The hon. Gentleman asked about opportunities for Members to scrutinise the work of different Departments. The Green Paper The Governance of Britain raised the possibility of annual departmental debate days to enable the House to consider each Department and how it is doing its work. As a member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Committee is shortly to produce a report establishing
how we can ensure that routine scrutiny of each Department takes place both in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Royal College of Nursing, and the requirement for paperwork and accountability for the work done in respect of each patient. Perhaps he will consider raising the issue during next Tuesdays questions to Health Ministers, but I will say now that of all the health services in the world ours is the least bureaucratic, because it is a national health service based on need rather than a service dominated by form filling for people requiring insurance.
Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): This week some Members had a meeting in the House with the Scotland office of the new Equality and Human Rights Commission. I am sure the Leader of the House agrees that it is important for the commission to become as effective as possible as quickly as possible. In particular, it needs a single equalities Act to underpin its work. We have waited for a long time for such legislation. Can we expect to see it in the near future?
Ms Harman: Our commitment to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and to a new equality Bill, remains on track. At the time of the last Queens Speech we made a commitment to introducing such a Bill during the Session that will begin in November this year, and that commitment stands.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the Leader of the House ensure that a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs makes a statement in the House following the conclusion of the Departments deliberations on the nitrate vulnerable zone proposals? The proposals will probably cost farmers with very small livestock farms about a quarter of a million pounds to implement in order to satisfy the regulations themselves, but a more proportionate response would be ensuring that information technology was used between farmers and the Meteorological Office. That would keep many more livestock farmers in production, rather than putting them out of business altogether.
Ms Harman: I am aware that that is a serious issue. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had an opportunity to raise it during questions to DEFRA Ministers this morning, but if he did not, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to write to him about it.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): At this moment, mothers and young children from across Edinburgh are in the Scottish Parliament protesting to MSPs about the actions of the Liberal Democrat and SNP-controlled Edinburgh council, which have led to the closure of crèches in many swimming-pool and leisure centres run by the council throughout the city, including the crèche at the Leith Victoria centre in my constituency. Will my right hon. and learned Friend send those parents a message of support, and may we have a debate on the importance of emphasising to local authorities and devolved Governments the role played by such facilities in encouraging exercise and healthy living?
Ms Harman: That does seem a bizarre decision, at a time when the importance of the link between sport, exercise and good health is so well understood. Those likely to be hit hardest are poorer families who need access to free sports facilities. There is to be a debate about poverty in Scotland this afternoon, and I find it ironic that although the Olympics are to take place in this country in 2012 and Glasgow will host the Commonwealth games in 2014, the Scottish National party is reducing the opportunity for ordinary people and their families to take part in sport.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Has the Leader of the House had time to read a report published recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the postal voting system, which identifies a number of risks associated with the current regime? Does she agree that, after todays local elections, it would be a good idea to hold an early debate in Government time on the integrity of the postal voting system?
Ms Harman: The Government will be considering that important report, and I shall raise the right hon. Gentlemans point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice. It is important for everyone to have confidence in the voting system, and to turn out to vote.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As I cycle around the more rural parts of my constituency, it is clear to me that the problem of fly-tipping is starting to reappear on a considerable scale. The Environmental Protection Act 1990, which was introduced by the previous Government, placed responsibilities for public land on the Environment Agency and local authorities, but the poor old farmers and landowners are having to pick up the bill. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on fly-tipping, so that we can establish why landowners and farmers are being prosecuted or fined when they have taken all possible steps to prevent rubbish from illegally tipped on their land? It is costing them tens of millions of pounds a year at a very difficult time for them.
Ms Harman: I do not know whether my hon. Friend had the opportunity to raise that point during DEFRA questions, which just took place. I know that it is of ongoing concern to the DEFRA team, and I shall raise it with them. In particular, I shall raise it with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), because she is not only now a member of that ministerial team, but introduced the private Members Bill on fly-tipping. I know that the issue of major concern to her and to all her ministerial colleagues.
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab):
I hope that the Leader of the House can confirm my understanding of her statement, which is that the House will in the
near future have an opportunity to debate the Select Committee report dealing with, among other things, the funding of science research. It is important for us to have that debate, because the threat to astronomy and physics research, in particular, as a result of the inept decision making of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, is a major threat to world-leading research undertaken in Britain. I hope that in advance of that debate, if we are to have one, she will encourage her ministerial colleagues to examine ways of putting on hold the cuts being made to that research, rather than just wait until the outcome of the very welcome Wakeham review.
