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12 Mar 2009 : Column 443

Business of the House

11.32 am

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 next week will be as follows:

Monday 16 March—Second Reading of the Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Bill.

Tuesday 17 March—Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 18 March—Opposition day (8th allotted day). There will be a debate on the economy which will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 19 March—Motion relating to the draft Legislative Reform (Insolvency) (Advertising Requirements) Order 2009, followed by a topical debate, subject to be announced.

Friday 20 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 23 March will include:

Monday 23 March—Remaining stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill (first allocated day).

Tuesday 24 March—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Wednesday 25 March—Opposition day (9th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 26 March—A general debate on defence in the UK.

Friday 27 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 31 March, my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will open a debate on the economy.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. First, I have been asked by the noble Lord Myners, the Minister responsible for the City, to state that contrary to what I said last week in this House he receives no pension from NatWest bank and no entitlement from the Royal Bank of Scotland Group. I am happy to offer that correction today. Yesterday—[Hon. Members: “An apology?”] I am very happy to call it an apology if that is what the House wishes.

Yesterday, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the Prime Minister said that the Government would be

It has taken some time. The embarrassing truth for the Government is that, during this period of national crisis, there have been just two debates in Government time on the economy since October—one after the pre-Budget debate last autumn, which was demanded by the shadow Chancellor and thankfully granted by you, Mr. Speaker, and one, as is customary, after the Queen’s Speech. Now, at last, after extensive pressure, the Government have been shamed into holding a debate
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on Tuesday 31 March. We will none the less proceed with our Opposition day debate on the economy next Wednesday. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will be at both debates?

May we have a statement from the Government on the purpose of Select Committees? Yesterday, the Liaison Committee published its annual report into the work of Select Committees, which stated that the already over-stretched state of the Committee machinery was being exacerbated by Committees’ being too large and by the establishment of too many Committees. Will the Government once again explain why they have just created a further eight new Committees, at least two of which, as we learned from points of order on Tuesday, did not even manage to hold their first meeting as they were supposed to? Does that not speak eloquently of the total uselessness of regional Select Committees?

May we have an opportunity to debate the issues surrounding protests in a democracy? There is still no indication from the Government about what they plan to do about the vulgar encampment and constant megaphone bellowing in Parliament square, which is a permanent national embarrassment. When can we expect such a debate or statement? Rather more importantly, will the Leader of the House join me and others in condemning the ignorance of those protesters in Luton who did everything they could to spoil what should have been a day dedicated to honouring the British soldiers who have put their lives on their line to do their duty under threat abroad?

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is obstructing the publication of details about where money has been spent on the preventing violent extremism pathfinder fund, even though the details were published for last year. Ministers are accountable to Parliament, especially on the spending of money. This appears to be unacceptable behaviour from the Secretary of State and brings her and this place into disrepute. Will the Leader of the House convey to the Secretary of State the displeasure of the House and seek a full apology from her along with the information to which hon. Members are fully entitled?

Does the Leader of the House think that she has given enough time for the Welfare Reform Bill on Report, given the ferocity of the amendments that have been tabled to it by her Back Benchers? On Monday, the Department for Work and Pensions was subjected to the attentions of some furious protesters, including an organisation known as Feminist Fightback. Given that the Leader of the House has been pictured before wearing a T-shirt bearing the inscription “This is what a feminist looks like”, might we assume that she, too, took part in that protest?

Even though, perhaps surprisingly, that event was not covered by the Daily Mirror, in the course of this week the Leader of the House has been. May I congratulate her on being the centrefold of that newspaper on Monday? In the past, she has said that she thinks that Prime Ministers’ wives ought to buy their clothes at Primark; now, she says that she “loves stilettos” and that she shops in Primark herself. I am more Savile Row, I have to admit— [ Interruption. ] But not stilettos. Might we conclude that this is preparation for her becoming Prime Minister?

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When the right hon. and learned Lady was asked what attracts her to other politicians, she answered:

that is a very good start—

Could it be that I have found favour with her at last?

Ms Harman: Perhaps I may start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for the correction that he has made in respect of Lord Myners. The hon. Gentleman has acted appropriately: he said something, it was pointed out that it was wrong, and he has come to the House at the next opportunity to put it right. I thank him for that, and I think that he has done exactly right.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the debate on the economy. Since the credit crunch began to take effect as a result of the global financial crisis, this House has had the benefit of constant accountability on the economy through oral statements, Bills, questions raised with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister, and topical debates. It is for the Opposition to choose the subject of an Opposition day debate, and for next week’s they have chosen the economy. It is for the Government to determine which Minister to put forward.

