Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1055

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Minister give me an update on the drug problem in Styal women's prison, which is close to my constituency? There have been a lot of problems there in the past. Can she report on the current situation?

Maria Eagle: All our prisons have certain difficulties with drug-addicted prisoners, whether they are women's prisons or other prisons. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that a record investment is going into drug rehabilitation and support in our prisons-including HMP Styal, to which he referred-with 15 times more money being spent now than in 1997 on drug rehabilitation, and a record number of people engaging with it. That has to be hopeful for the future.

Parental Leave

3. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on plans to reform arrangements for parental leave; and if she will make a statement. [294824]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): This Government have transformed support for working parents since 1997-doubling maternity pay, introducing paternity pay and leave, more than doubling good-quality affordable child care places and extending statutory maternity leave from 14 to 52 weeks. Most recently, the Prime Minister has announced new flexibility for working parents, whereby from April 2011, if a mother wants to return to work six months after the birth, the other six months of her leave can be taken by her partner with three months of it paid. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is consulting on the administration of this scheme to make it as accessible as possible for both employers and employees.

Angela Watkinson: I recommend to the Solicitor-General the Conservative proposals for even greater flexibility in parental leave sharing between the mother and the father. Does she agree that that might help to mitigate any negative impact of improved parental leave on the employment prospects of women of child-bearing age?

The Solicitor-General: It is clearly very important to split child care leave between mothers and fathers, not least because if a potential employer is confronted with a man he wants to employ and a woman he wants to employ, he will be unable to discriminate against them if one is capable of having six months leave and the other is equally capable of having that leave if his partner becomes pregnant. The difficulty about the Tories' leave is that it is totally unpaid.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): No it is not.

The Solicitor-General: Well, it is almost totally unpaid. That is very clear. The right hon. Lady would be better off if she explained to those thinking of having their children now that they had better be careful, because those benefits are going to be slashed under the Tory pay cuts ahead.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The right-leaning think-tank Reform has today published a
22 Oct 2009 : Column 1056
report calling for the abolition of so-called middle-class benefits. Has my hon. and learned Friend been able to consider that report, and does she know the impact on working mothers if we were to abolish maternity benefits?

The Solicitor-General: This issue relates to the point that I have just made. The level of these benefits is such as to provide very good support to working and middle-class people who want to be able to have families and to have optimal choice between flexibility at work and home care. If, as a result of the unhappy occurrence of a Tory majority at the next election, which according to the polls is looking less and less likely-we are now down to a very limited possibility, if at all-these benefits were assaulted and slashed, many of my constituents are very well aware of the dangers that they would face.

Married Couples (Armed Forces)

5. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on application of the Government's policies on equality to married couples in the armed forces with children. [294826]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): I have had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence and met ministerial colleagues to discuss how to support service families. I also recently met service families at RAF Wittering and Swinton Army barracks and plan to visit more bases to discuss service families' concerns.

Miss Begg: There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Defence to allow flexible working for the parent left at home when their partner is on active duty. As a result, the MOD is losing experienced personnel who are leaving the service rather than leaving their children without either parent at home. Will my right hon. and learned Friend speak to the MOD about how best to support serving couples who are also the parents of young children?

Ms Harman: This is a growing issue. Commanders are required to manage their personnel in a flexible manner to ensure that family responsibilities as well as military duties can be discharged. As well as supporting the responsibilities of married service couples, it is important to support their families. I pay tribute to the three service families' federations-Julie McCarthy of the Army Families Federation, Kim Richardson of the Naval Families Federation and Dawn McCafferty of the RAF Families Federation. They work closely with the Ministry of Defence and with us, and they do a magnificent job.

James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): A 20-year-old British soldier is about to be posted back to Afghanistan. He has a wife and children, and the wife happens to be a foreign national. Because the soldier is 20 and not 21, he does not have the security of knowing that his wife and children can come to the United Kingdom. Is that right?

Ms Harman: If the hon. Gentleman is raising an immigration issue, he should probably raise it with the Home Office.

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1057

Race Inequality (NHS Staff)

6. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality among NHS staff. [294827]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Michael Jabez Foster): My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Women and Equality has no direct discussions with the Secretary of State for Health on levels of race inequality, as responsibility for race inequality lies with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His Department, however, works with key delivery Departments, including the Department of Health, to support them and challenge them to promote race equality. The Government Equalities Office tackles discrimination in a series of different ways, improving advice and promoting awareness of their rights among employees.

Keith Vaz: May I ask the Under-Secretary or the Minister for Women and Equality to have those discussions? May I also declare my interest as a diabetes sufferer? The south Asian community is six times more likely than the mainstream community to suffer from diabetes. The discussions are important, because they are the only way in which we shall be able to deal with racial inequality in our health service.

Michael Jabez Foster: My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister is well known to be a champion of equalities in this context. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the national health service constitution, published this year, puts equality at the heart of the NHS. However, he has raised an important issue, and I know that my colleagues in the Government Equalities Office will wish to continue to discuss it with the Department of Health.

Women in Power: Milestones

7. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What her role was in the compilation of the Government Equalities Office's recent publication "Women in Power: Milestones". [294828]

The Solicitor-General (Vera Baird): The "Women in Power: Milestones" fact sheet was produced in January 2008 by the Government Equalities Office to mark the 80th anniversary of women's gaining the franchise in 1918 and the 90th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act 1928. The fact sheet was cleared through internal channels and officials only, not by Ministers. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] It is true, though.

We shall be publishing an updated fact sheet shortly, but there will be a new one today which will interest the hon. Gentleman. It is about black, Asian and ethnic-minority women in public life, because we are now in black history month.

