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18 Oct 2007 : Column 964

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

Thursday 25 October—A debate on the report from the Environmental Audit Committee on the EU emissions trading scheme.

I am today bringing forward measures that will allow for corrections to be made in Hansard and for letters from non-departmental public body chairs to be published in Hansard for the first time. Full details are available in written ministerial statements. I am grateful to the Select Committee on Procedure for its advice on both points.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business.

In the current cycle of oral questions, important issues such as local government and justice are squeezed into 30-minute sessions. Will the Government introduce a new cycle of questions to change that in the new Session of Parliament?

Yesterday, the Health Secretary told the House that the report on obesity “deserves discussion in Parliament”. Will the Leader of the House commit to such a debate in Government time? Will she also confirm that there will be no single equalities Bill in the Queen’s Speech? Will she tell the House why she announced that not to Parliament but to guests at a drinks party at the Labour party conference?

Will the right hon. and learned Lady explain why the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which was given its Second Reading last week, amends the Legal Services Bill, which has not even passed through Parliament yet? Amending a Bill before it becomes law is incompetent even by this Government’s standards. On the subject of criminal justice, according to a leaked Ministry of Justice document Labour’s flagship scheme of open-ended sentences for violent criminals could be scrapped. Whether from the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice, Labour’s answer to violent crime is always the same: let the perpetrators out of prison early. May we have a debate on crime and punishment?

This week, the Committee on Standards in Public Life revealed that nearly 400 Labour party donors, candidates, and election agents have been given jobs on Government quangos in the past year. May we have a debate in Government time on public appointments so that we can discuss Labour’s government by stealth?

In the latest Government flip-flop, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has said:

and that there is a

As one of those metropolitan liberals, will the right hon. and learned Lady commit to a debate in Government time on how to support families in the tax system?

We have just had Treasury questions, but groups representing large and small businesses say that the new Chancellor’s changes to capital gains tax risk

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The Business Secretary is apparently going to lobby the Treasury on this, and I understand that, in Treasury questions, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) raised the issue of the lack of consultation on the measure. May we have a debate in Government time so that the House can consider in full the consequences of that crippling tax change?

Two and a half years ago, the EU referendum Bill—the European Union Bill—was introduced to Parliament, yet the Prime Minister will go to Lisbon today to agree the renamed constitution without a referendum. The Government’s representative on the convention says that he has

Last week the Leader of the House could not even bring herself to defend the Prime Minister’s decision not to hold a referendum, so perhaps she, too, thinks that he has copped out of his promise. After his tantrum before the European Scrutiny Committee, will the Foreign Secretary make a separate statement on the Floor of the House on why the Government are depriving the British people of their say?

Ms Harman: We have no plan to change the questions rota.

A full statement was made to the House on the question of obesity, which is a continuing concern. I have no doubt that, as and when there is new information to be given to the House, further statements will be made, and it is always possible for Members to raise the matter on the Adjournment or in Westminster Hall. We all want good facilities for exercise, proper labelling and prevention of excessive advertising to children of foods with fat, sugar and salt; we all share that important desire and want to work together across government and across the political parties on it.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the question of the equalities legislation. There has been no change to whether there will be a Bill on equalities, to which we are committed. We were not committed to an equalities Bill for the Queen’s Speech this November; we had committed to a draft Bill before the 2008 Queen’s Speech. However, I can tell the right hon. Lady that we issued a consultation paper and received many responses, some of which suggested major changes in policy. We are considering the response to the consultation paper and therefore a draft Bill will not be possible if there is a change of policy that needs consideration and discussion. I welcome the fact that she supports the quest for equality and I hope that she will work with us to bring about a strong equality Bill for the 21st century. There is certainly no question of backing down on equality issues; she might find that it is quite the opposite—which I hope she will welcome if it proves possible.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill is being amended by the Legal Services Bill, but I understand that that is not the case. She also mentioned leaked documents, allegedly from the Ministry of Justice. I am not going to comment on leaked documents, but I simply do not accept the suggestion that the Government have somehow focused insufficiently on rape and other
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sexual offences. We have toughened the law on rape; we have ensured that the police and prosecutors strengthen their work on rape; and we provide good support for victims. There will, of course, be a debate on crime on Monday.

