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House of Commons

Thursday 19 November 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business of the House

10.33 am

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

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Mr. Speaker, yesterday you informed the House of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 23 November-Continuation of the debate on the Queen's Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Defence.

Tuesday 24 November-Continuation of the debate on the Queen's Speech. Energy and Climate Change and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be debated.

Wednesday 25 November-Continuation of the debate on the Queen's Speech. Home Office and Work and Pensions will be debated.

Thursday 26 November-Conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech. Her Majesty's Treasury and Business, Innovation and Skills will be debated.

Friday 27 November- The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 30 November will include:

Monday 30 November-Second Reading of the Financial Services Bill.

Tuesday 1 December-Motion to approve a European document relating to financial services, followed by a general debate on fisheries.

Wednesday 2 December-Remaining stages of the Equality Bill.

Thursday 3 December-A general debate on European affairs.

I should like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 December will be:

Thursday 3 December-A debate on the 31st Annual House of Commons Commission Report.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, it may also be helpful to the House to be reminded that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that he proposes to present the pre-Budget Report on Wednesday 9 December.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. May I congratulate her on being crowned parliamentarian of the year by The Spectator last week? To the extent that
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we at business questions are the flint she sparks off, we share in her reflected glory. May we assume that she is now a subscriber to that publication?

May we have a statement on the prospects for the Bills in the Queen's Speech? On Monday, the right hon. and learned Lady claimed that the majority of the Bills in the Queen's Speech would become law before the next election. We have an absolute maximum of 70 sitting days before Dissolution, and we need to set aside time for debates on the pre-Budget report, as well as ensuring that we have time to discuss other issues, such as Afghanistan. Given all that, does the right hon. and learned Lady still stand by her original claim, or will she admit that there may be difficulties in fulfilling the Government's commitments? Given the limited time we have left, recess dates have an added significance, so is the right hon. and learned Lady still encountering problems in coming up with a date for the Easter recess?

On Kelly, the Government are mired in confusion, with different Ministers saying different things. On the radio this morning, the Leader of the House said that all the proposals would be implemented before the general election, but that will not happen unless we move quickly, so can she confirm that if we table the amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill necessary to implement Kelly in full, we shall have the Government's support?

On the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, can the right hon. and learned Lady tell us when she intends to table the motion on the appointment of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy? At the last business questions, on 5 November, I was told that it would be done "within a few days". Since then, we have heard nothing. The Government's handling of the issue is beginning to look dysfunctional. Why has the timetable been allowed to slip?

Can the right hon. and learned Lady give an indication of when the House will get a chance to debate and vote on the imminent report from the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons? Can she say whether she will be making a statement on the day that report is published?

Can the Leader of the House make time for a debate on Afghanistan? It is important that the House continues to be given time to discuss our commitment, and to probe the Government's strategy. Last week, newspaper reports suggested that the Government would be investing in new Chinook helicopters and that an announcement would be made before the pre-Budget report. Can the right hon. and learned Lady provide any further details about the plans of the Ministry of Defence?

Finally, can the Leader of the House tell us why there will be no comprehensive spending review this autumn? Everyone knows that departmental spending has to be reduced by 10 per cent. according to the Government's own reckoning, yet on Tuesday it emerged that the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families had made an unsolicited demand for an extra £2.6 billion for his Department's budget, forcing the Chancellor to admit that he was not undertaking a spending review at all. The Government have just published a Bill promising to halve the deficit, but is it not clear that the Chancellor has lost control over his colleagues' spending habits, and is the abandonment of a spending review not further evidence that the Government are putting their own interests above those of the country?

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Ms Harman: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generous comments on my receiving the parliamentarian of the year award from The Spectator. I have to confess that it was a great surprise to me. Over the years, The Spectator has called me many things but they have not approximated to parliamentarian of the year. I am not actually going to subscribe to the publication, but I shall offer some of its columnists a course at my institute for political correctness, which some of them could probably do with.

As far as the legislative programme is concerned, the House knows that it is the Government's responsibility to bring before the House the laws that we think are necessary. We have introduced proposals for laws to deal with the financial situation facing the country, and to improve public services. It is the responsibility of the House to scrutinise those proposals. Obviously, given the forthcoming general election, some Bills may well receive full consideration in one House but only a Second Reading in the other, and so might go into what is described as the wash-up; they will then have to be the subject of negotiation between the parties, instead of receiving the full scrutiny of the Houses. That situation obtains before every general election. It would certainly not be right to step back from our responsibilities of government; we have to introduce a legislative programme and put before the House laws that we believe are in the interests of this country. The Easter recess will be announced in due course in the usual way.

