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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) about yesterday’s events, let me simply say that I felt that the Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks
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(Mr. Hague) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) expressed the House’s sentiments very well. Any further words on the subject from me would be superfluous.

We have just heard a very important statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on economic affairs. At the same time, the Treasury Committee was hearing evidence from the Governor of the Bank of England. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that that was not good timing and not the best use of the House’s time? Of course the statement was important and of course it needed to be made today, but the order of statements prevented Members—including the Chairman of the Treasury Committee—from being present in the Chamber to hear the statement. That strikes me as unfortunate; perhaps the Leader of the House will look into it.

While I am talking about financial affairs, I note that 9 March is to be an estimates day. Of course, the one subject that we will not debate on that day is that of the estimates that we will be asked to agree at the end of the session. On 10 March, we are to have what are misleadingly described as “proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill”. Precisely what we will not have are proceedings on that Bill, because under Standing Order No. 56 we cannot debate, amend or even vote on it. That, in my view, underlines the failure of the House to undertake properly its scrutiny role in relation to expenditure. We have escalating spending, escalating debt and an escalating contingent liability. Never has so much been spent by a Government with so little scrutiny. There is an urgent need for us to reform our scrutiny of expenditure, as well as the tax arrangements, in the current Parliament.

Experience shows that sadly, during a recession there is normally a concomitant increase in crimes such as burglary and theft. May we have a debate on police numbers? The Home Secretary has said that the overall number of police in the country has risen marginally, and she is correct. However, earlier this week, the chief constable of Gloucestershire said that in 19 police forces officer numbers had fallen. My own force area, Avon and Somerset, has lost 73 officers in the past year.

When I was chairman of Avon and Somerset police authority, under a Conservative Home Secretary, I asked for more officers every year and was told that we could not have them. Since then we have seen an increase, but now we are seeing a decrease at exactly the time when we need officers on the beat.

Lastly, may we have a debate on whether it can ever be justified to have a pension of £650,000 a year—three and a half times the Prime Minister’s annual salary, 30 times the salary of the people in the call centres and the telling staff who are being sacked this week from the same organisation, and 140 times the basic state pension? When a public company is involved, can that level of expenditure ever be justified—or is it, as I suspect, corporate theft?

Ms Harman: We had to bring the statement to the House as soon as we could. The Treasury Committee was undertaking an important inquiry at the same time, so its members could not be present in the Chamber. That is unfortunate, but it was not readily avoidable.
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However, I take this opportunity to say that that Treasury Committee inquiry shows the Select Committee system at its best, doing a very important job on behalf of the public interest, and I pay tribute to its Chairman and all its members. We await their report with interest. They are performing an important public and parliamentary service.

The hon. Gentleman thinks that we could scrutinise the spending of Departments better. Perhaps he, the shadow Leader of the House and I should meet to discuss whether we can find agreement on a way to improve the processes. I think that he has a point, but I am not quite sure what the solution to it is.

There has been, on average, a 16 per cent. increase in resources to police authorities, so I am unclear how there could be a cut in police numbers in the hon. Gentleman’s area. There has been a debate on law and order this week, in which I know those issues were widely aired.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked whether the pension he mentioned can be justified. I can answer that by saying no, it cannot be justified to have a pension from the age of 50 of £650,000 a year, especially if there is any question of its being financed at public expense.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): May we have an opportunity to debate the location of the medical examination centres for benefit claimants used by the Department for Work and Pensions? From a written answer from the Department, I have learned that more than 3,300 individuals from the Milton Keynes postcodes were asked to go for medical examinations in 2008, and forced to travel to either Aylesbury or Luton, both of which are extremely difficult to get to from Milton Keynes by public transport. Obviously, such people often do not have their own transport, or cannot use it. May we have an urgent re-examination of the arrangements and relocation of medical centres, so they are near where the claimants are, instead of in some bizarre, historical, random location?

Ms Harman: I shall draw this matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and if my hon. Friend finds that the response is not satisfactory in relation to her constituents, she might think of seeking a Westminster Hall debate on the subject.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): How does the right hon. and learned Lady plan to protect MPs from spurious negligence litigation?

