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Ms Harman: Taxation and poverty are important issues, but I find it a bit much that that request should come from someone who voted for VAT on gas and
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electricity to be 17.5 per cent. I might consider that request if it came from someone else, but not from the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Rapidly rising transport fuel prices are causing lots of concern across the country, but especially to people living and running businesses in rural areas. The Government are starting to realise the problems those people face because of the lack of public transport. There are measures open to the Government, so will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to consider introducing measures on this issue, especially a derogation from the European Union, to reduce fuel prices in remote and rural areas?

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the Government need to focus on quality of life and standard of living issues in rural areas. That means a focus on jobs, health services, education, support for businesses and public transport, as well as on the cost of fuel. I will draw his points to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Departments.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ensure that next Thursday’s topical debate is on the Government’s eco-town policy and that the Minister for Housing condescends to come to the House to be cross-examined by Members about her policies? So far the Minister for Housing has not answered a single debate. We have had two Adjournment debates—one that I was granted on 29 January and one granted to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) in Westminster Hall earlier this week—which were answered by the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). He is no doubt an eminent Minister, but he was unable to give us any information of any value about the Government’s policy or the particulars of the 15 sites so far identified. It is most important for our constituents that we have the Minister for Housing at the Dispatch Box to be cross-examined by effective constituency Members. So far, all she has done is give us a conference call that was not recorded. There is no transcript of that call, and that is bad practice, quite apart from being unconstitutional.

Ms Harman: I will bring the hon. and learned Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Minister responsible for eco-towns, and I will also consider the matter as a subject for topical debate. If he thinks that it continues to be topical, I suggest that he drops me an e-mail and pursues that request.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Leader of the House will have read early-day motion 1587, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and is about the proposed sale by the Environment Agency of 22 lock-keepers’ houses along the Thames.

[That this House is concern ed about the Environment Agency’ s proposal to dispose by sal e or letting of 22 lock-keepers’ homes along the Thames; recognises the importance of lock-keepers being resident in homes adjacent to locks to maintain safety on the river; fears for
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the welfare of the lock-keepers and their families; and calls on the Government to ask the Environment Agency to re-examine its decision so as to protect
this unique part of the nation’ s river heritage and the tradition of lock-keepers living at the site of locks.]

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the motion so that those of us with constituencies adjoining the Thames can express constituents’ concern about the effect of that proposal on river users, lock-keepers and their families, safety and the social ecology of the Thames?

Ms Harman: I note the points that the hon. Gentleman has made and suggest that he considers requesting a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment of the House.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ask the Chancellor to clarify reports that sales of defence estates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will in future accrue to devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, rather than to the Ministry of Defence estate? She will understand that such a change would represent a significant defence cut and would be of grave concern to us all, especially in the current climate.

Ms Harman: As I understand it, there is no suggestion to change how the proceeds of the sale of defence estates are dealt with, but if I am wrong about that, I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is written to and I shall correct the record.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): May we have an urgent debate next week on the tender for the successor to the Post Office card account? There is a risk that the Department for Work and Pensions will take that contract away from the Post Office, but that would mean the closure of thousands of post offices, and pensioners on several islands in my constituency would have nowhere to collect their pension. The contract must stay with the Post Office.

Ms Harman: I will bring the points that the hon. Gentleman makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and I shall ask my right hon. Friend to write to the hon. Gentleman on the points that he raises.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I reiterate calls for a debate on polyclinics? In particular, in my constituency the acute general hospital is closing and we are having a polyclinic imposed on us. That would sound quite good if it were not for the fact that the GP surgery 800 yd away will have to close because it will lose all its patients. Can we have a debate so that we can have the truth about polyclinics?

