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11 Oct 2007 : Column 447

Business of the House

11.32 am

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

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for the week commencing 15 October will be:

Monday 15 October—Remaining stages of the Legal Services Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 16 October—A debate on defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 17 October—Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day] (First part). There will be a debate entitled “Incompetent Government Handling of the Outbreaks of Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue Disease”, followed by a debate on dealing with bullying in schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 18 October—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on the review of the third sector on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 19 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 22 October will include:

Monday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Serious Crime Bill [Lords]. Straight after the business statement, the Chancellor will come to the House to make a statement about Northern Rock.

I look forward to answering hon. Members’ questions today, but I just want to remind them that I am always available to talk to them in my room at the back of the Speaker’s Chair.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business. Yesterday, the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Justice published an update of the Department’s organisational review, in which the National Offender Management Service could be abolished, on the Ministry’s website. Why is that important announcement being made by a civil servant and not by a Minister, and on the internet rather than to the House of Commons?

On Monday the Leader of House said that she was the “policewoman in the Cabinet”, enforcing the “Parliament first” rule, whereby statements are made first to Parliament, not to the media. Will she make a statement to the House about why the Prime Minister went to Basra for a photo call, announced a troop withdrawal to the media before he came to Parliament and shamefully double-counted the number of troops coming home?

The Prime Minister keeps boasting that he has dealt with the outbreak of foot and mouth, but as he crows, the livestock industry has lost £135 million, the EU export ban remains for much of the country and the official inquiry is reported to blame a Government facility for the outbreak. We will, as the Leader of the House has just announced, have a debate on this in Opposition time next week, but when the inquiries
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currently under way report, can we have full debates in Government time on the lessons to be learnt?

On Tuesday the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his pre-Budget report proposed action on inheritance tax, on non-domiciles, on aviation tax and on the simplification of national insurance and PAYE. Where the Conservatives lead, this Government follow. Can we have, therefore, a debate on the protection of intellectual property rights?

With this Chancellor, as with his predecessor, we always have to look at the small print. The new Chancellor said that his PBR included an “affordable tax cut”, but far from cutting taxes he is increasing taxes on families by £2,600 a year and there is a £2 billion raid on pensions. The inheritance tax threshold has not been doubled; the Chancellor is just taking credit for what half a million families already do. The Prime Minister’s last Budget was a tax con, the Chancellor’s first PBR is a tax con, so can we have a debate on the Government’s tax cons?

Incompetent, lacking in vision, with the same old spin—the Prime Minister is running scared of the people’s verdict. Yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions his excuse for not calling an election was that only 26 people had signed a Downing street petition calling for one. I checked the website this morning and there are now 4,408 signatures and rising. Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Prime Minister to give us an update on the petition every week in Prime Minister’s questions?

The Prime Minister is running scared of a general election and he is also running scared of a referendum on the renamed European constitution. That is despite the fact that the Labour Chairman of the Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee says:

Can we have a debate in Government time on the report of the European Scrutiny Committee?

Finally, if the Prime Minister wants to prove that he is not a bottler, why does he not keep his word and give us the referendum that he promised?

Ms Harman: We had the party political point scoring at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. Having had the Punch and Judy then, we can spare the House the Judy and Judy show today. This is a statement on the business of the House, and it will be business as usual.

Turning to the points of business that the right hon. Lady raised, on the Ministry of Justice, there is an ongoing review. There has been no announcement. [Interruption.] The announcement was of an ongoing review and it was notified on the website. If there are any proposals for change, we rightly would expect them to be notified to the House by the Secretary of State for Justice. There are no such proposals at present; the matter is simply under review.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the “Parliament first” rule. We in this House all think it is very important indeed that if there is information that the House should hear first, that is exactly what happens. When the House is not sitting, obviously there is not the option of a statement to the House first. I agree with all hon. Members who think that information should be given to the House first. Indeed the Prime
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Minister came to the House and made a statement of further information about Iraq.

