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21 Feb 2008 : Column 521

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman began by raising the consideration of the Bill to enact the Lisbon treaty. He knows very well that we wanted to give the House a proper opportunity for substantial consideration of the Bill. We have set out a process, which the House agreed following a full debate, that enables the House to have a discussion on the substantive issues, as well as giving time to consider amendments. The Opposition, moreover, accepted that approach in their own programme motion. Furthermore, the Government promised to be flexible with respect to the timetabling on individual days, and we have been flexible. We were flexible yesterday, giving three hours for the amendments as well as three hours for the general debate. The suggestion that there has not been proper consideration of this Bill is quite ridiculous. We have allowed 12 days for the Committee of the whole House, which is more than the Committee stages for the Nice and Amsterdam treaties and the Single European Act put together.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of waits in ambulances for A and E. I do not know whether he is aware of the fact that, in the past two years, 98 per cent. of patients were seen, diagnosed and treated within four hours. In the last quarter for which we have statistics, 2.7 per cent. of people waited more than four hours, and in the quarter before that it was 1.7 per cent. It is quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to scaremonger in this way.

The hon. Gentleman then went on to talk about the HM Revenue and Customs bonuses. The bonuses that were paid in— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much conversation going on, and that is unfair. The hon. Lady has been asked several questions, and she is entitled to answer them.

Helen Goodman: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

The bonuses paid in 2007-08 were for work carried out in 2006-07. In line with the wider civil service, bonuses are paid to encourage and reward officials and to enable HMRC to improve its performance and service to taxpayers and the Government.

The hon. Gentleman then complained about student drop-outs. The truth is that we rank fifth in the OECD in the first degree completion rates. We have a survival rate of 78 per cent., which is far better than that of most countries in the European Union.

On defence spending, the hon. Gentleman once again indulged in some quite ridiculous scaremongering. The truth is that, in cash terms, the United Kingdom is the second highest spender on defence; we are second only to the United States. The increases that have been agreed in the comprehensive spending review baseline represent an average 1.5 per cent. real-terms increase over the next few years.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of deportations. I think that those points were perfectly well answered by the Prime Minister yesterday, but if the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member has any further questions on the issue, they can raise them in Home Office questions on Monday.

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Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Deputy Leader of the House will be aware of the long-standing support of three Home Secretaries and 180 MPs of all parties, as well as Amnesty International, women’s organisations, faith groups and thousands of individuals, for the Jane Longhurst campaign against violent internet pornography. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government intend to deliver quickly on the assurances given at the Dispatch Box by the Justice Secretary to include the promised measures in the forthcoming Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that is currently in the other place?

Helen Goodman: Of course I am well aware of this important issue, and of the effective campaigning that my hon. Friend has done to raise the issue with Ministers and in the House. The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill contains many good, important measures. As he knows, it is vital that the Bill secures support in both Houses to a reasonable timetable. That means that difficult decisions sometimes have to be made. However, I am sure that my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice are aware of the public support for the measures that my hon. Friend has mentioned, and I will refer the matter to the Secretary of State.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): In answering the question about defence, the Deputy Leader of the House talked about the amount of money spent by the Government, but the crucial issue is the burden placed by the Government on soldiers in the front line. The International Development Committee visit to Afghanistan revealed how vital it is to have adequate helicopter support because the transport situation is so difficult. A defence statement would be useful, so we could ask questions on the real impact on the ground of helicopter deployments.

When the Government brought in modernisation, it was put to us that the whole point of timetabling was to improve scrutiny, but as we saw with the Northern Rock Bill, if timetabling is not handled properly, we do not get effective scrutiny, and the Government were unable to deal adequately with concerns in the House about the Granite vehicle, which so affected what exactly the Government were nationalising. Will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that, on vital issues such as Northern Rock, we have proper time for debate?

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in respect of energy matters to do with my shareholding in Shell and to do with the offshore oil and gas industry. I also remind the House that I am vice-president of Energy Action Scotland, a fuel poverty charity. I call for a debate on fuel prices and note that yet more price rises for the country to contend with are revealed today. The Government have relied on low fuel prices to tackle fuel poverty, but we desperately need more investment and effective measures for warm homes. The Government need to explain how they intend to deal with their increased VAT take as prices rise and with the increased profits for the fuel companies that have come from carbon tax allocations.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has prayed against the changes in immigration regulations and would like
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to see that matter debated on the Floor of the House so that Members can express their concerns about how those changes might impact on people. In previous questions, my hon. Friend has welcomed the fact that we are to have debates on Welsh affairs and women’s affairs, but when Commonwealth day comes, may we also have a debate on Commonwealth issues, which would allow a wide range of concerns to be raised across the House?

