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6 Nov 2008 : Column 365

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): May we have a debate on the rate of value added tax levied on housing repairs? It is currently 17.5 per cent., compared with 5 per cent. for new build. Housing repairs are much more important than new build in Wales because we have a large stock of old, unfit and substandard housing, and the differential tax rate is a significant burden.

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman knows, tax rates are a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who considers those issues and makes announcements to the House in the pre-Budget report and the Budget.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I emphasise the request from Conservative Members for a major debate in Government time on the economic situation? I personally believe that it should be a two-day debate because the matter is so important and so many people will want to speak. I would want to represent the position of savers and those who invest because, currently, all who invest make a loss on every pound that they invest because of the marginal rate of tax and the rate of inflation. Should not the Government take account of those who are responsible, provide for their pension, invest and save?

Ms Harman: Protecting the economy and people in this country in these difficult economic times and seeing the economy through is the Government’s No. 1 priority. We have no intention of restricting the opportunity for the House to call Ministers to account and debate the effect in their constituencies and regions. I will therefore look again to ascertain whether there are further opportunities for a more general debate as well as the specific debates about energy, small businesses, jobs and training. I hear the point that people want a general economic debate.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I associate myself with the point that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made about the need regularly to update the House about the two conflicts that are being waged in our name and about which we have had little information recently?

May I make a more general point, as we approach Remembrance day? We should have a debate on the legal status of, and the responsibility for, war memorials, first, to establish that they will be maintained appropriately, and, secondly, to ensure that there is no doubt that communities that wish to commemorate those who have lost their lives in conflicts since the first and second world wars, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, are entitled to do that.

Ms Harman: Obviously, we want to ensure that war memorials are properly maintained in all the cities, towns and villages where they provide such an important reminder.

The hon. Gentleman adds his voice to concerns that the Secretary of State for Defence should make a statement about Afghanistan, and I will raise the issue with my right hon. Friend.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): May I reinforce the call of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) for an early debate in Government time on
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ID cards? The Home Secretary is announcing today that, despite the constant stream of private, personal data that companies working for the Government have lost, she proposes to hand over the job of taking and storing the fingerprints of every adult in this country to outside contractors. It is bad enough if someone loses one’s bank account details, but at least one can set up a new bank account. If somebody loses one’s fingerprint details, one’s identity is compromised for ever. The House needs to debate that potentially disastrous idea.

Ms Harman: The Home Secretary has regularly updated the House on ID cards. She has ensured that they are rolled out by piloting them and made it clear that they will not be extended into a national scheme compulsorily without a further vote in the House.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 2008 about the Post Office card account?

[That this House notes with concern the fact that the Department for Work and Pensions has written to Post Office card account holders informing them that the Post Office card account contract ends in 2010; further notes that Post Office card account holders, many of whom have made a conscious decision to support the Post Office by retaining their card account, are being instructed to take out bank accounts in order to receive benefits beyond 2010; expresses its dismay at the fact that the letter does not mention the fact that a replacement for the current card account is currently out to tender, or make any mention of other Post Office products or services; believes that this is a deliberate attempt to encourage people to switch payment to direct debit and remove the role of the Post Office; notes the additional damage inflicted on the Post Office by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, who are currently sending out licence renewal reminders as part of a communications campaign which makes no mention of the Post Office; calls on Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to encourage Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions to consider the impact on communities across the country if the Post Office card account is not renewed; and encourages all Government departments to make their services available through post offices in order to ensure that they have a viable future.]

The early-day motion has been signed by 80 hon. Members from all parties, and expresses concern about the impact of the loss of the card account business to the Post Office’s bottom line and the consequential impact on local communities. Will the Leader of the House answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), who asked for a clear assurance that there will be no pre-announcement of the matter, and that the decision will be announced in a statement to the House so that hon. Members can ask questions of the Secretary of State?

Ms Harman: I reassure the hon. Gentleman, as I reassured the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), that I understand the importance of the Post Office card account contract to hon. Members of all parties. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman can make any further points in the Liberal Democrat Opposition day debate on Monday.

