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16 Oct 2008 : Column 929

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware of the continuing press reports surrounding the relationship between the Secretary of State for Business when he was EU Trade Commissioner and Mr. Oleg Deripaska, who I understand is banned from the United States following an FBI inquiry into his business activities. Given the very serious nature of some of the allegations, may we have a debate next week to try to ascertain the nature of that relationship when the Business Secretary was EU Trade Commissioner, in relation to the ownership dispute within the Russian insurance company Ingosstrakh and the aluminium tariffs situation in Russia?

Ms Harman: I do not think that business questions and the privilege that attaches to them should be used by hon. Members to make unjustified smears and allegations.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, in line with usual procedure, when the House considers the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on Wednesday, new clause 1 will be considered first?

Ms Harman: In the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill the clauses, new clauses and amendments will be considered in the normal way.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May we please have a statement next week on the intended publication date for the delayed child health strategy and an indication of an early parliamentary opportunity to debate its contents? Given that early intervention and integrated commissioning between health, education and social services are vital to achieving better health outcomes for children, will the right hon. and learned Lady recognise that this important strategy needs to be published sooner rather than later, with explicit and funded commitments to meet the very high expectations that rightly now exist?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman rightly draws attention to an important strand of work. As to the timing of the publication of the health strategy for children, I will make inquiries to see whether I can be more specific and inform either him or the House.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware from her constituency both of the considerable distress that is often caused when family members, particularly those coming from the subcontinent, are unable to obtain visas or are refused entry clearance into this country and, therefore, of the importance of the representations that Members of Parliament can make on their behalf. She will also be aware that the realignment of the UK Border Agency and UK visa services has led to a considerable delay and, I understand, a change in how Members’ representations have been treated, so that it is now quite normal to experience delays of six to eight weeks. Will she investigate the matter and ensure that something is done, so that our constituents are not exposed to further distress?

Ms Harman: There has been a considerable speeding up of responses to hon. Members in respect of their constituents in recent years. I will certainly look into the point that my hon. Friend raises and invite the Minister
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with responsibility for immigration to write to him and to place a copy in the Library so that it is available for all Members.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): May I take the Leader of the House back to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill? In line with convention, Back Benchers in all parts of the House and on both sides of the argument have tabled important amendments to the Abortion Act 1967, for debate on the Bill on Report next Wednesday, giving the chance to debate the 1967 Act for only the second time in 40 years. If the new clauses are selected by you, Mr. Speaker, they will fall in the first group. Can the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will not be a Government business motion relegating that group of amendments to a point where there will not be protected time, which would be most unfortunate and undemocratic given the free vote on those matters, and an assurance that they will be reached?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have already had a whole day’s debate on the question of abortion amendments that were raised on the Floor of the House in the summer. When we come back to the House I will seek to protect the time by doing my best to ensure that there are no statements on that day. The Bill will be debated according to the procedures in the normal way.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time, preferably before the autumn statement, to debate the impact of the imposition of the business rate on empty business and commercial property, which is potentially devastating in regeneration areas such as the one that I represent? Indeed, factories and businesses in Sunderland are already demolishing premises rather than pay the tax. The Pallion Engineering company, which is based in an old shipyard in Sunderland, faces an increase from £55,000 to £277,000 in a single leap, which will of course put it out of business and mean that the 200 people working there will lose their jobs.

Ms Harman: There is particular concern about business in this difficult economic climate. I will draw the points that my hon. Friend makes to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and my right hon. Friends in the Treasury, who will no doubt take them seriously.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Does the right hon. and learned Lady still plan to proceed with her wholly misguided policy of setting up a range of regional Select Committees? If she does, will she publish the relevant Standing Orders way in advance of any debate?

Ms Harman: Yes, we are planning to proceed with what the right hon. Gentleman regards as the wholly misguided proposal to set up regional Select Committees. We will publish the Standing Orders in advance, on the basis of his request, so that he and other hon. Members will have an opportunity to scrutinise them in detail. Let me also take this opportunity to inform the House that the Regional Ministers are being brought together today in the Council of Regional Ministers to discuss
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the economic impact, region by region, of the current economic crisis. When the regional Select Committees are established, they will be able to hold that sort of activity to account better in the House.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): The Leader of the House will recall that on 5 July 1991, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed. Thousands of people were put out of work and depositors, including the Western Isles in Scotland and Channel 4, lost their money. They were told at that stage that they would not get their money back. Some 84 per cent. of depositors have got their money back, but the liquidation has now been ongoing for 17 years. Could we have a statement from the Government or a debate about what is now the longest insolvency in this country’s history, so that it can be brought to an end as swiftly as possible?

