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18 Dec 2008 : Column 1253

I jumped the gun somewhat last week, but as this is definitely the last business questions before Christmas, may I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr. Speaker, and all the Officers and staff of the House and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy Christmas and new year?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Lady is right this time as this is the last business questions before Christmas, although she is still lacking somewhat in Christmas spirit. She made several points about what I said yesterday. If she wants to challenge what I say at Prime Minister’s questions, she should make her party let her do them. When the Prime Minister is not available for questions, she should stand in for the Opposition, instead of being left to answer the questions on Thursday. As it is panto season, let me say that at least I got to play the principal boy yesterday. Like Cinderella, she had to sit in the shadows.

The right hon. Lady suggested that we have debates on double standards in Government and Government profligacy. They sound more like Opposition day debates than Government debates and I suggest that she choose them. She also suggested that we broaden the terms of the debate on armed services personnel. I said last time that procurement issues are vital for armed services personnel, but I will consider her request.

The right hon. Lady asked about human trafficking, and I will write to her and set out all the work that is being done across Government on that issue. What is really important is what is done in the voluntary sector, to tackle advertisements in newspapers, by the police, by the prosecution service and by the courts. A wide range of work is being done on the issue and I shall write to her with the details. I thank her for her support on that issue.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): May I start by associating myself and my colleagues with the wishes expressed through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to Mr. Speaker and to you and your colleagues and all the staff of the House for the coming Christmas?

On a sober note, I know that I reflect the views of the House when I say that our thoughts are not only with the families of the servicemen and women who have died in this last year. In London in particular, we have had a year when far too many young people have died from knife and gun crime or have suffered other violent deaths. Our thoughts are with their families, too. We realise that they will have a very difficult Christmas, but I hope that they will have the support of the communities in which they live and that they will continue to get that support.

I thought that the Leader of the House did rather well yesterday, and I was not going to make any rude comments about her. I will therefore associate myself with only one little request that was made by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which is that the debate on defence in the new year should be on the wider subject of personnel and procurement. That is the only way in which to ensure that we have a debate that covers not only the commissioning of aircraft carriers and the rest, which is a matter of huge interest, but the wider matters of training and the whole set of armed forces and defence issues that will arise in the new year.

In the past six months, we have been told that 320,000 people have lost their jobs. The latest unemployment
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figures show that 1.86 million people are now out of work and there are further announcements to come. For example, Woolworths has announced that 26,000 people are likely to be out of work in the first part of the new year. On 3 October, the Prime Minister announced the setting up of the National Economic Council. Rather than frustrating requests and Government responses on the subject of when we are going to have debates about the economic difficulties that the nation is in, may I suggest that in the new year the Prime Minister or the Chancellor should come to the House every month to make a statement on the reports or activities of the National Economic Council and that we should have monthly debates on the state of the British economy? Sadly, the economy will be the top issue in people’s concerns for the whole of next year. Will the Leader of the House reflect on a proper way of managing the reporting back of the Government’s responses to the economic crisis?

I know that yesterday there was a short Adjournment debate on the Israeli settlements in Palestine, but at this time of year, above all, thoughts in this country and around the world turn to the Holy Land. Can one of the slots that are not yet filled in the first couple of weeks in the new year be given to a debate on the Government’s efforts and international efforts to ensure that there is freedom of movement around Palestine for Palestinians of all faiths—Muslims, Christians and those who hold other beliefs—not just at Christmas and Eid but all year round? People in that part of the world cannot travel freely, whether they want to travel for faith or family reasons, for study or for work. Until that freedom of movement is given to people in the Holy Land, there cannot be any hope for peace and progress.

Nearer to home, the Leader of the House knows that our borough and three neighbouring boroughs are being asked to pick up the £4 million tab for the de Menezes inquest. Questions have been asked of her colleagues about that matter in the House. Can we have a debate early in the new year, before she introduces the planned police and coroners Bill, to ensure that we can sort out the issue? Inquests of London or national importance should not just be the financial responsibility of one or four local authorities and the cost should be shared much more fairly.

