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12 Feb 2009 : Column 1515

Business of the House

11.32 pm

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I invite the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for the week commencing 23 February will be:

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.

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

Monday 2 March—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Political Parties and Elections Bill.

Tuesday 3 March—Motion to approve the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in Force of Sections 1 to 9) Order 2009, followed by Third Reading of the Corporation Tax Bill, followed by House Business.

Wednesday 4 March—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland Bill.

Thursday 5 March—General debate on international women’s day.

Friday 6 March—Private Members’ Bills.

As the Chancellor has told the House, the Budget statement will be made on 22 April.

Alan Duncan: May I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business? However, the truth is that very little serious Government business is being brought to the House, but massive issues of importance are being announced outside it. Can she explain, for instance, why the Secretary of State for Health seems to want to deny Members the opportunity to debate a key matter such as dementia? Moreover, we have been waiting for the child health strategy for five months. It is a very important issue, yet it has only been announced today in a written statement. Indeed, today, as we rise for a half-term break, we find that there are no fewer than 39 written ministerial statements published. Is she really happy with the practice of announcing them at one fell swoop just as people are about to disappear?

May we have a statement from the Chancellor on the extraordinary behaviour in front of the Public Administration Committee yesterday of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson)? His derogatory remarks to a member of that Select Committee, and his comments on Equitable Life, caused uproar. Once again, may I ask for a debate on Equitable Life, and the disgraceful way in which the Government are treating those who have lost their pension? How can the House be said to be doing its job properly when it establishes a system of redress and then wantonly ignores that system in such a callous and unpleasant way?

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Likewise, if we believe in ourselves, we must seek to educate people about what we do here. Will the Leader of the House confirm that she will help the Youth Parliament to hold events in the Palace of Westminster to teach young people about the vital importance of politics and political engagement?

On Tuesday, we saw the spectacle of bank bosses apologising in the Treasury Committee. May we have a similar statement of apology from the Prime Minister? Yesterday we learned that officials at No. 10 are being instructed to compile a DVD of President Obama’s greatest apologies, to teach the Prime Minister how to say sorry. We very much hope that such a statement will be delivered to the House, and that he will practise properly in front of the mirror beforehand. Is it his intention, in that same statement, to confirm the status of Glen Moreno, who chairs the trust that holds the shares that bought the banks that saved the world, albeit, sadly, through tax havens in Liechtenstein? With Sir James Crosby being sacked yesterday, and Mr. Moreno being downgraded a few minutes later, is it now confirmed that Mr. Moreno is on the way out altogether?

May we have a debate on unemployment? The dire figures published yesterday, pushing against the 2 million mark, were a brutal confirmation of the Governor of the Bank of England’s assessment that Britain is now in “deep recession”. We also gained an insight into the nationality of those who are employed. We learned that in 2008, employment of workers born in the UK fell by 278,000, while employment of foreign workers rose by 214,000. Where does that leave the Prime Minister’s claim that he wants to create British jobs for British workers?

Finally, on stepping down from jobs, may we have a debate on political blogs? I am not sure whether the right hon. and learned Lady is aware of the blog of a Labour councillor from Hackney, who is convinced that he has a winning strategy for the Labour party. He has written what he calls his “unsolicited advice to Gordon”. He says:

that is, the Prime Minister’s—

So who is the boss? Who is wearing the trousers in the Labour party now? How many jobs does the right hon. and learned Lady hold, and is it not sadly the case that we have a crisis in the labour market, a crisis in the Labour party, a Prime Minister who will not apologise, and a Leader of the House who is unapologetic about wanting his job?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised a number of important points about our health strategy, child health, the dementia strategy and the importance of memory clinics; I will look at the forthcoming business of the House and see whether we have enough opportunities to debate those important issues, alongside the important issue of the economy, which I know the House wants to prioritise. Of course, the Conservatives have an Opposition day debate in the week in which we get back, so he could consider making the issue the subject of that debate.

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The hon. Gentleman mentioned the 39 written ministerial statements that are being issued today. Something like 24 of those are spring supplementary estimates. It is custom and practice for the spring supplementary estimates to be given by way of written statements to the House. I think that that is perfectly in order. If he wants us to do things differently he is welcome to make suggestions.

