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Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend organise a debate on town and parish councils? That would allow me to celebrate the work of so many town and parish councils in my area
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and, in particular, to condemn the irresponsible action of the independent group in Featherstone, which has gone for a tax increase that would get into the Guinness book of records—an 800 per cent. increase in the precept—despite the fight put up by the local Labour party. That will substantially damage pensions, in particular, as it will take most of the increase. Such a debate would allow us to explore the mysterious decision to put half of the increase—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the Leader of the House has got the message that the hon. Gentleman is sending.

Ms Harman: We all pay tribute to the important work that is done in town and parish councils. It is disappointing if groups such as the Featherstone independent group bring that independent civic work into disrepute by behaving in the way that my hon. Friend has described.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Given the importance of how the Mayor of London is running his office and how he is spending taxpayers’ money in London, can we have a topical debate to find out why the Greater London Authority Act 2007 will give the role even more powers, especially as there are problems with the checks and balances on it? In the light of the recent statement made by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, does the Leader of the House think that the Mayor of London should resign to clear his name, too?

Ms Harman: The previous Government abolished the Greater London council, the authority that was democratically elected to run London. We set up a Mayor of London in order to allow people in the hon. Lady’s constituency, in mine and throughout London to have their say. I pay tribute to the work of the Mayor, who was elected democratically by the people of all of London. Next May, it will be the responsibility of the electors to have their say on how he has done his work. We have full confidence in him. We cannot tell whether we are fully confident in the work done in this House by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson), because we never see him.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): May I suggest to my right hon. and learned Friend that the subject of next week’s topical debate should be the situation in Gaza, which gets worse by the day? I ask her and the Government to agree that the Israeli Government should lift their blockade of Gaza, which is holding an entire population to ransom. That is against all principles of civilised behaviour and is clearly in breach of international law.

Ms Harman: There is a debate this afternoon in Westminster Hall on the middle east. I think that everybody will be concerned by the developments that have been reported overnight.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Leader of House will know that today the Secretary of State for Justice has published a document about the review of voting systems. He said that it remained the Government’s view that, as a change to the voting system used for this House would have significant effects
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on the way in which democracy works, it would come into effect only if it were endorsed by a referendum. What confidence should the public have that that promise of a referendum on any change to the voting system will mean any more than the promise of one on a European constitution?

Ms Harman: We have made it clear that any decision to change the way in which Members of this House are elected, by going from first past the post to a proportional system, would not be for us to make and that we would ask for support for the decision through a referendum. We have no proposal with which to come forward; we do not propose that following the review there should be a change in the voting system for the House of Commons.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill contains a number of controversial clauses, including those on hybrid embryos, the deletion of the need for a father and new powers for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to apply the law in new cases without reference to ethical guidelines. The Bill has almost completed its passage in the House of Lords. Will the Leader of the House let us know whether it will come to this House before the Easter recess, so that we can plan our campaign? It is an important issue. A lot of people are making submissions to their MPs and they want to contact them at the appropriate time.

Ms Harman: I know that the Bill will be subject in this House to a great deal of intense scrutiny and debate, as it has been in the House of Lords. I cannot give a specific time frame for when it will leave the House of Lords. Of course, the House of Lords needs to be allowed to complete its deliberations in as much time as it regards to be necessary.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): What has happened to today’s topical debate? Does the Leader of the House really believe that there is nothing to debate today apart from our salaries?

Ms Harman: I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. The topical issue for debate today is Members’ pay.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the importance of holocaust memorial day? I draw her attention to early-day motion 648, which has been signed by 145 hon. Members.

