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Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): When the Policing and Crime Bill was in Committee in February, the two most important and controversial parts of it—on DNA databases and on anti-gang injunctions—were introduced at the very last minute during the final week, and could not be scrutinised or amended properly. On Report, we
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had only 40 minutes in which to discuss DNA. That makes a travesty of the idea that the House carries out democratic scrutiny of the Executive and of legislation.

In advance of the establishment of the Wright commission, will the Leader of the House make a clear statement at the Dispatch Box that in future the Government will not abuse Executive power and will not abuse programme motions, and that we shall never again see such a travesty of democratic scrutiny?

Ms Harman: It is not long until the summer recess, and we hope to establish the Wright Committee before then. I hope that its terms of reference will include the requirement on it to report swiftly, so that these matters can be considered in the context of that Committee.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to test how closely the right hon. and learned Lady has been listening. I raised with her on 30 April the issue of Ministers—indeed, herself—commenting in the media about the publication of Bills before they are made available to Members of the House. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised a point of order with Mr. Speaker, and the right hon. and learned Lady was in her place. Mr. Speaker said that the thrust of his remarks about Ministers coming to this House first were clear. Has the right hon. and learned Lady thought about that, and is she prepared to say that Ministers will not speak to the media about the publication of Bills until they are available to Members of this House? Mr. Speaker’s statement was very clear.

Ms Harman: If notice is given of a ministerial statement and Members come to the House to hear that, it is very important that the first people who are able to ask questions about that statement are Members of this House, not journalists, and therefore it is important that the statement to the House comes first, before it is put into the newspapers or broadcast on radio or television. The matter of Bills is slightly different. I heard what Mr. Speaker said yesterday, and it goes without saying that what he said is, by definition, correct, but, by the time that we reach the presentation of a Bill, there has, usually, been extensive consultation. For instance, I had already made a statement to the House setting out the bones of the Parliamentary Standards Bill before the details of it were published. It is important to try to ensure that the House is respected and that it gets to hear about matters first, but in respect of the publication of Bills there has often already been a consultation process and it is not quite so easy to draw the line. Wherever the line is drawn, however, I hope that I and other Members will stay on the right side of it.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The Leader of the House is known as a great equalities champion. Therefore, may we have a debate on inequalities in the current planning system? If she lived in Wales or Scotland and someone wanted to mine an open-cast mine, they would not be able to do so if it was within 500 m of her home, but in England the designated distance is only 100 m. May we have an urgent debate to end that discrimination?

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Ms Harman: I will bring that to the attention of Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): We have our new Speaker, we will shortly have our new reform Committee, and I hope we have a new mood for change, so can we also have a debate on how new technology can be used to help Parliament better connect with the public?

Ms Harman: The Procedure Committee has been working on the specific question of the public being able to put items on the agenda for debate and votes in this House. It produced a report on e-petitions, so it has done a lot of the groundwork on this already. Perhaps that work can be brought to fruition by the parliamentary Committee that is now being set up.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The Parliamentary Standards Bill is, by any standard, an extremely important constitutional measure, yet the deliberations on it are being confined to a mere three days. That means that there will be only 18 hours of debate before it passes through all its stages in this House. Would this House not earn a bit more respect if we delayed the rising of the House for the recess to enable the Government to give more days of debate to this extremely important Bill? By no stretch of the imagination will it be possible to debate every clause and amendment next week.

Ms Harman: I agree that this is an important measure. What we all need to bear in mind, however, is the need for a balance between having proper scrutiny of these important measures and getting the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority set up and operating without undue delay. I think that having an opportunity to debate the issue on the Floor of the House across three days should give enough time to address what is a relatively short and focused Bill that essentially sets up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and gives it the power to run our allowances. Debate across three days should be enough time for us to be satisfied that we have properly and thoroughly scrutinised the Bill.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on what he meant when he came to Southampton and told the people of Southampton and Totton in my constituency that they would decide whether or not their tap water was fluoridated? According to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen):

All the MPs, including one of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet colleagues, have said that, because of lack of public support, the process should not go ahead, yet the undemocratic strategic health authority is pressing on with it. What did the Prime Minister mean when he said that the people will decide?

