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Mr. Robathan: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am rather disappointed, because I am sure that he is as concerned as I am, and as everyone else in the House who worries about democracy is, about the comments made a few years ago by a judge who said that our standards were those of a banana republic. In particular, will my hon. Friend raise again with the Electoral Commission and with the Government the need for individual registration, rather than household registration, which would go some way towards solving the problem of electoral fraud? In addition, will he raise the fact that
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postal voting on demand has been shown—this has been commented on on many occasions—to be an easy route to fraud in elections?

Sir Peter Viggers: Occurrences of electoral malpractice are rare, but it takes only a small number for confidence in the voting system to be seriously damaged. The Electoral Commission takes the view that postal voting should be made more secure, rather than withdrawn, and it very much welcomes the commitment by the Government to introduce provisions to introduce a system of individual electoral registration in Great Britain. The commission has argued for that since 2003, and it believes that the system should be modernised and strengthened by introducing individual electoral registration.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol, East) (Lab): I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that in certain community groups, there is considerable confusion as to whether people are entitled to vote, particularly because some of them are entitled to vote in local elections, but not in general elections. Is it on the commission’s agenda to do more to educate people about the circumstances, particularly in relation to their immigration status, in which they are allowed to vote?

Sir Peter Viggers: The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The rules are, in fact, a little complicated, and this is exactly the area in which the Electoral Commission feels a sense of commitment to make people aware of their rights.

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Business of the House

11.33 am

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

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 23 March—Remaining stages of the Coroners and Justice Bill (Day 1).

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 entitled “The Need for an Inquiry on Iraq”, followed by a debate entitled “The Impact of Business Rates and how Businesses can be Helped Through the Recession”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

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

Friday 27 March—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 30 March will include:

Monday 30 March—A general debate on Africa.

Tuesday 31 March—A general debate on the economy.

Wednesday 1 April—Second Reading of the Geneva Conventions and United Nations Personnel (Protocols) Bill [ Lords], followed by a motion relating to the Non-domestic Rating (Collection and Enforcement) (Local Lists) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 2 April—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 2 April will be a debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee entitled “Investigating the Oceans”.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Her response to me last week about the encampment and the harassment by protesters in Parliament square was, I am sorry to say, painfully inadequate. When will she undertake to give a full report to the House so that we can cut through the bureaucratic nonsense governing the issue and remove what has become a permanent embarrassment to British democracy?

May we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Yesterday we heard from the Health Secretary the miserable tale of Stafford hospital. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm to the House that the same senior management who were so devastatingly criticised by the Healthcare Commission on Tuesday saw their salaries doubled in 2008, and that one has been appointed to a Government watchdog? Is it not the clearest possible demonstration of Labour’s priorities towards the health service that while they spent their time lining the pockets of a failed management team, there were patients lining the walls of a filthy accident and emergency ward who were dying of neglect?

Lying behind this is, I sense, a growing problem with how health trusts and other public bodies treat correspondence from Members of Parliament. Too often, Members’ letters about a constituent are fobbed off by being sidelined into a complaints procedure designed for another purpose, and also by hiding behind data
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protection. Can the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that when an MP writes to a chief executive they should receive a letter back from that chief executive, that getting a letter from an MP should be regarded as a priority, and that any failure to treat an MP’s letter properly should be a disciplinary offence, even resulting in dismissal?

We are still waiting for the Government’s long-delayed strategic review of reserve forces. We all have reservists in our constituencies. When will we get an announcement, and can the Leader of the House confirm that it will be a full oral statement?

Today 144 further education colleges have their building programmes frozen, and this morning the Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon), the Minister responsible for further education—or should I say, the Minister requiring further education?—offered no reassurance that the Government would prevent those colleges from going bankrupt. May we have an urgent debate to discuss the future of those institutions, which offer vital training to the rapidly rising number of people facing unemployment?

For the umpteenth time, may we ask for a debate and action on Equitable Life? Today the Public Administration Committee has slammed the Government for their callous betrayal of Equitable Life policyholders. It says that the Government have denied them justice. This is a truly scandalous state of affairs in which an unprincipled Government would rather see them all dead than compensated. When will the Government act properly on what the ombudsman has recommended?

