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31 Jan 2008 : Column 469

Thursday 28 February—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on refuse collection.

Today, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the next Budget will be on 12 March.

On behalf of the whole House, I wish to extend my warmest congratulations to Jill Pay on her appointment as the new Serjeant at Arms. Our men in tights are now to be led by a woman in tights.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I join her in welcoming the new Serjeant at Arms and congratulating her on her appointment.

For the past five years, the long-term public finance report has been published in November or December. With February upon us, the 2007 report has still not been published. Given that it is expected to show that for the first time total public sector pension liabilities are more than £1 trillion, will the Leader of the House tell us why this report has been delayed and when it will be published?

On Tuesday, we learned that more than 10,000 nurses and midwives left the NHS last year to work abroad. The Royal College of Nursing warns that we face a staffing crisis. May I suggest NHS staffing for a future topical debate?

Last week, the Prime Minister said that he was accompanied on his trip to China and India by

But no business women went on that trip. May we have a statement explaining why the clunking fist did not take any business women with him?

May we have a debate, in Government time, on the Defence Committee’s latest annual report? It criticised the Ministry of Defence for failing to give our servicemen and women proper breaks between operational duties in Iraq and Afghanistan and warned that as a result growing numbers of people are leaving our armed forces. So we have a lack of training, inadequate housing and a part-time Defence Secretary. When will the Government honour the military covenant and treat our troops with the respect they deserve?

Ten years after the Government made a manifesto promise to get rid of mixed-sex wards, the Health Minister, Lord Darzi, has admitted that that aspiration cannot be met. Will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement to the House on the failure of that key Government policy?

Last year, the Justice Minister claimed that community punishments were a tough and demanding alternative to prison. A new report from the National Audit Office found that offenders are getting away with failing to turn up for community punishments if they oversleep or if they produce their own sick note. It is a complete farce, so may we have a debate on the Government’s community punishment scheme?

This week, the Minister for Schools and Learners ordered local councils not to close village schools, but just last month the Government issued guidance to councils ordering them to shut schools with empty
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desks. Will the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families make a statement to clarify the Government’s policy on village schools?

Last January, the Prime Minister launched a campaign to highlight Britishness. We now know that at the same time he decided to remove the image of Britannia from the 50p piece. It will be the first time in 300 years that Britannia has not featured on any British coin. Will the Prime Minister make a statement on how removing a historic British symbol fits into his Britishness campaign?

Those are all examples of a Government who start by saying one thing and end up doing another. Does that not show that we have a country that is drifting under a Government who lack direction and a Prime Minister who simply cannot get a grip?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady mentioned pension liabilities, but failed to make a point about pension fund assets. The most important issue for pension funds is the strength of the economy. That is why sustained low inflation, low interest rates and growth in the economy are the most important issues for pensions in the future.

I take it that the right hon. Lady has made a representation for a topical debate on midwives and NHS staffing. She will know that the issue was debated in Westminster Hall yesterday, and she will bear it in mind that, because of increasing investment in the health service and the increasing recruitment of midwives, more midwives are going into training than ever before. Those measures are part of our determination to increase the quality of maternity services.

The right hon. Lady mentioned business men and women. She is right, of course, that we need to do everything we can to encourage more women in commerce. Further work is coming out of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to support women. If we compare our economy with the American economy, we see that our competitiveness gap is accounted for by the fact that we have fewer women who start and run their own businesses. We must make progress on that, but I find it a bit much that the shadow Leader of the House—one of only 17 Tory women Members of Parliament who have never done anything to champion women’s rights—should try to tell us what to do, when we have championed women’s rights over the years.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Defence Committee. Training is not inadequate. The housing provided for our armed forces certainly needs to be improved, and we have made progress in that respect against the background of the spending cuts made by the previous Administration.

