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Thursday 22 October-Topical debate, subject to be announced, followed by motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: The 1 st( ) to the 6 th , the 8 th to the 11 th , the 13 th to the 23 rd and the 31 st Reports of the Public Accounts Committee of Session 2008-09, and the Treasury Minutes on these reports (Cm 7568, 7622 and 7636) ]
Alan Duncan: I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the business of the House. Perhaps she can tell us at what time the House will meet on Tuesday, as it often meets earlier than normal on the last day.
First, will the Leader of the House explain why such an absurd number of written ministerial statements have been published today? There are no fewer than 53 on today's Order Paper, which means that we have had 90 published this week. Does she agree that we have the right to accuse her of rather taking the mickey? We know full well that the whole process is designed to dump everything on us at the last minute before the recess and so forestall Members' ability to hold the Government to account.
One of today's statements is from the Communities Secretary outlining the Government's flawed and highly unpopular plans on eco-towns. Will the Leader of the House make time available for a full debate on the proposals as soon as the House returns? I can tell her and the House that a delegation from Leicestershire is even now delivering a petition to Downing street with the signatures of 15,000 local people who have registered their implacable opposition to the development of Pennbury eco-town. We are relieved that the Co-op scheme to desecrate green fields will not be on the shortlist, but does she appreciate the depth of anger about the proposals over the past few months?
I note that amidst all these written statements, there is not one on Equitable Life. Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady once again ducked my question about whether we will have a full oral statement, before we rise, on how the Government intend to compensate policyholders. Given that the policyholders have been waiting nine long years for the Government to act on their plight, does she accept that it would be a total insult to them if there were not a full, oral update in this Chamber? Will she confirm that that will definitely happen?
"ensure that the backlog of written questions that remain unanswered is cleared before the recess"?-[ Official Report, 2 July 2009; Vol. 495, c. 496.]
Does she not agree that it would be completely unacceptable for the Government to pump out a whole raft of new announcements before the recess without properly responding to the scrutiny by Members of previous announcements? Will she guarantee that those questions will be answered?
The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I wrote to her, and all members of the House of Commons Commission, to ask whether we might introduce a new system during the recess of having what has been described as a "virtual statement" from a Minister. The swine flu outbreak is bound to require further comment over the summer. Might we allow the Secretary of State to make a formal statement online and then allow the Opposition to ask questions that are then given a formal response? That could be a very simple and sensible innovation that allows formal scrutiny without the excessive mechanism of recalling Parliament.
May we also have a debate on how the Government intend to pay for their scheme to "build Britain's future", as they call it? Last month, the Prime Minister published
his grand national plan, but unlike any other major announcement on Government policy, there has been no parallel publication of an impact assessment. Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm when it will be published, or is it simply that the whole of the Prime Minister's so-called future plan is completely uncosted?
The Leader of the House has always been a champion of greater equality, so may I take this opportunity to welcome her reappointment of Sir Treasure-I mean, Sir Trevor Phillips, although "treasure" is perhaps a better description-in his post for a second term as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission? However, this week it was briefed from her office that she wants to bring more northerners on to the boards of Government quangos and to break the monopoly of southern, white men. Given her wish to be an equalities role model, that puts her in a slightly difficult situation: she benefited from a private education, she hails from the aristocracy and she is a product of the south. It is a great relief, however, that at least she is a woman-and a champion one at that.
Ms Harman: I can tell the House that on Tuesday we will commence our business at the normal time [Hon. Members: "When?"] We will not sit earlier than normal, because one item of business is the consideration of Lords amendments, and we have to give time for their lordships to have their deliberations before the legislation, as amended by them, comes back to this House. That is why, unlike what usually happens on the last day before the House rises, we will sit at the normal time.
In relation to written ministerial statements, obviously it would be better if they could be spread more evenly, but there is something about the summer recess that concentrates Departments' minds to ensure that, if they have material that they have to make accountable to the House, they do it before the House rises. If they have put out some ministerial statements today-rather than doing it on the last day-that is some time before the House rises, which is important.
The hon. Gentleman asked about eco-towns. We remain strongly committed to the fact that we need more housing for people in this country and high ecological standards for those new homes. We have had many debates in the House about eco-towns. Ministers have remained fully accountable to the House for the policy, and for the individual announcements made. I am disappointed that the Opposition do not welcome the extra eco-homes that will be in those eco-towns.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Equitable Life; he will know that at Treasury questions earlier this week, there was extensive discussion about it. I would like to emphasise that the ombudsperson, in her report, looked at the generality of the situation, and drew conclusions about the principles of the approach. Sir John Chadwick is taking the matter forward, looking at which individuals have suffered from action for which there is culpability, and which have suffered an injustice. He will have to set up a system of paying money to individuals.
There are nearly a million policyholders, many of whom have lost out, and given that public money is about to be expended, it is important to look at setting
up a framework for doing so. Information on who the policyholders are, what their policies were, when they took them out, and whether individuals made any changes to their policies has been forwarded to Sir John Chadwick's actuarial advisers, Towers Perrin, which is going through that information. Hon. Members, as well as everybody else, have been asked to make their views known to Sir John by this Friday, and he will produce an interim report in August. If we were tipping money out without a proper framework, the Opposition would rightly object and ask us what we were doing. There will be a statement, and there have already been oral questions on the subject.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the backlog of written answers. I look at the issue regularly, but I did so particularly in response to the points raised on the subject by hon. Members at the last business questions. I looked particularly at the Treasury backlog of questions and letters. There is an 80 per cent. standard for responding to correspondence within 15 days, and in the last 12-month period that was reported on, that standard was adhered to. Since then, because of the economic crisis, there has been a doubling of the number of questions and letters, and there needs to be a commensurate response. It has taken a while for that response to be forthcoming. In defence of the Treasury, there has been a doubling of questions and letters, but in defence of the right of the House to hold the Treasury to account, we want to make sure that standards of timeliness do not slip, precisely because the issues are so important at this time.