Finally, in the Christmas Adjournment debate I raised issues about the Post Office and the Deputy Leader of the House arranged for the Minister with responsibility for the Post Office to reply in writing, but it would be useful to have a debate now on the progress of the post office closure programme, so that Members confronted by it could inform the House how it is working on the ground. Those of us who represent the north-east of Scotland will have to wait until May to find out, but we still need to know how the closure programme will happen. The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs has said that if we save a post office, we do not necessarily have to close another one in lieu. Many Members are saying, apocryphally, that that is not the message they are getting on the ground with the current closure programme. A debate on the post office closure programme would therefore be extremely timely and would help us to understand exactly what the Government require of the Post Office.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman began by raising the issue of resources in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I am sure he is aware that the financial resources for work in those countries is over and above the normal defence budget expenditure. He went on to raise questions about the handling of the Banking (Special Provisions) Bill. When it was decided to bring that measure forward, it was felt important that the House should have the opportunity to agree how it would progress. That is why there was a debate on the programme motion on Tuesday. All stages are being properly gone through here and in the other place. Opposition Members tend to want it both ways: on the one hand, they say they understand the reasons for expediting the legislation, but on the other hand, they complain when it is handled quickly.

The hon. Gentleman went on to raise the issue of rising fuel prices and fuel poverty. Let me remind him that this Government introduced the winter fuel allowance, which has now been increased to £300 for older pensioners. We are also spending record sums on Warm Front, the programme to insulate houses and improve heating, which gets to the fundamental issues that the hon. Gentleman was trying to raise.

As the Prime Minister said yesterday, we are taking advice from Ofgem on the competition issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the prayer laid by his colleague the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) against the immigration regulations. Obviously, colleagues at the Home Office are fully aware of that.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) also requested, in essence, two topical debates; that is what I shall take his suggestion to be. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman speaks from
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a sedentary position. The fact of the matter is that topical debates are in Government time. He asked for a debate on the Commonwealth and another on the Post Office restructuring programme, which is under way. I well know that that is a matter of concern across the House, particularly in relation to rural issues. The truth is that the Government have spent £2.2 billion on supporting the Post Office and will spend a further £1.7 billion, so Royal Mail should be able to manage a proper network within those resources.

As the hon. Gentleman said, consultations are under way. I want to emphasise the fact that those consultations have a real impact on outcomes. For example, across the 11 areas for which final decisions have been announced, 23 closure decisions have been withdrawn. In addition, with 19 area plans so far published, an average of more than 10 per cent. of the initial proposals have been changed, so it is important that people take part in the consultations.

David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the assurances that the Deputy Leader of the House has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on legislation to deal with violent internet pornography, she will be aware that the need for such legislation was highlighted by the brutal murder some five years ago of my constituent, Jane Longhurst, a respected teacher.

Assurances have been given in the past by the Government. In addition to the reminders that the Deputy Leader of the House has undertaken to give to her colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, will she remind them of the 50,000-signature petition on the issue that my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West and I presented to Parliament, and of the fact that the Dutch Parliament, as well as other European Parliaments, is carefully watching what happens in the House with a view to introducing legislation along similar lines?

Helen Goodman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making those points, which I shall relay to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): When does the Deputy Leader of the House expect to receive the Electoral Commission proposal for the single registration of Members’ interests?

Helen Goodman: I do not have the timetable here with me. I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): When are we going to get the regional Select Committees that we were promised so that we can begin to hold to account some of the quangos that operate in our regions?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is quite right: it is important that the accountability of regional development authorities and other regional bodies is improved, which is why the proposal was made in the summer in the White Paper “The Governance of Britain”. The way that that should be done is being
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considered by the Modernisation Committee, and it will report soon.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given that the Government disgracefully rigged the business of the House yesterday—discussion of the Lisbon treaty—may we have an urgent debate on the foreign policy, defence and security elements of that treaty so that we can send out a clear message from the House that we care about these matters, unlike the Government?

Helen Goodman: The truth is that there was a debate yesterday about the defence aspects. Furthermore, next Monday there will be time for a debate on the international development aspects.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the regulation of the life insurance industry? When my constituent, Mrs. Susan Hurrell, was diagnosed as being terminally ill with ovarian cancer and contacted her insurance company to claim as she was convinced that she had terminal illness cover, the company said that she did not. Her husband contacted the company again some weeks later; again, they were told that they did not have that cover. Some months later, the company agreed that they did in fact have cover, but it refused to pay out because they had not claimed within the 13-week period.

