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Ms Harman: We will be having a debate prior to the European Council, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take that opportunity to catch the Speaker’s eye and participate in that debate, and to make the point that we all need to work together in the interests of
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Britain’s economy, of the environment and of protecting ourselves against international crime. We have to work together in Europe, and siding with what my hon. Friend describes as a few fruitcake parties from the far right would not be in the interests of the people of this country.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I warmly congratulate the Leader of the House on her remarks about the link between Members of Parliament and their respective constituencies? That link is vital to the parliamentary system in this country. Is she also aware that there have been calls today, not only from the Conservatives, for the more meaningful involvement of Back Benchers in the business of the House?

I refer particularly to the establishment of a business Committee, which could go much wider in representing the House than the current rather informal business committee. Will she give serious thought to that suggestion? Is it not an appropriate subject for an important debate? Could we not consider merging the Modernisation Committee, which she leads, with the Procedure Committee, which could achieve so many of the things that both she and the Prime Minister have talked about to improve democracy?

Ms Harman: As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Rothwell (Colin Challen), we should take the opportunity to look again at the mechanism for arranging House business. As Leader of the House, I would welcome the views of all parties on the matter.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Given the recent media interest in how public money is spent on the pay and allowances of those in public life, may we have a debate on the pay and other remuneration of BBC superstars and on the irony of the corporation’s use of the familiar pretext of the Data Protection Act to seek to prevent openness and transparency in public life? In such a debate, may we have the chance to say to the BBC, on the basis of some recent experience, that resisting the public’s legitimate right to know how their money is being used to remunerate all those in public life is likely to end in tears?

Ms Harman: When public money is spent, the public are entitled to know about it, and salaries for presenters at the BBC are paid for out of public money. Now I have heard it argued that it would be invidious to publish those salaries because it would prompt competition from commercial organisations that might try to head-hunt those presenters. However, that risk applies to everyone in public service—the salaries of permanent secretaries, for example, are published and they, too, could be head-hunted by the private sector. However, many people work in the public sector because they believe in public service broadcasting or the important work of the public sector more widely. I do not buy the argument that salaries cannot be published because of commercial confidentiality because it seems to me that the issue goes further than the Data Protection Act. I believe that gagging clauses are drawn up to prevent BBC presenters from disclosing the salaries that they have negotiated, but the Equality Bill contains a clause to ban such gagging clauses because we do not think it appropriate for employers and employees to be bound not to reveal
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information about pay—not least because that might provide an opportunity for pay discrimination between men and women.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): May we have a debate in Government time about “phoenixism”—in other words, going out of business one day and going back into business a few days later, doing almost exactly the same thing, leaving creditors unpaid and customers without the goods and services they have paid for? Does the Leader of the House agree that the House should discuss this matter particularly now, when this pernicious practice is resulting in many of our constituents being unable to recover money they can ill afford to lose?

Ms Harman: When someone goes out of business, that affects other businesses in the supply chain, as the hon. Gentleman said. Perhaps he could raise this matter again in the debate immediately after business questions, which is about supporting business through these difficult times.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I return to President Obama’s highly significant speech in Cairo this morning. Bearing in mind that our country is still probably America’s closest ally and has huge interests in the middle east, and given that the Leader of the House has said that the topical debate for Thursday has not yet been decided, may I suggest that there could not be anything more topical than a debate on the middle east, particularly in view of the American President’s speech, and that it should be led by the Foreign Secretary, if he is available?

Ms Harman: I will certainly take that as a constructive suggestion for next week’s topical debate.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): May I push the Leader of the House again on the question of the timing of the Postal Services Bill? If the Government are intent on proceeding with the part-privatisation of the Royal Mail, they need to get on with it because the private sector partners cannot tolerate the uncertainty. If, on the other hand and as well-informed sources suggest, the Government have abandoned those plans, the Bill is still necessary in other respects, particularly to deal with regulatory issues surrounding the winding up of Postcomm and its merger into Ofcom. We still need the Bill and we need to get on with it very quickly.

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Bill introduced in the other place has completed its passage there, so it is available to be brought before the House. It is not in next week’s business, so I am afraid that he will have to wait until next week’s business statement to see whether it is part of business for the future. I appreciate him making those comments—by saying that I may seem to be breaking the spirit of what I said to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). I am aware of that paradox.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): I have previously asked the right hon. and learned Lady whether we could have a debate on the impact assessment, or the cost-benefit analysis, of the Climate Change Act 2008. It showed that costs had doubled to £400 billion
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since the Act came into force and that the Secretary of State had accidentally mislaid £1 trillion of benefits. Thanks perhaps to the intervention of the Leader of the House, for which I am grateful, the Secretary of State has written to me saying that we could debate these issues in connection with statutory instruments on carbon budgets. Those have been debated in the other place, so will she tell us when they are going to be debated in this place? Can she assure us that they will be debated on the Floor of the House and can she tell us whether they result from the Climate Change Act 2008—and are therefore something that the House could reject in principle if it so wished—or, as the text of the statutory instrument suggests, they come instead from the European Union Climate and Energy Package? If so, the Government have produced a separate cost-benefit analysis for this package on that basis, which therefore means that although we could go through the charade of debating them, we could never reject them.

