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House of Commons

Thursday 8 November 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker’s Statement

Mr. Speaker: On 25 October the House agreed new temporary Standing Orders about time limits on speeches, including special limits for topical debates and, for the first time, limits on Front-Bench speeches. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] A very good decision. Because of the complexity of these arrangements, I have approved a memorandum to be published on each of the next few days explaining how the new arrangements will work. For most debates, time limits on Back-Bench speeches, if used, will vary from three to 15 minutes, as before. It is my intention to operate the rules flexibly, so that limits may be increased or decreased in the course of a debate to ensure maximum possible participation and the use of all the time available.

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Business of the House

10.35 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 12 November will be—

Monday 12 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be foreign affairs followed by defence.

Tuesday 13 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects will be health, and education and schools.

Wednesday 14 November—Conclusion of the Queen’s Speech. The economy and pensions will be debated.

Thursday 15 November—Motion to approve the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, followed by a debate on international development.

Friday 16 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 November will include—

Monday 19 November—Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Tuesday 20 November—Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.

Wednesday 21 November—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 November—Second Reading of the Sale of Student Loans Bill.

Friday 23 November—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall in November will be—

Thursday 15 November—A debate on the reports from the Treasury Select Committee on Financial Inclusion.

Thursday 22 November—A debate on the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Thursday 29 November—A debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “Stamp of Approval? Restructuring the Post Office”.

Our previous Session was busy, with 29 Government Bills, three Back-Bench Bills reaching Royal Assent and 79 oral statements. As Leader of the House, I am determined that we should be just as effective in this Session. We shall have proper time for scrutiny of Government proposals, ministerial announcements will be to the House first and my door is always open to any hon. Member.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business and for her promise that statements will be made to the House first.

Two days ago, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put out a press release on the European Union’s new foot and mouth movement
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restrictions for livestock. It allows some farmers to export again, but it means greater restrictions for some farmers in the south-east, yet there was no statement to Parliament on the issue, written or oral. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the new foot and mouth restrictions?

In trying to avoid the West Lothian question, the Prime Minister announced his big idea, Regional Select Committees. Yet when the Leader of the House was asked about Regional Select Committees two weeks ago, she pointedly talked about regional accountability and refused to endorse them. Perhaps they are another Brown policy that is falling apart. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the Government’s policy on Regional Select Committees?

The Roman Catholic bishop to the military says that the Government have a duty to our armed forces in death and in injury, and must do the very best for their anxious and grieving families. Sadly, that is not happening. When the right hon. and learned Lady was Minister for justice, she said that the backlog of 110 military inquests was unacceptable and promised that it would be sorted out. In July, when there was a backlog of 109, she said that

This month the Ministry of Justice confirmed that the backlog is now 116 cases. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on this important matter?

On Tuesday, the Governor of the Bank of England said that the Northern Rock crisis could have been prevented, had the Chancellor acted earlier. After the “is he, isn’t he” flip-flopping on capital gains tax, and the pilfered pre-Budget report, there are now serious questions about the Chancellor’s ability to do the job. May we have a debate in Government time on the Chancellor’s competence?

May we also have a debate on honesty in advertising? Last week, the Prime Minister’s spin doctors contacted several schools to tell them that he was going to praise them in his keynote education speech. But, guess what, he did not mention a single one of them. First he used BNP slogans promising policies that are illegal, then we had double-counted troop withdrawals, and now he is playing politics with schoolchildren. A debate would allow the Prime Minister to apologise to the people he is taking for a ride.

The Prime Minister wants to stop Opposition parties campaigning in his marginal seats by fixing the rules on party funding. Of course, he will not scrap the £10,000 communications allowance that Labour MPs voted for themselves—[Hon. Members: “And you!”] We voted against it. Nor will he limit the millions of pounds poured into Labour’s coffers by the trade unions, which, in turn, get taxpayers’ money and changes in the law. May we have a debate in Government time on the union modernisation fund, the Warwick agreement and all the others ways in which Labour repays its union donors?

