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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
If the Leader of the House had been here earlier, she would have heard a protracted exchange about the problems of our postal services and the current industrial action. I should say that, as a Conservative, I am sympathetic to the postal workers position, albeit perhaps not to their leadership. I believe in the universal daily service and that the postal service is essential to the social fabric of this country. Given that there is such protracted
industrial action in a national service, should there not be a debate in this House, so that every Member can express a view? Although I believe that managers of postal services need to make their own decisions, this House and the Government should take an interest in matters that in some cases can affect the lives of individuals.
Ms Harman: I am aware that the House had an opportunity for protracted discussion during Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions this morning. I strongly agree that we all respect the work done by the Post Office work force. We all support the universal daily service. We recognise the huge challenges that have faced the Post Office, first, with the advent of the fax and then with the advent of e-mail, which have transformed the situation in which the Post Office works.
I agree that the strike has been damaging, not only to the Post Office but to businesses that depend on it and ordinary members of the public wanting to use postal services. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear, as did the Secretary of State this morning, that in view of the fact that a perfectly decent offer has been made, we want the dispute to end. The industrial action is not justified, as the Secretary of State said.
Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): May we have a debateor, better still, a Bill in the Queens Speechto close the loophole that allows candidates to spend unlimited amounts of money until four weeks before an election? I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is as alarmed as I am by the sight of Lord Ashcroft roaming the country signing cheques for £25,000 at the drop of a business plan, for the few candidates who win his approval. Does that not smell of the Victorian era, when landowners controlled strings of rotten boroughs and could spend money to ensure that their candidates were elected?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point. All in the House are concerned that there should be full confidence in the House and in our democracy. We should all be concerned that people do not like the idea that big money comes in and assists people in buying seats. That has been pervasive in the United States and has undermined public confidence. This arms race, in which all sides have been spending more and more on elections, has simply been correlated with a fall in turnout. The public are turned off [Interruption.]
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con):
Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Department of Health to carry out an urgent inquiry and make a statement next week about how it sometimes answers priority written questions? Can the Department please look into the fact that when I asked an unhelpful question in September about how many scouts at the world jamboree attended Broomfield hospital to be treated and how many were asked to pay for their
treatment, the Minister concerned responded by hiding behind the fact that the Department does not collect such information centrally? When I rang up the Ministers private office to complain that that response seemed to be blocking, people there helpfully considered the issue again. Ten days later, they sent me an e-mail saying that they had checked with the East of England strategic health authority and Mid-Essex hospital trust and that they were unaware that anybody from the jamboree had been treated. Last night, I received a response to my freedom of information application, which told me that 107 scouts had been treated for 173 medical complaints and that 53 of them were not eligible for free NHS treatment. I also learnt that not one had yet been sent an invoice, even though they have all returned to different parts of the world
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about questions. Questions tabled by hon. Members to Government Ministers about issues of public concern or of concern in their constituencies are all helpful, so we should back Members up in asking them.
All answers should be prompt, full and completely accurate. Members should not have to resort to freedom of information requests. If a mistake is madehonest mistakes will sometimes be made and misinformation given in a parliamentary answerthe Department itself should ensure that the answer is corrected and sent directly to the Member concerned. We also need to make arrangements to ensure that corrections are printed in Hansard. At the moment, the relevant Member can be invited to retable the question, but that is a bit clumsy. We are thinking about whether to have a corrections page at the end of Hansard, so that people can see when information has been wrong. I do not want us to seem like The Guardian, but when Government Departments get things wrong, they should correct them; it should not be necessary to make freedom of information requests. As soon as an hon. Member has tabled a question, they should be confident that it will be answered accurately.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): On Monday, the House debated the Second Reading of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. As two Government statements were made beforehand, the main debate did not start until 5.39 pm. Back Benchers did not have a chance to make their speeches until two hours later; that meant that some of us got to speak for only five minutes or less. What does my right hon. and learned Friend plan to do to take forward the Modernisation Committees recommendation that there should be limits on Front-Bench contributions during such debates?
That is a matter of concern to Back Benchers in all parties and, if I might be so bold, it has been a matter of concern to you, Mr. Speaker, as well. As my hon. Friend said, the Modernisation Committee has introduced proposals that the Government will bring forward for debate shortly. Front-Bench spokesmen need long enough to get their argument
across, but not so long that Back Benchers do not have an opportunity to intervene or to make their own speeches.
Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): I urge the Leader of the House to allow time for a debate on the report of the European Scrutiny Committee. I draw her attention to the fact that just last week the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly agreed unanimously that there should be a referendum on the European treaty. I urge her to accede to the growing clamour and demand throughout the country for a referendum. Does she accept that the Government have lost the argument on that, and will the Government allow the people finally to have their say, as they promised they would?
Ms Harman: All of us who believe that our membership of the European Union is vital for the health of our economy, our work tackling climate change, our commitment to international development and the tackling of crime, which of course knows no boundaries, think that we could make the argument in favour of Europe much more strongly.
As for the European Scrutiny Committee, and how we deal with the ratification of the treaty, the hon. Gentleman is a Member of this House, and if the Government introduce proposals for the House to ratify the treaty, it will be down to hon. Members whether they table amendments or not. The selection of amendments will be a matter for Mr. Speaker, and it will be a matter for this House to vote on them. The point is that the British people should be reassured that no legislation is simply imposed on this country; it is a matter for this House.
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Following on from the point of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), does the Leader of the House not think that the public will find it absolutely disgraceful that we are not having a debate on the Royal Mail dispute, so that we can put forward some of the views that are not being put forward by Adam Crozier, on his £1.3 million salary, about the deterioration of services for the public that will take place as a result of the planned changes, such as later deliveries, no Sunday collections and a cut in the pensions of our hard working postmen and women? That case has to be put in the House because our loyal postmen and women are being done down very badly by the fact that the Government are not directly intervening.
Ms Harman: Although the Post Office runs along commercial lines, this is a matter of public interest. My hon. Friend has raised some very important points and I will bring them and those made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD):
On Monday, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs came to the House and made a statement on compensation for foot and mouth. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales whether the Assembly in Cardiff was going
to be fully refunded for any cost. Overnight, there has been some discussion as to whether that contribution by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was withdrawn when it became clear that a general election was not going to go ahead. This is a terrible state to be in. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs comes to the House and clarifies the situation?
Ms Harman: The Secretary of State is well aware of the terrible difficulties that foot and mouth and bluetongue have caused, particularly the effect on hill farmers, of whom there are many in Wales. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will know that this is a devolved matter[Hon. Members: No, it is not. It is reserved.] The devolved Assemblies have formed their own package of compensation[Hon. Members: It is reserved.] I will undertake to look into that matter.
Dan Norris (Wansdyke) (Lab): May we have an early debate into the running of price-comparison websites for goods and services? There is a growing concern that those sites for consumers do not always offer the best deal because they hide the payments that they are making to various companies, and they do not necessarily include the whole range of goods and services available. Some people have called for a code of conduct; I am not sure whether that is the right way forward, but I feel that regulation of some kind is needed to ensure the best possible deal for consumers on the web.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Consumers need to know whether the information that they are looking at is genuinely impartial and fair advice that will help them when they spend their money on goods and services. I will bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): As my party is now setting the agenda for Parliament, would it not save time if the business statement were made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? In the meantime, if that is not possible, may I press the Leader of the House for a reply to a question she was asked but did not answer? On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made a statement on the pre-Budget report and the comprehensive spending review, setting the financial and political priorities of the Government for the next three years. Surely that statement should be tested in the House of Commons, in an early debate in Government time.
Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab):
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give time for a debate on the proper implementation of the Electoral Administration Act 2006? As the Minister responsible for piloting that Act during the first half of its journey through Parliament, she will be aware that one of its key
elements was door-to-door canvassing to increase voter registration. Advice given by the Electoral Commission to electoral registration officers in June said that that was not necessary. This matter needs to be fully discussed in Parliament.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. He has been a champion of ensuring that everyone who is entitled to vote is on the electoral register, so that they get their vote. It is of particular concern to him that those least likely to be on the electoral register are those who live in inner cities, poorer people, younger people, those in rented accommodation and black and Asian people. We cannot have an unequal democracy and, therefore, the electoral register is an important part of democracy, which underpins this House and its legitimacy. I will raise the point about the recommendation against door-to-door canvassing; that was not the intention of the House when we passed the Act. I will get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to write to him, and place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.
David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): May we have a debate on the effective use of resources in the health service? I have been trying to discover what lies behind proposals to close Brookfields hospital in my constituency and I have found out that vast amounts of public money are lying unspent in the accounts of strategic health authorities: £960 million last year and a predicted £660 million this year. Surely it makes no sense whatsoever to close hospitals in one part of the country while vast amounts of public money are unspent in other parts.
Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman wants a response from Health Ministers, and the opportunity to debate and air the issues he has raised, he might consider that a very appropriate subject for a debate in Westminster Hall.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time about the lessons learned from the collapse of Farepak, the Christmas saving company, which happened this week last year? We now know that the Halifax Bank of Scotland and Farepak management met in February of last year because the company was in dire financial straits, but it kept taking money off agents until last October. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the minutes of that meeting should be put into the public domain so that the hundreds of thousands of decent, hard-working families can finally learn where their money went?
First, I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done on exposing the scandal of Farepak, alongside that of my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove). It is a very important issue, and it has led to a tougher regulatory regime to ensure that something similar does not happen in the future. As he says, there are still lessons for those individuals to learn from what happened to Farepak. As he knows, an investigation is being carried out under the powers of the Companies Act. When such an investigation is being carried out, there are
technical and complex rules about what is available for publication and what has to remain confidential. We want to be sure that everything that can be published is published, because it is a matter of public interest. I will ask the relevant Minister to ensure that that does happen, and that he writes to hon. Members concerned and places a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Many people in other parts of the country will be worried about the hospital infection stories emerging from Tunbridge Wells today. I am therefore pleased that there will be a statement. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend encourage her colleagues in the Department of Health to go further and seek positive opportunities to debate what works in controlling hospital infections? For example, Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, based in Derriford hospital, has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and also manages to fulfil other targets.
Ms Harman: I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to her local hospital. It is important to listen to clinicians and others who work in the health service about the way in which we tackle hospital-acquired infection. It is important that we understand the science of hospital-acquired infection and that we listen to patients, who, with their visitors, are the first to complain about dirty facilities in hospitals. The additional use of antibiotics has meant a growing difficulty with tackling hospital-acquired infection once it has taken root. However, I remember complaining that I was not allowed to spend long enough in hospital when I was having my first babyone was tipped out after a week; it is now 24 hoursand my father, as a doctor, said, You want to spend as little time as possible in hospital because hospitals always carry a risk of infection. We are not considering anything new, but the position has become much graver.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): As the Leader of the House knows, I had a debate on the EU constitutional treaty referendum in Westminster Hall, where I received a pretty inadequate response from the Minister for Europe. Perhaps we could have a full days debate on the subject. One of the reasons that the Prime Minister gave for bottling out of a general election was that polls showed that few people required one. However, poll after poll shows that the vast majoritythree quarters of the people of this countrywant a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty. May we please have a debate on that?
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I have friends and relatives who work for Royal Mail as postal workers and on the management side. I am therefore under no illusions about the complexity of the issues involved or the difficulty of the negotiations. Although we had a brief discussion of the matter on a single question earlier this morning, my right hon. and learned Friend must know that it is potentially the most serious industrial dispute of the past 10 years and possibly the past 22 years. On next weeks agenda, we have three Adjournment debates on issues that cannot be considered remotely topical. In view of my right hon. and learned Friends express support earlier for more topical questions and debates, will she reconsider the future business so that we can have a debate on the dispute at Royal Mail on the Floor of the House?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right that no one doubts the seriousness of the effect of the dispute on those who work in the Post Office, the Post Office as a whole and those who use it. I shall draw his comments to the attention of my fellow Ministers.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to the Leader of the Houses welcome to the Parliament first initiative, and given that she inadvertently misled the House when she answered a question from the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), may I invite her to confirm that the Prime Minister was not answering casual questions in Basra, but holding a formal press conference to announce troop reductions? Will she also confirm the number of days that elapsed between that press conference and the return of the House on Monday?
Ms Harman: I would simply confirm to hon. Members that I agree that announcements should be made to the House first. However, I also expect hon. Members to understand that, if the House is not sitting, that does not mean that Ministers cannot make announcements, and that they will continue to be made in the recess. I shall focus on ensuring that, when the House is sitting, information is given to the House first.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Regardless of the way in which the statement was made, thousands of service personnelmen and womenwill return to their families from Iraq in the near future. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to use her good offices to encourage local authorities and communities to recognise the work of the service personnel when they return, not jingoistically but in a way that acknowledges their valuable contribution to the safety and security of this country?
Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friends important point. The Secretary of State for Defence believes that it is important that we recognise the work of the armed forces and I will draw his attention to my hon. Friends comments.
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