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The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms):
My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and I talked about this matter with the Treasury Committee yesterday, and we said that we were looking at ways to enable companies that had been affected to pay the due amount over a longer period than would normally be the case. What has typically
happened is that the rates liability for the port operators has been reduced, whereas the liability for the occupiers has been increased. There has been some rebalancing there, and the port operators also have a responsibility to consider whether they can help.
T10.  Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Kettering borough council is organising a credit crunch summit to which it is inviting local businesses, residents, banks, building societies, housing associations and others to discuss what steps can be taken to minimise the impact of the recession on local residents and businesses. Would the Chancellor like to applaud this initiative?
Mr. Darling: It is important that we consider what we can do to help businesses, as we have been discussing during Question Time, and individuals. I repeat what I said earlier: steps such as reducing the amount of tax being paid by basic rate taxpayers and postponing the fuel duty increase will all help. I should also say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that it is important as well that the Government are prepared to put their money behind what they say, which means we have to allow borrowing to rise. The Conservative party is now saying that we should not borrow, which would have consequences, and sooner or later it will have to spell them outor perhaps not, if, as with so many other Conservative policies, it adopts it one week, and then drops it the next.
Mrs. May: Earlier this month the shadow Justice Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), tabled a written question to the Ministry of Justice on rates of reoffending by prisoners on early release. By 10.30 pm on Monday, he had not received an answer, yet that night the Daily Mirror was going to press with details of the answer. Answers to written questions should surely be given to Members before they go to the press, so what action is the Leader of the House taking to ensure that Ministers follow that rule, respect Parliament and do not leak answers to the press for their own political convenience?
The Leader of the House has just announced a debate on work and welfare, which follows our Opposition day debate on unemployment. On Monday, the House of Lords will hold a general debate on the economy. When will we have a full debate in this House, in Government time, on the state of the economy? Apart from other things, that would give Members an opportunity to debate the Chancellors Mais lecture, which was described in The Times as being
as striking for its lack of introspection as for its vagueness in indicating a way forward. The Government has repeatedly proclaimed an end to boom and bust, yet has produced both.
Continuing on the state of the economy, it is reported today that one in 10 small businesses are in danger of going under. Members need to be able to hold Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to account in this House, but the Secretary of State sits in the House of Lords and there is no Minister in this House at Cabinet level. What is more, there is only one Minister in this House dedicated solely to the Department. At this time, when even the Government have admitted that we are heading into a recession, that is simply not good enough. The Select Committee on Business and Enterprise is rightly concerned by that unprecedented lack of accountability, so may we have an urgent statement from the Leader of the House explaining what action she will take to ensure that there is proper accountability by that Department to this House?
May we have a debate on the BBC? There is public outrage at the behaviour of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, yet for several days the BBC seemed like a rabbit caught in the headlights, unable to act. We need a debate on the BBCs handling of the incident, because licence fee payers have a right to know what went wrong and how similar incidents will be avoided in future.
On 7 February, the House agreed a Conservative resolution that the European Scrutiny Committee should meet in public, but I understand that it has been holding the majority of meetings in private, that members of the public have effectively been prevented from attending and that the Committee has now decided to ask the Leader of the House to let it meet in private in future. It is an important Committee and should be open to the public, so may we have a statement from her on why it appears to have been flouting the will of the House?
There are reports that the Cabinet is divided over a third runway at Heathrow. Indeed, the right hon. and learned Lady herself is reported as questioning the Governments decision for a third runway. Our policy is clear: no to a third runway and yes to a high-speed rail link. Today it is reported that the Government are adopting our policy on high-speed rail. May we have a debate on Heathrow, so that we can find out whether the Government are going to make a U-turn and adopt our policy on a third runway as well?
Finally, two weeks ago the Leader of the House promised a statement on Equitable Life in the autumn. The clocks have changed and London has had its first snowfall. Does she still think that it is autumn, or will she now give us a date for a statement on Equitable Life?
Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Lady for her best wishes to me as I was off with flu last week. I have to confess that I was apprehensive that my failing to reply to business questions might cause alarm and despondency among all parties. However, I was able to watch a few moments on television last week and detected that that was far from the case, and that the House felt it was in very safe hands being looked after by my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I thank him for looking after the shop while I was away.
I agree with the right hon. Ladys proposition that written answers should go to the Members concerned before they are given to the press. I shall look into that
point and write to her about it, because the issue is a serious one. A Department has to be sure that its answer, which it is free to give to the press, has first reached the Member directly; the Member should not see it in a newspaper first.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the economic situation. Whether in statements from the Treasury or from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, in answers at Prime Ministers questions, in answers at Treasury questions this morning or in debates such as this afternoons topical debate on businesses and the regions or last weeks topical debate on skills and employment, the economy is before the House for debate and discussion, and Ministers are being held accountable at all times, and rightly so.
