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12 Jun 2008 : Column 456

Following last evening’s vote to give away civil liberties, there has been much speculation about what promises the Prime Minister had to make to win. So that hon. Members might be better informed before the debate on 24 June in the name of the Democratic Unionist party, can we have a statement from the Northern Ireland Secretary on the Government’s plans for expenditure in Northern Ireland?

Talking of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, on Tuesday, Members had only three hours to discuss 16 new clauses and about 60 amendments covering crucial issues such as post-charge questioning and control orders. That has become a regular practice. Ministers tabled at a late stage 218 new amendments to the Planning Bill and the sheer number of late amendments to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill meant that major changes to the criminal law and to sentencing were not debated in the House. It is the responsibility of the right hon. and learned Lady to manage the business of the House, but it is becoming clearer with every Bill that is mishandled that she is struggling. Will she make a statement to explain what she is doing to ensure that important issues are given proper time for debate?

I have previously asked why the Government delayed publication of the poverty figures until after, first, the local elections and then the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. Now we know why. The number of children in poverty rose last year and the Government are even further away from meeting their child poverty target. Can we have a debate on the issue as a matter of urgency?

On 18 March, the Minister for Women announced a £1 million emergency fund for rape crisis centres faced with closure but, four months later, no rape crisis centre under threat has received a single penny of that money. So, can we have a statement from the Minister?

This week, the Governor of the Bank of England said that we were facing

in memory, yet the Treasury has been characterised by dithering and U-turns, not least on the 10p tax fiasco. There is little wonder that the director general of the CBI has said the Chancellor has “lost it” on tax policy. Can we have a debate, in Government time, on restoring confidence in the Treasury?

Can we have a debate on leadership in government? Since the Prime Minister came to power, the number of working days lost to stress-related illness in the civil service has increased by almost 11,000. Unsurprisingly, one of the two Departments where less time is being lost due to stress is the Treasury, which the Prime Minster left last June. Perhaps his reputation for upsetting secretaries, throwing mobile phones at the wall and reducing his closest advisers to tears is not the best way to boost staff morale. As the only other Department where time lost due to stress fell is the Foreign Office, perhaps the Prime Minister should ask the Foreign Secretary for lessons on leadership.

Finally, can we have a debate on management technique in government? It is today reported that, according to Downing street insiders, the Prime Minister’s “Don't panic” message to motorists was deliberately designed to achieve the opposite effect and to get people to panic buy fuel. [Hon. Members: “What?”] Yes. Perhaps in
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Brown’s Downing street army, when he, like Corporal Jones, says “Don’t panic, don’t panic”, his Cabinet hear the words of Private Frazer—“Doomed. We’re all doomed”.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady asked about Afghanistan, and we all express our condolences to those who have lost loved ones in the fight against the Taliban. We must remind ourselves of the progress that their heroic work has helped to secure. The Prime Minister reminded the House yesterday that only 2 million children were in school in Afghanistan when the operation started, but that the figure is 6 million now, 2 million of them girls. We need to make progress on tackling the Taliban for the sake of the people of Afghanistan and because of the threat that their terrorism poses to the world. Statements to keep the House updated will be made as and when they are appropriate. I know that the Prime Minister addresses those matters whenever they arise at Prime Minister’s questions on a Wednesday.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about yesterday’s debate and vote on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. I say again that the Government’s concern is for the safety of people in this country and for the protection of our civil liberties. The Bill was scrutinised by the Select Committee, there was extensive debate in the House, and now it goes to the Lords. I ask her to spare us her crocodile tears over civil liberties: we introduced the Human Rights Act 1998 against opposition from the Conservatives, who plan to abolish it. That legislation is one of the most important defences of civil liberties to have gone through the House in recent years.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of the programming of the Counter-Terrorism Bill, and of Bills more widely. It is important not to rewrite history, so I remind her of what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said about the programme motion:

That request was also granted. There was discussion through the usual channels, and exceptional arrangements were made for a very important debate.

As for child poverty, there has been a substantial fall in the number of children being brought up in poverty since this Government came to office in 1997. However, we are determined to step up the momentum and that is why we have introduced further measures to bring even more children out of poverty. Last Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families gave evidence on child poverty to the Select Committee, and next Monday the House will consider the Children and Young Persons Bill. That is a stark contrast to what happened under the Conservative Government, when there was a relentless increase in the number of children being brought up in poverty. I therefore regard the concern expressed by the right hon. Lady to be entirely phoney—as with so many of the issues that she raises.

