in session - a rule that they in fact breach on a spectacularly frequent basis:
"To ask the Leader of the House what recent discussions she has had with Ministerial colleagues on the criteria to be used in deciding whether an announcement should be made by means of an Oral Statement. 
Chris Bryant: My right hon. and learned Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues when deciding whether an oral statement should be made to announce Government policy. This is done against the general principle set out in the Ministerial Code that when Parliament is in Session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament, and taking into account the importance of the issue and the other business before the House."
The answer to Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt also serves as a reminder - that the Church of England is responsible for much of our architectural heritage:
"To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners how many church buildings are listed. 
In the latest copy of Hansard, several more written questions have been inadequately answered.
There will be times when the Government really can't answer a question, or when it would be undiplomatic for it to do so, or when pulling the information together would be excessively costly. But those occasions are comparatively rare.
This post is longer than normal, but with good reason. It's time to spotlight what appears to be indefensible obsfucation. If anyone can suggest good reasons why the answers below were in fact satisfactory, we'd be delighted to see them.
There are some real gems, including this one from Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Harwich:
"Mr. Carswell: To ask the Prime Minister how much champagne was ordered by the Prime Minister’s Office for consumption at events at (a) 10 Downing Street and (b) Chequers in each of the last six months. 
If this isn't a lie, and they really don't know how much they spent on bubbly, that's actually more horrifying than trying to cover it up.
Sir Nicholas Winterton MP: "As the longest-serving Member in the county of Cheshire, and a close friend of the late Mrs. Dunwoody—I worked with her on many issues in Cheshire over many years—I believe that I represent a view held fairly strongly across the House. It appears to me and many others that the issuing of the writ before the funeral of Mrs. Dunwoody means that this matter is being pursued with unseemly haste. As you know, Mr. Speaker, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody was hugely respected for what she did in this place. She was a robust, independent socialist who was never frightened to express her view or to stand up for what she believed to be right. She was equally committed to and respected in her constituency and the county of Cheshire as a whole. I merely wish to represent to this House my concern that the writ has been issued before Mrs. Dunwoody’s funeral, next Thursday in St. Margaret’s church here in Westminster, which I shall attend. I wish to register that point. I do not intend to vote against the issuing of the writ, and I hope that Members of the House will not do so."
Ann Winterton MP: "I support my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) as a fellow Cheshire Member of Parliament. I know that the sentiments he expressed will be shared by other Cheshire colleagues and hon. Members of all parties. In almost 25 years, I have never known a writ be moved before a colleague’s funeral. I was dismayed at the discourtesy and insensitivity afforded to Mrs. Dunwoody’s family and her constituency. When boundary changes took place in 1983, I inherited part of Gwyneth Dunwoody’s constituency and I know the high esteem in which she was and continues to be held by her former constituents. Gwyneth Dunwoody was a neighbour, a redoubtable woman and a character. She did not deserve such treatment."
The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): "I wish to raise two points in response to those that have been made. The first is about the wishes of the family and the second is about the conventions of the House. I shall read to the House a statement from the family in respect of the late Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody. They said:
“We fully support the decision to begin the process of electing a new MP for Crewe and Nantwich. Our mother proudly represented this constituency for 34 years, and would not want to see local people go without an MP. She worked tirelessly for local people and recognised there was always more to do. She would want that job of work to continue, as quickly as possible.”
It is a long-standing convention of the House that, when a party loses a member, it decides when to move the writ, which triggers the process that leads to the ensuing by-election. Crewe and Nantwich has had a doughty advocate for 34 years and it needs a new Member of Parliament. I therefore invite the House to support the motion."