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5 Jun 2008 : Column 927

The early-day motion has attracted all-party support and emphasises the urgency of upgrading the A14 in Cambridgeshire, which has seen 52 fatalities in the past 10 years and 12 accidents this year, including two fatalities.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady also remind her right hon. Friend that in an answer to me during Transport questions a few weeks ago, she did say that an announcement was imminent? We are still waiting.

Ms Harman: I will draw the points made by the hon. Gentleman to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that next week, during consideration on Report of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, we will be dealing with one of the most difficult issues facing any democracy: fighting terrorism and at the same time trying to preserve our traditional civil liberties? Does she also agree that as far as Labour Members are concerned, we will be debating the case on the merits—be they those presented by our colleagues who support the Government, or those who, like me, are opposed to any extension beyond 28 days?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a matter both of fighting terrorism and defending civil liberties—of getting the balance right. The House will have ample opportunity to debate this next week, and I remind him and all hon. Members on this side of the House that this is Government business.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Since I last raised the question of the judges’ dangerous decision that MPs’ home addresses should all be published, the number of signatories to early-day motion 1620 has risen from 77 to 159.

[That this House believes that the home address of any hon. or Rt. hon. Member should not be published if he or she objects to publication on grounds of privacy or personal security. ]

Every party in the House, including independent and minority parties, is well represented among those signatories. May we therefore have a debate on this topic, preferably with a vote at the end? That would enable me to lay before the House interesting facts such as that the Information Commissioner has gone out of his way to tell me that he never wanted the addresses to be published in the first place, that this was added by the appeal tribunal and the judges, and that I have just received a letter from the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills)—the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information—in response to my freedom of information request for the publication of judges’ home addresses. In it, he says that he is refusing the request because

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Unfortunately, he does not say anything about security, which ought to be the overriding consideration in both cases.

Ms Harman: I commend the hon. Gentleman on his early-day motion, which I would indeed sign were protocol not there to prevent me from doing so. The point that he makes about judges is that it is right that their home addresses are not published because they need to mete out justice without fear or favour when they sit in court. I would think that something of the same argument applies to Members of this House. Our addresses should not be published so that we are able to speak freely on democratic issues of importance in this House without looking over our shoulders.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May I first comment on the issues raised earlier in relation to the Planning Bill? As one of the four Select Committee Chairs involved in detailed discussions with the Leader of the House on the matter of parliamentary scrutiny during the proposed new planning process, I want to put on the record the helpfulness of those discussions, the real give and take and the real changes that are going to be introduced as a result of those discussions. That was the Leader of the House working with Select Committee Chairs in the most positive way, and it should be commended by all. Of course, two of the Chairs are Members of the Opposition, and I think they would agree with me on that.

I want to raise— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not on.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. As Leader of the House working with Select Committee Chairs, irrespective of what party they come from, it is indeed my responsibility to make sure that the House is listened to and responded to.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on why the Department for Work and Pensions, through Jobcentre Plus, provides free advertising for sex clubs? Such a debate would give the House an opportunity to debate whether job advertisements requiring women to work naked or semi-naked on the national minimum wage constitute exploitation. I am sure that such a debate would be very helpful; the Leader of the House might even want the opportunity to put on record whether she condones such activities of the DWP; given her previous statements, I am sure that she does not.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I shall draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I had meetings with the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the question of ensuring that those seeking jobs who have an obligation to take a job rather than remain on jobseeker’s allowance should not be obliged to take a job in some lawful but sleazy activity. This is a difficult line to be drawn, whether in respect of lap-dancing clubs or escort agencies. I shall draw the matter to the attention of the current Secretary of State. There is also a question about the licensing of lap-dancing clubs. We
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must ensure that where the local community and the local council do not want a new lap-dancing club, the law ensures that they get their way in this respect.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow) (Lab): The Ministry of Justice announced this week the publication of a consultative document on compensation for pleural plaques sufferers, and that is to be greatly welcomed. Will the Leader of the House ensure not only that Members get a statement in the House from the relevant Minister on the proposals being put forward, but that we get a chance to participate in a full debate on this important issue, which affects tens of thousands of people in this country?

