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26 Nov 2009 : Column 683

The right hon. Gentleman asked when the pre-Budget report, which will be the subject of a statement, can be debated. I know that the House is concerned to ensure that we have a weekly opportunity to discuss the important issues of the economy and the public spending that is needed to support the economy as it comes out of recession and into recovery. I judge that the fiscal responsibility Bill, which will shortly have its Second Reading, will offer an opportunity to debate all the issues that arise on the pre-Budget report.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Wright Committee. I pay tribute to and thank all the hon. Members who have served on that Committee; they have done a very good and thorough job. Of course the House will need to debate the report. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it was we who brought a motion before the House that enabled it to agree to set up the Committee.

The House will need to debate the report and come to a decision on any changes arising from it. It was published only two days ago, and the Government respect its complexity and its reach. We will give it full consideration and tell the House how we propose to proceed, but I want to allay any concerns that somehow nothing has happened since 1997, and that everything remains to be done. There has been a continuous process of reform and modernisation of the House; we have brought proposals to the House, and they have been put into effect. The right hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that the normal time within which a debate is held in the House after such a report is two months, which would take us to the end of January.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about the appointment of the chair and board members of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. We strongly agree with him that IPSA needs to be able to get on with its work as soon as possible. There is a chair-designate and an acting chief executive; the board members have been identified by the Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; a motion has been laid before the House, and we expect to debate it next week so that IPSA can get on with its very important work.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of parliamentary scrutiny of the Equality Bill. Following hon. Members' references to that issue on a number of occasions, I have looked very carefully into it. I would say that the Bill has received unprecedented scrutiny by the House-and rightly so. It was the subject of a report not only by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but also by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. There was a Public Bill Committee, in which evidence was taken from the public, and there were also many hours of debate. To make the Bill an exemplar of good practice my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, the lead Minister on the Bill, has already tabled all the amendments and new clauses that we seek to put before the House on Report. That was done yesterday, so the House has been given much more notice than usual of the issues that will come back to it for debate on Report.

It was not possible to debate in Committee one particular issue, so it will be put before the House on Report. That is the question of extending to Scotland clause 1, which gives public authorities a statutory obligation to narrow the gap between rich and poor. It
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covers England and was extended, by agreement, to Wales; I have had discussions with the Scottish Executive and they have now, I am glad to say, agreed that it should apply to devolved authorities as well as to reserved authorities. That is a late agreement, but with the agreement of the House we have proposed it in a new clause for discussion on Report, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with us and understand why it was not possible to introduce it in Committee.

The rest of the amendments are about crossing the t's and dotting the i's on issues about which there is no quarrel; they are just technical issues. There is an ongoing discussion about religion, freedom of speech and sexual orientation, and there have been many hours of debate on those subjects. Indeed, I know that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) participated in that debate. There is no final agreement on the issue, but I am satisfied that the Equality Bill will be properly scrutinised, then go to the House of Lords and, I hope, pass into law.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the question of Afghanistan, and President Obama's statement is expected next week. I know that the House will have an early opportunity to make its comments known and to raise issues on the Floor of the House after the President's statement next week.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. I remind the Leader of the House and the hon. Gentleman whom I am about to call that a very large number of Back Benchers want to contribute.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The Leader of the House said that the House would have an opportunity to debate the President's statement on Afghanistan, but as she sat down she did not quite make it clear how or when that opportunity will come. It would be extremely helpful if she could clarify that point.

It should be totally unnecessary for the Opposition to ask for a debate on the pre-Budget report. The fact that other financial matters are before the House does not mean that it should not scrutinise the PBR properly.

On programming and the Equality Bill, it is the Leader of the House who introduced the new scope, involving Scotland, and the House will need to debate that. As for the chances of dealing with all the other amendments, she may think that those involve dotting the i's and crossing the t's, but it is up to this House, when scrutinising the Bill, to decide whether the i's and t's have been dotted or crossed. Will she therefore ensure that the Bill receives the proper scrutiny that she promised?

The Leader of the House says that the Energy Bill will come before the House, but why has she scheduled House business that requires the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to be here when he should be in Copenhagen setting the agenda for a climate change conference deal? Why has that business been set to clash so that the Secretary of State has to be in two places at once?

