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Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): May we have a debate on the operation of the Greater London Authority Acts? If an employee of any other local authority in this country failed to declare that they were a director of a company that had applied to that authority for a grant, there would be a formal report to the authority’s monitoring officer and disciplinary action. In the case of Mr. Jasper, a political appointee under section 67 of the 1999 Act, we now know that although the Mayor was notified of his failure to declare, no formal report was made to the monitoring officer and no disciplinary action followed. Does the Leader of the House accept that it is
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necessary to explain why proper probity does not appear to reign at city hall, as opposed to other local authorities?

Ms Harman: There are proper rules for accountability and probity in the Greater London authority, which were passed by the House. The GLA operates under the rules that were laid down by the House. That was the agreement that was made and they are the rules that are enforced.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that we need an urgent debate in the House on matters relating to London, particularly the antics of the Mayor, Mr. Livingstone, in the light of his adviser and his declared intention, apparently, to reappoint that adviser, despite the scandal and the police investigation? Is it not time that the House debated that issue?

Ms Harman: It is very important that, under the privilege available to Members of the House of the Commons, unsubstantiated allegations are not thrown around as part of a build-up to an election campaign. For all the efforts of Conservative Members, people in London will ask themselves at the election on 1 May, “Do we want somebody who has never had anything to do with London, who is the Member of Parliament for a constituency in Oxfordshire and who had never asked any parliamentary questions about London until he became the Tory candidate? Is he the right person to be Mayor of our great capital city, or should we have Ken, born and bred in London, who has seen London and Londoners prosper over the past 10 years?” We will see you at the ballot box.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Yesterday, under the cover of the referendum vote, the Government sneaked out a statement saying that they would fail to meet not one, but two consecutive manifesto promises, namely to privatise the Tote and to give it to racing. Will the Leader of the House see whether the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport can come to the House and explain why the Government took an ordinary, viable business, nationalised it, bungled its privatisation and then admitted that they would have to sell it on the open market, thereby betraying the people of Wigan, the racing industry and the electorate, to whom they had made those promises?

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek to raise the matter as an oral question on Monday.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I should like to add my voice in support of the suggestion that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) made for a general debate on London. I raised the issue with the right hon. and learned Lady some time ago and she promised that we would have one. There are so many issues in London to be debated, including the proposed closure of another post office in my constituency, in the Brampton ward, crime, housing and the matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) raised. May I urge the right hon. and learned Lady to reinstate the annual debate on London as a matter of urgency?

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Ms Harman: I will consider London for a forthcoming topical debate, because I know that hon. Members who represent London constituencies will want to discuss making even further progress on reducing congestion, increasing the amount of affordable housing available, increasing police numbers and reducing crime. A great deal has been achieved in London and we want to make further progress, continuing with a Labour Mayor.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): In 1997, when the Labour Government sadly came to power, there was a consultant-led maternity unit in Hemel Hempstead hospital. That unit was quickly closed. In 2001, a birthing unit was opened in an attempt to protect the then Labour MP from losing his seat. Straight after the 2005 election, when I was elected, that was closed, too. It is therefore not true that no cuts have been made in maternity services, as the Leader of the House said. They have. We must have a debate on maternity services, because cuts are being made throughout the country.

Ms Harman: We want to ensure that we give mothers more choice about whether to have their babies at home, that we improve community midwife services and that we improve in-patient services, including specialist neonatal services. Nobody should imagine that maternity services were perfect when we came into government in 1997 and needed no change. That was far from the case. We needed change and improvement. There needed to be more midwives trained and more investment in the health service, and that is indeed what has happened.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): May I put it to the Leader of the House that her response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) was wholly inadequate? We know that in the Mayor’s office rules are being broken. We know that there are serious questions about how local government structures set up by the House are working in practice. We were promised a beacon of transparency; we have got the stench of corruption. May I press her to do more than just consider a debate on the governance of London and confirm that we will have one?

Ms Harman: I do not have anything further to add to my response to the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). There are rules in place, and they are quite clear. They were decided by the House and they will be enforced.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Following the serious and well-publicised problems in Scotland last May, when we had multiple elections, will the Leader of the House ensure that a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box next week to assure us that the European and local elections—and, possibly, a general election next year—will not all take place on the same day, causing confusion?

