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26 Mar 2009 : Column 453

May we have a debate on the misuse of powers granted by this House to combat terrorism and serious crime? We heard a chilling report today about the number of local authorities that use surveillance powers for trivial purposes, and we hear repeated reports about the police using the Terrorism Act 2000 for inappropriate purposes, whether it is questioning 2,000 people at train stations—train-spotters are apparently a threat to the state—photographers taking pictures of London street scenes, anglers who make the mistake of fishing at night, or the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) attending the House of Commons. Those cases involve misuse of those powers. May we have a debate?

Lastly, I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Lady has a Facebook account, and I do not know whether she has been poked recently—Facebook users know what that means—or whether she has been asked to intervene. My Facebook friends are very upset at Home Office plans to snoop on sites such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace. May we have a debate on that disproportionate and unnecessary extension of state powers, which leads us, despite it being 2009, inexorably to “1984”?

Ms Harman: On the Coroners and Justice Bill, if we had not had a programme motion, we might have ended up with two days’ discussion of inquests in camera. Twenty-five Members contributed to the first debate, which is why time was squeezed for the important discussions on murder. Because so many Members wanted to contribute to the first debate, exceptionally we allowed two days. If we had not had a programme motion, we would have ended up with two days’ debate on the first question. The programme motion ensured that on the second day we discussed incitement to homophobic hatred and a Government amendment tabled in response to complaints from the Opposition and others about our data-sharing measures. We tried to be as helpful as possible. Even though we provided two days for debate, it was not possible to discuss all the issues when so many Members wanted to contribute on the first matter of inquests in camera.

We will make sure that the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill is properly scrutinised.

On local councils and surveillance, local communities ask local councils to use CCTV to catch fly-tippers and stop illegal trading. Local communities ask for CCTV in shopping centres and their local areas, which has nothing to do with the misuse of anti-terrorism powers. Having said that, the Minister for Local Government has written to local councils reminding them that they should use their surveillance powers appropriately.

The hon. Gentleman asked about tackling disease in developing countries. He understands that we have increased the budget for developing countries to help to tackle disease. This Government played a leading role in the introduction of millennium development goals to deal with avoidable diseases, and we have worked to move up the international agenda tackling the problems faced by developing countries. Even in the midst of our preoccupation with the effect of the global downturn on this country, the Prime Minister has been sure to emphasise, through the work leading up to the G20, that we must act together internationally to protect developing countries from the downturn as well.

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Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will recall her comments about the problems facing charities such as Naomi House children’s hospice, which serves my constituency and those of many other hon. Members, following the collapse of the Icelandic banks. Will she prevail on her colleagues in the Treasury to find a way to include charities such as Naomi House in the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, as it was never the intention to exclude all charities from the scheme, particularly those that care for terminally ill children?

Ms Harman: I reinforce the points that I have made about Naomi House providing an important service for families with children who need hospice care, and I know that my hon. Friend values that work. Naomi House was particularly unfortunate, because some 60 per cent. of its reserves were in one Icelandic bank. We want to ensure that the administrators ultimately cover all the deposits and that, ultimately, Naomi House gets its money back. However, that is not the point; the point is that Naomi House should be able to carry on doing its good work and extend it as planned. Last week, I spoke to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Phil Hope), about the matter, and meetings are taking place between Naomi House and the local primary care trusts and strategic health authority. There is an absolute determination to support Naomi House’s work in the future, as well as to make sure that it and other charities get back all the money held in Icelandic banks.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): May we have an early debate and a vote on Equitable Life? At Treasury questions, the Executive declared war on Parliament, when a Minister spoke in disobliging terms about an Officer of the House and the unanimous report of a Select Committee. Before the Government spend too much time on the Chadwick review, does it not make sense to ensure that that review has the support of the House of Commons?

Ms Harman: I have nothing to add to what the Treasury Minister said, except to say that the matter can be raised in the pre-recess Adjournment debate. If the Opposition want a Minister specifically to respond to the point, they can raise the matter in an Opposition day debate.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): The importance of hospice care has already been mentioned this afternoon. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware of how much hospice care depends on voluntary donations by the public and corporate bodies. On Saturday, I will open the spring fair for the George Thomas hospice in my constituency. In these difficult times caused by the global economic downturn, donations from the public and corporate donors decline. When can we have a debate on that important subject and on ensuring that hospices can continue their work?

