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5 Feb 2009 : Column 973

Speaker’s Statement

11.33 am

Mr. Speaker: On Monday of this week, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) raised the matter of a request by the Metropolitan police for access to e-mail correspondence between the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I have caused the matter to be investigated. I can now inform the House that the request was made by the solicitors for the Metropolitan police service to the solicitors acting for the hon. Member for Ashford. The request concerned the methods to be used to establish the relevance to a criminal investigation of material which was already in the possession of the police. The request did not seek any further material from the hon. Member for Ashford, and no approach was made either by the Metropolitan police service or by its solicitors to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden.

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Business of the House

11.35 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 9 February—Motion to approve a Standards and Privileges Committee report on dual reporting and the revised guide to the rules followed by remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill (Day 1).

Tuesday 10 February—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Banking Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Banking Bill.

Wednesday 11 February—Opposition day (5th Allotted Day). There will be a debate entitled “Government’s failure to address the increase in housing waiting lists”, followed by a debate on the future of Royal Mail. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 12 February—Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2009 and draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2009.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 February will include:

Monday 23 February—Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill.

Tuesday 24 February—Opposition day (6th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Wednesday 25 February—Remaining stages of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill.

Thursday 26 February—General debate on Welsh Affairs.

Friday 27 February—Private Members’ Bills.

I would also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 26 February and 5 March will be as follows:

Thursday 26 February—A debate on the report from the Work and Pensions Committee on valuing and supporting carers.

Thursday 5 March—A debate on the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights entitled, “A Life Like Any Other? Human Rights of Adults with Learning Disabilities”.

Alan Duncan: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement, but may I, once again, ask for a debate on Equitable Life? Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady twice used the word “compensation” with reference to those who have lost out from the collapse of Equitable Life, but the word appears in neither the oral statement given to the House by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on 15 January nor the Command Paper published immediately afterwards. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the Government will indeed be giving compensation, and not just means-tested payments? Is she aware of what the ombudsman—or, to use her favoured form of words, the ombudsperson—was complaining about last week when she said that the Government’s response to her report had twisted her words and was spinning deceits?

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Leaks to the press have suggested that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are considering delaying the Budget announcement. Given the seriousness of our current economic plight, can the Leader of the House tell us when the Chancellor will deliver his Budget to the House? Some companies facing a slump in demand for their products have decided simply to shut down for a few months; have the Government decided to do the same?

Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady declined to answer a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about her plans for the Modernisation Committee. That Committee has not met since July. May we have a statement on whether she plans to abolish it—as some of my hon. Friends would like—fold it into the Procedure Committee, or revive it?

May we also perhaps have a debate on moral authority, so that this House can help to establish a code of modern manners for privacy, humour and comment, which can be practised and agreed by everyone, in place of the current chaos, which provokes animosity and condemnation when it all could be so much better handled?

It seems that we have more inclement weather moving in. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Lady can dismiss the scurrilous rumours circulating this week that she spent most of Monday building a snowperson? We are now learning that some councils have been forced to scale back and even halt their gritting and salting programmes owing to national shortages, so may we have a debate on this country’s lack of preparedness for snow and ice?

The report by the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise on the annual report of the Department criticised the lack of proper accountability caused by the large number of Ministers, including the Secretary of State Lord Mandelson, who are not in this House, but in another place. That report, which was published more than two months ago, called for urgent action by the Government to investigate possible solutions to this imbalance, but there has still been no formal response—when will there be such a response from the Government?

We are all in favour of Ministers flying the flag for Britain but, unlike Lord Mandelson, we like to do things the right way up. Given that flying the flag upside down is an internationally recognised sign of distress, was his appearance in front of such a symbol a mistake or a desperate cry for help? The truth is that the Prime Minister has moved from recession to depression, the country has run out of salt, the Government have run out of grit and now they are flying the flag of distress. How long will we have to wait before this Government follow the lead of Iceland and simply decide to pack up and go home?