Ms Harman: On the question of primary care services in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, he has no doubt raised the subject with his primary care trust. If he is not satisfied with its response, perhaps he should seek a debate in Westminster Hall. Without getting into a debate, I would say that the Government’s concern and our commitment are to improve primary care services. That is why we have trained and recruited more GPs, paid GPs more and ensured that patients in primary
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care services get better health care and better outcomes and are satisfied with the services that they get. There will always be disputes about exactly how services are provided, but nobody would think that we should stand still in the 1950s with one model of GPs’ services remaining in perpetuity. There has to be change in order for improvement to occur, and we need to work together to ensure that, with the extra investment that the Government have put in, that is exactly what happens.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time on sentencing guidelines? Figures revealed via a freedom of information request this month show that in Cambridgeshire 389 individuals are subject to a failure to attend warrant. Of those individuals, 83 are category A—the most dangerous criminals, charged with offences such as assault, rape, kidnapping and so on. Is it not time that we reviewed the sentencing guidelines, particularly as magistrates and judges are put in a difficult position in that they cannot remand the most dangerous criminals in prison and have to give them bail, only for them to abscond? And while we are at it, can we also look at the funding for—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Harman: There will be questions to the Secretary of State for Justice on Tuesday, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can raise his concerns then. A review of the question of bail is under way and is considering appropriate alternatives to custody, as well as how to ensure that people are remanded in custody in appropriate cases and that those who fail to attend are tracked down, brought before the courts and appropriately sentenced.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I hope that the Leader of the House will ensure that one of those alternatives is to allow local constituency MPs, local residents and local councils to be consulted prior to the installation of bail hostels in constituencies. It is completely unacceptable that despite questions to the Ministry of Justice, my constituents remain in the dark about how many bail hostels there are in my constituency and about who is being kept in those bail hostels.

Ms Harman: If this is about a registered bail hostel with a measure of security, as people are required to be subject to certain conditions, such as not going out at certain times of the day, consultation is required on the existence of such bail hostels or indeed any plans for new bail hostels. I think that there has been confusion about the question of people who, if they had a home to go to, would be remanded to return to it. Such people are not remanded in custody, but instead go to supportive accommodation. Such accommodation is not a bail hostel as such, and in such cases the services and agencies have a responsibility to consult each other. Beyond that, it is simply at the discretion of the local authority to decide whether it wants to consult the local community. If the hon. Gentleman wants to propose a different regime for change of use and planning and wants to have a different planning classification for the sorts of accommodation that I
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have talked about, which are really little dissimilar to someone going home to live with mum, then he ought to make that proposal.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Can we have a debate on education? Perhaps then we could discuss the state of education in Milton Keynes and the news we have heard today, which was released only under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. That news was that as a direct result of the net £22 million Government cut in funding for schools in Milton Keynes, eight new schools that are desperately needed to cope with the expansion of Milton Keynes will not be built. Why are the Government forcing Milton Keynes to expand but refusing to fund our schools?

Ms Harman: The Government are not refusing to invest in schools. There has been a threefold increase in investment in schools across the board. Obviously, it is important to ensure that there is planning ahead. Over the next three years, the Government will invest more in school building than was invested for the whole 18 years of Conservative government. We have to prioritise areas where there is an expansion in the school-age population and we have to prioritise deprived areas. His party has said that it would cut investment in schools, but I will none the less bring his point to the attention of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. I know that the other Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), has done so, too.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May I join other Opposition Members in calling for a debate on the taxation of the poor? Even before the 10p tax abolition fiasco, the lowest paid in this country were paying higher rates of tax than the richest. Can we have an urgent debate so that Members from all parties can ask Labour Front Benchers why, in the 12th year of this Government, that ridiculous and oppressive state of taxation is hitting the poorest in the land?

Ms Harman: We have just had Treasury questions. Yesterday, the Chancellor appeared before the Treasury Committee. Such questions are raised every week with the Prime Minister. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the subject is never far from the concerns of all Members from all parties.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last year, there were a staggering 64 programme motions. At the last business questions, the Leader of the House said that

Under Standing Order No. 83A(7), the question on a programme motion is put forthwith without debate. Unless the Leader of the House was proposing a change to Standing Orders about programme motions, will she make a statement during next week’s business to correct that information?

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Ms Harman: That is a good point. I looked into it, but I cannot remember what I found out. I will look into it again and not only remember what I found out but report it back to the House. The House will have another opportunity to debate a programme motion next Tuesday in relation to the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I am sure that there will be a full debate.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Can we have a statement next week from the Minister responsible for fire safety about what steps the Government will take to amend building regulations, part B, to reduce the fire risk from faulty domestic electric circuitry? Following the launch of the important campaign by the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph to get more smoke alarms fitted, the Electrical Safety Council wrote to me to say that one fifth of domestic fires are caused by faulty electrical circuitry, causing some 30 deaths and 4,000 injuries a year.