Ms Harman: I hope that the spring fair for the George Thomas hospice goes well, and I know that my hon. Friend is a strong supporter of it. Perhaps we should have a topical debate on the effect on charities of the fall-off in charitable giving, particularly by corporate bodies, and discuss what our strategic response should be. I believe that all Members think that the work of the
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charitable and voluntary sector is very important indeed, and a debate might provide us with an opportunity to decide whether we are doing enough to protect it.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Now that the right hon. and learned Lady is taking an interest in the work ethic in this House, will she turn her attention to the work ethic of her fellow Ministers? In October, I wrote to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury on behalf of a constituent about bonuses paid by banks. As is my practice, I followed up with chaser letters, but to no avail, so we resorted to the telephone. On 3 March, my office phoned the private office of Lord Myners chasing a reply to my letter, only to be told that 900 letters were waiting to be signed by Lord Myners. When still no reply came, we phoned again on 24 October, and were told that approximately 950 letters were now waiting to be signed by Lord Myners. We have been invited to telephone his office yet again this afternoon. I wish the right hon. and learned Lady would do something about this.

Ms Harman: I will follow that up. It is important that hon. Members are able to get letters from Ministers promptly.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate on the financial ineptitudes of shire county councils such as Kent, which invested £50 million of taxpayers’ money in the failing Icelandic banks? Does she agree with the Audit Commission’s findings published today, which label Kent county council’s actions as neglect?

Ms Harman: It is very worrying that the Audit Commission has said that Kent county council did not properly check where the reserves were being put on behalf of ratepayers. I am sure that the Minister for Local Government will follow up this important point.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): May we have a debate on the construction industry? The Government have said that the industry is important to provide economic stimulus; the Conservatives have said that no additional funds will be made available for that industry to provide that stimulus; the industry itself believes it can provide that economic stimulus. May we have a debate, so we can tell the industry what it can provide and when it can provide it, both as a short-term measure and a long-term strategy?

Ms Harman: Such issues will be reflected in the economic debate next week, and in the debate following the Budget statement.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that women working at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency earn £5,000 per year less than men with very similar responsibilities who work at the Driving Standards Agency? Both agencies are part of the Department for Transport and both have Crown employees. May we have a debate on this matter?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There will be plenty of opportunity to debate this when we introduce the equality Bill. The reality is that women are not less committed to their jobs, or less qualified,
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less hard working, or less valuable in the workplace, but they are paid less. We need a strong equality Bill to make sure we strip away the secrecy that allows discrimination against women at work to flourish.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is the Leader of the House aware that there is growing anger in East Yorkshire and across Humberside, and, indeed, elsewhere, over the behaviour of some private wheel-clamping firms? Does she know that although they have to be licensed, many of them still use threatening behaviour to extract exorbitant fines from unsuspecting motorists? If we cannot have a debate next week, will she ask the Home Secretary to expedite her review, so that we can soon have in place new rules to stop this licensed thuggery?

Ms Harman: This issue was raised with me in the House, and I discussed it with the Home Secretary. I think she fully agrees with the points the right hon. Gentleman makes on behalf of his constituents and those in his region, and when the review finally reaches its conclusion I am sure he will not be disappointed with its findings.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): I recall that at last week’s business questions three hon. Members raised the financial problems within the Learning and Skills Council. Since last Thursday, the chief executive has resigned and the implications of the financial misjudgments are now extending to other colleges that had in the pipeline not major capital projects but minor capital projects for which they could reasonably expect to receive a smaller contribution from the LSC. Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for a debate, because it would enable us not only to remind the country that in the last year of the previous Conservative Government there was no capital budget for further education and that in the last three years of the previous Conservative Government a 7 per cent. annual cut in FE revenue spend was required, but to see exactly how the current Government can resolve this problem?

Ms Harman: It is right to point out that under the Conservative Government the capital budget for learning and skills in further education was not mismanaged because there was no such budget. I think there has been mismanagement and, as my hon. Friend says, the chief executive of the LSC has resigned. At the request of the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Sir Andrew Foster is conducting a review. I think it is likely that there will be an oral statement when the review is concluded, and Members will have a chance to hear from the Minister and raise points.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Members on both sides of the House have raised with the Leader of the House their concern about the iniquity of the surface water charges being levied by water authorities and water companies. In my own area, United Utilities has declared a temporary moratorium for village halls, Scout organisations, churches and sporting clubs, but will she find time for a topical debate, because this House has never decided that such charges should be levied, and in my view they are unfair and iniquitous and place burdens on organisations that clearly do not have the money to pay?

