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In the provisional business that the right hon. and learned Lady announced last week, the Child Poverty Bill was scheduled for this coming Monday. Now that we are going to be debating the Parliamentary Standards Bill on Monday instead, will she give us a commitment that the House will indeed debate this important Bill before the summer recess? We on the Opposition Benches are full of contributions that we wish to make to the legislation. The issue is all the more important in the light of yesterdays Office for National Statistics figures on the level of deprivation facing children growing up in London, nearly a quarter of whom are living in households where no one is working and which are plagued by obesity and crime. As the Leader of the House represents an inner-London borough, and for the sake of those whom the legislation seeks to protect,
may I ask the her to guarantee not to lose sight of the Bill, and to bring it to the House as soon as possible?
Given the Prime Ministers woeful performance at questions yesterday, may we have a full and urgent statement from him on financial honesty in the Government? Yesterday morning, Britain was found to be facing the biggest budget deficit in the world. At lunchtime, the Prime Ministers attempts to defend himself in the Commons ended in ridicule. In the afternoon, the Governor of the Bank of England complained that he had been left in the dark about important aspects of Government policy, and delivered the final blow by calling on the Government to set tougher targets on the UKs extraordinary debt levels. Is it not clear that the longer the Prime Minister deludes himself about being in power, the longer it will take the UK to recover?
Finally, may I simply note that, this week, we are celebrating the second anniversary of the right hon. and learned Ladys ascension to her position as Leader of the House? I will send her a card saying Now we are two. Members may take that to mean anything they wish.
Ms Harman: The shadow Leader of the House asked about the motion on the Committee. The intention is that this Committee of the House will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), and that it will consider the improvement of the processes for the Government being held to account by Members of this House. We tabled a motion, and amendments to it were tabled. We considered the amendments; in fact, more amendments have been tabled this morning. If we are trying to achieve consensus across the House, I think that it is right and proper that, instead of ploughing on with our resolution, we should listen to what is being said and see whether we can take on board the different points of view and proceed on a basis of consensus.
The shadow Leader of the House told everyone that he was a new man, but is it not quintessentially old politics to insist that we do not need to listen? As Leader of the House, it is important for me to listen to hon. Members when they table amendments, and to take into account what they suggest. I do not think that that is the sign of a shambles; it is the sign of how the Leader of the House should proceed. I do not think that it is a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured to hearI will talk to him and all other hon. Members about thisthat we will proceed to bring forward a resolution, before the House rises, on which I hope the whole House can agree, so that we can set up the Committee and improve the way in which the House holds the Government to account.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Parliamentary Standards Bill. He has seen it; it has been published, and it will be debated on the Floor of the House over three days. He will see from the face of the Bill that the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with. Essentially, the Parliamentary Standards Bill sets up an authority to deal with our allowances to ensure that they are established and administered independently and that the public can have confidence that that is the case. It will not trample on the question of privilege.
On ID cards, there is no change in Government policy. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Home Secretary keeps the matter under review at all times. If there is any change in policy, the House will be kept updated. The hon. Gentleman will know that we have introduced biometric ID cards for foreign nationals, and I hope he supports that, as it is not only important for security, but speeds up the sorting out of identity questions so that access to visas, for example, is made easier for people who are genuinely who they say they are. He also knows that we are introducing this approach for air-side in airports, and that there will be no compulsory ID cards for everybody else without a vote in this House. If there is any change on thatI do not expect that there will bethe Home Secretary will keep the House informed. He keeps the matter under review, as I said.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Postal Services Bill. It is not announced for next weeks business or that for the week after. He will see that we had to make a space for three days for the Parliamentary Standards Bill. I think it is important, with a crisis of public confidence in the House, to bring forward this measure and address it quickly. At the same time, to ensure proper scrutiny of the measure while bringing it in expeditiously, we need to give adequate time for it to be debated on the Floor of the House. That is why debate of the Parliamentary Standards Bill will be across three days.
The Child Poverty Bill is not in the business that I have announced, but I hope that it will be brought in before the summer recess. I expect that to be the case, and on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman said, I hope that the Opposition will vote for it when it comes before the House.
On the economy, it remains the No. 1 priority of the Government to take action to protect businesses and peoples jobs, and to make sure that if people lose their job, they do not also lose their home. We will intervene and take action in all those respects, and we will make sure that we grow the economy out of recession rather than cut it, which is not the way to take us out of the recession.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am a generous sort, and I like to give credit where credit is due. I entirely applaud what the Leader of the House has just saidthat from now on, she is going to consult before putting motions before the House; she is going to listen to what people say, and then react to those requests. Hallelujah! That is what we have been asking for for years. If that has happened in respect of the Committee to be chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)I tabled a modest amendment, which was supported in all parts of the House, and the Leader of the House has now given me to understand that she will agree to itit is very good news indeed.