On a number of occasions I have raised the farce of Regional Select Committees. The North East Committee has five Labour members, four of whom are Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and the other a long-serving Back Bencher. I am advised that when they met, they picked one of the PPSs as Chairman, and that the only member not in hock to the Government has now decided to resign. Is this true, and may we have a further debate so that we can give the Leader of the House the opportunity to admit her mistake and abolish those Committees?

Yesterday the scarlet-haired Solicitor-General, who has no experience of economic affairs, claimed that we would soon see “green shoots” in the British economy. As a barrister she was known as the “towering inferno”; yesterday, it seems, she finally went up in flames. Is that not the most crass statement that any politician could have made, on the day when it was announced that more than 2 million people are unemployed?

May we have a statement on the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Washington? It seems that the DVDs that President Obama gave the Prime Minister—rather like the Prime Minister himself—do not work in the UK. We are told that one of them was “Psycho” and the other “Gone with the Wind”.

So those are our requests for debate: there is a rotting encampment outside Parliament; there are failed NHS managers with bloated pay packets; the fate of our reserve forces is left dangling; FE colleges are collapsing; Equitable Life pensioners are betrayed; dysfunctional Select Committees are set up; we have a dysfunctional Government; and the Solicitor-General insults the unemployed. How can the Leader of the House defend any of that, without hanging her head in shame and apologising?

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Ms Harman: At last week’s business questions, I answered the hon. Gentleman’s question about the encampment of protesters in Parliament square by saying that he or other colleagues could raise the issue at Justice questions. I added that we had said that as part of the legislative programme, there would be consideration of a Bill on constitutional reform that could address the issue. That is very much under consideration, so I endeavoured to answer him fully on the issue.

On the question of the national health service, there was a statement yesterday about the regrettable situation in Stafford hospital. There will be questions next week. The hon. Gentleman asked about our priorities for the NHS. They are simple and straightforward: that there should be more doctors, nurses and other staff in the NHS—and that is what has happened—that those staff should be better paid, because when we came into government they were extremely badly paid; that there should be tough targets, so that nobody should have to wait in accident and emergency or for a referral for cancer treatment; and that there should be tough inspections. We have pressed forward with our NHS priorities, which people who need treatment can expect and deserve.

The hon. Gentleman raised a serious point about responses to Members who write on behalf of their constituents, or of organisations in their constituencies, to NHS authorities—the chief executives of trusts or PCTs. He has raised an important point on behalf of the House. He had mentioned it to me already, so I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who has raised it with Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS. They have said that they completely agree with the shadow Leader of the House and that if a Member writes to someone in authority in the NHS, that letter should require personal consideration by the chief executive, and a personal response. There is no guidance to that effect at the moment, but my hon. Friend and Sir David are absolutely clear about their view. They are considering whether they should issue guidance, although the matter should have been self-evident. That is the absolutely clear position. If hon. Members have any concerns about the issue, they can take them to the shadow Leader of the House and he can raise them with me, or go directly to my hon. Friend the Health Minister. We do not expect Members’ letters to go into a complaints system that is designed for individual patients, not for accountability, which is what the House’s job is about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about reserve forces, and I should say that next week there will be a full day’s debate on defence. He also made comments about the Solicitor-General, with whom I work closely and with whom I will be taking the equality Bill through the House. In her role as Solicitor-General, she is a great champion of victims of crime. She is also a great champion of her constituents and her region in the north-east. She is a fine Member of Parliament who cares about these issues and is a valued member of the Government. I will not hear a word said against her—I hope that I have made myself clear on that one.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) also asked about Regional Select Committees. When we passed the resolution to set those up, we determined that they would last just for this Parliament,
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and be reviewed thereafter, so they have that consideration of review built in. I appreciate that I am not making progress with Opposition Members, but I still take the view that there are important agencies working at regional level, investing hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and it is a shame if Opposition Members cannot be bothered to hold them to account on behalf of their regions. I hope that they will have a conversion with regard to Regional Committees, although I do not set much store by that expectation. That is a pity, but in the meantime Members who are prepared to hold agencies to account in their regions—Labour Members—are getting on with the job. Until other Members join the Committees, they should not be complaining about them.

