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14 May 2009 : Column 1023

Ms Harman: Well, most people are concerned about two things. They are concerned about whether the places that want to provide music can get a licence to do so, and the answer to that point is that more people are getting licences. They are also concerned about ensuring that when those clubs or pubs have licences, all the people who are having a great time there do not deafen neighbours, and that the neighbours do not suffer a grim time as a result. The licensing regime is important, and more premises are getting a licence, so everything is absolutely fine, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said.

The hon. Gentleman also made a point about expenses; I suppose it was really a throw-away remark, but I know that he regards it as a very serious issue, as all hon. Members do. I do not think that anyone in any part of the House is in any doubt at all about the anger and outrage that there is on the subject. I think we all want to put things right quickly, because we all want to restore trust and confidence in Parliament. We are all united in our belief in the importance of Parliament to our democracy. This is a defining moment, and it is a huge challenge for all of us. The public who elected us, and whom we represent, expect us to sort it out. As Leader of the House, I want to say—on behalf, I hope, of the whole House—“We get it. We’re going to sort it out.” That goes for all of us. We are aware of the scale of anger and outrage. We all believe that the issue needs to be sorted out, and we will work together urgently to do exactly that.

Mrs. Anne McGuire (Stirling) (Lab): Earlier this morning, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston and I received a report from the Dystonia Society, highlighting the impact of that painful condition on the lives of the 40,000 or so people across the United Kingdom who suffer from it. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend could find some parliamentary time for a debate in the House to highlight that little-known condition.

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend has brought the issue to my attention and that of the House through her question. I will bring it to the attention of Health Ministers. Perhaps she should seek an Adjournment debate, or a debate in Westminster Hall, on the subject; I am sure that other hon. Members would want to participate.

Sir Patrick Cormack: May I return to the subject of Equitable Life? Does the right hon. and learned Lady accept that the reports—and they are in the plural—from the ombudsman include criticism of the Government of an unprecedented severity? It is crucial that we debate the issue very soon. We are told this week that an average of 15 Equitable Life victims die each day; that is more than 100 a week. We must debate the matter, and the Government must come up with their package. As I said earlier, the Government have a moral obligation, whatever their legal obligation, and the House expects the Government to fulfil that obligation.

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the situation in respect of Equitable Life is unprecedented. It is unprecedented in the number of people affected. It is unprecedented in the amount of money involved; a lot of people have lost considerable amounts. It is unprecedented in that it affects not only the well-off but
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people on very modest incomes. It is also unprecedented in respect of its complexity. Those are the issues that we are determined to address. The Government do not seek to stand on their legal obligation, and we do not need to have our moral obligation explained to us. We are concerned about the matter. We are all concerned about the people who have lost out, and we will take action to make sure that the issue is addressed. I understand that on 19 May there will be a Westminster Hall debate on it.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend find time for an early debate on the future of the east coast main line franchise? There are rumours regarding the financial viability of the main operator. I have been given an assurance by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that there will be no renegotiation, but as a railway enthusiast who uses that line at least twice a week, I feel that the anxieties linger on.

Ms Harman: I know from the representations of a number of hon. Members representing constituents all along the east coast main line that this is an important issue. I do not know whether the matter was raised during Transport questions as I was not present throughout, but as it affects a number of hon. Members, an Adjournment debate might be appropriate.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time entitled “The fallacy of atheism”? I defy any right hon. or hon. Members to refuse to believe in the existence of God having read today’s edition of The Argus in which the most judgmental and sanctimonious Member of the House admits to having pocketed between £20,000 and £30,000 by paying rent to himself for a constituency office in his own home.