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Ms Harman: This is an important issue, particularly for village halls, Scout groups and churches. It might be worth while for the hon. Gentleman to raise it with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers at oral questions next week.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): May I return to the debacle over the LSC’s total mismanagement of the Building Colleges for the Future programme? It was discussed in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday that was so over-subscribed that many Members were not called to speak. That was not surprising given that 144 new college build schemes have now been put on hold, including the College of West Anglia scheme in the town of March in my constituency, which was linked to 270 new homes under the regional spatial strategy for Cambridgeshire, a new country park, a £500,000 business centre and significant transport improvements, not to mention a massive uplift in education provision for an area with performance indicators well below the national average. May we have a debate as a matter of urgency to explore the reasons behind this massive Labour Government cut in education spending, and to find a way forward for those colleges, which are now in truly parlous situations?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman ought to reflect on the fact that this is mismanagement; it is not a cut, as we have increased the LSC’s budget. We make no bones about the fact that there has been mismanagement by the LSC, but 261 college projects are going ahead, although in saying that I do not seek to minimise the problems for the 144 that are not. I know this is of concern to the House, because plans have been made and money has been spent in areas that were expecting the colleges to go ahead. I know the House will want to discuss this further. We will probably start with an oral statement, and then we will have to reflect on whether there needs to be a further opportunity for debate.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I know that the Leader of the House has already been asked to arrange a debate on Equitable Life, but will she use her good offices to see whether we can speed up payouts to Equitable Life policyholders? I ask that because there is not a constituency in this country that has not been affected.

Ms Harman: I know that this matter was addressed by Treasury Ministers this morning, and I am sure that they, like my hon. Friend and I, and, indeed, all hon. Members, want the ex gratia payment scheme to come into effect as soon as possible. It should be a matter of priority that those who are in most difficulty receive payments first.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the tax treatment by HMRC of sporting stars’ testimonials? The committee representing one of my constituents has been trying to get an answer out of HMRC about the tax treatment of a sporting star’s testimonial. It is clear that HMRC deals with cricketers and rugby players differently, and that there is a massive amount of delay, confusion and disarray in HMRC on this matter. All that the committee that looks after the affairs of my constituent is getting from HMRC is confusion, delay and obfuscation. If we cannot have an urgent debate, will the Leader of the House urge Treasury Ministers to see me and members of the committee?

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Ms Harman: I do not know whether the hon. and learned Gentleman tried to put a question to Treasury Ministers, but if he did not manage to catch the Speaker’s eye earlier it would probably be a good idea for him to follow this up with a written question. In any case, I shall bring the fact that he has raised this matter to the attention of Treasury Ministers.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): When the Leader of the House left Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, she missed three points of order made by my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), and the hon. Members for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), which can be found at column 308 of Hansard. Each of them contradicted the statement she made yesterday that this Government were not cutting spending, as that is indeed their plan for Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. May we have an urgent debate in Government time on the impact of Government cuts to the nations and the Province, and will she lead it so that she can, at least and at last, bring herself up to speed with Government policy?

Ms Harman: I am up to speed with Government policy, and I know, as the hon. Gentleman does, that the Barnett formula applies to Scotland. I can also tell him emphatically that of course we are not cutting spending in Scotland and Wales at the very time when public spending is more important, as the country faces this global economic crisis—it is absolutely not the case that we are cutting spending now, in a recession. He is referring to the determination to ensure that across England, Scotland and Wales we get better value for public money spent. In Wales and England, a commitment has been made to secure 3 per cent. more efficiency in how public money is spent, but the Scottish Executive want to sign up to only 2 per cent.—that is 1 per cent. less than in England and Wales. They should be prepared to show as much determination to ensure that public money is well spent as their counterparts in England and Wales, and they should not peddle the myths that we are cutting money to Scotland and that I do not know what I am talking about, as both of those are wrong.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): May we have a debate on regional development agencies? The south-west’s RDA is putting more money into Swindon, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth than it is into the rural areas. Somerset, which is a tourist destination, as the Leader of the House is well aware, is finding it harder—or impossible—to get decent sums out of the RDA, as is Bridgwater, which is the only industrial town in the south-west. Please could we look carefully at what is happening, because if this continues in this recession, it will be harder and harder for investment to come into our areas because of the RDA’s attitude?

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