Ms Harman: A great deal of consideration is given to how we deal with this matter. At the last business questions, I set out the approach in principle that I think that we should take. The solution I would propose involves the role of the Speaker, perhaps joining as a party to encourage the court to recognise that it needs to strike out its original judgment. I feel that we have a duty of care to our constituents: that is a duty in our code of conduct. We are accountable: we are accountable to our electors at general elections. We are not accountable to the courts, except in respect of the criminal law, contract law and employment law. The judgment on how we have responded to our constituents is not for the judiciary; it is for every single elector and our constituents.

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Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May I echo the call of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) for a debate on fairness in policing, because we now have a situation in London where if someone happens to be a friend or associate of Boris Johnson, the chairman of our Metropolitan Police Authority, they are likely to get a phone call from him to discuss private conversations he has had, in his capacity as chairman of the authority, with chief officers who are involved in important investigations? That is an unsatisfactory situation. The Mayor has been admonished this week by an inquiry into that question, and the MPA will now have to consider setting up protocols to control the behaviour of the Mayor of London. The matter is worthy of debate on the Floor of the House, so may we have such a debate in the near future?

Ms Harman: That is a subject on which my hon. Friend might seek a debate in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment, because it could involve a number of other London Members. It is a very important constitutional principle that elected members leave the police to get on with their job. We provide the resources and the legal framework, but it is not for elected members to decide who or what the police should be investigating or to seek to interfere with the conduct of police inquiries. That is totally wrong.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on political correctness in the light of the excellent remarks made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this week, and particularly in relation to schools? Despite the right hon. Lady’s speech, they are currently enjoying a lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-history month, with schools performing “Romeo and Julian”. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is better for pupils to learn about “Romeo and Juliet” and Shakespeare than the politically correct “Romeo and Julian”, and does she also agree with her right hon. Friend on these matters?

Ms Harman: I do not regard myself as a Shakespeare expert, but, as far as I can remember, in Shakespearean times boys would play girls and girls would play boys, and the whole point was trying to work out which was which. As to pressing forward on equality, there will be a debate next Thursday on new equality legislation, so that we can ensure that everybody in this country is treated with fairness and respect and is not subject to prejudice and discrimination—or, indeed, cheap shots from the hon. Gentleman.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House join me in welcoming the decision of Amazon, the online sales company, to withdraw the video game “Rapelay”, which, as she knows, allows players to simulate the stalking and raping of women? However, does she share my concern that it is still possible to offer for sale these kinds of degrading and deplorable video games? Also, when can we expect to have a debate on the aftermath of the Byron review, which the Prime Minister set up? Could we have that debate as soon as possible?

Ms Harman: There are two issues on which I know the Home Affairs Committee, which my right hon. Friend chairs, has been doing important work: such video games and the violent and pornographic material they contain, and the accessibility of such material on
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the internet. I am aware that there is an early-day motion in my right hon. Friend’s name, which has attracted a number of signatures. We will be keeping the matter carefully under review and working closely with those in the industry, as well as the Internet Watch Foundation.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Will the Leader of the House say whether the Government plan to let the Autism Bill go into Committee—or do they plan to block it tomorrow?

Ms Harman: The procedure will be dealt with in the usual way, but what autistic adults and families with autistic children are concerned about is the substance of the services they get and what financial support they can get. As far as the process is concerned, we are going ahead with the strategy and the consultation. We will just have to wait and see what happens when the Bill comes before the House.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to look at my early-day motion 872?

[That this House does not approve of the Government's proposed authorisation of a contingent liability in excess of £250,000 associated with the Defence Training Review set out in the Departmental Minute laid before Parliament on 17 February 2009, for which there is no specific authority; notes that only two copies of the Minute have been provided to the House; further notes that the Minute and the reference to it in the Votes and Proceedings for 23 February 2009 provides no information on which the House can come to a considered view on the proposed liability; and requests the Government to refrain from incurring the liability until approval has been given by a resolution of the House consequent on a thorough examination by the Committee of Public Accounts and the relevant departmental select committee.]

Although it is headed “Contingent Liability on Defence Review Training Costs”, the EDM relates to the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) regarding how we deal with the authorisation of expenditure.

I discovered this week that there are things called unnumbered Command Papers, only two copies of which are supplied by the relevant Government Department to the House of Commons. One goes to the Library and the other goes to the Clerks Department; notionally, the latter is laid on the Table of the House. It seems that, in our ignorance, we nod through not just thousands but millions of pounds of authorised expenditure—a blank cheque for Departments—without any Member rumbling it. Apparently, it appears subsequently in the Journal of the House.

