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21 May 2009 : Column 1643

Ms Harman: Of course, there are already Opposition day debates, but yes, I am sure that that suggestion will be part of the wider debate.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): Yesterday a petition signed by 22,500 people was taken to No. 10 Downing street asking the Department of Health and the Government to set up a national centre for asbestos-related diseases. May we have a debate in this House about how we can improve the care given to people suffering from asbestos-related diseases, particularly those who have been criminally and negligently exposed to asbestos at work?

Ms Harman: Perhaps that should be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate. It is an important issue not only for the Department of Health but for ministerial colleagues with health and safety responsibilities at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I will ask them to write to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): As the situation in Zimbabwe is still grave despite the power-sharing Government, and as there will be some very tricky, delicate decisions to be made on when is the appropriate time to increase aid, does the Leader of the House think that it would be a good idea for the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement when we return after the recess?

Ms Harman: I will ask the Secretary of State to consider that proposition. I will also consider whether it might be a good idea to ask the Minister for Africa, Lord Malloch-Brown, to invite Members of this House to have an opportunity to be briefed by him. That would not be instead of a statement, but it is always useful for him to keep Members updated informally.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find Government time for a full and frank discussion on the activities of the banks? Like many Members of this House, I have been briefed by local businesses, and it is clear that banks are changing their lending policies—overnight overdrafts are costing more, and lending is being seriously reduced. I was briefed by a vehicle hire company in my constituency called Reflex and, quite frankly, if such banking activity continues, it will close that company. We need that company and other excellent companies to remain open, vibrant and employing at this time. The House needs to pool all its experience and discuss this issue, and the banks need to be seriously challenged by Government.

Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She will know that the Treasury Committee has gone through these issues in great detail, and that the Prime Minister responded on this very point yesterday in Prime Minister’s Question Time.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): May I associate myself with calls from both sides of the House for a debate on the relationship between Parliament and the Executive?

May we please have a debate in Government time on the Floor of this House on special educational needs? Given that it is now almost three years since the then Education and Skills Committee, under the chairmanship
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of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman), called for a breaking of the link between the assessment of need and the funding of provision, and, on top of that, that this year, at Government request, Ofsted is to conduct a detailed inquiry into the provision of education of children with SEN, is it not now timely for this House to consider how best to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in our country?

Ms Harman: I shall take up the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for the work that he has done, which is not only important to his constituents but of concern to Members of all parties. I shall look for an opportunity to take those issues forward in the way that he suggests.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): On Saturday 20 June in London, there will be a march for justice for the Hillsborough victims and their families. The Home Secretary and the Culture Secretary have already said it is important that we get out information relating to the Hillsborough disaster, but of course the matter also affects other Departments. Will my right hon. and learned Friend use her good offices to remind other Departments of the statements made by the Culture Secretary and the Home Secretary about identifying information relating to the Hillsborough disaster and its aftermath and making it available as soon as possible?

Ms Harman: I will back up the point that my hon. Friend has made and take those issues to the relevant Departments. Perhaps he could let me know via my office which other Departments, in addition to those of the Home Secretary and the Culture Secretary, need to consider what information they can produce.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): There is an extremely controversial planning application in my constituency on the edge of the Dedham Vale area of outstanding natural beauty, which would have a severe impact on that area. Could time be found for us to debate the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty, and is it possible that we could have a debate on how that particular application can be called in for a public inquiry?

Ms Harman: There were questions to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers this morning, and the hon. Gentleman would probably have got a more global answer from them, but there will be Communities and Local Government questions coming up in the week we return from the recess.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on consumer rights? Companies such as ActionCOACH seduce people into parting with their savings or redundancy payments on the pretence that they will get large returns. That invariably does not happen, and many people lose significant amounts of money. Should companies such as ActionCOACH not have to be transparent about their claims of a proven track record of success and a reasonable return for investors?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is talking not about red tape or burdens on business but about essential protection for consumers, and I shall bring that matter to the attention of the Minister responsible for consumer affairs.

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Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the process by which wind farm applications are approved? Everyone knows that the Government have failed in their promotion of renewables, but can it be right that they can routinely overturn the decisions of local councillors, parishes and people to oppose certain applications? Can she understand the anger and frustration of my constituents who see their local environment altered and their views ignored?

