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7 May 2009 : Column 347

Business of the House

11.36 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

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

Monday 11 May—Second Reading of the Equality Bill.

Tuesday 12 May—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 13 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 14 May—Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on swine flu.

Friday 15 May—Private Member’s Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 May will include:

Monday 18 May—Opposition Day (11th Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Tuesday 19 May—Remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill.

Wednesday 20 May—Motion relating to the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General, followed by motion relating to national policy statements, followed by motion relating to the Communications (Television Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 21 May—Motion on the Whitsun Recess Adjournment.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 21 May will be:

Thursday 21 May—Debate on the report from the International Development Committee on the World Food Programme and global food security.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. We are grateful that in a few moments we will have a further update on the spread of swine flu. I also thank her for acting on my suggestion last week that we should use next Thursday for a full debate on the matter. With some experts warning that the virus could cause the greatest damage next autumn, it is right that the House has an opportunity to discuss all aspects of that serious issue.

May I applaud once again the courage and determination of the parliamentary ombudsman? Yesterday, she published a second, even more damning, report into what she termed the “unremedied injustice” inflicted on the thousands of pensioners who lost their money in the collapse of Equitable Life. It is an extraordinary document that exposes the casual cruelty of a Government who have become so involved with themselves that they have completely lost touch with those whom they are most supposed to serve.

This is the sixth time that I have raised the issue at the Dispatch Box, and the right hon. and learned Lady seems incapable of telling the House how the Government intend to compensate those policyholders who face destitution in their retirement. The ombudsman has demanded compensation, but the Government are insisting on defying her. Many find that dismissive attitude sick
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and callous. Will the right hon. and learned Lady promise not to shame herself and her Government even further with another fob-off, and instead to grant the House the urgent debate that I and many others Members have sought for so long? Will she also promise to give us a firm and immediate plan for the compensation that justice requires?

When it comes to justice, we should not need a celebrity campaigner to jolt the Government’s conscience. We should none the less take the opportunity to congratulate Joanna Lumley, who has worked tirelessly to challenge the Government’s shabby treatment of the Gurkhas. Miss Lumley says that she trusts that the Prime Minister will now do the right thing; let me add that the whole country hopes that it can trust the Prime Minister to do the right thing.

There are already fears that the Prime Minister is rowing back from the apparent change of heart that was announced after his meeting with Miss Lumley yesterday. Let us be clear about this. When will we hear the statement that the Prime Minister promised during Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and when will the Government set out how they intend to make good his promises to Miss Lumley?

As well as fair treatment for those who have served their country, there is the fair treatment to which everyone is entitled under our law. One of the great principles that are supposed to govern our claim to be a civilised society is the principle that everyone is innocent until proved guilty, and is properly treated as such. Keeping someone’s DNA on record following arrest when no charges are subsequently brought introduces a cloud of permanent suspicion where none is warranted. Will the Leader of the House appreciate that providing a written statement on something so important just will not do, and that the retention of such records should be discussed either in a full debate or following a full oral statement? In the eyes of many, this is another example of the Government’s having too little regard for civil liberty and justice.

The news that 77 Chinese children have disappeared from a London care home over the last three years is totally horrific. One can but ask what on earth is going on. How can such a staggering fact be treated so lightly in the centre of government? The Prime Minister said yesterday that the Home Secretary would be investigating, and would report to the House. When will we be given a full statement about what has gone on?

When will we next have a chance to debate health and safety rules? When we do, might we just be given an opportunity to discuss the absurdity of a police constable’s refusal to get on a bike because he had not passed his cycling proficiency test? What does the Leader of the House think that Sir Robert Peel would have thought of this PC PC, and might she perhaps speculate on what Lord Tebbit would have to say on the matter?

Will the Leader of the House also take the opportunity to comment on early-day motion 1356, which concerns the pay of House of Commons cleaners?

[ That this House recognises the invaluable contribution made by the House of Commons cleaners; notes that hon. Members depend on the vital services provided by these workers to ensure the smooth running of the House; expresses concern and disappointment that the House of Commons cleaners are receiving an hourly wage below the
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London Living Wage and that they have been waiting months for an agreed 45 pence rise in their hourly rate; and calls on KGB Cleaning and Support Services, the cleaners' employers, and the House authorities urgently to resolve this unacceptable situation and give these workers the pay they deserve.