Ms Harman: I will raise this issue with my colleagues in the relevant Department. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the matter on a previous occasion. It might be necessary for him to meet the Deputy Leader of the House and the appropriate departmental Minister in order to sort out the process issues. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to ensure that the processes are right for dealing with the matter.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Whatever the turbulence in this place, 20 years ago in Tiananmen Square, according to the Chinese Red Cross, 2.500 young people had their lives snuffed out. Even this morning, journalists trying to enter Tiananmen Square were manhandled by the Chinese police. May we have a debate about human rights in China and how we can encourage the Chinese, who wish to become a modern country and a part of our modern society, to revise their internal policing and freedom policies?

Ms Harman: Given that there are major human rights concerns that go beyond the roughly 30 people who, 20 years after the tragic events in Tiananmen Square, still remain in detention, it might be appropriate for a topical debate in the near future. Given the major human rights issues also arising in Burma, we might be able to combine the two and debate them together.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On 27 April, the new motorcycle driving test, including the controversial 50 kph swerve and stop aspect, was finally introduced. During the first three weeks of the test’s operation, there have been 11 incidents—10 involving injury—and three people have had to be admitted to hospital. Will the Secretary of State for Transport, whoever he or she may be by next week, make a statement so that Members can raise the questions that need to be asked about this particular disturbing problem?

Ms Harman: I will raise the issue with Ministers in the Department for Transport and try to find out whether they believe a written ministerial statement or a letter to the hon. Gentleman would be the most appropriate means to deal with his request.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a statement from the Leader of the House on the selection of topics to be debated on days when major elections, such as the European and county council
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elections today, are going on? She knows that I am a great admirer of the way she discharges her duty as Leader of the House and I cannot believe that she would have wanted the “Defence in the World” debate—the most important defence debate of the year—to be scheduled on a day like today. If she cannot resolve the problem herself, will she have a word with the leader of her party, whoever that may be, in the next few days?

Ms Harman: All of us in the House believe in the importance of democracy, and we believe in it not just for the election of Members of the House, but for the election of local councillors and Members of the European Parliament. That is why there are so few Members in the House when local elections or elections to the European Parliament take place. Traditionally, that has been responded to by an effort to ensure that there is no controversial business and no need for a vote at the end of business. That means that we will be debating the important subject of the economy when few Members are in the House. There is an opportunity to look afresh at a lot of issues. If we think that there is no opportunity for serious debate in the House on election days such as this, perhaps the House should not be sitting. We need to consider that.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): May we have a debate about Gibraltar following worrying news that Brussels has begun to recognise Spanish claims to the Rock in assigning to Spain territorial waters around Gibraltar as an environmental protection zone that Spain is apparently to police? This has already caused a stand-off—between the British patrol vessel HMS Sabre and the Spanish corvette Tarifa earlier this month. Some urgency is involved in the matter, yet we have heard nothing from the Government.

Ms Harman: In the provisional business, I announced for 16 June a debate on European affairs. The hon. Gentleman might seek to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye to intervene in that debate and get a response from a Foreign Office Minister.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Amidst the furore over parliamentary expenses and allowances during the past four weeks, it has
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perhaps been forgotten that each and every day the Government are borrowing—not spending, but borrowing—£450 million.

May we have a debate in Government time on this country’s interdependence with a number of other nations, especially China, which my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) referred to, and several nations in the middle east? We have such tremendous interdependence to ensure that our bonds and gilts can be sold in the international markets, and that borrowing is being funded by other nations that have an important ongoing economic relationship with us. Will the Government hold a debate in their own time on that important economic phenomenon?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister and other Ministers have led the way in recognising that the response to the global financial crisis needs to be global. That is why the G20 summit, which the Prime Minister hosted in London, was called. In support of the extra borrowing, I would say that it has been necessary for the purposes of backing up the car industry and providing extra investment to help those who are going to jobcentres, and to protect many of the issues that hon. Members have raised.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on organisations within the police force that undermine cohesion? We already have the deeply divisive National Black Police Association and West Yorkshire police has just announced that it is forming an association of Muslim police. I suggest to the Leader of the House that those organisations are extremely unhelpful, deeply divisive and do nothing to promote community cohesion and the principle of integration. May we have a debate on that issue, because many of my constituents and many people in my part of the world find such things entirely unacceptable?

