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I think that all Members recognise that the events of the past few weeks have profoundly shaken the House. The outpouring of fury that we have witnessed has been almost like a spring revolution, but I believe it is a hope shared by all of us that it will make us think deeply about how this place works and provide us with the opportunity to begin a new chapter for Parliament. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that even if we succeed in sorting out some of our immediate problems, there is a much deeper malaise in our system of politics that needs to be addressed, and we need to discuss that in the House. The truth is that the House has been sidelined for years; it struggles to keep pace with the speed of events; in its primary duty of scrutinising the Executive, it often fails; law is rammed on to the statute book through a vexatious use of timetabling; and too few people, both inside and outside, have faith in, or
even understand, its processes. With the public clamour for reform now at its loudest for years, will the right hon. and learned Lady agree to an extensive series of debates so that some of the most serious and thorough arguments can be aired inside the House, not just outside it?
My understanding of the outcome of meetings held recently to discuss the policing of the vicinity of Parliament is that what is required to cut through the legal muddle that governs this is a short Bill that will abolish bits of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and then submit Parliament square and the vicinity once again to the power of a perhaps amended public order Act. Will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement urgently on her plans to take action and tell the House when and how she might introduce the necessary legislation to solve this continuing problem?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady reflect on the timing of the defence debate, which at the moment is scheduled for 4 June, which is the day of the local and European elections? Surely it cannot be right that on the day that the nations attention is directed to the polling booth, the House is expected to debate all the serious challenges that face us, from conflict in Afghanistan to piracy off Somalia. Does she not agree that it is unacceptable to downgrade defence matters in this way? May I respectfully ask her to consider whether she can reschedule that debate?
May we also have a statement on what appears to be the mismatch between the Governments claims and the actual facts surrounding the potential purchase of Eurofighter Typhoon jets for the RAF? That was spun by the Prime Minister as a done deal for the United Kingdom, but it has since become clear that not only is there no firm commitment for a third batch of the aircraft, but there are also huge question marks over the ensuing support costs. I have raised before the unwillingness of Ministers to provide the House with a statement on the Governments delay of the carrier programme, and once again it does rather seem that the Secretary of State for Defence is declining to come to the House to face serious questions on a procurement issue of such vital strategic significance. May we now be assured that he will do so?
On the subject of procurement, may we have a debate or a statement on the Governments guidance on procurement decisions and policy for the 2012 Olympics? One of the benefits of having the Olympics in London is that large contracts are up for grabs that many businesses can rightly try to take advantage of. We appreciate that there are European tendering rules, but is the right hon. and learned Lady aware that some small British firms have been prevented even from bidding for contracts following the constricted tendering criteria established by the Government? Does she not agree that it is unfortunate that, in the middle of the worst recession that this country has seen for decades, some small and medium-sized enterprises feel excluded from what should be a significant and merited commercial opportunity?
May I take this opportunity to offer you, Mr. Speaker, the right hon. and learned Lady and the House a happyI should say happierWhitsun recess? Perhaps we need to rememberthe Deputy Leader of the House is an expert on these mattersthat we are meant to be celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and inspiration. We are all in need of a
bit of inspiration at the moment, and perhaps as a result we can all once again harness those flames to become apostles for a better working democracy.
Ms Harman: I thank the shadow Leader of the House for his comments. He referred to the statement on the Gurkhas, and although people may say that Parliament has no power, the Gurkhas debate and the vote of the House to which the Government are responding, is a significant example of the will of the House impressing itself on the Government.
Bearing in mind that there is a big debate in the country, the hon. Gentleman rightly asked when the House will have an opportunity to play its part in the important debate about how we rethink the relationship between Parliament and the people. Following on from all the action that has been taken and looking to the future, we will find opportunities for the House to debate those wider issues. But I would not want him or anyone else to lose sight of the important changes that have already been made. Looking back over the past 10 years, the people of Scotland have been given the right to choose whether they have their own Parliament and the right to elect their Parliament. The people of London have been given the right to have a mayor that they elect themselves.
People have been given the right to more information through the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and their rights have been given more protection through the Human Rights Act 1998. In the House, debates and questions are more up to date, because we have topical debates and topical questions. We should see the current situation as an opportunity to build on the progress that we have made; I do not think that we should say, The whole system has not been improving and therefore we need to start afresh. We should rebuild the trust and confidence in Parliament that have been battered by the issue of allowances, and take this as an opportunity to make further progress. Parliament, as a whole, will need to be at the centre of those debates, and I shall ensure that we make that time available.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the policing of Parliament square, and he will know that, last week, Mr. Speaker convened a meeting of all responsible authorities. The Government stand ready to take any action that arises from the meeting not only to assist the right to demonstrate but to enable freedom of movement in the square for tourists, passers-by and, indeed, parliamentarians.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a number of defence issues, Eurofighter among them. We have Defence questions on the Monday that we return from the recess, we had a defence procurement debate recently and, as he pointed out, there will be a defence debate during the week that we return. The day in question is a sitting day, and it is always difficult when the House is sitting and the nation is voting in elections to a body other than Parliament. The forthcoming elections are important, so we did not seek to put on whipped business. That was not done with any disrespect to the important issues of defence, and there will be future opportunities to debate defence, which we know is always an important consideration for the House.
