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Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Following the support of the both the Conservative and Labour parties for yesterday’s Scottish National party budget to invest in jobs and freeze council tax, may we
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have a proper debate about how this House funds Scotland? Yesterday, we also learned that this crowd are prepared to slash—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must use temperate language. Her Majesty’s Opposition are not a crowd; they are hon. Members.

Pete Wishart: Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition wants to slash Scottish expenditure by altering the way in which Scotland is funded. Meanwhile, the Government want to be more direct and slash £2 billion from the Scottish budget. May we have a proper debate to consider all the options, including full fiscal autonomy so that Scotland pays and raises its taxes and spends them in the way that it sees fit?

Ms Harman: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman take the opportunity to raise that point in Treasury questions. It is difficult to think of a collective noun that could be used for the Opposition if they were not Her Majesty’s Opposition. Today, the collective noun would certainly be “chaps”.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): The falling value of the pound against other currencies creates important opportunities for export industries and inbound tourism. In fact, it would be accurate for advertisements to be placed in the eurozone or United States saying, “Come to Britain for your holiday—30 per cent. off last year’s price.” May we have a debate to discuss what the Government could do to exploit the exchange rate to help tourism businesses and export industries in the UK?

Ms Harman: That is something that the Prime Minister answered yesterday. It is very much the preoccupation of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Tourism is very important in the City of York, which my hon. Friend represents, as well as in our coastal towns. I suggest that he could look for an opportunity for a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May we have an early debate on the regulation of wheel clampers, particularly bearing in mind the case of my constituent, Tara Dougall, a health care professional whose car was clamped in deep snow this week? The cost of getting it back was £345, paid to a company called Park Direct.

Ms Harman: I shall bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, and I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman writes to him about it. There are too many concerns and justified complaints about cowboy clampers, and perhaps we should be looking for someone to make an example of. The right hon. Gentleman may just have put his finger on a candidate.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): On the front of yesterday’s Evening Standard was a picture of uncollected rubbish lying in the snow in Hammersmith. Many of my constituents have had no bus service or refuse collection this week, nor have they been able to walk on their pavements or drive on their streets, all because the incompetent Tory local council was not able to carry out its basic function of planning for, or reacting to, adverse weather. May we have a debate in Government time to explore how the Government can persuade local councils to carry out those basic functions?

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Ms Harman: I know that there is a great deal of concern about whether all the London boroughs stepped up to the mark to help people to get to work, and about all the problems caused for Transport for London by the fact that traffic could not run along the roads, which had a knock-on effect on bus services. The London boroughs, and London’s Mayor as well, should take full responsibility for that.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): In response to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), the Leader of the House said that she was sure that the Committee of Selection would shortly come up with some new names. Is she aware that responsibility for nominations to the Modernisation Committee rests not with the Committee of Selection, but with her?

However, may I ask why there is no topical debate next Thursday, or the next sitting Thursday after that? How can the right hon. and learned Lady be so confident that nothing will happen in the next three weeks that merits a topical debate?

Ms Harman: On the Thursday before the recess, we are debating social security orders, and on the Thursday following the recess, we are having a Welsh affairs debate. Usually, so many hon. Members from Wales want to speak in that debate that it is better not to carve out an hour and a half for a topical debate. However, if there is a pressing need for a topical debate next Thursday, in addition to the Government business of the social security upratings, I will consider arranging one, as I am aware that there will be a number of weeks without a topical debate. If we want to hold a topical debate on that Thursday, I can always come to the House and rearrange the business. The business that we intend to cover is as I have announced it, but I shall keep an eye on the matter.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): There used to be a publishing imprint called “Condensed Classics”, which provided compact versions of our nation’s greatest literature. My early-day motion 665 attempts to do the same thing in relation to the series of articles this week in The Guardian exposing the tax-avoidance industry.

[ That this House applauds the Guardian's serialised coverage of the tax avoidance industry and its cost to the public; observes that due to the complex and secretive nature of tax avoidance there is no accurate figure for the amount of tax that big business avoids paying in the UK every year; notes that the Trades Union Congress (TUC) estimates this annual hole in the public accounts to be £12 billion whilst the Public Accounts Committee puts the figure at £8.5 billion; further notes with concern the National Audit Office's finding that in 2006 more than 60 per cent, of Britain's 700 biggest companies paid less than £10 million corporation tax and 30 per cent, paid nothing; regards companies in the FTSE 100 and others indulging in this highly addictive practice as guilty of corporate malfeasance; seriously regrets that families and small to medium-sized businesses continue to plug this gap through disproportionately higher taxes; regrets the Government and HM Revenue and Customs' decision to close local tax offices at a time when the tax system is under sustained attack from the major accountancy firms
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on behalf of their corporate clients during a recession; believes that those accountancy firms offering tax avoidance products and advice should be excluded from tendering for public sector contracts until they stop serving this highly destructive and socially irresponsible corporate habit; and calls on the Government to respond formally to the Guardian's findings as part of a wholesale review of the corporate tax system.

