Before I come on to the forthcoming business, as these are the last business questions before Christmas, may I take the opportunity to wish you,
Mr. Speaker, all the staff of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very merry Christmas and a happy new year? [Hon. Members: Hear, hear.]
On the future business, however, I note that the Leader of the House announced a statement on Equitable Life in the first week back after Christmas. Last week, the Prime Minister promised to the House a statement on Equitable Life before Christmas. So will the Prime Minister come to the House to explain why his Chancellor is not doing what the Prime Minister promised the House he would do? Given that the Leader of the House, on numerous occasions, told us that the statement would be given in autumn, perhaps she can explain why this is the first time in living history that autumn has extended into January?
Following the disclosure yesterday by the chief executive of Ofsted that three children are killed by abuse every week, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families is today due to announce a major shake-up in social services under the childrens plan. This announcement is in a written statement. Why has the right hon. Gentleman not come to the House to be questioned by Members on this crucial issue?
When the Government announced approval for two new aircraft carriers in July 2007, the Defence Secretary made an oral statement. Today, when it is widely reported that he is to announce a delay in their approval, the Defence Secretary is making only a written statement, which, I understand, was not even available in the Vote Office or the Library at the start of business questions. That written statement will, of course, prevent Members from asking key questions about the impact on the defence budget, on jobs and on national security. Again, why is the Defence Secretary not making an oral statement to the House?
Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made an oral statement on welfare reform, but will the Leader of the House explain why, the day before, the right hon. Gentleman released an extract from his statement to the press? That was a blatant disregard of his duty to the House. Will the right hon. and learned Lady reassure us that she will speak to her Cabinet colleagues and tell them that this House takes precedence over the media?
commit to a debate on the economic slow-down, and the problems in the banking industry and their effects on the housing market.[ Official Report, 13 December 2007; Vol. 469, c. 465.]
She did not give us a debate in Government time then, and she has not given us that debate a year later; the debates on the economy have been chosen by the Opposition. Given that that the pound has now hit its lowest level against the euro and the German Finance Minister has said that the Governments switch to crass Keynesianism is breathtaking, when will the Government give us a full debate in Government time on the economy?
Yesterday, I had a meeting with representatives of Derby and Nottingham chamber of commerce, who expressed dismay at the Governments announcement this week on home information packs. As the housing
market continues to plummet, the Housing Minister is cancelling provisions that allowed sellers to put their homes on the market before the HIP was completed. Sellers will now have to wait longer and have a raft of paperwork in place before they can even put their home up for sale, which is hardly the way to stimulate our stagnant property market. Can we have an oral statement from the Housing Minister, so that Members can question her on that ridiculous policy?
The Leader of the House recently asked the womens institute to put pressure on local newspapers not to carry advertisements for the sex industry. What a pity that she cannot persuade the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to join her campaign. A new report shows that Jobcentre Plus advertised 351 vacancies in the adult entertainment industry last year, including adverts for
topless/semi nude bar staff
and nude cleaners. Two jobseekers complained that they were asked to perform sexual services after contacting an employer about a vacancy advertised at Jobcentre Plus. Will the Leader of the House, in her role as Minister for Women, take steps to end this hypocrisy within Government?
I know what its like for everyone, stuck in a job with an outrageous boss.
Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady mentioned Equitable Life. I acknowledge that we said that the statement would be ready in the autumn, but it is important to note that the issue has its roots in problems that started in the 1980s. In the summer, there was a substantial report from the ombudsman that needed consideration. We are talking about important issues, and if the Treasury needs to dot the is and cross the ts, it should do so. Surely it is more important that the report is properly considered before it is brought to the House than for us to have an artificial timetable. The statement will be made in January.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has made a number of statements on the childrens plan. Issues to do with it were set out in the draft legislative programme, and there have been a number of statements, debates and discussions on it.
Mr. Speaker: Order. The Minister is replying to questions. [Interruption.] Order. It ill becomes hon. Membersand right hon. Members, for that matterto barrack a Minister who is giving a reply in good faith. It should not be done.
