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Given that the Government support the closure of 2,500 post offices and the huge public interest in the fact that the Secretary of State for Business,
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is opposing the closure of a post office in his own constituency, will the Leader of the House encourage him to make a statement to the House explaining why he seems to be going against the policy of his own Government?
Ms Harman: There will be opportunities for hon. Members to raise questions about the Post Office in several forthcoming Westminster Hall debates. They may also seek Adjournment debates on the issue and table questions to Ministers from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. and learned Friend commend the Prime Ministers personal intervention in the negotiations taking place in Dublin on cluster munitions? Many hon. Members have long argued that such munitions have no part to play in the protection of our forces, because they do much more damage to civilian populations. If the British Government are saying that they wish to have a full ban on those munitions, let me congratulate them heartily and say what a wonderful campaign there has been.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will know that this country has led the way in negotiations to end the use of land mines. International negotiations about cluster bombs are under way in Dublin, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will report on any issues that arise from those negotiations.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I thank the Leader of the House for her statement robustly defending the right of Members of Parliament to enjoy the same degree of privacy and security that any other citizen is entitled to enjoy if he wishes to keep his private address private? May I thank her also for drawing attention to my early-day motion 1620, which has so far been signed by 88 hon. and right hon. Members?
May I express my bafflement that the judges and the Information Commissioner do not appear to have appreciated the security considerations in this matter? May I also draw attention to early-day motions 1623 and 1628, which were tabled by a Liberal Democrat and a Labour Member respectively, asking for the release of similar information about the home addresses of judges and senior civil servants?
[That this House notes the reasons given by the High Court as to why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and considers in the same spirit of openness and public accountability that the home addresses of High Court judges, who are adult, law-abiding citizens and holders of public office in the public eye, should also be published along with a detailed break-down of the expenses which they charge to the public purse.]
[That this House notes the High Courts reasons for why the addresses of hon. and right hon. Members can be published; and in the same spirit of openness and public
accountability, the home addresses of High Court judges, chief police officers, fire chiefs, chief executives of local authorities, chairs of public bodies and senior Crown civil servants should also be published alongside detailed breakdowns of the expenses which each charge to the public purse.]
I have already made freedom of information requests for that information to be released. What arrangements will be in place for individual MPs to register their specific objections before the release of their addresses? Have any of the 14 MPs concerned been given the opportunity to object to their individual addresses being disclosed in that irresponsible way?
Ms Harman: We are in a different position to other people. We have to be subject to the appropriate level of scrutiny because the money being spent on housing, communication, office staff and travel is public money, and the public must have confidence that it is being spent properly. I know that the hon. Gentleman agrees with the points that I have madeindeed, he has made them himself on many occasionsthat, above all, it is important that hon. Members are able to speak freely in this House according to their conscience and concerns.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 14 Members. It is the practice of the House authorities to consult individual Members regarding the handling of freedom of information requests, and that will be the case following the High Court decision. Those Members will be consulted in respect of their individual security situations. However, we will be looking to have a general position on addresses that satisfies the public that there is proper scrutiny of the money being spent on London homes. We need to consider this matter further, so I shall not say any more at this stage, but I know that it is of concern. I invite hon. Members to speak to me and the Deputy Leader of the House about this; we need as much information about and discussion on the issue as possible, and then we need to move forward appropriately.
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Considering the depth of damage done to coalfield communities under the Conservative Administration, the Labour Government have made major moves forward in regeneration. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a debate to discuss the regeneration of former coalfield areas, so that we can celebrate the work of the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and English Partnerships? I should like to press for further regeneration in the Featherstone town area, which is one of those areas that have not yet been fully regenerated.
Ms Harman: I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate, but I draw my hon. Friends attention to the fact that the Modernisation Committee will shortly make proposals for regional Select Committees. Regional policies can make a big difference to the development of former coalfield communities through regional development agencies and other agencies, but they need to be held accountable to hon. Members such as my hon. Friend.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
Does the Leader of the House agree that the House of Commons was at its best on Monday and Tuesday, in terms of debate, when it debated controversial issues in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? Will she
accept my thanks for guaranteeing that there was a free vote on both sides of the House? That was a good thing, despite some people, who lost the vote, showing sour grapes by claiming, without any evidence, that it was not a free vote. Will she guarantee that there will also be a free vote on those issues on Report, if they come up again, and adequate time for the House to debate them fully?
