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25 Jan 2007 : Column 1553

Business of the House

11.31 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the coming two weeks?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 29 January—Remaining stages of the Digital Switchover (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

Tuesday 30 January—Opposition day [4th allotted day]. There will be a debate on education provision for children with special needs, followed by a debate entitled “The Government Decision on the Sale of a Radar System to Tanzania”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 31 January—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Thursday 1 February—A debate on “Defence in the World” on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 2 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 5 February—Second Reading of the UK Borders Bill.

Tuesday 6 February—Remaining stages of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Wednesday 7 February—Opposition day [5th allotted day]. There will be a debate—or debates—on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 8 February—A debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Subject to be announced.

Friday 9 February—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 February will be:

Thursday 8 February—A debate on world-class skills for 2020—equipping the UK to compete in the global economy.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.

Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House the question of the arrangements for Public Bill Committees. To ensure that the new procedures run as smoothly as possible, will he confirm that responsibility for deciding evidence sessions and witnesses should rest with the Programming Sub-Committee of the Public Bill Committee, and that the Public Bill Committee can take oral evidence at any time during the Committee stage of the Bill? Also, I understand that it has been proposed that there should be two weekends between the meeting of the Programming Sub-Committee and the first meeting of the Public Bill Committee, to give time for witnesses to be called. Sadly, that is not happening with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. Will he confirm that that two-weekend separation should be the norm?

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May we have a statement on the cost overruns on the Olympics? I have raised this matter before. On 6 July 2005, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), the Leader of the House, who was then Foreign Secretary, said:

When he said that, did he know that the Treasury had not decided whether VAT should be paid? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, or from the right hon. Gentleman, as Chairman of the relevant Cabinet Sub-Committee, on the real cost of the Olympics and how they got the budget so wrong?

Yesterday, when challenged about plans to split the Home Office, the Prime Minister said:

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, when a decision is taken, there will be a statement to the House on the subject, and will he say whether that statement will be made before or after the announcement to the “Today” programme?

May we have a debate on personnel management in Government Departments, following today’s revelation, based on an internal Government report, that staff at the Treasury are suffering from low morale, and that one in 10 are worried about bullying? The report shows that more people have departed from the ministerial services team, which works closely with the Chancellor, than any other section. Does that not show that there are serious problems at the Treasury under the current Chancellor of the Exchequer?

Finally, last week, the Leader of the House referred to the dossier that I issued before Christmas, showing that there were 1,000 unanswered parliamentary questions in the last Session. He claimed then, and last week, that my figures were wrong. Sadly, he has been guilty of a certain amount of spin. Rather than going into all the details now, I will write to him, but to give just a taster, he said that an unanswered question about the number of pupils in each local authority in England who left school without any GCSE qualifications, excluding equivalents, since 1997 had indeed been answered. Well, it had not; the answer did not give the number of pupils, did not give a local authority breakdown, and used a different definition of qualifications.

The right hon. Gentleman also made no apology for the “proper” use of the Prorogation system. Is it really proper use of that system for an hon. Member who tables a question in February to be told, nine months later in November, that there has not been time to answer the question? I hardly think so. Is it really an excuse to say that some answers had not been published in Hansard? Written parliamentary answers should be available to all hon. Members and the public, and not just the Member who asked the question. If answers are not being published in Hansard, the House should know, and the right hon. Gentleman should do something about it.

Mr. Straw: Let me deal with the right hon. Lady’s questions in turn. First, I confirm that under the Standing Orders, it is for the Programming Sub-Committee to determine how many evidence sessions
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there are, and under Standing Orders the Committee can decide to take evidence at any stage. She has raised the matter with me privately, too. I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, and I know that she, too, is committed to making the system work. As a result of negotiations between the usual channels, an agreement that I think is satisfactory has been reached on the Bill in question.

