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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has made a good point. Being a Member of Parliament is an important job, and our constituents expect us to give it our committed attention. I expect my hon. Friends point to be the subject of debate in the House, and I am glad that he has raised it.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Today is the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. A Bill is about to be presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) calling for an inquiry into what happened in Iraq, and next week a debate using Opposition time will raise the need for such an inquiry. Will the Leader of the House talk to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that after next Tuesdays debate it will be announced, in the light of the views expressed by Parliament, that we can havein a way that will meet the wishes of Parliamentthe sort of inquiry into the events of five years ago and since that I think the country deserves and needs?
May we also have a debate on a separate but linked issue, that of coroners inquests generally and inquests into the deaths of service personnel in particularnot least in order to ensure, on behalf of the families of people like the late Private Jason Smith, that the Government do not seek to intervene to prevent coroners from speaking as they find, and that the relatives of the victims of events such as the 7 July bombings do not discover that the inquests into their loved ones deaths took place behind closed doors without the possibility of public and general knowledge of how their relatives died?
Yesterday we had what I thought was an excellent debate on post offices to which 83 Members contributed, and since the Queens speech there have been six Adjournment debates, more than 70 oral parliamentary questions and nearly 250 written questions on the subject. As Members are still hugely concerned about the failure of their local consultation processes to deliver the right results, will the Leader of the House establish whether the topical debate the week after next could deal with post office closures? The time allowed for yesterdays debate was clearly not sufficient. Given that the Government lost 19 of their supporters, who voted with the Opposition, and that the majority is now down to 20, will she also establish whether they can come up with a more satisfactory response to the widespread concern that exists through the House?
I support the request from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for next weeks topical debate to deal with Tibet, but may we have a debate on China generally before long? In this of all years there is a huge interest in relations between the United Kingdom and China, which really ought to be aired on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) confirmed earlier that according to the best available figures, one elector in 10 in England and up to one in five in London may not be registered. Six weeks before the elections in England and Wales, we also know from the judge who disqualified a Conservative councillor in Slough on Tuesday that the postal vote system is
lethal to the democratic process.
May we please have an urgent debate in the next couple of weeks so that, once and for all, we can not only encourage people who should be on the electoral register to put their names on it, but change a system that allows widespread abuse because we do not have individual voter registration in this country?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about Iraq. As I announced, there will be a debate on Iraq next week, in which Members will be able to put their points about inquiries. I remind Members, however, that we have already had four inquiries into the events leading up to the use of force in Iraq, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that an inquiry will be held when we have completed the processwhich is well under wayof withdrawing from Iraq, on the basis that its security forces and police are able to provide security for the people of Iraq. As well as bearing in mind the very regrettable loss of life, I ask Members to remember the sight of people queuing to vote in elections, which were made possible by Saddam Husseins removal. Members should also recall that there was a 70 per cent. turnout, showing the enthusiasm of the Iraqi people for their new democracy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about coroners inquests. It will be possible to raise questions about how inquests deal with material that has national security implications in the Second Reading debate on the Counter-Terrorism Bill on 1 April.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned post offices. That will remain an important issue right up until the end of the consultation process when the Post Office announces its decision. As he reminded us, there was a full days debate on the matter yesterday, so I cannot say that there will be further parliamentary time to discuss it, especially as there are a number of important Bills coming forward that the House must be able to scrutinise.
The hon. Gentleman raised the important point of the number of people who are eligible to vote but who are unable to do so because they are not on the electoral registerhe mentioned the statistics that show that one in 10 electors outside London and as many as one in five in London may not be registered. He will know that we passed the Electoral Administration Act 2006 to place a duty on electoral registration officers to do everything they can, including using data that they hold, to ensure that everybody in their area is properly on the electoral register. The question he raised, however, was whether enough has been done to ensure that everybody is entitled to vote. I know that he shares my concern that the people who are least likely to be on the electoral register are those who are young, those who are black, and people who live in rented accommodation or in inner cities. We cannot have the continuing unfairness in our democracy that people are more likely to be on the electoral register and able to vote if they are over 50, live in a non-metropolitan area, own their own home and are white. That is a problem.
I will continue my discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to see whether we can tackle the twin problems of under-registration
and bogus registration, and whether measures can be put in place to use the data that Government and local government hold. I know there is a lot of concern about the cross-use of data, but it can be used for good purposes, such as to ensure that those who are entitled to be registered are registered, and that nobody who is not entitled to be registered gets themselves on the register for the purposes of electoral fraud.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): May we have a wider debate on the Coroner Service? A draft Bill on the subject was presented in the last Parliament, followed by a Select Committee report on that Bill. The issue is high on the political agenda, particularly for many military families who are suffering long delays in getting the answers they need. Those delays are the result of an archaic system that is long overdue for reform.