Ms Harman: I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to consider whether the best way to convey the information to my right hon. Friend and other Members who are concerned about the matter is to issue a written ministerial statement or to write to him.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Can we have a debate on fuel pricing in this country? Although there has been a welcome reduction in the petrol and diesel prices charged at the pumps in recent days, many motorists and households remain concerned about the extra costs imposed through the heavy levies of duty on fuel. They are also concerned about the practice of many retailers of operating a differential pricing policy depending on geographical location, so that the same retailer can charge different prices to motorists depending on where they live. That is clearly unfair and discriminatory, particularly to my constituents in Northern Ireland. I would therefore be grateful if we could have a debate to discuss those issues.

Ms Harman: At the end of this business statement there will be an oral statement on the subject of energy from the Department for Energy and Climate Change, immediately after which there will be a topical debate on the subject of energy providers, so the hon. Gentleman should have two opportunities to make that point.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend’s attention to early-day motion 2254, which stands in my name?

[ That this House calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to accept the recommendation of the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council, whose report it has been considering since August 2008, and declare A14 Osteoarthritis of the Knee a prescribed disease in relation to coalmining with an early implementation date, opening the way for this group of mostly elderly sufferers to claim an award of industrial injuries benefit. ]

The motion requests a decision from the Department for Work and Pensions in response to the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council’s recommendation that osteoarthritis of the knee should be a prescribed disease in relation to coal miners. Will she urge the Department, which has had the IIAC report since August, to make an early decision, because the group of miners affected are quite elderly?

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Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has an exceptional track record of prompting Government to act swiftly on such matters. I therefore take his point seriously. He is absolutely right: time is not on the side of people who are suffering from such industrial injuries and diseases. I will get on to the Department for Work and Pensions.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Now that the Government have dealt with the issue of toxic assets, is it not about time that we also looked into the issue of the toxic media? Much of the information in the leaks and scoops on our television screens and in our newspapers seems to be helpful to some, but immensely damaging to many of our constituents. Is it not about time that we had a proper look at how such information is obtained and reported?

Ms Harman: I am sure that the Treasury Committee, on behalf of the House, will look at all such issues. As my hon. Friend says, it is very important indeed that when public information is given the economic situation is not made worse.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): May I raise with the Leader of the House the serious allegations of match fixing and the unusual betting patterns that apparently took place in Asia in relation to the championship match between Norwich City and Derby on 4 October? I am sure that she would agree that such allegations attack the very integrity of sport in this country and must be treated with the utmost seriousness. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport so that we can establish what contact there has been between him and the Football Association and so that we can see what stage the investigation has reached and ensure that it is given the priority that it deserves?

Ms Harman: I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and ask my right hon. Friend to write to him.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend whether we can have a review of the effectiveness of topical questions? My understanding was that they were supposed to allow Back Benchers in particular to raise questions of importance to them and their constituents. However, there is clear evidence that the spirit and intent of topical questions is now being abused by Front Benchers, who are using them for their own needs. Does she agree that if Opposition Front Benchers want to ask questions, they should go to the Back Benches and take their chances like the rest of us, and also that Government Front-Bench responses should be a bit shorter?

