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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May we have a debate next week entitled “The Prime Minister’s responsibility for the UK’s recession”? That would enable us to point out, among other things, that his often-repeated boast that he had abolished boom and bust was not only economically illiterate and also untrue, it encouraged many people who should have known better to embark on excessive borrowing
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and lending, and to that extent he has personally aggravated the situation. It is quite wrong that a man whose judgment has proved so poor should now be in charge of policy making.

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister himself at Prime Minister’s questions every Wednesday when he answers on such issues to the House. It is thanks to his time in office as Chancellor that we have had investment in hospitals and schools. Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman like to say which hospitals in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to say which schools in his constituency he would rather not have had the investment in? Would he like to decry the fact that there are more home owners in his constituency than there were when the Conservative party was in government? This is clearly an economic crisis whose origins are international, and we are fortunate to have a Prime Minister who has not only strengthened our economy but can help to sort out the world economic problems.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): I should like to associate myself with the remarks made earlier about having a longer parliamentary year so that we can have proper scrutiny on Report, with two days if necessary.

May we have a debate on the functioning or non-functioning of the parliamentary ombudsman’s office? It is reprehensible that it took her four years to produce a report on Equitable Life, and meanwhile pensioners are dying. I have a constituent, Mr. X, who was told by her office that it would take more than six months to make a preliminary decision as to whether his case would be investigated, although she rowed back on that after I complained. We either have an incompetent ombudsman or one who does not have sufficient resources, and the House should debate the matter sooner rather than later.

Ms Harman: The parliamentary ombudsman is giving evidence to the Public Administration Committee this morning, and we will be able to see from the report of those proceedings whether the important points made by my hon. Friend were addressed by her.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier reply, I hope that she will be supporting all those excellent women Conservative candidates who hope to unseat her male colleagues, which would improve the percentage that she criticised.

Last year, the pre-Budget report was in the first half of October. This year it is even more important that the House and country know how much the Government plan to borrow, spend and tax, so will the right hon. and learned Lady now give us the date of the pre-Budget report?

Ms Harman: I will announce the pre-Budget report in the usual way as part of the following and the subsequent weeks’ business.

It is important that we have women Members of Parliament who support women in the country, not women such as the shadow Leader of the House who,
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having been elected to Parliament, then voted against the national minimum wage, which was the most important measure for women’s income.

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that many millions of households are very worried about high energy costs, particularly with winter coming. She will also be aware that the Prime Minister has called on the oil companies to pass on the falls in crude oil prices to their customers as quickly as possible. Many people in rural areas are dependent upon liquefied petroleum gas and domestic heating oil, which are linked directly to the price of crude oil. Yet my constituents have recently received a letter from a major supplier of LPG, Flogas, informing them that the price will not be going down but up. Moreover, one neighbour received a letter from Flogas saying that his price was going up 5p, but for his neighbour the increase was 3p. May we have a debate on competition and transparency in the LPG and heating oil market in rural areas as it is clearly needed urgently?

Ms Harman: Those are matters of real concern. We need to maintain the supply of oil internationally and to ensure that it is competitive and well regulated. When there is a fall in the price of a barrel oil, we must ensure that it is passed on to the consumer. My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I will raise with my Government colleagues and make sure that they write to him to tell him what action is being taken.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Earlier this year, the Leader of the House made a decisive intervention on the question of the confidentiality of Members’ home addresses. Will she consider doing the same thing again in the light of the fact that the Ministry of Justice is considering whether in future candidates’ addresses at general elections must be revealed when they nominate themselves and on various documents later? The guidance from the Information Commissioner in such situations is usually that the first part of the postcode is enough. Bearing in mind that the reason the judges made their dangerous decision early this year to allow home addresses to be revealed was the fact that they are revealed every four or five years in general elections, may we now consider closing this loophole?

Ms Harman: This matter is under consideration by the Ministry of Justice and I know that it found the hon. Gentleman’s suggestions extremely helpful. He takes a thoughtful approach to this. It is obviously in the public interest for the public to know when they come to vote in an election whether a candidate lives in their area or miles away, but whether the precise address, including the flat number in a block in a particular street, should be given is questionable. We need to ensure that the public have the information that they need and the MPs, candidates and their families have the privacy that they need. I am sure that hon. Members can work together to sort this out.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The shorter daylight hours concentrate our minds still further on the energy challenges—electricity capacity, in particular—that we face as a country. May we have a debate on the need to extend the existing life of currently generating power
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stations, so that we can meet short-term and medium-term demand while new technologies and stations are being considered and developed?