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Last weekend, the Justice Secretary said that the Labour party was “despondent” and that it needed a good week to

but it is still in the rut. This week, we have had indecision, incompetence and weakness. Is that not the truth of this Prime Minister—all spin and no vision?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady asked about foot and mouth arrangements. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate later today. No doubt she will be able to raise those questions with the Secretary of State at that point, and he will no doubt be able to answer them.

The right hon. Lady asked about regional accountability. She will know, as a member of the Modernisation Committee, that the Committee has agreed to look into how we can strengthen the accountability to the House for the work that is going on in the different regions. No doubt it will produce proposals that we shall be able to debate in the House. I think that there is general agreement that we want to strengthen accountability to the House for those activities, which are so important in the different regions. The regional Ministers have already made marked progress in that respect.

The right hon. Lady asked an important question about inquests into the deaths of those who tragically lost their lives serving in our armed forces. We, and the bereaved relatives, are concerned that there should be a thorough investigation by the board of inquiry of the armed services, and a full and thorough inquest that should not be delayed. Bereaved relatives should be able to get answers to their questions as soon as possible. We need to keep a careful eye on the length of time it takes to bring a case to the inquest. The actual number waiting for an inquest is a different point. The point is to ensure that every family has an inquest as soon as possible. The Justice Minister will no doubt keep the House updated on the time it is taking for inquests to come to hearing.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Chancellor. The Treasury will be the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate next Wednesday, so hon. Members will be able to put their questions directly to the Chancellor.

The right hon. Lady also made a number of points about party election funding. I am sure that the whole House would agree that we want party election funding to be fair and open, and that we should end the arms race that is resulting in parties spending more and more on election campaigning while fewer and fewer people turn out to vote.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications allowance. Hon. Members will know that every report that has looked into the connection between the people in this country and the House of Commons has emphasised the importance of individual hon. Members communicating and keeping in touch with their constituents. The communications allowance, which the House voted for, is important in enabling hon. Members to report to their constituents between elections and to tell them about the good work that they are doing.

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The right hon. Lady asked about trade union funding. I am sure that she and all hon. Members will know the difference between one millionaire and hundreds of thousands of people at work who contribute to a party through their contributions to their union. I remind the House that the Secretary of State for Justice will make a statement should he have any proposals following the suspension of the discussions chaired by Hayden Phillips.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): A couple of weeks ago, in response to my question on the timing of the publication of the Senior Salaries Review Body report, the Leader of the House said “very shortly.” Has she had the opportunity in the past couple of weeks to consult the thesaurus to indicate to us now when she anticipates being able to publish it?

Ms Harman: Imminently—I shall leave it at that.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on a few days ago celebrating 25 years as a Member of this House. She has had a very successful parliamentary career, which she will celebrate with colleagues later today.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. We anticipated the contents of the Queen’s Speech from the draft Queen’s Speech published before the summer. There was then a consultation. Is she in a position to tell us how many people responded to the consultation, and what notice was taken of the responses?

Why is the marine Bill still not definitely on the agenda? It has been around, and discussed, for some time, and has been in draft form. Why is it not being brought forward? Will the right hon. and learned Lady ask her colleagues to reconsider their view on that?

There are, I think, five or six draft Bills. With the exception of possibly the constitutional reform Bill, for fairly obvious reasons, the others might all be suitable for Committees of both Houses to consider, rather than have separate consideration at both ends of Parliament. That was successfully done for the Climate Change Bill in the last Session, and the model is worth pursuing. However, I follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in saying that we need an honest discussion about Regional Select Committees. If they are to go ahead, will the Leader of the House guarantee that they will reflect the political composition of the region and not be biased in favour of the Government in every case?

On broader constitutional reform, which is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate, when will the report, which we know has been finished, into the Government’s review of election systems across the UK be published? When will we get a commitment to serious constitutional reform of the big questions, rather than just tinkering at the edges?