Ms Harman: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to improve the Coroner Service so that bereaved relatives can get answers to their questions, particularly when those relatives have died abroad. I also agree that improving the Coroner Service is part of our military covenant. We will publish our draft legislative programme at the end of May setting out what will be in this years Queens Speech, and I know that my hon. Friend will be hoping and expecting that a coroners Bill will be included in that draft legislative programme.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): The 100th anniversary of the formation of the Territorial Army falls on 1 April. I for one am very proud to serve in the TA and would resist any efforts by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to make me leave it. May we have a debate to celebrate its 100th anniversary, because this House has a long association with itnot least, for example, through Colonel Macnamara, to whom there is a memorial on the wall here, and who was the commanding officer of the Royal Irish? May we have such a debate to send a clear message to the TA that the House of Commons supports it?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister paying a heartfelt tribute to the Territorial Army in Prime Ministers questions yesterday. I take on board the hon. Gentlemans proposal for a debate on the TA, and I will consider it as a subject for a topical debate.
Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House consider making time available for a discussion of the recently published Network Rail document on the rail utilisation strategy, so the House can welcome the inclusion in that document of the Leamside line, recognising the social and economic benefits that that line, as part of an expanding UK rail network, would bring to the constituencies of many Members representing the north-east?
My hon. Friend underlines the importance of the economic regeneration of the region in which his constituency lies. Transport links are
crucial to that regeneration. He has mentioned one of them, and I will raise that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He might also apply for an Adjournment debate on the issue.
On Monday, a group of six non-governmental organisations launched a document relating to grandparents rights and how they tend to be excluded from family proceedings by the rules in both private and public law. May we have a debate on the operation of family law, and specifically on the role of grandparents and members of the extended family, such as great-grandparents, uncles and aunts?
Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman might ask his parliamentary colleagues to put that forward as a subject for an Opposition day debate, as his party has one coming up. I strongly agree with what he says, and we should recognise that many families could not cope without grandmum and granddad pitching in. When in the past we have provided support for families with children, we have been criticised by some as the nanny state; as we are putting much greater emphasis on, and giving more recognition to, the role of grandparents, I hope we are subsequently called the granny state and I would be proud if that were to happen.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Instead of having a debate solely on Tibet, may we have a wider debate on UK relations with China, which would of course cover Tibet, but also how we might engage constructively with the Chinese on a range of issues from climate change to their activities in Africa and their support for the Burmese regime?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I will see whether there is an opportunity for such a discussion. As he says, UK relations with China are very important in many contexts such as our concern about Darfur, the global economy, climate change and our relations with it as an emerging and strongly growing economy. I will raise this matter with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement to the House on the future of Operation Stack, the wretched and ill-conceived system that parks thousands of lorries on the M20 whenever there are problems at the channel ports, not only thereby causing huge misery to my constituents and everyone else in Kent, but blocking one of the principal freight routes into this country? Kent county council has made a suggestion for a new lorry park, which would help alleviate the situation, but that will not happen unless the Department for Transport takes a positive view. Therefore, it is important that we hear that the Secretary of State will get behind the idea, and for once take some effective action to get the traffic flowing.
Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman table a written or oral question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, if he has not already done so. In any event, I shall raise the matter with her and ask her to write to him.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on police service reorganisation? Earlier this week, Humberside police authority backed its chief constables plan in the next few years to reduce the number of police officers by 300 and to increase the number of support staff by 400, thus, he says, releasing 20,000 hours of extra policing on to the streets. That is clearly a complex formula, and I shall be meeting the chief constable to discuss it. He says that it results from the Flanagan review, which the Home Office undertook earlier in the year, so I think that the formula will go to other police forces around the country. All hon. Members would find a debate on it most opportune, so can the Leader of the House arrange one?
Ms Harman: I shall bring my hon. Friends point to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. A great deal more has been invested in the police, with the sole purpose and intention that neighbourhood policing should be rolled out from 1 April in every community in this country. Obviously, we want good police community support and good civilian back-up in police stations, but that is no substitute for good neighbourhood policing, and I shall bring the matter to my right hon. Friends attention.
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Earlier this week, stung by well-argued and widespread criticism, the Government announced by means of a written statement and a White Paper that they intended to abolish the Learning and Skills Council. They are to replace it with a series of other quangos and bureaucrats. That has not been debated in the House, but it certainly should be, so that the case can be made for a deregulated system of further education that can raise skill levels in this country, elevate practical learning and give better life chances to millions of the people whom we represent.
