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22 May 2008 : Column 399

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 2 June will be:

Monday 2 June—Remaining stages of the Planning Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 3 June—Consideration 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 on the future of care and support.

Friday 6 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 9 June will include:

Monday 9 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 5 and 12 June will be:

Thursday 5 June—A debate on the report from the Environment Audit Committee entitled “Are Biofuels Sustainable?”

Thursday 12 June—A debate on the European Commission’s annual policy strategy.

On the question of freedom of information requests in relation to Members’ allowances, following the High Court’s decision last Friday I can confirm to the House that there will be no further appeal on the applications for information about the allowances claimed by 14 current and former Members. Tomorrow, information in respect of those 14 will be made public in the terms laid down by the High Court. Information in respect of all other current Members will be given out on a single date in the autumn.

On the question of the home addresses of the 14 Members concerned in this case, the information will be made public, subject to individual consideration of security issues. I should like to tell hon. Members that as far as publishing the addresses of all Members is concerned, as Leader of the House, I am determined that hon. Members should be able to speak in this House on controversial issues without looking over their shoulders because their home addresses are in the public domain. We are considering further how we can be sure that the money for Members’ London homes is properly spent, but we must also ensure that the protection needed for Members to speak out in the House remains.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I am sure that the whole House will have welcomed the statement that the Leader of the House has just made, not only on
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forthcoming business, but on freedom of information. As she has said, our systems need to ensure not only that money is properly spent and that there is transparency, but that hon. Members are not prevented from speaking out as they wish to in the House.

Two significant Bills completed their passage in the other place almost two months ago, but as yet we have been given no dates for their Second Readings in the House. One is the important Children and Young Persons Bill. The other is the Climate Change Bill—a major piece of legislation of real significance for the future. Will the right hon. and learned Lady now tell the House when the Second Readings of those two Bills will be?

The Treasury Committee has accused the Treasury of treating the Bank of England with “contempt” because of the Treasury’s handling of key appointments. The contracts of three members of the Bank’s court of directors expire in two weeks’ time, yet none has been told whether they will be reappointed. Added to that, the deputy governor will be leaving next month and as yet no replacement has been announced. During these times of financial and economic uncertainty, it seems astonishing that the Government should be dithering over those key roles. May we have a statement from the Chancellor in which he tells the House who has been holding up those appointments and whether he will follow the appointments guidelines first proposed by the shadow Chancellor and subsequently adopted by the Prime Minister last year?

It was revealed this week that failures in the tax credit system have cost the taxpayer £10 billion in the past four years; that is an unacceptable sum for the Government to have given out by mistake. Like other hon. Members, I am sure, I hear regularly from hard-working constituency families that repeated such errors have had a serious financial impact on family budgets. Will the Financial Secretary make a statement on what her Department is doing to improve the performance of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?

This week, the chief inspector of schools said that progress in raising school standards has stalled and that one in five pupils are failing to master basic English and maths when they leave primary school. The Government promised “Education, education, education”, yet they are still failing our children. Is it not about time for a debate in Government time on standards in our schools? On the subject of education, may we also have a statement from the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families explaining why schools have had to pull out of the Government’s flagship diploma scheme because of inadequate facilities and a lack of training for teachers?

It has been 11 years since the Government promised to end mixed-sex wards. Despite the claim by the Secretary of State for Health last month that the Government were in touching distance of achieving that, we found out this week that in 64 per cent. of hospital trusts, patients still had to walk past patients of the opposite sex to wash. When will the rest of the Government own up and admit, as Lord Darzi has already done, that they have failed on that manifesto commitment? May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the issue, as a matter of urgency?

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Yesterday, the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s College university published a report that clearly showed that the Government’s strategy on youth crime is failing. Spending has soared by 45 per cent. since 2000 to £650 million, yet the policy has had “no measurable impact”. The Government promised to make cutting the causes of crime a priority, yet they have failed dismally. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on the issue, as a matter of urgency?

The Government have hit hard-working families. Taxes and prices are up and promises on schools, hospitals and crime have been broken. After 11 years, people feel betrayed and let down. Is it any wonder that they are saying it is time for change?

Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments in response to my points about the freedom of information issues. We all want to emphasise that we want probity in how public money is spent, but we must also have democracy, in that people must be able to speak up freely in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), whose early-day motion on this issue is attracting a lot of support.

I am not able to announce the dates for the Children and Young Persons Bill and the Climate Change Bill as part of today’s statement, but they will be announced shortly.

The right hon. Lady mentioned Government appointments in relation to the Treasury and the Bank of England, and she might be aware that we have made quite a lot of progress in involving this House in that process through the Select Committee system and pre-appointment hearings. There was an informal discussion between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Liaison Committee yesterday about the involvement of Select Committees in pre-appointment hearings. With regard to the hearings that the right hon. Lady is talking about, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will give evidence to the Treasury Committee when we return after the recess, and the matter could be raised then if members of that Committee so wished.

The right hon. Lady is always quick to point out any problems with tax credits, but I ask her and other hon. Members to recognise that they are an enormously important support for low and middle-income families, particularly—but not only—those with children. Obviously, we want to do more to cut down on fraud and mistakes, and there is a major programme in that respect.

The right hon. Lady mentioned standards in schools. I remind her that there are fewer failing schools and smaller class sizes in primary schools than when we came into government, and that standards are rising. She can put questions on the diploma scheme to the Secretary of State for children, families and schools, but there is a phased roll-out. It was always going to be a phased roll-out in order to give more choice to pupils in the qualifications that they seek to take.

Hon. Members can take up the question of mixed-sex wards with the Secretary of State for Health. I hope that the right hon. Lady’s comments on youth crime mean that she will be backing the youth clubs programme that we expect to roll out in all neighbourhoods.

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I am aware, Mr. Speaker, that in responding to these points I do not want to trespass on the injunction that you gave last week that we should not make business questions a rerun of Prime Minister’s Punch and Judy questions; we should try to make them about the business of the House. I do try to do so, but the trouble is that I feel obliged to respond if the right hon. Lady makes a whole load of party political point-scoring points. I apologise for having to respond, but once again, I have been provoked.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I refer the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1509.

[That this House commends the postal staff in the Palace of Westminster for their continued excellent service, loyal dedication and their willingness to go that extra mile for the benefit of all hon. Members; is alarmed that the House authorities are intending to privatise the post services within the Palace; and calls upon those authorities to reconsider immediately.]

May we have a debate on this issue? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware that a tendering process involving the Royal Mail postal staff in this House has started. Part of the criteria that the House authorities have laid down is that a tender has to be made off site as well as on site. Does she agree that it would be appalling if we lost our Royal Mail postal service and brought in a private competitor that may want to do things more cheaply off site? That would raise all sorts of problems for security and the very good standard of service that we get in the House.

Ms Harman: All hon. Members appreciate the postal services made available to us in this House so that we can communicate with our constituents and more widely. My hon. Friend has drawn my attention to her early-day motion, and I will consider it and write to her. If there is anything further to tell the House about the matter, I shall make a written ministerial statement or communicate with hon. Members in some other way. I do not know whether my hon. Friend had an opportunity to raise the matter with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but she may want to speak further about it during the debate on the Adjournment of the House later this afternoon.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): At the risk of further provoking the Leader of the House, may I thank her for the statement she made on freedom of information and the decisions that have been made in that case? We look forward to further information on how things will be implemented in the autumn.

The House last debated Zimbabwe in Government time in July 2007, and the last oral statement given on the subject was on 2 April. We now have a date for the second round of presidential elections in Zimbabwe, and given that since the first round of elections, 40 Movement for Democratic Change activists and supporters have been murdered in that country, is it not time that we had a debate in Government time so that the House, on behalf of the whole country, can send the message to Robert Mugabe that murder and intimidation are not tactics to be used in a democracy and that they cannot be accepted? The eyes of the world will be upon him and his party when it comes to the next round of elections.

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Secondly, may we have an opportunity in Government time—perhaps through a statement from the Secretary of State for Health—to explore why the Government’s attempts to bear down on hospital-acquired infections have stalled? Indeed, surveys now show that the majority of hospitals are failing to isolate patients found with MRSA and clostridium difficile.

