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26 Jun 2008 : Column 530

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Members Estimate Committee and whether the Government could take into account the comments of the Committee on Standards in Public Life when bringing the matter to the House. Perhaps I could make it clear to him and to the House that the Members Estimate Committee reports to the Speaker, and it is therefore not for the Government to bring that matter forward. As Leader of the House I am a member of the Committee, but next Thursday’s debate on the report will be led by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I pay tribute to the three members of the MEC—the MEC three—for all the work that they have done in conducting their root-and-branch review. We must ensure that there is proper transparency and public confidence in Members’ allowances, which should be commensurate with their ability to live both in London and in their constituencies, and run effective offices, in the interests of our democracy and of their constituents.

I want to help the House by explaining what will happen next Thursday. After the Zimbabwe debate, we intend to move a motion making it clear that the first debate will be on the Baker review proposals, which we will table in the Government’s name—in fact, they should already have been tabled today—for the House to see and for hon. Members to try to amend. The Government’s approach has been set out in our written ministerial statement. Thereafter, there will be votes on the question of MPs’ pay, and the future comparator and review systems. We propose that they will be followed by a debate on the MEC and also, following the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), on the question of the privacy of hon. Members’ addresses. That is how the debates will go, and I shall bring forward a proposal to the House to that effect. If colleagues want to make different proposals, perhaps they will do so as soon as possible.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): May we have a debate on the insane competition among developers to build taller and taller buildings in London? A proposed 38-storey block in Clapham Junction and a 39-storey block in Wandsworth high street are to be joined by a tower that is 1,000 ft high—equivalent to 100 storeys—next to Battersea power station. That will be exceeded only by a tower in my right hon. and learned Friend’s own borough, which will be 1,117 ft high. May we have a debate about reintroducing height guidelines to stop that madness?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises a matter that is important in his constituency and all other London boroughs, but perhaps he should seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): What is the point in having an independent review body on Members’ pay if its recommendations are always turned down, however modest they may be?

Ms Harman: The point of an independent review is that it can be reported to the House, as has happened with the review by Sir John Baker, whom I should like to thank once again most warmly for his work. The House will have a choice whether to accept his proposals or the alternative resolutions tabled by the Government. That will be a matter for the House, but I pay tribute to Sir John Baker: he has given the House a review, which it can choose, if it so wishes.

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Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): May we have a debate on the role of the third sector in international disaster relief? Last Saturday I was in Porthcawl, where members of Rotary were collecting money for that organisation’s Shelterbox scheme. A Shelterbox contains a 10-person tent, a water purification system, bedding, cooking equipment and a small toolkit. The boxes are pushed out of the back of aeroplanes flying over inaccessible regions and are used to help families survive until international aid efforts are put in place. The kits save lives, and we should acknowledge them. Can we debate that?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster led a debate a week or so ago on the important role of the voluntary sector. It focused on the work done by many organisations such as Rotary in Porthcawl. This country makes a great contribution to development through the work of the Department for International Development, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recognises that that is added to many times over by the work done by individuals and organisations in constituencies around the country. I shall draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. Robathan: May we have a debate, or at least a statement, on today’s reports that the powers of the Criminal Records Bureau are to be extended? As I understand it, people who have foreign exchange students in their houses would have to be subjected to a CRB test, as would I if my children’s friends came for a sleepover. We could also then look into the fact that most child abuse takes place within families, including extended and step families. We could consider whether parents or step-parents—or girlfriends and boyfriends—should have CRB tests, and determine whether there is a real issue, which would be addressed by the proposed powers.

Ms Harman: I think that we would all agree that if a person with a criminal record, especially one featuring sexual offences against children, applies for a job with an organisation, especially one involved with the care of children, it is important for the relevant data to be kept and shared. In that way, paedophiles who seek out work with children will be prevented from getting jobs with organisations that are unaware of their criminal background. It is very important that we support the CRB’s work in that respect. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman setting out what changes to the CRB are likely to be forthcoming, but it is most unlikely that parents will be subject to criminal record checks before their children bring friends home.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May I press the Leader of the House on an issue raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), which she elegantly sidestepped? It has to do with the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we are to debate next Thursday. I remind her that at business questions last week she said:

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Does she agree that it would not be in the interests of good governance if this House were to take a final decision on allowances and salaries next Thursday, only to find that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was dissatisfied with the process and then reopened the whole issue? Will she do all that she can to ensure that we have the Committee’s views before next Thursday’s debate?

