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Secondary Legislation

7. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the procedures of the House for handling secondary legislation. [235263]

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The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I hate to say that I shall refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave a few moments ago, but I will.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for confirming his previous answer. As he will know, the second of the new Welsh legislative competence orders went through Committee yesterday, and many more are expected. Given that those are important constitutional instruments conferring primary powers on the Welsh Assembly, how content is he that the only opportunity for debate of those measures is for one and a half hours in Committee? What consideration would he give, in certain cases at least, to extending such debates to the Floor of the House?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is not quite right to say that those instruments are considered only in Committee sittings of one and a half hours; they also undergo pre-legislative scrutiny through the Welsh Affairs Committee. I want to pay tribute to the members of that Committee, particularly to its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Dr. Francis); the Committee is taking on a significant new burden and a large number of legislative competence orders are now coming through from the Welsh Assembly. Some come from members of the hon. Gentleman’s party who have recommended them as effectively being private Members’ Bills from Wales, and some come in other ways. However, it is early days, and we want to keep the process under review.

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Business of the House

11.33 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 17 November—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Education and Skills Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Education and Skills Bill.

Tuesday 18 November—Motion to approve a Ways and Means resolution on the Energy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Energy Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Climate Change Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 19 November—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Counter-terrorism Bill.

Thursday 20 November—General debate on fisheries.

The business for the week commencing 24 November will include:

Monday 24 November—The Chancellor of the Exchequer proposes to present the pre-Budget report. Consideration of Lords amendments to the Planning Bill.

Tuesday 25 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Pensions Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Wednesday 26 November—If necessary, consideration of Lords amendments, followed by Report stage of the Banking Bill, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 27 November—Consideration of Lords amendments.

In respect of Prorogation, I hope that it will be possible to prorogue no later than Thursday 27 November. The House will understand that this is subject to the progress of business in both Houses, but that looks the most likely date at present.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Following on from this morning’s Energy and Climate Change questions, I remind the Leader of the House that the Energy Secretary gave a commitment a month ago that he would require action from the energy companies on fuel prices, or would take action himself. One month on, no action has been taken. This morning, the Energy Secretary committed to give a report to the House on his meeting with the energy companies, which takes place on Monday. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that report will be given via an oral statement to the House to give Members an opportunity to question the Energy Secretary, and when will that statement be made?

The issue of the programme motion on yesterday’s business has just been raised again in questions to the Leader of the House. I know that business questions are about future business, not past business, but I ask the Leader of the House whether she really learned anything from yesterday’s debate. Does she not realise the strength of feeling in this House when the Government unnecessarily
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curtail House business in this way? Frankly, what happened yesterday was a gross discourtesy to the House and an example of gross mismanagement of business. Will she give a commitment that in future she will put the interests of the House ahead of those of the Government and give sufficient time for Back Benchers to be able to express their views?

This week, the World Economic Forum confirmed that the UK has, for the second successive year, fallen in world gender equality rankings. Taking into account issues such as the gender pay gap, economic participation and educational achievement, the WEF now ranks the UK below nations such as Latvia and the Philippines. The report highlights the importance of making use of the full potential of women in the workplace. Will the right hon. and learned Lady, in her role as Minister for Women and Equality, therefore make a statement to the House to confirm whether the Government will support our equal pay and flexible working Bill?

The right hon. and learned Lady has made much of the fact that the Government will bring forward an equality Bill in the next Session. As she is the Minister for Women and Equality, the expectation was that she would lead the Bill through the House of Commons, but we now learn that that will be done by the Solicitor-General—indeed, her headed notepaper describes her as “Solicitor-General and Equality Bill Lead”. I understand from the Library that in the past two decades only four Bills have been taken through the House by a Law Officer. Why has the right hon. and learned Lady been sidelined in this way?

We very much welcome the independent investigation announced by the Government yesterday into the tragic case of baby P in Haringey. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the findings of that inquiry will be made public, and will the Children Secretary come to the House to make a statement on those findings in the new Session?

On a more general point, can we at some stage have a general debate on the social work profession? Most social workers do a vital job in exceptionally difficult circumstances, but the chief executive of the NSPCC said yesterday that they did not have enough training and support and were heavily engaged in paperwork and bureaucracy. I think that a debate on social work would be appropriate and timely.