May we have a debate in the light of today’s news that criminals appear to be walking free as a result of the Crown Prosecution Service dropping cases, not because it had no evidence but because it had lost evidence and frequently failed to record it? Another aspect of data management is that millions of NHS patients are seen each year without doctors having access to full medical records. May we have a debate on the Government’s handling of personal data to ensure that lessons are being learned? In that debate, perhaps we can also explore why the incompetent data practices that have become inherent under the Government now also appear to be infecting the Conservative party, which sent an e-mail only yesterday containing 8,000 personal records with financial status data to a local radio station in the north.

May I draw attention to early-day motion 1547 on personality disorder treatment at the Henderson hospital?

[That this House welcomes the decision to hold the largest ever statutory consultation about the organisation and provision of tier 4 mental health services for people with personality disorders; is concerned that the Henderson Hospital personality service has been temporarily closed ahead of the consultation; notes that the Henderson democratic residential therapeutic community model is an effective treatment of complex personality disorder which reduces acute readmissions and interventions by the criminal justice system; is concerned that flaws in NHS commissioning arrangements have put this specialist mental health service at risk of permanent closure; and calls on the Department of Heath and NHS London to take the steps necessary to safeguard the Henderson model and strengthen arrangements for commissioning specialist residential tier 4 mental health services for severe personality disorder in the future.]

May we have a debate on that?

Finally, I would like to ask about the business statement. Why do we get only eight days of business at this point? Surely the Government should know what they are doing at least two weeks ahead. Surely the Whitsun recess should not be a reason for not giving more information on business, or are events so far out of the Government’s control that they do not even know two weeks of their business?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked when the House will have the opportunity to debate Zimbabwe. I know that hon. Members have raised that matter on several occasions and I have been in contact with Foreign Office Ministers about it. I think that the House will want a debate soon, especially with the elections happening next month. I will report back shortly.

On MRSA, the Government continue to press forward with tackling hospital-acquired infection. The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health or perhaps in the pre-recess Adjournment debate, which immediately follows the business statement.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Crown Prosecution Service and criminals walking free. He will know that there has been an increase in the number of offenders brought to justice in recent years. The CPS has responded to Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate’s important report. It is important not only that there is good working between the police, the CPS and the courts but that files are effectively case-managed. The CPS has responded to the report by saying that it will act on its recommendations.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned personal data. He will know that a communications data Bill was announced in our consultation on the Government’s draft legislative programme. It is important that we have the opportunity to ensure that both counter-terrorist and criminal investigation can take place through data sharing and that there is proper protection and privacy for data. I therefore think that everybody will be dismayed that the Conservative party has sent to the public the names, addresses, phone numbers, financial status and voting intentions of 8,000 people in Crewe and Nantwich. I hope that it will ensure that that information is destroyed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): I fully endorse my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments about security considerations for Members of Parliament. We must be in a position to speak our mind in the House without threats. Otherwise, does she share my view that the High Court decision on our allowances was right and justified, and that whatever money we claim should be known to the public? Would not it also be useful if more were done to explain why we claim the money and that it is essential to carry out our duties? There is no need for apology, because that money makes it possible for Members of Parliament to do their work here and in their constituencies.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, with which I am sure the whole House will agree. It is important for the public that the House of Commons works effectively, and it is important that Members of Parliament work in their constituencies and in Westminster, so they need a home in their constituency and in Westminster and they need to travel between the two. They also need properly staffed offices to deal with the many requests for help and support that we receive from our constituents and to engage with them on public policy. We need to justify the allowances that are available, in the public interest, to Members, and we must ensure that there is public confidence in that. We must therefore do as he suggests and make that explanation clearer.

Of course, in respect of the High Court decision, there is no question. This House makes and passes the law, but the courts interpret the law and we obey it as it is laid down by them. It is in the public interest that the public have the information that they need and have confidence in the allowance, and that hon. Members have the ability to speak freely in the House.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con) rose—

Hon. Members: Apprentice!

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