Previous Section Index Home Page

3 Apr 2008 : Column 921

Business of the House

11.32 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 21 April will be:

Monday 21 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 22 April—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill.

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 on a points-based immigration system.

Friday 25 April—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 April will include:

Monday 28 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 29 April—Conclusion of Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 30 April—Remaining stages of the Energy Bill.

Thursday 1 May—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate. Subject to be announced.

Friday 2 May—The House will not be sitting.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. May I congratulate her on her performance yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions?

The number of people affected by eating disorders in the UK is 1.1 million. On Tuesday, Professor Janet Treasure said that the fashion industry’s obsession with thinness has

Yesterday, the Periodical Publishers Association announced that its editors were reconsidering the practice of airbrushing pictures of models in their magazines. The private sector is developing a clear strategy for dealing with eating disorders, but when will the Government do the same? Will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement outlining Government policy on eating disorders, body image and the media?

Today, a report on the Counter-Terrorism Bill was published by the Committee of Selection. Although more than 50 Labour MPs oppose the Government’s plans for pre-charge detention, not one of them has been put forward by the Labour Whips to serve on the Public Bill Committee. Does not that manipulative repression of legitimate dissent totally undermine the Prime Minister’s statement about restoring power to Parliament? Membership of the Public Bill Committee should reflect the balance of views in the House, so will the Leader of the House take up the matter with the Government Chief Whip?

3 Apr 2008 : Column 922

Yesterday, in conflict with the opinion of many Labour Members, the Leader of the House denied that the abolition of the 10p income tax rate would have any effect on poor families. With household bills, mortgage repayments and everyday prices rising—even the Daily Mirror today published a table showing how the poorest will be worse off, under the headline “Fury at 10p Tax Axe”—her denial seems staggering. However, it may be no wonder that we should learn today that although the Government usually publish the annual child poverty figures in March, this year they will bury the bad news by delaying publication until after the local elections. So can we have a statement from the Work and Pensions Secretary to explain that decision?

This morning the Housing Minister issued a written statement on eco-towns, two thirds of which are planned to be in Conservative seats. On 1 February, as is recorded at column 635 of Hansard, the Minister agreed with the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) that acceptance of an eco-town was “an important consideration” for local communities. Many eco-towns are the subject of fierce local opposition, and there are real concerns about the planning process that will apply to them. Will the Leader of the House do her job and give hon. Members the opportunity to represent their constituents by allowing a debate on eco-towns in Government time?

This week, the Defence Secretary made a statement announcing that the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be delayed. Last October, with blatant disregard for Parliament, the Prime Minister announced planned troop withdrawals to the media in the middle of the Conservative party conference in order to grab a headline. May we have a debate on the Government’s misuse of the media?

Finally, may we have a debate about the teaching of English literature? We learned this week that politicians around the world had been asked to name their favourite poem for a new book. Tony Blair chose Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, but what poem did the current Prime Minister choose? He chose part of a PhD thesis

The author said that it had been intended as

That tells us rather a lot about the Prime Minister—but why did he not choose a poem by Rabbie Burns? Given the recent goings on in No. 10, there are a few that would seem appropriate. Perhaps he could choose “Despondency: An Ode” or “Ah, Woe is Me, My Mother Dear”—although most of us would probably settle for “The Farewell”.

With that, may I wish all Members of the House, and its staff, a very enjoyable recess?

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her congratulations to me on yesterday—and I think that she would have done a much better job for the Opposition than her right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).

The right hon. Lady mentioned eating disorders, an important public health issue that particularly affects girls and young women. It is of concern to the Department of Health, which works with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the media play their
3 Apr 2008 : Column 923
part in helping to prevent young women from falling prey to eating disorders. I shall ask the relevant Ministers to write to the right hon. Lady with an update on the latest action being taken.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill, but she will know that the membership of the Public Bill Committee is a matter for the Committee of Selection. I note, however, that the Opposition did not put forward the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) for membership of the Committee.

The right hon. Lady mentioned tax rates. I remind the House that we have always been concerned about low-income families, pensioners and child poverty. We have done a great deal to lift pensioners out of poverty, but we have also been concerned about the standard of living of single people. That is why we have been determined to ensure that everyone can have a job, that there is a national minimum wage and that we keep inflation as low as possible.