We have already discussed the position on Equitable Life, which was set out by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in an oral statement, and she was answering questions just this morning. We all share the view that those who have been the victims of gross mismanagement by the management of Equitable Life and who are not protected because of a failure of regulation are owed an apology, and there needs to be financial compensation or financial recompense. That will be taken forward.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the Youth Parliament. I agree with him: it would be right for the Youth Parliament of this country to be able to sit in the Chamber when the House is not sitting—obviously, not when the House is sitting, but in recess. We need to encourage young people to see our democracy at work and to imagine themselves playing a part in it. We tabled a motion that was before the House last night, and it was objected to. I ask the hon. Gentleman to work with me to persuade his right hon. and hon. Friends who objected. Their names are on the Order Paper:—

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said, so he should address himself to his Back Benchers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unemployment. We are extremely concerned about anybody who faces the prospect of losing their job, which is why we have taken all the action we possibly can to stabilise the economy in the face of a global financial crisis and to give as much help to businesses as we can. We have been prepared to see Government borrowing rise in order that we can defer tax requests to small businesses, and about 30,000 businesses have been helped by not having to pay their tax. The only way to allow them to do that is to allow Government borrowing to rise, so we have, as the Chancellor has just told the House, put potentially £12 billion into the economy through the VAT cut in order to keep the lifeblood of business flowing and protect people from losing their job.

When the dreadful blow happens and somebody loses their job, we have taken action to make sure that they do not have to lose their home. Again, that has meant extra public spending, and we have had to allow borrowing to rise to compensate for it—for example, by bringing forward the help on interest payments on their mortgage from 39 weeks to 13 weeks for those who lose their job. That all costs money, and we have allowed the public debt to rise to provide that help. We are concerned about unemployment, but instead of just saying we are concerned and wringing our hands, we are taking action
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on it and putting money behind it, compared to what the Tories would do—wring their hands and not put any money up behind it.

The hon. Gentleman talks about foreign workers, and I must take issue with him about that. We must be very careful not to overlook the role that migrants have played in the life of this country over the centuries. I will share with the hon. Gentleman some figures that I was reading this morning. The House should listen. The figures relate to the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Welwyn Garden City. In the Welwyn Hatfield area 6 per cent. of the population are from black and Asian minority ethnic communities, but of the people who work in the hospital, 50 per cent. are black and Asian. Migrants to this country are more likely to be standing at our bedside saving our life than lying in a hospital bed. We must recognise the role in the economy and our public services played by people who were not born in this country. Indeed, many hon. Members were not born in this country, so I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s approach.

In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman made a load of snide remarks about the Prime Minister, and he made snide remarks about me, too. I am disappointed. I know my hon. Friends warned me, but I said the hon. Gentleman was different. They said, “He’s just a Tory. He’s the same as all the others,” but I said, “No, I think he’s different.” I even bought him a Valentine’s card, and I thought me might buy me, or rather get me, a little trinket from the Sultan of Oman. It is clear now that he is the same as all the others. He does not see things in the way that I do, and he does not believe in the things that I do—he does not believe in helping people, if they get into difficulties; I do. We started off well at the beginning of the year, but it’s over!

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I endorse the shadow Leader of the House’s request that the Youth Parliament be able to use the Chamber for its meetings. Next week, during the recess, the Youth Parliament is holding a conference in London on concessionary fares for young people, and it is obviously sensible for that conference to be held in this Chamber while we are in recess.

In the context of the work of the Youth Parliament and the issue of engagement by young people, can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on youth affairs? Should we not have an annual debate on youth affairs? We have annual debates on fisheries and on Welsh affairs, but the number of young people in the United Kingdom is far greater than the population of Wales. Would that not be an important step forward in raising the profile of the issue of the disengagement of young people from politics? Young people in my constituency have been served excellently by our outstanding member of the Youth Parliament, Catherine Rawsthorne, who would be delighted to have the opportunity to speak in this Chamber.

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for his support and for raising the good work of the Youth Parliament. Just as I have announced the annual debates on Welsh affairs and on international women’s day, the House may want to consider the idea of an annual debate on youth affairs to give a sharper focus to the concern across the House about youth affairs.

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I certainly do not intend to be snide—these Benches are a snidety-free zone.