The question of mixed-sex wards is always a matter of concern. The shadow Leader of the House will know that the amount of single-sex accommodation provided has increased, which has ensured that all patients have access to single-sex toilet and bathroom facilities.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the NAO report on community sentences. The Government welcome the report’s findings, which show that there has been more enforcement when people breach community sentences,
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and that more community sentences and drug and alcohol rehabilitation courses are being completed than previously. All that is to be welcomed, and I congratulate probation services on their important work in ensuring that strict community sentences are properly enforced. People who serve such sentences are much less likely to reoffend than those who go to prison.

The right hon. Lady asked about primary schools in rural areas, and she also mentioned secondary schools. She will know—

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): She did not say anything about secondary schools.

Ms Harman: In that case, I shall respond to her question about primary schools in rural areas. She will know that my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools and Learners wrote to remind local authorities of the importance of not closing such schools. She might also remember that rural primary schools were closing at the rate of 30 a year when the previous Conservative Government were in power. Under this Government, however, and under the guidance that my hon. Friend has reminded educational authorities about, they have been closing at an average of only seven a year.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition referred to abolishing the stop and search account form. In the area for which I am Member of Parliament, my constituents and I are eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than is the case elsewhere, and the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal worries me greatly. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the only way to get more police on the beat is by investing more money in the Metropolitan police, not less?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We need to make sure that the police have the power to stop and search so that people on the streets of London and our other towns and cities can be kept safe. However, we must also make absolutely certain that we have the right accountability so that we can be sure that the police act fairly, as both we and they intend. She is right to remind the House that the police are able to carry out their work because of the extra investment that has been made to increase their numbers and pay. Those who would prefer the Metropolitan police budget to be cut, as the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) does, would put all of that at risk.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): First, may I, on behalf of my party, join in the warm welcome that has been extended to Mrs. Pay on her deserved appointment as the new Serjeant at Arms?

I welcome the Leader of the House’s announcement that there will be separate debates next Monday on the police and local government settlements, and that there will also be separate debates, next Tuesday and a fortnight later, on the local government settlements for Wiltshire and Shropshire. Will she confirm that each of the proposed structural changes in the counties of Cornwall, Northumberland and Durham will be the subject of separate debates? I gather that the relevant orders will be considered upstairs in Committee, but I hope that we can have a full debate on each.

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This week, the House has been debating the Lisbon treaty and the European Union (Amendment) Bill, and more debates will take place in the next few weeks. Whatever view we take on those subjects, we have learned from experience that the House does not have a proper procedure for dealing with and scrutinising treaties. Will the Leader of the House undertake to talk to colleagues and come back as soon as possible with some proposals for a better mechanism for looking at any treaties that the Government are considering entering into? By definition, it is too late by the time a treaty is signed to do anything about it and, as a result, the House’s only option is to take it or leave it.

A few weeks ago, the Leader of the House kindly said that she would consider the suggestion that, as well as the Welsh day debate in March, which is now well established, and the debate on women's issues, which is well established and coincides approximately with international women's day, we have a debate on the role of the Commonwealth and Commonwealth priorities to coincide with Commonwealth day in March. I should be grateful if she confirmed, before the House breaks for half-term, that that will be possible. I am sure that it would be welcomed, not least given events in places such as Kenya.

Yesterday, the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of prisons was published. It contained a horrifying statistic—a 40 per cent. increase in suicides in prisons—and criticised much of current policy. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would greatly support an early debate on the report to help the Government to get the policy right, rather than set out on a policy and then be told by an inspector that it is not doing what it should do.

Two days ago, a report by an assiduous and esteemed national newspaper journalist stated that there will soon be a White Paper on proposed changes to Law Officers’ functions and the inter-relationship of Law Officers and the Director of Public Prosecutions. That is a highly controversial and important matter, not least as evidenced by the previous Attorney-General agreeing to the discontinuance of proceedings against BAE. Will the Leader of the House undertake that we will have an early opportunity to debate that and that there will not be further leaks of what the White Paper might say before it is published?

Ms Harman: The way in which the House deals with the important issue of local government restructuring orders takes account of the approach taken by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The hon. Gentleman will know that we are taking on the Floor of the House next week and the week after the House returns from the recess two issues in relation to two counties.

