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19 Jun 2008 : Column 1080

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): The Leader of the House and her deputy are being far too defensive. They might be the Opposition in two years’ time, not the Government. As the Leader of the House said to me a few weeks ago, there is a very good case for ensuring that Government amendments and new clauses receive extra time on Report, because otherwise they eat into time that is meant not for the Government but for the rest of the House of Commons so that we can ask questions.

Can we look again at programme motions? If this place is meant to hold the Executive to account, one of the best ways that we can do it is by delaying Government business. If they take away that weapon, the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the House might live to regret it as much as others do now.

Helen Goodman: The hon. Gentleman, as ever, puts his case most persuasively. Of course, it is right that on Report hon. Members should have a proper opportunity to discuss all the issues. In particular, Back-Bench Members should have their share of the time. I would, however, like to point out that, following the introduction of programme motions, there has been a declining trend in the number of groups of amendments that have not been reached. Of course, we always keep these matters under review.


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Business of the House

11.33 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 23 June—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Sale of Student Loans Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2006 (Disapplication of Section 25) Order 2008, followed by a motion to approve the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2008.

Tuesday 24 June—Opposition day [15th allotted day]. There will be a debate entitled “Cost of Living”, followed by a debate on the 60th anniversary of the NHS. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Wednesday 25 June—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Planning Bill.

Thursday 26 June—A general debate on the draft Legislative Programme.

Friday 27 June—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 30 June will include:

Monday 30 June—Opposition day [16th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Tuesday 1 July—The House will be asked to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day 1.

Wednesday 2 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 3 July—Topical debate on Zimbabwe followed by motions relating to MPs’ pay and allowances.

Friday 4 July—The House will not be sitting.

Mrs. May: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. As she has just announced, on 3 July we are scheduled to have a topical debate on Zimbabwe, but does she not think that the situation there is so serious that we should have not a one and a half hour debate but a full debate on the subject, in Government time? She announced that on 3 July we will also have two other debates—one on the Baker review on Members’ pay, and the other on the Members Estimate Committee review of allowances—but we will have only four hours for them. Will she at least guarantee that on that day there will be no ministerial oral statements to eat further into the time available for debate?

On 5 July we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the NHS, so may we have a debate before the summer recess on the NHS? Not only are a quarter of NHS trusts in England failing to meet at least one of the Government’s standards on hygiene, but babies are being turned away from hospitals owing to a lack of cots and specialist staff. That comes at a time when the Government are closing maternity units across the country, so may we have a debate on NHS priorities?

In the past week, there have been five separate security breaches, with Government documents and computers containing highly sensitive information being left on trains and stolen from offices. There have been clear
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breaches of security rules. That follows the Government’s loss of the personal details of 25 million people last autumn. Clearly, there is a culture of carelessness at the heart of this Government. Last December, the Minister for the Cabinet Office told the House that a report would be published this spring on the procedure for and storage of sensitive data, yet we have heard nothing. Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that the report is published before the summer recess, and that Members will have the opportunity to challenge Ministers in this House and to ensure that data security is improved?

The Casey report, commissioned by the Prime Minister, calls for a revolution in the treatment of victims of crime, and claims that the criminal justice system is patronising in its attitude to the public. That comes on top of Sir Ian Blair saying that there is “almost no public faith” in crime figures in the UK, that Government police targets should be scrapped, and that there should be a return to common-sense policing. Crime levels are of grave concern to us all, so can we have a debate on approaches to policing and crime prevention?

Finally, there will be an Opposition day debate on the cost of living next week. We face rising mortgage costs, growing unemployment, soaring prices for fuel, electricity, gas and food, and the prospect of higher interest rates. It is no good telling people that those are global issues and nothing to do with this Government. The Government have no room for manoeuvre because they failed to put money aside in the good times. Will the right hon. and learned Lady ensure that, before that Opposition day debate, the Chancellor of the Exchequer makes a full, clear statement showing that the Government are finally willing to take responsibility for their actions?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady raised the subject of the terrible situation in Zimbabwe, which I know is of concern to all Members. Indeed, the subject was raised in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. She will be aware that I have announced there is to be a topical debate on the issue, which the Foreign Secretary will lead. In addition, we will have Foreign Office questions, including topical questions, next Tuesday, so there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to raise points on that occasion.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Baker review and allowances. Those issues will be debated, and the House will have an opportunity to decide on them on 3 July. She asked for a debate on the national health service; as she will know, her party has an Opposition day debate on the NHS next week, so no doubt she can raise any points that she wants to make then. In that debate, the Government will no doubt set out how we have made unprecedented investment in the national health service, providing more doctors and nurses and shorter waiting lists, and how we will continue to improve the provision of health care.