The Liaison Committee’s report pays tribute to, or at least acknowledges, the Government’s concern to provide greater accountability to the House. As for regional Committees, we think that it is important that the massive agencies with big regional reach which are making a huge difference in every region by injecting capital and improving skills, are properly accountable to the House. The spate of what I would call misleading points of order implied that there was something untoward about the first set of regional Committee meetings. That is absolutely wrong: the normal process is that, when members of a Committee are selected— [ Interruption. ] It is not the case that they did not turn up. When members of a Committee are selected, it is for the most senior to arrange with the Clerks when the meeting should be held. Most of the meetings have been held this week: some will be held today, and the remaining one or two will be held next week.

The regional Committees will go ahead with their work of holding regional agencies to account for the hundreds of millions of pounds that they spend, and I suggest to Opposition Members that they join that work. They too should be concerned about the Highways Agency, the Learning and Skills Council and the strategic health authorities, all of whose actions should be scrutinised at regional level as well as on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the encampment in Parliament square. There will be Justice questions next week, and I suggest that he raise the matter then, when will hear what the plans are to deal with it.

The hon. Gentleman raised the point about the shameful demonstrations in Luton, something that I think everyone in the House is concerned about. The local people wanted to welcome the troops back, and I think that we all agree that the counter-demonstrations were deplorable. I think that we all feel struck by the contrast between the freedom of speech that allows people to demonstrate and the conditions in those countries where our soldiers are fighting for democracy, freedom of speech, peace and security, both in the region and in the world.

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The hon. Gentleman talked about the accountability of the Department for Communities and Local Government for local spending. Obviously, the Department wants to answer parliamentary questions and be accountable for its spending. There is no attempt not to be open about what we regard a very important programme of ensuring that the police work for greater security. We also work with local communities to ensure that we prevent radicalism and extremism.

The hon. Gentleman asked for my view on the Welfare Reform Bill. I have always thought that it is a bad thing for a child to be brought up in a house where no one works. That is not just a question of income: it is important for children to see their parents getting up and going out to work every day. That is how children learn that they, too, will be in the world of work when they grow up, not simply expecting to live off benefits. So not only is the work that arose originally from the new deal for lone parents—which involves more help, more child care and more training for lone parents to get into work—good for their household budgets, but it is good for the children to see that people go out to work, rather than live off benefits.

The hon. Gentleman made some sideways remarks about me and the rumours of suggested manoeuvrings and all the points made by the shadow Foreign Secretary. When hon. Members stand at the Dispatch Box, it is important that they speak honestly and truthfully and that they do not mislead the House. The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue for a number of consecutive weeks, but there is not one shred of truth—not one iota of truth—in any of the suggestions that have been circulated in the newspapers. Although we cannot stop the newspapers reporting them, he can at least respect what I tell him about that and not continue to make those accusations from the Dispatch Box. And, yes, I am wearing my stilettos today.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): To honour the fallen in Afghanistan and Iraq and to remind us of the true costs of war, when can we debate early-day motion 846, as well as early-day motions 847 to 853 and 924 to 933?

[That this House salutes the bravery of the armed forces serving in Afghanistan and records with sorrow the deaths of Lance Corporal Jake Alderton of 36 Engineer Regiment, Major Alexis Roberts, 1st Battalion The Royal Gurkha Rifles, aged 32 from Kent, Colour Sergeant Phillip Newman, 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment, aged 36, Private Brian Tunnicliffe, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), aged 33 from Ilkeston, Corporal Ivano Violino from 36 Engineer Regiment, aged 29 from Salford, Sergeant Craig Brelsford, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, aged 25 from Nottingham, Private Johan Botha, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment from South Africa, Private Damian Wright, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, aged 23 from Mansfield, Private Ben Ford, 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment, aged 18 from Chesterfield, Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge from C flight, 51 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, aged 20, from Sheffield, Private Aaron James McClure, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 19 from Ipswich, Private Robert Graham Foster, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 19 from Harlow, Private John Thrumble, 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 21 from Chelmsford,
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Captain David Hicks of 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 26 from Surrey, Private Tony Rawson of 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, aged 27 from Dagenham, Essex, Lance Corporal Michael Jones, Royal Marines aged 26 from Newbald, Yorkshire, Sergeant Barry Keen of 14 Signal Regiment, aged 34 from Gateshead and Guardsman David Atherton from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, aged 25 from Manchester.]