Ms Harman: The Scottish elections were the subject of a review, and action has been taken in respect of that. The question of future elections will be considered by the Government, and also by the Electoral Commission.
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The Ministry of Justice will also shortly produce its review of the different electoral systems. One of our concerns has been to review how the different proportional systems that we have introduced have operated in European elections, in the devolved Assemblies and in councils in Scotland.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Has the Leader of the House had a chance to read the Work and Pensions Committee report on eradicating child poverty, which was published on Monday? Paragraph 55 states that the gender pay gap is contributing to child poverty and that some Jobcentre Plus advisers are pointing women—particularly lone parents—into low-paid employment. That is unacceptable on a day when we are celebrating international women’s day. Will the right hon. and learned Lady therefore confirm that we can have a topical debate on child poverty in the next week or two, so that we can discuss the contents of the report? What has happened to topical debates over the past week or two? They seem to have dropped off the Order Paper.

Ms Harman: The Government will issue a response to the Select Committee report in due course. Of course it is the case that low pay and unequal pay among women contribute to child poverty. That is one of the reasons why we introduced the national minimum wage, which has done more than anything to narrow the pay gap, and has seen the pay gap between men and women at the bottom of the labour market all but close. I suggest that the hon. Lady seeks an opportunity to speak in the debate on international women’s day, which will follow immediately after business questions.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on the way in which rail franchises are granted, particularly in respect of disabled passengers? My constituent, Adrienne Staniford, used to be able to take her wheelchair on to Silverlink trains. Now, London Midland has told her that she is not allowed to take the same wheelchair on to identical rolling stock. The Government are telling us, quite properly, that we need to get more disabled people into work, so why should my constituent lose her job when the trains are the same and the wheelchair is identical? Why was this not spotted during the franchise process? Is this not a disgrace?

Ms Harman: Everyone will sympathise with the hon. Gentleman’s point. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to look into that individual case and to seek a solution for it. As to whether further action needs to be taken, we want to be absolutely sure that disabled people do not suffer discrimination, whether on transport or in any other services, and whether or not it affects their opportunity to work. I hope that he will join us in supporting the further measures to tackle inequality and discrimination in the equality Bill that we will introduce later this year.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Today, for the first time in 150 years, members of Her Majesty’s Coastguard have gone on strike. Responsibly, those manning helicopters are still at work. May we have a
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debate in Government time, or even an oral statement, so that we can understand how this unfortunate situation has come about?

Ms Harman: It is an unfortunate situation, and we all hope that a settlement of the dispute will be reached shortly. In the meantime, we can be reassured that contingency arrangements are in place to ensure that no lives are at risk as a result of the dispute.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on small businesses, in recognition of the fact that such debates used to take place at least once a year as a matter of course? Given that 99 per cent. of companies employ fewer than 100 people, and that they account for 50 per cent. plus of the private sector work force and generate no less than two fifths of our national output, would it not be timely for us to have a debate in this Chamber to seek to establish how best we can create a balanced and equitable legal framework that requires companies to do what is right by their employees and by the community while simultaneously facilitating a situation in which they can still be the seedcorn of our prosperity?

Ms Harman: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman could raise those issues in the Budget debate if he so wished. I agree that small and medium-sized businesses have played a major part in the growing prosperity of this country and the growing strength of the economy. I should also mention that the Modernisation Committee is looking at the question of departmental debate days, to which he referred.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on Iran? Does the Leader of the House believe that it is a coincidence that Iran has continued to progress its nuclear programme while also progressing its long-range ballistic missile programme?

Ms Harman: I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give due and proper consideration to early-day motion 1127, on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill?

[That this House believes that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill raises important issues of conscience which merit the full consideration of the whole House; notes during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 the issue of embryo research, abortion and Schedule 2 was debated and voted on in a committee of the whole House; further notes that the Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryo (Draft) Bill noted that ‘when what is now the 1990 Act was before Parliament the issue of embryo research was put to a free vote' considered ‘that the creation and use of inter-species embryos for research purposes is a comparable issue and recommended that the issue be put to a free vote; and calls upon the Leader of the House and usual channels to ensure that a committee of the whole House is arranged to consider issues of conscience arising from the Bill.]

