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The hon. Gentleman talked about allowing adequate time for the scrutiny of Government business, and mentioned in particular the Climate Change Bill and the Local Transport Bill. We must ensure that at all stages legislation is properly scrutinised and that we bring as many Bills forward as possible in draft form so that before they are even introduced formally into this House there is proper pre-legislative scrutiny. That has assisted greatly in the scrutiny that the House gives to legislation. That was the case with the Climate Change Bill. In addition to Second Reading, it is important that there is full scrutiny in Committee and on Report. It is
also important that we have post-legislative scrutiny. It is not just about what we say about the intentions of a Bill: we should look back and see whether what was said in the House by Government or Opposition Members about our aspirations for the legislation was borne out in practice. We need to ensure that across the piece there is proper scrutiny at all stages and we seek to do that.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the business of the House that will come before the House on the 12 November and raised the issue of regional Select Committees. I would have thought that he would want better scrutiny of important activity in the regions. Billions of pounds are being spent by regional health authorities, regional development agencies and highway authorities, and that profoundly affects individual regions. Surely it is right that there is accountability to the House when millions of pounds of public money are involved. However, I do not want to pre-empt the debate, which is recognised to be controversial. We will try to ensure that we place the resolutions before the House as early as possible so that Members have a chance to look at them before they come steaming in to disagree with regional accountability. How many Members will sit on the Committees will obviously come within the scope of the resolutions relating to regional Committees.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the United States election. Foreign Office questions are a week on Tuesday, but I want to highlight one point about that election. It looks set to have very high turnout involving people who have previously not necessarily voted. They have registered to vote and then gone out to vote. We should all be preoccupied with tackling the lack of registration in the UK, particularly in inner- city areas and among poorer people, and with tackling low voting turnout. If we can learn anything from the American elections about getting more peopleand particularly more young peopleto vote, we should try to do so.
On the Post Office card account, the hon. Gentleman asked for a debate in order to affect the Governments decision. The post office network is important, and the card account is important for the post office network. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Post Office is on record as having said that it has put in a strong bid for the contract, but he will also know that there are legal structures for such a public procurement exercise. Asking for the views of the House as a way of contributing to that public procurement process cannot be done. The decision is subject to the legal process at the moment, and when it has been made it will be brought to the House.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): May I ask about a rather sensitive and no doubt controversial matter? Could Government time be provided for a debate on assisted suicide in some cases of terminal illness? Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that such a debate in the House would be well timed, whichever line we took? The House of Lords debated the subject some two years ago and we should reflect our point of view as soon as possible, so I hope that debating time can be provided.
The Government have published our pre-legislative programme in advance of the Queens Speech to give people the opportunity to propose a bit
of legislation, if they think it needs to be included in the programme. Of course, from time to time there are Bills whose long title allows such a provision to be brought forward through a Back-Bench amendment. My hon. Friend will know that the case that has been before the courts, in which a judgment was issued this week, is subject to appeal. There will be further judicial consideration of the subject. The situation under the criminal law is certainly unusual. The criminal offence of assisting somebodys suicide is unique as it is the only part of the criminal law where it is an offence to assist the commission of something that is itself not an offence. I know that there is concern about the subject, and we will no doubt have a further legal ruling.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In the reassuring, avuncular presence of the Leader of the Houses right hon. and eternal Friend the Deputy Chief Whip, will she have some conversations with those who arrange the business of this House to try to give real priority to the issues that concern our electorates? They expect us to debate foreign affairs; they expect us to debate the economic situation; they do not expect us to waste time on the ridiculous and stupid idea of regional Select Committees that we do not have sufficient Members to man adequately.
