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Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time about the Security Industry Authority? This Government can be justifiably
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proud of their record in helping people move off benefit and back into work. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who want work, and have had lucrative offers of work, but cannot take them up because, despite having applied and paid for licences, the SIA has not yet processed their applications—for as long as 18 weeks in some cases. A debate would surely help us to determine what has gone wrong with that organisation, and help us to correct it.

Ms Harman: That is an important regulatory authority, but it needs to do its work promptly. I will raise the matter with the relevant Minister and ensure that action is taken so that my hon. Friend is written to, in order to deal with that point.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): In the last few weeks, tuberculosis has reached parts of my constituency that have not had it for 60 years. Farmers have recently heckled the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs badly. May we have a debate in this House about what we will do about TB? There is surely enough evidence to warrant the taking of decisions by Government. Now that the disease is inexorably moving faster and faster across parts of Britain, is it not time to sort it out?

Ms Harman: The question of bovine tuberculosis is kept under serious review by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the question of whether culling badgers is the right way to deal with it is a scientific one. The matter should not be decided on party political terms; there is great concern about animal welfare, and that we should have security and confidence in the dairy industry and agriculture. That is something about which my ministerial colleague has given evidence to the Select Committee, and the matter remains under review.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that concern has been expressed about the dramatic rise in energy prices for electricity and gas. My constituent, Mr. Peter Seaman, recently came to see me to say that apart from the significant rise in base prices, changes in the structure of tariffs had resulted in a 44 per cent. increase in some of the tariffs in his bill. May we have time for a debate on those issues, recognising that although oil prices have risen—something that has underpinned this process—there have been other changes, such as a big increase in the profits of electric companies? Ofgem estimates that those companies will make a potential £1 billion windfall profit due to the fact that they got carbon credits and did not pay for them.

Ms Harman: The question of people being able to afford their fuel bills and keep themselves warm is of great importance, and our winter fuel payments of £200 for the over-60s and £300 for the over-80s makes a contribution. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, however. We want to be sure that there is fair competition and a fair way for companies to go about their business in the energy industry. As he said, that includes the structure of tariffs, and metering as well. As the Prime Minister told the House yesterday, Ofgem is looking into those matters; they are matters of great national importance.

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Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): World war two lasted more than five and a half years. This month marks five years since the Iraq war started. The Nobel prize winner Joe Stiglitz reckons that it has cost $6 trillion. The Library says that it has cost the UK about £2.5 million a day. May we have a debate with a view to setting up a Committee of inquiry into this war, which may have cost half a million lives?

Ms Harman: There has been much discussion in this House about the stage at which there should be proper consideration of our involvement and use of armed force in Iraq, and of our involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq. For the moment, troop numbers are being reduced, the Iraqi army and police are taking over their responsibilities with the support of British troops, and we shall no doubt return to the question of a review at a future date.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time to debate the current crisis in Gaza? While we all deplore the rocket attacks by Hamas, the killing of innocent civilians, including women and children by the score, the economic blockade and the failure to let medical supplies through make up a completely disproportionate response. It is not only disproportionate but appalling. Israel is strangling Gaza to death.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend expresses strongly the great concern throughout the House and within the Government about the very grave situation in Gaza. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary called for restraint earlier this week. We continue to give economic and aid support to Gaza, but it is unacceptable that so many in Gaza have no option but to live their lives dependent on food aid. We work as part of the Quartet because the only solution is to try to make progress on the peace process.

John Penrose (Weston-super-Mare) (Con): Before the promised debate on post offices, will the Leader of the House undertake to look into the question of the three post offices in the Palace of Westminster itself? At a time when many of our constituents are facing problems with post offices being closed throughout the country, does she agree that it cannot be right for MPs not to face the application of the same disciplines to the facilities that we enjoy in this place? If one or two of them are to be closed, would she consider recommending to the Post Office that they are taken instead of some of the six under threat in my constituency?

Ms Harman: I am not aware of how the post office services in the House of Commons fit into the general local postal services consultation, but I will endeavour to find out, and write to the hon. Gentleman.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that as we sit in the House today, there is a demonstration outside to support Justice for Colombia? Atrocities are happening in that country, and trade unionists are disappearing from the streets. May we have a debate on that issue?

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Ms Harman: I will take that as a suggestion for a topical debate. Many of us in this House support the campaigns for justice, freedom and human rights in Colombia.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Would the Leader of the House consider a debate on London? My constituents in the suburbs have been facing increased demands for taxes from the Mayor, which seem to be squandered on what are at best dubious projects by advisers who are now subject to police inquiries. There are many other issues to consider, such as the closure of post offices. May I urge that we have a debate on what is happening in London?