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1058

Mr. Hollobone: Given that Lady Thatcher was Britain's first elected female Prime Minister-

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): And the greatest!

Mr. Hollobone: -and the longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, and one of this country's greatest ever Prime Ministers, would the Solicitor-General like to apologise to the House for the fact that her name was omitted from the fact sheet that her Department published?

The Solicitor-General: It is a pity that she was missed out. I am prepared to go that far but not much further, since she did not do a great deal to advance the cause of women. I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman has a political point. [Interruption.] I have made it very clear that the fact sheet did not come to Ministers. If Members would listen instead of just shouting, they would realise that there is no political point here. The first woman Speaker was a Labour Member, and I am afraid that she was missed out, too. So it really is not about politics, and the hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

8. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What research the Equality and Human Rights Commission has undertaken to assess the effect of the recession on the level of funding available for the support of disabled people. [294829]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Government Equalities Office (Michael Jabez Foster): In June, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Government Equalities Office jointly published research that examined the impact of the recession on disability, age, gender and ethnic minorities. The report found that over the 12 months since its publication, the employment rate for disabled people fell slightly, from 48 per cent. to 47.7 per cent., which was less than the fall from 74.7 per cent. to 73.5 per cent. in the overall population.

John Barrett: One of the effects of the recession is rising unemployment. As we-hopefully-begin to emerge from the recession, what action can be taken to ensure that disabled people are not left at the back of the queue for jobs?

Michael Jabez Foster: The answer for all people is to make the right investment decisions, as the Government are doing, to ensure that there is no increase in unemployment overall. However, as the Equality Bill takes its place on the statute book, the new socio-economic duty will play an important role in ensuring that the economic outcomes for disabled people are particularly taken into account. That is something for the future that we all deserve.

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1059

Business of the House

11.34 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The business for the week commencing 26 October will be:

Monday 26 October-Remaining stages of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [ Lords] (day 1).

Tuesday 27 October-Conclusion of remaining stages of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill [ Lords], followed by Opposition day (unallotted half-day). There will be a half-day debate on parading in Northern Ireland on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party.

Wednesday 28 October-Opposition Day (20th allotted day). There will be a debate on local spending reports followed by a debate on the future of the Territorial Army. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 29 October-Topical debate (subject to be announced), followed by a general debate on the social care Green Paper.

The provisional business for the week commencing 2 November will include:

Monday 2 November-Remaining stages of the Perpetuities and Accumulations Bill [ Lords], followed by a general debate on tackling anti-social behaviour.

Tuesday 3 November-Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 1).

Wednesday 4 November-Further consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 2).

Thursday 5 November-Topical debate (subject to be announced), followed by general debate on climate change: preparation for the climate change conference at Copenhagen.

I can announce the Commons calendar for Parliament until the February recess in 2010. We plan to rise for the Christmas recess on Wednesday 16 December 2009 and return on Tuesday 5 January 2010. For the February recess, the House will rise on Wednesday 10 February and return on Monday 22 February. I will inform the House of the dates for the Easter recess in due course.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 5 November will be:

Thursday 5 November-A debate on the report from the Committee on Arms Export Controls entitled "Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual report 2007, Quarterly Reports for 2008, Licensing Policy and Review of Export Control Legislation".

Sir George Young: The House is grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.

Last week, when I asked for the parliamentary calendar, the right hon. and learned Lady said she would bring it before the House as soon as she could, but for the first time ever she has announced the Christmas and February recess dates but not the Easter dates. What problems is she encountering over the dates of the Easter recess?

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1060

The Leader of the House has just told the House that we are to go into recess over a week before Christmas-that is the earliest the House has risen, as far as I can recall. Back in 1997, we rose on 22 December. That was when the Government had some leadership and some ideas. Our constituents will be working long after the date that she has just announced, and Conservative Members have an unquenched thirst for doing the job we were sent by our constituents to do beyond that date. Is this not further evidence that the Government are running out of steam?

Last week, the Leader of the House refused to answer my question about when the Chancellor would deliver his pre-Budget statement. Can she do so this week?

The Government are committed to replying to a Select Committee report within six weeks. When will the Government respond to the Public Administration Committee report on lobbying, published on 5 January? In March, the Minister for the Cabinet Office wrote to the Chairman of the Committee confirming that the Government would respond very soon. Since then, nothing. When will we get the Government's reply?

On the related point of courtesies to Select Committees, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Government will not consistently turn down the recommendations and findings of Select Committees on pre-appointment hearings?

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on her Department's lamentable performance in answering questions over the summer recess? There were three days for tabling during the recess, but well under half of the named-day questions were substantively answered. Given that you, Mr. Speaker, have made it particularly clear that Ministers should respond to questions in a timely manner, is this not somewhat casual?

Today's topical debate is about securing economic recovery. That is an important issue but, thanks to the Opposition, we had a full day's debate on it three days ago. In that debate, however, the Labour party fielded only four speakers and ran out of contributors halfway through. Does the Leader of the House not think that today's time could have been more profitably used by having a debate on the future of Royal Mail or the growing rift between the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor? Will she make more intelligent use of these important opportunities for topical debates next week?

Finally, may we have a statement next week from the Prime Minister on Afghanistan? We have long called for regular updates to Parliament, and we welcomed his statement last week. Since then, however, we have learned that there will be a second round of elections there, and additional troops have been called for. Does the Leader of the House not agree that the House should have the opportunity to cross-examine the Prime Minister next week on the security of our troops and the support that will be extended to them?

Ms Harman: I know that the right hon. Gentleman understands this, but it is important that the wider public also realise that the recess is not holidays; it is time when the House is not sitting and Members can take the opportunity to work in their constituency. We are rising earlier than usual in December, but we are returning earlier in January.

Next Section Index Home Page