Ms Harman: In an extremely brief intervention, my hon. Friend has made a profound and important point, which relates to one of the reasons why we created the new Department of Energy and Climate Change and to one of the issues that it is addressing. I know that my hon. Friend will play an important part in the new Department’s deliberations.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May we have a debate on what I can only call bogus land banks? An internet site is offering 209 so-called building plots in my constituency for up to £18,000 a time in the village of Dean, which comprises about 30 houses. The plots are on agricultural land that will never, ever have planning permission for such development.

I do not think that the offer is illegal at the moment, but it is undoubtedly a scam. May we have a debate on how we can better protect the potential purchasers, who often will not be in this country, but are expatriates hoping to come home and retire in a house in beautiful rural Somerset? They may find that they have actually bought a field.

Ms Harman: If people are offering for sale as building development sites areas of land that are no such thing, that could be fraud. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the Serious Fraud Office about whether criminality is involved. I shall bring the issue to the attention of the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): May we have a statement on how aspects of sharia law are being introduced pre-trial in some civil courts? Those are profound changes with enormous implications. Many of our constituents find it absolutely extraordinary that this is happening without any parliamentary scrutiny at all.

Ms Harman: Sharia law is not being introduced into our civil courts or any other part of our justice system. If agreement in respect of sharia has been reached, there is sometimes provision for that to be endorsed by the courts. However, that is subject to the agreement not trespassing on the public policy principles of fairness. There is no question that any other legal principles will compromise our own justice principles. If the hon. Gentleman’s constituents have been reading the newspapers or inadvertently listening to him, he can reassure them that they do not have as much to worry about as they thought.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): As this is international brain tumour awareness week, may we have a debate as soon as possible on the issue of brain tumours, in Government time and on the Floor of the House? Given that brain tumours can attack anyone, that their causes are unknown, that screening is unrealistic, that prevention is impossible but that treatment is improving, will the Leader of the House accept that we need to debate the case for more research, more access to cutting-edge therapies, more clinical trials and more support for families at the earliest opportunity?

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Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman might draw that issue to the attention of the Health Committee. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to write to me about what is being done in all parts of the country to improve the treatment of brain tumours once they have been diagnosed. I shall ask him to send a copy of the letter to the hon. Gentleman as well.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): This week, the Transport Committee published its report on road safety which has again confirmed the Government’s lack of progress on tackling drunk drivers and on the problem of uninsured drivers. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on those issues so that more lives are not needlessly lost?

Ms Harman: I pay tribute to the Chair and all the members of the Transport Committee. Over the years, the Committee has played an exceptional role in taking forward and pressing issues of transport safety. Some call that evidence of the nanny state, but it is about saving lives. The Committee’s important recent report will get full consideration from the Government.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): In the hands of the Government, the seasons can be a somewhat flexible concept. For the purposes of the right hon. and learned Lady’s statement on Equitable Life, on what date does autumn end?

Ms Harman: I have simply repeated to the House what the Chancellor has said. We all recognise that many people have been profoundly affected by the problems at Equitable Life. The issue is being investigated. The Government are considering that investigation, and will respond.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): In response to the remarks on assisted suicide made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), with whom I fully agree, the Leader of the House said that Back Benchers had the opportunity to raise controversial issues in Bills on Report, when the scope is wide enough for amendments to be selected. In respect of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, such issues were raised but the Government took what I understand to be the unprecedented step of whipping through a programme motion to deny a free vote on the controversial issue of abortion, in which Back Benchers on both sides were engaged. Two weeks ago, the right hon. and learned Lady intimated that that would be a normal procedure and no notice was given to those who tabled the amendments—many of them women with whom she has worked on equality issues for many years. For her sincerity to be recognised, will she give time to explain to the House how programme motions are normally used to decide the time given to controversial issues on free votes on Report?