When we look at todays Order Paper, however, what do we see? We see motions 6 to 13, standing in the name of the Leader of the House, setting up the Regional Grand Committees. The right hon. and learned Lady knows that I support the idea of having such Committees, but has she consulted before tabling the motions? No, she has not. Has she canvassed the subject matter that the Regional Grand Committees will discuss? No, she
has not. Has she sought convenient places and dates to enable those Committees to meet? No, she has not. All she has consulted is the so-called regional Ministers, who have then decided where those Committees will meet, when they will meet and what they will discuss. What sort of scrutiny of Government is that? Will she now withdraw motions 6 to 13 and talk to me and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) in order to move forward?
The Government need to come clean on the question of ID cards. The Conservatives changed their minds eventually, and former Home Secretariesand there are enough of themhave changed their minds, so when are the Government going to admit that they will have to change their mind on ID cards and come to the position that we have advocated all along?
In looking at how this House scrutinises business, can we look seriously at how we scrutinise Government expenditure? As I have said before, there is no adequate mechanism for the House as a whole to look at Government spending. We have estimates days which do not involve looking at estimates; we have Consolidated Fund motions which do not involve any debate on the Consolidated Fund; and we give more scrutiny to a ten-minute Bill than to the Governments entire spending programme. Can we have some major reforms to enable us to carry out such scrutiny, so that we are not simply asked to write out cheques? If that had happened, we might not have been facing the biggest financial deficit that this country has ever seen, and the biggest seen in Europe. Can we have a debate very soon, so that we can see how the Government plan, as the Governor of the Bank of England says,
to return to a sustainable position over the lifetime of the next Parliament?
Finally, I welcome the fact that the Leader of the House has acceded the request I made last week about reconstituting the Science and Technology Committee. I suggest that the Committee be asked an early stage to look at the recent research of Professor Tonegawa, published in Neuron magazine, which reveals that we edit our memories when fast asleep. Could that explain the difference between what the Prime Minister says and what he does?
Ms Harman: The question of what the Science and Technology Committee looks at is a matter for that Committeeif the House establishes the new Committee, as I am sure it will when we reach that part of our business this afternoon.
The hon. Gentleman asked about consultation relating to the Regional Grand Committees. I remind the House that motions will come before hon. Members later this afternoon to establish such Committees and to ensure that they sit in September, in the regions. Regional Grand Committees are Committees of all Members in a region, and they will look at how Government agencies and policies are working in that region. There was consultation, and it was with the Regional Select Committees. It is not my fault if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will not sit on those Committees, or if the official Opposition do not want to join the Regional Select Committees. I think that they should join them; on behalf of the regions they represent, they
should hold Government agencies to account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will attend and play a part with regard to the Regional Grand Committees, and the Regional Select Committees as well.
The hon. Gentleman asked about scrutiny by the House of Government spending. It is not true to say that there is no scrutiny of Government spending: we have oral questions, the pre-Budget report and debates, as chosen by the Liaison Committee, of Select Committee reports. How the House scrutinises public spending is a subject that could fall within the remit of the Committee that we hope to establish under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright).
I have already said that I want to listen and consult before I table motions, and it is obviously even more necessary to listen and consult when amendments are forthcoming. There is nothing wrong, however, with the process of tabling a motion, seeing that there is a whole heap of amendments and then talking about the matter. That is not a U-turn; it is not weakness or backing down; it is about setting out a position, seeing what people likeor, in this case, dislikeabout it and thinking again.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): On 15 June, for the first time ever, more Labour peers voted against the Government than with them, to close the loophole that allows tax exiles to bankroll UK political parties. Will my friend seek to reverse that vote when the Political Parties and Elections Bill comes back to the Commons, and will we get that Bill before the recess?
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will the Leader of the House make time within the parliamentary timetable to revisit the recently imposed abolition of the de minimis rules in the Register of Members Interests? I have been told in all solemnity by the registrar today that in future every bunch of flowers will have to be registered. I suggest to the right hon. and learned Lady that that will result in not only my entry in the register, but those of several female Members, having more petals than the average botanical gardens. Can she make time to consider the question? Perhaps we should go with Gilbert and Sullivan: The flowers that bloom with the speech, tra-la, have nothing to do with the case.