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Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Following the bovine remarks of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and his woefully incomplete apology in Defence questions on Monday, will the Leader of the House let us know on which day next week he will return to the House to apologise from the Dispatch Box for the slur that he cast on commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially Major Morley?

Ms Harman: All our Defence Ministers are strongly committed to supporting our armed services—I am sure that that applies to all hon. Members—and ensuring that they have the right equipment as they do their important and dangerous work. There has been record investment in equipment for the armed services.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): A simple yes/no answer from the Leader of the House, please. Will the statement on the Post Office card account be an oral statement to the House before the announcement is made anywhere else—yes or no?

Ms Harman: All I can say is that, when the decision has been made, the House will be made aware of the arrangements for communicating it. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a yes or no answer now—the subject is not part of the business that I announced today.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): You, Mr. Speaker, will have noticed that the Leader of the House failed to respond to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the Prime Minister’s comments about Lord Myners. It is an important matter, about which the Prime Minister should make a statement, because either Lords Hansard is wrong or the excellent, highly paid and professional civil servants failed to brief the Prime Minister correctly—none of us can believe that the Prime Minister, with his moral compass, could possibly have misled the House.

Ms Harman: All I can say is that the hon. Gentleman should support the inquiry that the Treasury Committee is conducting.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): May we have a statement on the position of the Tibetan community in Nepal? Following anti-Chinese demonstrations, many in the community face extradition to China because India has said that they cannot move there. Given our relations with India, our past history with Nepal and the fact that we occupied Tibet for nearly 40 years, may we have a statement about what the Government will do to help that community?

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman raises the matter with the Foreign Secretary next Tuesday, when he will answer oral questions.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady will be only too aware of the enormous sacrifices that loyal British citizens of the Crown dependencies and overseas territories made during conflicts. Will she explain why, yet again, on Remembrance Sunday, they will not be allowed to lay a wreath in their own right at the Cenotaph in Whitehall? Will she arrange for
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the Foreign Secretary to make a statement about the overseas territories and for the Lord Chancellor to explain why the Crown dependencies are not represented?

Ms Harman: I am afraid that I will have to look into that issue. I will call the hon. Gentleman this afternoon and let him know what the situation is.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): The Leader of the House will recognise the widespread eagerness to see the Government’s national dementia strategy for England, so may we have a ministerial statement on when it will be published? The original Government indication was for it to be ready in the autumn, although I accept that that is becoming a relatively flexible concept. Can she also ask that that ministerial statement include confirmation that an immediate review into the prescribing and use of anti-psychotic drugs to treat sufferers of dementia will be completed before the publication of the strategy?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the national dementia strategy, which I shall bring to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Rural areas, including my constituency of Beverley and Holderness, have large numbers of elderly people and infrequent buses. Can the Leader of the House tell the hundreds of constituents who have written to me about the pharmacy White Paper when the House will be informed of whether the Government are going to press ahead with proposals that could lead to the closure of dispensaries and GP practices serving elderly people in rural areas, who will then have to leave their GP’s surgery in the rain and snow and go across to a local chemist, before perhaps missing a bus back to their village?

Ms Harman: I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Secretary of State for Health. An important point is not only the availability of pharmacies, but public transport in rural areas, the commitment to free travel for elderly people and the increasing availability of rural transport.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that the Land Registry has stated that later this month it will destroy up to 17 million original documents and deeds? Is she aware that those manuscript documents do not belong to the Land Registry? They belong to our constituents and are held on trust. Can we have an urgent statement on the matter? Have the public been properly consulted on the proposed move?

Ms Harman: I will raise the hon. Gentleman’s point with the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, who is responsible for the Land Registry. Let me also take this opportunity to congratulate the Land Registry on how massively it has improved over the past decade or so.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I just want to press the right hon. and learned Lady on the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead
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(Mrs. May) and others have raised. It seems clear that the Prime Minister was not well briefed at questions yesterday in his answer about the City Minister, Lord Myners. A facility has been introduced in Hansard whereby ministerial corrections can be made. If the record is not correct—and I believe that it is not—the Prime Minister should take steps immediately to put matters right.