Ms Harman: I have much admiration and respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has taken a considerable battering at the hands of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), but I urge him to resist the temptation to hit back, because we will make no progress. The public are angry and outraged. That is not just what I think; we all know that to be the case. As grieved as we might be that we have been subjected to accusations by other Members, that gives us no prospect of a way forward. The only way forward is to say to the public loud and clear, “We understand the anger. We understand the outrage. We had already taken some steps to improve the situation and we will take further steps to do so.” We must do that to ensure that the public can once again have confidence not just in one political party or another, but in all parts of the House.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend, who expressed her views and gave voice to the House on the issue of the need to clean up the expenses system, urge the House authorities to provide Members on request with an electronic copy of our receipts and claims, with full access rights—not just a read-only copy—so that we can make the redactions that are indicated but not made on the electronic copy that we have? We can then put them on our websites or do what we want with
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them. Please will she ensure that that happens so that we have proper access to our own data and can manage it as we choose? [Official Report, 19 May 2009, Vol. 492, c. 17MC.]

Ms Harman: Many hon. Members have been asked by their local newspapers, which are read by the constituents who elected them, to put details of their own claims and the payments received in the public domain so that the local newspaper can report them. Many hon. Members want to do that because, having been elected by their constituents, they feel that their constituents are entitled to know where their Member of Parliament stands amidst all of this. The difficulty is that the information on the claims and payments made that we have been given by the House authorities in electronic form cannot be given to local newspapers because it includes all sorts of information whose release would breach the freedom of information laws. For example, if I gave out the information about my expenses to the South London Press, which I want to do without having to wait for the House authorities to do so, I would be putting in the public domain the bank statements of my assistant, who is not at all keen that I should do that. I understand why, and it would be breaking the law.

This morning I asked the Clerk of the House if we could have not only a read-only copy but one that we could pass on to our local paper with the genuinely personal bits crossed out, and he is discussing that with the House authorities. That is not the situation at the moment and hon. Members will just have to tell their local newspapers that they can either come in and read the hard copies, with the personal parts, such as bank account details, crossed out, or simply wait for the House of Commons to enable us to provide an electronic copy. All local newspapers should recognise that although many hon. Members would not feel obliged to respond to national newspapers, they do feel accountable to their local constituents. The local newspapers report to the local constituents and Members want to be accountable to them.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): In her reply the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) on the Policing and Crime Bill, the Leader of the House laid down an astonishing remarkable new doctrine that the Government will decide which parts of Bills the House scrutinises—she says DNA, gangs, prostitution and lap dancing—and that it will be up to the Government to decide that we do not look at the 12 clauses on police reform, the 14 clauses on extradition, the six clauses on alcohol, the 16 clauses on proceeds of crime and other matters. There are also 41 miscellaneous clauses. Is it now the case that the Government decide that we will be allowed to scrutinise some bits on the Floor of House and some that we will not? Furthermore, has she any plans to negotiate with Front and Back Benchers over where the knives go in the limited time that we will now have to non-scrutinise this important piece of legislation?

Ms Harman: There will be consultation, as there ought to be, on the programme motion and the allocation of time for different parts of the Bill. In my comments earlier, I was trying to respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised in the House last week—gangs, DNA, control for gain of prostitution, lap dancing,
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and, additionally, alcohol. I in no way meant that those were the only issues that the House would want to debate. I was just reflecting and cognising that those were important issues that he raised last time, but certainly other issues are also important. We will have as much discussion as we can and try, if possible, to reach agreement on the allocation of time in the full day’s debate on Report. I try to ensure that no statement or any other business cuts into that time.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate on the confidentiality of Members’ correspondence, on which we have had a number of discussions in the past and on which Mr. Speaker has ruled? In one of two recent incidents a firm that was supplying a service that the county council was involved in was in some difficulty, and I wrote expressing my worries and asking what would be done to replace that service should it collapse. I was shocked to find that my correspondence and the reply was circulated to county councillors at will, breaching confidentiality. Furthermore, when a councillor raised an issue, an officer told him that I had previously written and, I am told, allowed him to see my correspondence and the response. This is outrageous. My confidentiality needs to be respected, but more importantly, so does that of my constituents.

