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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend take an early opportunity to correct a false impression created by a question asked earlier
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today by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone)? The question implied that Commonwealth citizens resident in Britain who have limited leave to remain, such as the wives of British citizens, are not eligible to vote in elections, but they are.

Ms Harman: I think that my hon. Friend has taken this opportunity to correct the record, but perhaps I will ask the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Member for Kettering and put him straight.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May we have a debate on the tagging system for prisoners who are on early release, and on the inefficiency and incompetence in a particular case in which a young man in my constituency was returned to prison for an extra three months through no fault of his own? Perhaps a debate could be held in Westminster Hall.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman refers to the important issue of recall to prison for those released on licence who are subject to conditions in respect of their tag. I know that that is a very controversial issue, because obviously recall to prison is a drastic step. I suggest that, in the first instance, he raise the question with the Home Secretary.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that a number of Members on both sides of the House have written to express their concern about the deterioration of the situation in Sri Lanka, and about the Sri Lankan Government’s bombing of areas in the north and east of the country. I appreciate that there is a debate next week on human rights, but most Members who have written feel that that would be inadequate to deal with the subject, and that a special debate should be called for.

Ms Harman: I will take my hon. Friend’s proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate, but as he anticipated, I think that there will be an opportunity to discuss the important issues relating to Sri Lanka next Monday. I know that he is very concerned about his constituents who have families in Sri Lanka, and he is assiduous in his concern for their welfare and the welfare of their relatives. However, I suggest that he try to catch the Speaker’s eye in the debate on Monday.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Yesterday, amidst all the financial turmoil in the markets, the Government still found time to whip their MPs—and, in a break with usual practice, even members of the Government—to ensure that they voted against my ten-minute Bill in favour of openness and transparency in the making of law. Given that, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the House on openness and transparency, so that we can establish once and for all whether the Government are actually in favour of it?

Ms Harman: It was this Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and we want to make sure that debate is full and fully informed. We will continue to be as open as possible.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): It is nearly two years since the collapse of the Farepak Christmas saving
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scheme. May we have a debate in Government time on the inquiry that was set up last year? It was due to report first at Christmas, then Easter, and then before the recess, but did not do so. Tens of thousands of decent, hard-working families deserve to know what happened to their money. Margaret Rettie in my constituency paid hundreds of pounds at 20 past 3 on the day on which the company collapsed; it did so at a quarter past 4. People like her deserve answers.

Ms Harman: The whole House will have every sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. We are all well aware that the people who lost money to Farepak were those who could least afford to do so. The fact that they are still waiting for the report is not acceptable. I thank him for raising the issue, as he has done consistently. We really do need to get the matter sorted out. I will work with the Deputy Leader of the House to make sure that we get some answers fast.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May we have an early statement or debate on the changes proposed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to the seafarers’ earnings deduction scheme? The change will affect people throughout the merchant navy, but it will have a particularly severe impact on those working in the North sea in the offshore oil and gas sector because of the proposals to backdate the changes. It is an issue on which Parliament really ought to have a voice.

Ms Harman: I understand that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has just joined us in the Chamber, is looking into the issue, so perhaps in the first instance the hon. Gentleman might seek a meeting with him to discuss how far my right hon. Friend has got in progressing the matter.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady arrange for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to come to the House next week to make a statement on local government finance? The problem is not just the fact that local authorities have money frozen in Icelandic banks—in Oxfordshire, some £28 million-plus has been frozen or perhaps lost. There is another issue: many local authorities, in the course of their business, work with cash surpluses that they have to deposit. They need guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government on what is acceptable practice, so that they can ensure that the money is protected. They would like to invest it in UK banks—they do not want to hold it themselves—but they want some safeguards and protection. It is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman has got his point across.

Ms Harman: In addition to the opportunity presented by the debate that follows this business statement, there will be a general debate next Wednesday on local government delivering for local people. All the hon. Gentleman’s points can be raised and answered by Ministers in that debate.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): Thousands of holidaymakers across the country were recently left stranded, distressed and hugely out of pocket, through no fault of their own, as a result of a number of failures on the part of airlines. In 2004 and 2006, the Select Committee on Transport made a request, which the Civil Aviation Authority supported, that an airline levy be charged covering all passengers, particularly those who book their accommodation independently. Will the Leader of the House allow a debate—possibly a topical debate—next week or the week after to enable all of us who represent those passengers to debate the issue? We could debate the review of the European package travel directive at the same time.