On the Kelly situation, I want to reassure the House and the right hon. Gentleman, and ensure that the public are reassured, that we all remain determined to address the problems around allowances. We recognise the public anger and concern that the allowance system was misused, which is why we legislated in the summer to put the whole system on an independent footing, so that never again will the House set or administer its own allowance system. We invited Sir Christopher Kelly to investigate and make proposals for a new framework for allowances, and I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done.

I should like to reinforce what I said on 4 November: we, and all parties, accept Sir Christopher Kelly's report and look to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to implement it. I did say at the time that there were further issues that it might fall to the House to deal with; they include the issue of additional lay members on the Standards and Privileges Committee, common auditing arrangements between the independent parliamentary standards commissioner and the House, and restricting the chair of IPSA to serving for one five-year term. We can, incidentally, do the latter by resolution of the House, when we confirm-as I hope that we will-the chair's appointment. When the House deals with the motion appointing the chair, it might be a good opportunity to deal with the other four members of IPSA.

As I say, by means of a resolution of the House we can, without legislation, make sure that the post is held for one term only, as Sir Christopher Kelly proposes. He himself says that legislation on the issue of the dual mandate should be a matter for the next Parliament. If there are any other issues that hon. Members feel cannot be dealt with by the House through a resolution, or by the existing powers of IPSA, I will be happy to discuss them, as I said on 4 November. However, I do not want
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anybody to convey to the public the idea that we are all on the back foot on the issue-that we have gone soft on it and have swept it back under the carpet. The public would not accept that, and neither would we. We will make sure that the reforms are all carried through.

I am grateful to the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was established by a resolution of the House. Its members have been hard at work, and I look forward to its report next Tuesday. We will all want an opportunity to consider its recommendations, which will represent important opportunities to strengthen the role of the House, and we will need to ensure an opportunity for the House to debate, and act on, that report.

Issues relating to Afghanistan are bound to be raised on Monday, when the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary speak in the Queen's Speech debate. As the matter was raised the last time that we had business questions, I know that there is a concern that there should be a specific, discrete debate on Afghanistan, and I will keep that matter very much under review. As for Secretaries of State making unsolicited demands of the Treasury for extra money, the right hon. Gentleman knows only too well that that is absolutely par for the course.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Enthusiasm for the fantasy Queen's Speech is obviously shared by Members from the right hon. and learned Lady's party, who are here in such great numbers today. The reality is that, whatever she says about the wash-up-and I understand how the term applies in this instance-almost all these measures will not make it through their parliamentary stages. Those that do will be abracadabra Bills: measures that-shazam!-at a stroke halve the fiscal deficit; and-shazam!-at a stroke abolish poverty throughout the world. That is fantasy politics, and we recognise it as such.

Meanwhile, in the real world, we still have Afghanistan. I hear the Lord Privy Seal say that she is considering a debate, but we need a debate in this House on Afghanistan, and on the political as well as the military aspects of the situation. I see that the week after next, we are to have a debate about fisheries, which is an important subject, but not as important to this country as what is happening in Afghanistan, so will she look again at that programme?

I listened to what the right hon. and learned Lady said about Kelly, but I still believe that there is a need for statutory changes. Will she meet the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and me, so that we can discuss what needs to be introduced? Can she assure me that she will not use the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill as a vehicle for those changes; or, if she does, that she will extend the period of scrutiny to enable it to be done properly?

The proposed health Bill is proving to be one of the more controversial aspects of the Queen's Speech. A senior Labour figure in another place called it a "pernicious myth", and Lord Warner, who was a Health Minister until recently, said:

Will the Lord Privy Seal confirm that a Bill is ready by publishing it on Monday? Many Bills are published today, so can the health Bill be published on Monday to scotch straight away the rumour that a Bill is not even ready?

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Will the right hon. and learned Lady tell me what has happened to the agency workers Bill that was mentioned in the Queen's Speech? Will she also confirm that, when she read out the business for the following week, she misspoke when she mentioned the Equality Bill, and meant to say, "the first day of the remaining stages of the Equality Bill"? She has given many assurances to my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) that that Bill will be given sufficient time on the Floor of the House.