In relation to foot and mouth and bluetongue, I agree with the right hon. Lady that farmers have had a difficult summer. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to the House on Monday and announced a package of support for hill farmers who are the most seriously affected. I note that the hon. Lady has made this the subject of her Opposition day debate. If there is any further information, it will be brought to the House. This is a serious problem. We need to identify the problems, contain them and eradicate the diseases which are so damaging.

The right hon. Lady talked about the protection of intellectual property rights. I am sure that she can raise that subject with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The right hon. Lady asked about tax. As she knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be answering Treasury questions next Thursday, and no doubt her hon. Friends can raise those questions then.

The right hon. Lady mentioned issues relating to the EU reform treaty and European scrutiny. There will be public confidence in how we deal with issues proposed by Europe only if there are processes in the House that we all agree are working properly, and I do not think that that is the case. The point has been raised by a number of hon. Members on many occasions, including members of the Modernisation Committee, and we shall have to look into it further to make sure that we are doing the best we can in the House to scrutinise proposals from Europe.

The right hon. Lady referred to how the House is dealing with the European reform treaty. She will know that if the Government reach an agreement on intergovernmental issues relating to Europe it will come to the House for ratification— [Hon. Members: “That’s not a referendum.”] Perhaps hon. Members will let me finish. It will come to the House. It is for hon. Members to decide the amendments that they want to table and it is for the Speaker to decide which amendments he accepts.

Mr. Speaker: I am glad that I have some say in these matters. I call Mr. Cawsey.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Given the growth in the number of agency workers, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on how the law protects agency workers? The welcome improvements that the Government have made through the minimum wage and employment rights need to apply fully to agency workers, not only so that some of the lowest paid people in our economy get all the benefits from their work but so that good agencies, which do the right thing, are not undercut by their less scrupulous competitors.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important issue that was also the subject of a private Member’s Bill—the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004—promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). We all agree that we need to do more to protect vulnerable migrant
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workers from exploitation, as well as those who have been working hard in this country for a long time, to ensure that their terms and conditions are not undermined and undercut by unscrupulous agencies. Consideration of what more we can do in relation to vulnerable workers will be raised with my hon. Friends at Question Time, but I will bring my hon. Friend’s point to their attention.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I return to the Prime Minister’s welcome statement in July that his new intention would be always to make statements on important issues to the House whenever appropriate, yet within three months we saw him go back to the bad old habit of making a statement that could absolutely have waited until Parliament came back this week. Will the Leader of the House go back to the Prime Minister and Ministers and make it clear that it is not acceptable that statements are made in the recess, willy-nilly, whatever the subject, when they could wait to be made in Parliament. That completely undermines what the Prime Minister said to the House after his election in the summer.

On a similar issue, the Prime Minister indicated the intention to be open-minded—as the Leader of the House has always been—about constitutional reform, which is very welcome. Given the little local difficulty that the Prime Minister got into last weekend, will the right hon. and learned Lady encourage him to let the House discuss the merits of fixed-term Parliaments, with a guarantee that people are on electoral registers and not off them, and possibly the idea that we hold elections on both days of the weekend to maximise turnout? I am sure that people throughout the country would welcome an unwhipped debate on that subject to test the view of the House.

We heard a welcome statement from the Chancellor earlier this week on public sector borrowing and the comprehensive spending review, but there is to be no extended debate about that, as there usually is after the Budget. Will the Leader of the House suggest that in future we have a full, proper economic debate twice yearly, because then we could ask whether Labour was about to adopt our policy on long-term care funding for the elderly and test whether the flood defence moneys would be adequate or, as all the independent experts suggest, inadequate to meet the damage of recent months.

Finally, rather than having to respond on Opposition days when subjects affecting agriculture and rural communities are put on the agenda or as a matter of urgency when there is a crisis, will the right hon. Lady provide regular opportunities to debate agriculture and the rural economy, not just after the latest outbreak of BSE or bluetongue disease? We must understand that unless we have a healthy agricultural industry which feels supported, the UK will face severe economic and financial difficulties?