Ms Harman: There was a debate yesterday about how the House will handle the process of national policy statements, and there will be Energy and Climate Change questions the week the House returns, when I suggest the hon. Gentleman raise those points.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Yesterday, on the day after world hepatitis day, the Government made a written statement on Lord Archer’s report about contaminated blood. Although I congratulate the Government on moving forward on this issue, what most angered the community that is interested in the subject yesterday was that the Government are still not prepared to match the modest compensation scheme that is available in the Irish Republic. To give us a chance to question Health Ministers, which we were unable to do yesterday, will my right hon. and learned Friend please give us a debate in Government time on contaminated blood?

Ms Harman: I think that may be a very appropriate subject for a Westminster Hall debate. I shall raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health. As my hon. Friend mentioned, there was a written ministerial statement responding to Lord Archer’s report. He will know that we have increased the amount of compensation for those who have been unfortunate enough to receive contaminated blood, and we have increased the amount of funding that goes to the important work of the Haemophilia Society. We will further review the situation in respect of those who have contracted hepatitis.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): On the last day of term, may I appeal for a debate during the forthcoming term on prejudice against Christians in a growing proportion of the public services? On top of a string of incidents involving health service and local authority workers being penalised for offering to pray for people, for saying “God bless” to them and so on, the worst case of all must be that of the foster mother who had fostered a large number of children in care and provided a loving home for them, but who lost her job and with it her house because a 16-year-old girl she was fostering chose to convert to Christianity. May I urge the Leader of the House to consider this a worthy subject for a debate in the House?

Ms Harman: I shall refer the hon. Gentleman’s point to the relevant Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This is really just a matter of basic good practice and common sense. There is nothing in any law or guidance that requires people to act daft.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): We have made considerable progress on allowances this week, but we still need a lot more debate about the different roles that
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Members have to fulfil, including having caring responsibilities for children—both men and women have those responsibilities—and for elderly parents. Can we not use this as an opportunity to consider the role of Members as a whole? Would not a way of strengthening democracy be to ensure that we have a range of people here who are able to bring their experiences to our debates?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must have in this House people such as herself, who know what it is to balance the responsibility of going to work and doing an important job with that of bringing up children and caring for elderly relatives. That is the situation for most families in our constituencies, and it is right that that should be reflected in the House. Any changes that we make must not undermine the ability of people with family responsibilities to play their part in the House. That is important, as are the constituency link, not having people doing second jobs and the point that we must not make this exclusively a millionaire’s club.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Does the Leader of the House realise that despite the Prime Minister’s commitment to ensure that Parliament properly scrutinises the Executive, she risks going down in history as the Leader of the House under whom more clauses of Government Bills than ever have gone through without proper scrutiny by the House? That has been the case with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, the Coroners and Justice Bill and now the Policing and Crime Bill—earlier this week 72 Government amendments to this last were not even reached and debated before being pushed through.

When several hon. Members raised this matter last week at business questions, the Leader of the House promised that there would be consultations and discussions about the programme motion so that we would not have the ridiculous situation that did indeed come about. We had 43 minutes to debate critical amendments on DNA and 29 minutes on gang violence, yet by all accounts there were no discussions or consultations beyond those with just the Conservative Front Benchers. How can we believe that she intends to do something about this if her Government cannot deliver on commitments that she makes to the House at business questions?

Ms Harman: I do not think that there were discussions only with those on the Conservative Front Bench. It might well be the case that even when there are discussions and consultations agreement cannot be reached, but that does not mean that those discussions were not had. Before the hon. Gentleman attributes to me my historic role as Leader of the House, I have to say that there is always difficulty in getting the balance right between different aspects of Government business and the House’s debates. I shall check out whether he is right in his assertion. I point out that we had two very important, indeed historic, statements from you, Mr. Speaker, on the day of the debates on the Policing and Crime Bill.

Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): On 30 May 1929, women under the age of 30 were able to vote in a general election for the first time. May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend and all honourable colleagues
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who will be involved in the debates on the reform of the House to reflect on the fact that, 80 years after that event, despite making up more than half the population, women still account for only a little over a fifth of the Members of this place?

