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5 Jun 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 next week will be as follows.

Monday 9 June—Second Reading of the Climate Change Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 10 June—Remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill (Day1).

Wednesday 11 June—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Counter-Terrorism Bill.

Thursday 12 June—It is expected that there will be an oral statement on the HMS Tireless board of inquiry. Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Friday 13 June—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 16 June will include:

Monday 16 June—Second Reading of the Children and Young Persons Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 17 June—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 18 June—A general debate on the pre-European Council.

Thursday 19 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence procurement.

Friday 20 June—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 19 and 26 June and 3 July will be:

Thursday 19 June—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee entitled “The Best Start in Life? Alleviating Deprivation, Improving Social Mobility and Eradicating Child Poverty”.

Thursday 26 June—A debate on skills for life.

Thursday 3 July—A debate on women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system.

May I remind the House that we will rise for the summer recess on Tuesday 22 July? The dates for the tabling and answering of written questions during the summer recess were agreed by the House yesterday.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I note that the business for next Monday has changed. Will she tell us what has happened to the second day’s debate on the Planning Bill?

Robert Mugabe’s actions have directly caused appalling malnutrition and famine in Zimbabwe. His presence at the UN food summit earlier this week, in defiance of EU sanctions, has rightly caused outrage. On 1 May, the right hon. and learned Lady said she would consider a topical debate on Zimbabwe. On 22 May, she said:

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Lord Malloch-Brown is giving a briefing to the all-party group on Zimbabwe next week. That is welcome, but it is no substitute for a full debate in Government time in this House, as promised, on Zimbabwe. So when will we have that debate?

Food security is a matter of concern globally, so why was the UK the only country not to send a Minister to the recent meeting of European Agriculture Ministers? I understand that the Environment Secretary was at a meeting of the G8 Environment Ministers, but where was the rest of his team? May we have a statement to the House explaining why no Minister attended?

This week, the National Audit Office told the Ministry of Defence that the Ministry had wasted £500 million on eight Chinook helicopters that have never been flown. Today, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has taken the unprecedented step of publicly asking the Government for more funding for our troops. Moreover, he has called for the Government to set out their priorities. Will the Defence Secretary make a statement to the House to do just that, and explain why, when troops in Afghanistan need more helicopters, his Department has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on helicopters that are sitting in a hangar in Wiltshire? The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has called this a “gold-standard cock-up”, so why is the debate in a fortnight’s time on defence procurement being held on a Thursday, when it will be cut short by an hour and a half?

The disclosure by Post Office Ltd that a further 4,000 post offices could be closed, including profitable ones, in addition to the current 2,500 closures, has justifiably angered many people. In London, the current round of closures is pushing ahead, despite the fact that the Mayor has said he will launch a legal case on this matter. This comes on top of the news that Post Office managers have not even agreed on the minimum number of post offices that the service requires. We are lurching from closure programme to closure programme with no end in sight. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the disastrous consequences of post office closures for their constituents. May we have a statement from the Business Secretary on what strategy, if any, his Department has in place on post offices?

Days after the British Medical Association called on the Government to dump the polyclinic plan, a report published today by the King’s Fund has found that all patients would have to make “major sacrifices” under Government plans to centralise health services, and that the elderly and those in rural communities would be the worst hit. May we have a statement from the Health Secretary on the number of family doctors’ practices that would have to close under the Government’s plan for polyclinics?

Under this Government, rural communities such as those in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies have lost their post office, their local shop and their police station; now they are threatened with losing their family doctor. Furthermore, the Government are pushing up the tax on their elderly family cars. The Government simply do not understand rural communities. May we have a debate on how Government policy is slowly eroding our rural communities?

The Government are failing to represent the UK abroad, they are failing our armed services and they are
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failing our rural communities. The Prime Minister says that he is going to listen, but when is he going to learn?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady asked about the Planning Bill. The business of the House has indeed changed: it had been announced that the Bill was in the House next week. On Second Reading, a number of hon. Members from all parts of the House raised concerns about the Bill. Further, there have been meetings between Ministers and hon. Members. With the Minister who is responsible for the Bill, I too have met the Chairs of various Select Committees who are concerned about the processes involved in the Bill.

