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15 Oct 2009 : Column 443

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Let me start by also welcoming the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to the place that he occupied before. I often find that recycled goods are of exceedingly good quality, so I very much welcome him back.

May I just correct the right hon. and learned Lady? She is normally very good at reading out the business, but she appears to have misread the business for Wednesday 21 October. Just to clarify, the first debate on that day is entitled "Government's Betrayal of Equitable Life Policyholders", and that is followed by a debate entitled "Government's Failure of Leadership in the Climate Crisis". That possibly puts a slightly different gloss on matters, but we look forward to those debates.

May we have a debate on HM Courts Service, particularly in the light of this week's announcement of the closure of 20 magistrates courts and one county court, all in rural areas? I have spoken about this before, but it is important that those whom we represent in rural areas should have access to justice and that they can reach the courts that serve them, otherwise they will believe that the criminal justice system has retreated from those areas. I hope that the Ministry of Justice has properly taken into account the difficulties of public transport in rural areas and the fact that they are often remote. Perhaps we could have a debate on that.

Could we have a debate on graduate and youth unemployment? I am pleased that the rate of increase in unemployment has apparently abated, but it is still an increase. There is a particular concern about those who left school or university over the summer and are now finding it very difficult to get jobs. We should usefully debate how we can provide better prospects for those young people.

May we have a debate on the conduct of the banks? We have discussed the matter many times, but is the right hon. and learned Lady as horrified as I am to read in the newspapers of the colossal bonuses, averaging £500,000 per employee in some cases, that banks are again paying this year? Is she as concerned as I am that banks in public ownership are still not providing loan facilities to businesses that are desperate for support to get themselves out of their current difficulties?

Lastly, on the reporting of proceedings in Parliament, I very much welcome what both the right hon. and learned Lady and the right hon. Gentleman said. My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) has secured a debate on the subject next week in Westminster Hall. May I suggest an innovation? It would be extremely helpful if the Lord Chancellor himself could speak in that debate. I know that Secretaries of State do not normally attend debates in Westminster Hall, but given the importance of the issue, it would be extremely helpful to hear his views at an early stage. I therefore hope that he may be able to attend that debate and respond in person.

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman said, the titles given to those Opposition day debates put a gloss on them. I had always understood it that debate titles were for hon. Members to know the subject of the debate and that they should not contain argument. Talk about "betrayal" and "failure" is certainly arguable and by no means a matter of fact. This is something that I am going to have to discuss with the Table Office. In the
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olden days, we could not put down titles like that; we put down what the facts were. We will have to see. We need a bit of traditional values in that respect.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman's important point about the magistrates courts service, I will raise the matter with the Justice Secretary and see whether he wants to respond by writing to the hon. Gentleman or whether he thinks that there should be a written ministerial statement, as the next Justice questions are still some way off.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of youth unemployment. The unemployment figures for the most recent quarter were published yesterday, and, as he rightly said, the rate of increase in unemployment, including youth unemployment, is slowing. However, there is still an increase in unemployment, and in youth unemployment, so we have to ensure that we do everything we can to protect jobs in the economy and to help those who become unemployed.

The Prime Minister has said on many occasions that youth unemployment is absolutely at the top of our agenda. We are not going to stand by and do nothing while a generation of young people are thrown on to the dole. That is why we put in place the education maintenance allowance and the guarantee for young people aged 16 and 17 to be able to stay in education and training, and it is why we are bringing in a guarantee that no one under 24 should go without a job or training for a year. We also continue to invest in the important work of the jobcentres. I am sure that this subject will be raised in next Monday's debate on economic recovery and welfare.

The hon. Gentleman raised the subject of the conduct of the banks in two respects: loan facilities and bonuses. That, too, will be well within the terms of reference of next Monday's debate. On loan facilities, the Prime Minister said yesterday that we have agreements with the banks and that we are determined to enforce them. On bonuses, the Government are absolutely clear that there must be no return to business as usual. There must be no return to the excesses that caused risk in the system, the cost of which the public purse ultimately had to pick up, and which resulted in perfectly good businesses going under and people becoming unemployed. That sort of reckless risk-taking is to be stopped. The Prime Minister and the team of Ministers have raised this issue at the G20 in order to seek international agreement across this international industry. There will be no cash bonuses this year in the banks that the public now largely own, and the Financial Services Authority has strengthened the requirements for capital reserves in the context of identifying any reckless risk-taking in relation to the bonus system in any regulated bank. Furthermore, Sir David Walker is going to report on corporate governance, and the role that excessive bonuses have played in taking risks will obviously fall within his remit. I think we all agree that there can be no return to business as usual in this context.

