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Mr. Denham: I have every confidence in how my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing is handling this issue, and I am not going to comment on the particular
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proposal. In listening to this debate, however, I regret the lack of imagination so often shown by those who cannot grasp the importance of understanding how we use planning, housing and urban development to ensure that we provide good-quality communities at the highest environmental standards for the future. Too many of the critiques seem to be opposed to the entire idea, rather than to particular individual proposals.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): All Members must regret the fact that workers throughout the country are suffering job cuts, pay cuts and short-time working, but does the Secretary of State agree that that should not be used as a reason or excuse to cut the terms and conditions of local government workers?

Mr. Denham: I want to pay tribute to local government workers for the job they do, as I was also able to do at the Local Government Association conference last week. Local government workers are in discussions with their employers, the local authorities, at the moment. Those discussions have to take place in the light of the three-year financial settlement and the expectations of council tax payers for reasonable settlements. I certainly regard the job that local government workers do as essential, and I believe that the rising public appreciation of local services that we have seen in recent surveys is down to their efforts and their commitment.

T7. [284369] Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Why are the proposals in the Department’s consultation paper on building regulations published last week so timid in respect of controlling the energy performance of existing buildings, when that is so clearly vital for any sensible climate change strategy?

John Healey: It is indeed important in tackling climate change, but I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman cannot see that these proposals are a step in the right direction. I shall take his comments as an early representation and submission to the consultation.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I appreciate the Secretary of State’s position, but will a Minister
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please comment on the fact that my constituents view with great suspicion the fact that Tesco has begun to buy up property in the centre of Kirkby ahead of the determination of a recent planning appeal? If this disastrous scheme were to go ahead, it would be seen by my constituents purely as legalised bribery.

Mr. Denham: I can understand why my hon. Friend, who represents her constituency so assiduously, wishes to raise this issue, but she will understand, given where things are in the planning process, that no Ministers can respond in public on this matter—but we do hear what she says.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): While I welcome the Government’s conversion on the issue of the housing revenue account and their commitment to dismantling the system, it concerns me that there appears to be no mechanism to enable that to be done. Why have the Government not been willing to include a Bill in the draft legislative programme to get rid of the HRA system and extend that arrangement beyond just new houses, as the Minister suggested in his earlier answer would happen?

John Healey: I hope that the hon. Lady can wait until the end of the month, when I will set out in a detailed consultation document the plans we have and the steps we will take. There will be a timetable for the reforms that we need to introduce in order to do what I set out to do—dismantle the system, but do as much as we can in advance of the legislation that will be required.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) ought to spend more time worrying about the development of her own town centre rather than, as she seems to be doing, preventing £400 million of investment from going into Kirkby?

Mr. Denham: You will understand, Mr. Speaker, why this is a matter on which I did not wish to comment in public.

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Points of Order

3.31 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today the Ministry of Defence issued a written statement. While I have no doubt that that was perfectly in order, the statement contained the sensational announcement that the Government were making preparations for a strategic defence review. They have resisted calls for such a review for some considerable time. While this may be within the letter of your admonition that the House of Commons should hear major policy announcements first, Mr. Speaker, do you really believe that it is within the spirit of your admonition? Are there any means that you can use to bring a Minister to the House to make an oral statement? Alternatively, will you allow an urgent question on the topic tomorrow?

Mr. Speaker: The first response to the hon. Gentleman is simply stated. It is for Ministers to decide which orderly method of making their announcement they choose to deploy, and, on the hon. Gentleman’s own admission, what the Government have chosen to do is perfectly in order. The second response—which I think may be of interest and encouragement to the hon. Gentleman, who takes a keen interest in these and related matters—is that Defence questions will take place next Monday, and he may find a suitable opportunity to explore the point then.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This morning I received a reply to a letter from Lord Myners, the Financial Services Secretary, dated 2 July. I had written to him on 3 December. To be fair to the Department, an apology from the permanent secretary was attached to the letter, but given that the Department aims to respond within 15 working days and the reply has taken seven months to arrive despite two chases from my office, I really do not think that this is in order. I know that the permanent secretary said that the Department is introducing measures to deal with the problem, but it would be helpful if you could make it clear to Ministers that such delays are simply not acceptable.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he has raised that point of order. He will be aware of the premium that I attach—as, I know, do a huge number of Back Benchers—to timely responses both to written parliamentary questions and, indeed, to letters.

I think it fair to say that the hon. Gentleman has a legitimate grievance. He has suffered a lengthy delay. I hope that that delay is coming to an end, and that such an example of bad practice will not be repeated. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that Treasury Ministers were present to listen to his point of order.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that on 16 March this year the House resolved

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You will also know that the annual meeting of the Youth Parliament takes place between 24 and 27 July at the University of Kent at Canterbury, and that it will not now take place in the House. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am delighted that some of my hon. Friends think that that is good news.

My point of order is this, Mr. Speaker. I understand that there are proposals afoot for a meeting of the Youth Parliament to take place in the Chamber on Friday 30 October. Although that date does not fall in the recess, it is a non-sitting Friday, and a good deal of disruption could potentially be caused. Will it be necessary, Mr. Speaker, for the House to consider a fresh motion before such a course can be taken?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced hand and knows very well—he referred to it at the start of his point of order—that the House has made a decision on the question of whether the Youth Parliament should be able to hold a debate here. The hon. Gentleman was present at and a contributor to the debate on that matter in March. I know that he would not seek for one moment to inveigle me into repeating a debate that we held some months ago. As a point of clarification, it might be of interest to the House to know what I understand to be the case; namely that the annual meeting of the UK Youth Parliament is indeed taking place later this month—I believe in the county of Kent—but that that is a quite separate matter from the special occasion of the debate in this House upon which the House agreed earlier this year.