It is only right that if hon. Members, including Chairs of Select Committees, raise questions about a piece of Government legislation, the appropriate thing to do is to reflect on what changes might need to be made. Without arranging it formally, the Bill will probably come back to the House the week after next, probably on Monday 23 June—if that is the week after next. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. Either they raise issues and want us to address them, or they raise issues and criticise us if we plough ahead— [Interruption.] At all stages, it is right for the Government to respond to hon. Members.

The right hon. Lady’s second point was on Zimbabwe, and she pressed me on that. It is a matter of concern to the whole House. The second elections in Zimbabwe will be held on 27 June. The House has strong feelings about Zimbabwe, and the issue has been raised repeatedly in business questions. Both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, are well aware of the strong feelings in the House and of the views of all hon. Members. They stand ready to meet them to discuss our diplomatic work in support of the democratic movements in Zimbabwe. The Foreign Office has contacted the offices of all those hon. Members who have raised Zimbabwe in business questions, and they will be invited to the all-party briefing next Tuesday, to which the right hon. Lady referred.

I can assure the House that we will have a debate on Zimbabwe. It will not be before the elections because the democratic movements in Zimbabwe do not want the views of the UK to be used as an alibi by Mugabe. However, I can assure the House that it will be before the House rises for the summer recess.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of ministerial attendance at, and Government involvement in, the food security EU summit. I shall arrange for the relevant Department to write to her about that.

I understand that the Chinook helicopters were procured in 1995. I believe that there has been a written ministerial statement on that, but if there has not I will arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence to write to the right hon. Lady. As she said, there will be a debate on defence procurement on Thursday week, and that will give her colleagues and all hon. Members an opportunity to raise the issue.

The right hon. Lady mentioned armed forces pay, as did other hon. Members in Treasury questions, which were the business of the House this morning. The independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommends the level of pay increases for the armed forces. If hon.
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Members want a different system for setting the level of pay for the armed forces, perhaps they should make that clear. The Government have accepted the body’s recommendations in full and without staging. That is the first point. We have a process, and no one is suggesting a different one—unless they come forward with proposals. We have complied with the process in full.

We have also increased the defence budget. By 2010, it will be 11 per cent. higher in real terms than it was in 1997. The UK is currently second only to the US in terms of defence spending as a nation. I have not heard Opposition Members propose how they would increase defence spending beyond what we are doing or which operations—Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo or elsewhere—they would cut back.

I remind Members that a soldier’s salary does not constitute the entire remunerative package. Housing and council tax relief for soldiers on operations and, in some cases, school allowances should also be taken into account. Defence questions will take place on Monday week, and the general debate on defence on Thursday week will give Members an opportunity to raise the matter.

The right hon. Lady will know that the consultation on the post office network is still under way. She will also know that the issue has been raised repeatedly in Westminster Hall. The schedule for Westminster Hall debates shows what an important opportunity they provide for Members to raise questions about their localities.

As the right hon. Lady is aware, we have invested in the Post Office and are committed to further such investment, in contrast to the cuts—not cuts, but lack of subsidy— [Interruption.] We have invested public money in the post office network, and we remain committed to investing public money in the post office network. Under the regime of the right hon. Lady’s party, there was no public investment in the network.

I can refute the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that there is a threat to general practitioner or primary care services. Let me remind her of what has happened over the past few years. In my constituency, there used to be closed lists. People who had recently moved into an area could not get on to a GP’s list unless they appealed, and once they were on the list they could not get an appointment for more than a week because the practice was so hard pressed. When they did manage to see the GP, the GP would be absolutely knackered because he or she was so overstretched— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must point out to the Leader of the House, and the shadow Leader, that we are entering a debate situation. I always think that business questions are best when Back Benchers are attentive. Let us leave it at that.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May I remind the Leader of the House that a number of our colleagues have suffered various forms of harassment, some of it from constituents, and have been stalked? Given the concern of many Members in all parts of the House about the possibility of Members’ private addresses being put in the public domain, would the Leader of the House be able to consult the police and others about whether that is a wise move?

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Ms Harman: The House authorities have consulted the police and the security services. As the House will know, following a freedom of information request the question of whether the private London addresses of 14 Members should be put in the public domain will be subject to case-by-case consideration in the context of security issues involving those individuals.