Ms Harman: I reaffirm what the hon. Gentleman says. There was a full debate over two days, and on our side there was absolutely and emphatically a free vote on those four issuesand it is right that there was. The Bill will be dealt with in the usual way on Report, and if there are any conscience issues, they will, of course, be subject to a free vote at that stage. I agree that the House was at its best on Monday and Tuesday. Usually, when people say that the House was at its best, I think that it was at its worst, but on this occasion I agree. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the part that he played in the debate.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Further to the question that the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) asked, may I ask for a debate on security issues in relation to MPs? I and other members of the Administration Committee were dismayed this week to hear that no advice on security was taken before the appeal. As part of that debate, may we debate the advice that the Members Estimate Committee gets on such matters, as well as mechanisms to ensure that the head of finance and administration is under proper parliamentary scrutiny and control, rather than taking decisions that, as we heard the other day, are his alone?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to say that the information tribunal did not have specific information about security when it was dealing with the requests for the private London addresses of the 14 current and former Members of Parliament. The tribunal said that it regretted the paucity of information, and that is something that needs to be reflected on. I will take steps in the coming days and weeks to ensure that I get the views, experience, background and circumstances of all hon. Members, so that when a decision comes to be made in the future it can be made on the basis of properly gathered evidence. I think that that is the way we need to go forward.
I had understood that the Governments so-called, much-vaunted modernisation programme would lead to our having two weeks business announced to the House in advance. For some reason, 10 and 11 June have been left out of todays announcement, and it is rumoured that that is connected with the Counter-Terrorism Bill. Why cannot the Leader of the House announce that now, if she already knows what is happening? Are the Government dithering as usual, while awaiting the outcome of the vote in Crewe?
I apologise; I did not answer the point about announcing business in advance. We have sought to announce more business to the House in advance in order to enable hon. Members to plan. We are about to
have a weeks recess, which is why we have announced two weeks business today. One of those weeks is the recess and the second is the week beginning 2 June, so really the hon. Gentleman is talking about the third week. We need to strike a balance between ensuring that hon. Members have sufficient notice and having the flexibility to deal with any issues that might arise.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House, like me, feel a sense of frustration that so many months after the publication of Baroness Corstons excellent report on vulnerable women in the criminal justice system, there has been no Government-led debate on it and no proper debate on it in this Chamber? Will she do something about that matter urgently?
Ms Harman: The Government have been considering their full response to the Corston report and will come forward with proposals very shortly. That might well provide an opportunity for a full debate on the important proposals that Baroness Corston made on ensuring that fewer women go to prison and that those who do are able to be housed nearer their families.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), the right hon. and learned Lady said that it was important for hon. Members to be given notice of the business of the House. Is it not the case that Government Ministers have been given notice that they should cancel overseas visits on 10 and 11 June? Why are Ministers being kept in the picture while hon. Members are being kept in the dark by the Government?
Bearing in mind the fact that there is no parliamentary oversight of the security and intelligence services, and that Ministers consistently refuse to answer any questions on these matters, can we have a specific debate on the relationship between the United Kingdom security and intelligence services and the former South African apartheid regime, and, in particular, with the regimes Dr. Mengele, Wouter Basson, and Project Coast? The House needs to be able to examine whether there was ministerial cover for that illicitand, I believe, illegalrelationship. Wouter Basson was allowed to come in and out of this country and to work here during the years of the apartheid regime. It is time that this matter was exposed.
Ms Harman: We have taken steps to improve the accountability of the security and intelligence services. There will be further steps in that direction in the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has been published in draft. As I mentioned in response to an earlier question, there will be a possibility for pre-appointment hearings by Select Committees, which are an important measure of accountability. I have heard my hon. Friends points, and I will bring them to the attention of the relevant Ministers.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): On Monday and Tuesday of this week, when the House debated the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the programme motion tabled by the Government was such that voting on one group of amendments did not eat into the debating time for the next group. The Leader of the House will know that that procedure is not normally followed for Government Bills, and that debates on amendments and on Third Reading are often severely truncated because of voting. Will she apply the regime that operated on Monday and Tuesday to future Government Bills in order that the House may properly hold the Government to account?
