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Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Along with our hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), she has been a champion for the protection of leaseholders. Many people bought former council properties, but then, with the big investment in council estates following the decent homes programme, those on modest or low incomes, including retired people, were clobbered with bills of up to £40,000. While house prices were rising, it was possible for those people to have a charge taken on their homes, so that they would not have to stump up the cash immediately. With the fall in property prices,
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however, they have faced problems. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing has been making the issue a priority, and I am aware that a number of hon. Members have had meetings with Ministers. Perhaps I should suggest a general meeting between the Minister and all Members with leaseholders in their constituencies who face such problems, and then perhaps we can come forward with an announcement. We are talking about people on very low incomes or perhaps in retirement who suddenly find five-figure sum bills arriving on their doormats and being told that they have to pay. That is something that, along with other problems in the housing market, we cannot turn away from.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady make the Speaker’s advisory committee a formal Committee of the House?

Ms Harman: Is the hon. Gentleman referring to the Members Estimate Committee, the House of Commons Commission or the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances?

Sir Michael Spicer: The Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances.

Ms Harman: I am not aware of a formal proposal from the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances that it should be made a Committee of the House rather than being advisory to the Speaker, but if it did make such a proposal, it would no doubt be considered by the House and above all by the Speaker.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Today’s news that there are problems with money transfers through MoneyGram and Western Union is giving the issue some long overdue publicity. A constituent of mine encountered a problem when she was trying to lease a flat. Although she was assured that no transfer would take place, one did take place—indeed, it went through the Post Office—and she was defrauded of money. Thankfully she has received the money back, but the problem is growing and affects many of our constituents. Will my right hon. and learned Friend have a word with our right hon. Friend the Chancellor to ensure that we are looking at regulation? Otherwise, the problem will continue to grow and many more people could be defrauded.

Ms Harman: I know that this is a concern and, as a number of hon. Members have raised it, perhaps it would be a suitable subject for a Westminster Hall debate.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): This week the Serious Organised Crime Agency shelved plans to name drug barons, people traffickers and other criminals who have had financial reporting orders placed on them, because doing so would breach their human rights. The purpose of naming them was to make it more difficult for them to reoffend, and to help the public to co-operate with the police in reporting suspicious financial transactions. Will the Leader of the House give us an opportunity to debate human rights legislation, which increasingly seems to distort the law in favour of criminals?

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Ms Harman: I am not aware of the specific case that the hon. Gentleman mentions. However, the purpose of naming those who have been made subject to orders or found guilty of offences is to ensure that those who might be at risk know the situation; to deter people by showing them that they will be named publicly; and to enable the public both to know that those who reoffend are under an order and to report them. I do not think that anything in the Human Rights Act 1998 prevents a proper and proportionate response to curtailing future criminal activities, but I shall look into the case that the hon. Gentleman mentions and raise it with an appropriate Minister.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Yesterday, after a rather fractious afternoon in the Chamber, it was wonderful to see the House come together to welcome the setting up of the Speaker’s Conference to improve representation in the House. May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on bringing that proposal forward and her opposite numbers on supporting it? What action is being taken to improve the representation of women, and members of the ethnic and black communities, on public bodies? That is often a very good preparation for parliamentary life, so if we can get that representation right now, we will have people who are prepared and ready to come into the House as soon as we have made a decision on how that can be done.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important for public bodies to have people who have been selected on merit, from the widest pool, with the broadest range of experience, to ensure that they can make the right decisions and give the right advice to Government and agencies. It is also an important role for people to choose before they step forward further into public life and enter the House. We have discussed with the Commissioner for Public Appointments a strengthening of her remit. That will be in the equality Bill, with the purpose of providing a more specific focus on ensuring diversity in public appointments.

The real missing voice in local councils is that of Asian women. There are something like 145 Asian women councillors; but to be representative in local government, there should be 1,000. We have set up an all-party taskforce under Baroness Pola Uddin and when she has concluded her work, we will report back to the House.

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments on the Speaker’s Conference, and pay tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, for taking up this very important initiative. I believe that it will be an historic contribution of your Speakership.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a statement by the Chancellor on the pre-Budget report on Monday week, but she has not announced any time for a debate on it. Last year, there was no debate on the pre-Budget report, and she was good enough to concede to me and others that that was less than satisfactory. This year’s pre-Budget statement is probably the most important statement that the Government will make in this Parliament, and it is quite wrong that we should have no time to debate it, and unacceptable that it should be rolled into a general debate on the Government’s legislative programme. Will she reflect on her plans and make provision for a debate in Government time on the pre-Budget report?