Does my hon. Friend agree—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made the point.

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend has made a powerful case and raised an important issue. I will take away his suggestion for a topical debate on the matter.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): This week, the United Kingdom Government recognised that independence in Europe represents optimal relations for nations in Europe—except Scotland, of course. A Scotland Office Minister said that there should be no changes to the devolved settlement, in the same week that Wendy Alexander wants more and the Prime Minister wants more and less all at the same time. When can we have a debate in Government time on that confusing approach by the Whitehall Government?

Helen Goodman: I do not believe that there is any confusion at all on that matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to raise any concerns that he has with Scotland Office Ministers in questions.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, you will know that this week it was announced that 169 sub-post offices are to close in London, many of them in deprived areas. I have one in my constituency, in Vauxhall street—a little town centre that has just been regenerated, but which will now have its heart torn out. As the Leader of the House herself has some such post offices in her constituency, will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for a debate on post offices, because people do not believe that the consultation is anything other than a sham?

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Helen Goodman: As I said earlier to another hon. Member, I do not believe that the consultations are a sham. However, I accept that there is strong feeling across the House on the matter and we will keep the question whether to have further consideration—in addition to the Adjournment and Westminster Hall debates—under review.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I put it to the Deputy Leader of the House that when she says that we are spending 12 days considering the Lisbon treaty in Committee, she is saying something that is not true? Half the time is spent on debates of the Government’s own choosing—as a platform for their own views, not for Ministers to respond to amendments tabled by hon. and right hon. Members. By no stretch of the imagination can it be said that line-by-line scrutiny is taking place when whole rafts of amendments—for example, on defence and foreign policy—have been simply passed over and not discussed at all.

May I endorse the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) for at least an extra day on the defence aspects of the treaty? Otherwise, the Government will not have delivered their promise of line-by-line scrutiny.

Helen Goodman: The truth is that the approach that has been taken to consideration of the Bill and the treaty allows for consideration of amendments and for debates on the underlying issues in the Lisbon treaty. That is what concerns the British public.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can we have a statement from my hon. Friend on the process for the root and branch review of Members’ expenses, which is under way? As I understand it, the House gave authority to the Members Estimate Committee to carry out that review, but if press and media reports are to be believed, everyone and their granny wants a piece of the action. Can we have clarity on the issue, if for no other reason than that the authority of the House be undermined no longer?

Helen Goodman: My hon. Friend is quite right that this is an important issue and the public need to know that the resources that Members have for fulfilling their responsibilities are adequate and properly accounted for. As he knows, before the Standards and Privileges Committee looked into the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), the House decided to refer the question of all the allowances to the Members Estimate Committee for a root and branch review. That review and that work are now under way.

In the light of the case of the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, the Standards and Privileges Committee has proposed some changes in the operation of the Register of Members’ Interests. That makes an important contribution to debate on the matter. It would be helpful if the House considered all the issues together, and examined the Committee’s
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suggestions in the light of the report from the Members Estimate Committee, in order to resolve the matter before the summer recess.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House take very seriously the questions that have been put about programme motions, not least those relating to the Lisbon treaty? I am sorry, but the hon. Lady is utterly wrong. Not only many Members but many people outside believe that, because of the programme motions, the House cannot undertake the job it is here to do: scrutinise legislation—in this instance, a treaty. Large tranches of amendments are not being debated at all. Will the hon. Lady ask the Leader of the House and the Government to provide time for a debate on programme motions and their destructive effect on the House’s ability to do its job?

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, a whole day’s debate was devoted to the programming of the business, and the motion that followed the debate was passed. The hon. Gentleman is frustrated, but the House’s overall view was made clear on that occasion.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that fair trade fortnight begins next Monday. Is she also aware that Cardiff became the world’s first fair trade capital in 2004, and that it now contains more than 150 outlets—cafés, shops, businesses and other organisations—that use and sell fair trade products? Does she not consider this important movement to be worthy of a debate?

Helen Goodman: Fair trade is indeed a very important movement in this country. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the city of Cardiff on the significant progress they have made in expanding fair trade in the city, and I will consider her request for a debate.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Over the past few months more and more research has been published calling into question the Government’s policy on biofuels, including an excellent report by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit. I declare an interest as a member of the Committee. In the light of that research, will the Government find time for a debate so that the House can reach a view on an issue that may affect the country’s environmental future?

Helen Goodman: The hon. Lady is right: biofuels are an important new development. DEFRA will consider the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, but, as the hon. Lady knows, all Select Committee reports can be debated in Westminster Hall.

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