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4 Dec 2008 : Column 119

House of Commons

Thursday 4 December 2008

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business of the House

10.33 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): Mr. Speaker, you informed the House on Wednesday of the subjects for debate on the Queen’s Speech. The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 8 December—Business of the House motion, followed by proceedings on a motion to establish a Speaker’s Committee on the search of offices on the parliamentary estate, followed by continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be employment, universities and skills, and housing.

Tuesday 9 December—General debate on European affairs.

Wednesday 10 December—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Foreign affairs and defence will be debated.

Thursday 11 December—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Health and education will be debated.

Friday 12 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 December will include:

Monday 15 December—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The economy, pensions and welfare will be debated.

Tuesday 16 December— Estimates (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem, followed by a debate on dental services. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Energy prices, Fuel poverty and Ofgem ( 11th Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 293; Government response - 7 th special Report HC1069; and further Oral Evidence of 24 and 25 November); and Dental servic es (5th Report from the Health Committee, HC 289; and Government response— Cm 7470).]

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 17 December—Third Reading of the Banking Bill, followed by motion to consider the Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2008.

Thursday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

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I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall will be:

Thursday 18 December—A debate on the annual report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on human rights.

Mrs. May: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week’s business. I have some serious points to raise about the business next week, but before that there are some issues that I want to raise relating to matters outside the House.

First, I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about the latest tragic news from Zimbabwe, so will the Leader of the House make sure that before the Christmas recess the House is informed about steps being taken to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe and to ensure that those innocent people are given the help that they desperately need?

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced a new scheme to help home owners who have lost their jobs and are fearful of losing their homes too. Before we debate housing next week, will the Housing Minister make a statement on the details of the scheme, setting out how it will work, who it will help and which lenders are signed up to it?

With only eight sitting days left before Christmas, will the Leader of the House give us a date for the Chancellor’s oral statement to the House on Equitable Life?

I turn to the business for next week. Mr. Speaker, we welcomed your statement yesterday on the search by police of the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and seizure of equipment and material from his office, and welcome the decision to set up a Speaker’s Committee to look into the matter. I remind the Leader of the House that in his statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker said that the Committee was

The details were to be set out in a Government motion.

Today we have that Government motion. It bears no resemblance to the statement by Mr. Speaker and no resemblance to what the House understood would be an immediate and speedy inquiry into the police action. Far from an immediate inquiry, the motion says that the Committee will immediately adjourn and will not meet not just until after the police inquiry is finished, but until any criminal proceedings are finished. In other words, it might not meet for months. And the Committee is to reflect the balance of the House. In other words, it will be dominated by the Government. Does the Leader of the House not accept that it is in the Government’s own interests to ensure that there can be no suggestion that there is interference in the work of the Committee by the Government?

I am sure the Leader of the House, like the Prime Minister yesterday, will hide behind the need not to affect the police investigation, but does she not accept that there are different issues at stake? The police investigation is into the leak of information from the Home Office. The Speaker’s Committee will consider the seizure by police of material from the office of a Member of the House and police interference with the ability of a Member of the House to do their job. At heart lies the relationship between a Member and their
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constituents, who rely on the confidentiality of any information that they give us or material that they share with us.

The matter raises issues of concern across the whole House but, typically, the Government are curtailing debate to three hours, including debate on the business motion. We should have a full day’s debate on this matter. Of course, we should not lose a day’s Queen’s Speech debate on education, skills and housing, so will the Leader of the House change the business and give us a full day’s debate on the Speaker’s Committee motion, another full day’s debate on education, skills and housing and let the Queen’s Speech debate go on a day longer?

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker made it clear that in future a warrant will always be required when a search of a Member’s office or parliamentary papers is carried out. The Prime Minister refused to agree with that. Does the Leader of the House agree with that new procedure? Yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to say that he regretted that a Member’s office was searched without a warrant. Last night on television, the Leader of the House also refused to do so. Will she now tell the House that she does regret the fact that a Member’s office was searched without a warrant?

