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12 Feb 2009 : Column 1521

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the cost effectiveness of park-and-ride schemes? Although they may be viable in a few large cities, I am increasingly concerned that in many towns they are a thorough waste of money and should be abolished. Just a fraction of the money saved could be used to provide free car parking. If we cannot have a debate on the issue, will the Leader of the House please pass on my comments to the Secretary of State for Transport and ask him to look at some of the smaller schemes to see whether we are getting value for money? I believe that we are not.

Ms Harman: Many park-and-ride schemes help cut congestion and pollution; they work very well in some places, although the right hon. Gentleman says that in others they do not. Perhaps he could choose the subject for an Adjournment debate—or a debate in Westminster Hall, as other Members might want to share their concerns as well. There would then be a response from a Transport Minister.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will think again about the Youth Parliament. As Chairman of the Procedure Committee, he is a beacon of changing procedure in the House and a considerable advocate of modernisation. I am sorry that he cannot answer me now, but I hope that he will change his mind and let the Youth Parliament sit in this House.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) have referred to the weather, which has been rather inclement in the past week, to put it mildly—we have been slipping and sliding all over the place. The situation was not helped by the fact that Gloucestershire county council seemed to run out of salt. Is that not worthy of a debate and investigation, not least because if the council had not invested its money in Icelandic banks, it could have put the money to good use on the roads? With that in mind, should we not also be considering what advice it received, so that we can see why it put the money into Icelandic banks?

Ms Harman: The extreme weather conditions have underlined the importance of the work of local authorities and the co-ordinating role of central Government. The Prime Minister was right to point out yesterday that cuts in investment in local and central Government would have made those matters even worse. As I said, the Secretary of State for Transport is learning the lessons from all around the country, and I think that at the moment his plans are to issue a written ministerial statement. No doubt, however, he will review the findings and see how best to handle the issue.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Unfortunately, the Leader of the House was not at the Public Administration Committee yesterday, when the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), appeared before us. What he said was completely unacceptable. He lost his temper with an hon. Member of this House and gave no justification as to how the deregulation is going to work—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I know that he does not intend to break any rule, but there is a tradition in the House that an hon. Member should be warned if his or her conduct is to be attacked
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in the House. We are talking about the business for next week, so we will leave the matter. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman to whom he has referred has not been notified.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider having a topical debate on the success of free pensioner travel and whether we could extend it to cover trains? Furthermore, could we extend it to the young people of this country, so that schoolchildren and students travel free, as pensioners do? There have been great benefits and the scheme has been a great success. The Government should be proud of it, and if it can be extended to other people, that would be even better.

Ms Harman: That is a very good suggestion for a forthcoming debate, and I will consider whether it can be the subject of a topical debate.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): I suspect that the Leader of the House is not aware of the huge concern in the agriculture industry about the forthcoming new regulation on the tagging of sheep. It has been shown to be ineffective; it simply does not work and it is very expensive. May we have a debate in Government time so that some of us who care about agriculture can address the issue and try to persuade the Government to seek a derogation, as other states are doing, when pointless regulation is imposed on their farmers?

Ms Harman: I am aware that this is a matter of concern which has been the subject of national debate. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions take place during the week that we get back, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will look for an opportunity to raise the issue then.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When can we have a debate on how we restore the damaged reputation of parliamentarians? If the recent examples of alleged conduct by Members of both Houses are true, and within the rules, then the rules are defective and need to be rewritten. For a start, could we introduce a mandatory register of interests of lobbyists and put in the public domain the locations—not the addresses but the locations—of our main residences?

Ms Harman: The possibility of a register of lobbyists was raised with and answered by the Prime Minister yesterday. The Minister for the Cabinet Office also talked about it yesterday. The Public Administration Committee has conducted an investigation into it and has made some recommendations that are being considered by the Cabinet Office, which will respond to that report. As for the rules about parliamentary allowances, we have just rewritten them, set up a new system of audit, and agreed a new, in-depth publication scheme. Some of the vagueness of the previous rules has been addressed in our new rules, which as far as the National Audit Office is concerned are firm and clear enough to be the basis of a full-scope audit.