Ms Harman: Obviously, we are concerned to ensure that every young personand, indeed, every adult who wants the opportunity to continue their educationin every part of the country is given the opportunities that they have not necessarily had in the past. That is why we are increasing the education leaving age to 18I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports thatand why we are dramatically increasing the number of apprenticeships. I shall look into the specific points that he made and ask the relevant Secretary of State to write to him.
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that in excess of £8 million has been spent on upgrading the press facilities in this House. Will she inform the House what evidence there is to suggest that taxpayers are getting value for money?
Ms Harman: The amount spent by this House on facilities for the Lobby is published on an annual basis, so on the basis of that transparency, it is for the public to judge whether they are getting good value for money.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May I tempt the Leader of the House to be a bit more enthusiastic about having a debate on Tibet? She merely says that she notes that it might be a subject for a topical debate, but that is not very enthusiastic. Can she tell me any subject that is likely to be more topical next Thursday than what is going on in Tibet?
Ms Harman: The important thing is to give the House the opportunity to debate something that is of absolute topicality in the week in which it is to be debated. It would not be right for me to announce today the subject of next weeks topical debate. I deal with the question of Tibet with absolute seriousness, and the Prime Minister set out the approach yesterday. I note that the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) has joined the other hon. Members who have expressed their concern and proposed it as the subject of a topical debate.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): May I follow up the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about electoral fraud? We have heard about the case involving the Conservatives in Slough, but this affects all political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and even the Labour party. I make a plea that we urgently address the concerns of the Electoral Commission and Sir Christopher Kelly, the newly-appointed chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, because the issue will not go away. May I also make a plea for individual voter registration?
Ms Harman: Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point, which I shall bring to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. It is fundamental to our democracyboth our local democracy and the legitimacy of this Housethat everyone who is eligible to vote is able to do so because they are on the register and that nobody who is not entitled to vote is on the register and thus able to corrupt the system.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): On 24 October last year, a special debate took place in Westminster Hall on illegal immigration. The Home Office Minister present in that debate made a commitment that the Border and Immigration Agency was liaising with chief constables to ensure that when illegal immigrants jumped off the back of a lorry they were not simply asked to make their own way to Croydon to get their claims processed. Yet in recent weeks incidents have taken place in both Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire in which illegal immigrants have been set free. Can we have a Home Office statement about what the Government policy is on these lorry-drop immigrants?
I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman and place a copy of her letter in the House of Commons Library. As I said last week, the allegations made about
the Cambridgeshire case were simply not true; I do not know about the Bedfordshire case, and shall raise it with my right hon. Friend, but those other allegations, which were so concerning, were simply not based in fact.
Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware that Sheikh Hasina Wajid, a former Prime Minister of Bangladesh and leader of the Bangladeshi Awami League, has been languishing in jail for the past eight months on trumped-up charges without the prospect of any kind of trial? In addition, she is seriously ill and has been refused hospital treatment. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the British Government make appropriate representations to the Government of Bangladesh and get Sheikh Hasina Wajid released as soon as possible?
Ms Harman: The issue that my hon. Friend raises is a matter of concern to the Foreign Office and it is being kept under consideration. I believe that it has been raised with the Bangladeshi authorities by this Government.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House that we will have a topical debate next Thursday, but it is the first one for some time. Last Thursday, I was told that we could not have one because of the Budget debate, which ended early, and that we could not have one today because of the Commonwealth debate, which I hope will run until 6 pm. Should the question whether or not we have a topical debate really rest on the whim of the Leader of the House?
Ms Harman: Topical debates take place in Government time, so this is not about a whim. We did not have a topical debate on the day when the other business was the Budget because the Opposition, and indeed a number of other hon. Members, said that they would rather the Budget be the subject of the whole days debate and that we should not take an hour and a half out of it for a topical debate. The right hon. Gentleman points out that that debate went short, but it is not always possible to predict these things. When the Opposition ask us not to have a topical debate and instead to devote the time to the Budget debate, we take the suggestion seriously.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned international womens day, when we did not have a topical debate. We did not want to take one and a half hours out of the debate on international womens day, in which many speakers contributed to a very good debate. Many hon. Members have asked for issues associated with Commonwealth countries to be the subject of a topical debate, so it would seem counter-productive to cut into the Commonwealth debate with a topical debate lasting an hour and a half.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am reviewing the question of topical debates. If we decide to suggest any change, we will make the proposals before the summer. This is not an exact science, but I assure him that my concern is to do what the House wants in respect of ensuring that there is an opportunity to debate something topical that the House has not had the opportunity to debate in a given week.
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