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29 Jun 2009 : Column 39

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s announcement about extra money for housing is welcome, and will bring hope to young families in my constituency who are looking to set up home, but it would be without any value whatever if their tenancies were not secure. Will my right hon. Friend give a guarantee that a Labour Government would never consider taking away secure tenancies, as has been proposed in many policy documents published by the Conservatives?

The Prime Minister: I am aware that the Conservative party may be thinking of removing some of the securities that exist for people in tenancies. I would caution it against making long-standing tenants lose rights.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Which part of the Prime Minister’s statement will help Britain to avoid the national humiliation of losing its triple A sovereign debt rating?

The Prime Minister: I would caution the hon. Gentleman against making such statements. We have taken the right decisions to take Britain through a very difficult recession. I repeat that if we had taken the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, thousands more would be unemployed, banks would have gone under, we would not have a proper regulatory system such as the one we are introducing for the financial services, and many people would have had their homes repossessed and would have lost their mortgages. I believe that we are taking the right decisions, and I believe that there is an understanding around the world that we have taken the right decisions.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The high-tech opportunities that my right hon. Friend listed are undoubtedly the building blocks for the future, but it is vital that the nation is in a strong position to exploit that. Will he ensure—as part of the digital Bill, for example—that money is set aside for proper training, whether through small business opportunities or for individual citizens? The country has to be in a strong position to exploit the technology to the best advantage.

The Prime Minister: In the new technologies that are available around the world, Britain has outstanding leadership—in low-carbon industries, in high technology, in many of the creative industries, in biotechnology, and of course in education itself. We want to give people the chance to have long-term jobs in those industries and services, which is why it is important that the training packages that we are putting on offer are individually tailored to making advances in those sectors for the future. We will continue to promote Train to Gain and other programmes that give people entitlement to get the skills that they need.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Sadly, this Parliament is now discredited, tarnished and worn out. The Government are unpopular, wholly discredited and filled with third and fourth choices. Does the Prime Minister not appreciate that far from hearing this wholly incredible package about building Britain’s future, the people of this country want to have their say on the future, and they want a general election now?

The Prime Minister: I should have thought that some humility from the Opposition Benches was in order. The problems that have happened in this Parliament
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have happened because of actions in all parties, and people must have the humility to admit that we have to clean up Parliament and do it together. I hesitate to follow the hon. Gentleman’s advice and suggest that the problems relating to expenses are on only one side of the House.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The House will welcome the guarantee of training places to 16 and 17-year-olds where they need them, and of skills training to adults who have been unemployed for six months or more. How certain is the Prime Minister that the skills and training sector has the capacity to deliver on these objectives, when there is a cloud of financial uncertainty hanging over excellent projects such as learndirect and Train to Gain in constituencies such as mine, which have benefited from those projects over the years by being in the lowest quartile of all parliamentary constituencies for unemployment, but are now seeing unemployment start to rise in a very worrying fashion?

The Prime Minister: I cannot comment on issues that the hon. Gentleman raises from his constituency, but the number of people using Train to Gain has risen from 300,000 to 500,000, and the latest projection is more than 800,000. That shows that the service is welcomed by employers and used by employees. My hon. Friend is right that the way to ensure that there is capacity for people to get their training needs met and for jobs to be created is to provide the finance that is necessary. I accept that that is a dividing line between the two parties. We are prepared to put £5 billion into investing in a jobs and training programme for the future. The Opposition would cut the money, not increase it.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): After precisely 60 minutes of debate on the subject, I do not believe I have heard the word “pensioners” even once. We know that the Prime Minister has done much for pensioners in the past, so let us not forget them now. What will he do to increase the take-up of pension credit and to bring forward the indexation of pensions with average earnings, which is a much welcomed Government initiative?

The Prime Minister: I am glad the hon. Gentleman recognises that we brought in the winter allowance, free television licences for the over-75s, and the pension credit. In our document today we talk about the additional needs that pensioners, particularly very elderly people, will have in the future, and I mentioned it in my statement—that is, the need for social care. We will address the matter with a statement to the House in due course.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): In his statement the Prime Minister told us that he would be attempting to fix the financial and

Can he tell us who created that weak financial system, and who presided over it for 12 years?

