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Parliamentary Questions

29. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What assessment she has made of the completeness of information given in answers to parliamentary questions. [195473]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave earlier.

James Duddridge: The Minister will be aware that certain Ministers within each Department take lead responsibility for written questions. Do those Ministers meet and share best practice, and is there a document that outlines that best practice, or do Government Departments operate in silos, given that certain Departments are much better than others?

Helen Goodman: As the hon. Gentleman understands, where Government Departments have shared interests and shared policy responsibilities, of course they carry those forward together and discuss not only policy development but what appropriate announcements should be made to this House.

Topical Questions

30. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the procedure for topical questions. [195474]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): There is no formal assessment. However, the new approach appears to be working well.

Mr. Hollobone: May I urge the hon. Lady to undertake an assessment to highlight some of the problems that we are having with topical questions? For example, under the old system, in any typical 60-minute departmental Question Time each Member of this House had the opportunity to ask one question. Now, it is increasingly the case that some Members get the chance to ask two questions, while others lose out altogether.

Helen Goodman: Obviously, who is called during topical questions is a matter for the Speaker. However, I think that there was a consensus that the introduction
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of topical questions would help to ensure that questions that had arisen very shortly before Question Time could be answered fully. Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Gentleman makes, by and large most hon. Members are happy with the current practice.

Topical Debates

31. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): If she will take steps to pass responsibility for the arrangements for the selection of matters for topical debate to the Chairman of Ways and Means; and if she will make a statement. [195475]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House announced a review of the operation of topical debates in a written ministerial statement on 7 February. The hon. Gentleman can submit his views to that review. The results will be published before the summer recess.

Mr. Robathan: These are my views, so I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of them. I suggested the Chairman of Ways and Means in my question because I know that you are very busy, Mr. Speaker. The point is, however, that topical debates are currently decided by the Government based on what they feel like—what announcement the Prime Minister made on Monday—instead of issues of topicality. If these debates are to be topical and useful to the House of Commons, we should have issues that can be debated seriously in this House, that mean something and that are topical, instead of some Government stooge debate. We need proper debates: ones that the House wants, not ones that the Leader of the House or the Government want.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman should take a more balanced view of the matter. On 7 February, the topical debate was on NHS staffing—a suggestion of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). We have also discussed Holocaust memorial day, Kenya, preventive health services, availability of financial services for low-income families, the health consequences of the availability of cheap alcohol, future prospects for apprenticeships and climate change. The first topical debate was also based on a suggestion from his right hon. Friend; it was on immigration.

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Business of the House

11.30 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 after the Easter recess will be:

Tuesday 25 March—Opposition day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Iraq Inquiry” on an Opposition motion followed by motion to approve the Local Government Finance Special Grant Report (No. 129) (House of Commons Paper No. 256)

Wednesday 26 March—Second Reading of the Local Transport Bill [ Lords].

Thursday 27 March—Topical debate: Subject to be announced, followed by motion relating to the parliamentary contributory pension fund, followed by motion relating to the Seventh Report of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Friday 28 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 31 March will include:

Monday 31 March—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Housing and Regeneration Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, followed by motion to consider the Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2008.

Tuesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

Wednesday 2 April—Opposition day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate on a Liberal Democrat motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 3 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced followed by motion on the April recess adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 April and 24 April will be:

Thursday 3 April—A debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Global Security: Russia

Thursday 24 April— A debate on the report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on ticket touting.

The House may wish to be aware that earlier today I issued a written ministerial statement announcing publication of “Post-legislative Scrutiny—The Government’s Approach”. It will provide that three years after this House has passed legislation, there will be a process of scrutiny to enable us to be sure that an Act did what we intended.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business and I look forward to future discussions on the important subject of post-legislative scrutiny and the way in which Government proposals operate.

All hon. Members will have been concerned by recent events in Tibet. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition welcomed the Prime Minister’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama when he is
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in London, but many hon. Members still want an opportunity to discuss the issue. Can we have a topical debate on Tibet next week?

This week, the National Audit Office released figures showing that Britain’s climate change emissions are 12 per cent. higher than the levels cited in Government figures. We have also learned that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—the Department responsible for reducing Britain’s CO2 emissions—is the worst performing Department for energy efficiency. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs explaining why the Government have made so little progress on cutting CO2 emissions, and why his Department is setting such a bad example?

Last year, we proposed amendments to the Statistics and Registration Services Act 2007, which would have significantly reduced the scope for political manipulation of data. The Government rejected them; now we know why. The Statistics Commission has lambasted Government Departments for politically driven misuse of statistics—otherwise known as spin. One of the worst offenders was the Children, Schools and Families Department, and last week it was at it again: hiding school admission figures and attacking schools for demanding money for places based on nothing more than unverified desk research. May we have a debate on the use of Government statistics?

On Monday, Dame Carol Black’s report, “Working for a Healthier Tomorrow”, revealed the shocking true cost to the economy of Labour’s failure to tackle worklessness caused by sickness—£100 billion. After 10 years of a Labour Government, Dame Carol labelled the number of people on incapacity benefit as

so may we have a debate on that historic Government failure?