Ms Harman: Because of the efforts of hon. Members such as my hon. Friend, the Government have carefully examined the House of Lords decision on the question of pleural plaques. A debate on this matter took place in Westminster Hall this week, in which a number of Members were able to participate. A consultation process will start before the end of this month in respect of the Government’s response to the concerns about the House of Lords judgment, and I know that he and other hon. Members will want to participate in that consultation, which is largely a response to their concerns.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Whichever way MPs voted last month on the abortion time limit, I am sure that they will share my concern at recent figures showing that the number of abortions is continuing to rise. Can we therefore have a debate on the Government’s strategy for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, so that we can discuss why it is not working and how it can be improved?

Ms Harman: I understand that there has recently been a Westminster Hall debate on teenage pregnancies, but the hon. Lady makes an important point. Now that the House has decided not to change the time limit, that does not mean that we should leave behind the question of unwanted pregnancies and abortions. I think everybody would agree that if an abortion has to be carried out, it should be done as early as possible, but we want to reduce the number of abortions by ensuring that there is good motivation among girls to postpone pregnancy, that boys take responsibility, and that there is good sex education and good availability of contraception. That is what the House should be addressing now, and I shall look for an opportunity to allow that to happen.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We know from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that over the past 12 months there has been a huge increase in dog fighting and an explosion in the number of ferocious dogs on our streets. Such dogs just intimidate people, so can we have an early debate on the operation and continuing relevance of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, and on whether we should bring back a system of dog licensing?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which I shall consider as a future subject for a topical debate. As he says, this is not just about cruelty to animals; it is about people striking fear into other people in the local community, and about antisocial
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behaviour bordering on criminality. We need to examine whether the law and enforcement mechanisms are satisfactory, and I shall look for an opportunity for us to do that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): When the Leader of the House examines the parliamentary week, would she agree that Thursdays have become the poor relation, because they have reduced attendance in the Chamber, fewer votes and fewer meetings of parliamentary Committees and all-party groups? Will she consider stretching the parliamentary week by moving Prime Minister’s questions from Wednesdays to Thursdays?

Ms Harman: First, on the question of Thursday being a poor relation, we have a very important debate on knife crime today, and in a couple of Thursdays’ time we will have an important debate on defence procurement and defence more generally. It is down to hon. Members to participate in, and be present for, debates on Thursdays. As to when oral questions take place, the timing of questions to all Departments and to the Prime Minister is always kept under review.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): I welcome the inclusion of the equality Bill in the draft legislation programme. When that programme is introduced, will the Bill deal with age discrimination, which is rife throughout my constituency, as must be the case for all constituencies? At a time when our elderly population is growing, it is outrageous that elderly people are being discriminated against in areas such as the take-up of credit and so on. Such discrimination should be outlawed, and surely that should be in the equality Bill.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point. He will know that we have outlawed employment discrimination against people on grounds of their age, as part of our approach to tackling unfair discrimination and prejudice. As he rightly says, there is a growing number of older people, and they, too, should have fairness. We will bring forward our proposals in the equality Bill later this month, and I hope that he will be satisfied by what he sees.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): May I raise a subject that I know will be close to the heart of the Leader of the House, and will she make time for a debate to which other colleagues who share my concerns can contribute? An ongoing case with which I am concerned involves a very popular local pharmacist in Vale of York. I understand that for the first time, under new procedures, a disciplinary action has been brought against her under the heading “fitness to practise”. She wanted me to undertake any parliamentary proceedings that could expedite an amicable solution before the matter was taken before a legal tribunal. The problem was that the delay that I incurred in trying to obtain a reply to my initial letter to the Department of Health precluded any parliamentary proceedings pre-empting legal action. Could the Leader of the House look into Departments—not just the Department of Health—taking a very long time to reply to both my letters and those of hon. Members, because in this instance the delay could have made a difference?

