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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): In recent days, we have had the opportunity to debate why the Government have put at risk millions of
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pounds of taxpayers’ money as a result of the first run on a bank in 100 years. We have also had a chance, today and previously, to debate why the Government have put millions of benefit recipients at risk of having their personal data lost through the incompetence of Revenue and Customs. However, given that events of recent days show that the interpretation of the law has put the Leader of the House’s own party at risk of being investigated yet again by the police—because of hundreds of thousands of pounds of dodgy donations—will she accept that, whatever her personal view, the topical debate for next week should be the funding of political parties and the restoration of public confidence? That is what the public want us to debate. Her party and ours—and I hope the Tories, as well—should debate that on the Floor of the House next week.

Secondly, although we have had a written statement, may we have an early opportunity to debate the Commonwealth conference and its outcomes? Many people in the House think that the Commonwealth is very important. There was not a prime ministerial statement—in our view, there should have been—but we could at least take the opportunity to hold an early debate on the talks in Uganda and their implications. Linked to that, it is World AIDS day this Saturday. AIDS and HIV are hugely important issues, not just in this country but across the world. Is the Leader of the House willing to take the initiative of holding a regular debate at about this time of year on what we can do both at home and abroad to reduce the incidence of AIDS and HIV, and the suffering of those who have contracted those infections?

Lastly, may we have an early debate on human rights abroad, particularly in countries such as Saudi Arabia, where we now learn that a woman who has been gang-raped is likely to be imprisoned and subject to the lash by a Government we entertained only the other day with a state visit to this country? That is not acceptable by any definition. This country needs the opportunity to debate the matter, when other countries that are meant to be our allies clearly do not understand what human rights really are.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised the question of Northern Rock. He knows that the Chancellor has made many statements on Northern Rock and has kept the House fully informed. He was answering questions at the Dispatch Box only a few moments ago. He will have emphasised, and I will re-emphasise, that our first consideration is the financial security of the banking system and its importance for this country. We must also have at the forefront of our mind the question of the financial security of those who have deposited savings in Northern Rock, and we must remember the many thousands of people who work for Northern Rock, which is an important institution. The hon. Gentleman can raise his concerns, but we have the right priorities at the front of our mind and we are keeping the House informed at all times, as we are in relation to the Revenue and Customs issue that he raised.

The hon. Gentleman raised a question about the interpretation of the law. It has been made clear to the House that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, there was a wrong registration, for which the general secretary of the Labour party has taken responsibility.
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He has resigned and we have established our own Labour party inquiry. I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that, as I said to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, I have acted in good faith and within the letter and spirit of the law at all times. However, I will take what he says as a representation for a topical debate next week.

The hon. Gentleman raised the serious question of floggings and whippings in Saudi Arabia. We are very clear in this country that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the international community in believing that floggings and whippings are in breach of human rights. They are a violation of human rights and we deplore them wherever they happen in the world.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important question of World AIDS day. Given the importance of international development and of tackling poor health and poverty throughout the world, the House, in addition to International Development questions, has regular debates on international development in not only this Chamber, but Westminster Hall. We will continue to do so.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): In any discussions that we have on rules and regulations surrounding planning applications, may we take account of the terms of early-day motion 313, which I tabled on 19 November and has been signed by many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson)?

[ That this House congratulates the North East Chamber of Commerce, The Journal newspaper, local politicians and all involved in the successful Go for Jobs campaign; thanks those transport Ministers who listened to the campaign and acted to bring about an end to restrictions on economic growth in the region caused by Article 14 Orders; and calls upon the Government to recognise that the excellent economic progress in the North East over the past 10 years will only be sustained and improved with a clear and comprehensive plan for the improvement of the region's major road and transport infrastructure. ]

The early-day motion draws attention to the fact that a large part of the responsibility for convincing the Highways Agency to lift article 14 orders in the north-east, including in Durham, lies with The Journal newspaper and the North East chamber of commerce.

Ms Harman: I will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): When it comes to selecting the topical debate for next week and subsequent weeks, will the right hon. and learned Lady consider either delegating that choice to Mr. Speaker, or making the choice by ballot, because it really is not appropriate that she herself should decide what is topical and what is not?

