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Parliamentary Privilege

4. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the arrangements for parliamentary privilege in protecting the rights of hon. Members. [250013]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The right of Members of Parliament to speak without fear or hindrance, and their duty to speak without favour are essential parts of our parliamentary democracy and will always need a stout defence.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House rightly considers parliamentary privilege to be essential, critical and vital if Members of Parliament are to carry out their duties and responsibilities without fear, hindrance or favour, but does he not agree that implementation of the statement made some while ago by Mr. Speaker that a Committee should be set up to look into this matter is very long overdue? Bearing in mind not only the case of my hon. Friend the Member
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for Ashford (Damian Green) but the more recent case—I am not entering into its merits—of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), it clearly is time that the House had an opportunity to look deeply at how parliamentary privilege might be safeguarded.

Chris Bryant: As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know, parliamentary privilege has been fiercely debated for many centuries; indeed, elements of it go back to 1515. It is important that we have a clear understanding of parliamentary privilege. Any hon. Members who have not read the 1999 report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege should do so; it is a fine exposition of the issues. On the question relating to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I think that you, Mr. Speaker, are likely to cover the matter in your statement in a few moments. On the Committee that was set up, we would be more than happy for it to meet. Unfortunately, we have not had the support of Opposition parties on that. The Committee could choose a Chairman, and as soon as police or any other investigations are completed, it will be able to get on with its business.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House referred to the 1999 report; I was a member of the Committee that produced it. The Government have never implemented the recommendations, even though they indicated sympathy with them. May we have an early debate on that report, with some definitive statements from the Government?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, not least because the report highlighted the significance of freedom of speech, which is vital to our parliamentary democracy. The report reiterated article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which says that

There were a series of recommendations. Some of them have been followed through in the business of the House, and some of them have not yet been put into law. The hon. Gentleman perhaps makes a good point about the need for us to have a full debate, so that people can fully understand the nature of parliamentary privilege, which is not quite as some members of the press have suggested it is.

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Speaker’s Statement

11.31 am

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make. Yesterday evening, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) raised a point of order in which he reported that police had entered his office without permission and demanded that he release to them correspondence from his constituency. The House authorities have looked into the matter. I can tell the House that the case concerned general inquiries in the course of an investigation into a serious crime that may involve threatening behaviour towards Members and other public figures. It did not involve the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham or his staff.

In the course of the investigation, a police officer assigned to duties in the House, but exercising her responsibilities as a constable, sought assistance from the staff of the hon. Member and agreed a time to meet them. Assistance was given by the hon. Member’s staff after the officer had explained the nature of the inquiry. At a point in their discussion, the hon. Member was contacted by his staff because it was thought necessary to seek his permission for the police to obtain a single-sheet document from his office. The purpose of the investigation was explained to the hon. Member, and after discussion, he agreed to supply the document. [Interruption.] Order.

I can confirm to the House that at no time during those proceedings did the police exercise any compulsory powers to require the document to be supplied. The hon. Member and his staff were not the subject of the police inquiry. It was not a matter that involved the seeking of a search warrant. I can confirm that the document is not privileged, but for reasons related to the sensitivity of the police investigation, I make no further comment about the details of the case.

The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was made aware of these details by the police. While I accept that, in this case, the police officer acted with good intentions, I have instructed that any police officer assigned to duties in the House must advise the Serjeant at Arms of the intention to seek the assistance of a Member and his staff in his offices. The Serjeant at Arms will in turn approach the Member before the police take further action. I shall, of course, keep the House informed of any details concerning the case in-so-far as it affects the privileges of the House.

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Business of the House

11.34 am

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week:

Monday 26 January—Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 28 January—Opposition Day [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a full day’s debate on an Opposition motion about the Government’s proposals for Heathrow.

Thursday 29 January—Topical debate: Holocaust memorial day, followed by a general debate on armed forces personnel.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 February will include:

Monday 2 February—Remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 3 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.

Wednesday 4 February—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 5 February—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on food safety.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for February 5 and 12 will be:

Thursday 5 February—A debate on the report from the Justice Committee entitled “Towards Effective Sentencing”.

Thursday 12 February—A debate on the report from the Transport Committee entitled “Delivering a Sustainable Railway: A 30-year Strategy for the Railways”.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business and, in turn, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement just now.

Apart from a short exchange on a point of order yesterday, this is my first formal encounter with the right hon. and learned Lady. May I say to her and the House that I am delighted to have been appointed her shadow? I have always held a dangerously romantic affection for the House of Commons, and it looks as though my teenage years spent reading Hansard and “Erskine May” under the duvet might now finally pay off.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will allow me while I hold this position to work towards three principal objectives: to explore all ways of making Parliament work better for Britain; to help overcome the low reputation of Parliament in the eyes of much of the press and the public; and to take an understanding of Parliament and our democracy into schools, so that younger people can overcome their instinctive derision for politicians. As shadow Leader of the House, one must work on many levels. One must be able to work on
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a non-partisan basis of trust as well as take part in vigorous exchanges of political difference. I undertake to do both.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us a debate on Holocaust memorial day; I hope as many Members as possible will participate in it. Given the Government’s complete change of heart yesterday about disclosing expenses, in the event that the House passes today’s motions, will the Leader of the House confirm that she will continue to take further steps to ensure that we as MPs are open and accountable for all the expenses that we claim from taxpayers’ money?

The UK’s relationship with India is potentially one of our most crucial strategic alliances. Yesterday, however, we learned that senior Indian officials have officially complained about the “condescending” and “totally tactless” behaviour of the Foreign Secretary during his visit there last week. Given that the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has also been in India this week, may we inquire whether he has been sent there to clear up the damage caused by the Foreign Secretary’s visit—or is he there to make things worse? May we have a debate on the relationship between India and the United Kingdom, to remind the Foreign Secretary of the immense value that the whole House places on our continued friendship with a country that will become more powerful and prominent in world affairs?