Ms Harman: We debated Afghanistan earlier this year, and our thoughts are always on future progress in Iraq. As my hon. Friend has brought to my attention his early-day motion, I will look at it and write to him.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I lend weight to the points made by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) about the protesters in Luton? I have been very strongly against many of the Government’s military expeditions, but that is not the way to make a protest; it was inappropriate.

I am glad that the Leader of the House mentioned that one of the functions of the regional Select Committees is to monitor the work of the Department for Transport. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Transport will be quaking in his boots at the thought that the Labour party quasi-Committee for the south-west will be chaired by his own Parliamentary Private Secretary. That is true parliamentary scrutiny.

I am pleased to say that the Coroners and Justice Bill will be given two days’ consideration on Report—23 and 24 March—but is the Leader of the House aware of the fact that the Committee only finished its work on Tuesday this week, after one extra sitting and three late sittings? The very bare minimum statutory time will have elapsed between the finish of the Committee and debate on Report. The Government have given a large number of commitments to table amendments to that complex Bill. I simply do not believe that they will be ready for the debate on Report. Will she look at that again?

Can we have a debate on the efficacy of face-to-face passport interviews in which our constituents have to engage, at great personal expense very often and at great personal inconvenience? The figures until July 2008 were that 216,000 of those interviews had taken place at a cost of £115 million. Of those 216,000, not a single person was rejected. Are we entitled to ask whether that is worth that money and inconvenience to our constituents?

I do not know whether the Leader of the House noticed the comments made by Sir Tim Berners-Lee—who, of course, is the inventor of the world wide web—at a meeting in the House yesterday with my noble Friend Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, at which he drew attention to the dangers of so-called behavioural targeting technology, which is the way that people’s personal attributes are taken from their activities on the web and used for advertising purposes. He said:

Do we not need to take that issue seriously if we are to maintain the privacy of the individual?

Lastly, I have asked for debates on satnavs before, and for debates on local authority spending. Could we bring the two together, and have a debate on council
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priorities in Leicestershire? I notice that Conservative-controlled Leicestershire county council is fitting satnavs to 14 lawnmowers because it claims that there has been an

and that gardeners


It would be funny if people were not losing their jobs, and if there were not people who needed the help of council services. I wonder whether the story puts a whole new complexion on the term “county council cuts”.

Ms Harman: Instead of just complaining about the south-west regional Committee, the hon. Gentleman should be encouraging colleagues from his party who represent seats in the south-west to play their part in holding important regional agencies to account.

I thought that when the hon. Gentleman mentioned the Coroners and Justice Bill he would say how much he welcomed the fact that, unusually, we have given two days for the remaining stages, so that there can be detailed consideration of all the issues that need to taken forward, even after Committee. Obviously, all the amendments will be ready for debate and discussion, and as much notice as possible will be given.

The Home Office keeps issues such as face-to-face passport interviews under review. We need to strike the right balance between the ability to use the internet for administrative convenience and for the convenience of those who are applying, and making sure that there is human, face-to-face activity, so that we can ensure that the system is on track. No doubt the Home Office keeps the matter under review. As far as the behavioural targeting technologies are concerned, we all agree that the advance of the internet and digital technology will be very important for our economy in future, particularly post-recession. The digital contribution to the economy will be ever more important. That is very much a priority for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, but obviously we have to make sure that such advances are properly regulated.

I imagine that the hon. Gentleman read about the satnavs on lawnmowers in the newspapers—

Mr. Heath: It is genuine.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman says that, but he will have to raise the matter with Tory colleagues on Leicestershire county council— [Interruption]—yes, having grassed them up.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Nikita is 17 years old and profoundly deaf. She moved to my constituency in September with her Gurkha family. Despite having been allocated a Connexions adviser and a social worker, and having had assessments and meetings, she still does not have the one thing that she wants: a college place. May we find the time for a debate on how effective the Connexions service actually is, and how it interfaces with social services departments?

Ms Harman: I suggest that my hon. Friend considers seeking a meeting with the relevant Minister about her constituent, whom she is backing so actively. She may also consider making the general issue the subject of a Westminster Hall debate.

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