Ms Harman: What is appropriate is for me, as Leader of the House, to do what the House has asked me to do under its Standing Orders. That is what I will do. The House will be aware that the Modernisation Committee, in its report “Revitalising the Chamber”, proposed topical debates and suggested that they should be

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The Government responded to the report by saying that they would be

We are only— [ Interruption. ] Bear with me on this. This is the third week in which we have had a topical debate. We are genuinely concerned to make the debate in this House what Back Benchers want to debate and for it to be topical. This is only the third week, and we will review the system early in the new year. The House agreed, through the passing of its Standing Order, to the decision being made by the Leader of the House. The very first debate that I selected was on immigration, which was a subject chosen by not my ministerial colleagues, but the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, so I have been fair at all times. We will have to review the situation as it goes forward. I hope to be able to show that the House can be confident in the way in which I choose topical debates. However, if the House wants any amendments to the Standing Order, Members will have to propose them and we will have to reconsider the matter.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the way in which different agencies work together to tackle crime? The 101 service, which is based in Pontprennau in my constituency of Cardiff, North, is losing its grant from the Home Office next spring. The service has been an excellent example of the local authority, the police and other agencies working together. May we have a debate to discuss how such initiatives can continue?

Ms Harman: I congratulate the 101 service on its important work. I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Can the Leader of the House explain why she chose today’s topical debate, given that no one made representations for that subject? Will she ensure that next week’s topical debate deals with the loss of public confidence arising from what is happening in government at the moment, and the loss of confidence in parliamentary democracy as a result of what is going on in the Labour party, in particular?

Ms Harman: What is going on in government at the moment is that the Government are getting on with running the country— [ Interruption. ] If the hon. Gentleman wants to suggest that we change the process by which we choose topical debates, or to make a proposal on what he considers to be topical, I suggest that he does so.

Mr. John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate next week in which the acting leader of the Lib Dems and the two candidates for the Lib Dem leadership can tell the House and the country when they are going to pay back the dodgy 2 million quid that they got from Michael Brown?

Ms Harman: I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. We appreciate the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been prepared to engage in party talks about how we agree a consensus on the legislation for party funding reform that we proposed in our Queen’s Speech.

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Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I seek to work closely and constructively with the right hon. and learned Lady in her capacity as Leader of the House. Will she give further consideration to the request from Conservative Members that the way in which topical debates are chosen be more transparent and democratic? If it is necessary for the Modernisation Committee to consider amendments to the current Standing Order, will she be willing to have such a discussion in the Modernisation Committee so that the Standing Order can be changed to ensure that the topical debate is just that—current and topical?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I understand the House’s concern and that it wants to get the process right to ensure that topical debates serve the purpose for which they were intended. However, the proposal was brought to the House only a few weeks ago. The House made a decision and I am carrying out my duties under the Standing Order. If hon. Members want to reconsider the situation and think that the Standing Order should be drawn differently and the process should be different, they can make a proposal. No one made such a proposal in the debate in which we considered the Standing Order, but if hon. Members want to reflect on the matter, they can bring a proposal forward. My only interest is ensuring that the House gets what it wants: topical debates.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend will be well aware of the case of Mrs. Gibbons, who is about to appear in court in Khartoum. This is a dreadful case and I hope that the Foreign Office is doing everything possible to get her early release. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend also reflect on the fact that it is absolutely vital that we go ahead with peace talks regarding the situation in Darfur? We must recognise that there are no representatives from the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement on the Government of national unity. These are difficult times in Sudan, so will the Government ensure that they continue to play a real part in trying to bring peace to that bedevilled land?

Ms Harman: I pay tribute my hon. Friend’s role in the all-party group on Sudan. Let me first respond to his point on Gillian Gibbons. I can tell the House that the Foreign Secretary will be seeing the Sudanese ambassador this afternoon. The Government—and everyone, I am sure—want her free and back home, where she belongs, as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend mentioned the need for peace in Darfur. The Foreign Office wants to work with all the international community to ensure that we have peace in that terrible conflict situation.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Once we have had our proper topical debate on party funding, can some time be made available for a short debate on the operation of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? The Leader of the House will be aware that agency staff have been in dispute with the management over pay since the earlier part of this year. The chief executive has now announced a major reorganisation aimed at cutting costs. There is real concern in the shipping industry that the agency will
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try to walk away from some of its responsibilities, such as ship inspection and seafarer certification. These are matters of concern to not only island and coastal communities, but the shipping industry, which earns something in the region of £322 a second for the UK. Surely that is something to which we can give some time.