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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is raising a constituency case. Such cases are important to every hon. Member, but such a lengthy intervention during business questions is out of order. What I say to her is that there are opportunities to raise these things—Adjournment debates, parliamentary questions and others—and it is unfair if hon. Members take up lengthy periods during time that should be about next week’s business.

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady raises two points of principle. First, I do not think it is right that parliamentary action should interfere with, or intervene in, what is a legal process, but I totally agree that Secretaries of State should give prompt replies to Members who are raising constituency issues. I shall undertake to get a reply to her letter to her this afternoon from the relevant Minister.

Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): Yesterday, a petition was placed on the No. 10 website. It reads:

Stonebridge day centre and Roundwood café are just two organisations that are facing closure. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Brent, which is a Lib-Dem/Tory run council, uses the Government as a smokescreen to cover its disgraceful policies?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to stop hon. Members doing this. These questions are about the business of next week; this is not an opportunity to attack a local authority. There are other opportunities to attack local authorities, although I am not advocating that; with a bit of ingenuity hon. Members could try it in other parts of the week.

Perhaps Mr. Mackay can keep in order—I know that he can.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to the business of next week, but not wishing to intrude on the private grief of Labour Members after Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, may I call on the Leader of the House for an urgent debate next week on the proposed increases in vehicle excise duty, which will hit families on low incomes especially hard? It is likely to be this Government’s poll tax, unless they change their mind.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman will know that there was extensive discussion of the matter in Treasury questions this morning. He will also know that our concern is to raise revenue fairly and to cut carbon emissions. The Chancellor also gave evidence to the Treasury Committee yesterday.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May we have a debate about the devaluation of the honours system by the automatic award of honours to top civil servants? Did my right hon. and learned Friend notice the parliamentary reply that showed that all the most recently retired 29 permanent secretaries got a knighthood, without discrimination, and four got a peerage? Is not that a devaluation, bearing in mind—to use the words of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead
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(Mrs. May) in quoting the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—that some of them presided over gold-standard cock-ups? It really is one in the face for ordinary people when these blighters get such awards.

Ms Harman: There is not an automatic award of honours. I know that my hon. Friend agrees that people who spend their lives dedicated to public service are valuable, and we need to pay tribute to them. We believe in people of the greatest talent and ability forgoing what sometimes could have been shed loads of money in the private sector to work in the public service. I for one am glad if they are recognised.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): A report this week shows that broadband speeds in rural areas are half those in London and the south-east. That is a considerable inconvenience to rural families and a hindrance to the development of business in rural areas. We also have not-spots, such as Rhiwlas in my constituency, which has no broadband provision at all. May we have a debate on the digital divide, which should be called digital inequality?

Ms Harman: This is something that I will bring to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is an important issue not only for individuals, but for commerce.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have a debate about the tax on alcoholic drinks? While we should all obviously be concerned about binge drinking and its links to antisocial behaviour, the SNP, not for the first time, seems to have two positions on this issue—one for Edinburgh and another for London. In Edinburgh, it is talking about raising the tax on cut-price budget drinks—those within the reach of people on low incomes—but here in London, the SNP Treasury spokesman demands a freeze on deluxe spirits, specifically mentioning a 15-year-old malt, the Balvenie. Such a debate would allow us to expose this latest example of the SNP penalising the poor while pandering to the rich.

Ms Harman: Not so long ago, we had a debate on binge drinking and its contribution to antisocial behaviour, especially its connection with youth crime. My hon. Friend raises an important question about the taxation of alcohol, especially the issues raised north of the border, and I will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, as well as other UK Ministers dealing with tax and health issues connected to alcohol.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): May we have an early debate on tax poverty, now that the Government are driving so many people into despair over the ever-rising taxes, charges and impositions? That would give us an opportunity to expose the wasteful and needless expenditure on things such as unelected regional government, over-manned quangos, ID cards and computer schemes, and to offer some relief to people if only the Government would manage things better.

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