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10 July 2008 : Column 1566

Now we know that fewer than 20 per cent. of drivers will benefit, which is hardly a majority, and that 9 million drivers will be worse off. The Prime Minister just refused to accept his mistake, when given an opportunity to do so by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). The right hon. and learned Lady’s responsibility is to ensure that Ministers give correct information to this House, so will she ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the House next week, apologises and corrects his statement?

Ann Abraham’s much-delayed report on the collapse of Equitable Life is due out next week. It is expected to criticise the Government’s failure to regulate the insurer correctly and to recommend that policyholders should be compensated. Many Members have constituents who have been caught up in this matter, so when the report is published, will the Chancellor of the Exchequer make a statement to the House on how he intends to respond to it?

Two weeks ago in business questions, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate on the property market. In response, demonstrating her profound knowledge of the housing market, she said that we had already had a debate on eco-towns. The chief executive of Savills has warned that house prices could plummet by as much as 25 per cent. over the next two years. Barratt Homes reports today that house sales have dropped by 43 per cent. in the first six months of this year, and it is cutting 1,200 jobs. Given the concern of millions of home owners, when will she make Government time available for a debate on the housing market?

On another aspect of the economy, the Prime Minister often boasts about his party’s record on getting young people into jobs, but today’s OECD report concludes that the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds without a job is higher than when Labour came into power. Clearly the Government’s flagship new deal has failed, and yet again, the Prime Minister has shown that he is out of touch. Can we have a debate on youth employment?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister likened himself to Heathcliff. I imagine that most people would be disturbed by this comparison—as indeed it seems was Andrew McCarthy of the BrontÃ" parsonage museum in Yorkshire, who explained that

Can the Prime Minister make a statement explaining which of those characteristics is most like him?

Finally, we already know that the country has lost confidence in the Prime Minister, but now it seems the Leader of the House has as well. Apparently, she has been meeting Back-Bench MPs to test her popularity should she stand in any forthcoming leadership contest. Can she tell the House what it is about the Prime Minister’s performance that has led her to kick-start her leadership—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The right hon. Lady knows that her concluding remarks are not about the business of next week.

Ms Harman: At least the right hon. Lady was concluding, Madam Deputy Speaker. That is the most important thing.

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The right hon. Lady asked about the business for next week, particularly Monday. She will know that last Thursday, I announced the business for this week and the provisional business for the week following. Today, I am announcing the business for next week. I would have thought that she would welcome the Second Reading of the Employment Bill, which is an important measure that toughens up enforcement of the national minimum wage. She asked me whether there could be a debate on youth employment, and on Monday, there can be such a debate as part of the Second Reading of that Bill.

Of course the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill remains a flagship Government Bill, but in the last full week before the House rises for the summer recess, difficult decisions have to be taken about what business is included. All the way through debates on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, hon. Members have sought to protect time for debate, especially as it involves free votes and the tabling of amendments, so as much time as possible needs to be found for it and the other issues that the Government are committed to. It would therefore be good to look for a date in the autumn when there is no other business such as oral statements, which we are committed to make before the House rises.

The right hon. Lady asked about savings protection, which was raised with me at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday and could have been raised in questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer this morning. If Conservative Members were so concerned about the subject, they could have chosen it for an Opposition day debate next week.

The right hon. Lady mentioned vehicle excise duty, which was the subject of questions to the Chancellor this morning, and the Opposition have chosen to debate it next Wednesday. I therefore suggest that she raise any questions or concerns about fuel duty then.

The right hon. Lady asked for correct information in answers to parliamentary questions. I agree absolutely: we must be sure that information is correct, and that is our policy. As I understand the matter in question, I believe that it involves an estimate of something that will be in next year’s Finance Bill.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Abraham report on Equitable Life, which has yet to be published. Let us see what it says and then we can consider how to deal with it. She asked about house prices and the housing market. Again, if Conservative Members felt strongly that they needed to discuss the matter in the House, they could have selected it for an Opposition day debate. The subject was also raised in oral questions.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): May I ask about nuclear decommissioning? Tomorrow, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will make a recommendation to Ministers about which company will clean up Sellafield. However, only a few minutes ago, I got a copy of the Public Accounts Committee report, which points to the spiralling costs of decommissioning—up by 41 per cent. between 2005 and 2007. In view of the public money that will be spent on the programme, surely we need an urgent debate on the matter in the House.