Lastly, let me return to an issue that I often come back to. The Leader of the House has announced three Government Bills to be debated in the first few weeks of the new year. Yesterday, in the Consolidated Fund Bill, we agreed without debate the allocation of £32 billion of additional public money for this financial year and £194 billion for the next financial year. May I suggest a new year’s resolution to the Leader of the House on behalf of the Government? Can we have a year in which we see much more progress in handing power from the Government to Parliament? That would mean that Bills introduced by the Government would have adequate time for debate and amendment by colleagues from all parties on Report and that we could have a proper way of holding the Government to account not just for the taxes they raise but for the money they spend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The hon. Gentleman has well exceeded the normal ration of time that is allocated to him at this point. I hope that he has now made his points, and the Leader of the House can answer him.

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Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about the financial implications of the de Menezes inquest. When a particularly expensive inquest falls on one area, arrangements and adjustments are made. For example, extra resources were available for the coroner service in Oxfordshire because of the returning military who arrived at the airport there. Arrangements are made to adjust resources and that will have been the case in relation to the de Menezes inquest.

The hon. Gentleman followed up the point made by the shadow Leader of the House about the defence debate. As he will know, there are set piece defence debates throughout the year. One is always on personnel, one is on defence in the world and one deals with procurement. Generally speaking, without wanting to trespass on the discretion of the Chair, it is possible to raise issues that cross the boundaries in those general debates in quite a substantial way. Procurement issues are very important to the operational ability of our armed services personnel and I am sure that hon. Members who want to raise questions of procurement will be able to do so and will get a response from the Minister in the debate when we return in January.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of accountability to the House for the work of the Government in tackling the global economic crisis. There are, of course, Treasury questions and there have been numerous statements. We want to be sure that at all times the House is kept up to date with information and that there is also a chance to question Ministers. Since the economic crisis hit towards the end of this year, that has happened more regularly than just every month and we expect that to continue to be the case. The economy is a No. 1 priority for the Government and we know that it is a No. 1 priority for the House. We do not expect the House not to have the opportunity to hold the Government to account and to debate economic issues in the future.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the middle east. Without expecting the terms of reference of the debate to go too broadly, there will be an opportunity to raise the question of the middle east in the debate on Iraq and related strategic issues.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned job losses and the National Economic Council. Let me take this opportunity to say that the Government have the utmost concern for those who are faced with losing their jobs at Woolworths. Every possible arrangement will be made to help them to ensure that they can get another job as quickly as possible as soon as they lose their job at Woolworths.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I should mention to the House that since Mr. Speaker placed a 15-minute time limit on speeches in the Christmas Adjournment debate, the number of hon. Members wishing to contribute has swollen considerably, so we may be struggling for time later. I hope, therefore, in a festive spirit, that it will be understood if I adopt a Scrooge-like attitude to the length of supplementary questions now.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): In the spirit of Christmas I refer to the fact that the Secretary of State for Transport decided to defer the decision on the expansion of Heathrow until January.
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My right hon. and learned Friend may have seen this morning that in early-day motion 339 more than 100 Members from all parties are now calling for a vote on that matter on the Floor of the House of Commons.

[That this House notes the Government's commitment given in the 2003 Aviation White Paper, The Future of Air Transport to reduce noise impacts and to ensure that air quality and environmental standards are met before proceeding with a third runway at Heathrow Airport; further notes the assurance given by the Prime Minister on 12 November 2008 that support for a third runway at Heathrow is subject to strict environmental conditions; further notes that Heathrow Airport is already in breach of the European Air Quality Directive to be implemented by 2010; welcomes the statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that these environmental commitments should be honoured; supports the Chairman of the Environment Agency’ s decision to oppose the third runway on environmental grounds; and calls upon the Government not to proceed with the third Heathrow runway or mixed-mode and to put the matter to a vote on the floor of the House. ]

All we want for Christmas is a vote. Will she pass that on to her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State?

Ms Harman: The Secretary of State for Transport will make his decision on Heathrow known in the new year.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the growing number of written answers in Hansard that are only partially answered by the Minister, although they are accepted by the Department, with the rest of the information to be conveyed by private letter to the Member? In some cases, valuable information could be gained from those letters. Would it be possible to consider that more of them might be placed in the Library so there might be greater access to them—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Or in Hansard.

Alistair Burt: Or they could be published in Hansard, rather than simply being kept private.

Ms Harman: I agree that as much as possible should be put in Hansard. A Minister being held to account for an answer is not a private matter: that is public information, and I shall set my deputy on to it.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): May I wish a merry Christmas and a good new year to all?