Ms Harman: I will raise the points that the hon. Lady has brought before the House with the new Secretary of State for Transport. We were all appalled to see what happened to those who were left stranded around the world. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s consular offices across the world did what they could. Many people were eligible for compensation, but some who booked online, or independently, were not.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the future of general practitioner services? Why are the Government intent on removing the dispensing powers and services of GPs, particularly in rural areas? That will leave patients in my constituency having to travel far further to collect their medicines. Will the Government have a rethink about this?

Ms Harman: There will be a general debate on access to primary care next Thursday. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman catch the Speaker’s eye in that debate and raise his constituents’ concerns then. However, I remind him and the House that there has been unprecedented investment in, and improvement to, primary care services since this Government came to power and made the NHS a priority. [Interruption.] I hear Opposition Members say that that has been wasted. Before we came to power, many of my constituents could not even get on a GP’s list, because the lists were closed. When they managed to appeal and did get on a GP’s list, they sometimes found that they had to wait weeks for an appointment, and when they did get to see the GP, it was often a locum who was completely knackered. GP services have been substantially improved.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the Leader of the House will help me to ensure that colleagues who have not yet asked a question get to speak.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on the performance of the UK Border Agency? A constituent of mine who has been asked to sponsor someone from Sierra Leone has been told that he must send details of all his bank accounts and savings to Sierra Leone, so that the applicant can give them to the embassy there. Why does he have to send all his bank details abroad? Why could he not take them to someone in the UK? It is a ludicrous policy.

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Ms Harman: When processing visas for entry to this country, those concerned need to be able to look at as much information as they regard necessary in each individual case. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raise that point in writing with the Home Secretary.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): My local authority, the London borough of Havering, is one of the councils that has had its accounts with an Icelandic bank frozen. I heard what the Leader of the House said about the opportunities presented by the topical debate, but she will appreciate that the ability to ask questions on this specific issue will be limited. As for waiting until next Wednesday, as we see, a lot of things could happen before then. In light of comments made by a number of hon. Members, will she reconsider speaking to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and will she encourage them to make an urgent statement on the issue on Monday, to allow detailed questioning on it?

Ms Harman: Things are getting a bit surreal: hon. Members are taking up time in asking me to find time, but I am telling them that they can put their questions to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is here. I understand that he will report on meetings with the Local Government Association, so instead of asking me, why do those hon. Members not just ask him?

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Residents in Kettering have been waiting ages for a long overdue announcement from the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency about the Government’s plans to expand the A14 around Kettering. Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to urge the Department for Transport to make a statement in the House on the issue next week?

Ms Harman: I shall raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Transport.

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): May we have a debate on the administration of the education maintenance allowance system? I have been contacted by a number of young people in my constituency who should have qualified automatically for the allowance, but have waited more than eight weeks for it to be processed. I am concerned that a number of other
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people across the country might be affected in a similar way. I would appreciate the opportunity for a debate with the Minister.

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has already devoted a great deal of attention to that issue. The hon. Lady is right: those who are awarded the education maintenance allowance need it promptly. I shall raise her points with my right hon. Friend and see whether there can be a further written statement or other process to make sure that he is fully accountable to the House on that important issue.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): When time allows, may we have a debate about the Black Police Association, a divisive organisation that is stirring up racial tensions? If there were a white police association, the Leader of the House would be first in line to be outraged about it. I cannot see the legal or moral difference between a white police association and a black one. May we have a debate on the issue? Like many other people in the country, I think that the association should be scrapped.

Ms Harman: It is very important that the Metropolitan police should command the confidence of the diverse communities in London whose security it is there to protect and whose co-operation it needs to investigate crime and prevent it from happening. Historically, black and Asian people have been under-represented in the Metropolitan police, but a great deal has been done to increase its black and Asian members. Much of that has been due to Sir Ian Blair; I pay tribute to the fact that he has made sure that more black and Asian people have been recruited to the police to ensure full public confidence.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Home Secretary has announced that there will be an inquiry into black and Asian recruitment, not only in the police but across the board. There is the Black Police Association but no white police association because of the under-representation of black and Asian people. That is why we back the work to increase the numbers of black and Asian members of the police service.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I thank the House; we have got through 34 questions in 51 minutes, which shows what can be done when everyone co-operates.

