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16 Oct 2008 : Column 923

Business of the House

11.35 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Leader of the House 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 20 October—Second Reading of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 21 October—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate entitled “Controls on Immigration” followed by a debate on the Olympic legacy. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

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 provisional business for the week commencing 27 October will include:

Monday 27 October—Remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 28 October—Remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 29 October—Opposition Day (11th allotted day) (Second Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced; followed by the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 30 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence policy.

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).

I inform the House that the Commons calendar from December 2008 until October 2009 is available in the Vote Office.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week, which includes the debate on Wednesday on the remaining stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. There are reports today that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have fallen out over the amount of time that should be allowed for that debate. Will she confirm that she will make every effort to ensure that there are no statements that day, and that there will indeed be a full debate on the remaining stages of the Bill?

The Leader of the House referred to the debate in the following week on defence policy. On 13 October, the Prime Minister of Iraq stated that he wants British troops to withdraw. May we have a statement from the Defence Secretary, before that debate, on whether that changes the Government’s strategy in Iraq?

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I raised the matter of annuities with the Leader of the House last week and yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pressed her on it again, but neither of us got a satisfactory answer. Given that thousands of pensioners are being forced to buy an annuity that locks them into a lower income for the rest of their lives, the need to address the issue is urgent. Will the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions make an urgent statement to the House on whether the Government will adopt our proposal to suspend the rule on annuities?

In July, I asked for a statement from the Chancellor on the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Lady ignored two questions on Equitable Life. The ombudsman has clearly stated that the Government must take some responsibility for the failures in Equitable Life and should be compensating policyholders, so may we have an urgent statement from the Chancellor apologising for the Government’s failures and setting out the compensation scheme for policyholders?

On Monday, the Home Secretary took the unprecedented step of interrupting House business and making a statement about the Government’s defeat in the House of Lords on the issue of 42 days’ pre-charge detention. Why was the statement not made on the following day in the usual way, thus giving Members proper notice, or was it that the Government wanted to give the statement when fewer Members were in the Chamber to question the Home Secretary? Can the Leader of the House confirm that this sets a new precedent and that in future Ministers will always make an immediate statement to the House whenever the Government are defeated in the House of Lords?

In the past year the Government have lost the personal details of 25 million men, women and children from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, 45,000 people from the Department for Work and Pensions, 3 million learner drivers from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, 84,000 prisoners from the Home Office and over 2 million people from the Ministry of Defence, but yesterday the Home Secretary announced plans for a massive increase in the Government’s ability to access people’s personal data. What reassurance can the Home Secretary give that the Government will protect the integrity of any new data? Given the huge data losses so far, would it not be easier for the Home Secretary to make a statement listing the people whose data have not been lost by this Government?

Finally, the previous Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was also the Government’s anti-corruption champion. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Prime Minister has found it necessary to remove that responsibility from Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, and will she explain why? While the Prime Minister is looking at the noble Lord’s responsibilities, will he also be removing his Department’s work on regulating mortgages?

Ms Harman: On the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, there is no truth in the report that the right hon. Lady mentioned. She asked me to make every effort to ensure that no statement is made on the day the House debates the Bill. As I said this time last week, the House has had a great deal of time, rightly, to discuss this important and controversial Bill. It has been debated for a total of 81 hours on the Floors of
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both Houses, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, seven in the Commons, and I hope that here will be a further full day of debate. I will seek to ensure that there is no statement that day. Obviously, I will need the flexibility to allow a statement for an urgent reason, but just as it is our intention to avoid making statements on Opposition days, we will try to ensure that we do not have a statement on the day we debate the Bill.

On defence, as the right hon. Lady acknowledged, there is to be a general debate on defence on Thursday week, in which the issues can be fully explored.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of those who need to buy annuities because they are approaching their 75th birthday. I have nothing to add to what I told the House yesterday. As I said then, this issue does affect some people; it is only a small number of people, but it does affect a number of people— [Interruption.] That is not what I said. I said that it is only a small number of people, but it is an issue of concern and it is being considered.