The shadow Leader of the House asked about rape crisis centres. It might be a good idea if I had a further discussion with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of
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State for Justice and for the Home Department, after which I shall write to the right hon. Lady with an update on where we have got with the extra funds that have been made available for distribution to rape crisis centres. I shall place a copy of that letter in the House of Commons Library.

As for the financial situation, I think that we all acknowledge that it is difficult, both in this country and internationally. We will take action at national and international level, make sure that we support the resilience of the economy and focus on what we can do to help family finances.

The right hon. Lady made what I think was intended as a joke about fuel supply, in respect of the tanker drivers’ industrial dispute. It is a serious issue and it is important to state two things. First, it is important that people do not fill their tanks more quickly than they would otherwise, thereby creating a problem of supply in petrol stations. Secondly, we express our hope that the two sides in the dispute will come together and reach an agreement swiftly.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Last summer, the Law Commission recommended reform of the law relating to cohabiting couples to avoid expensive and protracted court cases after the breakdown of a relationship. In March this year, the Ministry of Justice announced in a written ministerial statement that it would not change the law but that it would await the results of the introduction of the law in Scotland. Will my right hon. and learned Friend urgently hold a meeting with me to discuss that decision with Resolution, the family law representative body, and the Ministry of Justice to see what we can do to speed up reform to avoid thousands of people being left destitute each year when their relationship breaks up?

Ms Harman: May I suggest that my hon. Friend has a prompt meeting on that important issue with the Secretary of State for Justice? I undertake to arrange that as soon as possible. My hon. Friend has raised the issue consistently over a number of years. I welcome her back to the House after her maternity leave, and congratulate her on a truly gorgeous baby.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I join the Leader of the House and the Conservative shadow Leader of the House in their tributes to our troops in Afghanistan. Many of our constituencies have seen people go to fight there, and we know the risks. Many of them have made the supreme sacrifice. We are proud of them.

On the matters the Leader of the House announced, will she—before the debate in the name of the Democratic Unionist party—put in the Library a record of all the meetings between Ministers and DUP Members since the Easter break, to save us all having to spend lots of public money on freedom of information exercises? We will then know exactly when the meetings happened, with whom and on what subject.

On the announcement about the next Queen’s Speech, can the Leader of the House confirm that the date for the new Session of Parliament is extraordinarily late? Is it not probably the latest start in normal times ever—certainly for the past 25 years? If so, is it an indication that the Government anticipate considerable difficulty
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in dealing with their legislation after the summer break? In that context, what is now the expected time in the Government’s programme for Royal Assent to the Counter-Terrorism Bill?

May we have a debate on relations between the UK and China? I have asked for one before, and it is obviously more and more important as the Olympic games come down the track. I hope that the Government will accept that it is important that the debate happens before the summer break.

Linked to a question put by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), may we have a debate on what is clearly the continuing widening gap between the rich and the poor? When I put to the Chancellor that the gap is now evidenced by the statistics, he refused to confirm or deny it, but the statistics are clear. I hope that the Labour party is still committed to narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, so can we debate on why that is not happening?

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): No, it is not.

Simon Hughes: If it is not, why not? It used to be. That may be why the Labour party is not as popular with its core supporters as it was in the past.

On internal House business, the Leader of the House obviously has plans to put to the House proposals for Members’ pay, pensions and allowances. I understood that Sir John Baker was due to report to the Government in May, although we have heard nothing of his report. May I assume that he did report in May and that the report is ready? If so, can it be published now and will the Leader of the House confirm—specifically following the comments made yesterday by the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life—that whatever view the Members Estimate Committee comes to, an independent body of authority will confirm that it is acceptable not just to Mr. Speaker and Members of the House, but to those who monitor the public interest outside this place, so that we are not in the embarrassing position of the House deciding on something that is immediately thought inappropriate by those outside who look after standards of public life?

Ms Harman: On the point about meetings between Ministers and others, there are processes, by way of parliamentary questions, whereby information can be elicited. Such questions should be answered promptly and accurately, and a similar process applies with freedom of information requests. There are processes for asking about meetings that have taken place and what happened at them. The hon. Gentleman knows that civil servants are not present at all meetings with Ministers.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Why not?