The hon. Gentleman asked about accountability during the recess, and that, too, is a very important point. He identified the question of swine flu; hon. Members will want to be able to hold the Department of Health to account on how it is dealing with the issue. I also suggest that the issue of Afghanistan will remain of concern to hon. Members throughout the recess. On swine flu, Cobra will meet fortnightly throughout the recess. The Secretary of State for Health hopes to update the House before it rises for the recess, by way of an oral statement. He is considering how he will keep hon. Members informed during the recess. That will include all hon. Members getting a weekly update on figures in their constituency from the strategic health authority and/or primary care trust, so hon. Members will be given the figures as a matter of routine, without their needing to ask for them.
As I say, Cobra will meet every two weeks. If there are issues that need to be communicated to Members in particular areas, those concerned will make sure that they find additional ways of ensuring accountability, while, of course, recognising the particular interest of members of the Health Committee. The Secretary of State is considering how he can ensure that accountability does not suffer during the recess, and any new technology, such as telephone conferencing or the online activity that the shadow Leader of the House suggested, will be used. In fact, last summer, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did exactly that and communicated with those hon. Members who represent areas that were flooded.
There will be a debate on Afghanistan and defence this afternoon, there was a statement this week, the Prime Minister answered oral questions yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence answered oral questions
on Monday, and there will be a debate during the week that we return from the recess. That leaves the question about the period over the summer, and, like the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Defence is concerned that there should be specific arrangements, which he will communicate to the House, about how we will ensure that accountability does not slacken when the House rises.
I thank the shadow Leader of the House for welcoming the reappointment of Trevor Phillips as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I was slightly baffled by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I had said that there should be more northerners on quangos, not because it is not a good idea, but because I cannot remember ever having said it. However, I am sure that if he says that I said it, I must have done. I remember that there was lots of shouting about northerners during Prime Minister's questions yesterday. I wondered what it meant, and I think that I have worked it out: the problem is that there are not enough northerners on the Conservative Benches-and long may that remain.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): The Leader of the House gave a commitment that there would be a statement on Equitable Life before the summer recess. Can she confirm that that will take place? Yes or no?
What should we make of the Government's commitment to cleaning up and reforming Parliament and our democratic system when it appears that the right hon. and learned Lady cannot provide one and a half hours to debate the setting up of the Select Committee on the reform of the House of Commons? The Political Parties and Elections Bill deals with essential matters concerning the conduct of elections and the funding of political parties, but there is no timetable for its return from the House of Lords, and if it does not receive Royal Assent, it will not be operable by the next general election. Mr. Speaker, you said earlier in the week that you did not do irony; I think that there is something deeply ironic about the fact that we cannot set up a Committee to organise the time of this House because the Government will not let us.
I have the honour of representing Royal Naval air station Yeovilton, where the Royal Naval helicopter squadrons and the commando helicopter force are based. There has been a great deal of concern from all parts of the House about the provision of helicopters for our armed forces. The report by the Select Committee on Defence is being published today, and the indications are that, in some respects, it will be extremely critical of helicopter provision. I note that we have a debate about defence on 15 October, but can we be absolutely sure that the Government will provide a full and comprehensive response to the Defence Committee's report, answering its points in detail and acting on its recommendations during the summer, so that we can be sure in turn that we are not putting our young men and women in the armed forces at risk?
Can we avoid my having to ask, when we return from the recess, for debates about either the so-called rain tax or the levy that was implicit in yesterday's Green Paper? On the rain tax, we have a holy alliance of bishops, scouts, test match cricketers and international rugby
players, all saying that it is quite wrong to impose a levy on charities, community groups and sports clubs for surface water drainage. That issue needs to be sorted out this summer, and the Government must commit to doing so.
The Green Paper's implicit levy may impose up to £200 a year on people in rural areas who depend on domestic heating oil or liquid petroleum gas for their heating. Those people are most likely to pay the most to heat their houses and least likely to be able to afford it, and it cannot be right that the proposed social tariff includes no provision for them.
Finally, many Members, Officers of the House and those who work in the parliamentary estate will be going on their holidays shortly. Some will no doubt go abroad, and it will be recommended that they take up the European health insurance card, which provides for health service treatment in the rest of Europe. Mr. Speaker, if you apply for that online, the search engine will direct you to two sites: ehic.org, which sounds very official, and ehic.uk.com. One is organised by a company called Portcreek in Gosport and the other by Imap (UK) Ltd in Bolton. Each charges £9.95 for the European health insurance card application. However, if you go on the NHS or Department of Health site, the service is free.
To apply for the card, people will, in ignorance, go through the companies that come up first on the search engine, but those companies are charging nearly £10 for a public document that is free. May we have a written statement-I do not expect an oral one-from the Secretary of State for Health about the practice, giving clear guidance? I want everyone to have an enjoyable holiday, and I do not want them to be ripped off before they go.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman asked about Equitable Life. I shall not repeat what I said in response to the shadow Leader of the House, except to say that there will be a written ministerial statement about Equitable Life before the House rises. Treasury Ministers answered questions from hon. Members about the issue at some length during Treasury questions only this week.
The hon. Gentleman took rather a gloomy view about the prospects of the Committee whose establishment we want the House to support and which will operate under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). It will consider opportunities for members of the public to place matters on the agenda of the House and bring them forward for debate. It will also consider whether we can make progress on how we appoint the Chairs and members of Select Committees and look at the important question of the allocation of both Government and non-Government business.
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