In 1997, the Government’s pledge card promised smaller class sizes and the Prime Minister is now promising personalised learning for every child, but it seems that no one has told the Schools Minister, who yesterday told a conference that class sizes of 70 were acceptable, so may we have a debate on Government policy on class sizes?

In the past few weeks, a number of hon. Members have called for a debate on London. This week, another scandal has hit the Labour Mayor of London. We have now discovered that Ken Livingstone has not registered a single donation with the Electoral Commission for the past seven years. His campaign team insists that all moneys raised come through the Labour party, so do not have to be declared, but his official website asks for cheques to be made payable to the “Ken Livingstone campaign fund”. What on earth is the Mayor trying to hide? May we have a debate on London?

Last night, 64 Labour MPs voted to support post office closures despite campaigning in their own constituencies to keep post offices open. Are not those double standards the very reason why so many people are turned off politics? Post offices are often the linchpin of local communities, so may we have a debate on sustainable local communities?

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Finally, in yesterday’s debate on the Post Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) quoted a poem that had come into his possession from Downing street. I would like to suggest another version of that poem:

Misusing Government figures, wasting taxpayers’ money, reneging on promises, Ministers campaigning against their own Government, chaos at No. 10: is not that why no one trusts this Government on anything any more?

Ms Harman: I do not know about the right hon. Lady’s constituents, but I know mine are more interested in sound money than in soundbites, and they would prefer competence to her version of comedy.

The right hon. Lady asked about Tibet, and she acknowledged that the issue was raised with the Prime Minister by the Leader of the Opposition yesterday. It is a matter of continuing concern to the Prime Minister and to the Foreign Secretary, and no doubt hon. Members will have further opportunities to raise questions with the Prime Minister—and, indeed, with the Foreign Secretary in oral questions next week. I note the right hon. Lady’s proposal to make Tibet a subject for a topical debate.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Government’s approach to climate change, and I would remind her that the Government are taking unprecedented action to tackle carbon emissions. Through the Climate Change Bill, which will come before the House for debate shortly, we propose to set in law a ceiling on carbon emissions, which is unprecedented in the world. As well as Government Departments scrutinising their carbon emissions, we in the House also need to ensure that we reduce waste and energy use. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is to work with the House authorities on that, so I invite hon. Members to put to her their proposals on how the House can become greener and more energy-efficient. We, too, can make a contribution and lead by example.

The right hon. Lady talked about statistics. Public confidence in the independence of statistics is very important. The Government have made changes in that respect. The Statistics Board will be overseen by the Public Administration Committee, which will reassure her and the House.

The right hon. Lady talked about school admissions and class sizes. May I reminder her and the House that a third of children in primary school were in classes of more than 30 when we came into government? That number is now down to 2 per cent. We now have 30,000 extra teachers and 130,000 extra teaching assistants. We have the best ratio ever between teachers and children in classes. The Schools Minister did not say that he thought that there should be 70 in a class.

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Mrs. May: He said that it was acceptable.

Ms Harman: He did not say that; he just remarked on an innovatory way of dealing with— [Interruption.] Well, I am just telling the right hon. Lady and the House what he said. He has been misquoted. Government policy is to have more teachers and teaching assistants, smaller class sizes and more investment in education, and we have been getting on with providing that.

The right hon. Lady mentioned worklessness. We have been concerned to ensure that we have a strong and stable economy with more jobs, and I am glad to report to the House that the figures published yesterday show a record number of jobs in the economy. In the last quarter, the number of jobs in the economy went up again, but there is a problem in terms of those who are on incapacity benefit, who perhaps want to and could work. For many years, when her party was in government, people were encouraged to go on to incapacity benefit to conceal rising unemployment. Although the number going on to incapacity benefit is reducing, a large number have been on that benefit for a long time. Therefore, through jobcentres and private and voluntary organisations, we must look to every individual, ask what their capacity is and see whether the many programmes available can help them into work.

The right hon. Lady threw around some allegations about the Labour Mayor of London, which gives me the opportunity to say that I am confident that all the declarations have been properly made. I seem to remember that the Tory candidate for Mayor of London—despite the fact that he represents an Oxfordshire constituency—was on one of the Electoral Commission lists of people who had not made declarations and had to make them late. I might be wrong, but that is my recollection.

The right hon. Lady mentioned post offices. As she will know, we had an extensive debate on that subject yesterday on an Opposition motion, which gave everybody an opportunity to discuss the issue. Were we to follow her Government’s policy of not providing a subsidy to the Post Office, we would not have 11,500 post offices continuing in business as will now be the case; we would have only 4,000. If the country is to have 11,500 post offices, it is important that the right ones stay open. That is why the consultation is so important, and that is why I have put forward the case to the Post Office that the Gibbon road post office in Nunhead should be one of the 11,500 that remain open.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House confirm that although investigations and decisions are already taking place on party political expenditure and many suggestions are being made about curtailing Members’ expenses, there is one big gap in the programme? It is high time we took the opportunity, possibly through a statement, to make sure that Members of Parliament have one job and one job only. There are more than 100 Tory MPs lining their pockets on the side, including some on the Front Bench. It should be one Member of Parliament, one job, with no conflict of interests. The climate is right and the press will deal with it, so let us get on with it.

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