In relation to the confidentiality of constituents’ business, can the Leader of the House confirm that to access the electronic files and e-mails of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, the police would have gone into the parliamentary server and on to the shared drive, and will therefore have been able to access all hon. Members’ e-mails and files? Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that no other hon. Member’s files or e-mails were accessed by the police?

Finally, the Home Secretary is making a statement on this matter this morning. However, the Home Office reportedly passed responsibility for the leak investigation to the Cabinet Office. When will the Minister for the Cabinet Office come to the House to make a statement setting out what he knew about the matter and his involvement in it? At the heart of this issue lies the ability of Members of this House to do their job and represent their constituents. It is the job of the Leader of the House to protect the interests of this House. The motion for Monday’s business manifestly fails to do so; the Leader of the House now needs to think again.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady raised the question of Zimbabwe. There is a state of emergency in that country because of the cholera epidemic, and I am sure that that issue will be very much on Members’ minds next Wednesday when we have the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs.

On housing, the right hon. Lady mentioned the Government’s announcement about additional help so that people whose income is affected by the global economic circumstances affecting the economy of this country should not have to fear that, as a result, they will face repossession. She will know that what was announced yesterday is part of a number of measures. One is that if people lose their jobs, they will be able to look to social security to help them with the interest payments on their homes; that has been increased to cover mortgages of up to £200,000. It has been brought
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forward to January, and will be available after 13 weeks instead of 39 weeks. She will also be aware that the courts are operating on a protocol that repossession must be granted only as a matter of absolute last resort, and that the banks are agreeing that they will not start proceedings until six months after the relevant person falls into arrears; previously, the period was three months.

In respect of the arrangements announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, they are a further Government guarantee to protect people. People will not lose their homes if their income falls because they are put on short time or lose their jobs. The arrangements are by way of a Government guarantee to banks in order that they should allow interest deferral for a period of two years. Further details are being worked up and will be made available to the House.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of Equitable Life, and a statement on that will be made before Christmas— [Interruption.] The Prime Minister said yesterday that it would be made before Christmas.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the motion that I have laid before the House to facilitate debate on Monday. It was tabled yesterday and is available to Members. The business motion is amendable and the motion is amendable. I would say that there are four principles that are important for us all to—

Hon. Members: Cover-up!

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Harman: There are four principles that, as Leader of the House, I strongly support. The first is that Members should be able to get on with their job as Members of Parliament, the job to which they have been elected, and that the Opposition must be able to get on with their job of holding the Government to account—that is a job not just for Opposition Members, but for Government Back Benchers as well.

The second principle is that Members are not above the law, and the third principle is that we should support the operational independence of the police. It is very important for hon. Members to bear that in mind at all times—including later today and on Monday.

I add a fourth principle that I hope that the House would support: the impartiality and professionalism of civil servants and the civil service and the upholding of the civil service code. I will not respond to the right hon. Lady’s invitation to comment on the police investigation—that would, in my view, invite me to interfere with the police carrying on their job in respect of a current investigation.

The security of hon. Members’ e-mails is a security matter and therefore a matter for the House authorities.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Will the House be able to add names to the Speaker’s Committee or leave names off? Will Members be able to apply to join the Committee, because I would rather like to be a member? [ Laughter. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I will put the hon. Gentleman’s name on the waiting list.

Ms Harman: As I said before, the motion will be amendable.

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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. I also thank her for the fact that we know that we will have a statement by the Home Secretary today and the debate on Monday. I appreciate that outside the House people are concerned about their homes, jobs and finances, but these matters are to do with the House and its business. I will work on them with my colleagues in the Conservative party and in other parties, and with Labour Back Benchers, to ensure that the rights and privileges that we have on behalf of our constituents are upheld. I ask these questions, or make these comments, in that context.