Will the Leader of the House consider how we can scrutinise this massive expenditure—it occurs some 30 or 40 times a year—so that Members of Parliament and the appropriate Committees can examine, probe and call to account the Ministers and Departments that bounce the expenditure through on a rubber-stamp basis?

Ms Harman: There is no intention that anything involving public spending should be rubber-stamped. There is scrutiny by Select Committees and the Public
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Accounts Committee, and there is the scrutiny that follows the Budget. If my hon. Friend has any suggestions as to how we can more effectively scrutinise public expenditure—the point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome—we would certainly be prepared to discuss them. In the first instance, perhaps my hon. Friend the deputy Leader of the House could conduct a discussion, and if anybody wants to contribute to it, they can talk to him. None of us has any interest in anything other than making sure that every pound of taxpayers’ money is properly and effectively spent.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): My constituency is home to the largest clinical unit dealing with anorexics and bulimics in the whole of the north of England, yet the supply of places there is still outstripped by demand. Given the answer that I recently received to a parliamentary question about the increase in the number of young women under the age of 16 suffering from eating disorders—the number has increased by 80 per cent. in the past 10 years—does the Leader of the House not feel that the time has come to have a debate on why there has been such a drastic increase in these figures and what more can be done to help?

Ms Harman: I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, but it might also be appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to seek a debate in Westminster Hall on this issue. A number of other Members might like to join in that debate and to hear what the relevant Minister has to say.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The business statement has been going for 30 minutes, and in that time six or seven of our fellow citizens in the UK have suffered a stroke. Each year, some 150,000 people die from stroke, which is the third largest killer and the largest single reason for major disability in this country. At a conference in Leicester that I addressed on Monday, it was clear that the people there wanted the Government to return to a focus on the national stroke strategy, particularly in relation to so-called mini-strokes or transient ischaemic attacks. If treatment is provided within 24 hours for those at high risk, or within seven days for those at lower risk, it can reduce the risk of a recurrent, more major stroke by 80 per cent. or more, saving many thousands of lives. May we have a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, on this topic, which is sometimes not given the priority that it deserves?

Ms Harman: That would be a good topic for debate. I very much welcome the national campaign to raise awareness of the need for fast action when a stroke occurs. The Government have kept a continued focus on the national stroke strategy—not least on the prevention measures that can be taken but also, importantly, on ensuring that in all areas the hospital response is as good as in the very best instances. Massive progress has been made recently and we want to ensure that everyone can get the very best care.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Will the Leader of the House ask the Justice Secretary or the Lord Chancellor’s Department to make a written statement
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on the working of the Legal Services Commission contract payments protocol? Obviously, no one expects a legal aid firm to get every minor variation paid each month, but where the standard monthly payment falls to about one quarter of the money outstanding to a legal aid firm, there ought to be a way of making sure that that payment is made. If the LSC consults the Law Society and the experts in my constituency, Jane Macdougall and Christine Campbell, it will probably find ways to make sure that the rules allow justice to be done. The Government want to make sure that debts are paid. Money is outstanding to good legal firms.

Ms Harman: I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has tabled a written question, but the detailed points might be well made in such a question before he seeks a written ministerial statement.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): The Leader of the House paid a generous tribute to the Treasury Committee. May I urge her to let us debate the Committee’s findings on the port rating crisis, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) referred? Is she aware that, just in the last fortnight, a written answer has confirmed that the advice to Ministers from the Insolvency Service is that the statutory instrument she mentioned does not in any way affect the requirement of businesses to enter all rates outstanding in their balance sheet? Ministers are also reminded that directors who continue to trade can face direct personal sanctions for doing so.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Liaison Committee, consisting of the Chairmen of all the Select Committees, discusses and agrees which Select Committee reports are to be chosen for debate on the Floor of the House, and then makes a recommendation to the House.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): May we have a full day’s debate—in Government time, not just on the Adjournment of the House on a Thursday—on future strategy in Afghanistan encompassing the present military effort, the lack of air power, the success or otherwise of reconstruction projects and other related matters, so that Members of this House can have a real opportunity to debate the future and the possible political successes or otherwise?

Ms Harman: We had a debate on Thursday 5 February on Afghanistan and Pakistan, a subject that the Government chose. Regular statements are made by the Secretary of State for Defence, and the topic is regularly raised in Foreign Office questions and, indeed, Prime Minister’s questions. I assure the hon. Lady that I continue to look for opportunities to debate these important matters in the House.

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