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Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Over the next couple of days, Ministers will be returning from the world summit in Bali, at the end of which there are
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almost certain to be no binding agreements on targets and no recognition of the urgent action that needs to be taken on the basis of the intergovernmental panel on climate change report on the six to eight-year window of opportunity that we have in front of us. I am surprised that no statement is to be made to the House on Monday by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because that means that there will be no debate on this matter until the new year. Given that the Government’s programme is also ill equipped to deal with the scale of change in that six to eight years, will the Leader of the House not revisit the prospect of such a statement by the Secretary of State?

Ms Harman: I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will want to inform the House of the outcome at Bali and how we see the way forward. My hon. Friend knows that we take the view that there should be binding targets for reduction of carbon emissions; that is why that will be in the Climate Change Bill, which will shortly come before this House.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Concerns have been expressed in all parts of the House about the regime in Guantanamo Bay, and I am sure there is a welcome for the fact that the place is at last being run down, but may we have a debate in the House about the extraordinary Government decision to invite five terror suspects, none of whom are British citizens and one of whom stayed here for only a relatively short period, to come to this country, rather than being repatriated to their own countries?

Ms Harman: I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will know that we abhor the Guantanamo Bay regime, which is quite outwith the rule of law, and that we pressed for British citizens to be taken out of there and brought back to this country. As for the five remaining internees in Guantanamo Bay who are customarily resident in this country, I understand that in respect of three of them arrangements are being made to return to this country, but it is of course open to the Government to review their status and their right to stay here on their return.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): At 9 o’clock this morning, an outrage was perpetrated against the Hindu community in this country, when a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals vet, accompanied by three police officers, went unannounced to Bhaktivedanta manor and put down a sacred cow, which had been nursed by the herdsmen at the manor for 14 months. I must stress that this cow was not contagious in any way and was not diseased; she had a muscle-wasting problem and was nursed for bedsores alone. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend will appreciate the serious concern that this has caused within the Hindu community, and I ask her to take the matter up not only with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—I understand that DEFRA was not involved this morning—but with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. This has caused great concern in the community. We have laws in this country against blasphemy, and I believe it is now time for us to have a debate about how to deal with such issues sensitively across the board.

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Ms Harman: I understand the great concern that is felt on this issue in Britain’s Hindu community, and I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to raise it in the House. In response, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to write to him with all the background; my hon. Friend can then convey that to the Hindu community, which feels so concerned about the matter, so that it has all the facts and information.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Leader of the House haul the Chairman of the Liaison Committee before the House next week to explain the apparently unreasonable behaviour of his Committee in not allowing the Prime Minister to give evidence to it on another day, thus causing the Prime Minister great embarrassment, as he cannot be in Lisbon to sign the new treaty along with other European leaders?

Ms Harman: It seems to be beyond some Members to understand the relatively simple proposition that the Prime Minister wanted to both answer the questions of the Liaison Committee and sign the treaty in person—and that although he has many remarkable qualities, being in two places at once is not one of them.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I listened carefully earlier today to my right hon. and learned Friend’s answers about women in political life, and I wonder whether she would consider holding a topical debate on the issue—and would she broaden it to a discussion of women in public life? I have grave concerns about the number of women being appointed to public bodies in this country, and I believe that there might be some unintentional discrimination against women because of how the criteria are set.

Ms Harman: I will look for an opportunity for this matter to be raised in the House. We are committed to ensuring that we get the right decision making in appointments to public boards, whether they are in health, education or industry. The figures show that we have not had sufficient change. About 33 per cent. of public appointments were women in 1997, and that figure has barely risen at all in the past 10 years: it is now only 35 per cent. That is simply not good enough. It is not that women in this country are not good enough; it is that the appointments system is not good enough to recognise the talent and experience that women in this country can bring to public service. Clearly, systemic discrimination is going on in public appointments, and we will have to set some stiff targets and make some progress on that. Inching forward by 2 per cent. in 10 years is simply not good enough.

Mr. Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): Farmers in my constituency are dismayed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposals for winter green cover, which will impact on traditional farming methods. Will the right hon. and learned Lady find time early in the new year for a debate on the nitrates directive?

Ms Harman: I will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have a debate about physical and verbal abuse of shop workers, and in particular betting-shop staff—an overwhelmingly female work force, many of whom are expected to accept such treatment as part and parcel of the job? The trade union community has been particularly active in my constituency on this issue. Will the Leader of the House join me in supporting its efforts to reverse the perception that such behaviour is in any way acceptable?