The right hon. Lady raises the question of public appointments. If she is concerned about any individual appointments, she can always bring them to my attention. She will know that the public appointments system is transparent and independent. [Interruption.] In fact, any hon. Member who has a complaint about a public appointment can bring it to my attention.

The right hon. Lady mentioned family and marriage. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, who was in his place a few moments ago, assured me that he is not planning to become the House of Commons marriage guidance counsellor. His comments were made in a rather wider context than appeared and the Government’s position remains this: we recognise that families come in all shapes and sizes; we recognise that no Government policy can make men and women happy together in their marriages. If there is such a policy, please tell us what it is and we will adopt it. Meanwhile, it is the job of Government to get on and support families with children and families with older relatives.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned capital gains tax. It is, of course, the case that when any tax is under discussion, consideration will be given to the questions of simplicity, fairness, international competitiveness and revenue raising. They will all have been considered across the piece by the Chancellor. Our record is one of sustained growth in the economy and high employment.

The right hon. Lady raised a question on the handling of the EU treaty. As I have said, there will be a statement in the House on Monday. I remind Members that this country has greatly benefited from our membership of the European Union. [Interruption.] I would like to take this opportunity to say a few words about that, because we should debate EU issues in the context of the importance of our membership to the economy, the climate and to tackling— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It would be nice if I could hear what the Leader of the House is saying. I cannot do so if other Members are talking across the Floor.

Ms Harman: As I said last week, if the Government agree to a treaty, it will come before this House to be ratified and there will be debate in this House. As Leader of the House I will ensure that there is sufficient time properly to discuss it and to hear the views of all Members.

I agree with the following comments in a letter printed today in The Times:

Those are the words not of the Foreign Secretary, but of the former Conservative Cabinet Minister, Leon Brittan, and I strongly agree with him.

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Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): Two people die every week on Tyneside as a result of an asbestos-related injury contracted through their life in work. Does the Leader of the House agree that pleural plaques—scarring of the lungs through exposure to asbestos—is a workplace injury? Will she therefore join me in condemning those out-of-touch Law Lords who are stopping working-class people getting their rightful compensation, and will she tell me—either now, or later in the day after she has had time to consider it—when we can get this matter before the House? We must do so as soon as possible so that we can legislate to right this terrible wrong.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue, and I am aware of the work that he and other Members have done to bring to the attention of the House and the Government the devastating effect of asbestos-related lung disease. The Government have a good record on ensuring that there is compensation for those whose lives are devastated by this range of terrible diseases. My hon. Friend raises the question of the House of Lords judgment, which was delivered only yesterday. It is being considered. The Law Lords’ responsibility is to decide what the law is and how to apply it, but it is for this House to consider whether the law is right and adequate, and we will make that consideration after we have had a chance to study the judgment.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Leader of the House is to be thanked for her statements, not only about the business but about other matters. May we as soon as possible—ideally next week—have a wide-ranging debate on the diary of the parliamentary year, so that we might end up with a saner arrangement than at present? We could, for example, have a regular start to the Session every year in October; we could have a small carry-over at the beginning of September finishing before the party conferences, and then make a clean start afterwards. That would give us a much more orderly annual programme.

In that context, I also hope that we will be allowed to address the allocation of time for questioning Departments, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked. It is nonsense that so little time is set aside for colleagues to question major Departments such as the Ministry of Justice—in which the Leader of the House so respectably served.

I anticipate that next week we will get some written statements, as well as the Prime Minister’s oral statement on the Lisbon meeting on Monday. I ask the Leader of the House to tell her colleagues that it will not be helpful if there is, as usual, a raft of written statements in the last two days of the parliamentary year when Members have no chance to ask questions and follow them up. May we therefore have those statements earlier next week, so that they can be dealt with when all Members are present?

