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In the light of the very welcome election result in the United States yesterday, may we have the opportunity of a debate on relations between this country and the USA, before the end of this term and before the Prime Minister meets the President-elect, as we hope he will before long? There have been tense issues between our two countries and many hope that the new regime will mean a much better relationship; I am sure that that view is widely felt in the House and the country. It would be helpful and much appreciated if the House
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had the opportunity to discuss matters that could lead to a huge improvement in relations between us and the United States.

Yesterday, the OECD produced a report on energy prices across the European Union. It said that gas and electricity bills had increased more than twice as quickly in our country as they had in France and Germany and that in Europe only Norway had suffered higher energy price inflation. It said that prices here had increased by nearly 30 per cent. in the past year. The Leader of the House knows that energy prices are the major driver of fuel poverty. May we have a statement from the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change about what he will do to ensure that our energy price rises are kept roughly in line with those of the rest of the continent and why our energy price increases are hugely higher than those in our competitor countries across the channel?

We are about to have a debate on the Congo, which is very welcome. However, figures revealed in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) show that since 2003 more than 5,000 Congolese asylum applications and more than 7,000 Zimbabwean asylum applications have been turned down. May we have a debate on whether we are honouring our international obligations to ensure that people who cannot go home because of the dreadful political climate in their country are given the right to stay here for the period for which they need safety? I understood that we had all signed up to that arrangement.

There are increasingly common rumours around the House that the Government have made a decision that the Post Office card account will be given to PayPoint, not to the Post Office. I am choosing my words very carefully: can the Leader of the House give us an absolute, unqualified assurance that the statement on this matter will be made first in this House by the Secretary of State, and that no announcement will be made outside the House tomorrow or over the weekend, so that if the decision has been made, we can have the chance to deal with it here? If it has not been made by Monday, my party has chosen the subject for an Opposition Supply day debate on that day. If the rumours are right, we look forward to testing a very dangerous Government decision.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about the consideration of amendments on Report. Our concern is that there should be as few as possible Government amendments on Report unless they relate to issues that have been raised by hon. Members and it is the wish of the House to deal with them. As Members representing our constituents, we must strike a balance between the amount of time that we spend working in this Chamber and in Committees scrutinising legislation and the time that we spend working in our constituencies. All the reviews of parliamentary work have shown that our constituents increasingly expect us both to do our work of scrutinising legislation in this House and to be in our constituencies mingling with them and listening to their concerns. Report stage is important, but important opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny are being introduced, as well as the opportunity for post-legislative scrutiny, which we are introducing for the first time.

The hon. Gentleman sent his congratulations to President-elect Obama. I take this opportunity to celebrate, as so many other people in this country are celebrating,
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that historic election. It was historic not only because of the victory of President-elect Obama but because it marked a rejection of conservatism. In that respect, it is a very big change that Labour Members warmly welcome.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of gas and electricity prices. We are very concerned about the global impact that increases in commodity prices, particularly for oil, have had on domestic and business energy bills. He mentioned other countries, but it is only fair for him to recognise also that although there have been increases, which we do not want, historically, we have had lower energy prices than other countries in Europe. It is important that we press forward with increasing the supply of energy through renewables and other means to ensure that we have energy independence, and that we continue to provide the winter fuel payments, which have been increased, and to run the insulation programme, which will not only help people with their fuel costs but help to deal with the pressing problem of climate change.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are honouring our international commitments to those who seek asylum in this country. Of course, we regard those commitments as very important and, as he will know, there are no forced deportations to Zimbabwe. All applications are considered on a case-by-case basis. As he has acknowledged, we have chosen the Congo as the subject of this afternoon’s topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman said that he will choose the Post Office card account as the subject of his Opposition day debate. All that I can say in response to his questions is that we are all very aware of the House’s interest in that contract.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider an early debate on Lloyds TSB’s proposed takeover of Halifax Bank of Scotland? That bank employs many thousands of people in Yorkshire, most of them in west Yorkshire in the area that my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and I represent. We know that good things are happening, and we do not want HBOS to fail, but there is a feeling among parliamentarians in Yorkshire that we are not being kept in the loop. We need assurances that the many thousands of jobs in Yorkshire will be maintained under the new structure when it emerges.