One of the points that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made was that fewer Bills than had been anticipated would operate under the system. It is worth pointing out that when I put the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee to the House, I said that they would apply to all Bills introduced to the House after 1 January. In fact, the Bill that she asks about was introduced before then. It is a measure of my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip’s commitment that we have been anxious to start with that Bill. On the two-weekend separation, it is the rule that there should be two weekends between First Reading—the Bill’s introduction—and Second Reading, but that is not the rule for Committee stage. The Whips will do their best to ensure a reasonable period, but I do not promise two weekends. I doubt that that can be provided, but it depends on the exigencies of the timetable.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): And between Committee and Report?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman makes the first of what will, no doubt, be many sedentary interventions in business questions. In my 18 years in opposition, I spent too much of my life on the Opposition Front Bench, having to deal with the Committee stage of Bills, and I can say that there were plenty of occasions on which Bills went straight into Committee after Second Reading, and straight out of Committee into Report. That happened all the time, so I think that this Government have probably been more reasonable.

On cost overruns in respect of the Olympics, the financial systems are indeed robust. Detailed discussions are taking place about some of the uncertainties in the financing of the Olympics—uncertainties that are inherent in any project of a similar scale and with a similar time scale, including the best-run of them. I am in close touch with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the subject. I can tell the right hon. Member for Maidenhead that we will indeed make a statement to the House when matters are more settled.

On the proposals, which have yet to be agreed, to split the Home Office, there should be a statement in the House, and I very much hope that it is the House that hears it first, rather than the editors of the “Today” programme. Such is the nature of modern politics, however, that I cannot promise that, but I entirely accept the point made by the right hon. Lady.

The right hon. Lady also referred to an apparently leaked report about morale in the Treasury. All that I can say is that the Treasury has unquestionably been one of the most successful Government Departments in the past 10 years, as shown by the Government’s
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highly successful ability to deliver on the economy. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just reminded the House, particularly Conservative Members, that we are about to enter the 40th successive quarter of economic growth under the Government—a record unrivalled by any British Government and almost any western Government since 1997. [Hon. Members: “Governments—plural.”] No, it is 40 successive quarters under this Administration since 1997. It is 58 quarters if we include the previous Administration, but I am very happy indeed to look at the first 10 years of the Conservative Administration. Of those 40 quarters, I recollect that there were a good 10 quarters in which there was no growth, and a good 10 quarters in the early 1980s and again in the late 1980s in which, far from any growth at all, there was a depression.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the dossier published in early November in which she said that there were 1,000 unanswered questions. It will be embarrassing for her—and some of us remember with acute embarrassment her research into the titles of pop songs, which she tried to name in July—but the research turned out to be wrong. I deprecate the practice of leaving any question unanswered, and I particularly deprecate the failure to answer a question tabled in February until November. That is quite unacceptable, and I have always made that clear. My colleagues are told in terms if there are such problems. I do not want any unanswered questions, but may I tell the right hon. Lady—she and I have discussed the matter with the Chairman of the Procedure Committee—that Ministers and officials have to work hard to answer all questions on time? It is an issue for the whole House, and it would affect any Government with whom she served, as the number of written questions has expanded, and expanded again. It has almost doubled in the past four years, so it is a serious issue, and the House as a whole needs to tackle it.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Leader of the House find time, either next week or soon after, to consider the number of regulators operating in Parliament? Is he aware that the Electoral Commission commissioned an inquiry into its work—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): It is a quango.

Mr. Purchase: Of course it is. It commissioned an inquiry into its work by the standards committee, which has reported. Is it not a case of one quango so far up another quango’s backside that they are examining each other’s entrails? Is it not time that we considered a regulator for the regulator?

Mr. Straw: As this not a late-night Channel 4 programme, I will not proceed with that metaphor. I have to make a confession, because I was the Minister responsible for establishing, with parliamentary approval, the Electoral Commission quango.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Apologise.