Finally, last year, in his Mansion House speech, the Prime Minister spoke of

Within months, there was the first run on a UK bank for a century. In April this year, he said to the House:

Figures released yesterday show that unemployment has gone up to 1.8 million—its highest level for 13 years—so it is now higher than when Labour came to office. People are losing their jobs, businesses are going under and homes are being repossessed. I ask the Leader of the House yet again: when can we have a general debate in Government time on the state of the economy?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady asked about the Energy Secretary’s meeting with the energy companies, and just a few minutes before these questions, the
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Energy Secretary has been held to account by the House. If he has any future specific announcements to make, he will no doubt bring them to the House.

The right hon. Lady asked about the programme motion yesterday, and whether I had learned any lessons. The reality is that we spent two hours discussing the timing—two hours of concern about the length of time given for debate. An amendment could have been tabled to our programme motion, which we laid before the House seven days before the matter was debated. If a proposal for an extra hour’s debate on regional Committees had been introduced by the Opposition, or from those on our Back Benches, it stands to reason that we would have accepted it. They could have done that, instead of our spending two hours discussing timing. I have learned that the Opposition perhaps need to be encouraged to table amendments, rather than fulminate for two hours when they have failed to do so. That is what I have learned, and I would ask what the right hon. Lady has learned. We are all clearly in a learning environment.

The right hon. Lady asked about world gender equality, and mentioned the equality Bill. I am grateful that she will actively support that Bill when it is introduced after it is announced in the Queen’s Speech. She also said something rather curious about my having allegedly been “sidelined” on equality, which shows a misunderstanding of the movement for women’s equality. I do not own that movement, so it is not a question of my being sidelined. We should have more women Ministers, more women Members of Parliament, and more action taken by women in voluntary organisations throughout the country; that is not a question of being sidelined, but of the agenda being mainstreamed. I have overall responsibility for the equality Bill, and the Solicitor-General will lead the Bill through the House, just as the Attorney-General took the lead in the House of Lords on the Counter-Terrorism Bill. The Law Officers are able not only to give advice to the Government but to lead Bills through the House, and the Solicitor-General will do an excellent job. She will have my full support.

What is so terribly tragic about the case of baby P, the baby in Haringey killed by his parents, is not only that a baby should have been killed in such horrible circumstances, but that there appear to have been up to 60 missed opportunities to save that baby’s life. There were 60 occasions when the family and the baby were seen by social workers, police and health professionals, which is why everyone finds this case so particularly tragic. We all want to ensure that lessons are learned. Children, Schools and Families questions will take place on Monday.

The right hon. Lady raised the issue of the economy, and particularly jobs. For any individual, in whatever circumstance, to lose their job is a matter of great concern. Many people worry not only when they will find their next job, but if they will lose their house in the meantime. That is why we are introducing extra help with mortgages and why we are putting extra investment into Jobcentre Plus, and into private and voluntary sector organisations that can help people to find their next job. In the summer, we had a record high number of 30 million jobs in the economy. In the last quarter, according to the available figures, there were still something like 600,000 vacancies in the economy. It is important that we try, by stabilising the economy, recapitalising
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the banks, taking international action, introducing public sector projects and helping small businesses, to ensure that people do not lose their jobs. However, if people do lose their jobs, we must ensure that every bit of help possible is available to them.

I said that we would have the pre-Budget report on Monday week. Shortly thereafter, on 3 December, there will be five days of debate on the Queen’s Speech. The No. 1 priority—our top concern, as I am sure it is right hon. Lady’s—is the effect of the economic crisis on all aspects of life for businesses and families. We want to ensure that the House has ample opportunity to hold Ministers to account and have general debates on the economy.

After the matter was raised in last week’s business questions, I looked back from the beginning of October till now, and found that there have been no fewer than 12 occasions on which the House has had an opportunity, whether through debates or statements, to raise economic issues. If Members have an opportunity to hold a Treasury Minister to account and make speeches, does it matter whether it is technically in Government time or in the debate after the Queen’s Speech, which happens in Government time but for which the Opposition choose the subjects? It is important for the House to debate the economy, and for the public to see that we are doing so and holding Treasury Ministers to account. I will ensure that there is a continuous stream of statements and debates on the economy and that the House has plenty of opportunity to discuss it.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend had time to view the “Dispatches” programme on Channel 4 last night about children who have been mutilated, abused and killed in Nigeria because they were accused of being witches. The practice is blamed on the Church, which is involved in it, claiming that it is part of a Christian reading of the Bible. Has the world gone mad? May we have a debate on the crisis in Nigeria, and on protecting those innocent children?

Ms Harman: I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with my colleagues in the Foreign Office and in the Department for International Development. We want to support human rights not only in this country but throughout the world.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for assisting in ensuring that we have a statement today from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the Post Office card account and that it will be made to the House first. That is welcome and appreciated.