Ms Harman: I think that the Prime Minister and all the Ministers in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and across the Government are rightly focused on protecting jobs and small businesses and ensuring that we have a proper financial services industry and proper accountability to this House.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last Thursday, the excellent Conservative candidate Ben Lewis was elected as a councillor in my constituency. At the same time, however, a Minister visited the constituency without letting me know in advance. I have not received a personal apology yet, but I understand that one might be in the post. My point to the Leader of the House, however, is this. It seems to be a trend that Ministers do not let Members know that they are coming or they let them know just before. Will she provide a written statement next week on the advice that she gives to Ministers on this matter?

Ms Harman: It is imperative that Ministers on ministerial visits give information to the local Member of Parliament well in advance of their visit and not just at the last minute. As far as party visits are concerned, my visit to meet friends and colleagues in the Labour party in St. Austell was a party visit. It had nothing to do with my ministerial responsibilities, but I very much enjoyed it.

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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time about the impact of cheap alcohol sales in supermarkets on the local licensed pub trade? There are 25 pubs and clubs in Kettering that are members of Kettering Pubwatch and they have contacted me to say that they are suffering financially from those deeply discounted sales. There are also law and order problems, because people are arriving in Kettering town centre for a night out already tanked up and ready to cause trouble.

Ms Harman: Perhaps the issue is one that hon. Gentleman, too, can raise with Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on Monday in oral questions.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): This House, as part of the Palace of Westminster, acts as a welcoming host to 1.2 million visitors a year. As part of the newer version of security, many people are given their ID cards with cords. I was very grateful to an Officer of the House and the Deputy Leader of the House for taking an interest in what happens to those cords after they are disposed of. Can the Leader of the House’s office do something to ensure that they are fully recycled?

Ms Harman: The issue has been raised by a number of hon. Members and the House authorities are aware of it. There is a concern about whether straightforward re-use, which would mean people wearing a lanyard that had been worn by a number of other people, would be right. There is also the question of how they could be recycled. However, they are not being thrown away while the issues are being considered, but kept until the big decision about what to do with them is made.

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Points of Order

12.26 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you this question in your capacity as the guardian of the rights of Members of Parliament. I imagine that you feel as ashamed as I do that this House has not had a full debate on the economy during a time of serious difficulties in this country, both nationally and for all of us locally, with many of our constituents having a hard time. I know that you cannot insist on this, but could you do your very best to remind Ministers that it is the job of this House to hold them to account and to be informed on the great issues of the day? Such matters are debated in every forum in the country, but not in the House of Commons. That is a great shame.

Mr. Speaker: I say to the hon. Gentleman that what he has done today, through his point of order, is to put the matter on the record. It will be noted by Ministers that they are accountable to this House and that they must come here on a regular basis.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek some clarification. I was keen to raise with my neighbour, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the dismaying news that the Tetley brewery in Leeds is to close. The issue is about beer, our great national drink, but I have received conflicting advice on whether beer comes under the remit of his Department. Can you clarify, Mr. Speaker, whether it is appropriate to raise an issue of huge importance to British beer—in terms of the product, rather than the industry—in that way, just as it would be to raise an issue of such importance for Scotch whisky or British wine, which are clearly important products, too? Indeed, should the Department not really be called the Department for Environment, Food, Rural Affairs and Drink or DEFRAD?

Mr. Speaker: I share the hon. Gentleman’s fears, because although I am a teetotaller, I have a brewery and the whisky industry in my constituency, and I used to have the tobacco industry. What I can tell him is this. The industry that he talks about is a very good employer of labour and he as a local Member of Parliament must concern himself with the redundancies. I suggest that he applies for an Adjournment debate, puts down questions for other Departments and ensures that he lets the workers in that industry know that he is trying to be their voice here in Parliament.

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