First, let me say to the Leader of the House that your statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker, was helpful but made it absolutely clear that somewhere among the authorities of this House and/or the police there was a fundamental failure to protect the rights and interests of our constituents. We have great respect for you, Mr. Speaker, for the Serjeant at Arms, for the Leader of the House and for the police—both for the offices and the persons—but there can be no escaping the fact that we must have accountability for the failures that meant that police came into this building without a warrant. That is unacceptable, and I hope that the Leader of the House accepts that. Although she appears, understandably, to be separate from this issue, she has the same duty as we do in making sure that the rights and liberties of all Members of Parliament are upheld, and that if Officers of the House, however eminent, do not do that, they are held to account. I cannot say otherwise, because it is really important that we do that.

Let me also say that the police, whom we respect, have a duty to be respectful of the job that we do on behalf of our constituents, and if they have made mistakes, then they, too, must be held to account, because they are not above the law either; nor are they above understanding the constitutional position that they have in relation to this place.

Secondly, I will not stand up here and support civil servants acting improperly—I share the Leader of the House’s view about that—but the Government have failed to bring a civil service Bill before Parliament, although they have had opportunities to do so since 2004, when we had a draft Bill. May we have an assurance that in this Session we will have a civil service Bill so that we can legislate to put the rights and responsibilities of civil servants on to a statutory footing, for which we have argued for a very long time?

The Leader of the House announced that the week after next we will have a debate on the prayer that my hon. Friends and I have tabled on the VAT increase. It is nonsense that the Chancellor can come to Parliament and make a pre-Budget statement that is actually a Budget and that has immediate effect the following week—on 1 December, when the tax changes were implemented—yet Parliament has no say in that decision. Last year, the Prime Minister said at the launch of his leadership campaign:

I put it to the Leader of the House that he is not succeeding if he brings measures to Parliament whereby Parliament has no right to vote on money spent and money raised.

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Unless this Parliament can take some of its powers back and manage the spending and raising of money, we are in trouble, and we are not doing our job.

Lastly, I put this point to the Leader of the House throughout the last Session, and she was sympathetic in words but not yet in action. We have a relatively short legislative programme. During the previous Session, week after week, there was no time for amendments or new clauses tabled by her colleagues or those in other parties to be debated. Will she today give an undertaking that all legislation this year will be properly debated and that there will be a new procedure, like that of many Parliaments, through which a business committee is established so that Parliament can decide its business, not the Government? We need less power with the Executive and more power with Parliament and the people, and unless she can deliver that, she and her colleagues will fail the country badly.

Ms Harman: I take it that the hon. Gentleman was saying that we should have cross-party support for the four principles that I have set out as Leader of the House—the principles of MPs being able to get on with their job, the police being operationally independent, the impartiality of the civil service and MPs not being above the law. We should not pick or choose one or the other of those four principles for our convenience. It is incumbent on this House to support all those principles and make sure that we get the balance right. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands and reflects deeply on constitutional issues, and he will recognise that we need a cross-party, whole-House approach to the question of the four principles, not a party political divide.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the civil service code, which we support, and we also introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 in order that there should be provision for civil servants who felt that it was on their conscience to disclose information in the public interest to give out information.

The hon. Gentleman talked about all legislation being properly debated. It is my concern to ensure that Bills are in as good an order as possible before they are introduced to the House, so that amendments can only be those introduced as a result of debate in the House. I share the view of the House, and support it in its concern, that policy should be established clearly in advance so that a Bill is brought to the House in as complete a form as possible. We always have to introduce amendments if they have been tabled in another place or by Back Benchers from across the House, but I agree that it is my responsibility to ensure that all legislation is properly debated.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me and most Members of this House about the importance of the independence of Members of Parliament and the way in which they should be allowed to carry on with their work? Many of our constituents will not forgive us if we get this matter out of proportion but accept that we are in the midst of a global economic meltdown, and my constituents would be very displeased if we were distracted from the main purpose of this House, which is making sure that the people of this country survive and thrive in this global economic turmoil.

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