There is a de minimis rule for donations, which is 1 per cent.£650. Unless the bunch of flowers given to the right hon. Lady is worth more than £650 [Interruption.] If hon. Members will bear with me, I
am trying to explain the situation. If there is a donation, a de minimis rule will apply, and I suspect that when people give her flowers, it is a donation rather than payment for services. If there is payment for services, in cash or in kind, that needs to be declared. It is quite easy for hon. Members to work out whether the item is a gift given after something has been done, or payment for services. If payment for services has taken place, there is no de minimis rule, nor should there be.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Can we have a debate on the impact of high electricity prices on manufacturing in the United Kingdom, particularly on energy-intensive industries such as aluminium smelting? UK companies are finding such prices difficult, and that is threatening UK jobs and production.
Ms Harman: Ministers in the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are very concerned about increased energy prices, generated particularly by the cost of oil. I will ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to write to my hon. Friend about that.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Further to the question of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), the new rules that come into effect next Wednesday are virtually unworkable. If I make an after-dinner speech and my wife is presented with a bouquet of flowers, those become registrable. Under the Parliamentary Standards Bill, failure to register becomes a criminal offenceand if I ask her to give them back, I will be in even deeper trouble. When will the Leader of the House reply to the letter I wrote to her on 2 June asking her to introduce a sensible de minimis threshold for that part of the register?
Ms Harman: I think that the guidance will be workable. Obviously, we will ensure that we work closely with the registrar of financial interests to ensure that Members understand the rules clearly. There is no intention to have an unworkable system. The House supported the resolution for a register because the public are entitled to know, if Members are receiving payments for services, who is paying them and what they are paying them for.
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend try to find time for a debate on the quality of advice being given to people in jobcentres, particularly in south London? I am increasingly aware that many of the new deal advisers are unaware of the services and support that they can provide to lone parents returning to work.
May I ask the Leader of the House about English Heritages launch yesterday of Heritage at Risk? It cites one in seven conservation areas as being at risk. Given the Governments failure to bring in a heritage
protection Bill last year, can we have an urgent debate on what other measures can be taken to protect listed and other buildings that are deteriorating and being demolished because of lack of action by the Government?
Ms Harman: I will ask Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to write to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether any of his concerns come within the purview of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but it has questions next week.
Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab): May I congratulate the Leader of the House on recognising the strength of support for the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) yesterday, and on giving herself and the Government more time to think carefully about these matters? When she does so, will she think particularly carefully about the distinction between Government time and time that should properly be controlled by the House? Of course every Government have the right to introduce the legislation which they proposed when being elected, and should have plenty of time for that, but surely all other business is a matter for the House, including all matters of scrutiny of the Government. It is not for the Government to decide how much and what sort of time should be given to such scrutiny.
Ms Harman: I agree with the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. It is important that a democratically elected Government are able to deliver on their manifesto commitments and to get their business through the House, and that the House of elected Members makes sure that that legislation is properly scrutinised and that the Government continue to be held to account. That is why I hope that the Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), will be able to look across those issues.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Can we have an urgent debate on negative equity in the housing market? The recent rise in negative equity across the country has been most pronounced in Northamptonshire and the east midlands, and thousands of people are in real trouble?
Ms Harman: Negative equity is a particular concern if people cannot afford to stay in their homes and are forced to sell them at a very low market value. That is why we have taken a range of actions to protect people from being forced into repossession, including the support for mortgage interest scheme, the homeowner mortgage support scheme, the mortgage rescue scheme, the repossession prevention fund and the mortgage pre-action protocol. Repossessions, although rising, are still way below the level in the previous recession, and we are taking all the action that we can to prevent them from rising faster.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op):
My right hon. and learned Friend will have seen in this mornings papers and elsewhere that energy companieselectricity and gas suppliersare being accused of grossly overcharging their customers. It is also suggested that Ministers should have a strategy to intervene if such companies refuse to reduce their prices by the end
of December. Will she ask the Minister responsible to come to the House and reveal his plans for interventions so that people in this country are not overcharged for what should rightfully be subject to a true, fair and proper price set by a regulator?
Ms Harman: The issue is very important for industry and businesses as well as people in their own homes. I will discuss with the Minister responsible the best way to keep the House updated on Government action in this important respect.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It has emerged that the now Defence Secretary told me and the families of 14 service personnel who died aboard Nimrod XV230 that the aircraft had been made safe, despite being warned that it was impossible to be sure that that was true. We were repeatedly told that defence consultants QinetiQ agreed that the aircraft was safe to fly, despite the company warning that
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