Will the Leader of the House tell the House when the Flood and Water Management Bill will receive its Second Reading? My constituents experienced flooding in Stonehaven, and I know from that just how serious the
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situation is, but many constituencies in England have now experienced dramatic flooding, so the Bill will be an important step in trying to respond to the crisis.

Finally, will the Leader of the House show more enthusiasm for the Wright Committee's report, and more willingness to take forward its agenda and ensure that this Parliament, in its dying days, delivers that reform to the people of this country?

Ms Harman: I have not been able to announce anything specific about the opportunity for the House to raise points following the announcement by the President of the United States on Afghanistan, but I am "signalling", as it is described in the newspapers, that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the matter. However, hon. Members know that oral statements are not announced in advance- [ Interruption. ] We do not usually announce them in advance. Anyway, I am not doing so today; I am signalling that there will be an opportunity. We all know that every week in this House we need an opportunity to raise questions about Afghanistan, and we will ensure that next week, on the important occasion of the President of the United States making his comments, we will be consistent on the matter and ensure the House has the opportunity it needs.

As for the debate on the pre-Budget report, the point here is the substance, not the form. The question is this: will the House have a chance to debate the issues raised on the pre-Budget report? The question is not about what form that will take, but about the substance, and I would say that it will be possible to raise the substance on Second Reading of the fiscal responsibility Bill. I have looked at these issues carefully and I am satisfied that that will be the case.

Obviously, the point of Report stage of the Equality Bill is not simply to repeat the 30 hours of debate that have already taken place-there has already been careful scrutiny by those who served on the Committee-but to deal with issues that have come forward from Committee. As I have said, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General has ensured that the House can see the Government's proposals for Report. I hope the Bill will have the full backing of the House.

As for the Copenhagen summit and the Energy Bill, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) will know that the Prime Minister will be attending Copenhagen-as will President Obama, which is welcome news.

On the subject of the Flood and Water Management Bill, there was a statement in the House last week, and the Prime Minister dealt with the question of the floods. We will be introducing that Bill-and obviously, we pay tribute to all those who are working to protect people in the flood-stricken community in Cumbria.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. No fewer than 42 right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye-a record in my limited experience to date-and the House will be conscious that the continuation of the Queen's Speech debate, to which there are lots of willing contributors, will follow, so I appeal again to each right hon. or hon. Member to ask a single short supplementary question, and of course, to the Leader of the House to offer us a pithy reply.

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Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): Five young people are alive today because of the tragic death of a wonderful little boy, George Higginson. George was an organ donor. His father feels that it would be beneficial if people had an opportunity to sign up as organ donors while voting at elections, particularly the general election.

Ms Harman: It is a desperately sad and difficult decision for all families when a child dies, and it is an incredibly generous thing for them to agree to organ donations that can save other people's lives. My hon. Friend makes a very sensible suggestion, and I will talk to the Justice Secretary to see whether cards for signing up for organ donation could be made available in polling stations.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): May we have a statement on a wider review of student visas? Only seven months after the rules were changed, all the language schools, particularly those in Bournemouth and Poole, are very upset about some of the proposals, which could mean their closure. That would be devastating for the local economy.

Ms Harman: I will refer this matter to my hon. Friend the Minister for Borders and Immigration and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman on that specific issue.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to the threat to 200 very successful jobs in Llanishen in my constituency? The jobs are in Pelican Healthcare and Great Bear Healthcare, which make disposable medical products for the whole of the UK. Those jobs are at risk because of the differences in electronic prescribing practices between Wales and the rest of the UK. May we have a debate on the anomalies that are threatening those jobs in my constituency?

Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend is foremost in defending the jobs of people who live in her constituency, and I will raise that issue with the Health Secretary and ask him to liaise with his Welsh counterparts and with her.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on climate change and civil liberties, and in particular, the right of British people to eat beef wherever and whenever they want? Does she agree that trying to stop British people eating beef is like trying to stop the French eating cheese?

Ms Harman: We want to eat healthily, tackle climate change and be nice to animals, and we have to work together on all those issues.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I heard what the Leader of the House said about the Equality Bill programme, but what will she do to ensure that we debate the important amendments that would end the scandalous exploitation of seafarers, which happens even when they are sailing on British ships between British ports? This is an issue that needs addressing.

