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House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Visitors Reception Building

35. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): How much the House of Commons Visitors Reception Building was originally estimated to cost; and how much it is now estimated to cost. [185149]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): The original estimate in the business case was £8.6 million. Taking into account the delay and remedial work the cost is now estimated at £11.2 million. Professional fees for completing the project and reviewing the lessons learned about what went wrong may add about another £1 million. Additional equipment in the new building will cost about £250,000. The split between the Commons and the Lords is 60:40.

Norman Baker: I am increasingly concerned about what appears to be the inability of the House of Commons Commission to manage projects within time and within
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budget. I remind my hon. Friend of the walkway downstairs, which cost £422,000 for a bit of glass on stilts. Is it not time that there was proper economic management of the House of Commons Commission so that the public could have confidence that public money is being properly looked after in this place?

Nick Harvey: There have been a series of problems with the project. Initially, piling and hidden services were found beneath the site and later there were a number of technical problems with the building itself, both of which led to delays and to the remedial works that were needed, and have added to the cost. Last summer, a recovery manager was brought in to ensure the completion of the project and he has now been engaged to make a study of what went wrong. With respect to my hon. Friend, I think he may be leaping to conclusions about where responsibility lies, but we look forward to receiving the report of the expert recovery manager in due course.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Governance of Britain White Paper

36. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What steps she is taking to encourage public debate on those elements of the Governance of Britain White Paper which fall within her remit; and if she will make a statement. [185150]

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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): The Leader of the House has an interest in a range of issues under the governance of Britain programme, with a particular responsibility for the proposals relating to the draft legislative programme, the dissolution and recall of Parliament, departmental debate days and regional accountability in the House. Those are all being considered in inquiries by the Modernisation Committee, chaired by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, to which public contributions have been invited.

Mr. Allen: The effort to revive our democracy was given a starburst opening when the Prime Minister chose to make his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister on the governance of Britain and to produce a Green Paper within days of taking over as Prime Minister. Does my hon. Friend agree that a little bit of the excitement, passion and drive may have gone out of the agenda? Can we not involve millions of people in debate on the issues, rather than just those of us in the asylum, so that we can take them further and get more and more people involved in moving our democracy forward?

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his attempts to bring more excitement to the issue. The Leader of the House published the draft legislative programme and put it on the Cabinet Office website. Regional Ministers held meetings to discuss it and a national deliberative forum was held. The programme is being taken forward across the board.

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Business of the House

11.34 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 18 February will be:

Monday 18 February—Remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill.

Tuesday 19 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to foreign, security and defence policy, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [5th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to foreign, security and defence policy, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order relating to Shropshire.

Wednesday 20 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to international development, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [6th( )Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to international development.

Thursday 21 February— Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in force of sections 1 to 9) Order 2008, followed by motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2008 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2008.

Friday 22 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 25 February will include:

Monday 25 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [7th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to the effectiveness of the EU institutions and EU decision making.

Tuesday 26 February—Debate on the treaty of Lisbon provisions relating to climate change, followed by continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [8th Allotted Day]—any selected amendments to clause 2 relating to climate change, followed by motion to approve a local government restructuring order.

Wednesday 27 February—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the European Union (Amendment) Bill [9th Allotted Day] covering clauses 3 to 7.

Thursday 28 February—A debate on Welsh affairs.

Friday 29 february—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has been the subject of intense debate in another place and
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raises ethical questions on which opinions are sharply divided. Last week the right hon. and learned Lady said:

Will she make a statement to the House immediately after the recess on how the Government intend to handle that Bill?

This morning it was announced in the media that the Prime Minister had axed plans for a super-casino in Manchester, but yet again no announcement has been made to the House. When will the Prime Minister make a statement to the House on the matter? Every week the Leader of the House tells us that she puts Parliament first, but every week her colleagues from the Prime Minister down show their disdain for Parliament.

The Prime Minister consistently brags about his tax credit system, yet the latest report by the Public Accounts Committee said that losses to fraud and overpayments in the system were a “great cause for concern”. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has written off £2.3 billion in overpayments, often made because of its own errors, 2 million families a year are still struggling to pay back overpayments, and on top of that, HMRC has lost the personal details of 25 million tax credit claimants. May we have a debate in Government time on the failures of HMRC?