In its procedures, the European Scrutiny Committee follows the resolutions passed by this House. There is no question of that Committee flouting the will of the House, because it is not in a position to do so: it has to comply with the Standing Orders at all times. Indeed, those Standing Orders were introduced for a temporary period and will come back to the House to be renewed, re-debated and discussed on 12 November, as I announced, so the right hon. Lady, like all hon. Members, will have an opportunity to make further points then.
The Governments position on Heathrow is that London has fewer runways than other European capitals. In principle, we are in favour of an additional runway at Heathrow, but we have always said that this was subject to environmental concerns, in particular, and to extensive consultation and the gathering of scientific and other evidence. This is being considered by the Secretary of State for Transport.
As for the investment in rail infrastructure being the Conservative partys idea, that is a laugh. When we took over, the infrastructurethe network, the stations and the rolling stockwas in a state of disrepair and investment was lacking. We have invested in our national infrastructure. That has been part of our investment in this country while the sun shines, and we will not cut that investment. We will continue it, because it is important to the economy.
The right hon. Lady also asked about Equitable Life. I have given her an answer to the question about the Governments accountability to the House on all economic issues and the opportunities for this House to debate them. She will remember that the Equitable Life issue arose out of a structure that the company adopted in the 1970s. In the 1990s, that structure meant that a problem surfaced: Equitable Life was not able to meet its obligations to its policyholders. The parliamentary ombudsman spent four years investigating the background to this matter, and produced a weighty report this summer. After four years of investigation into a very complex issue, it is right that the Government should consider the matter seriously and should have the time to do so. As I said, the report will be given to the House this autumn by the Chancellor; he will give his decision to the House. Incidentally, the parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): As a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs since its creation, I have long been disappointed that we devote relatively little time to matters of food and diet. This is against a backdrop of an increase in obesity and diet-related diseases, particularly among younger people, which is linked to foods that have high salt, sugar and fat content. Will the Leader of the House say whether time could be allocated to debate the Food Standards Agency report on food labelling, which considers some of the options that exist, such as guideline daily amounts and traffic-light systems, so that we can get the retail industry behind whatever the chosen best option is and start to tackle some of the health and social problems that we face?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about a what is a major public health issue not only for DEFRA but for the Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. The latter is especially concerned about child health and what happens in schools. Labelling also raises questions about information for consumers, especially parents. I shall therefore consider whether we can have further opportunities to debate the matter, possibly in a topical debate.
I join the Conservative shadow Leader of the House in requesting full-day debates in Government time on the economy and on Heathrow. On the latter, there does not appear to be unanimity in the Government, so there must be some hope that we can change their mind.
Last week, protests were held, yet again, over the short period allowed for the Report stage of Bills. Today the Government announced two Bills returning to the House on Report and Third Reading next week. I bring to the Leaders attentionI do not know whether she was here at the timethe fact that a further two Bills were not given enough time for debate on Report. At the last minute, the Government tabled loads of their own amendments to the Local Transport Bill. There were nine groups of amendments, but we reached only three, and issues such as bridge tolls, road charging and local transport plans were not properly discussed.
The same happened with the Climate Change Billwe did not discuss 2020 targets, charges on carrier bags or refundable deposits on recyclable containers. Please will the Leader do what she led us to believe she would do and ensure that we have a timetable that allows Labour Members and Opposition Members the chance to debate all the issues on Report?
For the week after next, the Leader has announced, cryptically, a debate on the business of the House, by which we understand that we will have a debate on the Governments wish to set up Select Committees for the English regions
Simon Hughes: Indeed. And given that on Tuesday night, as the Deputy Leader knows, real concern was expressed on both sides of the House about the number of Members available to serve on Select Committees, may we, before Christmas, have a debate on Select Committees and their numbers before we set up the new Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, which we have agreed on, and before debating any regional Select Committees for England? It is a nonsense to try to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. The Government might be wise to back off and think again.
As we all know, next Tuesday sees the United States election. The Liberal Democrats look forward unanimously to the election of Senator Obama as the next American President, and hope that he will be a beacon of light and hope in a very gloomy and threatening world. May we have a debate as soon as is practical after Tuesday on the effect of the American presidential election on worldwide issues? It is the most important election outside this country to people here, and I hope that we can have an early debate on its foreign policy implications.
Simon Hughes: The Leader might, or might not, know that rail fares in Fife are greater, mile per mile, than anywhere else in Scotland. May we have a debate on the rail pricing structure across the UK? If we want to encourage people to use public transport, it is no use their discovering that it is far more expensive in some parts of the country than in others.
Lastly, there is great concern about the effect of the recession on small businesses. We have waited six months since the tenders for the Post Office card account went in. May we therefore have a debate, before the decision is made, about the implications for the future of thousands of post offices if the card account contract does not go to the Post Office? That would allow us to express our hope that the Government will see sense and keep the remaining post offices viable rather than threatening them with another potential death blow.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked for further debate on the economy and on Heathrow. Of course, his party has an Opposition day the week after next, so he could consider those as topics for debate on that day.
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