I ask the Leader of the House to consider seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton about a debate on the economy. When I last held my current position, I regularly asked why there were no debates in Government time on the two conflicts in which we were engaged, which were the subject of many statements, but few debates. We have now had debates on those conflicts, but we have not had debates on the economy in Government time. This is a serious issue. We have had statements that refer to mouth-wateringly
large amounts of money that have been given to the banks regularly, but that is no substitute for a debate. Apart from anything else, we need to know where that money has gone and why it was not conditional. It seems to many of us that it was not so much capitalisation as capitulation to the banks. We need an urgent debate on the economy.
The Leader of the House has announced that on Tuesday 3 February we will debate motions relating to the police grant and the local finance report. May I ask, as I have in previous years, for those two debates to be separated? It is unhelpful to Members who wish to raise matters about policing not to have the opportunity to engage directly with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, and a similar point could be made about those who wish to discuss local authorities.
Many district councils, like those in my constituency, will be concerned about the widening gap between the amount provided to support the free bus scheme and the amount that it actually costs. I have nothing against the free bus pass scheme, which is an excellent policy, but it is not being funded. South Somerset district council tells me that there is a gap of £567,000 this year, and that it will be £730,000 next year. That is a colossal hole in the revenue of a small district council, and we need to consider how to close it.
I wish to mention the very serious matter that was raised by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) on a point of order yesterday, column 753 of Hansard. He told the House that there was evidence of a calculated, pre-meditated conspiracy to subvert the procedures of the House and our ability to scrutinise Ministers in underwriting a contingent liability of more than £250,000 in respect of Sellafield, and to prevent Members from challenging it. That seems an egregious abuse of the House and its procedures. You, Mr. Speaker, gave an answer to the point of order, but I now ask the Leader of the House to undertake a proper investigation, report back to the House and make a statement. We simply cannot have the financial scrutiny afforded to Members diverted by Ministers in such a way.
Finally, may we have a debate on the Governments concept of social mobility? I have in my hand the Governments response to the report of the Select Committee on Justice on the appointment of lords lieutenant. The Government congratulate themselves on the progress that they have made, stating:
However, over the last thirty years the social diversity of the lieutenancy has widened considerably. For example, thirty years ago, 20 Lord-Lieutenants were peers and many were retired senior military officers. This year, out of a total of 55, only 7 are peers.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the economy. As I said to the shadow Leader of the House, we will ensure that there are opportunities every week to discuss the No. 1 priority and concern of all of us, which is helping the British economy through the difficult and uncharted waters caused by a global banking crisis.
The hon. Gentleman asked for the debates on the motions relating to the police grant and local government to be separated. I shall consider that request and get back to him, and make any announcement in next Thursdays business statement.
The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of Sellafield. We have just had Energy and Climate Change questions, and I do not know whether he sought to raise the matter, but I suggest that he take it up with DECC Ministers.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the social mobility White Paper, and I thank him for his support for social mobility, which is something we should all be concerned about. In that context, he mentioned the lords lieutenant, and I shall certainly add them to the list of institutions that really need to sort themselves out and get themselves into the 21st century.
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I make my annual plea to the Leader of the House that Government drivers coming on to the estate should be provided with a warm place to sit while waiting for Ministers, so that they do not have to sit in the car park outside Speakers House in their hybrid, environmentally friendly cars, with the motors running to keep warm? Symbolism is important, and it is a pretty bad show. They need somewhere warm to sit.
Ms Harman: I will raise that important point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to write to my hon. Friend, after having also consulted the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, as it is not just a matter of personal comfort but an environmental issue.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The Leader of the House may well be aware of the increasingly serious disturbances that are occurring outside the Staythorpe power station in my constituency. That is not the only site where such disturbances are occurring. May we have a debate on the subject, perhaps entitled, in the Prime Ministers words, British jobs for British workers?
Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks a meeting with the relevant Secretary of State on that important issue for his constituency. I shall alert the Secretary of State that such a request might be forthcoming, and I think that that would be a good way for the hon. Gentleman to take the matter forward in the first instance.