Ms Harman: I understand only too well my hon. Friend’s commitment to his constituents and his concern for his constituency and the region in terms of the effect on jobs at Halifax Bank of Scotland. I understand that the regional Minister for that area is liaising with its MPs. The regional development agency also has a strong focus on the matter, and the regional council met for the first time yesterday. However, I will raise his point with the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): May I ask the right hon. and learned Lady a question that I asked the Deputy Leader of the House a couple of weeks ago? Will she make the strongest representations to the Prime Minister that he should come to this House himself to make a statement on the progress of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is she aware that he has not made a
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statement to this House on the Afghan war since 12 December 2007? Is she further aware that during the second world war the Prime Minister came to this House on 13 occasions in the Parliament of 1939-1940 and on 25 occasions in the Parliament of 1940-1941 to keep it properly informed of the progress of the war? Many young men and women have died in our name and for us in Afghanistan, and it is a disgrace—a real disgrace—that ahead of Remembrance Sunday the Prime Minister has not been to this House to update us on the progress of this terrible war.

Ms Harman: I think that we would all agree that the House is right to expect to be kept informed of the situation in Afghanistan. We have had a number of statements from the Defence Secretary on Afghanistan, and the Prime Minister has on several occasions responded to questions about it at Prime Minister’s Question Time. In addition, we have had a number of defence debates that have allowed the House the opportunity to hear from Ministers, make speeches and debate the issue of Afghanistan. However, I will bear in mind the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Has my right hon. and learned Friend had the opportunity to look at early-day motion 2416?

[That this House condemns the creation of the online computer game Kaboom which asks the player to replicate the actions of suicide bombers; believes that this game is offensive to the families of those killed by suicide bombers and devalues all human life; further believes that this game depicts an unnecessary level of violence; is deeply concerned that vulnerable people under the age of 18 are able to access and play this game; calls upon the game's creator to show sensitivity and responsibility by removing it from the internet; welcomes the findings of a new study from Iowa State University which recognises the link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour; and calls on the Government to revise its regulation of violent video games.]

It refers to an online computer game called “Kaboom”, which asks players to replicate the actions of a suicide bomber. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is offensive to the families of the victims of suicide bombings and that it devalues human life? I have raised this matter on several occasions at business questions and in other debates. What action are the Government taking to remove such material from the internet or, at the very least, to approach service providers to ensure that they take appropriate action? Children and young people will be able to have access to those games. Could we have a debate on this important matter?

Ms Harman: The Government are concerned about the effect on children of violent internet and video games, which is why we commissioned the Byron review. That set out how we need action from parents, from the industry itself and from the Government to ensure that there is proper control of content and clear labelling to protect young children. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in these issues, which he had even before he became Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. Under his leadership, the Committee
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has taken a strong interest in such matters. I bring to his attention the fact that on Thursday 13 November, in Westminster Hall, there will be a debate on the question of harmful content on the internet and in video games.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Can the House find time to debate the increasingly topical issue of pub closures, particularly the supply tie and the power and conduct of huge pub companies. Last year alone, bankruptcies among pub landlords increased sevenfold—and that was before the current economic difficulties. The treatment of some licensees is quite disgraceful, as was visibly demonstrated by the excellent front-page story in the Wharfedale and Airedale Observer today about Enterprise Inns quite scandalous and shameful treatment of my constituent Wendy Prangell. Can this important matter, which is of relevance to every Member, be debated so that hon. Members can contribute and give their own experiences?

Ms Harman: It is Department for Culture, Media and Sport questions on Monday, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman brings the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State on that occasion.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Postwatch merged with the National Consumer Council and Energywatch on 1 October to create Consumer Focus. However, may we have a debate on whether it was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money for Postwatch to spend £2,910 on the production of, and a further £2,483 on the distribution of, 2,000 copies of something commemorating its seven years of existence?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises a question about whether public money was properly spent in this case. A number of hon. Members have mentioned that, so I will raise it with the relevant Minister.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Further to the announcement by my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), the shadow Secretary of State for Health, that a future Conservative Government will reform the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to allow it to consider the wider social costs of denying treatment to patients when assessing its value or benefit, may we have a debate in Government time on the Floor of the House on the criteria used by NICE when making its recommendations?

Ms Harman: There has been a lot of concern about the work of NICE, and the Secretary of State for Health announced that there will a review to ensure that it speeds up its consideration of whether it will recommend new treatments developed by the pharmaceutical industry to make them available on the national health service. The availability of new medicines that can help to save lives as well as alleviate suffering is a question not only of NICE getting on with its business quickly and efficiently, but of extra investment in the NHS. It is important that the Government sustain investment in the NHS in the way that we are committed to.

