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5 Mar 2009 : Column 994

In addition, the Minister for Local Government said:

That is certainly not what the boundary committee told Members of Parliament when we were briefed at the beginning of the process. Therefore, please will the Leader of the House insist that the Secretary of State makes an urgent statement to the House at the earliest opportunity to clarify a process that is rapidly becoming a fiasco?

Ms Harman: I will draw the matter to the attention of my ministerial colleague. I would have liked to be able to give a fuller answer to the hon. Gentleman’s point—which is, no doubt, important—about East Devon district council. If he and other Members wish to raise a specific constituency issue and want a substantive reply, then I ask them, please, to nip around the corner to my room and tell me in advance. If the hon. Gentleman had done so, he might have got a fuller answer. I will get a fuller answer to him, but I cannot give him one right now.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have a debate on the future of the UK’s energy needs? Such a debate would allow us to highlight the Scottish National party-led Scottish Executive’s complete disregard for nuclear energy as part of Scotland’s future energy mix. I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that that SNP stance flies in the face of current scientific opinion and contradicts the opinion of Scotland’s scientific adviser, Professor Anne Glover.

Ms Harman: It is a pity if the SNP fails to recognise the sea change on the need to ensure that we have a mixed energy economy, and that nuclear energy will play its part alongside renewables and carbon. Almost the whole of the environmental lobby has grasped the importance of the role of nuclear energy, and it is a pity that the SNP is lagging behind the times.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a statement from the Leader of the House herself on the basic standards of ethics expected from hon. Members when they endorse scurrilous charges in the press against the personal conduct of other hon. Members? I declare a personal interest in this, because the day before the vote on secrecy of Members’ home addresses, an article appeared in the sleaziest tabloid in Britain, accusing me of hypocrisy, lying and abuse of the parliamentary housing allowance. Those issues are for another time, but at the end of the article was a statement by an hon. Member whom I do not propose to name today, and who is not present even though I warned him that I was going to raise this issue. The article said that he

That was a clear endorsement of the charges. He has now written to me and said:

I believe that this is despicable behaviour, and I would like a statement from the Leader of the House to advise hon. Members at least of basic standards of decency towards other hon. Members.

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Ms Harman: All of us as Members of this House know that we are fair game for rumbustious political debate; we expect that, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point about allegations of wrongdoing, dishonesty and the like. In this Chamber, there are very strict rules that people have to have some evidence before they throw mud. Members should not make personal allegations against other hon. Members outside the House; that maligns the reputation of hon. Members and the House as a whole. I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): May we have a debate on how Members of Parliament who represent this House in other assemblies report back on their activities? We have no mechanisms by which the House can debate, and be informed about, the work of bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is becoming increasingly important in building democracy in eastern Europe, the NATO parliamentary assembly and the Council of Europe. May we discuss this?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. Parliamentarians do an important job in scrutinising legislation and holding Ministers to account, and they speak up for, and engage in, activities in their constituencies, but, as she rightly points out, they also play a big role in other, international institutions. There is no current format by which that can be reported back to the House, so I will be happy to discuss with her how we might find an opportunity to do that.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): It is welcome that the Government have published the national dementia strategy, but the way it was announced—on television and without Department of Health Ministers coming before the House and explaining it—was unfortunate. As this is such an important issue, and one that is of concern to Members in all parts of the House, may we now have a debate in Government time to talk about this important initiative, and how we can help the many people, and their families, who are plagued by that awful range of conditions?

Ms Harman: These issues are important, and this might, perhaps, be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): May we have an urgent statement on the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka, with the Sri Lankan army onslaught on Tamil areas? There are some terrible human rights abuses, serious atrocities are taking place, a lack of medical facilities and a complete news black-out is being imposed by the Sri Lankan Government so we hear very little about this in the media. Will my right hon. and learned Friend try to ensure that we get more information about this in House, and, in particular, will she consider whether Sri Lanka should be suspended from the Commonwealth, bearing in mind those appalling human rights abuses?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right: the situation in Sri Lanka remains extremely grave, even since that which we debated in the House a couple of weeks ago. I will make sure that I, together with my right hon.
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Friend the Foreign Secretary, keep under review opportunities both for updating the House on this and for further debate.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the nationalised banks and, in particular, access to the minutes of their board meetings? Is it not right that, if the taxpayer is the majority shareholder, there should be full access to those minutes, in order that my constituents can see what decisions have been made on pensions and a variety of other remuneration matters?