Ms Harman: I understand that when the MEC three drew up their report they had discussions with the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. However, the right hon. Gentleman raises a good point when he asks how the House will know what that Chairman’s views are when the debate is held. Perhaps I will invite the MEC to liaise with the Chairman to see whether he wants to write a letter to hon. Members, so that they will know his position before the debate. That would be better than having the House debate the matter and come to decisions, only to see on the television that something had been missed that the Chairman would have wanted to draw to our attention.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to clarify a little more the procedures that we can expect in the various debates to do with Members’ own concerns on Thursday?

First, it has been proposed that MPs’ private addresses should not be published. In no small part thanks to the robust support exhibited by the Leader and the shadow Leader of the House, it is clear that that proposal will be carried overwhelmingly. Indeed, there is a danger that it may not come to a vote at all. Given that one of the purposes is to express on the record the strength of feeling in the House, can arrangements be made to ensure that, one way or another, a vote is held on the matter? In that way, Mr. Speaker will be able to gauge how many hon. Members feel strongly that our private addresses should not be disclosed.

That is a rather simple matter, but my second question has to do with the much more complex issue of the additional cost allowance for hon. Members’ second homes. Is the Leader of the House satisfied that enough time has been allocated for us to debate all the complexities involved? For example, one might want to raise the hypothetical situation that would arise if there were a change of Government. In that case, certain Opposition Members would become Ministers and therefore have to spend many more nights in London than previously. As a result, they might fall foul of the rules that say that their main home must be the one in which they spend most nights.

Unless we get rid of the wretched allowance system, those are the sort of complexities that we will need to consider next week. I am not happy that we will have enough time.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those points in the debate. If he wants clarification before then on the detail of the Members Estimate Committee report—on what it intends and what lies behind it, but is perhaps not explicit in it—he should get it from the House authorities. The hon. Gentleman has time to do that before the debate next Thursday; there is plenty of time, as the report came out yesterday.

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The hon. Gentleman said that a vote would assist the Speaker and everybody else to understand the strength of feeling about the privacy of Members’ addresses—and about the protection of democracy in this House, so that Members can speak up without fear or favour and without looking over their shoulders. All the hon. Members who have signed his early-day motion have contributed to that understanding, and no doubt signatures can still be added to it. It is important for there to be an opportunity for a formal motion of the House.

If no one votes against a motion, that is not because people do not feel strongly about it, but because there is unanimous support for it. I am sure that we will not need to debate it at huge length next Thursday, because there is a fair degree of unanimity across the board. Even some of the usual suspects, who can usually be counted on to be on the other side of the argument, are on the side of the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I, too, support the calls for some sort of parliamentary review? I agree that now is an appropriate time, given that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have taken over the helm and so effectively engaged the public with a range of popular policies. She will know that this is not the only parliamentary anniversary: it is also one year since the Scottish National party Scottish Government came to power. Has she any explanation for why we are experiencing high satisfaction in the opinion polls, while her Government are at historic lows?

Ms Harman: I must draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to another forthcoming anniversary: 60 years of the national health service.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on the future of the Post Office card account? Hon. Members on both sides of
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the House have expressed their concerns about the potential impact on the Post Office Network should the franchise not be given back to the Post Office. I should like to highlight one particular concern: the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions, which appears to be ringing Post Office card account holders and encouraging and coercing them—perhaps even misleading them—about the supposed need to have a bank account rather than the Post Office card account. Is that fair? Is it fair to the Post Office?

Ms Harman: I cannot comment on what is happening in relation to the Post Office card account contract, as it is subject to the rules on public procurement. However, as the Post Office has made clear, I can say that it has put in a strong bid for the contract and regards it as very important in respect of the services that it provides through its extensive network.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The cryptosporidium outbreak at Pitsford reservoir in Kettering constituency this week has caused widespread alarm across Northamptonshire and is forcing some 250,000 people to boil all their drinking water. It is the largest-scale contaminated water scare in Anglian Water’s history. May we have a statement, verbal or written, next Thursday from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the response of Anglian Water and other agencies to the outbreak?