This will be of use to fellow parliamentarians, who are beset by many items of work at all times. Can we have a statement on the topic from my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to Treasury, or better still a debate in Government time? The annual hole in the public accounts, which has to be filled by tax paid by families and small and medium-sized enterprises, is at least £12 billion; that equates to about 4p on the standard rate of income tax. It is a scandal and a disgrace, and we really ought to be doing more to combat it.

Ms Harman: We all strongly believe that everyone should pay their fair share of taxes. It is objectionable for anyone to try to avoid paying tax, and is even more so when times are hard. People who are better off ought to step forward and take up their responsibilities for paying tax, not try to shirk them. Making sure that loopholes are plugged as soon as they are opened is a constant source of work in the Treasury. We have Treasury questions next week, when I suggest my hon. Friend raises with Treasury Ministers any further suggestions that he has for plugging tax loopholes.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): In a week when much of the country has been paralysed by snow, my constituents in Sutton and Cheam and Worcester Park want to know why all the stations providing rail services into London were still closed on Tuesday. They also want to know why the railway industry seemed so singularly unprepared to cope with the adverse weather, despite the advance warnings that were given. Can we have a debate in Government time as soon as possible, so that we can explore contingency and resilience planning by Network Rail, Government Departments and local authorities?

Ms Harman: I am sure that all the organisations concerned will be seeking to learn lessons from their response to what everyone recognises was unprecedented weather. Perhaps I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to issue a written ministerial statement about the lessons that will be learned and how these issues will be taken forward.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): Can we have a debate—perhaps a topical debate—on the weather? I pay tribute to my own council in Wakefield, which gritted 1,400 km of snow-covered roads, but it is clear from the experiences of other hon. Members that that was not the case across the country. We have civil contingency plans for terror attacks and floods, but when we get three inches of snow, the buses stop working, the teachers stay at home, and Parliament goes home early. Many people do not get paid if they do not go to work. We need to debate all these issues and make sure that in the 21st century, the world’s seventh-largest economy can deal with three inches of snow.

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Ms Harman: Obviously, I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Wakefield council on its response to the extreme weather. Lessons need to be learned, and no doubt they will be, but we must also recognise that many people made great efforts to get into work, despite the emergency weather conditions. Hospitals were running and the House of Commons had business as usual, although the Liberal Democrats were kind enough to foreshorten their debate and bring it to a close half an hour early—

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): An hour early.

Ms Harman: They closed the debate an hour early, which allowed those who had come in to keep the House open to get home on time.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): During questions to the hon. Member representing the Church Commissioners, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) raised the unfair and ridiculous charge for the disposal of surface water that is being levied by water authorities. In the north-west, United Utilities has temporarily lifted that charge from small sporting clubs and places of worship and from the premises used by organisations such as the scouts and guides. Bearing that in mind, will the relevant Minister come forward at an early date to make it clear that the Government will cancel that fee and charge, with immediate effect?

Ms Harman: I shall refer the relevant Ministers to the points raised by the hon. Gentleman and in earlier questions.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): On Monday, the Mayor of London said that the problem was not the wrong sort of snow but that there was just too much of it. Does the Leader of the House accept that glib excuse for the chaos in the capital city that followed? Will she listen to the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), and by the hon. Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter), and enable us to have an early debate on the chaos that followed when we had a little bit of snow?

Ms Harman: What people in London wanted was a gritting lorry rather than a soundbite. I can only repeat that we must learn the lessons from what happened. We will have to review what happened as a result of what were unprecedented weather conditions.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): The past few days have shown that upland hill farmers have had a pretty tough time, especially in the midlands and through Somerset and Exmoor, which I represent. Can we have a debate in Government time on the desperate situation of upland hill farmers, which has worsened over successive years? If we want to keep the United Kingdom’s upland landscape beautiful, please may we discuss how those farmers can be helped by the Government?