The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of reporting the House, and drew our attention to the forthcoming Westminster Hall debate. I do not yet know which Minister will deal with that debate, but I will bring the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to the attention of the Justice Secretary, who has been very active on this issue and is every bit as concerned as I am-and as all hon. Members are-that we get things straight in this respect. We might well need to have a debate on this on the
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Floor of the House-possibly a topical debate. It is a fundamental cornerstone of this democracy that, when we are elected by our electors, we should be able to come and speak in this House without fear or favour, and that the press should be able to report what we say. We continue to be certain that we will defend that on behalf of the House.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Twenty-six right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye and, if some are not to be disappointed, I shall need short questions and short answers.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): My constituent, Mrs. Jean Edwards, became ill while on holiday in Turkey. She is being treated for a blocked colon at the Mars Mabedi Cad private hospital in Bodrum, and is still in intensive care. She had full travel insurance cover with EHIC Plus Travel Insurance, but the company and its directors have refused to honour their insurance liability. The company is well known to the medical screening industry for acting similarly in other cases. The cost of my constituent's treatment so far is £64,000, but the hospital will accept only £27,300 before releasing her, and an air ambulance crew would cost about £24,300. Will the Leader of the House consider allowing a debate on rogue travel insurance companies, as a warning to other travellers, to ensure that only-

Mr. Speaker: Order. We are getting off to a very bad start, and I want to get off to a good start.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has raised an important case on behalf of one of his constituents. I will bring it to the attention of Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, because it goes to the question of the probity and integrity of the insurance industry. I also recommend that he seeks the opportunity for an Adjournment debate on the issue.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): May I echo the call from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) for an urgent statement on the future of the Territorial Army? People make huge sacrifices to join the TA, and it is now threatened with a six-month suspension of training, although that still has not been published.

Ms Harman: There will be a defence debate throughout this afternoon, and the hon. Gentleman will no doubt try to catch the Speaker's eye if he so wishes.

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that 25 November is the international day for the elimination of violence against women. This year is the 10th anniversary of the formal proclamation by the United Nations. I hope that the Leader of the House is also aware of the Council of Europe's campaign on violence against women, and of the desire of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to give a parliamentary dimension to the campaign. It is keen to see action in national Parliaments on that day. We could of course have an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I believe that violence against women constitutes
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one the most serious abuses of human rights in the world today, and it would reflect the seriousness of the issue if we were to have a debate in Government time on-

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said. It might well be that we can look to having a topical debate on that. It certainly would be topical around 25 November, with all the concerted national and international effort focused on tackling domestic violence in that week.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Returning to the vexed issue of the training of TA soldiers going to Iraq, surely the Leader of the House is mistaken to say that the Prime Minister covered the matter adequately yesterday. He did not, by his own admission. May we therefore have an absolute guarantee that the Secretary of State will clear up this very serious matter properly at the Dispatch Box during this afternoon's debate?

Ms Harman: The right hon. Gentleman can seek to intervene on the Minister who opens the debate, or he can speak in the debate.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): This week marks the third anniversary of the collapse of the Farepak Christmas savings scheme. The directors have not been called to account, and tens of thousands of decent, hard-working families still want to know what happened to their money. May we have a debate on this in Government time, and can we have a report on the matter, similar to the one that was produced on MG Motors?

Ms Harman: I commend my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the great length of time that it has taken for the report on the Farepak inquiry to come forward. Many people who could ill afford to lose their money were affected, and I commend him for championing their case. I will bring his question to the attention of Ministers in the relevant Department, and ensure that those conducting the inquiry know that we are impatient for a result.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 1995?

[That this House notes that in the National Strategy for Carers the Government pledged that by 2018 carers will be supported so that they are not forced into financial hardship by their caring role; believes that carers cannot wait because too many are living in poverty and financial hardship now, struggling to afford the basic costs of living, unable to study or work without their benefits being cut off, or facing the removal of their allowance when they start to claim their pension; further notes that the UK's six million carers save the country an estimated £87 billion per year, and that in return, the main carer's benefit is the lowest of its kind, paid at only £53.10 a week for a minimum of 35 hours caring, equivalent to £1.52 per hour, far short of the national minimum wage of £5.73 per hour; supports the Carer's Poverty Charter signed by the Alzheimer's Society, Carers UK, Citizens Advice, Contact a Family, Counsel and Care, Crossroads Caring for Carers, Every Disabled Child Matters, for dementia, Mencap, Macmillan Cancer, Motor Neurone Disease Society, National Autistic Society, Oxfam, Parkinson's Disease Society,
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Princess Royal Trust for Carers, Rethink, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and Vitalise; and calls on the Government to set out an urgent timetable of action to improve carers' benefits and income that protects carers from falling into poverty or financial hardship, reflects carers' different circumstances, helps carers to combine caring with paid work and study and is easy to understand and straightforward to claim.]