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Ms Harman: There are Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions next week. The Government will respond to the Public Accounts Committee’s conclusions and recommendations in due course. As my hon. Friend says, those issues are important.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): First, let me revert to Monday’s business. From the outside, the removal of consideration of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill looks like the Government losing control of their business management. May we have an assurance that, if a range of amendments is to be tabled—many have already been tabled—we can have two days for the final stages immediately after the break so that we can do justice to the issues and so that it does not appear as though the Government are trying to drive through their agenda? After all, there is a free, unwhipped vote on most aspects of the Bill.

When the Leader of the House announced that there was a space on Monday, I was surprised to hear that it would be filled by Second Reading of the Employment Bill, which had its First Reading only in June. The Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill, which came to us from the House of Lords in February, has yet to receive its Second Reading. As the Leader of the House knows, its purpose is to release money to support young people throughout the country. I would have thought that that was a priority, especially at the moment. Will she please explain why the measure has not appeared? Will she seriously consider ways in which to get it back on the Order Paper so that we can debate it and it can make progress? I am sure that colleagues from all parties could suggest many ways in which to use the money, not only next year or the subsequent year, but this summer. We should make some progress on that.

On a related issue, the Leader of the House made a helpful comment last week in response to my concern that we should debate youth opportunity and youth safety before the break. We have had another week in which a youngster in Southwark has died as a result of stabbing. A completely innocent 14-year-old, David Idowu, died on Sunday. His parents were grieving with the community yesterday. The Leader of the House said:

Out there in our communities, many people are talking about the issue. May we have an opportunity for the Government and colleagues of all parties to share their thinking so that families who are worried, whether justifiably or not, that their streets and their youngsters are less safe can have some assurance that the subject is at the top of the political agenda?

Housing is clearly the other great national worry. The Leader of the House announced that the Housing and Regeneration Bill comes back a week on Monday. May we have an opportunity, if necessary, for the Government to table, with cross-party agreement, amendments that would do more than provide extra money to build only 1,100 extra homes? We are short not of 1,100 but of tens of thousands of homes for people at the bottom end of the income scale. May we have a serious proposal to allow empty housing to begin to be used and the private and public sectors to work together and with housing associations and the voluntary sector?

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Last week, the Leader of the House commended the Members Estimate Committee report to hon. Members. So did the Prime Minister, the leader of the Conservative party and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, yet the House voted against it, immediately resulting, unsurprisingly, in external criticism by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Every Liberal Democrat Member voted for the report. What will the Leader of the House do to try to ensure that she and the House recover from a big own goal last Thursday afternoon?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He is right that the House is even more jealous of the time available to discuss amendments, especially Back-Bench amendments, to a Bill that is subject to a free vote. I cannot guarantee two days of debate on the Floor of the House for the remaining stages, but I will try to ensure that the day is not carved up by one or more oral statements, each taking an hour.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): You don’t know.

Ms Harman: What I do know is the commitments that we have for the coming week and for various oral statements that need to be made before the House rises. I will look to ensure that we have a full day’s debate rather than one that oral statements cut into.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill. He is right that it is important that money is available from dormant bank accounts for youth activities so that young people are engaged in productive and interesting activities rather than out on the streets becoming vulnerable to gangs or joining them. The Bill is important and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has provided for money to start to be spent on youth activities in anticipation of the measure’s introduction. Local authorities and voluntary organisations throughout the country can start putting their plans together and bidding for money in anticipation of the Bill, which will receive Second Reading after the summer recess.

The hon. Gentleman raised the tragic case of his constituent, David Idowu. I am sure that the whole House shares the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and we send our condolences to David Idowu’s family. It is a great tragedy that that young man lost his life at 14. Before the House rises, we hope to consider the Green Paper on policing, which is germane to many such issues. The hon. Gentleman knows that we had a topical debate in Government time on knife crime last month. We do look for opportunities not only to debate the issue in the House, which we did last month, but to bring forward practical measures that will make a difference.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Housing and Regeneration Bill; I provisionally announced consideration of Lords amendments for Monday 21 July. He will know that we have been doing a range of things to improve the situation on housing, not just through building more social housing, but through investment by the Housing Corporation, so that it can buy up empty homes, and ensuring that help is there for first-time buyers, not only because of the availability of homes bought up by the Housing Corporation through shared
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equity, but through the changes in stamp duty. I hope that he will agree that one of the most important things is to have new availability of both brownfield and existing housing sites, so that we can develop more homes. I hope that he and other Liberal Democrat Members will work with us to ensure that we have a greater supply of housing. That is very important indeed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the business of the House last Thursday. The House did not reject the Members Estimate Committee; rather, amendments were tabled. Both the propositions that were put before the House last Thursday included stronger provision of audit, that 25 per cent. of every—

Simon Hughes: Not the amendment.

