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4 Dec 2008 : Column 125

Ms Harman: I agree with the sentiments that lie behind my hon. Friend’s points. We have to have a proper focus on the four principles that I have set out today. They are important constitutional principles, and we should guard them jealously and properly. However, there are also important issues on a daily basis for our constituents throughout the country who are worried about their jobs, their businesses or their homes. The business of Government is to ensure that we act and do everything that we can against a background of a global economic crisis. We need to ensure that we give people real help now, and more than that, we must ensure that the economy in this country is in a position to move forward when the downturn ends.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Does the Leader of the House agree that our constituents should be concerned if they are subject to unlawful search and seizure? Does she agree that newspaper offices should be concerned if they are subject to unlawful search and seizure? Does she understand that if Members of Parliament cannot be protected from unlawful search and seizure, why should anyone else think that they can be either? That is the key point. When—as, eventually, it surely will—the heat goes out of this episode, during which, I am afraid, there has been disgraceful conduct, we must appreciate that the key point is that our offices and the confidential communications from our constituents should be protected from unlawful search and seizure.

I invite the right hon. and learned Lady to make a constructive response, so will she tell me what she thinks that we need to do—we do not need to wait for the Committee, which, as we have just learned, may not meet for months—to ensure that confidential correspondence from our constituents is protected from unlawful search and seizure?

Ms Harman: I think that no one, whether hon. Members or ordinary citizens of this country, should be subjected to unlawful search and seizure. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raised will be debated next Monday. I remind hon. Members that, although we must ensure that we protect the privilege of Parliament and the rights of Members of Parliament to get on with their job without unwarranted interference from the law, we must also respect the operational independence of the police.

John Reid (Airdrie and Shotts) (Lab): First, the Leader of the House is correct to base the matter on principles other than those that protect only our interests. The whole picture must be seen. Secondly, will she urge hon. Members to avoid, if possible, making blatantly prejudicial statements, which imply that there is a prima facie case of unlawful activity by the police? That is untrue and will prejudice the investigation. Thirdly, we must remember that all the parties to the dispute—the House authorities, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, Members of Parliament and the police—have the opportunity to state their case except the police. We should give them the benefit of the doubt until the investigation has been carried out rather than prejudicing the inquiry before it has begun.

Ms Harman: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. It is incumbent on us all not to do anything that would prejudice the prosecution—if there is a prosecution. It is also incumbent on us all to do nothing that might
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prejudice the defence. We all have a responsibility. There is currently a police investigation and there are suspects. It is not for one side of the House to be the prosecution and the other to be the defence. The matter should not be party political—[Hon. Members: “Quite right.”] I am glad that I have the whole House’s support on that. It should not be party political—it is a matter for the criminal justice system. When there is a current police investigation, none of us should take sides.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does not the Leader of the House accept that the financial crisis is totally separate from what occurred last Thursday? It is wrong to keep saying that the House should debate the financial crisis and not matters relating to the House’s integrity. Unless the House has independence and integrity, it cannot deal with the matter properly. Will she think again about providing only a three-hour debate on Monday? As far as I am concerned, we have a mission to try to restore some integrity and independence to the House. How can we do that unless a wide range of Members from all parties can participate in the debate? Will she provide a full-day’s debate? That was my interpretation of Mr. Speaker’s responsible and helpful statement yesterday.

Ms Harman: I will seek to ensure that the House has adequate time to debate important issues such as the economy, jobs, small businesses and people’s homes and focus appropriately on what I have acknowledged to be important constitutional principles. We must have time to consider both and strike the right balance between them. As I said, the business of the House motion is amendable.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is it in order to drag the discussion back to items that are a high priority for millions of UK citizens? I refer to those persons with disabilities. I tabled early-day motion 2191 in the previous Session and referred to it in business questions, when I asked about the ratification of the United Nations convention of the rights of persons with disabilities.

[That this House is concerned by the delay in the Govern ment’ s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; notes that to date 41 signatories have ratified this progressive international human rights instrument, including Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Niger, Paraguay, Qatar, South Africa, Spain an d Tunisia; believes that the UK’ s delay in ratifica tion compromises the Government’ s existing achievements and objectives in tackling disability discrimination; and calls upon the Government to ratify the Convention without reservation or further delay.]