The matter of second interests—outside financial interests—has been the subject of controversy in the House of Lords. My hon. Friend will know that that is the subject of an investigation by the Privileges Sub-Committee, as the Leader of the House of Lords
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announced. The House of Lords is concerned that there should be a means of disciplining, expelling or suspending its Members, which it does not currently have. I have been looking at our own Register of Members’ Interests, and I wonder whether we need to be more transparent about MPs who are earning money outside of their earnings as a Member of Parliament and whether we should publish more information about what that money is being earned for and exactly how much is being earned.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I fully support the Liberal Democrat shadow spokesman on the crisis facing pubs, and I hope that the Government will pay attention to that and come forward with some proposals, but may I press the Leader of the House on matters relating to pensioners, particularly those who rely, or have relied, on their investment income and savings to maintain a reasonable quality of life? Their financial position has been devastated in recent months. Could we have a debate on that, even a short one such as a topical debate, so that we can highlight the particular problems facing pensioners—the majority of whom, by the way, are women?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman’s question reinforces the point that we should perhaps look for an opportunity to discuss issues relevant to those in retirement—pensioners—such as travel and savings. That might be a subject for a topical debate.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that there are still dramatic differences between the performance of schools, even in areas of similar social composition, and even in the case of the Government’s much-vaunted academies programme. May we have a debate in the Chamber on the matter of teaching methods and philosophies, which is at the root of the fundamental differences between the relative success of those schools? I have raised this problem in the House many times, yet we have never seriously discussed it.

Ms Harman: I think that overall my hon. Friend will acknowledge that with more investment in schools, more teachers and more classroom assistants, standards have gone up, but obviously we are not complacent and want them to improve even further. Perhaps he might find an opportunity to raise those points with Ministers when we come to the Second Reading of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, which is to be considered on the Monday that we get back.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House concerned about Members’ liability for negligence following the case of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)?

Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We had best be careful, because this matter could be sub judice; it is before the courts at the moment. I am looking into the matter, if that is of any help to the hon. Gentleman, but it is best not to discuss it on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members: What about the general issue?

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Well, we will leave the general issue and that means that we are on safer ground.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time about telephone charges in hospitals? Last week, I had the great honour of becoming a granddad for the first time. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That joy was tempered by the fact that every time I phoned my daughter-in-law and my son at the bedside, the call was costing 49p a minute from a landline and much more from a mobile phone. This company is operating throughout the United Kingdom, and it is, frankly, ripping off hard-working families at a very emotional time. It is simply a licence to print money. Will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss this issue?

Ms Harman: Perhaps I could suggest that my hon. Friend seeks a meeting with other hon. Members, because I am sure that this is a matter of concern more widely across the House; it is not only about phone charges but charges for TV and parking. It is an important issue, and perhaps he could have a meeting with a Health Minister and a Scotland Office Minister to address it.

Let me take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming a grandfather and welcoming to the world Erin Molly Devine.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): I welcome the Leader of the House’s response to right hon. and hon. Members who have been asking for a debate about pensions. Many of our constituents who have saved for many years are now finding it very hard to get by, with interest rates coming down as they have. Given that she has been responsive on that, may I appeal to her to be more responsive on the issue of Equitable Life? For years now, Equitable Life policyholders have been denied justice, and only recently have they got a grudging apology from the Government and a half-promise that there will be some kind of compensation in future. Rather than waiting for the random chance that this subject comes up at Treasury questions, will she make a commitment that before Easter, in Government time, on the Floor of the House, we will have a proper debate on what the Government are doing about it?

Ms Harman: It seems as though there is a cluster of issues that I should look for an opportunity to fashion a debate around—from the dementia strategy raised by the shadow Leader of the House, to insulation and energy bills, transport, bus and travel passes for older people, the value of savings, and Equitable Life.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): May we have a debate on the integrity of the internet? My right hon. and learned Friend will no doubt have seen press reports this morning that reveal that a few minutes after the end of Prime Minister’s questions yesterday someone attempted to interfere with the Wikipedia entry on Titian to make it retrospectively consistent with what their party leader had said a few minutes earlier. If the Conservative party is prepared to fiddle the figures with regard to the age of dead Italian painters, surely we cannot trust them on the economy either.