The right hon. Lady asked about the ombudsman’s report on Equitable Life. On 8 October, the Chancellor repeated what he had said in the summer, after the ombudsman’s report was published: this was an extensive and important report, and that he would make a statement on the Government’s response in the autumn. That remains the case.

Mrs. May: But it is the autumn.

Ms Harman: Indeed. The right hon. Lady is absolutely right—it is the autumn.

Mrs. May: So where is the statement?

Ms Harman: Autumn has not finished yet.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Counter-Terrorism Bill and the Home Secretary’s statement to the House after the defeat of the 42-day provision in the House of Lords. Our view was that it was important for the House to hear the Government’s intention as soon as possible, following the defeat of the clause in the House of Lords. If we had waited until the next day, speculation would have run overnight and there would have been a great many speculative news reports; but we thought that the House would need to hear as soon as possible, and therefore the statement was brought before the House. In fact, many Members of the House were present when the Home Secretary made the statement; the Chamber was packed, and it was an extensive statement.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications data Bill, which the Home Office proposed and was included in the draft legislative programme. As she will know, instead of simply announcing the Bills for the legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, we have given the public an opportunity to see the Government’s intentions by publishing the draft legislative programme in early summer, enabling people to comment before the Queen’s Speech clarifies the Government’s fixed intention for the legislative programme. The draft communications data Bill was in the draft legislative programme, and a number of issues and concerns have been raised about it.

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The Home Secretary has made it clear that at all times on important issues such as these, she wants to listen to people’s concerns, consider them and consult on a wide, bipartisan basis. She has said that instead of pressing forward with legislation in the next Session, she will seek to consult further, including publishing draft clauses or possibly even a draft Bill. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) misunderstands the position: having published the measure in the draft legislative programme, we will undertake further consultation before we introduce the Bill in the House. It sounds as though she would probably welcome that, now that I have had an opportunity to explain the position.

The right hon. Lady talked about anti-corruption. Anti-corruption responsibility runs across a number of Government Departments. At one stage in the past, the lead responsibility was with the Department for International Development; at another stage, it was with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. It is currently with the Ministry of Justice, but the point is that all Government Departments need to focus on the issue, and indeed they do so. The question of where the lead is is less important; more important is the fact that across government the agenda is delivered, and it certainly will be.

Joan Ryan (Enfield, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend make time available for a full debate in the Chamber on the unfolding catastrophe in Sri Lanka? We had a short debate earlier this week in Westminster Hall, for which I thank Mr. Speaker, but the situation is so serious, with the compulsory withdrawal of aid agencies from the Vanni region and the continued indiscriminate bombing of innocent Tamils, that a number of Members wish to speak on the issue. We need to hear a fuller response from Government—I acknowledge the extra aid that the Government have made available—so a full debate in the Chamber would be appropriate.

Ms Harman: I will take my right hon. Friend’s proposal as a suggestion for a topical debate. I considered the forward business as she made that point, and I cannot see an immediate opportunity, as the business stands, for hon. Members to raise the important issue that she brings to the House’s attention, so I will consider it for a topical debate and think further on it.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I endorse the request from the right hon. Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), as there was a very large attendance in Westminster Hall, and I am sure that there would be interest across the House among Members from all parties in a substantive debate? Ministers have always been accommodating if the time has been provided.

May I return to matters raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which are of huge significance in relation to Home Office business this week? First, to go back to Monday night, it was unacceptable that an important debate in Government time on democracy and human rights around the world was interrupted by the making of a statement in the middle of it. Why could the statement not have been made at 10 o’clock, as is traditionally the case if an urgent statement is made? We could have had the full
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debate as planned, and the statement, and everyone would have been alerted in the normal way. [ Interruption. ] It was indeed about news management, as it was hoped it would be covered by the financial discussions being conducted on Monday, which, as we know, was a difficult but important day financially.