Ms Harman: I think that that would be a good topic for a Westminster Hall debate, and I shall bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): In light of the right hon. and learned Lady’s earlier remarks, may I place on record my self-sacrificial willingness to step forward and serve as a Minister in the Lords, if the appropriate arrangements can be made—but under the next Government, not this one?

Mr. Speaker, you were in the Chair on Monday when my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and I put questions to successive Ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions. There were two Ministers, and two completely contradictory answers were given. Some 1,700 ex-pat UK citizens, all of them by implication disabled, are waiting for payment of disability and related benefits. The matter is to be determined by the European Court of Justice, and the Government have been sitting on the problem for months. Given the confusion caused on Monday, will the Leader of the House ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement, so that we know what the position actually is?

Ms Harman: I shall ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the situation following oral questions on Monday.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Two months ago, in a written statement, the Secretary of State for International Development said that there would be a pause in the negotiations for an airport on the island of St. Helena, which the Government had long promised and for which the contract was about to be awarded. Two months is more than a pause. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House and hold a debate on why there has been such a long delay to the promised airport on St. Helena?

Ms Harman: The Secretary of State will come to the House next Wednesday. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman seeks an opportunity to ask him about the issue then.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In a week when a devoted community nurse was suspended from her duties for wanting to pray for one of her patients and then the BBC, which is even more misguided than that nurse’s health authority, dismissed an eminent broadcaster for a remark made in the green room, while retaining the odious Jonathan Ross on £6 million a year, is it not time that we had a debate on the utter absurdities of political correctness?

Ms Harman: On the question of the nurse, whose case was reported in the newspapers, the matter is, I presume, a disciplinary issue for her employers. On the BBC, whether or not material is offensive is a question for trustees of the BBC.

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), will the Leader of the House invite the Flag Institute to go to No. 10 Downing street to provide a training module for the Prime Minister, the noble Lord Mandelson and Downing street officials, to ensure that the embarrassing incident in which the flag of our country was displayed upside down in front of the Chinese Prime Minister never occurs again? Also, will she enable a debate to be held so that we in this country can consider introducing a flag Act similar
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to that in Australia, so that such a thing is not allowed to happen again and so that the procedure and protocol can be clearly laid down?

Ms Harman: Consideration has been given to the question of flags in the debate on the constitutional renewal Bill. As and when any such Bill is introduced, no doubt the hon. Gentleman and colleagues who agree with him can table amendments.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a statement or a debate—or even, if we cannot have those, an expression of opinion from the Leader of the House—on the improper use of written statements as a substitute for ministerial statements made on the Floor of the House? I have in mind the written statement made on the postponement of the building programme for the two aircraft carriers. I know that the right hon. and learned Lady did her best to promise us that we could raise the issue in the armed forces debate held a week ago, but in the end, Mr. Speaker quite understandably decided that we could not. Will she at least try to send a signal to Ministers that, in future, when there is an important matter to be announced to the House, we should be able to question them, rather than the announcement being sneaked out as a written statement?

Ms Harman: I do not think that there is any intention to sneak out information by way of written statements. If information is put in a written statement, it is laid before the House, so it is not sneaked out at all; it is put in the public domain. Ministers and I, as Leader of the House, have to share the decision on whether time is needed for the Second Reading of an important Bill, the remaining stages of a controversial Bill, or Opposition day debates. There has been an unprecedented number of statements, not least because of statements from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Treasury on the economic situation, as well as a number of statements from the Home Office. We have to be careful to ensure that the main business of the House is not too squeezed by statements.

It is a question of striking a balance. I know that the hon. Gentleman takes such matters seriously, so I will be prompted by his question to review the balance between written and oral statements, and the balance between oral statements and the rest of the business of the House, to make sure that we get both right. I absolutely assure him that we are proud of our procurement from the important industries that provide for our armed services. There is no way that we would want to sweep that under the carpet.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that I raised a point of order last night about the dwindling supplies of salt and grit in the country. Gloucestershire is in a particularly difficult situation: it has a 72-hour contract with Salt Union, but has been told that it may not get another supply next Tuesday, so it is severely rationing the number of roads that it can salt, which has implications for road safety. Will the Leader of the House guarantee to bring that to the attention of the Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government today? If conditions deteriorate over the weekend, will she ask the Secretary of State to come and make a statement to the House? Clearly, we cannot have a situation in which the country is running out of salt.

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