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Ms Harman: The work of the RDAs is even more important as the country faces this economic downturn. Hon. Members surely wish to be able to hold RDAs to account for the balance of spending within a region, and the best way of doing that is by being on the relevant Regional Committee. Following the decision of the House, we are trying out Regional Committees only for the lifetime of this Parliament, so Conservative Members should at least try them. If, afterwards, they
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think that the Committees are a waste of time, they can say, “I told you so”, but they will not even try them. If they have these concerns, they should get on the Regional Committees and see whether they can help.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I think that when the Chief Whip said that he thought 5 per cent. of Labour MPs were not pulling their weight he was confused; what we have seen today is that about 5 per cent. of Labour MPs are pulling their weight—and that does include the Leader of the House. I hope she can use her weight to get a debate on the lack of educational psychologists in this country, particularly in Lancashire. One of my constituents wrote to me about the cancellation of an appointment with an educational psychologist. When I wrote to the county council, it said it was having great difficulty recruiting any educational psychologists. There is clearly a lack of them throughout the country, so can we have a debate on the issue?

Ms Harman: I shall raise that point with my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. I take it that my colleagues are happy to leave me to get on with putting to the House the business of the House while they work hard in their constituencies.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): The Leader of House will have noted that Lord Myners responded in writing to the Treasury Committee admitting that he had—no doubt, mistakenly—given false evidence to it the week before and did understand and know all the details of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension. In the light of that, should we not have a statement from the Chancellor, and should not Lord Myners be considering his position?

Ms Harman: No, he should not. I did not watch all of Treasury questions, so I do not know whether this matter was raised. The focus of Ministers, particularly Lord Myners, in relation to Royal Bank of Scotland was on the fact that one of the biggest banks in the world was about to go off the edge of a cliff. His and our determination was to ensure that that did not happen, as it would have had catastrophic effects on all the staff in the organisation and on the whole banking system—in particular, on depositors. That was the main focus of his work, and it was the correct one. We are looking to see whether the pension arrangements really do hold water legally.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I wish to add to the calls for a debate on further education, as the crisis in funding is hitting my constituency hard. The Government’s response in yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate was shambolic, and the Leader of the House needs to intervene urgently so that we can get either the oral statement that she has talked about or a debate, including a response from the Secretary of State, so that colleges in my constituency can get the reassurance they need for the future.

Ms Harman: I will undertake to listen with genuine concern to the points raised by Conservative Members on further education colleges in their constituencies if they will reverse their plan to impose £600 million of cuts. I am concerned about FE colleges, be they in my constituency or in the hon. Lady’s, but the fact is that her party’s plans are to cut £600 million off—

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Mr. Speaker has already given advice to the Government Front-Bench team this morning about referring to Opposition policies, so to be consistent I should restrain the right hon. and learned Lady at that particular point. While I am on my feet, may I also say that I want to try to call all Members, but it would be very helpful if the questions were brief and the answers equally concise?

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Last week, the Leader of the House said that she took seriously the points I made about the need for this House to scrutinise legislation. May I suggest to her constructively—we recognise that two days were given on the Coroners and Justice Bill and more time was given in Committee—that the solution must be that discussions be held about whether programme motions can be negotiated and agreed and we, in turn, can agree to restrictions on the length of speeches on Report, if necessary? That would mean that everything we need to have debated could be debated, and everybody would win. Will she engage constructively in those discussions?

Ms Harman: The Government Whips do engage in discussions with their opposite numbers, and we will always try to get as much scrutiny as possible. We did see whether changes could be made that would meet with approval from all parts of the House, but some Members wanted to spend more time discussing the inquests in camera issue whereas others wanted to spend more time discussing murder and assisted suicide, and it was not possible to reach an accommodation with which everybody agreed.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I welcome the fact that we are having an early debate on the economy, but I regret the fact that the Prime Minister will not speak for the Government. May I suggest that we rearrange the debate so that he can? Given the evidence of the chairman of the Financial Services Authority and the Governor of the Bank of England, it is plain that the Prime Minister has a huge personal responsibility for the economic plight of this country. Given that, to organise a debate without the presence of the Prime Minister is rather like organising a criminal case without the principal defendant being in the dock.