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Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Mr. Binley.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I was pleased to hear the Leader of the House intimate that she was considering a debate on pensions. Will she extend that to consideration of the public sector pensions problem, which is becoming an intolerable burden on the nation, especially for local government, where a quarter of all locally raised council tax is now used to support pension funds? Will she include that particular matter in the debate that she is thinking of having?

Ms Harman: It looks as though it is expanding beyond a topical debate into a full-day debate. As well as public sector pensions, which is an important issue, I was thinking, as I listened to the hon. Gentleman’s comments, that there is an opportunity to discuss age discrimination and related provisions in the forthcoming Equality Bill. We have added to the list, and I thank him for his suggestion.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Mackinlay, may I ask you whether you were in for the statement?

Andrew Mackinlay: Just. [ Laughter. ]

I have a business question about next Wednesday week—that is original. The Government have announced that Northern Ireland legislation should go through all of its stages on that one day. I have protested about that practice time and time again to Secretaries of State and to the Leader of the House, and they look at me as if I am being unreasonable. They say that it is a one-off, but now it is happening again, and it is an abuse of this House. I hope that the Leader of the House will reconsider the matter, particularly as there are often statements on Wednesday, which further diminish the time available for such a debate.

The legislation goes to the heart of the political system of Northern Ireland by altering the d’Hondt system. I am not opposed to that, but it is a major piece of legislation and I am protesting about this myself and on behalf of colleagues from Northern Ireland. We should not push the legislation through all at once. We cannot get a copy of the Bill as far as I am aware, so we cannot even prepare and submit amendments. It is outrageous.

Ms Harman: We want to ensure a full discussion, but we also want to ensure that the Bill, which is an important part of the Northern Ireland peace process, gets through the House as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend will know that the House of Lords Constitution Committee is looking at how we deal with emergency legislation—

Andrew Mackinlay: It is not emergency legislation.

Ms Harman: It is time critical, and I hope that my hon. Friend will seek a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who will explain to him why the matter could not be scheduled earlier because agreement had not been reached. The legislation has to be passed within a certain period of time so that the necessary action can follow. I have dealt quite closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on this matter because I know that the House does not want legislation
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to be rushed through unless there is a really good reason. Perhaps my hon. Friend and I could meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to discuss the matter, and I am sure that he will be satisfied by what my right hon. Friend has to say.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I say how delighted I was when the Leader of the House gave me such a splendid answer the last time I asked her a question? It was about the answers that Ministers should give in response to parliamentary written questions on ambulance trusts, and she said that it was quite unnecessary that we should have to use freedom of information requests to get information out of Ministers that they should give in parliamentary answers. I am now a little disappointed with her after I tabled a question to ask her

copies of this material

I got the answer that she has regular meetings with the Speaker. I do not think that that was a full and frank answer. Will she now give the House a full and frank answer and place the material in the Library of the House, or do I have to make a freedom of information request?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will not get anywhere with the Freedom of Information Act on that one. That is not a matter for the Leader of the House— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Jenkin: Unbelievable.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not challenging my ruling. It is believable, and he has no right to raise that matter at business questions.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): When the House returns after our short recess, the new transitional Government in Zimbabwe will, we hope, be doing their work, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of Members of all parties when I wish Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai well in the task ahead. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development make a statement at an appropriate time? At some point, we have to make a judgment about lifting sanctions and, more importantly, about increasing aid. The Government have got it right by not doing so yet, but we need to be kept updated.

Ms Harman: I know that the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) have been asking for a debate on Zimbabwe for some time. I have had discussions on that matter and I have identified time for a debate not too long after we get back from the short recess. I hope to be able to announce it soon; I cannot give the House the exact date, but I am on it.

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