Ms Harman: I think that topical questions have been an important innovation. The House will remember that they were introduced for one Session only, so that they could be reviewed at the end of it. The Standing Orders pertaining to topical questions will lapse at the end of this Session, allowing us an opportunity to review them. I think that, by and large, the House has found them very useful in ensuring that the subjects raised at Question Time are more topical. There is also the issue of whether there is sufficient time for Back
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Benchers, compared with Opposition Front Benchers. Obviously, that is a matter for the Speaker as well as for Opposition Front Benchers.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House next week to make a statement on the behaviour of the nationalised bank, Northern Rock? This would give many Members an opportunity to query why the bank has passed on only one tenth of the reduction in interest rates to its savers, and why some of my constituents have been told by Northern Rock that, when their fixed mortgages come to an end, those mortgages will not continue, because that is what the Government have told the bank to do. That is unacceptable behaviour at a very difficult time. As Northern Rock has been nationalised, it is now the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he should answer these questions.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman knows very well, because the Chancellor has explained it to the House, that there is arm’s length management of Northern Rock. The arrangements for Northern Rock, and what it has been told by the Government, are a matter of public record on which the House has been informed. The right hon. Gentleman knows that individual decisions on lending are made on an application-by-application basis and are not a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Last weekend, a female constituent of mine went to an Oasis concert Birmingham’s national indoor arena. When she returned to where she had left her car, she found that it had been towed away and that she faced a bill of £300. There were no signs to indicate that there were any problems. She was left isolated, vulnerable and stranded in that city. May we have a debate on how we could better regulate these unscrupulous and unspeakable clampers and towers who wreak such havoc on decent people through the activities that they perpetrate? We really cannot have the angst and inconvenience that my constituent experienced last weekend replicated time and again in cities all over the country on frequent occasions.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point. Whether it is a question of people towing away cars or clamping them, we need to ensure that there are clear and fair rules and reputable operators. Real problems can be caused by cowboys taking liberties in this respect. This matter crosses a number of Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, as well as the Treasury. I will give some thought to the point that my hon. Friend has made and see how we can take this matter forward.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Yesterday, the Minister for Local Government informed the House of the situation relating to local authorities exposed to the failure of Icelandic banks. In particular, he was able to tell us that some 13 authorities might have short-term difficulties and that the Department for Communities
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and Local Government was sending a response team of experts into three of them. Last night, the leader of one of those three authorities, which the Minister had felt unable to name—Tamworth borough council—issued a statement saying:

Against that background, will the Leader of the House ask a Minister from that Department to come urgently to the House to clarify exactly what is the basis of the Government’s intervention with these local authorities, on what criteria they were selected, which are the local authorities concerned, and which other institutions, such as regional development associations and housing associations, might also be affected? Drip-feeding only causes speculation, and the suggestion that the Government might be seeking to move attention away from themselves to the councils.

Ms Harman: Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government have given information to the House during the course of the debate. There has also been a written ministerial statement. Response teams, which are the joint responsibility of the Department and the Local Government Association, will be sent to the authorities that request help. They will not be sent to those authorities that do not do so. I am sure that all the constituents of Tamworth will be reassured that their funds are safe.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): It is two and a half years since the House had the opportunity to debate in Government time the Government’s policies for disabled people. I raised this matter with the right hon. and learned Lady on 1 May, and she very kindly said that she would consider my request and see whether there was an opportunity to debate the matter in the House. Can she tell us, five and a half months later, whether she has been able to give any consideration to the matter and when the House might be able to have a debate on the Government’s policies for disabled people?

Ms Harman: Certainly I will consider that as a suggestion for a topical debate. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome and engage in the discussion on the Equality Bill, which seeks to give stronger rights and greater opportunities for people with disabilities.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Recent weeks have shown the importance of regulation. May I partly echo the words of the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds)? We must have a debate on fuel prices, but may we also have a debate on the contracts between fuel distributors and the oil companies and refineries? Can we look in particular at whether there is adequate funding for the Office of Fair Trading to investigate and regulate those contracts, some of which may be contributing to the slow fall in fuel prices at the pumps?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask those questions in respect of the oral statement and to contribute to the topical debate on energy later this afternoon.

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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough)(Con): The Government are spending £16,000 for each and every taxpayer on bailing out and funding banks, based on an ill-thought-out and seriously flawed plan. This affects everyone in the country. Is not it extraordinary that we have had no full-day debate on a substantive motion on this matter? Is it not the duty of the Leader of the House to provide such a debate, so that she can test the opinion of Parliament?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister will make a statement next week, following the European Council. Economic issues will no doubt be at the heart of that. The Chancellor made a statement on Monday of this week. The Government have been concerned to ensure that information is being brought to the House, and that the House has an opportunity to hold the Government to account. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about spending in respect of each taxpayer, he will know that the Government needed to act to stabilise the financial situation and that that was necessary action. He does not need to rely on my word for that. Perhaps he will take the word of the Nobel prize winner for economics, Paul Krugman, who said:

On protection for taxpayers, I should like to refer the hon. Gentleman to the words of Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of the high street store Next, who said that this was

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