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26 Nov 2009 : Column 689

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): May I add my support to the calls for a general debate on farming? In 2000 there were 1,144 dairy farms in Lancashire; today there are 634-a drop of 45 per cent. There has been a similar drop in my constituency. The Leader of the House knows how important dairy farming is for food security and the environment. Please may we have an early debate?

Ms Harman: I stress the importance of dairy farming and beef farming; I hope that my rather flippant answer earlier will not be taken be amiss. There is no intention to change policy: we strongly support not only healthy eating and tackling climate change, but farming and the countryside.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): The impressive Boing Boing website tells us that the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is seeking to take delegated powers to allow him to amend the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. When will the Digital Economy Bill reach this House so that we can make the case for an independent regulator to do that job, and certainly not a politician?

Ms Harman: I- [Interruption.] I am sure I had that in my notes somewhere. Oh yes, here it is: the Digital Economy Bill, which was announced in the Queen's Speech, was published on 19 November.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on the amount of money being paid out in medical negligence claims, which has ballooned in recent years?

Ms Harman: The Department of Health keeps under review the amounts paid out by the national health service in medical negligence claims. We want to ensure that patient safety is such that patients are not the victims of medical negligence. That is what the starting point should be. It is not just a question of saving the NHS money; it is a question of protecting the health of patients. The best way to reduce medical negligence pay-outs is to reduce medical negligence, and that is something on which all the professions involved in medicine and the Department of Health work closely.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We read that a News of the World reporter bullied by the then editor, Andy Coulson, won a staggering £800,000 at an employment tribunal this week. May we have an early debate on workplace bullying to underline the fact that it is unacceptable, no matter where it comes from?

Ms Harman: I agree and I will have to reflect on how that can be brought forward in the business of the House.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): Tetley's ales have been brewed in Leeds since 1822, but now the parent company, Carlsberg, is seeking to close the brewery and brew under licence at another brewery, rumoured to be Black Sheep in Masham. May we have a debate on honesty in product promotion? Tetley's can only be a Leeds beer if brewed in Leeds with Leeds water: anything else would not be Tetley's.

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Ms Harman: I will ask Business Ministers to liaise with the hon. Gentleman about whether anything could or should be done about this.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): May I press my right hon. and learned Friend again on the Reform of the House of Commons Committee? She will know that the window of opportunity is narrow and the forces of inertia are great. Can she give the House an assurance that measures to implement the proposals will be introduced before Prorogation?

Ms Harman: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that having set up the Committee we are very impressed with the work that is being taken forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). We welcome the report. We are pleased by how quickly the Committee has been able to reach its conclusion, by how substantial that report is, about how it has set out the process for how the report should be dealt with, as well as about the substance of the change that the report asks for. It was published only two days ago, and we will bring forward our proposals on how to deal with its consideration. We instigated this report, and we want to see changes brought forward.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): Thanks to your good offices, Mr. Speaker, an urgent question about First Capital Connect was answered by the Secretary of State for Transport, who said that he would monitor the situation. Since then, the disruption on its routes has spread and the operation of its timetable is still severely compromised. When can we have a debate on this problem and about the franchises that are causing it?

Ms Harman: It is Transport questions next week, so I suggest that the hon. Lady raises that matter with Transport Ministers.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the corrosive campaign that is being run against the BBC by the Rupert Murdoch empire of BSkyB and News International, in league with the Conservative party? Can we have an early debate about the independence of the BBC and how important it is not to sell off large chunks of it?

Ms Harman: There is a major point of substance in my hon. Friend's question. We want to defend strongly the BBC and public service broadcasting, and not allow it to be picked apart in order that somebody who does not even live in this country should make a whacking profit.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): In The Times this morning, an indication was given that the Government may be trebling the level of their telephone tax in connection with broadband extension, and that the details of this were to be published in a finance Bill scheduled for early in the new year. Can the Leader of the House tell us whether precedent will be broken in that a finance Bill will be published ahead of a Budget, and if so, what does early in the new year mean?

Ms Harman: I am afraid that I am not in a position to answer what is obviously a serious point raised by the right hon. Gentleman, so I will have to write to him
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about it. However, I would say again that if he is going to raise something that I might not be able to predict, will he be able to predict that I cannot predict it and make sure that he tells me in advance?