The Leader of the House gave me a helpful answer and the strong impression that ratification would be announced before the Christmas recess. Can she confirm that and say what the form of that ratification will be? Will it require primary legislation? If so, was that announced in an appendix to the Queen’s Speech yesterday, because I could not find it?

Ms Harman: The rights and opportunities of, and support for, people with disabilities are very much part of the Government’s legislative programme, in particular
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the Equality Bill and the public sector duty on all public authorities to support the inclusion of people with disabilities, protect them from discrimination and ensure that they have the right levels of support. As for my hon. Friend’s question about ratification, I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions writes to him about that.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I had hoped that after your helpful statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the House would have taken the opportunity to bring the parties together on the issue. Nevertheless, the motion before us today appears to be taking the mickey. Having said that, let me return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) raised, which concerns the other constitutional issue that we should be discussing. Our primary responsibility in the House is the control of supply—the control of taxation—yet just before Prorogation, we were presented not just with a Budget, but to all intents and purposes with a radical Budget, on which we had no debate except for your agency, Mr. Speaker, and no opportunity to vote. Is the House doing its duty on behalf of the British people—a duty set out in the Bill of Rights—to ensure that there is no taxation without parliamentary consent?

Ms Harman: We have many occasions to debate the economy and it is right that we should do so. As for the motion, it will be debatable on the proceedings on a motion to establish the Speaker’s Committee. That will be a business of the House matter that will be debated and voted on by hon. Members on Monday.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): In reply to an Opposition Member, the Leader of the House said that we would have the opportunity to discuss Zimbabwe on Wednesday. I am more concerned about the plight of the citizens of that benighted country who are stranded in Britain without having had their applications for asylum granted, but whom it is not planned to return to Zimbabwe. They are starving. Could we not have an announcement before Christmas on arrangements to allow them to work?

Ms Harman: I think that my colleagues in the Home Office are very well aware of the difficulties for people from Zimbabwe, to which there are no forcible removals, and whether they are in a position to support themselves. I know that my colleagues will have heard the points that my hon. Friend has made, but in any event I shall refer her points to them.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): Since the narrowly drawn terms of reference for the committee of senior Members that the Leader of the House has set out seem to relate entirely to the future, what conceivable justification is there for providing that it should not start its work until the criminal investigation has concluded?

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman, being a former barrister and a former Home Secretary, will know that it is very important that we prejudice neither the prosecution nor the defence in this case. Mr. Speaker has said that the arrangements for a search of the House in the future are already changed. It is important that we discuss and ensure that the constitutional
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principles, all four of which need to be upheld by the House, are the subject of reflection. The Committee will undoubtedly be part of that, but it is not wise to set up a concurrent investigation when a police investigation is under way. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman reflects on that even for a few moments, he will know that I am right.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for proving all the doubting Thomases wrong: we did bring forward in the Queen’s Speech the marine and coastal access Bill, which is long overdue. However, it was somewhat disappointing that the floods and water Bill will be published only in draft form. Will she seek early publication of that Bill, so that we can undertake pre-legislative scrutiny? The Bill is important for those of us in certain parts of the country and we need it at the earliest opportunity.

Ms Harman: Yesterday, I wrote to the Chair of the Liaison Committee about which Bills should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. I take my hon. Friend’s point that the floods and water Bill should be subject to such scrutiny.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): Why have the Government overruled the Speaker’s statement that he alone would choose the membership of his Committee?

Ms Harman: The motion says that the Speaker will choose the members of the Committee according to the composition of the House.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), as many of my Wakefield constituents are facing their second Christmas outside their home, following the devastating floods in 2007 and the repeat floods of this summer in 2008? I know that this is a real issue for right hon. and hon. Members who represent Hull as well, so may we have a debate, perhaps in Government time, or pre-legislative scrutiny to consider what measures can be brought in to manage better the risk of flooding in our areas, particularly in Yorkshire and in the west country?

Ms Harman: Those matters might well be debated and considered alongside the marine and coastal access Bill.