Ms Celia Barlow (Hove) (Lab): Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the Time to Change campaign. It is intended to bring awareness of mental health issues and provide support for people with mental health problems. Many constituents with mental health problems have written to me about the Welfare Reform Bill, which is to be discussed next week. However, will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a discussion of the wider problems that such people face and of how to raise awareness of them and create more sympathy?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on mentioning the Time to Change campaign, and, like her, I give it my backing. That is why we are taking measures in the equality Bill to strengthen the law and protect people from discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, why this is a major issue for the Department of Health and why the Welfare Reform Bill
will ensure that help is available to get people into work, irrespective of their disability. We will ensure that they are able to take up opportunities to work. I shall consider whether we should make the matter the subject of a general or a topical debate, because how we support those with mental health problems is very important.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), is it not the case that the drivers sit in their cars with the engines running not because they have nowhere else to go but because Ministers complain about being driven home in cold cars?
May I raise a point about topical debates? Next Thursday, we are to have a topical debate on Holocaust memorial day, which I welcome, but that inevitably erodes the time available to debate the subsequent business. Today, there is no topical debate and so no erosion of the business that we are shortly to debate. What criteria does the Leader of the House use to decide whether the business needs to be protected from a topical debate? Surely she is not saying that the debate to come today is more important than the debates to be held on the two following Thursdays.
Ms Harman: Each day, and therefore each Thursday, I look at the business to try to ensure that we have the right amount of time to debate a number of competing issues. For example, I originally picked the Gaza debate last week as a topical debate, which would have lasted just an hour and a half. So many Members wanted to speak that I moved the armed services personnel debate and made the Gaza debate a whole days debate. All such issues are important, and we try to make enough space for them. There will be a topical debate before the armed forces personnel debate, but that was always going to be the case even before it was moved. There will be further debates through the year on armed forces issues, whether they concern procurement or other matters.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Can I put it to the Leader of the House that it is very important to have further urgent debates on the banking crisis? They should be led by the Prime Minister, not least because he has been criticising certain erstwhile bankers, particularly Fred Goodwin. That would give us an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister whether that is the same Fred Goodwin whom he knighted, lunched at Chequers and put on his international business advisory panel.
Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman, like all hon. Members, has an opportunity to ask the Prime Minister questions every week at Prime Ministers Question Time. I do not think that there has been a single Prime Ministers Question Time when he has not answered questions on the subject and sought the opportunity to explain the action that we are taking to ensure that we give real help to businesses and to people who are worried about their jobs and their ability to get a mortgage. He explains that we are laying the basis for a sounder future for our economy. Our economy and the global economy will not always be in recession, and we need to ensure that we build for the future. That is why we are bringing forward capital infrastructure projects, instead of doing what the right hon. Gentlemans party is urging and cutting them.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Last December, in a press release, the Home Secretary told us that knife crime involving teenagers carrying knives had halved. Today, in another press release, which Sky News picked up, she informs us that the number of teenagers carrying knives has increased by 18 per cent. and that murders involving knives have increased by 10 per cent. Although the Home Secretary gave evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs on Tuesday and spoke in the House on the Policing and Crime Bill on Monday, she did not mention those statistics. In the words of the shadow Leader of the House, could my right hon. and learned Friend have a man-to-man chat with the Home Secretary to ascertain whether she could make a statement to the House? If we are to have a serious debate about crime and policing, we need proper statistics, which the House can scrutinise.
Ms Harman: Of course statistics on crime are important. The Home Secretary has been holding discussions with the senior statisticians in her Department and the head of the independent National Statistics organisation. We want to ensure that we get the figures absolutely right so that we can be as clear and open with people as possible about an issue of great concern to everyone. Let me reassure my right hon. FriendI hope that what I am about to say is not also a matter for statistical discussion: the British crime survey, which asks people whether they have been a victim of crime, year after year shows people reporting that they are less likely to be a victim of crime. That is important.
Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Hon. Members know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) has secured a Westminster Hall debate next Tuesday on the Governments response to the ombudsmans report on Equitable Life. Following the Governments announcement last week, and the continuing concern by many policyholders that the response has been weak and inadequate, does the Leader of the House agree that Government time should be found for a full debate, so that all hon. Members who have raised the issue repeatedly have the opportunity to ask questions, and to express their constituents concerns?