Ms Harman: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman’s points. I shall bring them to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I am glad to see that he is clearly of the view that in such cases regulation does not mean the nanny state but saves lives.

Royal Assent

Mr. Speaker: I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Act 2008

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Topical debate

Knife Crime

Mr. Speaker: Before we start the debate, I must ask Members to be careful in any reference that they make to specific incidents of knife crime where charges have been made or where any court proceedings have not been completed.

12.29 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I beg to move,

This is a very important and opportune debate, and the whole House would agree that the murders of 15-year-old Arsema Dawit and anti-gun crime campaigner Pat Regan over the weekend are deeply tragic. My sympathies and those of everyone will be with their families and loved ones, as well as with those of all the other victims of crime. Looking around the Chamber, I see Members whose constituents have been affected by such crime.

No doubt, we will rightly consider in the debate the impact of knife crime, particularly with respect to young people, but I promised the young people at the NCH children’s charity event that I visited in Hackney this morning that I would say that we should start by saying again that not all young people carry knives and that the vast majority of young people in this country are decent, obey the law, work hard and are a credit to themselves and their families. It is important to make that clear in this context.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that many young people, sadly and foolishly, carry weapons because they are frightened and that there is a culture of fear on the streets? Does he also agree that it might be time that some neighbourhoods, such as those where three young men have tragically died on the streets of my constituency, deserve a higher safer neighbourhoods and reassurance policing presence than others where there is simply not that risk?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend has worked extremely hard with her local community and local police to deal with some of the tragic incidents that have occurred, and we have spoken about the issue. I agree that, of course, the police, the local authority and other agencies in any area need to ensure that they target their resources where they are most needed. Indeed, that is part of the lesson that we learned from the tackling gangs action programme—a taskforce that we set up—where we targeted resources on gun crime in certain areas of the country. That is true of gun crime, and it is true of knife crime. Of course, it is the case that individual police forces can direct their resources to where they will have the most impact. I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I totally agree with the Minister’s opening comment that the great majority of young people are law-abiding and well behaved. However, today, we are
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considering how we can tackle the minority. With 32 per cent. of schoolchildren admitting to carrying knives, according to a recent MORI poll, does he believe that an advertising campaign, however well intended, will have any discernable effect?

Mr. Coaker: I absolutely accept that an advertising campaign is not sufficient on its own, but an advertising campaign—such as the one that we launched last week, which was designed by young people, who advised us on what they thought would be the most appropriate campaign—can certainly play a part. I think that, as I go through my speech, the hon. Gentleman and most people will agree that this is a case not of one solution or the other but of all the different parts fitting together to form a strategy.

Although such incidents are tragic, it is worth saying that the overall number of people killed with knives or other sharp instruments over the past few years has remained stable. The problem now is that the police are catching more and more young people carrying knives, and many of us are worried that a culture is emerging in some areas where it is deemed acceptable to carry one. There is increasing concern about the lower average age of both the perpetrators and the victims of knife crime.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Just a year ago, my constituent, Police Constable Jon Henry, was stabbed to death. He was a fine police officer and a devoted family man, who was loved and respected by all who knew him. Since then, an individual has been detained under the mental health Acts, but I cannot comment on the case because it is sub judice. Will my hon. Friend say how the Government propose to protect people, particularly police officers, from those who suffer from serious mental health conditions and serious personality disorders who perpetrate some of those crimes?

Mr. Coaker: Without commenting on that case, although I recognise the awfulness of what happened, I can say that the Government are considering, with other agencies, how we can ensure that dangerous people are not released on to the streets and how the management of people with mental health problems can be made effective, to ensure that we do not unnecessarily put people at risk because of mental health problems. A more rigorous use of the existing system and rigorous management of the tools available to us are relevant to addressing that risk.

Although the number of people caught with a knife has risen, the number sentenced for that crime has increased significantly from 890 in 1996 to 6,284 in 2006. In the same period, the number of those under the age of 18 sentenced for possession of a knife in a public place has risen from 114 to 1,226. However, we are absolutely determined to clamp down on the carrying of knives, which, as we all know, all too frequently leads to serious injury and sometimes fatal consequences.

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