Ms Harman: That was a Committee stage rather than a Report stage. Of course, whenever a programme motion is tabled, there is an opportunity for Members to debate it and to say whether they think it is appropriate[Hon. Members: No there isnt!] There is always an opportunity to debate a programme motion, and it has to be agreed by the House.
Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): A series of strikes, blockades and stoppages by French workers in Calais is causing massive disruption to Dover and to Dovers cross-channel ferries today and over the coming bank holiday weekend. The M20 has been closed again in order to stack up vehicles. My colleagues and I have raised these matters with Ministers and with Kent county council over a long period of time, but progress in resolving this serious problem has been very slow. It is a problem not only for Dover but for the road haulage system generally and for UK Ltd. May we have a debate in Government time to discuss the matter further?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is a champion of Dover and of its importance not only regionally but nationally. I will raise his points with my ministerial colleagues in the Foreign Office and ask them to consider them with the utmost seriousness and to convey their response to my hon. Friend in writing.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): The right hon. Lady might be aware of the report in The Times last weekend on the work of the City accountants Grant Thornton, and in particular the work of their excellent economist, Maurice Fitzpatrick. The report showed that Scotland would have a surplus of more than £4 billion if it were independent. The UK currently has a deficit of £40 billion. May we have a debate on Scotlands big surplus and the UKs massive deficit?
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab):
May I once again raise with my right hon. Friend my serious concern about the complexity of the benefits system? I do not think that any other country in Europe has three Government agencies to deliver benefits. This problem is compounded by a morass of means-testing. I know that the Work and Pensions Select Committee has looked at this issue, but may we have a full debate in which we can discuss, among other things, my suggestion that benefits ought to be brought within one Government
agency, namely the Department for Work and Pensions? We should also look at ways to reduce the amount of means-testing.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points. He will know that there will be an opportunity to raise the matter on the Monday when the House returns after the recess at Department for Work and Pensions questions. Perhaps he will seek an opportunity to raise those points then.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I support the request of the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) for a debate on the Corston report as soon as possible? May I also draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the parlous state of the consultation process on eco-towns that is going onor rather, not going onat the moment? In my own constituency, the Government apparently intend to build a town twice the size of Market Harborough in the middle of rural Harborough, yet we have no idea about any of the details of the proposals from the Department for Communities and Local Government or from the developers, namely the Co-operative Wholesale Society and English Partnerships. This will not do. If the Government are going to build a town of 40,000 people in an area of rural England without any infrastructure and with less than 1 per cent. unemployment, I believe they ought to condescend to be rather more candid. May we have a debate on this as soon as we get back?
Ms Harman: There will be a debate on eco-towns in Westminster Hall on the Tuesday after the House returns from the recess, so perhaps the hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to participate in it.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): I need to return to an issue that I have put to the Leader of the House before. May we have a debate on Somerset county council and the corruption that is going on there? Yesterday, 24 hours ago, the county solicitor, David Corry, met the resources director, Roger Kershaw, and agreed secretly to move 500 pages from a crucial contract. That contract now puts at risk hundreds of jobs and more than half a billion pounds of public money. The deal with IBM was signed last September, but the details have never been seen by a single elected councillor in Somerset. I am afraid that what has happened has been uncovered and there is now an attempt to suppress the truth. These matters are, unfortunately, outside the remit of the district auditor, so I believe that the Serious Fraud Office needs to be brought in as quickly as possible. This is a cover-up and corruption at the highest level. May we please have a debate to discuss this important matter?
Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there has been criminal activity, he should approach the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not appropriate, in my view, to raise this matter with the Leader of the House and to ask me to bring in the police and the Serious Fraud Office. It is not a good idea for hon. Membersalthough they obviously have to decide for themselves what they sayto use the privilege of the House to make allegations of corruption in respect of individuals who can be identified. That is really quite a serious matter, which the hon. Gentleman should have referred first to the police and the Serious Fraud Office.
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