Ms Harman: I understand that the Secretary of State was asked about that issue yesterday during his statement on the Pitt report. The House has already had an opportunity to hear his views on the matter. However, I understand that the drinking water inspectorate will investigate the incident. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is important that in the meantime customers consider the information that the water company has given them.

26 Jun 2008 : Column 535

Draft Legislative Programme

1.44 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

This is the second time that the Government have published their legislative programme in draft for consultation. This opens up the legislative process, increases its transparency and, most important, enables Parliament and the public to have their say and feed in their views before the programme is finalised in the Queen’s Speech. This year, we have improved the process. We have published the programme two months earlier in the year to allow more time for comments and discussion and to take comments into account. We have also included non-legislative actions in the draft legislative programme report to set the programme in its wider context, following recommendations to that effect from the Modernisation Committee.

The work of the House and the Government is about a great deal more than legislating. Many things can be done by non-legislative means and it is important to allow the House the time to spend on its other roles such as scrutinising Government, debating key issues affecting the country, considering private Members’ Bills and engaging with our constituents. The Government are therefore committed to improving and simplifying the legislative process from beginning to end. The draft programme sets out our aim to publish nine Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny this Session. We have also begun publishing draft bills in plainer English alongside the statutory language, to make our laws easier to understand and debate.

As well as improving the openness of legislation at the outset of the process, we have this Session introduced a systematic process of post-legislative scrutiny, to look back at past legislation. Departments are now required to assess Acts passed three to five years ago to ensure that the legislation that we pass is measured against what it was intended to achieve.

We have so far received more than 450 comments through the Leader of the House of Commons website since the draft legislative programme was published on 14 May. That is already considerably more than last year, and I am sure that the process will build year by year.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Leader of the House talked about the importance of Parliament in not just legislating but in holding the Government to account and examining other measures that go through Parliament. In judging the legislative programme, an important consideration for Members is the length of time over which the programme is to be implemented. The Queen’s Speech is not until December. Does the Leader of the House have an idea of how long a legislative year she is planning to allow for the programme to be delivered? In the following year, will the Queen’s Speech be in December again, or will it go back to an earlier, more normal date?

Ms Harman: I can give the hon. Gentleman the time of the Queen’s Speech this year, but I cannot give him the date of next year’s. He will see from the draft legislative programme that some Bills are due to appear
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in draft and then to be taken forward in the Queen’s Speech after next; some are ready for more immediate implementation. There are different time tracks for the different Bills in the programme.

As well as the detailed consultations that Departments undertake on proposals that form the Bills in the programme, the Ministers for the English regions and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are holding a number of events in their areas to consult a range of different sections of the public, including businesses, the third sector and local authorities. We have arranged for ministerial colleagues to engage in a co-ordinated national day of consultation on 11 July, with events held across the country, involving local Members of Parliament and stakeholders. The consultation will run until 6 August and I will publish a summary of the comments made in the autumn, ahead of the unveiling of the final programme in the Queen’s Speech on 3 December.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Given the extent of the scrutiny before the Queen’s Speech, do we really need five days debating the programme all over again after the Queen’s Speech has been made? Could that time not be put to better use?

Ms Harman: That suggestion has been made, particularly as some hon. Members would like to see a debate on the pre-Budget report. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion into account, and we can discuss it through the usual channels.

We will explain how the final programme has changed as a result of the consultation and, when we are not acting on comments, we will explain why. For example, we acknowledge that, in the time available, it will not be possible to bring forward completely new ideas into legislation for the next Session. However, we can explain our view on new ideas and whether it will be possible to develop them in future years.

The purpose of the programme is to build a more prosperous and fairer Britain. Our first priority is to help hard-pressed families and to ensure economic stability. A banking reform Bill will ensure that Britain underpins its banking system with the best protection for depositors. A savings gateway Bill will give 8 million people on low incomes access to a national savings scheme, with each pound saved matched by a contribution from the Government.

We also want to equip this country to meet the challenges of the future by making the most of people’s potential. The Education and Skills Bill will seek to reach the highest standards for schools and lifelong learning. It will also create a statutory right for every suitably qualified young person to obtain an apprenticeship. A welfare reform Bill will place a duty on the unemployed to have their skills needs assessed and to acquire skills. We will consult on further reforms to ensure that no one with the ability to work is trapped on benefits for life.

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