As for Equitable Life, when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made her statement in response to the ombudsman’s report she said that the failures that have affected a large number of people were rooted in the original mismanagement of Equitable Life, which goes back to the ’80s. That was compounded by regulatory failure, for which she has apologised. We have acknowledged that regulatory failure and exceptionally, although there is no legal obligation so to do, we are determined to make ex gratia payments, for which a judge has been asked to set up a scheme. Of course, as one would expect, those in the greatest need will be dealt with first. That is how we are proceeding, and we believe that we have made the position clear to the House. The work is under way, and if the Opposition want to hear about it further or debate it, they can choose it as the subject of an Opposition day debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unemployment. We are very concerned indeed for every person who loses their job, whether they are a man working in the car industry or banking industry, a woman working part time or an older person who is heading towards retirement but whose job is still important to them and to their household budget. Employment in the economy is important for the economy as a whole. That is why we are ensuring that we will not be cutting capital spending, as Opposition Members propose, which would make unemployment even worse. It is why we are providing a fiscal boost and putting more money into the economy to help get it going and help staunch the problem of job loss. That has led to an increase in debt as a percentage of GDP. Hon. Members complain about that, but if they are concerned about unemployment, why do they argue that we should not do all the things that we are doing to try to protect the unemployed and prevent even more people from becoming unemployed?

Of course, one thing that the Opposition simply refuse to acknowledge is that there is an unemployment problem across the country as a whole—[Hon. Members: “Too long!”] I have not taken as long answering as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton took asking his questions— [Interruption.] All right, I apologise. I shall therefore finish by mentioning FE colleges.

I remind the House that when we came into government in 1997, the capital budget for FE colleges— [Interruption.] I would just like to ask hon. Members whether they can remember what the capital budget for FE colleges was then. It was £0—there was no capital budget. Since then we have invested massively in further education, and rightly so. I reassure hon. Members that there are 261 colleges for which final approval has been given, or at which there is already work on site, and that the
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capital investments in those 261 colleges will go ahead as planned. Sir Andrew Foster will examine how preliminary approval has been given beyond the programme budget. We acknowledge that that is a problem, and it is being looked into. However, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we will go ahead with the £2.3 billion in this comprehensive spending review period that we have allocated to further education colleges—and I think that £2.3 billion contrasts favourably with £0.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): It was reported yesterday that the disgraced former chairman of RBS was seeking re-election to the board of BP and, surprisingly, was supported in his request by the chairman of BP, who had been a director of RBS. Until we break into the magic circle and old boys’ club, in which the same directors appoint each other to boards, remuneration committees and so on, we will never sort out accountability and the problems that have arisen in the banks and elsewhere. May we have a debate on corporate governance, to ascertain how to address the issue fundamentally, so as to stop problems occurring not only in the banks but in other sectors of our economy?

Ms Harman: The question of corporate governance—and of remuneration, which is intrinsic to it—has been part of the Turner review, which was published yesterday. It will be the subject of a Government response, with national action to gear up financial regulation, which will also be taken forward to the G20 international summit to ensure not only that we have good national action but that it is reinforced by international co-operation on regulation and remuneration.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May we have a debate on communications between the Prime Minister’s office and the outside world? A few years ago, I was in Turkmenistan when the Turkmenbashi was the president. I was told that the Karakum canal was leaking disastrously, but that none of his Ministers dared tell the Turkmenbashi, because they were afraid of the consequences. I wonder whether something similar is happening with the Turkmenbashi of No. 10. The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) gave one example—the further education colleges. It is no good talking about what happened 12 years ago; we need to consider what is happening now. Colleges throughout the country are having their capital schemes frozen.

Another example is the mortgage relief scheme, which I raised directly with the Prime Minister a month or so ago, and which others, including the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), have subsequently taken up. It is no good saying that it will happen when I—I am sure that I am not alone in this—have people in my advice surgery in tears because they are going to court next week, when their house will be repossessed, and the mortgage relief scheme is still not in place. May we therefore have a debate to bring the Prime Minister into the real world loop? He is giving orders, which are not being carried out.

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