Ms Harman: Since we came into government, there has been a two and a half-fold increase in investment in research. Year on year, more support is given to science, because we recognise that it is important both in its own right and for the economy. My hon. Friend may seek on Thursday 15 May to participate in the Westminster Hall debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that, notwithstanding representations made by local authorities, local businesses and local people, which include petitions signed by thousands, the Post Office will tomorrow confirm the closure of a number of post offices in my constituency and, indeed, throughout Oxfordshire? Would it not have been rather more honest to make that announcement before the polling stations closed in todays local elections, rather than waiting until after they close, only to make it the day after those elections?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that many announcements are subject to the purdah rule. As far as being more honest is concerned, it would be more honest if he and his Conservative colleagues said exactly how they would raise the money required for the subsidy to keep open all the post offices that they say they are committed to saving. Would it come from increased taxes, and if so, which taxes? Alternatively, would it come from cuts in services, and in which case, what services?
John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that a few weeks ago I asked for a debate in Government time on devolved Parliaments spending. At that time, about £34 million for disabled children north of border had disappeared into a black hole. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North (Ann McKechin) tabled the excellent early-day motion 1466, on holocaust educational money that had gone missing from children.
[That this House commends the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in educating school children throughout the United Kingdom on the history of the Holocaust and the ongoing threats of genocide throughout the world; supports the Government's programme to finance these visits and notes that last year the Trust successfully arranged its first direct flights from Scotland to allow more children in Scotland to participate and to share their experiences with their other school colleagues; but is dismayed to note that the SNP-led Scottish Executive supported by the Tory group in the Scottish Parliament
have voted this month against the use of the Barnett consequential amounting to £150,000 per annum to continue funding these visits in Scotland; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Scotland when he next meets the First Minister to urge him urgently to reconsider this regressi ve and narrow-minded decision.]
Following that motion, can we have a debate on this subject urgently, so that we can look after children and ensure that they are not more deprived than they currently are in respect of money from this side of the border?
Ms Harman: In fact, hon. Members on both sides of the House have been concerned to ensure, throughout the United Kingdom, that disabled children should not face a postcode lottery. Good services should be available everywhere, and I shall raise the points that my hon. Friend makes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House whether we could have a full days debate, in Government time, on agriculture, which has not been debated for some considerable time, bearing in mind that food security is looming large on the political radar at present? There are many problems facing agriculture. Two valid and important issues have already been raised during this Question Time, but there are others, such as the supply of protein for the livestock industry in the form of maize and soya, given that the European Union will ban certain new variants. That will cause tremendous problems of supply, which will have an adverse impact on the industry and on food supply in this country.
Ms Harman: The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. Food security was the subject of a written ministerial statement last week, and a topical debate on supermarkets took place last week. There are linked and important issues not only for consumers, in respect of waste, but in respect of producers and the supply of food. I shall take what she suggests as a proposal for a topical debate.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am tempted to ask the Leader of the House how she can justify her comment of a few minutes ago that motoring costs in this country have decreased over the past 10 years, but I shall resist that temptation. Instead, I shall support the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), who talked about the cut in funding for science and technology, and put a direct question to the Leader of the House: will she arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement to the House on the proposed cutbacks in the resources given to Jodrell Bank, which is partially in my constituency and partially in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? The cutbacks could end the e-Merlin project, which is, of course, in the vanguard of research and development, and is crucial to this country. If the Leader of the House is serious about increasing expenditure, surely Jodrell Bank deserves continued support.
I think those points could be the subject of a contribution to the Westminster Hall debate on Thursday 15 May. The figure I gave for the overall cost
of motoring includes the cost of cars and insurance, as well as the cost of fuel duties. I am almost 100 per cent. certain that it is an accurate figure, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. It is no part of my business as Leader of the House to give out wrong statistics. I understand that the figure I gave is accurate. If it is wrong, I shall write to him to say that it is wrong. If I am right, I shall write to him to say, I told you so.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): I will apologise for coming in late, Mr. Speaker, but I went to the hospital to have a heart monitor fitted. I said, What have I got to do? I was told, Act normally. So I thought I had better get to the House of Commons sharpish and have a rowthe effect is being monitored. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that a few weeks ago I asked her about the Government starting some work on ensuring that Members of Parliament have one job and one job only? They should stop the moonlighting and cut out the conflict of interest. More than 100 Tory MPs are making money on the side. What progress [Interruption.] Yes, I said that there would be a row. What progress is being made on the work that has already started? Can she help me?
