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15 May 2008 : Column 1547

Business of the House

11.34 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 next week will be as follows:

Monday 19 May—Consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 20 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 21 May—Second Reading of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

Thursday 22 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 June will include:

Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill—day 1.

Tuesday 3 June—Conclusion of Lords amendments to the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to the promotion of energy from renewable resources, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to maritime policy.

Wednesday 4 June—Opposition day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 June—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate, subject to be announced.

Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business of the House.

As the Leader of the House will be aware, it is normal practice to give the House advance notice of statements by the Prime Minister. Last week, I asked the right hon. and learned Lady when the Government would announce their draft legislative programme. She would not give a date to the House. Yet, at the weekend, the date was given to the media. Why were the media given advance notice but not Members of this House?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the House that the Chancellor had to announce his taxation proposals on Tuesday, during a by-election campaign, if they were to go into the Finance Bill. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that that was incorrect and that, for example, the proposals could have been introduced simply as a new clause on Report after 22 May? Was that not just a blatant attempt at an election bribe?

Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England warned the country to brace itself for a recession. Every day, the cost of living is creeping up, and earlier this week, the Minister for Housing inadvertently revealed that there is a real danger of a housing market crash. The Governor reaffirmed that in his statement and said that interest rates should not be cut for at least two years, which will deeply worry those who are struggling
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with their mortgages. So will next week’s topical debate be on the decline in the housing market?

In the international women’s day debate on 6 March, the right hon. and learned Lady said that the Walsh review on flexible working was

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced that the Government will take forward the review’s recommendations but said that they will now consult on implementation—another consultation on top of a review. Is that not just a delaying tactic that will create more uncertainty for business? May we have a statement from the right hon. and learned Lady, as the Minister for Women and Equality, to clarify the Government’s position?

We learned this week that a High Court judge has allowed a disabled women to seek a judicial review of the Government’s decision to shut thousands of post offices on the grounds that it discriminates against disabled people. That comes on the back of reports that 3,000 further post offices are threatened with closure on top of the 2,500 previously announced. It has also been revealed that the Saturday delivery service is under threat and that Postcomm has called for parts of Royal Mail to be privatised. Post offices are a lifeline for both urban and rural communities. We are committed to the universal service, but the Government are presiding over a reduction in services. So may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the Government’s position on the future of the Post Office and Royal Mail?

The Government are dithering over flexible working and presiding over the decline in our post offices, and their economic policy is a shambles. They have backed down on capital gains tax, the taxation of non-doms and the 10p tax rate, and we learned this week that they are backing down on changes to the corporate tax regime. Policy is set to grab the headlines, with no thought for the consequences. Speaking of which, will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House the impact of the Chancellor’s commitment to change income tax thresholds in the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady mentioned the Prime Minister’s statement on the draft legislative programme. I have made it clear to the House before that my view is that there is a distinction to be made. If a statement has new content, it is important that it be made to the House first. On the timing of statements, the most important thing is that everybody in the House understands that a statement is to be made, and that that information gets to all Members. I do not think that the House should be so jealous of its right to hear when a statement will be made, but it should be jealous of its right to hear the content of the statement.

On the timing of the changes that will be made to the Finance Bill as a result of the adjustments made after the abolition of the 10p rate of tax, the right hon. Lady will note that the changes will indeed be made to the Bill before the Crewe by-election, but after the local council elections. The fact is that the Chancellor agreed
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that the adjustments should be made; the issue of how to go about making them has been considered, and he has come to the House with his proposals.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the housing market. The Chancellor and Prime Minister have made it clear that we are concerned about what is happening in the housing market, especially with so many people coming to the end of the fixed-rate part of their mortgage. Uncertainty in the banking system is causing what is being described as the credit crunch. That is why there has been a considerable number of proposals on how to put liquidity into the banking system to enable greater availability of mortgages. For that reason, we have come forward with proposals to help first-time buyers and broaden the opportunity for shared equity schemes. If the right hon. Lady wants a debate on the subject, I will take her remarks as a proposal for a topical debate, but she can of course make the issue the subject of an Opposition day debate, if she sees fit.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Walsh review, published this morning. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has tabled a written ministerial statement on the report by Imelda Walsh, who conducted her review at the Government’s request. I thank her warmly for the work that she has done, and for her report. The Government accept the proposals in the report, but it is right that people be given time to read it. The Prime Minister has said that we expect to introduce her proposals early next year.