[ That this House notes Holocaust Memorial Day is 27th January, the day the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated; recognises the significance of this day and the importance of remembering and learning from the past especially when there are those who seek to denigrate and deny its significance; observes that the lessons of the Holocaust have not been learnt and racism, anti-semitism and intolerance continue in the UK and abroad; further observes that the international community has failed to prevent the occurrence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq and now Darfur; thanks the City of Liverpool for hosting the
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national event and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for organising the day; supports 2008's theme, Imagine, remember, reflect and react; applauds organisations like the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) for their work and in particular recognises the impact the acclaimed HET visits to Auschwitz have had in shaping young minds; notes that a Book of Commitment will be placed in the corridor between the hon. Members' Cloakroom and hon. Members' Staircase between 1430 and 1630, Monday 21st to Wednesday 23rd January; and encourages all hon. Members to sign it and mark a day that helps to ensure the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive to serve as a warning now and in the future.
]

The motion notes that memorial day is this Sunday and praises the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for using her good offices to allow the book of commitment to be placed in the House this week. It has been signed by many hon. Members of all parties. May I encourage hon. Members to attend local memorial events and to sign the early-day motion?

Ms Harman: I shall take my hon. Friend’s suggestion as a proposal for next week’s topical debate. The need to remember and learn from the holocaust is raised regularly at business questions by hon. Members of all parties. The fact that Sunday is holocaust memorial day could make it an appropriate subject for next Thursday’s topical debate.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): There is no confidence in the Northern Ireland community that policing and justice will be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly—and certainly not in the lifetime of the present Assembly. In addition, there seems to be some confusion in the mind of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the devolution of those powers. Will the Leader of the House therefore find time for a debate on that very important and topical subject?

Ms Harman: I do not accept that there is confusion in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about that matter, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to his attention. I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to him, and to place a copy of the letter in the House of Commons Library.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): May we have a debate on the economy, to be led by the Prime Minister? That would give him an opportunity to explain why he said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) yesterday that he had

How is that remark consistent with the fact that the economy at that time was moving into considerable surplus, with the best pensions provision in Europe, a savings ratio of more than 10 per cent., trade in balance and inflation under control at 2.5 per cent? Treasury officials described those figures as “fantastically good”. How is that consistent with the description given by the Prime Minister yesterday?

Ms Harman: The House has the opportunity every Wednesday to ask the Prime Minister questions about the economy. My right hon. Friend has shown that he is
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very willing to respond to such questions at length. He considers it to be of the utmost importance that our economy remains strong and stable, with high levels of employment and low inflation and interest rates, and that it stays strong against a background of international financial turbulence.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Harold Wilson was right to say that a week is a long time in politics. There are more important matters than MPs’ pay, and the resignation of Ministers and the conduct of Government are among them. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that today’s breaking news gives the Government an ideal opportunity to look again at the workings of government, and to decide that the responsibilities for Wales and for work and pensions—and indeed for Scotland and defence—should be split? Does not today’s resignation news give the Government an ideal opportunity to carry out a mini-reshuffle?

Ms Harman: The question of changes to the machinery of government is for the Prime Minister.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): In light of the breaking news, may we have an urgent statement today on the implications of the resignation of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?

Ms Harman: I know that since I have been answering business questions today there have been media reports about the resignation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who also has responsibility for Wales. I do not have confirmation that his resignation has been received, but my right hon. Friend has worked to improve pensioners’ retirement income and to ensure that more people come off benefits and go into work. That has been important work for people in this country, and I personally consider him to be an excellent colleague and a good friend.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): May we have a topical debate on the rules governing community bids to take over post offices? The Government’s response to consultation on the post office network stated:

Last Monday, I attended a meeting in my constituency, at which EnviroKirn, a local community group, said that it wanted to take over a post office that is threatened with closure. Post Office representatives were far from encouraging, however, and the rules that they set out made it appear almost impossible for a community group to take over a post office. It is clear that the Post Office is not following Government policy, so may we have an urgent debate on the subject?