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TOPICAL DEBATE Financial Stability

12.23 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move,

The events in the USA in the past few weeks and in Europe in the past few days have demonstrated once again the global nature and sheer scale of the problems affecting the financial system. What started in America last year has now spread to every part of the world. Disruption in global financial markets has intensified, particularly over the past few weeks, and people are rightly concerned about what is happening. As well as the USA and ourselves, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Denmark, Austria, Belgium and Iceland are affected; these are global problems that need international, as well as national, responses. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made it absolutely clear that we will do whatever is necessary and right to maintain stability. Along with Governments across the world, we have the responsibility to support a stable, well-functioning banking system.

Financial transactions are at the heart of everything that we do: they allow people to buy goods, pay for services, buy homes, save for pensions and invest for growth and prosperity. It is essential that we take action both to support the banking system as a whole and to intervene in particular cases when it is necessary to do so. It is not a case of one or the other; general support and individual intervention are needed. We want to work with other countries to tackle the causes of these problems as well as deal with their consequences.

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced to the House the decisive, comprehensive action that the Government are taking to restore confidence in the banking system and put banks on a stronger footing. That has been widely welcomed.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The House welcomes what my right hon. Friend has said about financial stability. One of the underlying reasons for the weakness in our and America’s banking systems is the weakness in the housing market and the fact that increasing numbers of people are unable to pay their mortgages. What will be done, as autumn turns to winter and winter turns to new year, to make sure that our constituents do not find themselves at the mercy of repossession? What will be done to support people in their homes and against arbitrary repossession?

Mr. Timms: I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome yesterday’s Bank of England announcement of a reduction in interest rates. Of course, if we are successful, as we hope we will be, in opening up the lending market again, we will see the housing market—and, indeed, other parts of the economy—benefit from that change. It is essential that we take action both to support the system as a whole and to intervene in particular cases when we need to.

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that some people must be puzzled? Over the years, we have been told by all kinds of people that state intervention is wrong, that any form of extending public ownership is highly undesirable and that all such measures would undoubtedly lead to wicked socialism, which is no doubt being considered in Washington. Is it not also puzzling that at this moment, when there is such a crisis in financial markets across the world, it is precisely state intervention that is essential?

Mr. Timms: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have been struck by how some people who have customarily denounced any form of Government intervention are now calling for precisely that intervention.

There are three strands to what the Chancellor announced yesterday: first, the provision of sufficient liquidity now; secondly, making available new capital to UK banks and building societies to strengthen their resources and restructure their finances while maintaining support for the real economy; and thirdly, ensuring that the banking system has the funds that it needs to maintain lending in the medium term.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Financial Secretary has mentioned three points, but are there not really four? First, there is a transfer of debt to the national purse; secondly, there is a deferral of debt from today until tomorrow. The third and fourth points are the subsequent choice between cutting public spending or increasing taxes.

Mr. Timms: No. The three strands are precisely as I have set them out. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is expressing opposition to the package; in common with others outside the House, Conservatives have generally welcomed the proposals as precisely the decisive and bold action that is needed, given the circumstances that have resulted from the problems in the USA.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The Financial Secretary mentioned the need for bold action. In his statement yesterday, the Chancellor said that he had frozen the assets of the subsidiaries of Landsbanki in this country as a first step in trying to address the issue of retail deposits at that bank. However, he was not so clear about what was intended in respect of local authority deposits with the bank. My local authority, the London borough of Sutton, has £5.5 million in a subsidiary of that company. It was invested in a prudent fashion and in line with guidelines issued by the Treasury. The authority wants to know what will happen to that money and whether the Government will stand with it and council tax payers to make sure that the money is safe.

Mr. Timms: I am aware that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House fielded several questions about this at business questions. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be a meeting this afternoon between my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Local Government Association to consider exactly this issue.

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