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27 Mar 2008 : Column 325

Business of the House

11.31 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 commencing 31 March will be:

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 a 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 entitled, “The Economy, Repossessions and the Housing Market”, followed by a debate entitled, “The Government’s Flawed Policy on Heathrow”. Both debates arise on a Liberal Democrat motion.

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

The provisional business for the week commencing 21 April will include:

Monday 21 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 22 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill, followed by a motion relating to the statement of changes in immigration rules.

Wednesday 23 April—Opposition day [10th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 24 April—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Friday 25 April—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. As she will be aware, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill has caused huge controversy, but six weeks after First Reading we have still not been told how it will be handled in the House. When will she make a statement on that?

This week, the Justice Secretary announced that the Government would be consulting on changes to the method of electing Members to this House. As Leader of this House, will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that no changes to the voting system will be imposed or introduced without cross-party consent?

On Monday, we will be debating the remaining stages of the Housing and Regeneration Bill. The Bill received pre-legislative scrutiny last summer and finished its Committee stage at the end of January, but this week, only three sitting days before debate on Report, the Government have tabled 136 amendments and new clauses, on top of the 300 amendments they had already tabled in the past two months. The right hon. and learned Lady is responsible for managing
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Government business. She also has a responsibility to ensure that Members can scrutinise Bills properly. As Leader of the House, does she really believe that that is the right way to manage business and scrutinise important legislation?

Last week, it was reported that the Transport for London commissioner has asked his communications team to set up an “anti-Boris unit”. Transport for London has also told taxi drivers that they cannot issue receipts with “Back Boris” on them, and has threatened to withdraw funding from the Metropolitan police if its road traffic officers continue to criticise the safety record of bendy buses. Is that not a flagrant abuse of power? May we have debate on Transport for London?

It has emerged this week that almost half our hospitals have turned away women in labour because they did not have the space for them. That lack of care for pregnant women has put their health and the health of their babies at risk, yet this Government still plan to close more local maternity services. May we have a debate in Government time on cuts in maternity service?

Last year, the Government introduced passport interviews designed to weed out bogus candidates, but 38,000 checks and £93 million later not a single applicant has been rejected under the scheme. Is that not another example of the Government wasting taxpayers’ money? May we have a debate on the procedures for issuing passports?

This week, the National Union of Teachers voted to forbid military officers giving careers advice to schools because they would glorify war. That is on top of the decision that the Government made last year to abolish the Ministry of Defence’s defence schools presentation team. Why are lawyers, accountants and doctors allowed to promote their profession to schools, but soldiers are not allowed to talk about defending our country? May we have a debate on the careers advice being given to our young people in schools?

The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has published a doomsday list of Labour MPs who are at risk of losing their seats, which shows the results depending on a mere 7,500 voters. The former Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), recently criticised the Government’s tax policy. I wonder whether that is why both of them were put on the list for a Delegated Legislation Committee starting at 8.55 am today. Even the Leader of the House is reported as having criticised the Prime Minister’s communication skills and as having said to him:

Do not all those examples show that the Government are incompetent, that they waste taxpayers’ money, that they have no vision for this country and that there is only one man to blame—the Prime Minister?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady asked about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Obviously, there is concern that it is properly handled and that proper scrutiny is given by this House. We will make the arrangements for handling it clear in good time before it comes to this House, following discussions with all parties.

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The right hon. Lady made a point about the voting system. She will be aware that we have introduced a number of different voting systems in different parts of the country and that there was no provision in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill for reforming the voting system. We have said in our manifestos that there would not be any change to the voting system for this House without its having been voted on by the people of this country in a referendum.

The right hon. Lady mentioned that a large number of amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill have been tabled. I must say to her that it is desirable and it is best—it facilitates the best scrutiny in this House—if all the technical, drafting and policy issues are sorted out in advance of a Bill’s publication, so that it can make progress and the Government’s position is clear. Sometimes it is necessary to table late amendments if a response is being made to proposals from hon. Members and if the Government agree to table amendments. Generally speaking, I agree that we do not want large rafts of amendments to be tabled, because it is difficult for hon. Members to scrutinise on that basis. I shall remind all my ministerial colleagues of the point that she makes, with which I think the whole House would agree.