The right hon. Lady asked us to focus on procedures for the storage of sensitive data. She will know that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made a statement on the issue last Thursday. We keep the House up to date with information of that nature, and the report will be forthcoming.

The right hon. Lady mentioned crime levels and whether there would be an opportunity to debate them. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to thank Louise
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Casey for her thoughtful and helpful report. The right hon. Lady will no doubt acknowledge that crime levels have been falling, but there is concern about serious and organised crime, particularly about gang crime among young people, and that is why, on the Thursday before last or last Thursday, we arranged a topical debate on knife crime.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate about the cost of living, but she herself has scheduled an Opposition day debate about it. We are pointing out to the House that the increases in the cost of petrol, gas, electricity and food, which are putting a great deal of pressure on family finances, come from world issues—global issues. But we have to make absolutely sure, and we will, that this country has a path through those difficult economic circumstances that have arisen internationally, and that, as we respond to the short-term problems, we do not create longer-term problems. We understand the pressures that people are under, and we are taking action nationally and internationally to ensure that this country can weather the economic storm.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that in the coalfields in particular there has been investment during the good times, and that we could usefully have a debate on the subject? In the past 10 years, every single pit tip has been flattened, and instead of those pit tips we have factories on the sites. Unemployment in Bolsover is now 10 per cent. below the national average. We have been investing in the good times to provide for the bad times. That is why on Friday I will be opening what is commonly known as Skinner’s junction on the M1 to provide another 5,000 jobs: investment in the good times producing jobs in the bad times.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of the investment in our people in this country—in their skills, in our industry, particularly in science, and in infrastructure, including public transport—that our economy is in a good position to weather the difficult storm. It might well be that the Opposition think that was not a worthwhile investment. I should like to hear from any of them who think that it was not worth investing in their local school, in their local transport infrastructure and in their local industries. That is what we have been doing over the past 10 years, and that is why we can be confident that, in difficult times, the economy will be strong enough to find a way forward.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Obviously, we are pleased that next week there will be a half-day debate on the cost of living, but given that yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) asked about the mismatch between oil companies’ huge profits—windfalls of £9 billion—and the fact that people on the lowest incomes are having to pay higher prices for their energy than other people are, may we have a debate specifically on the energy and power companies, their profits and their social responsibility? Out there, in the real world, the public think that some people are making a huge profit while others struggle to pay the weekly bills.

It is good that the Leader of the House has announced that we will have a debate on Zimbabwe at an early
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opportunity. I join those who say that we should have enough time for the full contributions from across the House that I am sure that subject needs. May we also have in the near future a debate on the opportunity that there now is for some progress to be made in Palestine and Gaza, given the ceasefire that has been announced today?

On Tuesday, the Government’s Defence and Security Organisation announced that for the first time ever the United Kingdom has become the world’s largest arms exporter. Given that in the recent past there have been some difficulties, to put it gently, to do with arms sales such as the ones between BAe Systems and Saudi Arabia, and if we are going to be the people who lead in this industry, may we have an early debate on the ethics and responsibility of the arms trade around the world, where far too much business ends up with arms going into the wrong hands?

This week there was a significant report by the King’s Fund saying that the cost of treating people with dementia is likely to double over the next 20 years. That is an issue of concern that is often raised around the House. May we have a debate on how we are going to care for and pay for the care of those with dementia or Alzheimer’s and the adult mentally infirm?

Yesterday there was a very important announcement by the Law Lords—I expect that the Leader of the House has seen it—that a murder conviction was quashed because it is wrong to give anonymity to witnesses other than in cases relating to children and in rape cases. Could the Justice Secretary come to the House and seek a way forward, with consensus on both sides of the House, as to how very nasty people can be convicted and the convictions upheld, if necessary by changing the rules to give more anonymity to witnesses so that crimes can be dealt with and the innocent and the victims supported?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised a question that concerns everybody: the increase in fuel prices. He will know that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee has been looking into the operation of energy companies and energy prices. He will also bear in mind the fact that we have already taken action through the winter fuel payments to protect pensioners, through tax credits to help low-income families, particularly those with children, and through an insulation programme. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are keeping a very clear focus on ensuring that the fuel and energy companies are competitive and play their part in these difficult times. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Prime Minister is going to Saudi Arabia to discuss oil supply. There will be an opportunity for Members who want to raise these issues to do so next week in the debates on the Finance Bill.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the opportunity that might present itself for much greater peace and a more hopeful future as between Israel and Palestine. I should like to thank Tony Blair for his work on this, which has been very important in the international process. Hon. Members will be aware that he gave evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is looking into the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about arms trading. There is a debate on defence procurement later today.