We know that a very important Commonwealth conference will take place in Uganda later this month. Places such as Sri Lanka—Commonwealth neighbours and friends of ours—are going through a terrible time, in this case with a terrible civil war. May we have a full debate before the conference so that the Foreign Secretary can come here and talk about the Government’s intentions?
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May we have a guarantee of a statement by the Prime Minister immediately after the conference, when he can be accountable for Government policies on supporting the Commonwealth, which some of us believe is very important?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my 25 years in the House. It has been an honour and privilege to be a Member of the House for 25 years, and in particular to represent the constituency of Camberwell and Peckham for those years.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many people had responded to the publication of our draft legislative programme. The first question for us to ask is whether the Government should work behind the scenes on their draft legislative programme or publish it earlier. We have published it earlier, and that in its own right is an important move towards transparency. We have made something open that was previously kept behind closed doors. It is the first time that we have done that, and the systems for giving information to people about the draft legislative programme, and for inviting people to comment for the first time on something that they have never seen before, are in their infancy. That is why not many people commented, but regional Ministers consulted in all regions. Local authority leaders were also consulted in all regions, and many attended the consultation meetings. Businesses responded to the regional consultations, as did voluntary sector leaders.

I think that we were right to publish our draft legislative programme, and we will do better next year by publishing it earlier. Hon. Members should decide whether it is a good idea to publish it, but I think it is. There is no justification for taking it back behind closed doors. I shall publish a report in due course, when we have received the results of the Modernisation Committee’s reflections, and it will state the number of people who did and did not respond.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the marine Bill was included in the Queen's Speech. It will be published in draft, and I expect widespread consultation on it. The hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged how important it was to publish the Climate Change Bill in draft first so that there could be proper pre-legislative scrutiny.

The hon. Gentleman asked about regional accountability. We want to ensure that it is effective and legitimate—legitimate as seen from Westminster, and as seen from the region. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Modernisation Committee is looking into that, and we will present proposals to the House. There will be no perfect constitutional answer, but I am sure that we can do more to strengthen regional accountability.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Ministry of Justice’s review of election systems to the attention of the Secretary of State, who may be able to write to him and give him an idea of timing. He asked about the important forthcoming Commonwealth conference: I remind him that there will be a debate on the Department for International Development next Monday, when, no doubt, he will be able to raise some of the issues with the Secretary of State.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that one area in which the House has not got its
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arrangements right is the monitoring of European legislation. The Committee concerned does a noble job and works extraordinarily hard, but a major transport scheme is coming up—Galileo—which, although it could cost the country billions, has not been debated properly, although it has been debated in the House. I think that we should look at the system again. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will get it right before she celebrates her next 25 years in the House.

Ms Harman: I think I shall have much less than 25 years in which to present the House with proposals on how we should do what I think we all agree we need to do—make the scrutiny that the House can give European matters more effective. We voted last week that I should return to the House in three weeks’ time, and I shall do so, having consulted widely with, among others, exceptionally senior, experienced, long-standing Members of Parliament, including Chairs of Transport Committees.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on having had second thoughts about the absurd proposition that there should be all these Regional Select Committees. Will she also have second thoughts about the automatic timetabling of Bills? If it continues, it will make a total nonsense of all the Prime Minister’s protestations about this place.

Ms Harman: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am not having second thoughts about regional accountability. What I am doing is thinking carefully about it, and consulting widely. I remain committed to presenting the House with proposals to strengthen regional accountability.

As for the timetabling of Bills, I remember a time when there was not effective timetabling. All the debate might bunch up on the first two clauses of a Bill; we would then not debate the rest of it, and important aspects of legislation would remain unscrutinised. Obviously we must manage our time effectively and work together to ensure that our scrutiny is effective.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): May we have a debate on the cleaning of hospitals? In it, we should particularly take into account the experience of the 1980s, when ancillary staff numbers were reduced from 171,000 to 66,000—so it is no wonder that we had dirty hospitals then, and that we now need to put that right.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Ensuring that our health services do not expose patients to the risk of hospital-acquired infection is a high Government priority. It is important that members of cleaning teams feel valued and that there is an interrelationship between them and the nursing and medical teams.

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