In response to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), I would say that most ordinary people would think that a sitting that lasts 36 hours and goes through the night, with four hours for sleep, as happened on the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill, constitutes thorough scrutiny.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the continued role of women in our democracy—not only in being allowed to vote but in being representatives in the House. That is why the Speaker’s Conference and its proposals will be important, as will the Equality Bill, which allows all-women short lists to continue. I ask the official Opposition to reconsider their opposition to that measure.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): To encourage recycling, many local authorities are issuing wheelie bins to their residents—sometimes one, two or three per household. However, in north Northamptonshire, there is a growing problem of their being set alight, with catastrophic and, sadly, fatal consequences. May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on how that growing menace can be tackled?

Ms Harman: It is important that councils work with the local community and the police to tackle antisocial behaviour. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there will be Communities and Local Government questions the week the House returns.

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Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Government are acting daft in closing a hospital out-patient facility in my constituency, and more than a quarter of the households in Rushden have written to me about the cut. I want to lead a mass demonstration about it on Parliament square. Will the Leader of the House issue a statement about when I can hold that mass demonstration?

Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman wants to hold a mass demonstration, or even a very small one, around Parliament, he needs to apply to the appropriate authorities. Perhaps he will join us in our support for increased investment in the health service. Far from a cut in investment, there will be a 5.3 per cent. increase this year. That is necessary investment for the future. When he is asked to support the Conservative party in cutting capital and revenue investment in our public services, I hope he will think again and join us.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): The House should recognise the huge sacrifices that Pakistan is making now and will make in future to tackle extremism. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost. May we have a debate on what more the UK and the international community can do actively to support Pakistan and help it emerge as a stronger nation, including establishing a much improved trade agreement with the EU and rapid disbursement of the £12 million that the Prime Minister promised Pakistan to help with internally displaced people?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman’s points are important and I strongly agree that they affect not only those overseas but communities in this country. We have had the important Intelligence and Security Committee report, and the issue that he raises might be a good idea for a topical debate in the near future.

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12.13 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on new settlement rights for former Gurkhas and their families.

As the House knows, all Gurkhas who retired after July 1997, when the Brigade was relocated to the UK from Hong Kong, are already eligible to settle here under current immigration rules. Since 2004, more than 6,000 Gurkhas and their families have done so.

On 29 April, hon. Members of all parties made clear their view that the Government should reconsider plans to increase by 10,000 the number of Gurkhas and family members who could come to the UK to live. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration set out in his statement to the House that evening, we undertook to respect the will of the House and introduce revised proposals. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he has led to deliver that commitment. I am also grateful to the members of the Home Affairs Committee and the Gurkhas’ representatives, who have helped us to establish the basis for the proposals.

Our policy will be put into effect through guidance, which we will publish shortly, having first shared it in advance with the Select Committee and Gurkha representatives to seek their views.

Our new guidance will reflect the will of the House, while remaining affordable and consistent with our broader immigration policy. All former Gurkhas who retired before 1997 and who have served more than four years will now be eligible to apply for settlement in the UK.

Gurkha representatives have indicated that it will take time for former Gurkhas and their families to make their applications. I welcome the willingness of the representatives to set up a form of resettlement board to assist the process of their integration into British life.

On the basis of the figure of 10,000 to 15,000 main applicants that Gurkha representatives have suggested, I expect to be able to welcome them and their families over the course of the next two years. I am making resources available in the UK Border Agency to do that, and I am making it clear that there should be no time limit on those applications. The Select Committee has recommended that former Gurkhas should be entitled to bring with them their spouses and dependent children under the age of 18. I am pleased to accept that recommendation.

The 1,400 or so outstanding applications for settlement that are now being considered by the UK Border Agency will be processed on the basis of the policy I am announcing today. I have instructed the UK Border Agency to process all those cases, as a matter of urgency, by 11 June, but I expect to complete the work earlier.

The guidance recognises the unique nature of the service given to the UK by the Brigade of Gurkhas. It is offered to them on an exceptional basis.

I hope that the House will understand the importance of maintaining the distinction, upheld by the High Court, between Gurkhas who served before and after 1997. That is why I welcome the agreement of all parties
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to our discussions that there is no direct read-across between settlement and pension rights. As the Chairman of the Select Committee wrote in his letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday,

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