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26 July 2007 : Column 1052

This week, we have had two statements from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the dreadful floods that have hit central and southern England and caused misery for thousands of people. We are grateful that he has kept the House and the relevant Members informed, and I am also grateful for the announcement that the Leader of the House has just made about the provisions for keeping Members whose constituencies are affected, including myself, in touch with developments over the summer recess. There are still questions to be answered, however, on the use of temporary barriers, and on why the Environment Agency has stopped regularly dredging rivers. When Parliament returns from the summer recess, may we have a debate on the flooding and the lessons to be learned from the recent floods?

Last month, the Modernisation Committee produced its report on enhancing the role of the Back Bencher. It contained excellent proposals and, if Parliament is to be strengthened, it should be implemented quickly. When will the right hon. and learned Lady bring those proposals before the House?

Three weeks ago, the Leader of the House said that she would do everything that she could

Yesterday, she failed in her pledge when she abandoned parliamentary procedure in order to put the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on to the Home Affairs Committee. She put the interests—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady, but the House has decided on that matter. We are now debating the business for the week after the recess, so that matter should not be raised again.

Mrs. May: I am grateful for your advice, Mr. Speaker. I was about to ask about a future item of business related to a more general issue. As that was not a matter of putting the interests of the House first, will the right hon. and learned Lady provide the House with a more accurate statement of her interpretation of her role as Leader of the House, and, given that she is also the chairman of the Labour party, will she touch on the duality of her role?

On Monday, the Minister for Housing made a statement on her plans for more housing, but its contents were in the morning’s press and a BBC correspondent even had a copy the previous weekend. On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement on the railways, but its contents were debated that very morning on the “Today” programme. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made his statement on the detention of terror suspects, but he had already given the story to The Sun. Will the right hon. and learned Lady take time from her other duties to ensure that all of her ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, live up to his promise to announce policy to the House first?

Also on Monday, the Prime Minister insinuated to the media—not to hon. Members—that he would consider reversing the liberalisation of licensing laws. His spin doctors later confirmed that there would be a review of policy. That comes after a half-announcement to review the classification of cannabis and a half-announcement to reverse the super-casinos policy. This is no way to announce policy, so will the Leader of the
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House tell the Prime Minister that if he wants to restore Parliament’s powers, he should treat hon. Members with respect?

On that same subject, the Prime Minister yesterday sneaked out 39 written statements and answers to five named day questions from Labour MPs. Those included statements on a £3.5 billion shortfall in Child Support Agency payments, plans for the abolition of 25 councils and the failure of the Youth Justice Board. Today, a further 30 written statements are planned, including one on a breach of data security for visa applications, one on the Government’s climate change target and one on the cost of ministerial cars. So much for the post-spin era. Will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement on that abuse of written ministerial statements?

Finally, the European Council conclusions state:

The Labour Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee has said:

Parliament’s representative on the former Convention says:

The right hon. and learned Lady says that she understands her duty to Parliament, so after the recess, will she make a statement on the consequences of the treaty for this sovereign Parliament?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady raised the matter of the use of temporary barriers for the floods. That was dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in an oral statement. He said that the siting of the equipment for these temporary barriers needed to be looked into further and that when that was done, he would report back to the House. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed that yesterday.

As to the important work of the Modernisation Committee on enhancing the role of the Back Bencher and the House, we will report back on our set of proposals for the Chamber in the autumn.

The right hon. Lady raised a point about the housing statement made by the Minister for Housing. She will know that the question of how an early version of that statement was leaked is to be the subject of a leak inquiry. I strongly believe, however, that policy announcements should be made to the House first. It is very important that Back Benchers come into the Chamber knowing that they are going to hear an announcement, and that they on behalf of their constituents, and the House on behalf of the country, are able to hold Ministers to account. We must ensure that there is both general discussion in the media, in public meetings and in our constituencies, and that specific information is announced to the House first.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the review of the policy on cannabis. Bearing in mind the evidence of the greater strength of cannabis, and new evidence of links between cannabis use and serious mental health problems, especially among the young, it is good that we are reviewing the policy and that the Prime Minister
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should announce that to Parliament when responding to questions. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister has made two, or three, oral statements already since becoming Prime Minister— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Members will let the Leader of the House speak.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady and hon. Members can hardly say that the Prime Minister has not made enough oral statements to the House—he has made two or three. It is important that the House is told that we are going to review the classification of cannabis, and that is what he did.