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Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend, as Member of Parliament for Dover, is an outstanding champion for those who work in the ports and seafarers. I understand that he has already arranged a meeting with the Solicitor-General to see what progress can be made on this issue.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on education so that we can discuss the problems faced by Radcliffe school in Milton Keynes, whose future is uncertain because the Secretary of State is refusing to make his mind up about whether it should become an academy?

Ms Harman: I will raise that issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and ask him to write to the hon. Gentleman. If hon. Members want to raise questions about an individual school with me, they will get a more complete answer if they give me notification in advance. Indeed, following that practice might have saved the Leader of the Opposition yesterday.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) (Lab): May I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for my earlier yellow-card offence?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend clarify that the Government intend to table amendments to the Crime and Security Bill, which we will consider in the new year, to introduce a compensation scheme for the victims of Mumbai, Bali, Sharm el-Sheikh and other international terrorist atrocities against British citizens, and to close the loophole that disbars them from compensation? The Government gave a promise. Will my right hon. and learned Friend make it clear today-of all days, as it is the first anniversary of the Mumbai atrocities-that that will be done?

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend is very persistent, and he has shown that in raising this issue for the second time this morning. It is a very serious issue, and we are at an advanced stage in considering the options for including provision in the Crime and Security Bill for a compensation scheme for victims of overseas terrorism. Compensation is available for victims of terrorism in this country, but my right hon. Friend is raising the case of victims of terrorism abroad, and the gap in the system. We are taking steps to deal with that.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): In business questions on 16 July the Leader of the House said that the Solicitor-General would discuss how to handle the Equality Bill on Report, and would consult Members. No consultation has taken place and we will have only one day, which is completely inadequate. Members on both sides of the House have tabled amendments that need to be debated. Will the Leader of the House ensure that they are debated?

Ms Harman: Amendments and new clauses have been tabled, and I am sure that they will receive sufficient debate. There have been discussions. We do not usually go into what happens through the usual channels, but I am confident that the substance and issues that need to be debated will be, and we can then all focus on putting the contents of the Bill into practice.

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John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): Before the introduction of the flagship National Minimum Wage Act 1998, the Government set up the Low Pay Commission. May I draw my right hon. and learned Friend's attention to early-day motion 191, which is supported by Members on both sides of the House?

[That this House believes that the Government should establish a High Pay Commission to examine the effects of high pay on the economy and society; acknowledges that over the last 30 years median earners have seen incomes increase at less than the average while the super-rich including UK chief executive officers have seen their pay increase to 76 times that of the average worker; notes three main concerns over the effect of high pay in Britain: the link between excessive pay and the financial crash, the questionable link between economic performance and high pay and the social effects of inequality due to the increase of wealth concentrated at the top of society; and calls for a public inquiry to bring all of the facts, evidence and arguments into the public domain.]

I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to provide Government time to debate that issue, to enable us to vote to set up a high pay commission so that we can tackle widening wage inequalities as a matter of urgency.

Ms Harman: There will be a debate this afternoon on the Queen's Speech, to be led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which those issues can be raised. We need to ensure that top pay does not spiral out of control not only in the private sector but in the public sector.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Notwithstanding climate change and beef eating, may we have a general debate on farming? Any change in stocking levels in places such as Exmoor and the levels will be devastating for management, and it will have an impact across the United Kingdom if the Government change their policy on beef eating.

Ms Harman: There is no policy change on beef eating, so the hon. Gentleman should not be alarmed.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): May we look forward to an early and positive response to all the recommendations in the comparatively short and clear report from the Wright Committee, on which it was my privilege to serve? May I urge the parliamentarian of the year to stand firm against the dark forces on both the Government Front Bench and the Opposition Front Bench who are already lobbying hard against a Back-Bench business committee, which is vital if this House is to re-establish public respect and control over its own affairs?

Ms Harman: We all recognise that, as well as restoring public confidence by dealing with the abuse of expenses by a very few Members, we also need to strengthen the work of the House. The Wright Committee-I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for his work on that Committee-will be an important step in improving the way in which the House works, and thereby in restoring and strengthening public confidence.

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