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Ms Harman: The strategic authorities responsible for water should come within the purview of the Regional Select Committees and the Regional Grand Committee. I hope the hon. Gentleman will play his part on the Regional Committee in holding them to account, and that he will raise fluoridation with the relevant Ministers, namely Health Ministers as well as the Prime Minister.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): The equipment that keeps our armed forces safe on the front line is developed and manufactured in the United Kingdom, based on research carried out by the Ministry of Defence and its agencies. Unfortunately, the Government have decided this year to cut the MOD research budget by 7 per cent. and are planning a year-on-year cut in that research all the way up to the Olympics and beyond. May we have an urgent debate before we break up, given that our forces will be on operations while we are in recess, so that we can hold Defence Ministers to account for, perhaps, putting some of our soldiers at risk by cutting this budget?

Ms Harman: We do not underestimate at all the importance of research and science, and of investing in that. In fact, although we account for only 1 per cent. of the world’s population, we generate 5 per cent. of the world’s science and research. This country is at the forefront of science and research, therefore, and the Government have made sure that we invest in it across the board. I know that there has been a great deal of extra investment in the MOD. I do not know whether some of this research has been mainstreamed into other parts of the research community, but I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s points to the attention of MOD Ministers.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): The House will be aware that foreign students who have applied to study at UK universities are now withdrawing those applications in droves because they cannot negotiate the new and impossible visa application system. As a consequence, universities will be in financial distress because of the loss of fees that they had been expecting from foreign students. Will the Leader of the House find an appropriate Minister to make a statement to the House, as this matter falls between the stools of two Departments? We must provide some triage for this year, and make sure that changes are made to guard against a permanent loss of foreign students from the UK education system.

Ms Harman: The hon. Lady is right that foreign students are a very important part of our further and higher education system, but they are also important for our economic prospects as students from all around the world are familiar with Britain from having studied here. I am sure that action on the issues the hon. Lady has raised is already in hand, but I will get the Minister to write to her.

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Point of Order

12.59 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you will know, on today’s Order Paper there are a series of motions, beginning with motion 6, relating to the timing and holding of Regional Grand Committees. Item five of the agenda for the Chairmen’s Panel next week states that the panel may wish to discuss the planned meetings of Regional Grand Committees debated in the House on Thursday 25 June. You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we are not able to debate these motions because the Government have said they should not be subject to debate, notwithstanding the fact that there will be plenty of time today for such a debate. I also understand that it is not even possible for us to seek to amend these motions, notwithstanding that there has not been any consultation with any members of those Committees on the proposed dates for those meetings. In the case of the South West Regional Grand Committee, of which I am a member by virtue of having been elected to represent Christchurch, the meeting is due to take place during the family school holidays and that has not been the subject of any consultation. Is this not an intolerable state of affairs, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and how can you help Back Benchers to have some power over these matters?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I am afraid that these are not matters that can be resolved this afternoon. The motions have been tabled and they are in line with the Standing Orders. It is not a matter for the Chair what the Chairmen’s Panel decides to debate when it meets next. The hon. Gentleman is right that these matters have to be put today, but his points are now on the record and will be thought through by those people who need to consider such matters.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Cannot my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) find some consolation in the fact that, as a matter of procedure, these motions are votable?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Yes, that is correct.

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Business of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed,

1.1 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We have the extraordinary situation in which we are discussing a business motion, but a substantial part of the business has already been withdrawn by the Government. Given that the motion to establish a Select Committee on the reform of the House was withdrawn yesterday—the same day that it was tabled—the House will have much more time than it would otherwise have had to discuss the remaining motions.

May I put on the record my agreement with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and say that it is regrettable that we will not have the opportunity to debate the motions on the Regional Committees, especially as there has been no consultation on them? That means that Members will have more than enough time to make their views plain on the proposal to establish a Regional Select Committee for London, as well as to comment on the motion to change the Select Committee structure that follows the recent reshuffle and consequential changes to Departments.

I see no reason why we will not have enough time to consider the proposal to have a Science and Technology Committee, a point that was made at last week’s business questions by many hon. Members. We should also have more than enough time to debate the motion and amendment on parliamentary pensions. Following the Government’s U-turn last night on their proposals, we all look forward to the Leader of the House explaining her new position. It is not the intention of the Opposition to put the business motion to a Division, but this motion shows the Government’s complete disarray.