Ms Harman: Well, I give the hon. Gentleman 10 out of 10 for frothy presentation and about zero for substance, but I shall try to glean some substantive points from his comments. On Equitable Life, whatever the terminology—[Hon. Members: “Oh.”] Well, we are talking about the Government recognising that there had been not only terrible mismanagement by Equitable Life but regulatory failure, that an apology was due, and that there was a need for financial recompense—whatever the words one uses to describe it. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the
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statement made to this House by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The hon. Gentleman asked when the Budget would be announced, so I shall tell him that it will be announced in the usual way. He implied that the Government were not taking action on the economy. I think he would recognise from all the statements made to this House and from all the Government’s announcements that we have taken unprecedented action both to help people through the recession in this country and to work internationally to improve the global financial situation.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Modernisation Committee. I did not avoid the question put last week—I answered it. There are many programmes of modernisation working their way through the system for which we can thank the Modernisation Committee—for example, those on pre-legislative scrutiny, post-legislative scrutiny and having Bills in plain English. The Modernisation Committee’s work runs alongside that of the Procedure Committee. Because of ministerial appointments, there have to be new Members on the Modernisation Committee. I am sure that the Committee of Selection will come forward with those appointments and the work on the modernisation of the House will continue.

On Monday, the business of the House carried on as usual, and I add my tribute to the one that you paid, Mr. Speaker, to the 800 members of staff of this House who came in to keep the House working as usual. I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was doing on Monday but, as far as I was concerned, as Leader of the House it was business as usual. He talked about snow, ice and grit. The Highways Agency is working with the Government, the Department for Transport and the Local Government Association to ensure that there is proper distribution of salt and that we can keep as many of the roads open as possible. He ended up with a general swipe at Ministers in the Lords, but I would like to pay tribute to the work of those people who step forward to be Ministers in the Lords; it is a question of serious people for serious times.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Can time be found next week for an urgent debate on early-day motion 426, which I tabled?

[That this House notes the disproportionate impact on building societies of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) levy, resulting from the failure of Bradford and Bingley plc, the Icelandic banks and London Scottish Bank; rec ognises that building societies’ share of the levy, approximately £200 million per annum in each of the next three years, is equivalent to a bout 15 per cent. of the sector’ s pre-tax profit for 2007-08 financial year ends; notes that build ing societies’ share of the levy for years beyond 2011 is uncertain, but could well be higher than £200 million per annum; acknowledges that the impact on building societies contrasts starkly with the banking sector, where the FSCS levy is typically well below five per cent. of pre-tax profits over a similar accounting period; further notes that the current allocation of the FSCS levy works to the detriment of building societies’ members, their savers and borrowers; acknowledges that no building society has ever made a call on the FSCS or its predecessor schemes; and calls on the Government to introduce a more equitable scheme for funding the insurance of deposits of failed banks.]

The motion now has 119 signatures, but not many from the Conservatives.

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Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend has raised this issue personally with the Prime Minister. To take the matter forward, she may wish to consider whether it is a suitable subject for a Westminster Hall debate.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): On the grounds that we should sometimes talk about what the rest of the country is talking about, there is a case for the topical debate next week to be on planning for adverse weather conditions.

I welcome the statement from the Foreign Secretary on the case of Binyam Mohamed that will follow business questions. I suggest, however, that we may need a statement from the Prime Minister, because the ruling from the court case makes it clear that the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is under the Prime Minister’s tutelage, was asked to look at this matter, but 42 relevant documents were not given to it. This is a matter of the greatest gravity on the issue of the rule of law, and the Prime Minister needs to tell the House exactly what has happened.

May we have two statements on Iceland? We need one on the position of the Government and the regulatory authorities in relation to Kaupthing Singer & Friedlander in the Isle of Man and Guernsey, so that we can be sure that the Government have acted appropriately to protect the interests of United Kingdom depositors in that bank? The second should be on the apparent liquidation of Baugur and the impact that that will have on a huge number of retail jobs in this country.

In Prime Minister’s questions, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) asked about the Competition Commission’s proposals to protect primary suppliers from the oligopolistic attitudes of the major retailing supermarkets. The Prime Minister said that my hon. Friend was “absolutely right”. When will legislation be introduced to set up a statutory ombudsman for the supply chain, as recommended by the commission?

Last week, I drew attention to the credibility gap between what the Prime Minister says will happen and what actually happens. He said that the Government would accelerate capital programmes to deal with the recession; certainly in the case of colleges, they have stopped. He said that he would require energy companies to bring down prices; they have not. He said that he would require banks to increase lending and stop paying bonuses; they carry on regardless. He said that there would be a mortgage deferral scheme; two months later, it is not there. He announced an increase in house building, but last year only half as many houses were built as in the year before. May we have a debate on why it appears that nobody takes a blind bit of notice of what the Prime Minister actually says?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman’s first point will be the subject of a statement by the Foreign Secretary immediately after business questions, so perhaps he could address that question to him. If the hon. Gentleman wants to ask the Prime Minister, Prime Minister’s questions will of course take place next Wednesday.