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Could we have a statement on the accuracy of parliamentary reference books, which we all use and which, indeed, sit on the Table of the House? This week, Baroness Young denied that she takes the Labour Whip, yet Dods says that she does. We assumed that she was appointed to her job as chief executive of the Environment Agency because she was a Labour supporter. It may be that in her job she has studied those very intelligent rodents that leave sinking ships. Does the Leader of the House think that todays elections in London and elsewhere may lead to a flood of Labour stooges jumping off the Labour ship?
Ms Harman: I am not sure that that is really a point for me to answer as Leader of the House. However, it gives me the opportunity to answer the point about Sessional Orders. I can tell the House that the House has not passed the Sessional resolution in recent Sessions, following a Procedure Committee report suggesting it was ineffective. The whole matter of access can be raised when the Joint Committee that was appointed yesterday considers the Constitutional Renewal Bill.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Yesterday, the Prime Minister made the extraordinary statement that this Government have invested in rural communities, which is about as illuminating as saying that children invest in sweets. The reality over the past 10 years is that the Government have, deliberately and for party political advantage, shifted resources from rural communities into urban communities. Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on Government funding of rural communities?
Ms Harman: It is not the case that the Government have shifted resources from rural communities into inner-city areas. There has been investment in rural communities in schools, public transport and health services. The Government have been concerned to shift resources into deprived areas, and we are well aware that those include some rural areas.
Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Throughout DEFRA questions today and in business questions, issues of food security and coastal defence have been raised. I raised with the Leader of the House on 3 April the fact that 2,000 homes and 15,000 hectares of farmland in my constituency are to be abandoned as a matter of Government policy. She commendably replied that that was a matter of great concern and would be suitable for a debate. She said that she would speak to Ministers and come back to me. Imagine my dismay when I followed up with a letter and she wrote back and said that the issue would be kept under review. If an answer like that about an issue of such importance to so many Members cannot lead to Government time being devoted to it, what is the point of this session and what is the point of the Leader of the House?
Migration from the new EU member states has happened on a staggering scale.
It estimates that 665,000 new migrants have come to this country. With all the pressure that that is putting on public services, and bearing in mind that Northamptonshire has the largest number of migrants outside London, does the Leader of the House think that it would be a suitable issue for a topical debate?
Ms Harman: The first topical debate we had was on immigration, but I will consider that as a request for another. I remind the hon. Gentleman that migrants are more likely to provide public services than to use them. They build more houses than they live in and they pick more crops than they eat. We should recognise their contribution to the economy and our public services, while ensuring that they are not exploited and that employment laws apply effectively to those who employ them.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Four years ago, on European election day, the House had a debate in Government time on disabled people. Two years ago, on local election day, a similar debate took place. I had expected a debate on disabled people to take place today, although I am pleased that it did not, because it would have been overshadowed by events elsewhere. When that point was raised with the Minister for disabled people, she suggested that it be raised at business questions. Given that the Government will publish an annual report about their progress on Aiming high for disabled people, perhaps the Leader of the House could consider having an annual debate, in Government time and on the Floor of the House, about disabled people and the Governments policies on disability, so we may debate those important issues.
Ms Harman: The question of the equality of, and support and opportunity for, disabled people is one that cuts across several Departments. I will therefore consider the hon. Gentlemans suggestion and whether we can find time to address the issue across the piece at a single opportunity.
Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I am grateful that my right hon. and learned Friend has chosen the middle east as the theme for todays topical debate, especially as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and I requested that at business questions last week. What assessment has she made of the value of topical debates to the work of the House? Is it now set in stone that such debates will continue, or is she still assessing the matter? I have found them to be a valuable use of the time of the House and I hope that she will confirm that that will continue to be the Governments position.
Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I also thank him for his proposal for a topical debate. I need to consider further how we bring to the attention of hon. Members the question of topical debates. Once the announcement of the subject has been made, everybody thinks of topics that they would have preferred. However, we receive very few proposals, whether by letter, e-mail, phone call or personal requests when people see me going about the House. I will look into the point that he raises.