Mr. Chope rose—

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con) rose—

Mr. Speaker: I will take a point of order from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but I know that he will not want for one moment to continue the argument or to indulge in excessive or even tedious repetition.

Philip Davies: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am seeking further clarification. The House resolved that the UK Youth Parliament should be allowed for this year alone to hold its 2009 annual meeting in the Chamber of the House. Surely if it is not going to have its annual meeting in the House, a new resolution will be needed.

Mr. Speaker: I do not think that there is any immediate prospect or likelihood of reversing the decision that the House made. I am quite happy to look both at the text of what was agreed and at the title of the event that is to take place in Kent. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a fastidious concern for correctness in these matters and that is something we can do our best to satisfy. But we cannot and will not rerun old debates. I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want that for one moment.

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Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

3.36 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move,

The Bill is partly a response to the setting up of the Iraq inquiry and the excellent debate in the Chamber the week before last. It is partly an attempt to look ahead and to prepare the House for any eventuality that we may have to face. But principally it is a Bill to enable Parliament, in at least one respect, to assert its authority, to remove its assumed metaphorical cringe to the Executive and to stand on its own two feet. That is a worthwhile objective in itself.

Mr. Speaker, you will recall the problems that were identified in the debate on the Iraq war inquiry: the very long delay in setting up the inquiry at all, subsequent to the decision of the Prime Minister; the lack of openness that was originally suggested in the way in which the inquiry was to be conducted; and the deficiencies of process, with many hon. Members being worried about the inability to take evidence under oath and the inability of the inquiry to have the power to summon witnesses. There were concerns about the composition of the commission of inquiry—not those who were asked to join, but those who were omitted and the particular areas of expertise that they might have brought—as well as about the terms of reference and about the timetable for report.

Some of those were subsequently dealt with as a result of the debate that we had in the House. The concerns were addressed by a process of retreat on the part of the Prime Minister, communicated by correspondence to the chairman of the inquiry. I am not sure that that was an entirely sensible way of dealing with the matter; nevertheless, it may have produced at least some potential remedies. But the issue is this: when we need an inquiry because of a matter of great public concern, it should be this House that takes the decision, not a member of the Executive and not a Minister. This has been known for a very long time. Lord North is not often quoted as a model for parliamentarians or for Prime Ministers but in 1774 he referred to this House as

That is a succinct expression of our duty, and, in extremis, part of the way in which we fulfil it is by setting up a public inquiry, or at least it was; there is a long history of this House having set up commissions of inquiry in earlier years. That was formalised under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. I do not defend every aspect of that Act; it had problems in
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procedural terms and parts of it were certainly capable of amelioration, but it nevertheless provided a clear power for the House to set up a commission of inquiry.

That then began to be questioned by the Government when they were looking forward to introducing legislation in this area. The Select Committee on Public Administration, to which I owe a great debt of gratitude in preparing my Bill, looked at this in its first report of 2004-05. It stated that

Needless to say, the Government did not agree with that view; it will not surprise many Members to learn that they did not feel that it was right for Parliament as a body to be held to be superior to the prerogative powers of the Executive. Therefore, in the dying days of the last Parliament, they brought forward the Inquiries Act 2005, the effect of which was to repeal the 1921 Act and to remove entirely the formal role of Parliament in setting up public inquiries. I think that that was fundamentally wrong-headed, because there are 1,001 reasons why Ministers may not wish there to be a public inquiry into aspects of their conduct or the conduct of others in their control. There are so many reasons for them to delay, obfuscate or misdirect, rather than to have the searching after truth that a properly constituted public inquiry can provide.

We should also remember that public inquiries often look into the actions of public bodies, of which Ministers are hardly disinterested observers; they have a responsibility there, so of course it is often not in their interests to set up a formal inquiry. I believe that were such inquiries to be set up under the authority of Parliament, they would have more legitimacy and the public would have more confidence. The PAC returned to this matter in its ninth report of 2007-08, and recommended the provision of a mechanism for setting up such an inquiry.

That is the format on which my Bill rests. By amending the 2005 Act, it would restore powers in the 1921 Act to Parliament, although not in precisely the same form. It equips an inquiry to do its job effectively, enabling Parliament to confer the powers that an inquiry would need to take evidence under oath, to compel witnesses, to ensure that it has the papers before it, to ensure that its composition is appropriate to the task, and to ensure that wherever possible it takes its evidence in public so that the general public have the confidence that their interests are being properly represented. The parliamentary mechanism for the setting up of an inquiry requires a majority of this House, so it is not open to mischief—people will not be able to set up inquiries on spurious grounds, for instance—because a majority of this House is required, and a majority of this House will normally support the Government of the day unless there is a high level of public anxiety.

I believe that this House has a specific job to do on behalf of the nation. That job is to speak for, and ask questions on behalf of, the public. Sometimes we can do that within this Chamber. Sometimes we can do it in our Select Committees and they are the appropriate way of looking into matters in more depth, but at other times those Committees can find obstacles put in their way, as the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs found
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when it carried out its own inquiry into the lead-up to the Iraq war. When that is the case, it is sometimes necessary, in order to restore faith in democratic principles within this House and to allow the public to have sight of the truth, to set up a properly constituted commission of inquiry. When we do that, it should be in the hands of this House and this Parliament, not those of that Executive. That is why I believe this Bill is so important and why it has garnered the support of so many hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House, and it is why I hope the House will allow it to go forward today, so that we can perhaps make progress, even in the short time left available in this Session of Parliament, towards restoring some faith and credibility in this House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr. David Heath, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Michael Howard, Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr. Graham Allen, Mr. Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Alan Beith, Angus Robertson, Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Paul Rowen and Sir Nicholas Winterton present the Bill.

Mr. David Heath accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 130).

Finance Bill (Ways and Means)


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