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14 May 2009 : Column 1017

Business of the House

11.33 am

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the forthcoming parliamentary business?

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

Monday 18 May—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled “Crisis in Funding Further Education and Training”, followed by a debate on Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

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 a motion relating to National Policy Statements, followed by a motion relating to the Communications (Television Licensing) (Amendment) Regulations 2009.

Thursday 21 May—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the week commencing 1 June will include:

Monday 1 June—Second Reading of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 2 June—Second Reading of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 3 June—General debate: subject to be announced; the Chairman of Ways and Means will then name opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 4 June—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence in the world.

Alan Duncan: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. May I raise again the need for a statement on the case of the 80 or more Chinese children who have disappeared from a London care centre? We were promised a report to the House two weeks ago, since when we have heard nothing. There are some things in life that really are important, and this is one of them. What will the world say about our priorities if we fail to raise in this House this scandalous, shocking and vile trade in children that is going on under our noses? The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has asserted that Chinese children who arrive alone at a British airport are taken into local authority care and two thirds of them vanish within a week. To put it into plain English, for God’s sake what is going on? Victorian campaigners stamped out child prostitution and now, in the twenty-first century, it seems to be back.

I know that the whole House will have welcomed your statement, Mr. Speaker, and the meeting you had yesterday on mass protests in Parliament square, which often block the road and the gates to Parliament. It is my understanding that the meeting focused on the immediate disruption that has been caused by the recent demonstration by Tamils, but there is a broader issue, because the whole area is deteriorating into a permanent shambles. Legitimate protest is fine and important, but
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permanently disruptive protest is not. The Leader of the House has so far failed to take a lead on this. Now that you have taken action, Mr. Speaker, may I ask her when we will get a statement and a plan of action on how to address this problem?

May I also ask the Leader of the House for a clear plan of action on the two inquiries that need to be conducted into the arrest of an hon. Member and the protection of parliamentary confidences? Members are becoming somewhat exasperated by her silence. She did promise to get back to the House, but so far she has not done so. This issue will not go away. What is stopping her from referring this issue to the Committee on Standards and Privileges in a motion, so that we can take time to reflect on the lessons that need to be learned? May I have a firm commitment today from her to take conclusive action before we rise for the Whitsun recess?

May we also have a debate on the announcement about the police made by the Prime Minister earlier this week? This was his first serious speech on crime since he became Prime Minister almost two years ago. One of his suggestions was that people who felt unsafe should be escorted home by police, but we now learn that the chairman of the Police Federation wrote to the Home Secretary to seek her clarification on how many times she wants the police to arrest, charge and convict the same people before the Government do anything about it. How on earth does the Prime Minister think the police will have time to tuck people up in bed if the Government are so badly mishandling persistent offenders?

May I again request a debate on the indignity of mixed-sex wards? Yesterday it was revealed that patients in many of London’s hospitals were still being forced to sleep on such wards. I have raised this issue with the Leader of the House before and she said that “progress was being made”. What kind of progress is it if top hospitals in the capital are failing to provide adequate care? The Leader of the House is a London MP and the Minister for Women and Equality, so may I ask what she intends to do about the issue?

Finally, may I once again—as I have done almost every week for months—request and demand a statement from the Government on how they will properly compensate the deprived policyholders of Equitable Life?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raises the question of the protection of children and their suspected trafficking into this country. This issue was raised in Prime Minister’s questions yesterday and the previous Wednesday. This is a matter of serious concern and we need to be sure that the local authorities responsible, the immigration authorities and the police work together to ensure that children who have travelled to this country on their own, and who are vulnerable thousands of miles away from their families, are properly protected. I understand the Home Affairs Committee is having a seminar on this issue in Portcullis House today and we look forward to seeing its report.