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Ms Harman: I take the right hon. Gentleman’s points seriously. Obviously, he is saying that there needs to be a statement with ample time, and an opportunity thereafter for debate, so that hon. Members can make speeches and the Treasury can respond. I will keep that under review.

At this time of year, we must ensure that there is enough time for the Report and Lords amendments stages of the many Bills that are coming back from the other place. The No. 1 priority for the Government is the economy. We certainly have no intention of having anything less than a full debate on it in the House.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the concern among companies that operate in many of the ports around the country, including Goole, over the new business rates arrangements and the fact that they are to be retrospectively applied to 2005. I and other hon. Members were grateful that the Prime Minister met us a couple of weeks ago and offered to look into the matter and give what assistance he could. Will my right hon. and learned Friend arrange for a statement to be made to the House, so that we can find out what that assistance will be and how those companies will be helped through these difficult times?

Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend, and other hon. Members, have raised this matter on behalf of their constituents with the relevant Ministers and the Prime Minister. If there is to be a response from Government, there will doubtless be a statement.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): As we move into this recession, we have seen unemployment rise massively in the past three months, and forecasts for the future are pretty gloomy. Given that it is our job to try to protect and preserve jobs, it does not appear to make a great deal of sense for the Government to press ahead with their support for the Lloyds TSB-HBOS merger which, it is reported today, could lead to the loss of 60,000 jobs. Edinburgh and Lothian Members, including the Chancellor, are conscious of that, and MPs in the Halifax area are also aware of the concerns in their constituencies. May we have a debate, in Government time, so that the Government can justify their continued support for the shotgun merger of Lloyds TSB and HBOS, and the potential loss of jobs, and to hear the arguments from both sides of the House? Independent recapitalisation of both banks would provide as much stability as the merger, and it would preserve and protect lots of jobs.

Ms Harman: We are very concerned about the protection of financial services, and ensuring that there is lending to small businesses, families and in the housing market. The service provided by the financial services industry is important, but it is also an important employer, so we are concerned when we see job losses. That is why the Chancellor has made it clear that he will do whatever it takes to stabilise and protect all existing financial services organisations, including taking over Northern Rock and the action that we have taken on Bradford & Bingley. When the best action to take is supporting and enabling a merger, as is the case with Lloyds TSB and HBOS, we will take it.

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We are well aware of the impact that the situation is having in Yorkshire, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, with Bradford & Bingley and the Halifax, and the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber has been working with colleagues and agencies in the area. We are also concerned about the effect on Scotland. Certainly, we will leave no stone unturned, but it is not right for any Member to suggest that there is some sort of magic wand alternative to the Lloyds TSB-HBOS proposal. If there were, and if it stood up to scrutiny, it would be there for consideration, but we regard the merger as the best option.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): In my right hon. and learned Friend’s opening statement, she said that we were all in a learning environment. Will she consider setting up a series of seminars to help people who are not terribly experienced in the House—for example, to show them how to set out amendments, or to ensure that they know that it is proper to address the House through the Speaker?

Ms Harman: As my hon. Friend will know, that is very much a matter for the Speaker.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the amount of compensation being paid by the NHS in relation to negligence claims? In London alone, in the past three years, that sum, including legal fees, has totalled nearly a quarter of a billion pounds.

Ms Harman: May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall or the House on the matter? The first point of principle is that we do not want any mistakes in the NHS that cause pain and suffering, quite apart from financial loss. However, if there is negligence in the NHS, it is right for those who suffer to be compensated. This is an important issue, and the hon. Gentleman should seek an Adjournment debate on it.

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the work of bailiffs? In the present financial climate, such work is sadly likely to increase. If her constituency mailbag is anything like mine, she will be learning of an increasing number of hard and painful cases. Being a bailiff is a difficult job, but the way in which they conduct themselves can make a difference to the dignity of people in financial stress.