I know that there is concern in all parts of the House about two aspects of this matter. The first is the personal security of Members. The second, which I consider even more important, is the need for Members to feel absolutely confident that they can speak in the House on difficult issues without fearing that, when they leave the Chamber having spoken about what they believe in, they will have to look over their shoulders because their addresses are in the public domain. In that regard, the House authorities are seeking legal advice on whether or not the Freedom of Information Act provides an opportunity for the House to defend Members’ right to speak without having to look over their shoulders thereafter.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Following the exciting success of Barack Obama in winning the Democratic nomination and the strong showing by Hillary Clinton, and given that the Government are due to announce the publication of a White Paper on House of Lords reform—we have been given a date for that—may we have a full day’s debate in the House so that, recognising the progress made by the Labour party in particular, we can discuss how we in Britain can modernise our political system to make it truly representative of both women and men, and of all our communities throughout the United Kingdom?

Will the Leader of the House also provide time for a debate on the 10th report of the Public Administration Committee, on the Government’s draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, which was produced two weeks ago today? In particular, will she allow the House to put pressure on the Government so that we can get real opportunities to transfer power from the Executive to Parliament? The report says that there is only one proposal in the Bill to give more powers to the citizen. That cannot be what the public want, so may we have an opportunity to put pressure on the Government to change that?

This Friday, the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan)—she was in the Chamber a moment ago—presents her Bill to give votes to people from the age of 16. Will the Government now come off the fence, and will the Leader of the House tell us today whether it is now Government policy that older teenagers should be able to take part in the democratic process, because they are subject to our laws and many of them would feel absolutely willing and able to participate in formulating those laws through the electoral system?

Lastly, we are about to have a very important debate on knife crime. Following on from that, will the Leader of the House consider having an online consultation on behalf of the House of Commons, between now and the end of next month, with the young people of Britain on how they might suggest that we make our homes, schools, colleges and streets safer, particularly from the threats of knife crime and gun crime? Like me, the right hon. and learned Lady is well aware that this is a very big issue in the homes of many of our constituents.

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Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the US elections by way of a point about the House of Lords and the Constitutional Renewal Bill. Whatever the outcome of the Democratic nomination or the presidential election, I want to take this opportunity to pay my personal tribute to Hillary Clinton, who is and will remain a beacon to women across the world. The Justice Secretary has kept the House updated on our progress on Lords reform; we have already made progress and will continue to do so. He will update the House when it is appropriate. A Joint Committee of this House and the Lords is scrutinising the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill, and that will afford part of the scrutiny that this House will give to this important Bill.

The hon. Gentleman asked about older teenagers and their involvement in the democratic process. He will know that we have already reduced the age at which people can stand for election as a Member of the House of Commons or as a councillor, and that we have introduced citizenship classes in the national curriculum. We keep the voting age under review as one of a number of issues that we need to look at to increase participation in democracy across the board, and to tackle falling voter turnout and participation.

The hon. Gentleman made a sensible and thoughtful proposal on what more we can do to involve young people themselves in tackling knife crime. As he knows, there is a topical debate on knife crime in the House this afternoon, and no doubt we can explore his suggestion further.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider holding a debate on the benefits of regional railways? On Saturday, for the first time in 44 years, passenger trains will run from the towns of Ashington and Bedlington to Newcastle. Although it is a demonstration project, it will prove that for very little extra investment this valuable service could become permanent.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. He has raised in this House on numerous occasions, and occasioned debates to be had on, the issue of railway passenger services in his constituency. I congratulate him on the success of his campaign for passenger trains to be reintroduced on the line between Ashington and Bedlington for the first time in 44 years. He has truly been a champion of his constituents.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please bring early-day motion 1349, which requests a statement on the upgrading of the A14 in Cambridgeshire, to the attention of her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport?

[ That this House is alarmed by the 52 deaths on the A14 in Cambridgeshire in the last 10 years; notes with concern there have been 12 serious accidents on the trunk road this year causing two fatalities; is concerned at the delays and spiralling costs of long-proposed improvements to this lethal highway; congratulates the Cambridge News on its A14 - We Need Action Now campaign; and calls on the Government and Highways Agency urgently to commence the upgrading of the A14 to full dual carriageway and near motorway standard throughout Cambridgeshire to prevent more accidents, deaths and injuries. ]

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