Ms Harman: On Monday we have a debate on the London Underground, but I will consider whether there should be a further debate on London as one of the topical debates.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): On Wednesday of last week the Government published their second 10-year drugs strategy—in a written statement, unfortunately. Yesterday the United Nations launched its International Narcotics Control Board annual report for 2007. Please may we have a debate in Government time on that important policy area soon?

Ms Harman: We have had several discussions through statements and oral questions in the House on the drugs strategy, but I will take my hon. Friend’s proposal to consider that important issue again as a suggestion for a topical debate.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will the Leader of the House explain or make a statement on the disrespect shown to the House in the way in which Departments answer named day questions? The office of the Leader of the House has an exemplary record in that every question in the past five years has been answered in five days. However, may we have an explanation of why the Treasury’s replies on time have fallen from 79 to 51 per cent. and those of the Department for Communities and Local Government have fallen from 87 to 49 per cent., and why the Department for Children, Schools and Families does not even keep records, claiming that such information could be provided only at disproportionate cost?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is fundamental to the House’s ability to scrutinise the Government that Members can table questions, which are answered fully and promptly. I want to place on record my thanks to our officials who help us to reply in such a timely manner to parliamentary questions. The hon. Gentleman may know that the Procedure Committee is looking into parliamentary questions. I will certainly raise his points about individual Departments with the Committee on behalf of the House.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When may we debate the need to prosecute GlaxoSmithKline for suppressing the truth about drug trials, which show that the drug Seroxat is not only useless but produces lethal side effects that have killed many people? The matter was last debated in the House in 2004.

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The regulatory authority has failed to control GlaxoSmithKline. Such a debate would be an opportunity to congratulate “Panorama”, Charles Medawar of Social Audit, the Seroxat Users Group, the charity Mind and certain hon. Members on a campaign which has sadly been ignored for five years.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health issued a written ministerial statement this morning on the matter. The Government prosecutors have decided that there is no realistic prospect of obtaining a conviction in the case and there will therefore be no prosecution. However, the process of investigation has revealed serious weaknesses in EU legislation as it stood and, as the written ministerial statement sets out, some immediate steps to remedy the situation are being taken, including through secondary legislation.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Is it possible to hold a debate on tourism next week, given that the Minister for Culture, Media and Sport decided on Tuesday to attack one of the great British institutions, the Proms, because not enough people from different backgrounds felt comfortable with it? Why did she stop there? Why did she not also attack Ascot, Wimbledon, the boat race, Henley regatta, Cowes week and so on? The list is endless. The Notting Hill carnival and the Glastonbury festival are not everybody’s cup of tea, but all the events together help make Britain one of the greatest cultural centres in the world.

Ms Harman: The Government have done a great deal to support culture and the arts in this country. The Proms has been a great success and it is important that the organisers try to involve and reach out to new audiences, as they do through Proms in the Park and the Electric Proms. The Government want all our great arts institutions to do that, and that is why, for example, we introduced free entry to museums. We want to support our long-standing cultural institutions but also enable them to reach out to new audiences.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May we have a debate on the development of housing on brownfield sites, following the decision of General Electric, one of the biggest companies in the world, to sell its site in Rushy Mead in Leicester but to put a restrictive covenant on it so that it can be used only for commercial and employment purposes, not housing? The site is contaminated, but should not companies that occupy sites for more than five decades clean them up before selling them on? May we have a debate on that matter?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend makes an important point, which touches on Government concern for a good environment and more housing. He has raised the matter on several occasions and is campaigning on it. I will bring it to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): This year, money for the Government’s preventing violent extremism scheme, which is paid to local authorities, has been ring-fenced. It has recently become clear that
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money in future years will not be ring-fenced. If it is not ring-fenced, some—perhaps many—councils may use it for other purposes. If they do that, it implies the disappearance nationally of the whole scheme. Has the Leader of the House any information that a Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to update us on that interesting development?

Ms Harman: It is important and right that, having set out priorities and increased year on year the funding available in real terms to local authorities, we should allow them more power to make decisions about the way in which they spend resources locally. While we ensure that they have more opportunities to make decisions about how to spend money locally, it is also important to keep the position under review.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh). I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) about the need for a drugs strategy. However, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend has seen yesterday’s United Nations report. We should view our sentencing policy with some shame because we appear to have three verdicts: innocent, guilty and celebrity. That cannot be right for drugs policy. Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide an urgent debate to consider sentencing policy? It cannot come a moment too soon.