Ms Harman: Treasury Ministers frequently address questions to do with giving out information that is in the public interest and should be put in the public domain when they come to the House and account for our support for the banking system. An issue has arisen about the publication of information about the HBOS merger, and all information, other than that which is restricted under the Enterprise Act 2002 for commercial confidentiality reasons, is being released. I cannot add to what Lord Myners said in the House of Lords earlier this week about the process that led up to Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension arrangement, but, as I said yesterday, United Kingdom Financial Investments is looking into this, and we will, no doubt, hear further on it.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): For the past few days, a delegation of doctors from the north-west of England, including at least one from my constituency, has been waiting in Rafah to gain access to Gaza to deliver a very valuable consignment of medical supplies. Will my right hon. and learned Friend speak to the Foreign Office to see if there is anything more the British consul in Rafah can do to enable them to get access to Gaza, and now that Gaza is moving off the headlines, might it be possible to have a debate entitled, “The reconstruction of Gaza”, so that the House can assess the result of the atrocities committed several weeks ago and the nature of the international effort to rebuild that troubled region?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend might have seen that the Secretary of State for International Development was in Gaza just a few days ago—perhaps I shall discuss with him whether it would be worth while his updating the House by way of a written ministerial statement. Our utmost concern is to ensure, together with the international community, that the humanitarian aid so desperately needed for reconstruction in Gaza gets through to the people who need it.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) is one of the most honourable, straightforward and honest Members of this House. A grave disservice was done to him on Monday night when his proposal was put to the vote without a proper debate. Since the Ballot Act 1872, which was one of the great achievements of the Victorians, there has been a requirement that one must put one’s home address on the ballot paper. [Hon. Members: “No!”] Yes, since that Act—and as far as I know nobody has been attacked in their home. This matter is vital, because it is about the liberties of the people. Will the Leader of the House now commit to our having a proper debate on it?

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Ms Harman: That Bill was dealt with in the usual way, and the question of the selection of amendments is a matter for the Speaker.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My constituent, Declan Turner, who is dyslexic, achieved nine A to C grades at GCSE. Despite that, because he did not achieve the same in English, he is precluded from progressing to a level 3 apprenticeship. The local Stephenson college has been very helpful, but policy change is needed by EMTA Awards Ltd. It is one of many such problems that dyslexic students encounter. May we have a debate on dyslexia and the Government’s plans, priorities and resources for tackling the discrimination and injustice that is still the daily lot with which many people have to grapple on a continuing basis?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises a very important point on behalf of his constituents. I shall raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and I shall also discuss it with him, because we want to ensure access for everybody who can benefit from apprenticeship schemes and that people do not face the obstacles that my hon. Friend has described.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): What has happened to our topical debates? Does the right hon. and learned Lady recall saying the following to the House?

We had no topical debate on Thursday 12 February, when the House adjourned at 2.52 pm, or last Thursday. No such debate will take place today or on either of the two Thursdays whose business she has just announced. Is there really nothing exciting going on outside that we should debate, or is this a reform that she has quietly buried?

Ms Harman: It is not a reform that has been buried—far from it; the topical debates have been very useful. The possibility of Lords amendments next Thursday, together with the fact that we will consider the motion to take account of the reports of the Public Accounts Committee, are the reasons we will not have a topical debate next Thursday. The following Thursday’s business was only provisional, so I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman wait until next Thursday to see the final business for the following week before deciding whether it would be more important to have a topical debate.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the operation of the Department for Transport’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, which announced the closure of the Steeton testing station, in my constituency, without any consultation? That facility is well regarded and is booked up for weeks ahead, and local firms and the Keighley bus museum, of which I am a trustee, will have to travel at least 25 miles after the closure. This is a really badly thought out closure.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point about concerns in her constituency, and I suggest that she take the opportunity to raise it in oral questions to the Department for Transport next Tuesday.