The hon. Gentleman talked about mass protests in Parliament square. He will know that you have made a statement on the subject this week, Mr. Speaker, and that you have also held a meeting this week involving all the organisations that have operational responsibility for allowing the right to protest and ensuring that members of the public and Members of Parliament can get to and from the House of Commons. Obviously,
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this subject will form part of the discussions about the governance of Britain, including those on the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

As I have told the hon. Gentleman on previous occasions, the House agreed that there would be a Speaker’s Committee to consider parliamentary privilege. I do not think it is ever worth having two Committees when one can do the job. I am sure the whole House hopes that the discussion about the number of members for the Speaker’s Committee and about how we can ensure it gets on with its work to see whether it can satisfy all Members’ questions will be resolved as soon as possible.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister’s speech on the police. I remind him that crime in this country across the board has fallen over the past 10 years. We should pay tribute not only to the work that has gone on in this House through legislation to give more powers to the police, but to the work that the police have done, working closely with local communities, to ensure that crime falls and fewer people become victims of crime. There has been a great deal of progress over the past 10 years, but the hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that a problem remains, particularly with persistent offenders. That has been the focus of Home Office concern, and he or other hon. Members can raise that point in Home Office questions next week.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the issue of mixed-sex wards is overdue for further action, and there will be further action.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the use— [ Interruption. ]

Ms Harman rose—

Mr. Speaker: I call Martin Salter.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): Could the Leader of the House find time— [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. Sorry, I thought that the right hon. and learned Lady had finished.

Ms Harman: I had, but I unfinished because I remembered that the shadow Leader of the House had asked about Equitable Life. Shall I give my answer in response to another question or should I just carry on?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. and learned Lady should not draw breath—that is what happened, and I called someone else. Please answer, and then I will call Mr. Salter.

Ms Harman: I know that this answer will be disappointing and annoying for many hon. Members who, like all of us, are very concerned about those people who lost out because of the mismanagement by Equitable Life over a number of years and because that mismanagement was not addressed properly by the authorities with responsibility for regulating Equitable Life. That is why, following the ombudsman’s serious, weighty and important report, which took four years to compile, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury came to the House to make an oral statement. She said that even though no legal obligation to compensate has been
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ordered by the court—that is, despite the fact that it is clear that there is no legal obligation, and that was the subject of a court case—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): There is a moral obligation.

Ms Harman: A legal obligation and a moral obligation are different. I am simply stating the position in relation to a legal obligation. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that, notwithstanding the fact that there was no legal obligation, the Government apologised for the regulatory failures and believed that there should be financial recompense for those who had lost out. The question is how we establish a scheme to pay out to those many people who have lost out. Sir John Chadwick, who is a High Court judge, is establishing that scheme. He will shortly produce an interim report on how it will be framed, and at that point the matter will be brought back to the House for Members’ information.

Mr. Speaker: Martin Salter.

Martin Salter rose—

Hon. Members: Not again!

Martin Salter: This had better be good! Thank you for calling me, Mr. Speaker, for the third time and I hope for many more. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the use of the £35 million Short money that the Opposition have received since 1997? That debate should be seen in the light of yesterday’s posturing by the Leader of the Opposition about the MPs’ communications allowance, which he and 90 per cent. of all Conservative MPs have claimed but now want abolished.

Ms Harman: Short money is public money that goes to the Opposition to help them to do their work and develop policy. That is important. We should acknowledge that public money underpins the political system in respect of the Opposition as well as the Government, but we must also recognise the role of the communications allowance. We need to be in communication with our constituents and to give them information about issues of concern to them. For example, we should tell them what help is available for those who lose their jobs and are worried about losing their homes. We should give them information about the mortgage protection schemes. We should give information to small businesses in our constituencies and tell them about the possibility of deferring taxes. It is not permissible to use the communications allowance to pass on party political messages, but I hope all hon. Members will use their allowance to give constituents the information they need. I support that, and I agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am told that today is national dance like a chicken day, which may be apposite for activities in the House over the past week. While we have been obsessing—necessarily—about what has emerged in The Daily Telegraph, the world has continued: people have been losing their jobs, businesses have been closing, and people have lost their homes. We need to concentrate on that as well.

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I understood the Leader of the House to have given a commitment a few months ago that each week there would be a debate or a Question Time on the economy. I cannot see either in next week’s business or in the provisional business for the week after the recess. May I suggest that we might use one of the general debates in those weeks for a debate on unemployment? There are now 2.2 million people in this country who are unemployed, and we could discuss what we can do to address that.

I and various other hon. Members from all parties last week pointed out to the Leader of the House that only one day had been provided for the Report and remaining stages of the Policing and Crime Bill. That is clearly inadequate, and I hoped that the complaints made from all parts of the House would be recognised. We still have only one day for a Bill that is exceedingly complex, and it is almost certain that we will not reach key sections. Even at this late stage, will she look again at the timetabling of the Bill?