Ms Harman: I shall take that as a representation for a topical debate next week. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that there is a debate on fisheries on Thursday. I know that that is not entirely on the point that he mentioned, but some of the issues that he is concerned about could be raised in that debate.

Mr. Anthony Wright (Great Yarmouth) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that in a previous Session, the Gambling Act 2005 went through the House, and part of that Act concerned the creation of 16 new casinos, large and small. My constituency was to have one of the large ones, but unfortunately that plan was scuppered in the other place by the Opposition. It would have meant significant regeneration for parts of Great Yarmouth and the 15 other areas. Will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us when the proposal will come back before the House, so that we can get on with the fantastic job that has been done over the past 10 years to regenerate one of the most deprived areas of the country?

Ms Harman: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s work in support of the regeneration of the seaside town of Great Yarmouth. I will bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): I wonder whether the Leader of the House will provide an early statement on the role of the permanent secretary as the recipient of information. I understand that the right hon. and learned Lady told the Justice permanent secretary of a donation that she had received. It is not clear to me what permanent secretaries should do with such information, particularly when it is about party funding issues, and not general matters for Government.

Ms Harman: The position on registration is as follows. There is a requirement to register donations above a certain limit with the Electoral Commission. Under the ministerial code, Ministers have to register any donations with the Cabinet Office. There is also the requirement to register in the Register of Members’ Interests. I registered all donations fully in accordance with all those three authorities. The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the permanent secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as did the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—I am sorry that I did not get a chance to reply to her point earlier. It is custom and practice for a Minister to make declarations to the permanent secretary in the Department in which they are— [Interruption]—or were. That was the Department in which I was at the time. In addition, I made full declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests, and to the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office. During the course of the campaign I had been at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, so I provided the full information to the permanent secretary.

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Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): This Christmas in my constituency, the Ryhope allotment holders and pigeon men face eviction from their site by a mysterious company called Worktalent Ltd. The site contains the world’s only listed pigeon cree, or loft, as others may know it. It provides local families and children with education opportunities. Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider making time available to debate early-day motion 239, which is supported by Members on both sides of the House, so that the House can consider supporting the Ryhope pigeon men and getting the facilities back into the ownership of the community, where they belong?

[ That this House supports the campaign by the Ryhope Allotment Holders to maintain and protect their environment which includes the world's only listed pigeon cree; calls upon the owners of Worktalent Ltd to withdraw their notice to terminate the lease; and believes that these historic allotments should be held in trust by the community and provide facilities for local children to enjoy and understand horticulture and the care of pigeons. ]

Ms Harman: The Government have a clear strong position on pigeon-fancying: we are wholly in favour of it. As Leader of the House, may I take the opportunity to congratulate and support the work of the Ryhope pigeon-fanciers?

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): I want to raise a point relating to the business of the House on the Order Paper. You know, Mr. Speaker, that yesterday, in answer to a question that I put, the Prime Minister said:

That question related specifically to donations made not to the right hon. and learned Lady but to the Government party. There is a topical debate today. The right hon. and learned Lady told the Modernisation Committee yesterday that there was no request whatever from anyone in the House that we discuss the question of apprenticeships. As the right hon. Lady is now at the Dispatch Box, will she take the decision to dump today’s business and remain at the Dispatch Box, and let us test the veracity of what the Prime Minister said?

Ms Harman: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so contemptuous of the important issue of apprenticeships. There are something like 600,000 vacancies in the economy, and if any person in the country cannot be employed, it is largely because they lack the skills that would enable them to fill those vacancies. I absolutely do not accept his argument that it is not topical and important to discuss apprenticeship, the manufacturing industry and apprenticeship in the House this afternoon. If he wants to make proposals on how we change the system of choosing topical debates, let him make them.

Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the future of zoos, particularly Edinburgh zoo, which is threatened by the Liberal Democrat council’s disgraceful decision to prevent the zoo from selling some land for development purposes—a decision that puts its future in jeopardy?

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