May I take the opportunity to remind Members that the motion on the Speaker’s Committee clearly says:

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Leader of the House wrote to me yesterday asking for my views on these constitutional questions—and I hope that I will not get arrested for disclosing that fact. In addition to all the other matters that have already properly been raised, does she agree that a Committee of this kind should be chaired by a member of the Opposition? Furthermore, in respect of her remarks on the criminal law, does she accept that the rules and precedents of this House already adequately deal not only with concurrence, but with the whole question of the law and custom of this House in relation to criminal matters?

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Ms Harman: I am not quite sure about the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as a former shadow Attorney-General, has great experience and has reflected at length on these issues, but if he is suggesting that we can with impunity have a concurrent investigation by the House of something that is subject to a police investigation, I am sure that he would not want to say that.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Many of my constituents, particularly those who work for Ford, are worried about whether they will still be in their jobs after Christmas. Given that today’s figures show a significant decrease in demand, will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the future of the British car industry to ensure that we have one at the end of this recession?

Ms Harman: The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has said that we are mindful to take whatever action the Government can take to support manufacturing industry and the important manufacturing skills base in our economy during the global downturn. I will draw the hon. Lady’s comments to his attention. There will be an opportunity to debate those issues on Monday 15 December as well as at next Thursday’s business questions.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): On Monday, when the Leader of the House moves the motion in her name on the Speaker’s Committee, will she be able to explain to the House how this Committee, which will have no powers whatever, will be able to carry out the task outlined by Mr. Speaker yesterday more effectively than an existing Committee of the House, which has all the necessary powers, has no party majority and was specifically set up to look into issues of privilege?

Ms Harman: I have tabled a motion to facilitate debate of the issue that arose in the Speaker’s statement—that there should be a Speaker’s Committee to which these matters should be referred rather than to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman chairs. That is a matter for the Speaker.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will it be possible in the near future to have a debate on the requirement for Criminal Records Bureau checks for those working with children being extended to madrassahs? In my view, the current situation discriminates against Muslim children.

Ms Harman: Obviously, if any child care services are being provided in madrassahs, they are subject to inspection and registration. If my hon. Friend is identifying the fact that such provision is being made, in effect, in madrassahs but is not coming within the inspection regime, I will invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to look into that and liaise with her on it. We need to ensure that all children are protected.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you obviously took great trouble to be very clear and precise about the nature of Monday’s debate. May I ask the Leader of the House why she has so totally ignored the Speaker’s advice?

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Ms Harman: I have tabled a motion for debate by the House. It is amendable, and I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that he, too, should be supporting all four principles to which I have referred. I do not want to be the only person besides you, Mr. Speaker, who is concerned about and alive to the issue of the sub judice rule. I would say that it is quite wrong to suggest that I have any other motive than to protect those four principles, one of which is the sub judice rule.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Can the Leader of the House help to clarify one point that has troubled me overnight? [Interruption.] No, it is a serious point. A certificate was signed by the Serjeant at Arms waiving the need for a warrant. Surely the only person who could have done that is the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). If somebody wanted to search the flat that I rent, my managing agent could not authorise that. Only I could, surely. Can we have some clarification of whether the only the person who can say, “Yes, you can come into my flat or my office,” and authorise that is that person himself or herself? Is that not the case?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the question of the ownership of material, and also the premises, and of consent to enter them. Those are two different things. I would say that they might well bear examination, but I would counsel him, too, that examination should take place after the current police investigation is concluded. Those issues certainly should be looked at.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you said to the House in your statement that to the Speaker’s Committee should be referred the matter of the seizure by the police of the material belonging to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and that the report should be done as soon as possible. Does the Leader of the House accept that the motion that she has placed before the House complies with the Speaker’s statement in neither respect? It does not deal with the seizure of the material and it specifically prevents an early report.

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is himself a learned Queen’s Counsel and when he reads the motion he will understand exactly why I tabled it in the terms that I did. I seek to protect all four principles—important constitutional issues of great concern that arise from this matter. The motion does that.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Last week, we had the devastating coroner’s verdict from the inquest on my constituent, Dr. John Hubley, who died as a result of “a catalogue” of failures at the Eccleshill independent sector treatment centre, described by the coroner as “mickey mouse” and “a recipe for disaster”. Already, I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to ask for a full public inquiry, but as this matter has thrown up the issue of safety at independent treatment centres such as Eccleshill, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this to restore some confidence among my constituents, but also among the wider public, that it is appropriate to send NHS patients to that centre?

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