Ms Harman: When making statements following international meetings, the Prime Minister deals extensively with economic issues, and he answers questions in the House every Wednesday.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that we have 80,000 prisoners in this country, that two thirds of them reoffend within two years of release, and that the whole system, including reoffending, costs £18,000 million a year, is it not time that we debated the Centre for Social Justice report “Locked Up Potential”, which calls for the scrapping of the three planned Titan prisons, for community prisons in their stead, and for an increased focus on education, training and rehabilitation?

Ms Harman: That point was raised yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, and I shall raise it with the Justice Secretary.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We have not reached the acme of brevity for which I was hoping.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Last week, I asked the Leader of the House whether we could have a debate on the future of the Hemel Hempstead hospital. She said that I should have given her notice. I have raised the issue 25 times in business questions, and I would have thought that was enough notice. Since last week, the Highways Agency has put up new signs at junction 8 of the M1, displaying “Hospital A&E”. It is closed: will the Secretary of State for Transport come and explain why he is leading people astray?

Ms Harman: I think that it is the Secretary of State for Health that the hon. Gentleman is after. Did the hon. Gentleman ask a question about this at Health questions on Tuesday? It is a matter for Health questions rather than business questions.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On Monday, the Prime Minister was slightly confused. When trying to dodge the Leader of the Opposition’s question about why the Prime Minister was not reporting to Parliament on the G20 summit, he said that the date of the summit had been arranged months after the Easter recess. In fact, the Easter recess was decided on 11 March this year, but the G20 was announced on 26 November last year. Can we get the Prime Minister to come this Thursday to report on the G20 summit?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister takes his responsibilities to account to the House very seriously. I do not know the exact numbers, but I think that he has made more statements to the House than most other Prime Ministers—I will look up the figures. No doubt the Prime Minister will want to account to the House in respect of the G20 summit.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): A number of local authorities have been found by the Audit Commission to be financially negligent in their investments with Icelandic banks, including the London borough of Havering, which is noted for its financial probity. May we have a debate on the exact nature of the warnings that were given, where the information came from and how it was communicated, because this will be a matter of great concern for local taxpayers?

Ms Harman: It will be a particular concern to the seven authorities that were mentioned, and perhaps that is an issue on which hon. Members could apply for a debate on the Adjournment.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Our suspicion that the disgraceful curtailment of debate on the Report stage of the Coroners and Justice Bill on Monday had more to do with chicanery over the issues of assisted suicide and murder than anything else was confirmed by the fact that the following day, at 11.20 am, we received a wodge of letters from the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), the Minister on the Bill, answering a variety of questions asked in Committee—on which I served—about the coronial system. Ministers replied after any opportunity to debate the matter in the House. Does the Leader of the House agree that that is an appalling waste of ministerial time, and what can she do to ensure that it does not happen in future?

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Ms Harman: I have looked, in some detail, into how we could have ordered things differently—[Hon. Members: “More time!”] Well, we had two days on Report, which was exceptional. I will look at the issue again to see whether any lessons can be learnt, but I ask hon. Members to recognise that there was no chicanery. We have no interest in anything other than proper scrutiny of the Bill. I cannot see how we could have tried harder to reach agreement, but I will look at that again.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), is the Leader of the House aware that the College of West Anglia was planning not only a new campus in March, but a £100 million-plus new campus in King’s Lynn on a brownfield site, on which depended new houses, business units and a new city academy? What does she say to those colleges that have spent large sums preparing such plans? May we have a debate and a confirmation that if those plans are cancelled, the colleges will get their money back?

Ms Harman: We await Sir Andrew Foster’s report. The Secretary of State will report to the House and there will then be announcements and an opportunity to discuss how we go forward beyond what is clearly bad mismanagement.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Leader of the House will know that many Members of Parliament have had many letters from constituents about Equitable Life. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) mentioned the comments by the Economic Secretary. In my right hon. Friend’s polite way, he described them as disobliging remarks about an Officer of the House. Does the Leader of the House agree with the Economic Secretary? If she does, does she not think that that is in conflict with her position as Leader of the House and guardian of the rights of Members?