The hon. Gentleman raised the serious issue of the Icelandic banks. A great deal of information has been given to the House by Treasury Ministers, both by way of written ministerial statements and oral statements, and Treasury questions will take place next week. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems with Baugur,
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which highlight the importance of the tax stimulus that we have put into the economy, both by bringing forward cash for pensioners, child tax credit and tax rebates, and through the VAT cut, which will add to the benefits felt from the interest rate cuts. We have to recognise that retail is very much affected and should be the beneficiary of the tax stimulus that is being put into the economy.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the Competition Commission. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister answered the question yesterday and I do not think there is anything more I can add today. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman showed that he is fully in support of the point that lies behind the question asked by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George).

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) then made a range of accusations about things that have not worked. Actions have been taken and they are all working their way through the system: pressure has rightly been applied to bring down energy prices; interest rates have fallen; and the announcements for mortgage deferrals need to make their way through the system. He will recognise that against the background of a rapid deterioration in the global economic situation, we are taking all the actions that we can, not only internationally but nationally, to protect people. Yes, some of the measures take time to get through the system, but they are the right measures and we stand ready to introduce more. We will listen to any sensible suggestions from his party if such suggestions are made.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that when the economy was growing rapidly, we legislated to expose empty commercial properties to business rates. When the economy slowed down, we exempted properties with a rateable value of up to £15,000. Is she aware that the South East England Development Agency and my local council have got together to build much-needed industrial premises in my constituency that will help us to attract jobs when the economy starts to grow but, in the meantime, will shortly be a business rate liability on the taxpayer? Will she raise that issue with the Chancellor and will she arrange for us to have an opportunity to debate it in the near future, and certainly before the Budget?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to remind us that that measure was brought in to deter people from leaving property empty. I know that the subject has been raised by many hon. Members. Treasury questions will take place next week, so perhaps he can ask a Treasury Minister about it then.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): It was confirmed in a recent written answer by the Minister responsible for prisons that Whitemoor prison in my constituency has seen its proportion of Muslim prisoners increase by 14 percentage points, that is, from 20 to 34 per cent., in the last year for which figures are available. That is by far the largest proportion of Muslim prisoners in a high-security prison in the country and represents a disproportionate and unreasonable burden on the prison officer staff at Whitemoor. May we have a debate at the earliest opportunity on the dispersal policy for Muslim prisoners in the high-security estate?

Ms Harman: I will pass those comments on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice.

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Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the scandalous gender pay gap of 40 per cent. in the banking sector? Will she urge her ministerial colleagues to take action to rectify that situation, particularly as far as bonuses are concerned? They hardly ever fall to women and are awarded entirely subjectively. Frankly, it is unacceptable for that industry to carry on in the way that it has been doing.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady must request a debate. That would help.

Ms Harman: This issue could also be raised in Treasury questions. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is a great deal of concern about remuneration policies in the financial services industry. There has been concern about remuneration policies in relation to bonuses, which have appeared to reward failure and have involved huge figures. She also mentioned an unfairness: despite the fact that most of those who work in the financial services sector are women, it has the biggest gender pay gap of all sectors at 40 per cent. That is why I have asked the Equality and Human Rights Commission to carry out an investigation into pay discrimination in the financial services sector, which needs a root-and-branch overhaul in respect of remuneration.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Environment Agency recently scrapped an anti-flooding programme in Marlow, in my constituency, after design errors by Halcrow, the consultants, were discovered. That came at a cost of about £1 million—and rising—to the taxpayer. May we have a debate in the reasonably near future on the use of consultants by Government agencies?

Ms Harman: I shall draw the question to the attention of my right hon. Friends in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek the opportunity for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): In March, there will be a United Nation General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna. That follows a similar UNGASS in Vienna last year, at which it was decided to consider reforming the three UN conventions that control the world’s drug policy as well as the 1998 UN declaration on countering the world drug problem. There was a debate on the subject in the other place on 22 January. Do the Government intend to have a debate in this House to inform our delegate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), on this extremely important matter?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to say that this matter is extremely important. The UN has a major role to play in drawing countries together internationally in the fight against drugs. I understand that a very high percentage of the world’s heroin comes from Afghanistan, so that might well be a subject that he could raise, if he can catch Mr. Speaker’s eye, as part of this afternoon’s debate.

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