Does it cause her any concern for the security of this place and, perhaps, the security of our data that the company in question is called KGB Cleaning?

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, he and all other Members will have an opportunity to hear more about swine flu from the Secretary of State for Health when he updates the House in his statement later today. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s request, we have also chosen it as the subject for a general debate next week.

We have agreed that following the mistakes made not just by Equitable Life but by the regulatory regime, financial recompense should be paid. Sir John Chadwick is looking into how the scheme can be put into effect.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Get on with it.

Ms Harman: He is getting on with it. He will update Ministers, and Ministers will update the House, very shortly. We are concerned about the fact that people have been affected by the mistakes made not only by Equitable Life but by the regulatory regime—for which the Government have apologised—and action will be taken.

We did take action on the Gurkhas in 1997, but both the public and Parliament want us to do more, and we will. That has been made clear by the Prime Minister, and was also made clear in the statement at the end of the Opposition day debate last week.

The hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) raised the question of the consultation on the keeping of DNA records, and asked whether this was not another example of our having too little regard for justice. I would say quite the opposite: this is us having regard for justice. I will give an example; Abdul Azad was arrested for violent disorder and had his DNA taken in February 2005. He was released without charge, but his DNA was kept. Later, there was a rape in Stafford, 25 miles away from where he lived. It was a stranger rape; the woman had no idea who had raped her, but a man’s DNA was under her fingernails. Because his DNA had been kept after arrest for violent disorder, Abdul Azad was arrested and put in prison. I say to hon. Members that this is about justice. The point about rape is that it is often a repeat offence; not only is it important for that woman that justice should be done, but it protects other women. The hon. Gentleman puts himself against justice when he argues against keeping DNA on the database.

On the question of the policeman failing to get on his bike, the only thing I can say is that if the Conservative spending cuts were put into effect, there would be fewer police to get on any bikes in the future.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. and learned Friend look carefully at what is happening on the east coast main line, one of our
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premier lines? Ever since National Express took over the franchise, it has systematically run down the quality of the line and put up prices. Surely our Government will not bail them out to the tune of £1 billion. Surely we should take the franchise away from National Express and run it as a national concern.

Ms Harman: Perhaps I might suggest that my hon. Friend raises that issue at Transport questions next week.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I notice that, on 19 May, we have the remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill; one single day, yet again, for a major criminal justice Bill. We have repeatedly argued that the Government simply cannot allow Bills to be taken through the House without key parts of criminal justice being discussed. Will she please look at that again?

Perhaps we should have a debate on the wider conduct of the Home Office; the point, quite rightly, has been made about the way in which the Home Office has chosen, effectively, to ignore a court ruling against it on DNA samples. There is an inability to understand what the word “innocent” means; innocent means innocent. It is not a question of an offender or a repeat offence; it is an innocent person. That is the key to the debate that we should have.

Perhaps we could also discuss why figures reveal that the stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 were used by the Metropolitan police on an enormous number of occasions; once every three minutes. Can that be justified?

Last week, Lord Laming produced his progress report on the protection of children in England. It is very welcome, but it is simply a review of what has been happening. Can we have a debate on the future of child protection in this country and how we are going to establish proper and long-term measures to improve those areas that are falling lamentably short of what we expect on child protection, so that we can try to avoid the sort of tragedies that have become only too frequent?

Lastly, could we have a debate to help the Government understand and recognise when they owe a debt of honour? I am still very concerned that the Government do not understand the decision of the House last week in respect of the Gurkhas. The Minister for Borders and Immigration said that he respected the will of the House of Commons. Yesterday, the Prime Minister could only say that the Government would listen to the voice of the House. As one of the co-sponsors of the motion that was passed overwhelmingly in this House, I do not know what part of the word “immediately” the Government do not understand, and that is what the motion said.

The ombudsman report, already mentioned, refers to

Do the Government not understand that their squirming on this issue—albeit it partly involves matters outside their own control—does them no credit at all, and that the ombudsman is right?

Finally, let me turn to the issue of the Iraqi interpreters. I was absolutely against the expedition into Iraq, but I respect the fact that there were people in Iraq who were
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prepared to help the British forces by acting as interpreters. We now understand that the Government have peremptorily removed the scheme under which they are given protection and assistance to enter this country; that will come to an end on 19 May. That is no way to repay a debt of honour; the Government need to understand that.