Ms Harman: The House should be aware that one of the important things that is helping women at work—and, indeed, anybody who might be vulnerable in their work—is trade union equality reps. The Government have funded a programme of trade union equality reps at work, and I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform whether there can be some provision for equality reps in the betting industry, so that they can support women suffering from harassment from customers.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can we have a debate on my early-day motion 317, entitled “Open university”?

[That this House is concerned that the Government’s decision to withdraw funding from institutions for equivalent or lower qualification students will have a disproportionate impact on the part-time sector in general and on specific institutions such as Birkbeck and the Open University; and urges the Government to consider ways in which it can minimise the damage this measure will do to lifelong learning and the delivery of the Leitch agenda objectives.]

Given that 177 hon. Members from across the House have signed it, does the Leader of the House accept that there is growing unease in the House about the Government’s decision to withdraw funding for students seeking equivalent and lower qualifications, and the disproportionate impact that that will have on the Open university and similar establishments? How does it square with the Government’s commitment to lifelong learning?

Ms Harman: We are strongly committed to what the Open university was set up to do: to extend educational opportunities to adults and those who might have missed out at school. A range of educational opportunities that were not available when the Open university was set up now exist, and the university remains very important. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could seek a Westminster Hall debate on the issue.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Can we have a debate about the health impact of open-cast coal mining on local communities? People in Kenfig Hill and Cefn Cribwr in my constituency have suffered years of noise, dust, housing blight and environmental destruction. Is it not time for us to put forward the quality of life for local communities as the first priority, before we allow extensions to open-cast mining and the resulting clouds of potentially toxic dust?

Ms Harman: The question of how we get the right developments is very much the subject of the Planning Bill, which is a centrepiece of the Government’s
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legislative programme. As the Bill proceeds through this House, my hon. Friend and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to talk about the quality of life criteria that they would like to be central issues for planning decisions.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): May I put myself firmly behind the request of the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) for a debate on post offices? Such a debate would allow me to point out the injustices of the five post office closures in my constituency and the appalling effect on people in Thatcham. They recently suffered seriously flooding, and they now have the double whammy of losing their post office. This issue is affecting a number of hon. Members in other parts of the country, so a topical debate would be much appreciated.

Ms Harman: I shall take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. The raising of issues by Back Benchers from different parties is a key criterion for indicating that there should be a topical debate. The last time that I said that was in respect of Heathrow, about which lots of hon. Members from both sides of the House—especially Conservatives—expressed their desire to have a topical debate. I was just about to arrange one when I got pipped at the post by a Westminster Hall debate, but had that not happened, I would have done so.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The Leader of the House has asked on many occasions for Members’ suggestions on how best to improve topical debates. She may be aware that during a recent debate the official Opposition Front-Bench team used up a third of the time allocated for a topical debate, thereby denying Back Benchers the opportunity to ask pertinent questions. Will she examine that issue? Will she consider a way of restricting Front-Bench Opposition spokespeople from using up that time?

Ms Harman: The point of topical debates is twofold. First, they aim to ensure that when a hot topic is being discussed up and down the country, this House is certain to have an opportunity to discuss it. Secondly, they are an important opportunity for Back Benchers to contribute to a debate on a topic, and to make their constituents’ views and their own wider views known. I have examined the amount of time that has been taken up by Ministers and the Opposition Front-Bench teams in topical debates, and too few Back Benchers appear to be getting in. That is partly because of Back Benchers intervening on Front-Bench spokespeople, but we must examine the issue. There is no point in deterring Back Benchers from participating in topical debates because they think that they will sit for ages waiting and will hear nothing but speeches made from the Front Benches. I very much want to examine this issue and discuss it with all parties to ensure that we reach a sensible conclusion.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): In the abbreviated debate on armed forces personnel, will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that her part-time colleague comes to the House prepared to talk about the military covenant in general and to address specifically the raw deal that service children get from a funding
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formula that completely fails to recognise the cost drivers that apply to schools with a high proportion of service children? I tried to raise this matter during yesterday’s debate, but unfortunately the Minister for the Armed Forces largely ignored my remarks.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that he did have an opportunity to raise that issue in the House during yesterday’s Opposition day debate. I shall take this opportunity to remind him that since this Government came to power in 1997, this country has become the second biggest spender on defence—second only to the United States. That investment has rightly gone into equipment, pay and housing for our armed forces. If he and the Conservatives are suggesting that more should be invested, it is incumbent on them also to suggest how much investment they would make and what they would cut to pay for it. Do they want us to overtake even America in our defence spending?