I think that the right hon. Lady would agree that we were correct to introduce a right to request flexible working for parents with children aged up to six. Many parents have made such a request and have had it granted by employers, but we need to make sure that more people are aware of their rights. We recognise that the difficulty in balancing working life with bringing up children does not end when the child reaches its sixth birthday, and that is why we agree with Imelda Walsh’s proposals to raise that age to 16.

Mrs. May: Adopting Conservative policy.

Ms Harman: Okay; the reality is that a lot of changes have come forward. Maternity pay and leave have been extended and paternity leave has been introduced for the first time. Sure Start children’s centres, nurseries, tax credits—a great many measures have been introduced to help working mothers, and working parents in general. The truth is that they were brought forward by a Labour Government against the dragged anchor of Tory opposition. We are planning to build on those measures, and if the Conservative Opposition now intend to support that, we welcome it. However, to say that the suggested measures are Conservative proposals is an attempt to rewrite history, and the Conservatives really should not treat the public as fools.

The right hon. Lady also mentioned the Post Office and Royal Mail. She said that she is committed to universal post offices. Against a background of falling revenue for the Post Office and falling numbers of people at post offices, perhaps she will say how she would fund keeping all the post offices open. She knows that there has been a review of the Royal Mail, evidence
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has been taken and interim findings have been reported, but the full report will be presented to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform next year.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): In this age of greater freedom of information and transparency, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a debate on the Short money that flows to Opposition parties? It is many millions of pounds, and parliamentarians find it impossible to discover who gets the money, how it is used and how it is balanced between Ashcroft money and other money. Greater transparency should work for one and for all. It is about time that we lifted the lid on that money, who gets it and for what purposes.

Ms Harman: That is a very good proposal from my hon. Friend. I will take it up and report back to him and the House, if necessary. As he says, the Short money is millions of pounds. It is available to enable Opposition parties to develop policy, not for party political campaigning. It should be subject to greater transparency and I will report back on the matter.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): First, can the Leader of the House tell us when she was first told that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to make an additional Budget statement on Tuesday? Secondly, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister keep on telling us that the announcement on Tuesday was nothing at all to do with the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, but the people of Crewe and Nantwich, like everyone else, might have some concerns about the matters that affect the pockets, homes and livelihoods of our people. Given that fact, and that this week we have heard that unemployment has risen for the third month in a row, food prices have gone up more than 6 per cent. in the past year, and we face probably the greatest uncertainty in the housing market, which everybody knew but the Minister for Housing inadvertently confirmed on Tuesday, could we move next Wednesday’s business so that that day—the day before the by-election—there could be a debate on the economy in Britain, possibly entitled, “Are the Government still on the people’s side?”

Out there in the real world, everybody realises that the Government are scrambling to undo all the things that they have done. In the Chamber there appears to be a state of total denial among those on the Government Benches. Housing, which featured in the draft legislative programme, is clearly important. May we have an early debate on how many affordable houses have been provided so far, how many will be provided under the Government’s current spending plans, and how many additional houses will be available after the announcements made by the Prime Minister yesterday? All the analysis suggests that it is a matter of hundreds or a thousand or two, rather than tens of thousands, and that there has been a lot of hype and very little delivery.