May we have a debate on class sizes? Departmental statistics were supposed to be released on 7 May, but they were unaccountably delayed for a week until yesterday—perhaps because they show that 29,200 children between the ages of five and seven are now taught in classes of more than 30, despite the Government’s absolute pledge to do away with all classes of that size. How can that be? May we have a debate on the matter?

May we also have a debate on the state of our nation’s roads? Anyone who drives around Somerset, Wiltshire and neighbouring counties will know that the roads have deteriorated very badly. They are full of potholes and there is a massive problem with the backlog of road maintenance—it is estimated that the average shortfall for each authority across the country is £6 million. The state of the roads causes danger and discomfort, especially to cyclists—I can vouch for that—and many people are concerned that money is being spent on compensation for road accident victims rather than on doing something about the cause of those accidents. May we therefore have a debate on the state of the roads?

Lastly, a while ago I caused some grief to the right hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) when he was the Minister dealing with the Bill that became the Licensing Act 2003. He incurred the wrath of folk singers in Somerset, including the redoubtable Wurzels, when he set out his plans for live music. The number of venues for live music, and the number of pubs and bars that provide live music, has declined, as we predicted. The Licensing Act has brought some advantages, but it has also brought about a dire state in the provision of live music in pubs, and many difficulties for voluntary bodies such as village halls. May we have a debate on the operation of the Act, so that we can explore how we can improve the situation and revitalise the music industry in this country?

Ms Harman: In respect of the Policing and Crime Bill, in business questions last Thursday, I undertook to review the decision that it should have just one day on Report following Committee, as is usual. I have done that and looked again at the matter, because I know that there were concerns about four aspects: the definition of gangs; the use of DNA; control for gain in respect of prostitution, and its definition; and lap dancing and
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controls on lap-dancing clubs. Those are very important issues; I do not demur from that at all. However, the provisions on control for gain and lap dancing were already in the Bill when it was brought before the House on Second Reading. The Government are bringing forward amendments as concessions on issues raised in Committee.

The provisions on gangs and DNA were new; they were brought into the Bill in Committee, and therefore were not considered by the House on Second Reading. Concessions were agreed, so it is important that on Report we focus on those issues. When it comes to a Bill getting on to the statute book, we must take account not only of business in this House but proceedings in the other House. We have to make sure that we provide time so that we can consider not only our views but Lords amendments. Looking at the business of the House ahead of us, I have not seen a possibility of making a second day available. If it were possible to do so, I would have done it, but it was for me to make a judgment. I know that there were discussions among the parties, that there was not satisfaction on the issue, and that there have been concerns about it, but I am afraid I could not really offer any assistance on that, although I tried.

We made it a priority when we came into government to reduce class sizes, particularly in primary schools. Part of the reason for our big investment in education, year after year, is to keep class sizes down, so that each child can have more individual attention. That is one of the reasons why, despite the fact that there is a global economic recession, we are this year increasing investment in education by 4.3 per cent. That is in stark contrast to the cuts proposed by the Opposition, which would affect important things such as class sizes.

The third point raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was about the importance of the House being able to discuss and debate and hold Ministers to account on what is being done to protect businesses, jobs and people’s homes. I did say that the House would have an opportunity to discuss those issues more or less every week—and it has had that opportunity in the past—because that is the No. 1 priority. This week, we have had two days of discussion on the Finance Bill. On Tuesday, debate on the Bill went on until nearly 2 o’clock in the morning, and last night I think that it went on until about 10 o’clock. I would say that that was an opportunity to debate issues that affect the economy, so the House has had those— [Interruption.] If Opposition Members are saying that debate on the Finance Bill does not count as debate on the economy, and they want an additional opportunity to discuss the issue, I will think about making it the subject of a topical debate.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about people killed or injured in road accidents. He could more properly have put that question to the team of Transport Ministers, who were answering questions just before business questions. He challenged the Government on a reduction in the number of venues available for live music as a result of the licensing regime. The fact is that there was an 8 per cent. increase in premises licensed with live music authorisation between March 2007 and March 2008, so if his proposition—

Mr. Heath: The number of licences has increased, but not the number of venues.

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