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said. Further to remarks made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), it must have been a black day for Her Majesty’s Opposition when the former proprietor of their house magazines was convicted in the United States of America on charges of fraud and obstructing justice. May I make a bid for a topical debate on standards in public life, to examine, among other things, whether the regulations of the two Houses of Parliament on ending someone’s membership should be brought into line with one another?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a good point. On party funding, he will know that the Government will introduce a Bill to ensure that we have fair and open funding of party campaigns, and that a cap is put on the total expenditure in campaigns so that we end the arms race. I hope that we will find support on both sides of the House for that.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): My question relates to column 611W of yesterday’s Hansard and a written answer that I received. I thank the Leader of the House and her deputy most warmly for the support that they have been giving to my mini-campaign. When a Minister’s written answer refers to a written answer given to another hon. Member, I would like a hard copy of that answer to be supplied. I also thank them both for the following written answer:

May I therefore ask the Leader of the House to have a word with the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg)? He provided a written answer that stated:

I know that they are overstretched and part-time, but should they not at least listen to the Leader of the House?

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Ms Harman: When Ministers answer questions it is important that they recognise that this is about accountability. They should answer questions in a spirit of accountability to this House. They should not provide research pointers or clues so that the Member then has to do some more finding out. A complete answer ought to be given. Referring to other questions, to departmental or agency websites or to previous things is not being as helpful as I would like Ministers to be to Members of this House. Being helpful to Members and carrying on with the business of Government are both responsibilities. One of the responsibilities of Government is to be accountable to this House. I totally dispute what the hon. Gentleman said about the part-time something or other—I cannot remember what it was, but I totally disagree with it—but I strongly agree with him about ministerial accountability.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am now down to my six regular customers. For me to take them all, they must be very brief.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): May we have a debate on the Prime Minister’s busy schedule? The Leader of the House accused us of turning Europe into a pantomime, but the Prime Minister has done that himself. When the rest of the European Union leaders sign the constitutional treaty, they will ask, “Where is the British Prime Minister?” They will be told, “He’s behind you.” If the Prime Minister is signing away British constitutional rights, he should be there—

Mr. Speaker: There we are: some hon. Gentlemen just do not listen.

Ms Harman: That hon. Gentleman is not one of the usual suspects, who are much better. I shall sit down and wait to hear from one of them.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): May we have a debate on prisons and offender data? Is the Leader of the House aware that Roger Hill, the director of the probation service within the National Offender Management Service, has said that the new computer system—CNOMIS—will be suspended and scaled down for use only in prisons? On the other hand, the Ministers of State at the Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) and the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), have said that that is not the case. Who is correct?

Ms Harman: I will get my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to write to the hon. Gentleman with the answer to that question.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a statement next week on the proposed allocation of time for the consideration on Wednesday 9 January of the remaining stages of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, given that one very important matter that we will have to consider that day is the Government’s welcome creation of a new offence of homophobic hate crime, to which—sadly—some misguided souls are strongly opposed? Does the Leader of the House accept that it is
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in the Government’s and the public’s interest to err on the side of generosity and allow adequate time so that the objections can be fully aired and effectively rebutted?

Ms Harman: I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s support for that important addition to the Bill. We will of course want to ensure that the Government have time to set out the arguments for its introduction and all sides have the opportunity to explain why they do or do not support it. We will take that into account when allocating time for the debate.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on post-traumatic stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, which affect an increasing number of our armed forces personnel? Will the Leader of the House put on record the Government’s tribute to the hard-working staff of Combat Stress at Audley Court in Newport for all that they do for our brave servicemen and women?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make those points more fully in the debate on armed services personnel on Thursday 10 January.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I recently asked the Department for Transport how many car miles there were in 1997 and how many there are now. I ripped open the envelope that I received with great joy, but instead of an answer I had been given a 60-character URL. I did not know what to do with that, but my staff did. To add to the insult, the result was given in kilometres, not miles. Was not that done to hide the information from the media? What powers does the Leader of the House have to stop such actions?

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