When we in Britain talk about every child mattering we must not forget about children abroad, especially at this time of year. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will forgive me for labouring the point, but I want to ask once again for a debate about the so-called “witch” children in Nigeria. They are being killed, buried alive and tortured and, if their parents cannot afford to hire someone to exorcise them, they get taken away and we do not know what happens to them. The programme “Dispatches”—

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Give way!

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Anne Moffat: Sorry?

Mr. Burns: Give way!

Anne Moffat: Give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I really did not need that help, but the point is— [ Interruption. ] Order. The hon. Lady is exceeding her ration. Can she please bring her question to a swift end?

Anne Moffat: Please may we have a debate on that in the new year?

Ms Harman: I will look into the possibilities of having a debate on the important issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on the Equality and Human Rights Commission? A recent answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled showed that, on average, the commission pays men more than women, white people more than those from ethnic minorities, and non-disabled people more than disabled people. What on earth is the point of a politically correct organisation—it is given huge quantities of taxpayer’s money to give lectures around the country on equal pay —that does not even practise what it preaches?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman shows how important it is to have transparency. We must ensure that all organisations publish information about pay gaps between genders and ethnicities, and about how many disabled people they employ. That is not just important for the EHRC, because we need that transparency in the whole public sector—and in the private sector too.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): We spend a lot of time in this House passing legislation to sort out previous legislation that has not worked out. Given that this will be the shortest parliamentary Session for many years—and that the Queen’s Speech was also the shortest for many years—may we please have two days devoted to the Report stage of Bills more frequently?

Ms Harman: I know that there is a long-standing concern that we should have enough time to debate issues on Report. We always look to do that, and I hope that my hon. Friend will support the post-legislative scrutiny arrangements that we are introducing. They will enable us to look back and make sure that legislation does the job that we thought that it would. Also, he does not know yet that this will be the shortest Session ever, as we have not yet determined when it will end.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Will the Leader of the House consider introducing an annual debate on tourism? It is our fifth biggest industry, worth £90 billion a year and the fact that the Olympics are coming to the UK gives us a great opportunity to harness its potential, in London and elsewhere.

Ms Harman: That is something that can be debated when we consider the report of the relevant Select Committee.

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Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Can we have a debate on double standards in public life? My right hon. and learned Friend may be aware of recent reports that senior managers in BBC Scotland shared a bonus of £100,000, while other workers lost their jobs. The trade unions wanted to know who had received the bonus, but they were refused that information on the grounds that it would cause distress to those concerned. Given that the BBC is obsessed with this House and hon. Members’ expenses and salaries, does she agree that that smacks of double standards?

Ms Harman: I think that that is something for which the BBC ought to be responsible to licence payers, and perhaps the trade unions should refer their request to the relevant organisation.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May we have an urgent debate early in the new year on job losses in the retail sector? The Leader of the House has mentioned that already, but we already have a well-established way of at least helping to mitigate major job losses in the manufacturing sector. When a manufacturing company closes down, a taskforce involving local authorities and Jobcentre Plus, among others, will be sent in, but we do not have a similar mechanism for large retailers with small numbers of employees spread across the country. Can we see whether we can establish a mechanism that will provide similar support for people who sadly lose their jobs in the retail sector, such as has happened with the closure of Woolworths?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good proposal and it is one that we are considering. Even though the many thousands of job losses involved in the closure of Woolworths are not concentrated in one geographical area, we need something akin to the taskforce approach to make sure that the help that we bring to bear is working.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has issued a short written statement today to the effect that the Prime Minister has received Sir Peter Gibson’s review of the intelligence material about the Omagh bombing that was available to the security and intelligence agencies. It suggests that a statement will be made to the House when the Government have completed their consideration of the review. How long will that consideration take, when will the statement be made, and will it be an oral statement with the opportunity for appropriate questions?

Ms Harman: I am making the assumption that it will be an oral statement, but I cannot give the timing. I shall ask the Secretary of State to have a word with the hon. Gentleman and give him a rough idea of when he can expect it. After Equitable Life, I am a bit reluctant to give any firm commitment from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Unemployment in north Northamptonshire has risen by 50 per cent. in the past 12 months. There are now 5,300 people without work, compared with 4,000 in 1997. With unemployment set to be the dominant political issue of 2009, may we have an debate on the Floor of the House early in the new year so that we can discuss an issue that is going to affect so many millions of our citizens?

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