The motion highlights the carer's poverty charter, which has the support of Carers UK, other carers' charities, patient groups and the Daily Mirror. Its intention is to highlight the fact that the Government have committed themselves to a deadline for dealing with carer poverty by 2018. Should not the issue be dealt with more rapidly? We need to eradicate poverty among carers as soon as possible, and we need an urgent timetable from the Government. May we have an urgent debate on this matter?

Ms Harman: There will be a debate on Thursday 29 October on the social care Green Paper, in which all those issues can no doubt be raised. The number of people over the age of 85 is set to double in the next 20 years, so the care and support provided by health authorities and social services and, above all, by families is a crucial issue. We have introduced a right to flexible working for those with caring responsibilities, and the Prime Minister has announced that we will legislate for a national care service. My hon. Friend can be assured that the question of care is at the front of the Government's agenda, and we will be able to debate it on Thursday 29 October.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend might be aware that 1,175 members of staff of MPs have signed a petition calling on the House authorities to recognise their trade union for collective bargaining purposes. Will she use her good offices to ensure that this aspiration becomes a reality?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House is shortly to meet the trade union Unite, which represents people who work for Members of Parliament. I think that the legal position is that a recognition agreement may be signed only between the employer and the employee-and the employer is the individual Member rather than the House authorities. None the less, I believe it possible to have full consultation arrangements and for facilities to be made available for the trade unions representing those who work for Members. We will work closely with the unions and the House authorities to ensure that that is the case.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): As a member of the reserve forces, may I point out that thousands of my colleagues have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and some have given their lives, so training is not an optional extra? Will the Leader of the House ask the Defence Secretary to ensure that when he comes to the House this afternoon, he comes prepared to explain the difference between the strategic review of reserves, which the Government accepted in full in April, and the cuts we heard about at the weekend?

Ms Harman: Hon. Members will get much more extensive and satisfactory answers if they put these questions to the Minister who leads this afternoon's
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debate. A full day's debate will start as soon as we commence the afternoon's business. Defence Ministers should be asked these questions-otherwise my answer, which is to wait until this afternoon and put points then, is going to get repetitive.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Tomorrow sees the Second Reading of the Media Owners (Residency Requirement) Bill, which stands in my name. Unfortunately, it is listed as No. 62, so it is unlikely to make much progress. The Bill restricts ownership of any media outlet to those who are resident in this country and it demands that they pay full tax. Is this not a good Bill, which the Government should take forward?

Ms Harman: I commend my hon. Friend for bringing the Bill forward. I understand that the issues it deals with are of concern to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, so I will ensure that it focuses on the Bill. I am sure that members of the Select Committee will want to look at the issue, too.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May we have an early debate entitled "The Rule of Law"? That would enable the House to repeat the basic principles that everybody is entitled to regulate their affairs in accordance with the law, practices and rules that exist at the time, that they are entitled to rely on the authority given by properly authorised employees, and that any departure from these principles is a denial of natural justice and is likely to be regarded by the courts as unlawful?

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, I think, referring to the report of Sir Thomas Legg. Am I right in that respect? I shall take the fact that he has not responded to be a yes. I think that everyone in the House recognises that the allowance system had become discredited and all sides of the House have accepted that action needs to be taken. That is why the House agreed that, in future, we should have a wholly independent system in which Members play no part in either setting or administering it. The establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is under way.

A payback system was also proposed so that any overpayments outwith the rules and standards that obtained at the time could be paid back. If, for example, payments had been made from the additional costs allowance towards capital on a mortgage when only payments towards interest were allowed, that would be an overpayment which would need to be paid back. Duplication of payments within the rules, paid twice by accident, provides another example of what would need to be paid back. That was the purpose of the Members Estimate Committee-chaired by you, Mr. Speaker-asking Sir Thomas Legg to conduct a review of all past claims of all Members over the last five years in order to look at whether payments were made within the rules and standards that obtained at the time. Those were the terms of reference for Sir Thomas Legg, and you, Mr. Speaker, confirmed that in your letter to all hon. Members of 12 October.

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