It will not be news to any Member that a deadlock has been reached between this House and the other place on the super-casino question. In view of that, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right to say that he is reflecting on the way forward, and that he will use the summer to consider the important question of how areas such as east Manchester and Blackpool should be regenerated.

The right hon. Lady complained about the number of written ministerial statements, but she has not said whether any of those should not have been made. When the summer recess is approaching, Departments must consider whether to look ahead and ensure that a written statement is made to the House, rather than either holding up decisions until October or putting them out to the media during the recess. It is simply a practical matter. If Ministers have reached decisions on important issues, it is right that they do not hold them up until October when the House returns from the recess, and that they get those decisions out through a written statement. Recently, a great many oral statements have been made—two and sometimes three a day—so she cannot be suggesting that more of the written statements should have been turned into oral statements. It is therefore right for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to provide the information on the Child Support Agency in that way. I do not accept for one moment that written statements have been abused.

The right hon. Lady also raised the question of European scrutiny. As I said to her last week when she raised the issue, I have met the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, and we need to consider whether the House can better scrutinise European issues.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): May we have a debate on the quality of and access to Jobcentre Plus services? In the last three years, changes in the delivery of welfare benefits have caused significant disruption and hardship to tens of thousands of claimants, with families waiting weeks for benefits to be processed and telephone systems overwhelmed by call volumes. Centralising the work of the Department for Work and Pensions into a tiny number of mega-centres is hitting the most vulnerable in our land very hard, and an urgent review is necessary.

Ms Harman: I hear the point that my hon. Friend has raised and I will ensure that it is brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I reassert and agree with
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my hon. Friend that the work of Jobcentre Plus is important. Those who can work should be helped into work and the benefits system is important not only to provide support for those who cannot work, but to top up the pay of those in work to ensure that work pays.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and I join her and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in thanking those who work for the House and who serve us in preparing for our business. I also join them in wishing everyone a good break; I will come back to the length of it in a moment.

In relation to the business for the first week back after the summer recess, I repeat my request that the Leader of the House should over the summer reflect on the fact that it is inappropriate to start with the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which we know will get barely any way down the track before we have the end of the parliamentary year, and which will then be amended. I ask her to say that, by agreement over the holiday, that Bill could be taken off the agenda for that Monday. Instead, for example, we could have a debate on the Monday about the consequences of the flooding, because that will be the first opportunity to do so.

On the Tuesday, rather than have a limited defence debate on procurement, we could have a more wide-ranging defence debate on Iraq and Afghanistan. The country would expect, if we have been out of this place for some weeks, that the troops serving abroad and what they are doing for us all should be the subject of scrutiny and review at the earliest possible opportunity, given the danger and importance of what they do.

I request that we add another matter to the business when we come back: the implications of the cuts in rail subsidy. People are encouraged to be environmentally responsible. Some will go on holiday by train. They will have heard that train fares are going up even further because the subsidy is being cut. That is not a popular move and, well before the beginning of the next financial year, and ideally in the first week back, we need to look at the way we pay for the rail industry and the amount that we charge people, because out there in the real world that has a huge impact on the budgets of families who often need to use rail services.

On domestic matters, following what happened yesterday and looking ahead, as the Leader of the House is now on the Modernisation Committee will she reflect on the fact that, if we are to have large numbers of written statements, they should at least do what they say they will do? She gave us a written statement today saying that the Government response to the Modernisation Committee report on petitions and early-day motions would be in the Vote Office, but it was not available when we started this exchange.