The right hon. Lady asked about eco-towns. She will know that a written ministerial statement has been laid before the House today. She will also know that there is a four-stage consultation. The first stage has been announced by way of that written ministerial statement: a three-month consultation to allow preliminary views to be expressed on the shortlisted locations, which are published today. Stage 2 will then involve a sustainability appraisal. Stage 3 will involve the planning policy statement, which will be discussed and debated in the House. Stage 4 will involve the submission of planning applications. So there will be full consultation and discussion all the way through.

The right hon. Lady mentioned troop numbers in Iraq. She will remember that about 45,000 British troops were engaged in the original invasion of Iraq. About a year ago, about 7,000 British troops were engaged. That number then came down to 4,500, and it is now down to 4,000. As the Secretary of State for Defence said in his statement earlier this week, he will continue to keep the House informed.

To conclude, I notice that one hon. Member is not in his place who is normally in his place absolutely without fail during business questions—the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow)—but he has a very good excuse for not being here. I should like us all to welcome Jemima Bercow, who has arrived in the world this week. I hope that the hon. Gentleman enjoys his paternity leave.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Can my right hon. and learned Friend point me in the direction of any early opportunity there might be to debate bilateral relations with The Gambia—a small but important country in west Africa, which has a good tourism trade with this country? That would give me the opportunity to raise the case of my constituent’s brother, Charlie Northfield, who is awaiting trial in The Gambia on a case of economic theft, and to reassure his family, who live in Plymouth, that all the usual diplomatic tools are being used to support him.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has already raised that case with the Foreign Office, and she will know that Mr. Northfield is receiving full consular support. I
3 Apr 2008 : Column 924
understand that he is out on bail, and I know that she will keep in touch with the Foreign Office to ensure that it does all that it can to support him.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): First, I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) for suggesting that he is not here doing his duties. I served with him on a Programming Sub-Committee at 9 o’clock this morning. He is in the House, so he is certainly discharging his duties to this place.

Shortly after I attended that meeting, I was alerted by Mr. Muttiah, a sub-postmaster in my constituency, that he had received in a letter—dated, unhappily, 1 April—news that his post office is now proposed for closure, in addition to those that have already been proposed for closure. May we please have a debate on this next round of the post office closure programme?

Ms Harman: We have recently had a full debate on post offices, and we have just finished topical questions to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has responsibility for post offices, so there has been a great deal of opportunity to debate the issue in the House. The important thing now is for Members to make representations as part of the consultation.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I join the congratulations to the right hon. and learned Lady on her historic first as a woman Labour MP answering Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and on a good south London robust performance, which was very welcome.

The right hon. and learned Lady has announced two pieces of legislation for remaining stages debates in the first fortnight back after the April break. May I ask her to reflect on the fact that on Monday, when we debated the remaining stages of the Housing and Regeneration Bill, all that we feared came to pass? We completed consideration of only one of six groups of amendments. There was full debate on only three of 20 Government new clauses, only 29 of 109 Government amendments, only five of 18 Opposition new clauses, and only four of 98 Opposition amendments. Clearly, it was a completely ridiculous failure to scrutinise large parts of the Bill. The Leader of the House has helpfully said that she will look into finding a process that means that Government amendments get extra time that does not detract from Opposition scrutiny time. Please may we have a change to the system before we consider the remaining stages of further major Bills, so that they do not suffer the same fate?

The Leader of the House announced that the debate on the Energy Bill—one of the Bills whose remaining stages have yet to be completed—is to be on 30 April. I think that everybody is aware that that is the day before local elections in England and Wales, and many colleagues will probably be elsewhere. [Hon. Members: “Why?”] Because they may be seeking to advance democracy in their own patch; that is why. Will she reflect on whether the debate might be held on a better date than the day before the known annual local election day, so that we can ensure better attendance when we discuss that important Bill?