Ms Harman: We can all agree that when the House is sitting and a Minister has an announcement to make, that should be heard first in the House, not read about in the newspapers or heard on the “Today” programme. That is what is important. However, it is perfectly
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acceptable for the Prime Minister, as he did, to go to Basra and, when he is there, to answer questions about troop numbers.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked about the recall and dissolution of Parliament. The Modernisation Committee, which met yesterday, agreed that under the “Governance of Britain” proposals, we should examine the recall and dissolution of Parliament. Indeed, there will a Speaker’s conference on a number of aspects of building public confidence in our democratic system. It is already possible under the law for voting to take place at weekends. That has been piloted in some areas and it is important that we continue to consider it.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the opportunities for discussing flood defences. I draw his attention to what the Chancellor said in the pre-Budget report about the increase in money for flood defences. We must not only tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions—the climate change Bill will be important for that—but invest in adaptation to extreme weather conditions and protect people from floods. That was proposed in the pre-Budget report.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of the House having topical debates. He is aware that the Modernisation Committee has made substantial proposals for topical questions to be asked without notice at Question Time, as in Prime Minister’s Question Time, and for topical debates. I shall shortly present those proposals to the House.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend allow for an early debate on the disgraceful decision by the Liberal Democrat and Scottish nationalist-run council in Edinburgh to deprive thousands of senior citizens of essential home help services from January—services such as ironing, cleaning and even fetching essential messages?

Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend is extremely concerned about care and support for older people. Despite his criticisms of the provision of services by the local Liberal Democrat-Scottish National party council, he may be aware that the Government are undertaking a review of the support that we give to carers. I invite him to contribute to that review.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Today’s shaming report from the Healthcare Commission shows that 90 people died of c. difficile in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, and I am sure that the thoughts of all of us are with the families and friends of those who died in such tragic circumstances. Will the Secretary of State for Health come to the House to debate the lessons to be learnt from this tragedy? In particular, will he reassure my constituents and those of my hon. Friends that patient care will not be sacrificed to Government targets, be they financial or clinical, and specifically that nursing numbers will not be held back because of targets, and also that the new hospital, which will be 100 per cent. single-bedded rooms and therefore a bulwark against such infections in future, will not be jeopardised by any financial consequences from meeting the recommendations of the report?

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Ms Harman: Hospital-acquired infections, the subject of the report published this morning, have been an absolute tragedy and a scandal. Lessons must be learnt, not only in the three hospitals involved but more widely in the NHS. That is why yesterday the Secretary of State for Health said that he was announcing more investment in provision for isolation, so that when the disease is identified, the relevant patients can be isolated. He also said that there should be an annual deep clean in every hospital, improved cleaning throughout the year and extra screening. Currently, there is screening for planned admissions, but no comprehensive screening for such infectious diseases when people are brought in as a matter of emergency. Our health and social care Bill will strengthen the inspection regime; as the hon. Gentleman will know, that Bill is in the draft legislative programme.

I want to mention a point about targets and patient care. I remember when we did not have targets on waiting lists, and constituents of mine used to die waiting for their heart operations. The targets are to ensure that patients get the health care that they need. The hon. Gentleman asked about new hospitals. He will have noticed that the pre-Budget report included additional investment in new hospital buildings. I conclude by saying that the Secretary of State for Health will give a further written statement on hospital-acquired infections early next week.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): When will my right hon. and learned Friend make time available for a debate on the use of the House of Commons communications allowance during any election period? I ask that in the light of the Electoral Commission’s ruling that Plaid Cymru must declare as election expenses the double-page adverts paid for out of its communications allowance. One was placed a week before the Assembly elections by the hon. Member for Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr (Adam Price) in the Llanelli Star, a newspaper read by my constituents.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Did the hon. Lady notify the hon. Gentleman—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Yes.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should be allowed to answer; I do not need two people to do so. It is best not to use business questions to attack an hon. Member. That is not their purpose; we are discussing next week’s business.

Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: I would rather leave the matter.

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