On the question of the Olympics, I shall refer the hon. Gentlemans points to the Minister for the Olympics. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that capital investment from the public sector provides important commercial
opportunities, and that is why we believe that Conservative party proposals to cut public capital investment would create problems because there would be a great deal fewer commercial opportunities all round.
Angela E. Smith (Basildon) (Lab/Co-op): On 30 April, Mr. Speaker, you gave me the opportunity to have a debate on the Adjournment of the House, after Visteon closed its three UK manufacturing plants, leaving workers in Basildon, Enfield and Belfast with no jobs, no redundancy settlement and fearful for their pensions. May I update you, Mr. Speaker? Following the debate that you allowed, a campaign by Unite and help from the Ford motor company, those workers now have their redundancy settlements and, on Monday this week, were able to leave the picket lines having achieved their aims on being made redundant.
Following my research into the issue, however, it became clear that the companys closure had nothing at all to do with the recession; it had never, ever made a profit. Indeed, it has come to light that companies are using the recession as a way of changing the terms and conditions of their staff, even when those firms have not been affected by the recession. Will the Leader of the House join me in raising that issue with all Ministers? Furthermore, does she think it an appropriate matter that the House should debate?
Ms Harman: I shall raise my hon. Friends comments with my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I pay tribute to her work in defending those who worked at Visteon in her constituency. When companies face difficult times, whether because of the recession or for any reason, it is important that they work closely with the trade unions, which represent the workers whose fate is obviously tied up with that of the company. I pay tribute to Unite and its work in protecting the Visteon workers. We, of course, have created a wider package of assistance for the automotive industry, as well as introduced provisions to allow all companies to defer their tax to help with cash flow, provided tax credits for those on short-time working and support for apprenticeships.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I also welcome in anticipation the Home Secretarys statement on the Gurkhas? I hope that it will say what we all hope it will say: that the Government accept the will of the House. I look forward to a similar statement eventually on Equitable Life, so that we repay that debt of honour, too.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith) raised economic issues in her constituency, because while we concentrate on what we are doing in this House we must not forget that there is an awful recession going on out there. People are losing their jobs, houses and livelihoods; we must make space for deliberations on that important issue.
Given the difficulties that we have all had in recent weeks, may I express my thanks to all the staff, families and spouses of Members of Parliament? They are getting criticism that is often entirely unjustified in respect of the MP with whom they are associated, and they are having to deal with abusive letters and phone calls. They have no part in what Members of this House have done, and we owe them a debt of thanks.
I echo what the shadow Leader of the House said about the opportunity that we now have to do something of greater importance for the House; I hope that we will set aside time to do it in the next few weeks. We have a light legislative programme. We have the opportunity to debate what the right hon. and learned Lady herself said yesterday was set to change and strengthen our democracy. That means that we need to look at how we do things in the House. For example, 99 clauses of the Policing and Crime Bill were never debated. That is not the way to scrutinise legislation. We must find ways to use our time effectively and rebalance the relationship between the House and the Executive. We must find time to debate the changing of our constitutional arrangements, because there is unfinished business. The right hon. and learned Lady says that things have been done, and that is true. However, there is the unfinished business of House of Lords reform, party funding and the size of both Houses. We need to debate those issues.
Lastly, we need time to change our democratic processes, reinforce accountability and make the House more representative of the people whom we serve. If we use our time in that way, the country will realise that the House still has relevance and a determination to change for the better.
Ms Harman: This morning, people will have heard from both sides of the House that we all agree that the allowances situation should be sorted out right away and that we should seize the opportunity to strengthen the role of Parliament in our democracy. That makes this a very important moment. It is important to deal with the problems, but we also have this moment of opportunity, which we should seize on behalf of the House.
The hon. Gentleman said, airily, that we have had a light legislative programme, but that is not the case. I have just announced the Second Reading of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill and of the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill. Furthermore, the Health Bill has been announced this week, and we have just discussed the Policing and Crime Bill and the Equality Bill. I do not think it right to say that there is a light legislative programme; we are debating and scrutinising important issues.
I associate myself with the hon. Gentlemans comments about House of Commons staff and the families of Members. Everybody wants us to sort the situation out and everybody will be glad when we have. The hon. Gentleman talked about Equitable Life. As he will know, earlier this week there was a debate on Equitable Life; the Minister updated the House on where we are in respect of action on that issue. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Hansard report of that debate.
Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab):
On the reform of parliamentary allowances, my right hon. and learned Friend has often repeated that we do not want the House to be filled only with the richor, I would add, only with the sponsored. Does she agree that at some point soon, when, hopefully, things calm down, we
might all benefit from reflecting on one of the initiatives announced in Mr. Speakers statement on Monday? I am thinking of the cap on mortgage interest rate and rental claims at £1,250 per month, with the intention that that be reduced in future. Does that not risk putting staying overnight in London beyond the reach of most people, thereby putting off the chances of citizens of this country who wish to become Members of the House?
Ms Harman: Two very important points arise from what my hon. Friend says. First, we all regard the constituency link as extremely important. When people are elected to represent their constituency, they need to be able to keep in close touch with their constituency and also to work in the House of Commons, which means that they need to be able to live in two places at once. The constituency link is very important, and the Kelly committee will strongly bear that in mind. I should add that there is an opportunity for all individual Members to give evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life.
My hon. Friend also reinforces the point that we do not want to turn the clock back to previous centuries when more or less only landowners and the landed gentry were in Parliament. We do not want to have a Parliament just for millionaires: we need to ensure that we have our own equivalent of From Log Cabin to White House and that anybody can come into the House of Commons.
Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Will the Leader of the House grant us an early debate on how we can curtail the powers of local councils to fulfil the house building targets by seeking planning permission to build in the territory of other local authorities? That possibility arises in my constituency, where Luton and South Bedfordshire council is planning to meet its housing totals by building houses in my constituency. To make matters worse, it plans to do so in the most beautiful area known as, eponymously and anatomically, Lilley Bottom.
Ms Harman: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can raise that directly with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government during the Second Reading of the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill on Monday 1 June.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that this is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of Select Committees? Ten years ago, when Lord Sheldon, as he now is, chaired the Liaison Committee, he introduced a piece of work called Shifting the Balance, which tried to shift the balance away from the Executive and back to the legislature. Could we have an early debate on that topic? I speak as someone who tried to participate in last nights debate in the Chamber, when we saw once again the domination of the Front Benchers, who not only made long speeches but then intervened afterwards, with Back Benchers contributions to the debate squeezed almost to nothing. Is it not about time that we had a shift in the balance of power in the Chamber?
Everyone has agreed that one of the things that strengthens the role of Parliament is the work of Select Committees and that of hon. Members
who chair them and play a part in them. I feel absolutely certain that as we look to strengthening peoples confidence in how this House scrutinises the Executive, the role of Select Committees is set to be strengthened once again.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): In supporting the shadow Leader of the House, the Liberal Democrat shadow Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), does the Leader of the House consider it to be the appropriate time to make this Parliamentthis Palace of Westminster, particularly this House of Commonsmore relevant? Is it not time that we looked again at programming, and at setting up a business committee of representative Back-Bench Members, who would be elected by this House, perhaps under the chairmanship of the Chairman of Ways and Means, as well as considered the merging of the Modernisation Committee with the Procedure Committee? That would make this House more powerful, give it credibility and increase its integrity.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman and others are taking the opportunity to set forth the items that will need to be considered in more detail as we look to strengthen the House in future. No doubt the Procedure Committee and the work of the business managers will be considered as part of that process.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Todays edition of The Times reports that despite the desperate conditions in Sri Lanka, the last remaining independent organisation, the International Committee of the Red Cross, is leaving the country because it cannot get access to the refugee camps. About 300,000 civilians are injured, maimed and starving, and their Government are not allowing in international aid to help them. I appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend in terms of the issues on which she has concentrated in her political life. It is reported today that 25 per cent. of young mothers and those expecting children are seriously malnourished. Does she agree that we desperately need a debate in the House on that matter?
Ms Harman: I know that many of my hon. Friends constituents are of Tamil origin. The House remains deeply concerned about this issue, which has been raised in the House on many occasions, including on 29 and 30 April and in May. We remain deeply concerned about current events, and our primary concern is the immediate humanitarian crisis. As she will know, on Sunday the Prime Minister announced an additional £5 million in humanitarian funding, which the Department for International Development will allocate to assist the civilians displaced in the continued fighting.
Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): On Tuesday, Mr. Speaker, you granted yet another debate in Westminster Hall on Equitable Life. That debate, like previous debates, was full of Back Benchers from all parts of the House who supported the parliamentary ombudsmans proposals; the only person to defend the Government was the Minister who spoke at the end. In debating how to strengthen our democracy, can we consider a proposal that will allow items to get on to the agenda and provide for votes on issues that are of widespread concern and have support from Back Benchers across the House?
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