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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Ministerial Accountability

24. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions she has had on the means by which hon. Members can hold to account Secretaries of State who are not Members of the House of Commons; and if she will make a statement. [225260]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Secretaries of State are answerable to Members of the House in which they sit. Additionally, they respond to requests by Select Committees.

David Taylor: Unlike his Cabinet colleagues, the future Lord Mandelson will not be spending his weekends meeting constituents, undertaking casework and justifying policy to party members. In short, he has no mandate and will be directly accountable neither to the electorate nor to this House. To bridge that democratic deficit, does my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House agree that he should be requested and required to attend departmental questions and to make ministerial statements from the green Benches of this place and not the purple settees of GMTV?

Ms Harman: The Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden), will be accountable for the Department’s work in this House. The Secretary of State will be accountable for his Department’s work to the House of Lords. No doubt, written and oral statements will be made where appropriate, and that Department will be fully accountable to both Houses for its work.

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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that many of us are entirely content that “Lord Guacamole” should answer in the other House?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. He will, of course, be aware that accountability
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of all Ministers to the House in which they sit is important, but Cabinet appointments are not a matter for this House; they are a matter for the Prime Minister, as I know the hon. Gentleman understands.

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Business of the House

11.32 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 next week will be as follows:

Monday 13 October—A general debate on promoting democracy and human rights.

Tuesday 14 October—Second Reading of the Banking Bill.

Wednesday 15 October—Consideration of a supplementary estimate relating to HM Treasury, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 3) Bill, followed by a general debate on local government delivering for local people.

Thursday 16 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on access to primary care.

Friday 17 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 20 October will include:

Monday 20 October—Second Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 21 October—Opposition Day [19th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill [ Lords].

Thursday 23 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

The information is as follows:

That this House takes note of the 5th, the 8th, the 14th to the 29th, the 31st to the 35th, the 37th, the 38th, the 42nd and the 50th Reports and the 1st and 2nd Special Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Sessions 2007-08, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7366 and 7453).

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for her business statement. All Conservative Members welcomed the Chancellor’s statement yesterday, and both my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) have made clear our commitment to work with the Government through these difficult times. Next week, as she has just announced, we will debate the banking reform Bill, which includes changes to the powers of the Bank of England. Obviously, I welcome today’s topical debate on financial stability, but the general public will rightly expect Parliament to spend more than an hour and a half debating the financial crisis. Will the Leader of the House therefore change next week’s business to provide for a full debate on the financial crisis?

One group of people particularly hard hit by the ups and downs of the stock markets are those who, at age 75, are obliged to take out an annuity. Given the current
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economic conditions, we think it important that people should have the freedom to choose to delay buying their annuity. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has today written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions asking him to put a temporary moratorium on this rule, and offering to work together on this. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government will indeed consider this, so that these people are not unduly penalised by circumstances completely out of their control?

In recent days, our attention has obviously been focused on the financial markets, but there are problems lying ahead for everyone. The International Monetary Fund said yesterday that the world was entering a major downturn, with Europe and the US either already in, or on the brink of, recession. It predicts that the UK economy will contract by 0.1 per cent. next year. These conditions will of course require the Chancellor to revise his economic forecasts, which makes his autumn statement even more significant than usual. Will the Leader of the House therefore now give us the date for the Chancellor’s pre-Budget Report?

Earlier this week The Times reported that the Government plan to drop their unpopular proposal to hold terror suspects for 42 days without charge because it is widely expected that the measure will be resoundingly defeated in the House of Lords next Monday. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the report in The Times was accurate, or, if not, when we should expect to debate the measure again in this House?

Finally, I turn to two, more parochial House points. I welcome the right hon. and learned Lady’s written statement this morning extending the consultation period on her proposals regarding the audit and assurance of MPs’ allowances—something that I suggested to her over the recess. Can she tell us how many responses she has received so far, and will she confirm that she will not hold any further such consultations over a recess? Can she also confirm that the chairmanship of Select Committees is a matter for the decision of those Committees? If so, will she explain why, over the recess, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) was reportedly offered the chairmanship of the south-west regional committee—a committee that has not even been established by this House, let alone had decisions made on its membership? The right hon. and learned Lady has already suspended Standing Orders once to parachute in the Government’s choice to the chairmanship of the Home Affairs Select Committee. Will she now guarantee this will not happen again, and that from now on she will stand up for the independence of Select Committees and the rights of this House?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady is right in saying that the chairmanship of a Select Committee is a matter for the members of the relevant Committee.

The consultation paper on the audit and assurance of Members’ allowances was issued late on—at the end of July or even early August—and because the consultation was under way during the recess, and because a very small number of colleagues have responded, we have accepted the right hon. Lady’s suggestion that we extend the consultation period. Work is already under way, following the resolutions of this House—including the abolition of the John Lewis list, among a number of measures—to improve the audit and assurance of Members’
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allowances, but further steps need consideration. We want the full involvement of Members in this, to make absolutely sure that they have the resources they need to do their work, and to ensure that the public have full confidence that public money is being properly spent.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill. She will be aware that, following debate and discussion in this House and the House having formed its view, the Bill is now under consideration in the House of Lords. Following their lordships’ consideration of it, it will be dealt with in the usual way and will return to this House.