Ms Harman: We do find time to debate the important issues of foreign affairs and the economic situation. That is one of the issues that we have chosen for weekly topical debates. I do not think that properly holding to account the agencies that implement public policy in the regions is a waste of time, but the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to make his views known when the resolutions are brought before the House.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): At the end of next month, the ballot papers will go out to every household in Greater Manchester for the referendum on the future of public transport in the region. The proposals include an element of peak period congestion charging. As we have been reminded, in our discussions on the Local Transport Bill on Monday we were not able to consider the amendments on road pricing. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on road pricing and congestion charging so that we can have the opportunity to see how those policies fit in with the policies agreed in the Climate Change Bill on Tuesday, which set stringent targets for emission reductions? It would offer a chance for those who supported the Climate Change Bill but who oppose road pricing to justify their position.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The provision for local people to choose a congestion charge was enabled in the Local Transport Bill not only to allow people to tackle congestion, which can be a big drag on businesses and can hold back economic growth in particular cities, but to enable cities to contribute to reduced carbon emissions. That provision has now been included in the Bill, so once the Bill becomes law it will obviously become a matter for local decision making.
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD):
May I preface my question with a comment? The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) referred to the
workings of the European Scrutiny Committee. As a member of that Committee, I can say that it has never met in private, except under the conditions debated and set by the House.
The Government stated that they are looking to bring forward capital schemes. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on whether such schemes as the Kingskerswell bypass will be considered for early construction?
Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for making it absolutely clear that the shadow Leader of the House was completely wrong to say that the European Scrutiny Committee had flouted the rules of the House. She owes an apology to the Chair of the Committee, who would not think it his business to flout the rules of the House when chairing the Committee, and to the Clerks of the Committee. Even if the Chair did decide to flout the rules of the House, they would play no part in that. She owes all the members and Clerks of the Committee, and its Chair, an apology. Apologies appear to be the order of the day in the Conservative party. Let us see whether she can join the shadow Chancellor in making an apology.
The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) made an important point about bringing forward capital schemes, and all Members will be concerned to identify capital schemes that could be brought forward in their local area. We firmly believe that it is not the right time to cut public investment, because such investment helps the economy to grow, and because we do not want to do anything that takes money out of the economy at a time when it needs the stability of continued public investment. This is yet another issue on which the official Opposition simply cannot make up their mind.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate, or at least a statement, on the situation facing the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo? The war there has cost more than 5 million lives in the past decade. Fighting has broken out again in the east, and although there appears to be some kind of temporary ceasefire, we need a statement from the Government on what they are doing to ensure that the ceasefire holds, and that further aid flows. A terrible plight of starvation and homelessness faces refugees in the east, and as much as possible must be done to help them through this dreadful crisis.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is great apprehension and foreboding about the unravelling of the situation, and an absolute determination that the international community should not, as has happened in the past, fail people in central Africa when such situations emerge. I have said that the House needs an opportunity to discuss economic issues and the economy of this country, and I will take his question as a suggestion for the next topical debate.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con):
While the economic crisis and the credit crunch have dominated the attention of Members and the countryI believe that a full, two-day debate on the economy should be heldshould we forget the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe? Despite the intervention of ex-President
Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and the Southern African Development Community, ex-President Mugabe still clings to power. Is it not time for a full-day debate on the subject? It is our duty to represent the interests of the people of Zimbabwe, as we brought about Mr. Mugabes emergence as President, so we should discuss the issue and perhaps indicate what action should be taken.
Ms Harman: The people of Zimbabwe expressed their view in the election in March. Hon. Members on both sides of the Housethe hon. Gentleman is not least among themare concerned that the will of the people of Zimbabwe should be reflected in the governance of their country. We have sought opportunities for the House to debate the issue. We had a topical debate and a written ministerial statement from the Foreign Secretary on the subject in July. Oral statements were made on 12 and 15 September, and the Lords Foreign Office Minister met the all-party group on Zimbabwe on 7 October. There will be oral questions to the Foreign Secretary the week after next, and the issue can be raised again then. We remain deeply concerned; there is intense Government action and international action. The situation is far from resolved.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): May I endorse the point made by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) about the need to give a more reasonable amount of time to the Report stage of major Bills? It is not as though we are short of time in this House; it is currently sitting for less time than it has done for as long as anybody can remember.
As regards the eastern Congo, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House suggested, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), that the matter be the subject of a topical debate. We need a statement from the Foreign Secretary on what this country can do to assist in averting the catastrophe, which is one of the greatest of recent times; 3 million to 4 million people have died in the Congo in the past 10 or 15 years. I appreciate that our influence is limited, but we really need to hear from the Foreign Office about what we can do, in co-operation with the EU and the UN, to help alleviate that catastrophe.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend reinforces points made by other hon. Members about the need for adequate time, and we are well aware of those points. We need to get Government business through, to have it properly scrutinised, and adequate time to discuss amendments and new clauses tabled by Back Benchers on both sides of the House on Report.