Mr. Straw: No, I will not do so. It was a good idea, but it needs to be improved. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was established under the previous Government by Mr. Major, has made
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significant criticisms of the Electoral Commission, including the need to trim down, to be more focused in its work, and to ensure that its members include people with political experience so that it understands what it is doing, which is a good thing.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am sure the Leader of the House is familiar with the practice in restaurants of putting little symbols on the menu to show which dishes are suitable for vegetarians, for coeliacs and so on. Will he consider a similar system for the Order Paper, so that debates are clearly marked as being suitable for the Prime Minister? Before yesterday’s debate, we were told at different points by the Prime Minister’s spokesmen that he does not do Back-Bench debates—apparently, a debate in Government time opened by the Foreign Secretary is a Back-Bench debate—that he does not do foreign affairs debates, and then that he never attends such debates, whatever the topic may be. May we be assured that there are at least some debates that the Prime Minister would feel it appropriate to attend, rather than chumming up to the CBI? Perhaps one of them might be a debate on four years of war in which brave British soldiers are being killed on every day of every week.

May we have a debate on the air passenger duty, which was raised by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) in Chancellor’s questions? Not only are there questions about the implementation, but there are practical difficulties. The Leader of the House knows that we support a tax on aviation, although we support a tax on the pollution caused by planes, rather than on the passengers who travel in them. Is it not the case that because the duty is retrospective, it will cause chaos in our airports and great difficulties for both travellers and airlines, as well as huge financial disadvantage to tour operators? A tour operator in my constituency, Gerry Copsey, points out in a letter to me that the tour operator has to absorb the first 2 per cent. of any surcharge, which he has not collected because the tax did not exist. That is therefore a direct and substantial windfall tax on tour operators. It cannot be right, and the House should have the opportunity to debate it.

Last week the President of the United States gave the State of the Union address. May we have a debate on the state of the Union—in this case, the Act of Union between Scotland and England? We could explore the huge advantages to both Scotland and England of the Union, we could address those who wish to split us asunder on any basis, some explicitly and some implicitly, and we could look at the ways in which we could improve the Union to ensure that every part of the Union feels that it has a fair voice.

Lastly, on written questions—a matter which I often ask the Leader of the House to look into—my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) last week asked the Department for Culture, Media and Sport how many libraries closed in London. The reply from the Department was that it could not provide the information because

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In other words, Departments now want to provide not only the answers, but the questions. Will the right hon. Gentleman remind his colleagues that we ask the questions and they are supposed to answer?

Mr. Straw rose—

John Bercow: “Yes” will do.

Mr. Straw: I hear the second sedentary intervention from the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), but it would be sensible to take the questions in order.

On the Prime Minister’s attendance, we dealt with the matter last week. My right hon. Friend has led 23 debates since he became Prime Minister, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) knows. My right hon. Friend has also delivered more oral statements in the House than previous Prime Ministers, and has appeared before the Liaison Committee. As a result of the decision to merge the Tuesday and Thursday Prime Minister’s questions into one, he misses Prime Minister’s questions far less frequently than did previous Prime Ministers. It has been the practice in the House for as long as I can remember—over 28 years—for Foreign Secretaries to lead debates on foreign policy. I would like another debate on Iraq, not least so that the House can be informed of the views of the previous leader of the Liberal Democrat party, Lord Ashdown—it is a terrible shame that this did not come out yesterday—who writes today in The Independent excoriating the policy of the current leader of the Liberal Democrat party and his irresponsibility in proposing that we should cut and run from our responsibilities in Iraq. I commend the article to a wider readership.

We were treated to a wonderful illustration of the Liberal Democrats’ logic chopping. The hon. Gentleman agrees with the principle of air passenger duty but believes that the tax should be on the pollution rather than the passengers—[Hon. Members: “On the planes.”] The problem with a tax on planes—the hon. Gentleman may not have spotted it—is that they do not have bank accounts. I sometimes wish that they did. It is a brilliant idea and my constituents would vote for it, but only people have bank accounts.

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): And companies.

Mr. Straw: Yes, but in the end, companies, too, depend on people for their business. The taxes go back to individuals. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome wants to encourage people to travel less, the individuals should be taxed. Air passenger duty is a good idea. It is common practice for the rate changes to all major duties to have immediate or near immediate effect. Previous changes to APD have always applied on the basis of when the flight takes place, irrespective of when it is booked.

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