The Prime Minister: I have explained on many occasions that what we are dealing with is a global financial crisis, where international regulation should have been introduced.
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To be honest, we, the British Government, were pressing other countries for many years to do so, and it was not done.

Mr. Cameron indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister: The Leader of the Conservative party again laughs and tries to sneer at what I am saying. He was advocating deregulation right up to the crisis, and presumably, if he ever got into power, deregulation of the financial sector would be his policy.

Mr. Speaker: I am delighted that everybody was able to get in. It shows what a bit of self-discipline can do.

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Points of Order

4.33 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Notwithstanding the need for robust debate, is it in order for the Prime Minister to put words into Members’ mouths, when I had failed to suggest, because it is not true, that one side was particularly culpable of the offences scandal?

Mr. Speaker: I think the hon. Gentleman might be seeking to lure me into a continuation of the debate. He is not an unduly sensitive flower, and I am sure he will rest content with the proceedings as they have taken place.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you a serious issue, of which I have given prior notification both to you and to the Member concerned? Last week, without informing me, the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) organised an open meeting in my constituency for residents of two of my constituency estates, entitled “Hands off our homes”. The invitation was signed “Andy Slaughter MP” and it declared a number of falsehoods in relation to alleged plans “to demolish the estates and force everyone to move”, which is wholly untrue. This is an outrageous interference in another Member’s constituency, and I would be grateful for clarification on how we are to uphold the conventions and courtesies of the House.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me advance notice of his point of order. Right hon. and hon. Members should respect the existing boundaries of each other’s constituencies; they should not venture into neighbouring constituencies in anticipation of future boundary changes—but which boundary changes have not taken place—without prior notification of the hon. Member concerned. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Slaughter) is in his place, and I feel sure that he has noted what has been said.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you a point of order that I raised on several occasions with your predecessor, relating to the increasingly casual speed at which Departments fail to answer parliamentary questions and correspondence? Will you agree that, when it comes to the courtesies of the House, there is no more important courtesy than answering questions of hon. Members from all parts of the House? May I ask you if you would make clear your view—if, indeed, it is the case—that parliamentary answers to correspondence and questions should be prompt and sent on the due date to Members?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, and I can tell the House that I agree with what has just been said. Timely replies to parliamentary questions are of the utmost importance, and, if the hon. Gentleman attends to future proceedings of this House and to public debate, as I feel sure he will, he may discover that there will be further news on that matter erelong.

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Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): Further to the point of order made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), Mr. Speaker. For the record, I asked him to tell me when he would make his point of order and the details of it, but he refused. I am quite happy to deal with the points that he has raised and to deal with them with you, Mr. Speaker. However, that point of order is a trick that the hon. Gentleman tried repeatedly and regularly with the previous Speaker until he became bored with the issue. Those matters, which the hon. Gentleman deals with in his capacity as campaigner for the candidate in Hammersmith and Fulham, a constituency that the hon. Gentleman has abandoned, should be left to his other job outside the House, not to the job that he does here.

Mr. Speaker: I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, the point that he has made is really not a point of order but a continuation of the debate, into which I know he would not seek in any way to entice me. The hon. Gentleman has placed his views firmly on the record.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you were elected to the Chair, the whole House welcomed your affirmation that, in the event of Ministers leaking statements beforehand, you would not—if I may put words into your mouth—let the matter rest there. In addition to the leaking of the statement that we have just heard by the Prime Minister, we have had four days’ continuous leaks by the Minister for Children, Schools and whatever it is—Families and Schools—about a change in education policy on literacy and numeracy. Will you not let the matter rest there but ensure that the Minister is reprimanded for not giving a statement at all to the House—even though for four days he has been briefing the press?

Mr. Speaker: Some of the matters to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred have been of long-standing political debate. I have made my view on that matter and my future expectation extremely clear. I think it is fair, however, to say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that it would be unwise to prejudge whether the details of a statement have been leaked until such statement has been made to the House.