I join the plea for another debate on post offices. It is bad enough that most of the proposed closures in London have just been confirmed, that many other closures are proposed around the country and that Crown post offices are facing franchising, as is the one in the borough that the right hon. and learned Lady and I represent, but hearing that we are to lose our Saturday
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delivery as well suggests that something is pretty rotten in the state of the Post Office. The Government take responsibility. They have been in power for 11 years. Will the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform come to the House and explain whether that, too, will be Government policy, just as all the closures have been Government policy or supported by the Government?

Lastly, the Leader of the House has said, to her credit, that she is keen to get the processes of the House reformed so that we do things logically. She knows that on Tuesday night, we at last debated the “Statement of Changes in the Immigration Rules”. The only trouble was that the rules came into force at the end of February and we could not have the debate until the middle of May.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): It happens a lot.

Simon Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman says, it happens a lot—

Mr. Skinner: For many years.

Simon Hughes: And it has done so for many years. May we please bring to an end the nonsensical system whereby secondary legislation comes into force before either House has had a chance to debate it and decide whether it agrees with it, and whether or not there has been consultation? The Minister for Borders and Immigration, to his credit, had to make a major concession because he accepted the arguments put in opposition to some of the rules, and the rules will now effectively have to be redrawn.

Please may we have a proper, timetabled sequence for secondary legislation so that we see, debate and decide a draft, and the measure comes into force some time later?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked when I was first told that the Chancellor had reached a conclusion about the proposals that he was to put before the House on the 10p rate of tax and when he asked to make an oral statement on them. I do not like not answering questions, but this might be one of those issues on which there is not supposed to be complete, utter transparency and openness. So I will not answer the question at this point, but I will take advice on whether the issue is one of those Government things that remain as part of internal discussions between Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about the economy of Britain. I remind him that although in the last quarter unemployment figures showed an increase, unemployment is lower now than it was this time last year. There is a continuous increase in employment, and that is very important. That is one of the reasons why the Chancellor and the Prime Minister set a great deal of store on ensuring that liquidity remains in the banking system, so that continuous finance is available for small businesses and they can continue to employ people. The economy remains on track. The international situation is difficult, of course, and people are concerned. However, we are doing all that we can to keep the economy stable and growing.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned housing. He will know that a great deal has been done on housing in the past 10 years. In his constituency and mine, more or less every flat on every council estate has had new windows, doors, roofing and lifts. There has been massive investment in housing. He will also know that more social housing—flats and houses—has been built. Furthermore, there are 1 million more homeowners than when we came into government, and we are planning for there to be 1 million more still. Of course, there are difficulties in the housing market at the moment because of the credit crunch, which started with the sub-prime mortgage problems in America. However, we intend to do all that we can as a Government, and we are working to ensure that the housing market is as stable and protected as possible.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the Royal Mail. It is right that there should be a review because of changes in how people are communicating, particularly in respect of electronic communications. I thank Richard Hooper, formerly of Ofcom, who has undertaken the review on behalf of the Government. What is important is that we have a fair deal for Royal Mail users and employees and for taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of this House having debated secondary legislation after it had come into effect. It certainly seems odd that we should debate something that has already gone into law. However, I am sure that there is a perfectly good reason for it; I just cannot remember what it is at the moment. I am sure that I will be reminded by my colleagues before the end of oral questions about why something that seems rather illogical is in fact entirely logical. If I am not, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on the issue.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): The Government rightly keep banging on about cutting vehicle emissions. Outside your official residence, Mr. Speaker, is where Ministers’ cars sit. In inclement weather, the drivers sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep warm. When it is hot, they also sit there with the motors running, presumably to keep the air conditioning on. Yet there are serried ranks of Toyota Prius hybrids out there, run by Ministers to cut emissions. Will my right hon. and learned Friend liaise with her colleagues and perhaps provide suitable facilities so that the drivers can have a room adjacent to that parking area and stay warm in winter and cool in summer without unnecessarily polluting the atmosphere?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which I shall raise with my ministerial colleagues at the Department for Transport.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): When does the right hon. and learned Lady expect to receive the Baker report on MPs’ pay, and when does she expect a debate on it?

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