I shall just take this opportunity, because I know the House is concerned about this matter, to say that an interest rate cut of 1.5 per cent. has been announced by the Bank of England. I am sure that that will be widely welcomed, and there will be an equally strong expectation
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that that interest rate cut should be passed on to those who have mortgages, and those who are running small businesses.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I have received, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, correspondence from constituents regarding the Free Our Bills campaign. They are asking for changes to be made to the way in which Bills are published on the parliamentary internet, and they are making some valid points. For example, when Bills have been amended in their progress through both Houses, it is sometimes difficult to understand their content when they reach their final stages. Would my right hon. and learned Friend look into that matter to see what improvements can be made to ensure better public scrutiny of our proceedings?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend, as a long-standing member of the Modernisation Committee, makes an important point. It is important that Members, let alone the public, can decipher the situation. The House authorities are looking at how we can make the business of the House more readily understandable in the House, and on the House website—so information is available to the public. The Deputy Leader of the House is working closely with them to take those matters forward.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): In the St. Andrews agreement, the Government indicated that they would take action if any party defaulted on its commitments to ensure that the rest were not disadvantaged. As Sinn Fein is refusing to allow Executive meetings to take place in the Northern Ireland Assembly, can the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to come to this House and tell us how he intends to make good on this commitment?

Ms Harman: I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s important point with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on inequality? She will be aware of the OECD report that says that inequality in Britain is reducing, but we remain one of the most unequal societies. In the present economic situation, those who will be hardest hit are those who are already finding things hard. I would like a debate on that subject so that we can hear what Members believe the Government can do for their constituents.

Ms Harman: I, too, very much welcome the report that shows finally, after many years of a growing gap between rich and poor and decreasing social mobility, that that situation is beginning to turn around, following the actions that the Government have taken since 1997. Provision for children has been particularly important, such as Sure Start centres. My hon. Friend will know that the House will shortly receive a Green Paper on social mobility, and the Queen’s Speech will include an important equality Bill.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I reinforce the message of the shadow Leader of the House to the effect that we should have an early and full debate on the economy? I suggest that we entitle it, “Boom and bust: the Prime Minister’s competence and credibility.” That will enable us to ask
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whether, when he said that he had abolished boom and bust, he believed what he was saying, in which case he was economically illiterate, or whether he did not believe it, in which case we can ask whether his moral compass is a reliable instrument.

Ms Harman: This is a serious issue. The economy faces a big challenge, and we are concerned to protect homeowners, small businesses and jobs, and to ensure that we keep energy costs as low as possible. Those are the issues we remain concerned about. The Prime Minister made it clear only yesterday that it is fortunate that we face this economic challenge against a background of relatively high levels of employment and relatively low levels of unemployment. Having paid off debt over the past 10 years, as well as investing in the NHS and education, we are in as good a position as we could be to face those difficult economic circumstances. [ Interruption. ] Hon. Members have questioned the point about debt, and let me remind them— [ Interruption. ] They challenged my point about us paying off debt. When we came to government in 1997, debt was 43 per cent. as a percentage of GDP, and while still investing in hospitals and schools, we brought that down to 37 per cent.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): Could we please have a debate on the Government’s role in regional spatial strategy? In Solihull, after the strategy had been agreed, the Government commissioned an outside consultant—Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners—to produce a report that suggests that we should triple the number of homes that we had agreed to build. I am sure that this matter concerns all hon. Members, so could we have a debate on the role that the Government should be playing in regional spatial strategy?

Ms Harman: I hope that, next Wednesday, when we establish—if the House so wishes—the regional Committees, there will be an opportunity for much better accountability to the House on matters such as regional spatial strategies.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Further to that answer—and we are, indeed, to debate regional accountability next Wednesday—I see from the Order Paper that the right hon. and learned Lady proposes to restrict to 90 minutes the debate on that highly controversial and divisive motion, which was carried on her casting vote in a Select Committee. Between now and then, will she reflect on whether we should have more time to debate the matter? When she introduces the motion, will she make it clear that anybody who votes for a regional Committee should be prepared to serve on it and attend all its meetings?

Ms Harman: The Modernisation Committee has conducted extensive scrutiny, including several important evidence sessions. Its report and the minutes of the evidence sessions are available for hon. Members to read. The issues are clear. Some of us believe that there should be stronger, proper accountability to the House for the billions of pounds that make an enormous difference at regional level, and some believe that the current structures should not be changed. Others believe that there is a democratic deficit, but have different ideas from us about how we should change that. The issues are clear, and an hour and a half should be enough to discuss them. It will then be up to the House to make up its mind and vote.

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