As the Leader of the House plans future business, will she reflect on a matter that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) raised but that is of widespread concern? Yesterday, the Government were defeated once, withdrew twice and came within three votes of being defeated a second time. They managed to impose their will about the structure of Committees in England by using their majorities in Scotland and Wales—they have the majority of the popular vote in neither place. Will the Leader of the House reflect on whether she is serious about the sort of discussion that she hinted she is willing to offer on those controversial matters?

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Yesterday’s business was controversial and I am sure that more time could have been given for debating it. Today we have a topical debate on combating obesity, which is important but not topical, given that there are such issues as the safety of young children, youth unemployment, general employment and the state of the economy to discuss. Those are huge matters, which are much more topical, by any definition, than combating obesity. May we please have a structure for discussing the subjects for topical debates before they are announced? Even if the Deputy Leader of the House, using false constitutional arguments, claims that the House should not have a general business Committee, will the Leader of the House consider whether we can have a business Committee that is representative of the parties of the House to examine topical debates? At least we could then learn whether that was a good precedent that could be applied more widely.

Again, it is welcome that the Chancellor will come to the House to make a statement on the pre-Budget report on Monday week. However, it is nonsensical not to have a general debate about what the statement should contain, but simply to respond to it. I hazard a guess that the Chancellor will make some announcements that are intended to have effect before the Budget. I am sure that the Chancellor is not just going to tell us what his thoughts are for next year without wanting to do something now. Colleagues in the House ought to have an opportunity to debate that before Monday week. There is plenty of time next week, but if the Leader of the House can find no other way, may I ask that the topical debate next week, ahead of the pre-Budget report, be on the economy and be extended to the whole of Thursday?

Lastly, the Public Accounts Committee has today published an important report on energy prices, which has made it clear, among other things, that a large number of people pay higher bills when they change energy supplier. Please may we have an opportunity before the winter to discuss the urgent matter of energy prices, on the basis of the Public Accounts Committee report and the many other reports that show that we pay higher energy prices than almost any other country in Europe?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised the defeat in one of the votes yesterday. That was because the vote was on House business and was therefore on a free vote. That is the way of the world. When there is a whipped vote, we expect to win but do not always do so; when there is an unwhipped vote, we hope to win but do not always succeed. That is the way of things. It is rather odd that the hon. Gentleman is complaining that our position was defeated on an unwhipped vote. That should prove to him that there was a free vote. Indeed, I would have expected him to complain more vociferously if we had won all the votes, which last night we most assuredly didn’t, thank you very much—says she with great good grace.

If something is controversial, that does not mean we should not bring it to the House and offer hon. Members the decision. Just because the proposal for regional Committees was controversial, it does not mean that we should not have the right to put it forward. So we put forward the proposal, and it was controversial, and strong arguments were advanced on all sides. We are
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proceeding, but let me remind all those who voted against proceeding—and who did not succeed in that vote—that we will be reviewing the proposal, which will run only for an experimental period. I hope that in that period even those who voted against the proposal will put themselves forward to join the Committees and make them work. Then we will see whether they are successful in holding to account big organisations that are important to their regions, but which are currently not properly accountable.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned topical debates and said that worklessness and the economy were more topical than the obesity report that we have chosen for today. However, I remind him that on 23 October we had a topical debate on work and skills; on Thursday 30 October we had a topical debate on business in the regions, much of which was about employment; and on Wednesday 5 November we had a general debate, chosen by the Government, on work and welfare, so there have been a number of such debates. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of employment and unemployment, however, and we want to ensure that the House can continue to give it the priority that we all know it deserves.

The hon. Gentleman made what I regard as a slightly novel proposal—that we should have a pre pre-Budget report. The problem with having an economic debate immediately before the pre-Budget report is that if it is just a few days before the Monday of the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor will not be able to say a great deal in that debate. The reason the Government introduced the pre-Budget report was that previously we had just the Budget in March—the announcement was made and that was it. This Government introduced the pre-Budget report, which was an innovation, so that the Chancellor could announce what would be in the Budget and make any necessary interim announcements. However, I hear the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion for a topical debate on the economy. Bearing in mind what other hon. Members have said, let me assure him that we always keep our mind open to whether there should be a topical debate on the economy, irrespective of the upcoming pre-Budget report.

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): May we have a debate on the effect of the credit crunch and the lowering of house prices on leaseholders who bought their flats on large council estates? As I know my right hon. and learned Friend is aware, many of them are on low incomes and face huge bills as a result of major ongoing works and, in particular, the decent homes programme, which in every other respect is to be welcomed.

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