On welfare reform, we make no apology for constantly considering how we can ensure that people who lose their jobs are helped into work as quickly as possible, and how we can increase the requirement
on people not only to look for a job, but to be prepared to receive support that gets them to a position in which they can get a job. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady that there is no way that jobcentres should be used as places in which to advertise jobs in sexual services, lap-dancing jobs, and jobs in sex encounter establishments. I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and he is reviewing the situation. We do not want any of those sorts of jobs in our jobcentres.
The right hon. Lady wished the House a merry Christmas. She obviously hoped that there would not be a business statement next week, but I have to disappoint her; there will be a business statement next week, so she can repeat her Christmas greetings then.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the economy. There will, of course, be a debate on the economy next Monday. As far as the German Finance Minister is concerned, Germany went into this world economic crisis with higher levels of unemployment and Government debt than us. However, it, too, has sought to recapitalise its banks; it, too, has benefited from a cut in interest rates; and it, too, has provided fiscal stimulusin its case of €31 billion. It has taken action on its economy, and we have taken action on ours.
Seriously, I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend will join me in congratulating Mr. Ron Cox, one of our Doorkeepers. He is nicknamed the father of the Doorkeepers because he is the longest-serving of them. He looks an awful lot younger than he isI did not believe that he was up for retirement. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in putting on record the Houses thanks for all his hard work, done in an efficient, professional and pleasant way, and wish him and his family well in his retirement?
Ms Harman: I endorse my hon. Friends comments, and thank not only Ron Cox, the father of the Doorkeepers, for all his years of service to the House, but all the Doorkeepers and staff who work so hard on behalf of Parliament.
Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I first associate myself with the timely request from the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat)? We send our best wishes to Ron Cox, his family and his colleagues.
May I join the strong protests from the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) on two matters that are quite inexcusable? First, every week, my constituents ask me about the Equitable Life statement, and I am sure that that is the case, too, for other hon. Members. We have told them, Yes, it has taken too long for the Government to respond to the ombudsmans statement, but there will be a statement before Christmas. Autumn ends on21 December according to the latest definition, but the statement has now been postponed until the new year. Will the Leader of the House relay to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and to other colleagues that to promise a statement of such importance to so
many people, but then not to deliver it, undermines confidence in their ability to respond?
Secondly, may I make the strongest protest about the fact that yesterday we had a full days debate on foreign affairs and defence, but there was no word of an announcement about the aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. The Order Paper, however, shows that there is a written statement today, which clearly indicates that there will be a postponement of that aspect of defence procurement. On behalf of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and of many people with jobs and job interests in all parts of the country, may I say that it is not acceptable to announce good news on the Floor of the House and bad news later, so we cannot quiz the relevant Minister on the basis of the statement, when it is placed in the Library and the Vote Office?
May I ask the Leader of the House to amend her planning for next week to make sure that the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs appears before the House? On 26 November, there was a credit card summit, at which I gather the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs asked credit and store card companies to consider a reduction in the amount of interest that they charge on credit cards. Those charges have gone up in the past 12 months to an average 17.7 per cent., which, for most people who face the prospect of having to buy things at Christmas, is not the right way for them to gothey are far too expensive. There is a meeting today between those companies and the Minister for Trade, Investment and Consumer Affairs, at which the companies will report whether they have heeded the Governments request to cut profits and help consumers. Will the Leader of the House make sure that the Minister comes to the House to answer questions, so we can see whether the Government have persuaded those companies that they have to help consumers?
Next Thursdays business for Westminster Hall is a debate on the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee on human rights around the world, which is very welcome. However, before we break for Christmas, may we have a debate on human rights in this country? May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on what she is going to do about the case of S and Marper, in which the European Court decided that DNA samples from innocent people cannot be keptmany of us have been saying that for a long timeso the Government will have to change their policy? May we have an explanation why my noble Friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has resigned as the Governments adviser on constitutional affairs, saying that, after a good start, the Governments recent record was dismal and deeply disappointing, and why the Government persist in wanting to go ahead with identity cards, even though all the evidence is that they are going to be ridiculously expensive and inefficient?