The right hon. Lady asked whether I could give the House the date of the pre-Budget report. I will announce that in due course in the normal way. She also raised the issue of how this House makes sure that we have proper debates on the very important issue of the moment—the stability of the economy. As she said, the Chancellor made a statement yesterday; the Conservatives chose the economy as the subject of their Opposition day debate on Tuesday; and we have arranged a further debate in this House, to be led by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury this afternoon. We can all be clear that we agree on two things. First, when there is a matter of such national importance as this, it is right that the Government involve the Opposition and that we all work together on the issue. Secondly, if legislation is needed, consultation should take place, the terms of it should be respected and the House should be able to legislate on the matters promptly—that is very important. I know that all hon. Members will bear with us if we need to change the business of the House to accommodate important legislation on economic matters.

We also all agree that there must be adequate time to debate these important issues, because this is not just a question of the problem in the financial services industry and the banking sector; these problems affect homebuyers, small businesses, depositors and those buying annuities, to whom the right hon. Lady referred, all of whom are at the top of our concerns. We want to ensure that these important issues are fully debated in this House and that Ministers are fully accountable to this House.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): First, may I ask the Leader of the House to pass on our thanks to her colleague, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), for her helpfulness when she was Deputy Leader of the House, and to welcome her new Deputy Leader of the House to his position?

In the spirit of co-operation in trying to maximise the opportunity for Parliament urgently to debate matters relating to the national and global financial crisis, which clearly are of huge concern outside this building, may I clarify one thing and ask two questions about the business that the Leader of the House has announced? She announced a debate next week on local government. We have read and heard reports that significant numbers of local councils had invested public money in Icelandic banks that have gone bust. I gather that the figure involved may be up to £500 million and that more than 20 local councils may be involved, as well as police authorities and transport authorities. Will she ensure, before the debate on Wednesday, that Ministers responsible for local government give an indication—it might be better if it were an indication, rather than a final
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view—of what the Government propose to do to assist local councils? Many councils are already cutting local services, including social services, and, whatever their party affiliation, they want to ensure that further cuts do not have to be made as a result of the present crisis.

Secondly, the Leader of the House rightly mentioned the concerns of small business about the present financial position. Small business organisations have made it clear that they are still receiving letters from banks offering loans at rates of 15 per cent. The majority of the British work force works in small businesses, rather than in big businesses, so can she see whether we can have a debate in this place with the new team at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—with or without the Secretary of State—on what can be done to ensure that huge numbers of small businesses do not go under in the days immediately following the events of the past two weeks?

Thirdly, the Leader of the House knows as well as I do that in boroughs such as ours, and probably in every local authority in the country, affordable housing is one of the most urgent needs. Local authorities and housing associations will clearly be in greater difficulty borrowing money to build the programmes to which they have already committed themselves or that they wanted to build. May we have a debate on how to ensure that the plans of the Government, of London government, of London councils and of all local authorities can be implemented, because loads of people are desperately waiting for the housing that they need?

Lastly, on an in-House matter, I persistently asked before the summer that we ensure that we have time on Report on Government Bills to debate Opposition and Government Back Bencher amendments and new clauses. We know of six Government Bills that are in the pipeline between now and the end of term, including the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. Given that, even yesterday, some amendments and new clauses could not be debated for lack of time—such as the important issue of whether smacking should be allowed—can we please ensure that Parliament can do its job properly and debate the issues that colleagues from all parties put on the agenda, instead of having debate closed down by Government guillotines?

Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments in appreciation of the excellent work of the former Deputy Leader of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and I pay tribute to her. I also join hon. Members in welcoming her excellent successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant).

It is important for the hon. Gentleman to remember that the resources that have been going into local government from central Government have increased year on year. He is right to say that local government services are very important, and we want to ensure that they are protected. There will be an opportunity for hon. Members to ask the Financial Secretary to the Treasury questions about local government deposits this afternoon in the topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the important issue of the effect of the financial and banking crisis on the work of small businesses. We all agree that small businesses are critical to the economy and to employment prospects, and they need an effective banking system to survive
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and prosper. It is important that work is undertaken at European level, through the European Investment Bank; at national level, through the actions of the Treasury and other Departments; and at regional level. Small businesses are the focus of the Government’s concern, and we will take all steps necessary to ensure that they can continue their important work.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I remind the House that we have already had 81 hours of debate across the two Houses on that Bill, so we have sought to make adequate time available to debate that important issue. Additionally, there have been two full days of debate on the Floor of the House, followed by a free vote on those issues of conscience. When the Bill comes back to this House, we will have further opportunity for debate.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about housing. The plans are important not only to increase the supply of housing, but because they touch on the question of public sector investment in infrastructure, whether in transport, industry, housing or even people’s skills. The Government have two obligations. First, we must see the country through this immediate crisis, ensuring that we give most support to those who are most directly affected and those who are most vulnerable. Secondly, we must not do anything to undermine the strengthening of the economy in the future. The forecast is that, once we have got through the present difficult circumstances, the economy has bright prospects for the future. For that reason, we do not want to cut infrastructure projects that need further investment, and that is why the Chancellor has announced that he believes that it is sensible to allow borrowing to rise to find our way through the crisis and to sustain investment for the future.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I seek the co-operation of hon. Members. There is heavy demand to participate in the two time-limited debates that follow business questions. I cannot promise to call every hon. Member who wishes to put a question to the Leader of the House, but we will make more progress if we have one question per Member, especially if it relates to next week’s business. I am sure that the Leader of the House will also give as concise answers as she can.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): First, may I say to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) that she should not believe everything she reads in the papers? I, too, express my good wishes to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on his appointment, which is richly deserved.

May I tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House that I am pleased to see how much time is being allocated to discuss the financial crisis? She will be well aware that Labour Members and Opposition Members are particularly concerned about the important merger between HBOS and Lloyds TSB. A lot of concern has already been expressed by Front and Back Benchers about jobs in Yorkshire and in Scotland. May I add to that my concern—

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