1.3 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): There will be great rejoicing that there is so much support for and interest in the Regional Grand Committees in motions 6 to 13. That underlines the point that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House has been making—that Members on both sides of the House should take part in Regional Committees and ensure that all those initiatives, including the Grand Committees, go forward as robustly as possible and extend regional accountability, which I am sure we all support.

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My right hon. and learned Friend gave several answers at business questions on the issue of the parliamentary reform Committee. We are moving ahead on a consensual basis, in consultation with all interested parties, and we hope to bring forward an agreed resolution as soon as possible. The motion on the science Committee is included in the next motion on the Order Paper.

1.4 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I had not intended to participate in this debate, but in the light of the incredibly disingenuous remarks from the Deputy Leader of the House, I shall do so. Surely she would accept that the way to ensure consultation with people in the regions is to consult Members to see whether the dates proposed for the meetings of these Grand Committees are convenient. The substantive motions are not debatable, so perhaps I may take this opportunity to ask the Deputy Leader of the House—I would be happy to give way to her—to explain why the dates chosen are reasonable—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman is widening the debate a little too far. It is not his fault, because both Front Benchers have led him astray, but I would be grateful if he would now confine his remarks to the motion.

Mr. Chope: The motions curtail the debate today to 5 pm at the latest, when the Divisions will take place. However, I understand that the Government intend to accept the amendment on motion 5, which means that there will be a potential gap between 5 pm and 6 pm—perhaps even a longer gap if the debate finishes early—during which time it would be possible to discuss other issues.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the time necessary to debate these matters could have been much less if proper consultation had taken place beforehand?

Mr. Chope: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Consultation is the key, and it is clear that it is not taking place between occupants of the Front Benches or with Back Benchers on key procedural matters. If the Deputy Leader of the House is too stubborn to admit that she has made a mistake on this occasion, perhaps she will reflect on the fact that this is causing immense disquiet among Back Benchers, who feel left out of the loop. They have been presented with a fait accompli—the motions cannot be amended—and are frustrated to note that the Government are wasting the House’s time at the same time as they are forcing legislation through on tight timetables.

I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will agree that these are issues of immense gravity and seriousness, and go to the heart of the question of whether this is a Chamber of the legislature or just somewhere for the Executive to do their own thing.

Question put and agreed to.

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Regional Select Committee (London)

1.8 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I beg to move,

The establishment of Regional Select Committees has been the topic of extensive debate and consideration in this House, and this is a planned addition to those Committees that are already up and running on an experimental basis for the remainder of this Parliament. The background is that in November 2008, the House decided to put in place an effective and visible improvement in the scrutiny and democratic accountability of the public agencies and public policies that operate in the eight English regions outside London.

In Scotland and Wales, and in every region in England there are important public agencies spending billions of pounds. These are public bodies spending public money in the public interest, and it is right that they should be publicly accountable, through this House, to the region they serve.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the Leader of the House not understand that many Members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, who represent seats in the capital—as we both do—feel that this Committee will be a ludicrous talking shop? We already have full scrutiny by 33 local authorities, the Greater London assembly and the Mayor. In one sense, we also have scrutiny by the Government office for London, which still exists, more than nine years into the mayoralty. What purpose can a Select Committee really have?

Ms Harman: As I shall say as I proceed with my comments, although there are different levels of accountability—the London boroughs, the Mayor and the London assembly—there is also an accountability gap, which this Select Committee is necessary to fill. To put it honestly, it was the Conservatives who thought there should be no London-wide accountability at all and abolished the Greater London council. This Government brought accountability back to London through the London assembly, and strengthened it still further with the Mayor. We still think there is an accountability gap, which the Select Committee is necessary to fill.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I will give way to the hon. Lady, who was no doubt in the vanguard of plans to abolish the GLC.

Mrs. Lait: I think most Conservatives are still pleased that the GLC went. Will the right hon. and learned Lady please list those bodies in London that are not already scrutinised by the Greater London authority—other than the Government office for London, which should of course be scrutinised by the relevant Department—that this Regional Select Committee should consider?

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