The right hon. Lady went on to highlight a number of issues about London. She raised issues about the Metropolitan police in London and she will know that, following proposals from a number of hon. Members from all parties, that is the subject of today’s topical debate, so all those issues can be discussed then. I shall consider her suggestions for a topical debate on the subject of Transport for London.

The right hon. Lady mentioned what she alleged was a lack of care for pregnant women. She should know that since we came to government there are more midwives than there were under the Conservative Government, that each midwife deals with fewer births and can therefore give greater care to pregnant women, and that there is a lower number of deaths of women and babies at birth. I suggest that she focus on the quality of care and the outcome for the mother and the baby, which is what really matters. The outcomes for mothers and babies are improving. Of course, no one wants the uncertainty that comes when a woman who expects to give birth in a particular place has to be moved to a different hospital, but sometimes, such as when there is a question about intensive care facilities, there has to be a transfer. By and large, I would not want the right hon. Lady to give the impression that midwifery services are deteriorating. They are not; they are improving. Of course, they could always be improved further, and the Government will endeavour to ensure that that happens.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the question of careers advice in schools in relation to our armed forces. The Government strongly back the single services team, which goes into about 1,000 schools at the invitation of those schools and tells children about the work that goes on in the Army. Schools have a number of visits from people from all walks of life, and it is obviously right that the forces should be part of that, at the invitation of the school.

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The right hon. Lady’s last issues were a basket of party political point scoring, so I will not respond to them.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): When can we have a debate on the excellent Byron review, which was published this morning? It accepts finally, and for the first time, that children can be affected by violent video games and access to the internet, that that process needs to be monitored carefully, and that we need a new partnership between parents and the industry. Will the Government accept the recommendations in full? If they are prepared to accept them, when can the House debate the matter, as so many Members on both sides are keen to do so?

Ms Harman: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his long-standing work on and concern about these issues. That would be a good subject for a topical debate, and I accept what he says as a proposal for such a debate. I thank Tanya Byron for her work. It is common sense that there should be clear labelling so that we can understand the different levels of videos and games. She is absolutely right that there needs to be joint work and that responsibility lies with the Government, the industry and parents, who all need to take action and work together on this.

I want, too, to acknowledge the work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which works with the industry and provides a hotline for parents. The Government accept the findings of the Byron report. We will produce an action plan, but before that it would be a good idea to have a debate in the House.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I follow the last exchange by joining the tribute to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee? I support the call for a debate on the labelling of videos and also on the management of amusement arcade machines, which often have equally violent scenes. It is obvious nonsense that we have never managed to get a grip on the sort of violence youngsters can see in places to which they have easy access. If we can debate that soon, it would be welcome.

On the Housing and Regeneration Bill, may I couple the protest that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made with a reminder to the Leader of the House that she said on the Floor of the House that, when the Government tabled a large number of new clauses or amendments, she would consider providing extra time so that that did not eat into the time for consideration of Opposition new clauses and amendments? May I ask that, as a matter of urgency, she seeks to apply that to next week, so that all the Government business has the time that it needs, but that the amendments that the Opposition table also have the proper time? May we also have the time that the Bill really needs for Report, not the nonsense of trying to fit a quart into a pint pot on Monday?

Later on Monday night, we will have the welcome debate on the transfer order on Northern Rock. I shall leave the substance of that issue to one side, but given the absolutely damning report on the Financial Services Authority’s four major and many minor failures of scrutiny, may we have an early debate on
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why we have an authority that is meant to regulate but is clearly not up to regulating the banking industry?