May we have an early debate on petitions and early-day motions that have more than 300 signatures—there is an important one on illegal logging and another important one on carers—and may we, as a matter of course, debate motions that have huge support in the House? Lastly, may we have a serious discussion again under the right hon. Lady’s leadership as soon as we come back on whether it is justifiable for the House of Commons in the United Kingdom to go
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away for 10 weeks when the rest of the country, if they are lucky, go away for two or three? We cannot justify it and we need to debate it again. We need to return to the bad decision, in my view, that we made some weeks ago.

Ms Harman: On the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Sir Ronald Flanagan will be giving his interim report in the summer. That Bill will then be considered in the usual way. If any amendments are to be brought forward by the Government or by hon. Members, the question will be whether they are within the remit of the long title, but I have heard the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and no doubt they will be reflected on by the Home Secretary as well.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there could be a debate on flooding when the House returns. I can assure all hon. Members that the Secretaries of State for Communities and Local Government and for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will keep the House updated, possibly by way of written or oral statements, but they have come forward with as much information as they possibly can. If there is a need for a debate over and above the statement, no doubt my right hon. Friends will seek such a debate.

There will be a debate on Tuesday 9 October on defence procurement, and that would be an opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise the important issue of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made a full statement on the railways on Tuesday and I am sure that, like all hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman was pleased to hear that more freight is now going by rail, passenger numbers are up and regulation of fares continues. We all want to see the contribution that the railways can make to tackling climate change stepped up. That is the view across Government.

Hon. Members will know of the suggestion to update the antiquated process that means that petitions have to be in a particular form of words, otherwise they cannot be submitted, and simply get put in the bag behind Mr. Speaker’s chair. I thank the Procedure Committee for the important work that it has done on the question of petitioning Parliament. It made many useful suggestions and the Government’s response has been published and will be available from the Vote Office by the end of today.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether early-day motions that have attracted great concern could be the subject of a debate once a certain number of Members had signed them. However, it is always open to hon. Members to apply to debate issues on the Adjournment or to seek a Westminster Hall debate.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the question of the House sitting in September has been the subject of experiment, and the House has voted on the issue. I understand that the hon. Gentleman and—I hope—the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) received an advance copy of the document on petitions. It was certainly my intention that they should have an advance copy, but I hope that all hon. Members will be able to obtain a copy from the Vote Office shortly.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): When does the Leader of the House expect to be able to publish the
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report by the Senior Salaries Review Body on pay and allowances for Members of Parliament and when will the House be able to debate it?

Ms Harman: The report will be published, and the House will debate it, in the autumn.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): When will the Leader of the House produce the proposals on the new regional Select Committees, and can she tell us whether she intends them to be full Select Committees, where the 99 or 100 Members to man them will be found, what arrangements are being made to resource them and whether the Chairmen will be paid?

Ms Harman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is important that we strengthen the accountability of the work that the Government do in the different regions of England. That is why we have established Ministers responsible for the regions, but we need to complete the process by ensuring the accountability to the House of Departments and the regional Ministers. The question is how we take that forward and we are considering that. We will undertake discussions and then bring forward proposals. We are clear on the principle that regional accountability is important, but we need to think through and discuss further the exact form that it will take, so that it has credibility in the regions and operates effectively in this House in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Has the Leader of the House made any contingency plans for changing the business when we come back in October in view of all the talk about an early election, given the massive Labour lead and the two brilliant by-election results, which were the best for Labour in office for many years? If we do have an early election, can we fight it on the old parliamentary boundaries, because that would give Labour another 10 seats?

Ms Harman: On the question of elections, I remind the House that it is the anniversary today of the great election triumph of 1945. I also wish to take this opportunity to welcome my two new hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) and for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson). So many years on from 1945, we are still winning elections.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The Vote Office is helpfully making me a copy of the draft European constitutional treaty, but I understand that it is not readily available and I shall have to read it in French—I shall do my best. It is scandalous that the treaty will be considered by the Government before the autumn, but that it is not available in our own language to Members of Parliament. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the document is translated, printed and made available to all hon. Members immediately?

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