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The motion was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and calls for the Committee stage of the Bill to be held on the Floor of the House so that the important issues raised by the legislation can be discussed by as many Members as possible.

Ms Harman: We are considering how to ensure that that very important Bill can be properly debated in the House, including perhaps having part of the Committee stage upstairs in Committee and part on the Floor of the House. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Bill has now concluded all its stages in the Lords and is now waiting to be brought to this House for its Second Reading. We regard the Bill as immensely important. We want our scientific community to be able to make progress and to contribute to finding treatments and preventions for major health issues such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and spinal injuries. This is a very important Bill, and we want it to be fully debated in the House.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Thank you for getting us all in, Mr. Speaker.

The right hon. and learned Lady will recall that, a few weeks ago, I raised the sad case of Simon Mann, who was unlawfully kidnapped and taken in chains to Equatorial Guinea. Perhaps we should have a wider debate on the plight of British and EU citizens who are unlawfully imprisoned abroad. More specifically, may I ask whether our envoy in Equatorial Guinea has been to see Simon Mann? Does Mr. Mann have access to legal assistance? Is he being humanely and fairly treated?

Ms Harman: I know that our consular officials have been involved in that case. If the hon. Gentleman
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wishes to raise those wider issues, may I suggest that he put in for an Adjournment debate on the case?

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): While I agree with the Leader of the House that matters that are subject to a police investigation should rightly be outside the scope of parliamentary debate, it is still a fact that the Government office for London administers huge sums of public money to be given to grant-giving organisations and to the London Development Agency. Given the importance of this matter to all London constituents—including hers and mine—in the run-up to the election on 1 May, I believe that this is the right time to have a broad debate on the way in which the Greater London authority operates and the way in which the mayoral advisers are appointed, how they operate, and how they can properly be scrutinised. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider that issue. She will have gathered from earlier questions that a number of Members feel extremely strongly about it.

Ms Harman: I think all London Members feel extremely strongly about those issues, and I have said that I will consider making London the subject of a topical debate. We are all pleased to know about the bigger investment in police in London and in agencies that provide London with important services across the board. I do not know about the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but in mine, grants and other financial support have been provided for small voluntary organisations that do so much to keep communities together. I would like to pay tribute to the work put into building and supporting communities in London, particularly those in inner London.

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International Women’s Day

12.30 pm

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

I am proud to open the debate both as the Minister for Women and Equality and as Leader of the House. I will speak briefly, as many women will be speaking in this debate and I also see a number of men in their places, waiting to speak. There is no doubt that in today’s House of Commons, there is not only a band of strong women but even some men who could justifiably be seen as honorary members of the sisterhood—although we will have to wait until we hear them speak before we form a final judgment on that point.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con) rose—

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con) rose—

Ms Harman: In this debate, as we mark international women’s day, I want us to recognise the transformation that women in the House of Commons have brought about. Women MPs have not only changed the face of British politics, as they—we—have also changed its agenda, which needed to change because women’s lives are changing. The world of work is changing and family life is changing, too. If we are to back up families as they bring up children, earn a living and care for older relatives, we need to understand and represent women as well as men.

Today, women regard themselves as equal citizens and expect to share in decisions, both at home and at work. A Parliament or a party that is male-dominated is an outdated relic—and that is certainly what this House of Commons was like when I joined it 25 years ago.

Mr. Evans: Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I will.

Mr. Evans: I am extremely grateful. On this day of all days, as the Minister quite rightly tries to attract more women into politics, will she pay tribute to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister of this country, who proved by her actions that the very top job in this country is open to all, irrespective of gender?

Ms Harman: As I was about to say, I think that the importance of women in the House of Commons and in government is not that we are here for our own sake, but that we are here to deliver for other women. Margaret Thatcher did not deliver for other women— [Interruption.]

Mr. Evans rose—

Mark Pritchard rose—

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab) rose—

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