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Parliamentary Standards Bill

[Relevant Documents: Memorandum from the Audit Committees on the Parliamentary Standards Bill; Written evidence received by the Justice Committee on Constitutional Reform and Renewal, HC 791-i.]

Second Reading

4.38 pm

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the House will be aware, this Bill has been presented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. She greatly regrets that she cannot be present either this afternoon in this Second Reading debate or in tomorrow’s proceedings. She is attending the memorial service and then the funeral of Sir Henry Hodge, the husband of our right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who tragically died 11 days ago. I am sure that the House will accept my right hon. and learned Friend’s apologies in those circumstances.

As every Member can personally testify, the expenses scandal has profoundly affected the public’s trust in us as individuals and in the House as the heart of our democracy. In almost equal measure, it has seriously damaged our confidence in ourselves. Many actions to right the situation and begin to restore trust have had to be taken. Some of the alleged abuses of the system have been so serious that careers have been prematurely terminated. There are police investigations.

But above and beyond any serious individual failings, the reputation of the House as a whole, and of Members whose conduct has been beyond reproach, has been undermined. This terrible saga has, in turn, revealed a collective failure by this place effectively to regulate itself and to put in place systems that would have highlighted abuses before they started—rules and practices that, once the harsh spotlight was shone on them, withstood, rather than crumbled, in the face of public scrutiny.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless agree that it is extremely important not to confuse constitutional change with the urgent reforms that need to be brought in to deal with the abuse of expenses, allowances and other matters? They are not the same thing.

Mr. Straw: Of course I agree. As I shall explain to the House, all the way through the series of negotiations, I have been very alive to the need to focus on the immediate problem—that of parliamentary expenses—and to ensure that, as I shall make clear, I am open to suggestions in respect of other matters. Of course it would be inappropriate to introduce wider constitutional reforms in an emergency way, and I hope that we are not proposing to do so.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Clearly, we will debate the extent to which fundamental changes are entailed by the Bill as well as deal with how parliamentary allowances are paid. Given that some of us believe that the Bill will change the balance of the House and how the House functions, will my right hon. Friend tell us how much time the Cabinet spent discussing the proposals before they were presented to us as a Bill?

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Mr. Straw: Actually, the Cabinet spent a long time discussing the proposals, as did Cabinet Committees. The greatest amount of time—appropriately, because we are trying to act by consensus—was spent in formal and informal cross-party discussions. There were four separate cross-party discussion sessions, as well as these three days’ debate on the Floor of the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall give way in due course, but I ask both Members to allow me to make a little progress before I come to them.

If we go through the record of this place over the past century and a half, we find an increasing preoccupation to introduce external regulation over one area of social and economic activity after another. From interventions that insisted on clean water or safety systems in the mines or in factories, to increasingly tight external regulation of finance, business and professions, this House and Parliament has been unrelenting in its view that, however well meaning the individuals and venerable the institution, self-regulation is rarely, if ever, enough. The painful lesson of the past six weeks is that our prescription for others must now be applied to ourselves.

Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House the

It would take over responsibility for setting and administering the allowance system and apply

The Leader of the Opposition said that the Opposition would back the establishment of the authority, but added—and he was right to do so—that

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con) rose—

Mr. Straw: I shall come back to both hon. Gentlemen in a second.

To answer those and many other questions, the Leader of the House and I have engaged in intensive cross-party discussions over the past three weeks, as I have said. All recognised parties in both Houses have been represented, as have the Cross-Bench peers, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Clerks department. I should like to record my thanks to all those who were involved. The discussions were not a substitute for, but a complement to, a proper examination of the Bill here and in the other place. The fact that the Bill before the House is different and, in my judgment, better than in its earlier drafts is testament to the willingness of everyone in the group to put aside partisan interests. However, I am the first to admit, as I will make clear, that this process of improving the Bill will continue over these next three days.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The Secretary of State may remember that on 18 June, only 11 days ago, I asked the Leader of the House—the reasons for whose absence we obviously fully recognise and accept—to

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