Ms Harman: It is important to ensure that there is proper policing that is as effective as it possibly can be, and that the public have confidence in and work in support of the police. That is only helped by having a police force that reflects and is part of the communities that it serves, which is why it is important to have more black, Asian and Muslim police. Therefore, those associations are important for increasing recruitment and diversity in our police services, whether in Yorkshire or in London.

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The Economy (Supporting Business)

Topical debate

12.14 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ian Pearson): I beg to move,

British businesses are fundamental to our success and prosperity as a nation and supporting businesses through these tough times has been, is and will continue to be a priority for the Government. As many commentators have said, what makes this downturn different from those seen in the past is the fact that it is not a domestic problem, or a problem restricted to a small number of countries, but global.

World gross domestic product is forecast to contract by around 1.25 per cent. this year—the first full-year shrinkage since the second world war—and many of our international partners are in recession. In the first quarter of this year, the UK economy shrank by 1.9 per cent. Across the EU, the fall was 2.4 per cent. Germany saw a contraction of twice that in the UK in the first quarter, and the Japanese economy contracted by 4 per cent.

This downturn is hurting people and businesses, but the Government are not ducking the hard questions. We led the world in taking action to stabilise the banking system. We have put in place a £20 billion fiscal stimulus package to boost the economy. We have introduced a range of targeted measures to provide real help to businesses, individuals and families.

As the International Monetary Fund noted in its annual statement on the UK economy, our response has been bold and wide ranging, and it has helped to contain the impact of the global crisis on the country. The fact that this downturn is global means that we need global action as well as action on the home front. That is why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have worked with our international partners to ensure that we have a co-ordinated global response to the economic crisis.

In April at the G20 summit meeting in London, agreement was reached on collective action that is necessary to mitigate the risk of an even more severe downturn while reshaping the financial system, preserving the world trading system and laying the foundations for a sustainable recovery.

The London summit was an important step in the journey towards restored stability and economic growth globally, and the Government are committed to ensuring that further progress is made between now and the next meeting of leaders to be held in the US in September.

Here at home, we have taken decisive steps to support the UK’s financial system, given its fundamental importance to the basic functioning of our economy, and to provide real help for people and businesses.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I hope that the Minister will still be in post this time next week so that he can give evidence to my Committee on the automotive assistance programme. Is he aware of concern in the automotive supply chain that the French and German Governments are giving much more direct
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help to that supply chain to protect it? Will he tell the House what grants and sums have been disbursed under the automotive assistance programme, and how many companies have been assisted by it?

Ian Pearson: I will come to the automotive assistance programme in a moment as part of the wider context of measures that the Government are taking, but I want to make the point to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that, through the fiscal stimulus announced in the pre-Budget report and the actions we took in October and January to support the banking system, we are helping businesses by beginning to replace the lending capacity lost due to the withdrawal from the UK economy of foreign banks and other institutions.

This year’s Budget went further in providing a stimulus to the economy as a whole, and in total we will provide fiscal support worth 4 per cent. of GDP in 2009-10. All in all, the UK has one of the largest programmes of fiscal support in the G20 in 2009.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): To help small businesses in particular, which are suffering a recession through no fault of their own, could not the Government take away, or at least suspend, some of the regulatory burdens to enable businesses to come out the other side? If they do not do that, they will be strangling those businesses, which will never have an opportunity to recover.

Ian Pearson: The Government have a strong track record in better regulation. At the moment, small businesses really want help with their cash flow, new customers and the economy to get moving again. The actions that the Government are taking are all designed to achieve that.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Taking the Minister back to his point about boosting lending, surely he must have seen the figures released earlier this week showing that lending to consumers and businesses in the economy is at a low not seen since 1997.

Ian Pearson: Let me come on to lending directly. Although we have taken action, which has been opposed by the Conservative party, at a macro-economic level to provide a stimulus to the economy, it takes time to have effect. In addition, the Bank of England has reduced interest rates to the lowest level in our history, at 0.5 per cent., £125 billion of quantitative easing has been provided, and the current sterling exchange rate is highly competitive internationally. Those measures take time to filter through to the real economy, which is why help is needed now.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to question me further about lending, I would be happy to take a further intervention. As he will be aware, a number of banks have announced plans to increase lending to households and businesses this year. HSBC will make £15 billion in mortgages available in 2009, and is allocating £1 billion in extra loans to small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK. Barclays recently said it would lend a further £5.5 billion to businesses this year, on top of a similar amount to individuals, and Northern Rock and several other lenders are following similar courses.

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