Ms Harman: I have made strong efforts to ensure that we do not overload the Report stage of the Policing and Crime Bill with Government amendments, unless they arise in response to points made in Committee. I will, however, look at how much time is needed for the Bill.

On Equitable Life, as I said earlier, Sir John Chadwick has been asked to look into a number of important questions that will need to be considered for the setting up of a scheme. We hope to have an interim update from him very soon and, after he has reported, we will put in place a scheme that is fair to both policyholders and taxpayers. The complexities involved in this issue are exemplified by the fact that it took about four years for the ombudsman to produce her report. For each individual who has been affected, however, it is not a complex issue; they have lost out, and they need financial recompense. We are very concerned about this, and have taken action.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge, there was no right to settlement for any Gurkhas before 1997, and we acted. We have listened to public opinion and what the House has said, and we will go further, because that is in line with the public view and the will of the House as expressed in our debate last week.

I will look for an opportunity to debate child protection. As a number of issues come together in this important matter, we might need to have a topical debate on it, and one is available next week.

The hon. Gentleman has also raised the issue of the DNA database, and he has said that “innocent means innocent”. Well, let me tell him about another case. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Leader of the House made that case in a previous answer. As the point has been made, I think that we should leave it at that, because I am concerned about the business of the day; our earlier oral questions ran over their allotted time, and I want to be able to call Back Benchers to speak.

Ms Harman: Therefore, I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said to the shadow Leader of the House.

Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): Does the Leader of the House accept that the views expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the scrutiny of legislation on Report are shared and sympathised with across the whole House? Large chunks of major Bills—such as the Policing and Crime Bill, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and the Coroners and Justice Bill—are passing unscrutinised, and they often include Government new clauses and amendments. Is it not time that we returned to having programme motions by cross-party agreement in advance? We are sent here to scrutinise legislation, but if there is insufficient time on Report, it is impossible for us to do that job.

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Ms Harman: This year, we have given two days for the Report stage of two Bills. No Bill passes through this House without scrutiny both on the Floor of the House on Report and upstairs in Committee. Therefore, although there might be an argument about the amount of scrutiny, Bills do not pass without scrutiny, and I would not want my hon. Friend to make that point. We have to balance the need for debate and scrutiny on Report with the need for general debates, topical debates that the House asks for, and regular debates, such as on issues involving Select Committees and defence. We are always looking to ensure that we get the balance right.

Mr. Michael Mates (East Hampshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House please do something about the falling standards of ministerial replies to hon. Members? This morning, I have signed eight letters chasing Ministers. The Treasury is the worst offender—my correspondence with it dates back to January. For letters from hon. Members to go unanswered for that length of time is simply unacceptable. While the Leader of the House is addressing this matter, will she also try to put a stop to another trend, which is that ministerial replies are increasingly being signed not by Ministers, but by officials? That is simply not good enough.

Ms Harman: As I said last week, I think we would all agree that it is all right for letters from Ministers to hon. Members to be dictated by the Minister but signed in their absence. However, I think there is an issue to do with what is being delegated to agencies, and I will look into that. There should be no official answers to Members of this House from departmental staff; if a Member writes to a Minister, the Minister should reply, because that is part of the nature of accountability. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to copy in the Deputy Leader of the House on this issue, and we will then follow up all the answers he has mentioned. This is not only a question of who answers; there must also be prompt answers. It is very important that information is given at the time that it is asked for; that is a basic, bottom-standard performance indicator for Ministers.

Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): May we have a debate about the state of railway stations throughout the UK? I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend would agree that, for many visitors, railway stations form the first and last impression of a location. Unfortunately, however, the railway station in my Dundee constituency is both an eyesore and unwelcoming—unlike the people of Dundee, who love welcoming visitors to the city. Such a debate would at least allow me to determine who exactly is responsible for the railway station, as National Express, Network Rail, First ScotRail, the Scottish Executive and the separatist Scottish National party-led local council keep passing the buck to each other.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes that point forcefully on behalf of his Dundee constituency, and I suggest that he starts exploring the matter by asking an oral question at Transport questions next week.

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