Finally, the Government list has, as usual, been published, but it omits the assistant Regional Ministers. Many of us are very vague about what exactly assistant Regional Ministers might be for, and about their role; but I am indebted to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who last Thursday raised the fact that the assistant Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber asked a question of the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber about the work of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the region. We have a situation in which one Minister asks another about matters that are their ministerial responsibility. Is that proper parliamentary scrutiny?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman makes a mistake when he describes the legislation that we introduced in the Queen's Speech as "fantasy politics" and "abracadabra Bills". The Crime and Security Bill, which gives the police more powers to deal with gangs, is necessary, and I hope that he and his hon. Friends will support it. The Energy Bill and the Flood and Water Management Bill, which has already received extensive scrutiny, are not abracadabra Bills; they are necessary Bills, as are the Equality Bill and the Financial Services Bill. Hon. Members need to be clear: are they saying that all those Bills, which will tackle the problems of the economy and improve public services, are not necessary? We believe that the economy needs to be stabilised and that there needs to be further improvement in public services. Legislation is not the be-all and end-all, but it is an important part of the story.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point about the need for extra, focused debating time on Afghanistan, and I shall keep that under close review. He suggests that that debate should take place instead of the fisheries debate, but the fisheries debate is a regular event, and hon. Members whose constituencies very much depend on the fishing industry would take it amiss if we suddenly pulled the plug on the fisheries debate. However, I do recognise his point about Afghanistan.

In response to the hon. Gentleman's question about what does, or does not, need legislation for the future, in order that we do what we all agree we should do, which is to take forward the Kelly proposals, of course I am happy for him and the shadow Leader of the House to come and see me to talk these issues through. I will give the hon. Gentleman one example of where Sir Christopher Kelly thought that a statute would be necessary-the prohibition on employing family members. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority does not need to have a legal right to bar the employment of family members, because MPs can employ whoever they want to employ, but it can say, "We will not reimburse-pay out of public funds-anybody who is a member of that MP's family." By imposing a condition, it can ensure that it effects and implements that part of Sir Christopher Kelly's report. Additional legislation is not needed,
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because the legislation that we passed in the House to set up IPSA gives it the power to lay down conditions on how it pays out allowances. I am more than happy for the hon. Gentleman to come and see me to go through the list of things that are ancillary to the main structure of allowances that Sir Christopher Kelly proposed. I know that Sir Christopher has already met up with IPSA's chair designate, and they are at work on implementing the whole Kelly framework and package on allowances.

We have not yet introduced the personal care at home Bill, but it is ready. The Bills that we are presenting to the Commons today are the Crime and Security Bill, the Financial Services Bill, the Energy Bill, the Children, Schools and Families Bill, and the Flood and Water Management Bill; and we have the existing carry-over Bills-the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the Equality Bill, and the Child Poverty Bill. All the things that have been said about the personal care at home Bill were said about the national health service. People have said that it cannot be done; we said, yes, it can be done, and it is necessary. Just as we set up the national health service, so we need to pave the way for a national care service for the growing number of elderly people in this country.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The announcement that Ordnance Survey's mapping data will be available free to the many thousands of digital industries and community groups in Britain is very welcome. However, there is much more public sector information sitting around in departmental hard drives, such as Land Registry data and transport times. May we have a debate on how public sector information can increase the UK economy's productivity and support community groups?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend may well look for an opportunity to raise that subject in the Queen's Speech debate on Thursday when we discuss the economy and business. He is absolutely right. Putting in the public domain information that is held by Government and by public agencies will allow a great deal of spin-off in the private sector. He has taken a leading role in proposing this; it is a situation whereby, as Ordnance Survey has shown, this country can lead the way and we can benefit from it.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for obtaining a copy of the Gracious Speech, a close reading of which shows that there is no reference to defence policy whatsoever. Will the right hon. and learned Lady allow time for an early debate on defence policy? The Sunday newspapers are writing up the story that there is a review of defence policy leading to potential closures of RAF stations in the Vale of York, which is causing great alarm. I pay tribute to those at RAF Leeming and RAF Linton-on-Ouse for all the work that they do locally and nationally for the country. Will she allow time for an early debate to calm their concerns?

Ms Harman: Although there is no legislation in relation to our armed forces, the Prime Minister, and indeed the Leader of the Opposition, referred extensively to the armed forces and their mission in Afghanistan in their speeches yesterday. The hon. Lady will be able to refer to any particular issues in relation to her constituency in the debate on defence on Monday 23 November.

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