Out of the hat on Monday night the Home Secretary produced the rabbit, the temporary provisions Bill, as her fig leaf to cover her major U-turn. If she is serious about another Bill in the wings, may we have proper pre-legislative scrutiny of it, with the opportunity to take evidence on whether it is needed? We have a provision whereby Special Standing Committees consider a Bill and take evidence. Given the widespread opposition to the Bill—opposition that is massive in the House of Lords, significant in this place and very large in the country—the justification for it has not been made out, and we need to have the debate before the Home Secretary has the Bill ready to introduce.

On the other home affairs matter properly raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, I have read the Home Secretary’s speech from yesterday, including her references to the communications data Bill and I understand the exchange that has just taken place, but to some of us, on the back of the DNA database, the plan for ID cards and the proposal for 42-day detention without charge, the idea of an Orwellian super-database adds the final nail in the coffin, turning us from a people of liberty to a people of suspects—a completely unacceptable proposal.

May we have a debate, therefore, in this place so that we can hear the Home Secretary, the proposal and the representations that she has received and see whether there is any public support for the idea that every phone call we ever make and its location, for example, is kept for the rest of our lives on some great Government system? The Government do not appear to be able to hold the data that they already have, let alone any more.

Tomorrow, we will debate private Members’ Bills: there are 51 on the Order Paper. The Government have always wanted to be helpful and the job of the Leader of the House is to be helpful to private Members. The right hon. and learned Lady may know that in the past six years nine out of 10 Government Bills have received Royal Assent. She may also know that only about one in 10 private Members’ Bills have received Royal Assent. Will she seriously consider ways of giving better opportunity for private Members on her own side and others to get their proposals into legislation, and not hog all the time for Government business?

We look for an assurance today that there will be no Government guillotine or timetable on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that prevents debate on related fertilisation, embryology or abortion if colleagues on either side wish to raise them. May we have an assurance not only that we will have a full day, but that the Government will not seek to manage the business to prevent that debate?

Lastly, we will have a welcome debate next week on the Olympic legacy and building on the Olympic achievement. I invite the Leader of the House to join me and, I am sure, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, on the day when the nation celebrates our fantastic Olympic achievement, in saying that we are hugely proud of our athletes in both games and many of us are
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greatly excited by the prospect not only of the games in London in four years’ time, but of even better success then.

Ms Harman: The Deputy Leader of the House and I will consider what the hon. Gentleman said about private Members’ Bills and see whether we can make more progress.

I take note of the fact that the hon. Gentleman backed up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) about Sri Lanka, and I shall consider that as a request for a topical debate.

Like the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) raised the topic of the statement on 42 days. We wanted to ensure that the House was told first and at the earliest possible opportunity. [Interruption.] I see that the Opposition are now arguing that the statement should have been delayed until 10 o’clock. There are pros and cons to each timing. The most important aspect is the question of substance and the fact that the House was told expeditiously.

The hon. Gentleman asked about pre-legislative scrutiny of the temporary provisions Bill, which is a matter for the Home Affairs Committee. If it wants to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of the provisions and how they would be introduced and what effect they would have, that is a matter for the Committee. Of course, it carried out extensive pre-legislative scrutiny of the 42-day clause in the Counter-Terrorism Bill and took evidence on that.

With reference to the communications data Bill, I cannot say more than what I said to the shadow Leader of the House. There will be further time for consultation. There will be publication, probably of draft clauses, if not of the whole draft Bill. There will be an opportunity for people to look at the objectives that the Bill seeks to achieve and whether the measures appropriately protect personal data and human rights. With all these measures, it should be recognised that as well as protecting personal privacy and confidentiality and human rights, it is important that we are able to help the police investigate and detect crime. The hon. Gentleman complains about the DNA database, but I remember the rape offenders who were brought to justice because DNA data were held on a database.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): There have been welcome noises from the Government this week about helping people at work to maintain their jobs. May we have a statement from the Treasury about the decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to attack seafarers and mariners under the seafarers’ earnings deduction, which will leave my constituent, Mr. Penny, facing a future in which, he says, the ruling has

The decision can be reversed so that people can remain in the industry and not be 25 per cent. worse off in their salaries.

Ms Harman: I will raise the matter with Treasury Ministers and ask them to write to my hon. Friend and deal with the point he raises.

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