Ms Harman: When deciding on a programme motion, consideration is paid to how Government and Back-Bench amendments and new clauses can be given adequate time for debate on Report. That time follows the consideration that there would have been during pre-legislative scrutiny and in Committee. In the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, exceptionally, there
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had been time on the Floor of the House for consideration of amendments. The normal procedure is for the programme motion to come before the House to be discussed.

The hon. Gentleman and I agree that it is important that not only should there be proper sex education and proper availability of contraception, but that if a pregnancy has to be terminated, the facilities should be there for that to happen as early as possible. That is the position in all parts of the country. I suggest that he and I work together on what is a free-vote, not a Government-versus-Opposition, issue. Instead of attacking me, he should work with me to make progress for women all around this country.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On 17 October, the Government opposed my Bill to abolish the television tax, arguing that having the licence fee was the only way to protect the editorial freedom of the BBC. In the light of what the Prime Minister said this week, in what seemed a blatant attack on the independence of the BBC, may we have a fresh debate on the issue? In that way, we can get all the people together in this country and recognise that the licence fee is outdated and regressive and that it is a tax that should be abolished.

Ms Harman: We have no plans to abolish the BBC and its important public financial support, which comes through the licence fee.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): In parts of Birmingham, commercial property is being offered for as little as 50p a square foot. Other commercial properties are being needlessly demolished because their owners cannot afford to pay the empty property business rate. May we have a debate on Government policy to see whether it is possible to get some shift for those companies, which are in a bad state at the moment?

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady makes a serious point. This subject was raised immediately preceding business questions in Treasury questions, when one of the Treasury Ministers said that they understood the concerns and were looking into them. I refer her to that earlier exchange in the House.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Can we have a debate in Government time on changes to train timetables? Kettering rail users’ group is rightly outraged. This week, signs have been put up at Kettering railway station promising major improvements to the train service from December, yet the number of trains north from Kettering is due to be halved, the evening peak time return service from London is going to be the worst that it has been for 25 years, and the Saturday service will be quite appalling.

Ms Harman: I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport. However, people in Kettering, as well as throughout the country, have benefited from more trains being on time, better quality rolling stock and more investment in the rail network. We certainly have further to go, but I hope that he recognises the progress that has been made on rail transportation for passengers, as well as freight, in Kettering and elsewhere in the country.

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Points of Order

12.30 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to raise this, but I have had to do so before. The Chair is the guardian of Back Benchers in this House, and business questions is an exceptionally important opportunity for Back Benchers. I acknowledge the fact that, because it is a light House today, all the Back Benchers who wanted to get in got in, but it is also true that the Front Benchers between them took 20 minutes, and the Leader of the House is prolix in her answers. As a consequence, Back Benchers are often not called on these important occasions. Will you and Mr. Speaker see what can be done to address what is potentially a very great unfairness to Back Benchers?

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is not the proper answer to the question, “Can we have a debate?”, either yes or no; we can or we cannot? If the Leader of the House were to do that rather than attempt to have the debate now, in which she always gets the last word, the business of the House would be more expeditiously dealt with?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): If I may deal with those two points of order in reverse order, my response to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is that how Ministers answer questions is certainly not a matter for the Chair, and I suspect that it is not a new problem either.

With regard to the point of order raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), Mr. Speaker or any occupant of this Chair is very keen to allow as many Back Benchers to get in as possible, because this is very much a Back Benchers’ occasion. Today, fortunately, we got in everybody who wanted to get in. I trust that the Front Benchers, who are both here, have heard his comments.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When hon. Members ask when they may expect an answer to a question, it is less than helpful to be told that it will be autumn, particularly when we are also told, as we were in the Communities and Local Government Committee, that autumn is defined as December. It would be more helpful if the Leader of the House stuck to a rigid timetable instead of fobbing us off with vagaries about seasons.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that I have to repeat to the hon. Lady what I just said—the manner and the time in which Ministers answer questions is not a matter for the Chair. I suspect that the definition of autumn may vary a little, particularly considering the weather that we have had recently.

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Topical Debate

Businesses and the Regions

12.33 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Pat McFadden): I beg to move,

It is right that we discuss how the current economic situation is affecting business in the great regions and cities of our country. In recent months, we have experienced what the International Monetary Fund has described as

Last week, the Governor of the Bank of England said:

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