Ms Harman: When Members of Parliament, who are democratically elected, deal with another public authority that is publicly accountable, such as a council, there needs to be a proper level of trust and respect. This is not a question of the nitty-gritty of the rules, but of those councils applying common sense and thinking things through. My hon. Friend raises an important point, which Mr. Speaker has addressed in the past, and I will consider whether any further action needs to be taken.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May we have a debate on the crisis in NHS dentistry? Some 1.2 million people, according to Government figures, do not have access to a dentist. The Government have accepted that there is a problem, which is why they are holding an inquiry, but could we have a debate on the matter to find out why not one single Minister in the Department of Health, including the Secretary of State, has visited a dentistry in the past 12 months? How can they know what is going on in the front line of dentistry if they have never visited a surgery?

Ms Harman: One reason why we have determined to protect the health budget is that we know that although progress has been made, there is still more to do. That is why there will be an extra 5.5 per cent. in the health service budget this year, some of which will be available for continued improvements in dentistry. The policy of the hon. Gentleman’s party’s would be to make cuts and to say, “We can’t afford this because of the recession.” I cannot believe that no Minister has visited a dental surgery other than in a personal capacity— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman is holding up a parliamentary answer, which may be conclusive, in which case I will say no more.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate in the House on the importance of manufacturing to this country? Unite, the union, has
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organised for this Saturday a major march and rally in Birmingham to highlight that very point about manufacturing. All right hon. and hon. Members are welcome. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that whatever else is going on, the Government will remain committed to helping the manufacturing industry through these difficult times?

Ms Harman: I am aware of that important demonstration in support of manufacturing in Birmingham this week. It was organised by the unions, but it will involve employers from a range of organisations, not only from Birmingham, but from across the west midlands. The question of support for manufacturing was raised when the Cabinet met in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle. The issue is raised constantly, as it is in questions to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Will the Leader of the House tell us when we are finally going to have an opportunity to debate the revised assessment of the costs and benefits of the Climate Change Act 2008, which was slipped out for the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change without a statement, as were his responses to my subsequent questions, even though it shows that the costs, at some £400 billion, will be about twice as high as we were told they would be when the measure was debated? That means that it will cost every household in the country about £20,000.

Simultaneously, the Secretary of State admitted that his predecessor had overlooked nearly £1 trillion of benefits. Those are the largest financial errors ever made by a Minister. When will we have the opportunity to debate them? They cast doubt on the whole climate change alarmism thesis. Every time the theory contradicts the facts and the figures, they simply change the figures.

Ms Harman: I will raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and ask him to write to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Lilley: I am asking for a debate.

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman is calling for a debate, and I will consider whether the matter should be the subject of a topical debate.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): When can we have a debate on the UK Border Agency’s treatment of urgent cases? My constituent, Dr. Anjali Shetty, who is a consultant microbiologist working in south Wales, has been trying desperately to get indefinite leave to remain and to have her passport returned from the agency. Her mother, who is very ill in India, has taken a turn for the worse, and Dr. Shetty needs urgently to return. She was told yesterday by the agency not to make any travel arrangements and that it would deal with the matter as quickly as possible. How can we send a message to the agency that it is dealing with tragic human situations, not just bits of paper? What can hon. Members do to ensure that such cases are dealt with urgently?

Ms Harman: I will bring it to the attention of the Home Office Minister responsible for immigration that my hon. Friend has raised the issue of Dr. Anjali Shetty
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in the House. My hon. Friend could seek a meeting with immigration Ministers, but I also remind her that Home Office questions on Monday might give her an opportunity to raise the matter with them.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): Last week, the Leader of the House rejected a request by me and other hon. Members for a debate and a vote on Equitable Life, and this week she has rejected hon. Members’ entirely legitimate calls for more time to debate the Policing and Crime Bill. If there is not enough time in the current Session for those important debates, why can we not add an extra week to the Session at the end of July?