Ms Harman: I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. In the meantime, I suggest that he seeks a meeting with senior Post Office managers, so that he can present his constituents’ concerns about services.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on education so that we can discuss the Government’s plans to impose thousands of new homes on Milton Keynes while at the same time
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slashing its education budget by some £64.5 million? What would the Leader of the House say to parents with children at Oakgrove school in my constituency? They face the prospect that the final phase of building will not be completed, with the result that pupils will have to leave and go elsewhere. Why exactly is Labour deserting Milton Keynes?

Ms Harman: Labour is certainly not deserting Milton Keynes. I know that there is a demand across the country for more housing, especially among people who are finding it difficult to afford to get on to the housing ladder for the first time, or who are finding it hard to rent a good property for themselves and their families.

Mr. Lancaster: What about schools?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about homes, and I am dealing with that question first. As for education, there has been a big increase in investment in schools in this country, including in Milton Keynes, since this Government took office. The background at that time was that many children were being taught in very large classes, and problems with the roofs of many schools meant that buckets had to be put in place to collect the drips when it rained. The Government have instituted major programmes of capital and revenue investment in education, and I find it hard to believe that Milton Keynes is the only part of the country that has not benefited. Moreover, having made that investment in education, we intend to increase it in future.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The public think that hon. Members are like children with the keys to the sweet shop, and they are astonished that we vote for our own pay rises. Will the Leader of the House programme proposals that our salaries be determined entirely by an independent body, so that we can get rid of that indecent practice before we go off for the summer recess?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That debate is coming. The hon. Gentleman must be patient.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): This week, the Public Accounts Committee published its findings that 40 per cent. of motorbikes on Britain’s roads are not taxed, and that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has no effective way to ensure that owners of foreign vehicles who are in this country for more than six months pay our road tax. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the millions of vehicles on Britain’s roads that are both untaxed and uninsured?

Ms Harman: The Government are considering the PAC report, and will respond in due course.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Leader of the House about the progress of the Government’s ID card scheme, but may I press the right hon. and learned Lady to take her reply a little further? Her response was that the Government had always planned to phase in the cards, but the whole point about the question posed by my right hon. Friend was that that phased approach seems to be slipping.
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Does the Leader of the House agree that that slippage is adding fuel to the fires among Opposition Members, who have said that the scheme is unworkably complex and expensive and that it cannot work? Does not the fact that the scheme is delayed merely prove that point?

Ms Harman: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman cannot press me further on that, as I have nothing to add to what I said about 15 minutes ago.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): This year’s budget deficit is already £44 billion, inflation—not calculated according to the retail prices index—is running at 11 per cent., and every household in the country has been lumbered with a second mortgage as a result of the Northern Rock saga. Is it not time, therefore, for an urgent debate on the Government’s handling of the British economy, given that every household and business is paying more in tax?

Ms Harman: I forbore repeating myself in response to the previous question from the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), but on this occasion I shall repeat what I said earlier in response to the shadow Leader of the House. The British economy is in a good position to weather the difficult storm arising from international financial turbulence. Opposition Members must think very carefully about whether it is really their job to talk down confidence in the British economy. We think that we remain in a strong position. The hon. Gentleman should support the high levels of employment in his constituency, and the endeavours of businesses there, by not misrepresenting the state of the economy.


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Points of Order

12.49 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday, when the Foreign Secretary introduced the first stages of the ratification process for the EU constitution, he could refer to only two organisations that supported the Government’s position on not giving the British people a referendum. He kept referring to one of them as the “commission of bishops”. I left the Chamber thinking that English bishops were in favour of the Government’s stance, but I subsequently found out that the group in question is the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, a pan-European group of bishops funded by the European Union. That is an absolute disgrace, and I urge the Foreign Secretary to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman has to remember that there are many bishops and many bishops’ organisations.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House suggested that, according to the best advice that she had been given, there may have been a resignation by a Secretary of State. If that is the case, will the Secretary of State for Justice come to the House at a proper time next week to address us on matters relating to parties, pay and allowances?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is extending the statement on the business of the House. That is not a point of order.


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