Ms Harman: I take my hon. Friend’s point. We want to ensure that we have good prevention policies, enable those who become drug abusers to get off drugs and support those who work with people who have fallen prey to addiction as well as having good police operations in respect of suppliers. The issue concerns hon. Members of all parties and I will consider it for a topical debate in due course.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): In response to the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for a debate on child poverty, the Leader of the House noticeably made certain statements but did not show a willingness to put them to the test in a debate. Given that, last week, the Government smuggled out an admission that they are unlikely to meet their child poverty targets and that this country has the highest number of children in Europe growing up in workless households, is not it right to hold such a debate as soon as possible?

Ms Harman: Next week, there will be a Budget debate. When the Conservatives were in government, poverty was scarcely mentioned and tackling it was certainly not a public policy objective. The hon. Gentleman should wait and see what the Budget says, then he is free to join us in that debate in expressing our concern to tackle child poverty.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): It is now almost one year since Mr. Moudud Ahmed, the former Prime Minister and Vice-President of Bangladesh, was seized by armed military personnel at his family home at the age of 67 and held under emergency powers. I understand that our Prime Minister is to meet Dr.
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Fakhruddin Ahmed, the chief civilian adviser to the military Government in Bangladesh, on 16 March. Will my right hon. and learned Friend raise the case of Mr. Moudud Ahmed with the Prime Minister and ask him to mention it on that occasion?

Ms Harman: I undertake to speak to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and ask him what action can be taken about Mr. Moudud Ahmed.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The historic vote in Parliament last night on the abolition of the blasphemy laws will be welcomed by hon. Members of all parties because it will allow publishers, artists and others to use freedom of expression, including showing disrespect to or even ridiculing religious belief. Why did Baroness Andrews read into the record a letter that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had written to the Archbishop, saying that the vote should not be viewed as a licence for the expression of disrespect towards faith or those who hold religious beliefs? Will the Leader of the House give notice of when the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will come to the House to give us a lecture or exposition on why the Government feel that they should tell us to whom we should and should not show disrespect, and which specific religions should be especially privileged in not having disrespect shown to them?

Ms Harman: There will be an opportunity to discuss the hon. Gentleman’s points when we consider Lords amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on how best to encourage young non-academic people into the world of politics? British politics is grossly over-represented by the academic world. If we are to be truly a party of the people, recognising all the talents, that should be reflected in our political structures, which should not be left to be monopolised by the toffs.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises two important points. We need to ensure that more young people have skills as well as academic qualifications and training, and we need to have more young people involved in politics. That is why it is important that we should have young councillors, as well as young Members of Parliament. I strongly support the action that we took to reduce to 18 the age at which people can stand for elected office in council and parliamentary elections.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House has announced that there will be four days’ debate on the Budget after the Budget statement, which I welcome. However last autumn, after the comprehensive spending review and the pre-Budget report, which are equally important statements of Government policy, we had no debate at all. Is there not a case for a better balance of financial debates throughout the year?

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Ms Harman: I think that there is. I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman approves of the amount of time that has been allocated for the Budget. The question whether we have the right balance across the year for debates not just on financial matters, but on defence and foreign affairs, will be considered.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to the comments of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), may I make a bid for a topical debate on early-day motion 1108 on the private finance initiative and tax havens, co-sponsored by myself?

[That this House is concerned to discover that the ownership of billions of pounds worth of public assets, which are reported to include the Treasury offices in Whitehall, the new Home Office, the Inland Revenue's estate, 42 per cent. of the Colchester Garrison building, 90 per cent. of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, 85 per cent. of the Central Middlesex Hospital as well as schools in Gwynedd, the Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, Exeter Crown Court, 50 per cent. of a project for new schools in the Highlands and 26 per cent. of the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital have all been transferred to offshore tax havens in order to avoid tax obligations; urges HM Treasury to require the return of all such assets to ownership in the UK where tax obligations can be properly enforced; and suggests that all private finance initiative (PFI) contracts which do not return assets to the UK should be abrogated, and that all future contracts should specify that neither the ownership nor the company operating the PFI can operate from a tax haven in order to avoid their legitimate tax obligations in the UK, and that this policy decision should be supplemented by a requirement that all competitors for Government and local authority contracts should be registered in the UK and pay tax in the UK.]

Our early-day motion demonstrates clearly that PFI contracts are prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequence for the taxpayers, citizens and public sector workers in this country. Could we have a debate on that, to explain why, at least from the Government’s point of view, those who bid for Government and local authority contracts should not be registered in the United Kingdom or pay tax in the United Kingdom, which is not happening anywhere near often enough?

Ms Harman: Those are important points. We want to ensure fair treatment in tax matters. The issue is one that hon. Members might look to raise with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget debate.

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