If the Leader of the House would rather have a wider debate, may I suggest that we have a whole-day debate in Government time on the regulation not just of the banking industry but of the water industry—people in many parts of England do not think that they are getting very good value for money—of the public utilities, for which people think that they are paying huge amounts for relatively poor service, and of the railway industry? Last weekend, we had what was called the Easter improvement programme, whereby many people did not get any rail services and many were not able to book in advance. Looking at regulation would be welcome, because it is not working in Britain. The whole idea was that regulators would be effective, not toothless watchdogs.

I welcome the announcement that we will have a debate on Russia in Westminster Hall on 3 April. I remind the Leader of the House that she said she would look sympathetically on a debate on UK-China relations, which is no less urgent now than it was when bids were made for it in the past couple of weeks.

The draft Constitutional Renewal Bill was published the other day, which was very welcome. Before the pre-legislative Committee starts its work, may we have a debate about the proposed role of Law Officers? It is a ring-fenced issue, and there is now a clear proposal that there should be no interference with decisions except in matters of national security, however that is defined. Some of us think that what happened over the BAE Systems prosecution brought this country into severe disrepute. We need to get out of a system in which there is clear political interference in an inquiry into whether criminal offences have been committed.

Finally, we have had an announcement today that five police authorities—Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Leicestershire, Cleveland and Warwickshire—are to have their budgets capped, even though Lincolnshire police authority, for example, is asking for only £2 a week on council tax so that it can police Lincolnshire properly. May we have a debate urgently about these issues, so that the public can realise what nonsense the council tax system is, and that it is even more of a nonsense when councils are not allowed to raise and spend the council tax that they want? Police authorities, like councils, want to be able to get on with the job, and the Government’s system is preventing them from doing so.

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise his final points about resources for police authorities and local government spending with my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government in the statement to follow.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the Byron review and the report that has come out of it. I notice that the official Opposition jeer every time the Prime Minister announces that he is setting up a review. This was a review that he set up that has actually enabled people to put forward their views, so I hope the Opposition will think better next time they jeer at reviews. Obviously everybody in the House thinks that this review was a good idea.

The hon. Gentleman reinforced the point that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) made
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about Housing and Regeneration Bill amendments. I will consider it, but it is difficult to make promises because I do not want to create unrealistic expectations having already announced the business. Because of the lengthy debate that we had on Europe, there is a queue of important Second Readings that we need to get to. I sympathise with his point, but I cannot promise that I will be able to do anything about it. I shall certainly consider it.

On Northern Rock, as the hon. Gentleman said, there will be a debate next week on the order. I think that the FSA has produced a frank report, and lessons need to be and will be learned. The Treasury Committee has also produced a report and the Government are considering its recommendations. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not write off all regulators, as regulation is very important.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of UK-China relations. He will know that there is a debate on the subject of Tibet in Westminster Hall next week and I am sure that several hon. Members will seek to use that opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of the Law Officers, and that will be addressed in the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill. During the course of our debate on that Bill, he will no doubt be able to repeat the points that he has just made, only even more fully and at greater length.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): The issue of children has rightly come up already in business questions. Would my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on the importance of play? The excellent children’s plan published earlier this month demonstrates that organised play for children is a key part of their development. I want this debate to put off local authorities that are short-sightedly thinking of closing play centres on financial grounds alone. I want the issues properly explored to stop them doing so.

Ms Harman: No local authority should cut play services. The Government have put an extra £250 million into children’s play services and I know that my hon. Friend has been a great champion of children’s services in Crawley. If the Conservative council in Crawley is cutting children’s play services, it should not do so, and I suggest that my hon. Friend applies for an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Would the right hon. and learned Lady remind her ministerial colleagues of the importance of timely and full responses to parliamentary questions? Will she also tell them that it is unacceptable to reply to Members by merely pointing out to them that the answer may be found in a departmental annual report or some other obscure document? If a parliamentary question is asked, it should receive a reply in full. [ Interruption. ]

Ms Harman: Some of my colleagues invite me to say that the hon. Gentleman should read the departmental report, but I sympathise with him. If the report is available, it is not much more trouble to give a full answer. Parliamentary answers should be full and helpful. The House is holding Government Departments and agencies to account and replies should not be provided grudgingly—

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