3 Apr 2008 : Column 925

Please may we have the debate that many of us have asked for, in different ways, on the OECD’s investigation of Britain’s failure over 10 years to introduce an anti-bribery and anti-corruption policy? The Government have confirmed in a White Paper that they want Law Officers to keep the power to intervene to discontinue proceedings in corruption and national security cases, following the BAE Systems Saudi Arabia case. Will the Leader of the House put it to her colleagues that that is completely unhelpful to the reputation of Britain? May we have that debate, so that we can introduce a decent anti-corruption policy and not be under investigation by an official body working on behalf of the international community?

Lastly, may we have a debate on yesterday’s report from the newly independent Office for National Statistics? It shows that after 10 years and more of a Labour Government the poverty gap has not closed, and that three groups in the community continue to have specific disadvantages: disabled people, people from minority ethnic communities and people in disadvantaged areas. The right hon. and learned Lady has a traditional view in favour of social equality but, sadly, in many areas, her Government have not delivered that equality. May we have an honest debate on why that is, and on whether they will do better in their remaining days in office?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman has continued to raise concern about the Government’s handling of the Housing and Regeneration Bill—a matter that was brought up last week in business questions. There are two issues: the first is the volume of amendments and the second concerns timing and the question of when the amendments were laid before the House. I think that we all recognise that if points are raised in Committee, and the Government agree to respond to those points, amendments have to be tabled, and I think the majority of the amendments tabled for the remaining stages were the result of issues raised in Committee.

As far as the timing is concerned, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House and I looked into the issue. The overwhelming majority of the amendments were tabled on the Tuesday before the debate, which was held on the following Monday. Obviously it would have been better if they had been tabled earlier, but as they were tabled on Tuesday, the House not having sat on the Monday, hon. Members had nearly a full week to consider them, and I do not think that that is an egregious lack of time. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), wrote to Committee members before the amendments were tabled to let them know about them. Of course, the amendments were a matter for the whole House, but my hon. Friend had the courtesy to write to Committee members, who he knew were particularly concerned with the Bill.

The question of the time given to a Bill’s remaining stages is particularly difficult. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has complained about the backlog of Bills awaiting Second Reading; that is part of the problem resulting from the amount of time taken to discuss the Lisbon treaty. There are therefore time constraints on Second Readings and remaining stages. Obviously, it is always desirable to have more time to consider amendments on Report
3 Apr 2008 : Column 926
than we get. Because of the concerns about the tabling of amendments to the Housing and Regeneration Bill, my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will ensure that amendments are tabled promptly for subsequent Bills, starting with all the amendments being tabled today to the Local Transport Bill, which will go into Committee when the House comes back from the recess.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Energy Bill. When the House is sitting, House business must be scheduled. All House business is important and the House does not rise for the day before local elections. It is therefore right that we should continue with the business, including the Energy Bill.

On the role of the Law Officers in prosecutions, the hon. Gentleman knows that that matter comes within the scope of the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has just been published in draft. There will be plenty of scope for consideration of that draft Bill before it comes to the House for its Second Reading.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned inequality and the gap between rich and poor, with particular reference to disabled people and black and Asian people. We are planning to introduce an equality Bill, one of the objectives of which is to narrow the gap between disabled people, and black and Asian people, and the rest of society.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend see in her programme a legislative opportunity for us to improve consumer protection, particularly in relation to the big retailers, which are increasingly using warehouses and distribution methods that fail the consumer? All too often we hear from constituents who cancelled meetings and other activities and waited in, only to receive half-delivered goods—goods that are not complete. Although in theory there is a remedy, it is insufficient. People cannot get hold of the retailers and are held on answerphones, for which they pay. There needs to be naming and shaming of the bad big high street retailers that do not deliver on the goods that people have looked for, ordered and paid for. We want some swift remedy for our constituents. May we look into this matter, please?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an increasingly important issue, especially because more people are ordering goods on the internet. It is a matter of concern that will only grow. I will bring his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have announced job cuts in Northern Ireland that amount to a 25 per cent. reduction in the work force—twice as great as the reduction that will occur in the rest of the United Kingdom. That will have an impact on women, on provincial towns and, most importantly, the ability to take on fuel laundering and construction fraud in Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in the House so that we can discuss how HMRC will live up to the promise made by the Secretary of State that there will no let-up on fuel-laundering fraud in Northern Ireland?

Next Section Index Home Page