On the procedure for dealing with treaties, we have a Bill that enacts a treaty and we have sought with the latest Bill to give as much time as possible to deal—[Hon. Members: “Not enough.”] Hon. Members say, “Not enough”, but we have afforded the Committee stage of that Bill more days of debate than were afforded to the Nice treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and the European— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Let the Leader of the House speak. That is the best thing to do. The Leader of the House cannot speak if the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) interrupts her.

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Ms Harman: We have afforded this House more days of debate in Committee on that Bill than were afforded the Nice treaty, the Amsterdam treaty and the Single European Act put together. We have given many days of debate on that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Welsh day and international women's day and asked about Commonwealth day. I shall consider whether that matter should be the subject of a topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the worrying issue of suicide in prisons. I recognise that that concern is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I notice that there are, on motions for the Adjournment of the House, debates next Monday on an inspectorate of prisons report and next Thursday on suicide prevention strategies. The House seeks to debate that matter regularly.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the functions of the Law Officers. He will remember that, in his statement on the governance of Britain, the Prime Minister undertook to consider reform of the Law Officers' functions. There has been a discussion and consultation, and when proposals are made on that important issue they will be brought before the House.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that there have been many debates on the Post Office in recent times, but I am particularly concerned about the recent Post Office consultation on the closures. I would like a debate on that, or at least I would like her to pass my concerns on to the relevant Minister. I received a letter from Richard Lynds, who is the network development manager for the Post Office. When I tried to contact him about the changes, I was given a call centre. No one knew who he was. When I contacted the chairman's office, I found that he had gone on holiday during the consultation period. It is not good enough. The nearest post office to Nether Kellet, one of the post offices in my constituency, is two miles away. It is on a road where there is no footpath. Pensioners could not even walk to it. They would have to change buses to get there. This is really unacceptable.

Ms Harman: I shall raise my hon. Friend’s account of the unsatisfactory way in which the consultation has operated in respect of a post office in her constituency with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. We must ensure that, if at any stage a Government Department or agency engages in consultation, it is genuine consultation; otherwise it is worse than simply taking the decision itself. The last thing people want is to be told that they are being consulted and then not be consulted at all.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): At the heart of the problems that we have experienced this week, which must not continue from now on, is the Government's savage guillotine of the Committee stage of the European treaty Bill. We have had only four hours of debate on the Committee stage to date. It is guillotined so savagely that the borders, visas, asylum and immigration parts of the home affairs provisions that the Government graciously gave to the House were not debated.

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Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman was not there.

Mr. Shepherd: I was most certainly there. The Leader of the House, in whose name this atrocious motion was tabled, has bound the ability of the Speaker to protect the interests of the House in discussing something of constitutional importance, which is necessarily debated on the Floor of the House in detail. That has been denied to the House. It is traducing parliamentary democracy. It is even worse than the day when the Government deemed a Bill to have been considered when it had not been.

Ms Harman: We have sought to provide adequate debating time for the House. The hon. Gentleman will know, of course, that the Bill enacts the treaty. We wanted to ensure that the house has an opportunity to debate not only the clauses of the Bill and the amendments that have been selected by Mr. Speaker but the substance of the treaty that the Bill brings into force. That is why we have proposed that there should be an opportunity to debate the substance of the treaty at the same time as discussing amendments to the individual clauses.

As for the guillotine, I would say only that the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1986 was guillotined on 1 July 1986. The motion was proposed by a Leader of the House whom many of us think was a great Leader of the House: John Biffen. I know that the hon. Gentleman is consistent in these matters, so I imagine that he opposed that as well.

Mr. Shepherd indicated assent.

Ms Harman: I see that the hon. Gentleman did so.

We must ensure that we have enough time to scrutinise not only the clauses and the amendments but the treaty that the clauses bring into effect.

I did not fully respond to the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). He stated that the difficulty is that by the time a treaty that has been negotiated and committed to by the Government comes before the House, it is on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

That is a difficulty facing all Governments and legislatures, but he proposes that we consider whether there might be a different way to do things, as did the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) yesterday in the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): May I take my friend to early-day motion 826, which is on the Order Paper in my name?

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