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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Prime Minister gave an undertaking that the Executive would ensure that the House was able to scrutinise legislation properly, and it is the Leader of the House’s job to implement that commitment. Will she explain how she will provide sufficient time for us to debate all the groups of amendments that you select, Mr. Speaker, on large Bills such as the Policing and Crime Bill? It started off with six substantive sections, which will all be in different parts in any groupings, and the Government have added two new sections in Committee—those on the DNA database and on gangs—where there was not enough time for Opposition Members to table amendments. Will she give an undertaking that at least two days will be taken for that Bill and any similar Bill, because it is not acceptable for legislation to go through this House without being debated?

Ms Harman: We are trying to ensure on that Bill that there are as few Government amendments as possible, aside from those that arise from Opposition and Back Bencher requests in Committee. As far as subsequent stages are concerned, until we have seen the full range of Opposition amendments tabled it is not possible to work out the adequate amount of time that needs to be set aside for addressing the Bill.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the parlous state of Sudan at the moment, with the International Criminal Court citation of President Bashir about to be followed through. I have already had notice that Save the Children is withdrawing all its aid workers and that Médecins sans Frontières Holland has been expelled from Darfur—that puts millions of people at risk. Would she consider an urgent debate to examine the ramifications for that troubled part of the world and how the British Government may still be able to help at this time?

Ms Harman: I will look for an opportunity to debate the important issues that my hon. Friend raises. It is important that Sudan co-operates with the ICC investigation, does not escalate the situation and does not retaliate against the aid agencies, which are doing very important work, delivering for people who are under great threat in that country.

Perhaps I may update the House by saying that the Bank of England has just announced that it has cut interest rates from 1 per cent. to 0.5 per cent., and that in respect of quantitative easing the Monetary Policy Committee has introduced up to £75 billion extra that will be put into the economy.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House raised the matter of the news journalists being made redundant by local newspapers and local radio stations. Silk FM, which is part of The Local Radio Company plc—in turn, a subsidiary of the Guardian Media Group—has recently got rid of both its news journalists in Macclesfield. One of them has been made redundant and the other has been transferred to a new centre—which will cover at least three local radio stations—in Burnley, 40 miles from Macclesfield. Will she find time for a debate, either on the Floor of the House or in Westminster Hall, on the problems facing local newspapers and local radio stations, and on their failure now to provide proper news coverage, which is affecting the information that is available to people in my constituency, among others?

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Ms Harman: There clearly is a demand for a debate—it could probably be discussed in Westminster Hall—on the important services of local and regional news media, as well as the question of public service broadcasting.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): My constituent David Fielding was one of those haemophiliacs, referred to by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who contracted the hepatitis C virus as a result of a national health service blood transfusion. His brother, Brian, actually died from it, and as a result David has led a vigorous campaign for a public inquiry into what has become known as “tainted blood”. I was pleased to hear what my right hon. and learned Friend said earlier about Lord Archer of Sandwell’s very important report, but may I be audacious enough to suggest to her that it would be better if we had a full debate so that all its content could be fully explored in this Chamber, rather than a statement from the Secretary of State followed by questions?

Ms Harman: I will take into account the points that my hon. Friend has made, and I offer my congratulations to the campaigners who, as well as suffering ill health as a result of the contaminated blood products, have brought to the public’s attention the injustice that they have suffered. The Government will respond shortly.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Let us get back to the behaviour of the Treasury Minister, Lord Myners, who is totally unaccountable to this House, and specifically to the issue of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension. It is now clear from the new chief executive of RBS that the Government were consulted on the pension. Lord Myners was the Minister and it is now clear that he receives a substantial pension from RBS. Is it not inconceivable that he did not ask whether the pension was in any way discretionary, and should we not have an urgent statement from the Chancellor or another Treasury Minister next week?

Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We must be careful about what we say about Members of the other place. We must not imply anything about their conduct. Perhaps the Leader of the House will take that point into account.

Ms Harman: Lord Myners is accountable to the House of Lords, and he was accountable in the proceedings there on Monday. It might not seem important to Opposition Members, but it was very important that the Government took action to ensure that RBS was still standing. I pay tribute to all the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Ministers and Treasury Ministers who were involved in ensuring that RBS did not collapse altogether, as that would have had devastating results. I also congratulate the officials in those Departments who worked with the banks to ensure that outcome. Perhaps hon. Members should focus on that as well as the pension point.

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