This morning, it was confirmed that £24 billion of Northern Rock debt is being moved on to the Treasury’s balance sheet. That comes on top of the £35 billion of debt from housing associations being put on to the Treasury’s balance sheet due to an incompetence by the Government in the drafting of the Housing and Regeneration Bill. We also know that another of the Prime Minister’s blunders—the failure of the public-private partnership scheme for the tube—will cost the taxpayer at least £2 billion. A further £55 billion of debt is off the public balance sheet in private finance initiative schemes. How much of that will now have to be put on to the Treasury’s balance sheet, and will the Chancellor make a statement to the House on how much the Government’s economic incompetence is costing the British taxpayer?

Perhaps the Prime Minister has other things on his mind. It is reported that Downing street is encouraging Tony Blair as he decides whether to stand as president of the European Union. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that Tony Blair is the Government’s preferred candidate, and can we have a statement on the matter from the Prime Minister? From tube privatisation, to HMRC, to Tony Blair: are those not just examples of the Prime Minister’s chickens coming home to roost? Blunders, indecision and incompetence—little wonder that, according to the Financial Times, No.10 has become so chaotic that insiders have begun to describe the Prime Minister as being at the helm of the GST, otherwise known as the good ship Titanic. The Government are sinking, and sinking fast, but it is the British people who are suffering.

Ms Harman: If we can return to the real world for a moment, let me say that we will announce the business on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in the usual way. It is an important Bill, which has had good
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consideration in the Lords. The House of Lords has deliberated at length on a number of ethical issues. Similarly, this House will want to scrutinise the Bill.

The Prime Minister told the House that he was going to initiate a review on casinos so that the original decisions could be reconsidered. The devolved Administrations have been consulted. No announcement has been made; when a decision has been taken, an announcement will be made to the House.

On tax credits, the information mentioned by the right hon. Lady is of some years’ standing. Since then, the issues that arose on the back of the report have been addressed and the system has been simplified. Tax credits have made a great difference to hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country. The Government’s policy is to back up hard-working families bringing up children and ensure that they have a better standard of living. The tax credit system plays an important part in that.

The right hon. Lady mentioned Northern Rock. I remind her and the House that the Chancellor has kept the House informed on that matter and will continue to do so. Our principles are that we should ensure stability in the financial system. We have to ensure that those with savings and mortgages at Northern Rock are reassured that their money is safe, and that those working at the bank do not face too much insecurity. Those are our objectives and we will do whatever we can to achieve them.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Housing and Regeneration Bill. Its objective is for us to have more housing, particularly housing that is affordable to rent or buy. The right hon. Lady always has objections to any public investment in things that help people—especially those at the bottom of society, who need housing. I am sorry that she is nit-picking about that issue. Similarly, she is picking holes in the finance system of the underground. We have said that for the strengthening of the economy, we want investment in people, industry and infrastructure—that includes London’s transport infrastructure, which includes the underground. That investment will go in and help London’s passengers and economy. It will continue.

The right hon. Lady talks about economic incompetence. She should recognise that we have the highest growth rates, the lowest inflation and the highest levels of employment that we have had for years, and that is the real world that we are going to continue in.

The right hon. Lady asks about the EU presidency. I would say that when leading British politicians play a role in Europe, whether they are Chris Patten, Leon Brittan, Paddy Ashdown, Roy Jenkins or Neil Kinnock, they make a big difference. If British politicians can play a leading role in Europe, that is good for Britain as well as good for Europe.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House is aware that you, Mr. Speaker, and the Members Estimate Committee have been given the major responsibility of bringing the issue of allowances, and that of transparency, to a satisfactory conclusion. Will she give an absolute undertaking to the House that whatever resources are needed to complete that work will be made available?