Ms Harman: We have increased the regulation of bailiffs. This is a case in which what is sometimes derided as red tape is important to protect people who are very vulnerable. It is not only important to have the right regulation in place, but to ensure that it is properly enforced. I will ask the Minister concerned to write to my hon. Friend to explain not only the current state of the regulations, but how they are being effectively policed.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on progress towards publishing MPs’ expenses? It was supposed to happen this autumn but, so far, there has been no sign of it. Will she confirm when MPs’ expenses will be published, and explain the delay?

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Ms Harman: The House authorities are in the process of formulating the data for the last five years for Members’ expenses, to put them into the public domain in a proper manner. As the hon. Lady can imagine, it is a major undertaking, and the authorities are working on it, with additional staff, as fast as they can. At the same time, they are paying out current expenses, which we do not want to be delayed. That work is very much under way.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent contribution on the Speaker’s Conference last night?

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on adequate funding for public services? If we have learned anything from the recent by-election in Glenrothes, it is that people respect and want decent public services. Although it sounds popular to announce a council tax freeze, it comes with consequences, which often affect the most vulnerable people in our society. Given that the official Opposition are going down the same route, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that the Government will not be tempted to do likewise?

Ms Harman: I would certainly like to pay tribute to and welcome the new Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), who was introduced to the House yesterday. When I was up in Glenrothes, I felt very strongly that it is not only elderly people themselves who are worried about increases in charges, as whole families then become concerned about their older relatives. We all need to recognise that care and support of older people in their own homes—it is called adult social care, but it is really the common-sense issue of looking after elderly people—should move much higher up all our political agendas.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): As you will know, Mr. Speaker, many pensioners are in dire straits, as about 1.8 million are judged to be in poverty, we have pretty much the lowest basic pension in Europe and recent interest rate cuts have hit them massively in respect of their often very small investments. Will the Leader of the House consider—and with some urgency—having a debate on the position of our pensioners, who are facing, as I said, such serious challenges?

Ms Harman: I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we remain very concerned about the position of retired people in the current economic climate. I responded a few moments ago to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) about leaseholders. Many of them are people who, on retiring with a lump sum, bought their council property as leaseholders but now find themselves facing bills. That is just one example of the problems they face in the current economic climate. We know the increase in energy costs is particularly difficult for older people who spend more time at home, need more heat as they move around less, and often have less disposable income than younger people. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very much focused on the concerns of retired people. I would also remind him, however, that we operate from a position that is now much better than it was in 1997. If we take into account all the different categories of people—single people without children, couples without children, couples with children, retired
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people and so forth—we find that the people whose income in percentage terms has increased most among the whole population are single women in retirement. I am not complacent about that, but the hon. Gentleman should recognise that although we have more to do, we have done a great deal since his party were in government.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time to debate the behaviour of Dover Harbour Board, whose chief executive wants to get rid of 200 port workers and whose actions have led to the Unite union taking strike action next week? Does she agree that such action by the board, without any negotiations with the unions, is thoroughly irresponsible?

Ms Harman: At this time, public authorities should not be making people unemployed. We want all public authorities not only to provide the services that they should, but to refrain from doing anything that will make unemployment worse. I will ask the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who I believe is responsible for the port authorities, to look further into this matter forthwith.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House for an early debate on work in prisons? She will know that one of the best ways in which to reduce reoffending when people leave prison is to find them a job. One of the saddest things to have happened over the past few weeks is the closing down of the Barbed project at HMP Coldingley. That project provided real and well paid work for a number of prisoners, but it has been closed down as a consequence of the Government’s introduction of the core day. That is utterly regrettable; may we have a debate about it?

Ms Harman: I recognise the hon. and learned Gentleman’s long-standing interest in these issues and the sophistication of his approach, which he has demonstrated again today. It is important to do whatever we can when people are in prison to ensure that they do not promptly reoffend when they come out of prison, so I will raise the hon. and learned Gentleman’s point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Yesterday, a group of all-party MPs met senior staffers from the Senate offices in Washington to discuss issues of climate change. One point that was made forcefully to us was that labour organisations and unions in this country are so much more ahead and part of the debate than they are in the United States. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find ways in which we could encourage further dialogue between labour organisations here and in the US, to ensure that we progress the climate change agenda?

Ms Harman: I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recognises, as does my hon. Friend, that it is not just the work of national Governments that matters, as it is also important to prompt work internationally and for organisations in civil society to work in partnership on climate change issues. I will raise my hon. Friend’s point with my right hon. Friend.

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