Ms Harman: Yes, the amendment, too. Both propositions included saying that 25 per cent. of Members would be audited every year and that every Member would be audited at least once every Parliament. I had a discussion with the Comptroller and Auditor General yesterday. We can look to ensuring that we build on the implementation of the decision that the House made last Thursday.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that the Modernisation Committee published its report today on regional Select Committees. Highly controversial recommendations were carried by the casting vote of the Chairman, who is a member of the Government. Does she agree that, by convention, changes to Select Committees have been made by agreement among all parts of the House and that it would be quite wrong for the Government to use their majority to force on the House changes in how it holds them to account? Will any votes on that report therefore be on a free vote?

Ms Harman: We undertook in “The Governance of Britain” to provide greater accountability for organisations such as strategic health authorities, the Highways Agency and, above all, regional development agencies, which spend a great deal of public money and have an important role to play in the regions of England, but which are not sufficiently accountable. Because of our concern about that lack of accountability, we made it clear in “The Governance of Britain” White Paper that we would bring forward proposals for regional accountability to Committees of the House. That was the Government’s position.

We also decided to put the issue through the Modernisation Committee, in order that there could be a thorough and comprehensive evidence-taking session before Members of the House. I should like to thank all those who came and gave evidence to the Modernisation Committee, including those from regional development agencies, strategic health authorities, the Highways Agency and regional arts agencies, as well as regional Ministers and members of the Liaison Committee. We had some very important evidence-gathering sessions.

Then the Modernisation Committee made a decision, as the right hon. Gentleman said. Although the Committee was agreed that— [ Interruption. ] Sorry; I am going on too long on that. It was agreed that there was a problem, but it was not agreed what the solution was. We have decided what the Committee’s report should be, and that will come to the House for further debate.

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Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): Given the interest in every hon. Member’s constituency in who will be awarded the contract for the successor to the Post Office card account, will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that a statement is made on the issue before the recess? If she wants to send all hon. Members off in good cheer, may I suggest that it need only be a short statement saying that the contract will stay with the Post Office?

Ms Harman: This is not something that I can comment on in answers to questions about the business statement. As my hon. Friend will know, the Post Office card account contract is subject to public procurement rules, but the Post Office has put in a strong bid.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Can we please have a topical debate next week on speech, language and communication services for children and young people? Given that the ability to communicate is the key life skill of all our children, but that at present hundreds of thousands of them struggle to do so, does the Leader of the House accept that such a debate would be hugely appreciated by those of us who have worked on an entirely non-partisan basis with professionals and the voluntary sector alike, supported by the Government, to chart a route to improved provision in the future?

Ms Harman: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his excellent report, which was published yesterday. The issue is one of concern to hon. Members in all parts of the House, so I will look for an opportunity for possibly a short debate before the House rises.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the House next week and explain why, despite no decision having been made on the Post Office card account, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) said, letters are being sent to pensioners and others in receipt in benefits saying that the POCA will no longer exist and asking them to move to a bank account? That happened before, so why is the Secretary of State allowing it to happen again? Will the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made next week?

Ms Harman: I will ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): That fine newspaper of record, The Sunday Telegraph, found plenty of space to attack me last week over the freedom of information matter concerning the publication of Members’ home addresses, but curiously found no space at all to record the fact that the House had unanimously passed the resolution that those addresses should not be disclosed. I am sure that that had nothing to do with the fact that one of the paper’s reporters initiated the dangerous campaign to publish the addresses. Can the Leader of the House therefore spell out, in words of one syllable, what the significance will be of the statutory instrument that is scheduled for debate on 17 July? Can she give particular attention to the possibility that MPs will need some guidance to be sent to electoral registration officers, so that they can be accorded the right of anonymous registration? Otherwise, the effect of the Standing Order will be vitiated.

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