Ms Harman: The Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a statement to the House about Equitable Life and answered questions on it for an hour last week. It is an important issue; it is important that those who need compensation must get it as swiftly as possible. The hon. Gentleman could recommend the subject to his Front Benchers for an Opposition day debate.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op):
May we have an early debate on community cohesion so that Members of all parties can emphasise that we are one nation and that we stand together, regardless of our faiths and backgrounds? In that context, may I draw my right hon. and learned Friends attention to two matters? First, a Respect party man, Abdurahman Jafar, is misusing the name and money of the Government-funded organisation Redbridge against Islamophobia and Extremism for his Respect party political purposeshe is standing as a candidate in a by-election next week. Secondly, the Conservative candidate, Ikram Wahid, has distributed a leaflet in the same Valentines ward
by-election. It is being delivered only to Muslim households and advances no reason for Muslims to vote for him apart from not splitting the vote of the Muslim community.
Ms Harman: The points that my hon. Friend raises are of the utmost importance. We should all recognise that party political advantage must not and cannot be gained from hatred and anger that divides different communities. I will raise my hon. Friends points with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. In difficult times, it is important that we all stand together and work together.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): One aspect of the Planning Act 2008 was a community cohesion fund to put money back into the local community. One of the first big infrastructure projects that will probably come under the Act is the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Both district councils for the area are concerned that the Government have provided no guidelines on the matter. May we have a debate about how the Act will work in futureit is a long-term measureto ascertain how the community projects will be administered, who will look after them, who will be on the boards and what their remits will be?
Ms Harman: The Act develops even further an innovative approach of ensuring that local communities benefit from developments in their area. The approach is being developed in the Department for Communities and Local Government. Perhaps I may suggest that the hon. Gentleman assists with that by seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State. He could help to shape the blueprint by saying how he thinks it should work in his area to ensure that the local community has a big say in how it will benefit from a development that is nationally important but has a big local impact.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House for a debate on the method whereby the Audit Commission arrives at the star rating for some council departments? Conservative-controlled Birmingham city council recently wasted £1 million on a mass eviction of a high-rise block of flats that never happened. A survey that I conducted in my constituency on repair services showed serious failings time and again, yet the Audit Commission has given the department a rating of two stars with excellent prospects. Surely something is wrong.
Ms Harman: I think that the most important benchmarks against which local housing authorities can be judged are whether they deliver for their tenantsmy hon. Friend gives an example of a local authority doing the oppositeand whether they spend public money wisely; again, from what my hon. Friend says, it sounds as though the council is doing the opposite. Perhaps she could take the opportunity in the debate on Tuesday week about local government finance to raise that point. It is sad if her local authority is behaving in that way.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con):
May we have an in-depth statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on sentencing policy in the light of the horrific case of the multiple rape of a 15-year-old girl with the mental age of eight or nine by up to 10 assailants? Only four of those assailants would probably
have been convictedsix had to be let go. One of those who would probably have been convicted was killed in a street brawl because he was out on bailincrediblyafter the multiple rape. The other three were sentenced to between nine and six years each for not only raping the poor young woman but dousing her with caustic soda in an attempt to cover the evidence. There are no mitigating factors, given the total contempt that they showed for their victim even during the court case. The Attorney-General is rightly considering whether the sentences should be increased, but surely we need a statement so that we know whether they are increased and whether such villains would be considered for release halfway through their sentences, which would make nonsense of imposing the sentences in the first place.
Ms Harman: As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes an important set of points. When a sentence causes public outrage or sends out the wrong message about the criminal justice systems attitude to a particular offence, there is provision for the Attorney-General to consider the judgment and the sentence and decide whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. As the hon. Gentleman says, we are in that positionthe Attorney-General is considering whether to refer the case to the Court of Appeal as an example of an unduly lenient sentence.
On the wider point about sentencing policy, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity on Thursday 5 February to try to catch the Chairs eye in Westminster Hall in the debate on effective sentencing.
Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Earlier this year, the Government refused to support a Bill which had cross-party support in the House and would have staunched the flow of illegal timber into the UK. Their cover for that refusal was that the EU would introduce proposals. After three years of prevarication, the EU has presented proposals which are without contentthey are procedural only. They do not achieve the advantage of establishing a universal scheme for all 27 regimes in the EU. Will the Government now urgently discuss what national legislation can be introduced to stop the flow of illegal timber into the UK and ensure that pressure is put on the EU to get the matter right?
Ms Harman: We already have rules on the importation of timber, but there is obviously a need to consider strengthening them. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, although we will always seek to work with EU partners, there is never an excuse for waiting for them if we could be getting on with taking national action. We will always take national action on our own account, while at the same time pushing our European counterparts to go as far as we have gone. Perhaps this is something that I will raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, as well as with Ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.