Ms Harman: I did not hear what the Economic Secretary said, but I was present when the Chief Secretary made her statement. She acknowledged that there had been errors in management of Equitable Life that went back to the 1980s; that there had been regulatory failures for which apologies were owed and had been given; and that although there was no legal obligation to pay compensation the Government were determined, exceptionally, to make payments in recompense and a system for doing so was being established.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on the NHS’s recruitment priorities? I recently attended No.10 Downing street with an excellent organisation called to complain about the lack of midwives, and many of my constituents still find it very difficult to find an NHS dentist, but last year the NHS recruited an extra 9.4 per cent. of managers. Surely the resources of the NHS should be directed at front-line care, rather than bureaucrats filling in forms to meet Government targets?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman could have asked that question in Health questions earlier this week.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Political Parties and Elections Bill is now before the upper House. The Leader of the House may be aware that two
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Liberal Democrat peers have tabled an amendment to strike out the new clause about confidentiality of candidates’ home addresses, which was included in the Bill after a free vote for Conservative and Labour Members, but a whipped vote against for Liberal Democrats. What would the Government’s attitude be in the strange event of the upper House deciding to overrule a free vote in the lower House about whether our home addresses have to be revealed when we stand for election—something that Members of the upper House, fortunately for them, do not have to do?

Ms Harman: I voted for the hon. Gentleman’s amendment on a free vote. I assume that if the issue comes back to this House, it will be subject to a free vote again, and I would vote for it again. Our constituents are entitled to know whether candidates live in the constituency, but they should not necessarily know the flat number or road, so the amendment was a sensible one.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for saying that the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill will receive proper scrutiny. I would be grateful if she explained how that will happen.

To return to the issue of Equitable Life, there was an extraordinary statement by the Economic Secretary earlier. The Select Committee has described the Government position as “morally unacceptable”. Surely it is cause enough for a debate in this House when the ombudsman and the Select Committee are in direct opposition to the Executive. The Leader of the House has so far ducked the question. May we have a debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. As the hon. Gentleman was the last to be called, I indulged him with two questions, but he is now pushing it.

Ms Harman: It is open to the Opposition to choose that subject for an Opposition day debate.

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Council Tax

12.30 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on council tax in England and the capping action that the Government propose to take for 2009-10. Today, the Department has released figures showing that the average band D council tax increase in England next year will be 3 per cent., the lowest increase for 15 years. The average council tax rise for all households will be 2.6 per cent., the lowest ever since the council tax was introduced.

There are three reasons for that. First, Government funding for local services is rising by 4.2 per cent. in 2009-10—an extra £3 billion and the 12th successive annual increase above inflation for local government since 1997. Secondly, local authorities are taking seriously their responsibility to residents to tighten their belts and operate more efficiently. Thirdly, although I know local government does not like it, council tax capping helps concentrate the minds of councils. I have consistently said that we will take tough action when it is necessary to protect council tax payers against excessive increases—I said so to the House in November in my statement on the provisional local government finance settlement.

I therefore want to set out for the House the action that we are now taking. Our capping principles relate both to an authority’s council tax and to its budget requirement, which, broadly speaking, is the spending financed through the formula grant and council tax. I can confirm that our capping principles are that authorities’ 2009-10 requirements are excessive if they set a budget requirement increase of more than 4 per cent. for 2009-10 or a band D council tax increase of more than 5 per cent. For an authority that was set a notional budget requirement following capping action in 2008-09, these principles operate by reference to that notional budget requirement and a related notional amount of council tax calculated for that year. The principles are described in more detail in a report that I am placing in the Library of the House.

I realise—especially as I look around the Chamber—that not all Members will be familiar with the concept of a notional budget requirement. Put simply, it is one of our capping options. It involves the Government’s setting figures for an authority against which their future increases are compared—last year, those figures were equal to the caps that would otherwise have been imposed in year in 2008-09. The requirement puts a greater onus on authorities to control their budget and council tax the following year, as they are measured against the lower baseline.

Of the eight authorities against which we took capping action in 2008-09, four were set notional budget requirements. They were Bedfordshire, Norfolk and Surrey police authorities and Portsmouth city council. This year, two authorities have exceeded the principles I have announced. They are the police authorities of Derbyshire and Surrey. All other councils, police authorities and fire and rescue authorities have set increases within the limits I am confirming today.

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