The hon. Gentleman also asked an important question about dementia. There is a written ministerial statement
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by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), on the development of a national dementia strategy. This is a subject of great concern, given that the number of people aged over 85 is set to double over the next 20 years. There has been increased investment in the national health service and in social care, but we need to look at the trends and ensure that we prepare for them. As well as focusing on health and social services, one important element that we will not lose sight of is how we support families as they care for older relatives.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important matter of the House of Lords judgment cutting back on anonymity for witnesses. We will consider that judgment. However, we are absolutely clear that we must ensure that offenders are brought to justice and that this is not such an ordeal for victims and witnesses that they dare not step forward. Should legislation be necessary, there will be an opportunity to bring forward measures in the law reform, victims and witnesses Bill that is to be included in the Queen’s Speech. The draft legislative programme will be debated next Thursday.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): After the death of 10 women in Northwick Park hospital in my constituency through complications in childbirth, the maternity unit there was put into special measures. It came out of special measures in September last year, but since those original 10 deaths three more women have died in that unit from childbirth complications. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my absolute incredulity that the chair of the hospital trust is still refusing to hold an independent inquiry into the matter, and will she ensure that time is made available for Members to discuss it in this House?

Ms Harman: Without waiting for the opportunity to debate it, I shall raise with the Secretary of State for Health the points that my hon. Friend has made. There will be an opportunity to raise the issue on the Floor of the House in the debate next Tuesday. Fewer women now die in childbirth and fewer babies die when they are born, but we have to be determined that every single maternity unit lives up to the standards of the best. I know that is what my hon. Friend is determined to see for his constituents and his local hospital.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): May we have a debate on domestic violence? Is the Leader of the House aware that section 12 of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which brought in restraining orders to protect partners from abuse, has not been implemented? Is it true that Baroness Thornton, a Minister in another place, has now admitted that that delay in implementation is due entirely to pressure on prison places? Is it not a disgrace that spouse beaters are avoiding jail because of the prisons crisis?

Ms Harman: It is not the case that wife beaters or men involved in domestic violence are avoiding prison because of the increase in the prison population. It is important that the courts know that every offender who is convicted of a serious violent offence, such as domestic violence, will be sent to prison where appropriate. The hon. Gentleman mentions section 12, which I agree should be implemented as soon as possible.


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Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The price of oil is the single biggest factor underlying all the current global economic difficulties. Although increasing the supply of oil may give some temporary relief, in the long term the problem is that supply is running out. We know that we have passed the peak of production of UK oil, and many petroleum geologists now believe that we are approaching the peak of global production of oil. May we have a debate about peak oil? Would that not give us the opportunity to consider what happened during the boom years of North sea oil, when the Conservatives were in control, and what they did with the money? Did they put it aside, or did they use it to—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is not about the business of the House.

Ms Harman: I can tell my hon. Friend that the North sea oil revenues were spent on unemployment benefit because of the vast number of people who were unemployed instead of earning a living and paying taxes. Because of the terrible toll of unemployment, North sea oil revenues went straight out of the North sea and into unemployment benefit. That is why we put full employment right at the top of our agenda. My hon. Friend made an important point about the price of oil, which affects not only family budgets but business budgets. It is important that we develop more public transport to assist people, that we have more renewable energy supplies, and that we have more insulation. We have to ensure that fuel is affordable, but for the long term we must look at alternatives.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I used to ask almost weekly for a debate on post office closures. It is now too late for my constituency, where nine post offices are to be closed irrespective of the views and needs of local communities. May we have a debate on the award of the Post Office card account contract? The National Federation of SubPostmasters estimates that if that contract is awarded to anyone other than the Post Office, a further 3,000 post offices may close, to the great detriment of our communities and our constituents.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise that matter in oral questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, or he might consider a debate in Westminster Hall. I know that a number of hon. Members may want to join him in that.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider finding time for a debate on the impact of the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007, which threatens to put a considerable number of my constituents out of work, and about which, I am sorry to say, Ministers appear to be in denial at the moment?

Ms Harman: I shall raise my hon. Friend’s point with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): If, as seems inevitable, the other place amends the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Bill, can the right hon. and learned Lady say when the Bill will return to this House? Will she guarantee that there will be adequate time to debate any amendments, and can she say whether the Treasury will be able to afford another Government win?


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