Finally, on the business of the House, will the Leader of the House tell us about any follow-up to the debate on Monday, and whether she has had a conversation with you, Mr. Speaker, or your office, about what is going to happen to the Committee that she, with her colleagues, forced on the House against our understanding of your wishes? I am sure that she knows the figures:
only one colleague not in the Labour party voted for her position on Monday, and colleagues from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National party, Respect and the independent groups voted against her. All but a handful of Labour Ministers were present, but the Government majority was four. If she wants to have the confidence of the House, may we have a new proposal for a Committee, as Mr. Speaker recommended, and may we have it soon?
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman returned to the question raised by the shadow Leader of the House about Equitable Life. During the course of business questions in earlier months, I tried to give a sense of timing with regard to when this important statement would come before the House. If hon. Members think that that raised expectations and was insufficiently specific, I could have said, This statement will come before the House when it is ready, but I was trying to be helpful. It is in that spirit that I say that I hope that there will be an oral statement next week, but we are trying to be as helpful as possible, and the House will recognise that this is a big issue. There is a big report to be considered and we cannot be that specific about when it will be available, but we will try to give as much indication as possible.
As far as defence procurement is concerned, work is under way on the aircraft carriers that have been procured, and that work will be carried forward. It is important that Government policy is that public procurement, whether in housing, transport or defence, is brought forward, because many jobs depend on it.
The hon. Gentleman asked about consumer affairs and credit cards. I have said that there will be a debate on Monday on the economy, but we had Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform questions just this morning, when he could have put those questions to Ministers. We know that those issues are important, and that they should be kept before the House, which should be given an opportunity to hear from Ministers as regularly as possible.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned human rights and the European court case that dealt with the retention of DNA. I have two things to say about that. First, I find it ironic that other hon. Membersnot the hon. Gentlemanprotest about the violation of human rights, but would abolish the Human Rights Act. That is inconsistent. The hon. Gentleman does not share that inconsistency, but if one of his constituents were the victim of crime, they would want the police to be able to find the offender and bring them to justice. DNA evidence is vital in ensuring that the police can find people, especially in cases of rape and other sexual offences. It means that offenders who would have escaped justice are brought before the courts and punished. DNA records are very important in the detection and investigation of crime, but we will, of course, consider the implications of the European court judgment for our policy. When we have considered it, if we have anything to say, no doubt we will say it.
On the question of the search of the House in relation to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) will know that the Public Administration Committee is looking into the question of leaks, and
the Cabinet Secretary has appeared before that Committee. He made it absolutely clear that he will not comment on any issues that are the subject of a police investigation, and that is rightly the case. The Home Affairs Committee will look into the police search of the House, but when I gave evidence to that Committee the day before yesterday, I suggested that it should not put itself in the positionespecially as it is the Home Affairs Committeeof carrying out the same investigation as the police. Progress on the Speakers Committee, which was the subject of a motion of the House on Monday, is a matter for the Speaker.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the decision of the England cricket team to return to India for the test series? Could we have some parliamentary time to look at the implications of what happened in Mumbai for the fight against global terrorism? Will she confirm that there will be a ministerial visit to India at the earliest opportunity? So far, no British Minister has visited, and it is important to show solidarity with a country that is so close to ours.
Ms Harman: I welcome my right hon. Friends welcome of the England cricket teams visit to India. Ministers in our Foreign Office have been highly active, working with their colleagues in the Indian Government and the Pakistan Government. Everybody shares the huge concern and grief for those who lost their lives and were badly injured in Mumbai, and remembers that Pakistan suffered with the Marriott hotel explosion. Not only have our Ministers been active in supporting the Indian and Pakistan Governments fight against terrorismwe hope that they work together in that endeavourbut they have been working with the Pakistan and Indian community here. We will continue to be active in international work to tackle terrorism.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that in the foreign affairs and defence debate yesterday, concern was expressed on both sides of the House about what is happening in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, given the length and breadth of the debate, we were not able to deal with that subject in the depth that it deserves. She will also be aware that a review of future strategy on Afghanistan is taking place in the United States at the moment. Will she arrange for the Prime Minister to come to this House to make a statement on future policy in Afghanistan, and provide a full day for a debate on Afghanistan where the House can fully explore, in depth, the concerns that exist?
Ms Harman: I take the points that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has made, and I will raise those with the Prime Minister and the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Foreign Affairs. We recognise that those on both sides of the House want to debate our involvement of Afghanistan and hear from Ministers about it.