In their national security strategy, the Government have highlighted the probability of a pandemic influenza outbreak and the risks associated with it. Yet despite that danger, the Government have consistently denied Members the opportunity to raise their concerns about the matter in the House, even though we have been requesting time to debate it for well over two years. Given the importance of that risk, may we have a debate on it in Government time?

Yesterday, we saw the release of the latest figures which show unemployment racing towards 2 million, and most forecasters predict that this year it will burst through 3 million. Today, the value of sterling is at its lowest point for nearly 25 years. The exchange rate is the price tag put on our country’s value by the rest of the world, and it is plummeting. Why, if this is a global phenomenon, is Britain in so much worse a position than other countries across the globe? It is increasingly difficult to persuade the Government to debate the future of the economy in Government time. Only last week, we had to drag Ministers to the House to explain the announcement of their loans guarantee scheme. Given that the Prime Minister is so keen on telling everyone how brilliant he is, the Government’s reticence on the economy seems rather strange. In the interests of recognising the saviour of the world’s achievements over the past few months, may we now have a full debate in Government time on the state of the British economy and how we can escape from the Government’s mishandling of our livelihoods?

Finally, did the Leader of the House see this morning’s headline which says, “What planet are they on?” Ministers have been seeing strange things—green shoots, booming houses and flickering lights at the end of imaginary tunnels. Has the right hon. and learned Lady had any
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similar hallucinations, and will she now come down to earth and speak of economic reality instead of the fantasy of Government headlines?

Ms Harman: I warmly welcome the shadow Leader of the House to his new position and pay tribute to the work done by his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). I agree with his enunciation of the principles that he is going to stand by as shadow Leader of the House, and I look forward to working with him on them.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the fact that we have chosen Holocaust memorial day as the subject of next week’s topical debate. Last year’s debate was one of the best attended, most heartfelt and important topical debates on a Thursday that we have had. As the fallout from Gaza affects all communities in this country and everybody has heartfelt concern about it, on Holocaust memorial day we will particularly reflect on the increased anti-Semitic attacks that there have been on the Jewish community and synagogues in this country. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the Holocaust memorial day topical debate. Any time that he wants to suggest a topical debate, I would be more than happy to hear his suggestions. That is an offer that I made to him when we met privately at his request. I was very grateful to him for offering me a man-to-man chat, and I am happy to have one of those chats with him on any occasion.

On freedom of information, we have had no change of heart. We want there to be clear rules, robust audit and proper transparency so that the public can know how much MPs spend and can have that information every year. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to get on his moral high ground against me on the question of transparency, because I have been perusing the transparency on his website. I have had trouble as Leader of the House with my own website, because somebody hacked into it and put all sorts of things on it which I had not said. I think that he has been having the same problem, because on his website—I am sure that he could not have written this himself—it says:

I am sure that he will want to correct that. When it comes to transparency, he has been busy putting that sort of thing on his website but has failed to mention his financial interests in oil companies. I really do think that he should put his website where his mouth is.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of relations between India and the United Kingdom, and he made an important point. Our relations with India are important: it is a global player that is important to our economy. There are strong relations between the Prime Minister and his Indian counterpart, and with the Chancellor of the Exchequer. There are close links between the communities of Indian origin in this country and those in India, as well as the important relations that the Foreign Secretary and Foreign Office Ministers have. I will consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion as the subject for a future topical debate.

I will discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health whether we ought to have a debate on the question of the protection in place for flu epidemics.

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The hon. Gentleman raised the worrying issue of the rise in unemployment, and as the Prime Minister said to the House yesterday, when someone becomes unemployed it is not only a devastating blow for them, but of concern to everyone, and it is of great concern to this House and the Government. That is why we have been determined to take action to recapitalise the banks, to have a funded loan guarantee scheme, to have a fiscal stimulus into the economy and to ensure that we bring forward capital infrastructure projects. We will never say, “Let the recession take its course,” or that unemployment is a price worth paying. As far as the opportunity for the House to debate the economy is concerned, we are not backward in coming forward to ensure that it can debate the economy. Every week, we need to have substantive debates, statements and questions, and we make sure that that is the case.

I shall conclude by saying that the hon. Gentleman brings a dash of sartorial elegance to his Front-Bench team, who are otherwise sometimes a bit drab; drab he is not. On a personal note, I would just like to say that I really love his watch. I understand that he was given it by the Sultan of Oman. It is absolutely lovely. Also, I really like the cufflinks that he is wearing today; are those the ones that the Sultan gave him? They are absolutely great.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): These are my own cufflinks, Mr. Speaker.

Would my right hon. and learned Friend consider allowing time for a debate on the accountability of local government? A few weeks ago the chairman of Gloucester City football club and I approached Gloucestershire county council for some money to put towards a new football stadium. The council said that no money was available at all, but overnight it has announced the use of £7.4 million to purchase of a piece of land on the edge of my constituency for a 10-storey incinerator, despite the fact that those involved said in their manifesto that they opposed incineration.

Ms Harman: The week after next, motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports will be considered. My hon. Friend might find an opportunity to raise that point then.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) to his new position? I am sure that he is indeed a pivot. In the spirit of his congratulations to the Leader of the House on her change of heart on the freedom of information, I also thank him for the change of spirit in the Conservative party from the position adopted in respect of the former Conservative Chief Whip’s private member’s Bill only a couple of years ago—or even the position last Monday, actually.

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