I want to pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) about written statements. The Leader of the House and her predecessor said that the House should not be bombarded with vast quantities of statements immediately before a recess. That used to happen before the long recesses, but now there are 39 statements before a one-week recess. It is not the fact that the statements have been made; it is the timing and the fact that they have all been released on the same day before a recess. That cannot be right; will she please look into the matter for us?

I mentioned the weather conditions last week. Snow in my constituency gave way to floods, and we experienced severe flooding before Christmas. It would be helpful, when people have recovered from the difficulties that they have experienced, to hold a debate in this House on the resilience of local communities to adverse weather conditions, how we can make better preparations, how we can properly assess risk and how we can enable local communities and volunteers to play a better part in dealing with adverse weather conditions. Can we have a debate on that?

Immediately after today’s statements, there is a debate on social security and pensions uprating. I suggest that we should also have a general debate on pensioners. A lot of pensioners are finding life extremely difficult at the moment with the return from savings down, pensions not going very far and difficulties with keeping themselves warm over winter and with council tax—there are a lot of factors. Before the 11 wasted years of Labour Government, the Prime Minister said:

Well that was another great success over the past few years. We should have a debate on the position of pensioners and how we can properly deal with people in old age.

Lastly, may we have a debate on the future of the British pub? It is a fact that 39 are now closing every week. Insolvencies in the sector have gone up by 45 per cent. in the last quarter. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is barred from practically every pub in the country; that is not surprising, given that his response to the crisis in the pub trade has been to increase beer and cider taxes—that is resented, to say the least. May we have a debate on what we can sensibly do to protect what is a key part of many local communities up and down the country?

Ms Harman: I will look into this, but I think that I am right in saying that there is an expectation that we brigade the spring supplementary estimates and publish them at the same time, in a co-ordinated way, so that people know when to expect them. I think that there is a purpose in brigading them all together, and that that is why they have come out just before this recess. However, I will look into the matter. Obviously, if there is a proposal that the publication of the spring supplementary estimates be staged rather than being done at once, and if hon. Members want that change, we will consider it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the question of resilience to extreme weather conditions. The Secretary of State for Transport is considering our response to the snow,
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icy weather and floods and will issue a written ministerial statement about the lessons that have been learned from his review of the response all around England, Scotland and Wales. The draft floods Bill, on structural changes in how we deal with extreme floods, will be issued shortly and no doubt the hon. Gentleman could contribute to that.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned pensioners and whether we should have a debate on the effect of the economic recession—the global financial economic crisis—on those in retirement. By way of background, I should say that he should bear in mind that retired people—particularly older pensioners, the overwhelming majority of whom are women—have been the biggest beneficiaries. Their incomes have risen more than those of any other group in society, and quite right too. There was an appalling problem of pensioner poverty and many steps have been taken to address that over the years.

Having said that, I recognise that many pensioners are worried about not getting income from their savings and the fact that fuel bills are a disproportionately high part of their household budgets. We are trying to take all the steps that we can to give them the help that we can. Again, that has implications for public spending. That is why we are prepared to allow public borrowing to rise. If that means extra insulation, winter fuel payments and putting in £60 extra and bringing the payment forward to January for all pensioners, we are prepared to do it. I know that the hon. Gentleman and his party back us on that. However, it has implications for public spending and we are prepared to face up to them.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the pub industry, and I know that there is a real problem. Pubs play a big part in community life in rural and urban areas, but as people worry about how the recession might affect their families, they start cutting back on going out and on outings. That is why we wanted to ensure that we were putting money directly into the economy in every way that we could. I am disappointed, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman’s party does not back the VAT cut. We will do everything that we can, through both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, to help the pub trade.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on the powers contained in the Scotland Act 1998? My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that this House is responsible for overseeing and administering parliamentary elections in Scotland. At the last parliamentary elections there, many of my constituents were encouraged to vote for a particular party on the basis that it would scrap council tax and introduce a local income tax. That party has now reneged on that promise. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, given that, that party should return to the ballot box?

Ms Harman: People in my hon. Friend’s constituency and throughout Scotland will have been able to see the cynical way in which the Scottish National party made promises about cutting council tax and the debacle that has now come about. As my hon. Friend knows, we have set up the Calman commission to look at the whole question of governance. I am sure that we will be able to take that matter forward.

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