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Ms Harman: I will give that undertaking to the House. I think that the whole House will regard this review as very important indeed. The public need to have confidence in the structure and policing of the system, and hon. Members will want to be sure that we can command public confidence in that respect.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) reminded us, and the Leader of the House responded, that we are about to start the process of debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. In addition to a very careful decision as to how we proceed, may I ask the Leader of the House to consider whether some of the Committee stage can be taken on the Floor of the House on those matters that I am sure we can discuss and identify across parties as being of wider general concern? Will she talk with her colleagues at the other end of the building about whether it is time to have a joint Committee of both Houses on bioethics, on a standing basis, which will reflect some of the strong views expressed in the House of Lords during the recent debates?

As the Leader of the House will know, today is Chinese new year, but surprisingly the House has not had a debate on UK-China relations for a considerable time. Given the large number of Chinese people living and working in the UK, will she consider whether that is a possible topic for debate after we come back for the second half of term?

The Leader of the House will realise from this week’s comments that there is great concern in relation to the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill. The concern is that a little part has been slipped in dealing with coroners’ inquests, particularly those that take place in private. Will she come back to us after the recess and tell us whether they can reconsider that matter so that coroners’ matters and inquests can be debated in the context that she wants, namely a new Bill on coroners’ matters and inquests, rather than by trying to slip into the Counter-Terrorism Bill an unsatisfactory and secretive proposal on inquests?

In relation to the much wider concern at the moment about the nature of authoritarian imposition by the Government on the citizen, we have not had a debate on the surveillance state for a very long time. There is considerable concern, not just about Members of Parliament appearing to be followed and having their activities monitored illegally, but about DNA and fingerprints being held and children’s records being kept. May we have, in prime time, a debate to allow the House to express its view that the Government are going too far in seeking powers over the citizen and that we need to roll back the powers of the state, not increase them?

Ms Harman: The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is not a party political matter but a matter of concern across the parties, on Front Benches and Back Benches alike. We will have to have discussions to ensure that when I announce that business to the House it is regarded as satisfactory in terms of debate on this important issue.

The hon. Gentleman suggested the Chinese new year as the subject of a topical debate. I thank him for that suggestion. He also referred to the provisions dealing
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with coroners’ inquests that involve matters of national security, and he said that we had gone about introducing them secretively. I say to him that we have published those provisions as clauses in the Counter-Terrorism Bill, so it is not a question of something being “slipped in”. They have been published in a Bill. I do not need to come back after the recess to tell him this; I can tell him right away. When material relating to national security is brought in as evidence in the criminal and civil courts, the court sometimes has to sit in camera. That is the case in those courts, and the clauses in the Bill simply bring the coroners’ courts in line with the situation that currently obtains, and which he no doubt supports, in civil and criminal courts.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we have not debated the surveillance state. I would say that we do not have a surveillance state, so we do not need to debate it. [ Interruption. ] We had a statement from the Ministry of Justice on Monday relating to surveillance. On Wednesday, we had a further statement pertaining to surveillance, read by the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman talks about the extension of what he regards as the invasion of people’s civil liberties by the state, but would he say the same thing to rape victims who have seen perpetrators of rape brought to justice, in a way that they never could have been in the past, because of the collection of DNA? Our purpose in Government is to keep people safe, which is why we take the measures we do on surveillance and security. Our purpose is also to bring offenders to justice, which is why we take the measures we take on DNA and fingerprints. I hope that he would agree with that action.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Further to the issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), I wonder whether the Leader of the House would find time for a Government statement expressing full support for the root-and-branch review being undertaken under the leadership of Mr. Speaker? Could that statement include support for inclusion in the review of a reappraisal of the register of journalists’ interests?

Ms Harman: I strongly welcome my hon. Friend’s statements, and I am sure that the whole House will.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): May we have an early debate on the structure of the review on Members’ allowances? We will not regain public confidence unless that review is undertaken by a totally independent body.

Ms Harman: I think that the public could be forgiven for finding the current situation very complex. We have the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is independent; the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is a Committee of this House but is supported by an independent commissioner; the National Audit Office reporting to the Public Accounts Committee, which is a Committee of this House; the Public Administration Committee; and the Register of Members’ interests. Every time there has been a problem, we have bolted on a new bit of machinery.

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