Ms Harman: With respect, the hon. Gentleman has mixed up two issues that are not the same. I have not rejected anybody’s concerns about Equitable Life. I explained the process: as soon as John Chadwick’s interim report is ready, it will be brought to the House. I am not rejecting anybody’s concerns; indeed, I share those concerns—we feel strongly about the matter and will bring it back to the House.

I have also not rejected the concerns that were raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and others about the Policing and Crime Bill. It is not so much an issue of this House. The issue is how we make sure that the Bill completes its passage through this House, but also the House of Lords, and that we have an opportunity to deal with Lords amendments. It is not just a question of when we are in recess but what happens when the Bill goes from this House to the House of Lords and returns in time so that we can consider Lords amendments.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): Many workers up and down the country are this week celebrating the 10th anniversary of the national minimum wage. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share the view of many hon. Members across the House that a Conservative Member’s attempt to introduce a Bill that would enable workers to be paid less than the minimum wage is an absolute contempt?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend illustrates well that we are united on the question of the importance of democracy precisely because there are choices to make and differences in political views and between parties. As he said, one of the most stark differences is our strong belief that there should be a minimum wage by law. The suggestion from Conservative Members, which appears in the private Member’s Bill that will be debated tomorrow, that employers should simply be able to opt out would blow a hole in the national minimum wage.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Leader of the House just talked about of democracy. In support of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, who requested a second day to debate a Bill, does she accept that the only opportunity that a Member has to participate in the passage of a Bill, if they are not called on Second Reading or if they are not appointed to the Public Bill Committee, is on Report and at remaining stages? Does she agree that Members who want to participate should be enabled to do so, and that the tight programming of Report and remaining stages of big and important Bills is unnecessary and damaging to the authority of the House in scrutinising legislation?

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Ms Harman: I have said that we will have discussions to make sure that we can try to reach agreement on programming so that hon. Members are able to debate all the important parts of the Bill. I have also said that I will try to ensure that there is no oral statement on that day so that we do not lose an hour.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend will recall that the Select Committee on Public Administration published its report on lobbying in the first week of January. The report, which called for a statutory register of lobbyists, was followed by an early-day motion from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who is a fellow member of that Committee, calling for urgent legislation. The motion has been signed by 162 hon. Members.

It is customary for the Government to respond to such reports within two months. The response was deferred until after Easter, but it is now well after that time. Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask her colleagues in the Cabinet Office to respond and to come with forward with at least a reply and, I hope, legislation, as soon as possible? May I also suggest that such legislation would help to raise public esteem for Parliament once again?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend might take the opportunity to raise that matter directly with Ministers at Cabinet Office Questions on Monday. He will know that questions that touched on the subject of lobbying were the subject of various parts of the draft constitutional renewal Bill, which was scrutinised by a Committee of both Houses.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): A debate on defence in the world is always to be welcomed, but may I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the date on which she proposes to hold the next one, which is the date of the local and European elections? That could be perceived as lowering the priority of defence, bearing in mind that in the past week, when both politicians and the media have been over-indulging in navel gazing, four young men have lost their lives in Afghanistan and the lives of their families and friends have been changed for ever. Can we get our priorities right?

Ms Harman: Absolutely no disrespect or lack of priority is indicated by our scheduling the defence debate on that day. The subject is one on which there is so much agreement in the House, albeit a keen determination to debate it, that it will not divide the House. If elections are taking place—European elections and council elections are being held on that day—the usual practice is not to put on whipped business or business that will result in a vote. The defence debate is a general debate—such debates are keenly supported by hon. Members—and there are not such divisions that it will end in a vote. That is the explanation, although I have some sympathy with what the hon. Lady says.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): A delegation of the Chinese National People's Congress is visiting the House this week, and it would be good if the House had the ability to express concern about the fact that, yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested—yet again—and is to be put on show trial, so that the Burmese authorities can detain her for a further period.

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