In relation to the Congo, I will have a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on how best to make sure that the House is kept up to date and has an opportunity to make its view known, through a statement, a topical debate or some other means.
Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I echo those calls for a debate about the Congo. Ban Ki-moon said that the violence overnight, reported this morning, is in danger of creating a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic proportions. The UN forces are undermanned, and they call for further reinforcements. What can the Government do to provide those reinforcements?
Moving on, in this anniversary year of womens suffrage, may I urge my right hon. and learned Friend, in her capacity as Leader of the House, to do everything in her power to promote the wonderful new exhibition on suffrage that has just been set up by the Admission Order Office? It includes the scarf that Emily Wilding Davison was wearing when she fell under a horse at the Derby, a medal of Emmeline Pankhurst and a picture by Sylvia Pankhurst. Will my right hon. and learned Friend do all she can to promote the exhibition, and ensure that the tour guides show the exhibition to our schoolchildren and other parties when they visit and tour the House?
Ms Harman: That is right; Mr. Speaker, you are holding a Speakers Conference on how we can tackle the issue of the under-representation of women and minority ethnic groups in the House of Commons, which should reflect the country as a whole. I looked at the figures just this morning. It is wrong that only 27 per cent.fewer than one in threeof Labour Members of Parliament are women. However, it is absolutely shameful that only 9 per cent.fewer than one in 10of Conservative MPs are women. We all have a long way to go, but some have a great deal further to go than others.
Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give the House time to debate the Governments decision to prop up the housing market through its housing clearance policy? The policy will cost several hundred million pounds, and much of that will come from other pots of money, including those set aside for small businesses. Given that £13 million went to one private developer this month, we should scrutinise the issue at the highest level.
Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Lady, who is among the one in 10 to whom I referred, for making that point. Obviously, the issue of the housing market and house building is of concern. It was raised in questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government and in Treasury questions, and it was raised with the Prime Minister. We firmly believe that it is an issue on which the Government should act and that there should not be a laissez-faire attitude in the market. Public investment and public regulation of the mortgage markets have a role to play. I hope that the Conservatives will support us as we try to make progress on the issue.
Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab):
Last weekend, along with local ward councillors, I went to the Burton upon Stather village post office where I met Hilary
Baker who runs the branch, and she presented us with yet more Post Office card account postcards, which all hon. Members will have seen plenty of. I asked for a statement on this issue at the last business questions before the summer recess and we are now some months down the line. I understand the point about not having a debate while the tendering is going on, but I do not mind being on the record as supporting the Post Office card account going to the Post Office, and I hope that we can have a statement next week that at least tells us when the contract will be awarded.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs is present to hear that point, but I do not think that any of us are in any doubt about the importance of the post office network and the Post Office card account contract.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will the Leader of the House be more specific about when we will hear from the Government on Equitable Life? She said autumn, but the temperature outside tells us that winter is not far away. Given that dozens of people in East Dunbartonshire and across the rest of the country have been waiting eight years for redress, and that the Government have had the ombudsmans report for four months, surely it is now time that we found out what action the Government intend to take to make redress to the many people who have suffered because of Equitable Life.
Ms Harman: The parliamentary ombudsman took four years to construct her report and, as the hon. Lady said, the Government have been considering it for four months. It is an important issue and we will give our response shortly.
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): This week, Sense, the deafblind charity, lobbied Parliament and drew Members attention to potential discrimination in the way in which the travel concessions are being applied, in particular, that some people with disabilities who are entitled to a free travel concession are unable to make use of it because their carer, who is necessary for them to get around, is not eligible for the concession. Will the Leader of the House consider ways in which this potential discrimination within the travel concession system can be debated in the House?
Ms Harman: I will bring that important point to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Transport. It is one reason why, in the equality Bill that will be in the next Queens Speech, we will be strengthening the duties and obligations on public authorities, including those involved with travel, to ensure that all public services are properly available to members of the public with disabilities.
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