Ms Harman: The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), like all Members, will have been in meetings with Ministers where civil servants have not been present.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the date on which this year’s debate on the Queen’s Speech will be the latest ever. No, it will not be. In 2000, it took place on 6 December, so this year’s date is not the latest. He also asked when the Counter-Terrorism Bill will receive Royal
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Assent. There are very important measures on that most important of issues, and I hope that the Bill will go through the House of Lords, return to this House and receive Royal Assent promptly. Of course, we want it to have proper scrutiny, but we also want to ensure that those important new laws are on the statute book.

The hon. Gentleman asked about UK relations with China. There is an opportunity for him and other Members to raise further points when Foreign Office Ministers take oral questions on 24 June.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the gap between the rich and poor. Of course, we remain committed to a more equal society and to narrowing the gap between rich and poor. If he looks at our public service agreements, which embody the objectives for work that takes place throughout Departments, he will see a number of PSAs that require action throughout the Government to narrow the gap between rich and poor in relation to educational and health outcomes and to income. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) says, “It’s not working.” I just ask her to look at the relentless and growing trend of inequality between rich and poor and the growing number of poor people under the Government of whom she was a Member. I am prepared to— [Interruption.] At least the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) has been consistent on the issue. I am happy to answer his question, but I shall move swiftly on to Sir John Baker’s report.

Sir John has reported and I strongly thank him for the work that he has undertaken at the request of the House. Our resolution on 24 May asked him to look into the question of MPs’ pay. On the question of publication and debate, we are committed to debating the Baker report and to making decisions about an independent mechanism for reviewing pay, including a new comparator. We have made a commitment that the House will have an opportunity to debate these issues and to make decisions before the House rises for the summer recess. We are determined that the report should be published in enough time to give Members time to consider it and to propose any amendments that they would like to make to it.

Bearing in mind, however, that we also aim to debate the report on allowances from Mr. Speaker and the Members Estimate Committee, we thought it would be convenient for the House to debate that report at the same time as the Baker review—on the same day—so that the House could deal with all the issues at once. As we would like the reports to be debated on the same day, it would also be convenient for the House if we published the MEC and Baker reports on the same day. That is our objective. It might not prove possible, but in any event, we will go ahead and publish the Baker review to ensure that Members have enough time to consider it and to produce their amendments.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey asked about independent scrutiny of the Members Estimate Committee’s proposals to the House. That has been the subject of much debate within the Committee—particularly among the three Committee members to whom the whole House owes much for the great deal of work that they have done. They have consulted Members, and the question is how we ensure that we have not only the right structure to pay for our offices, travel and London accommodation, but proper
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investigation systems, so that any misuse of those structures and any abuse of the system can be rooted out. Members have been debating that point with MEC members, and there has been discussion with the National Audit Office. The proposals will then return to the House. Once the MEC report is published, everybody, including the Committee on Standards and Privileges, will be able to look at it, and then it will come back to the House for a full debate and a decision.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): As someone who, needless to say, is very pleased that the Labour party has been in office for 11 years, and who certainly wants to avoid the nightmare of a Tory Government, may I ask whether the Cabinet should not carefully consider whether it is wise to go ahead with the 42-days measure, knowing that the Lords will certainly reject it and that there will then be ping-pong between the two Chambers? Perhaps a statement could be made at some stage. Should not we all be united against the terrorist danger instead of having controversial and divisive measures that serve no purpose at all?

Ms Harman: I agree with my hon. Friend that we should be united against the terrorist danger. The Government are determined to ensure the safety of the British people as well as to protect civil liberties. It was on that basis that we put our Counter-Terrorism Bill before the House. It was accepted last night and it will go through the proper processes of debate.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady is aware that the Government have made proposals to allow money to be spent on swimming and on swimming pools. That is to be welcomed—to tackle obesity and for many other reasons. However, in Minehead in west Somerset, we have had to lose our only public pool, for two reasons: first, the building is unfortunately not up to the job that it is meant to do; and secondly, the district council—which is under no overall control, so there is no political gain from my question—has neither the money nor the ability to reopen the pool in the near future. The Government quite rightly want to encourage people to swim and older people to continue to swim, yet for reasons outside our control we cannot do so. Therefore, would it be possible to have a debate about that issue, which is important not only to my constituency, but, I suspect, to many others throughout the United Kingdom?

Ms Harman: There has been a substantial increase in central Government funding to local authorities, but the hon. Gentleman raises a point about swimming which is very important. Swimming is part of a major programme and we want to ensure that it can take place in all areas, so I suggest that he seeks a meeting between himself, his local council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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