The Leader of the House announced that there would be a debate on Public Accounts Committee reports next week—although, enigmatically, we were told that the reports themselves would be available elsewhere and that people could look them up. We really need a system allowing Select Committee reports
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to be debated on a much more routine basis, Department by Department. Some excellent work is done by colleagues in all Select Committees, and I know that there is a system of selecting some reports for debate, but I am sure that the House and the country would welcome regular non-partisan debates on, for instance, Health Committee and Education Committee reports.

Some important reports on immigration were published this week by the Home Office, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury. Because the issue is always emotive and because there is so much misinformation and distortion of information, may we have a proper debate on immigration early in the new year on a motion for the Adjournment of the House? The nation thinks that it is important, and opinion polls show that it is important. A debate that is not prompted by a partisan motion must be the best way of proceeding. It is important that we get the facts out, and not the prejudice.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes some important points about the parliamentary year and about opportunities to debate Select Committee reports. The Modernisation Committee will be examining the way in which debates on particular topics are allocated over the year, including annual departmental debates. That can also be discussed on Thursday, when we will debate the Modernisation Committee’s report.

I am sure that there was discussion between the usual channels before it was decided not to make any changes in the current rota of oral questions. It is always difficult to achieve the right balance, but if Members have any proposals about how the system should be changed—especially in view of the departmental changes that have taken place—I ask them to convey them to me. If there has been no consultation I am sorry, but we will undertake to examine any proposals that Members present.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of shed loads of written statements arriving at once just before the rising of the House. I think that Ministers’ minds are focused by the fact that the House is about to rise and time is running out, but I undertake to write to my colleagues and remind them not to leave all the statements until the last day. I realise that the cumulative effect makes things difficult for Members.

I note that on 24 October a debate on the control of illegal immigrants will take place in Westminster Hall. It should be borne in mind that Britain has been built on waves of immigration, that the economy has grown steadily and that unemployment has fallen over the past 10 years, but we must get the balance right in Britain’s interests, which is why there will be a points-based system from next year. All those matters are considered by the migration impact forum and obviously they are kept under review. However, I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s proposals for a debate in Government time to the attention of my colleagues.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that the BBC’s recent announcement about the future of its news-gathering services comes hot on the heels of ITV’s proposals to slash its commitment to regional news,
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which includes doing away with a dedicated news service in the east midlands. May we have a debate on the future of radio and television news services, and may we also have an opportunity to press both providers to ensure that their news services are well resourced and able to provide adequate coverage in each of our regions?

Ms Harman: Members will have an opportunity to raise those important issues on Monday 29 October, during questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

I am aware of great concern in the regions about the changes in ITV regional news coverage, and there have of course been announcements about the BBC today. The Government’s position is that the BBC is very important indeed, which is why they have allowed a steady increase in the licence fee above inflation over the past 10 years, but I have sympathy—as, I am sure, does my hon. Friend—for those who complain that against a background of an increased licence fee the BBC chooses to pay some presenters millions of pounds a year while at the same time making thousands of BBC programme makers face redundancy.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): Why have the Government not published the Senior Salaries Review Body’s report on Members’ salaries, which they received in July?

Ms Harman: The usual process is that the Government publish their response and then allow a debate shortly thereafter in which all Members can participate. That will happen shortly.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the future of bus services in Preston? The present situation is terrible. A bus company, Stagecoach, is using underhand methods and dirty tactics to try to push the Preston bus company off the road. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would examine the position in some detail.

Ms Harman: I will draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport what my hon. Friend has said about the important issue of public transport in Preston. My hon. Friend will, of course, have an opportunity to raise it at Transport questions next Tuesday.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Justice, and invite him to give the House an update on the review of the criminal injuries compensation scheme? I have tabled an all-party motion, early-day motion 2146, to draw attention to the problem that currently exists.

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