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I wonder whether the Leader of the House would not only support, quite rightly, the Government's objective in rolling out high-speed broadband for everyone, but an important experiment that is to take place in Swinton, where we are going to have free WiFi. Will she support the provision of free WiFi in the Chorley and South Ribble constituencies as a north versus south experiment, and could we have a debate on that?

Ms Harman: I will draw my hon. Friend's point to the attention of Business Ministers. I think that progress on the digital economy will offer huge opportunities for all areas of the country, and I know that he will want his constituency to benefit from it.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): I have called for a debate on the 2012 Olympics on many occasions, and each time the Leader of the House fobs me off. Given the astronomical cost of the event and the fact that the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority has said,

will the Leader of the House give time for this important debate as early as possible so that we can discuss in this Chamber the true cost of that event?

Ms Harman: As well as raising these issues with the Olympics Minister during Question Time, he can take the opportunity to do so when the Chancellor comes to the Dispatch Box as soon as business questions is finished.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): May I support the call by the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) for a debate on education so that we can discuss the concept of "hard" and "soft" federations? One of my local schools, Rushey Mead, is the best performing in the city, and it is to be federated with a School that is the worst performing. Does the Leader of the House agree that consultation with parents is absolutely vital in our education system?

Ms Harman: It is Department for Children, Schools and Families questions next week, so I suggest that the Schools Secretary is the right person to ask that question.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): In every single previous year, the appropriate Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box to give an oral statement on the local government settlement, and there has been, entirely separately, a pre-Budget report from the Chancellor. Why is that not happening this year, and what have the Government got to hide?

Ms Harman: I understand that there has been cross-party discussion on this, and there is an answer. [ Interruption. ] This is a serious point. This settlement is the final one of the first three-year settlements, and it is unchanged from January 2008. Therefore, following discussions with Opposition Front Benchers, the usual procedure
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was not seen as necessary. A letter was sent to Opposition spokespeople about this on 12 November, and there have been no objections from Front Benchers. [ Interruption. ] No, I see that that is not so. Ignore what I have just said-I will look into it.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The peak of UK oil production in the North sea was passed some years ago. In recent weeks, a growing number of international experts have said they believe that the peak of global oil production may already have been passed. There is a growing consensus that in 2012 there will be a crunch in oil supply across the planet, with all the terrifying consequences for global security and national economies. Will the Government give the same kind of international leadership on the issue of oil depletion as they have given on climate change, and can we have a debate in Government time on the economic consequences of oil depletion?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes a number of very important points, and I will raise them with the relevant Ministers.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): In the light of the recent increase in dissident republican attacks in Northern Ireland, the murder bid on a young police officer in Fermanagh, and the bomb planted outside the Policing Board in Belfast, can the Leader of the House find time to have an urgent debate on the security situation in Northern Ireland and the threat that that poses to the peace of the United Kingdom?

Ms Harman: The whole House would want to share the hopes for the peace process, which is supported by the overwhelming majority of people on all sides in Northern Ireland. Those who support any party, and those who support none, all support the peace process except a very small minority who should not be allowed to prevail. I will discuss with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether he supports the hon. Gentleman's view that there should be a debate at this stage. Obviously, we want to be able to ensure that the House can scrutinise the work of the Northern Ireland Office and that hon. Members can debate and air their views, but we also want to ensure, above all, that we do what is conducive to the peace process.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): In the light of today's Daily Mirror report, and that of The Independent last week, about the buying of influence in the Caribbean and in Britain, can we have an early debate on that monster from the Caribbean deep, namely Lord Ashcroft, and his influence on politics- [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say very gently to the right hon. Gentleman, who is an immensely experienced parliamentarian, that moderation in the use of language in the Chamber is always desirable. Whatever he thinks about the noble Lord, he should not call him a monster.

Mr. MacShane: If "monster" is now an unparliamentary term, Mr. Speaker, then we are limiting our vocabulary.

May we have an early debate on this gentlemen, who forces right hon. Members on the Opposition Benches to dissemble on his tax status and uses gagging writs to intimidate newspapers. It is only in the House of Commons
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that this man's corroding and, I believe, corrupt influence on Caribbean and British politics can be debated and explored. [ Interruption. ]

Mr. Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has put his views very firmly on the record, but I urge him not to use the word "corrupt"-I do not like it.

Ms Harman: There are Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next week, at which issues to do with the Caribbean could be raised.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): I am sure that the Leader of the House is ready for me to ask a question about Buncefield, as the fourth anniversary is next week. May we have a debate on the safety of oil depots in this country? I am sure that the House will be surprised that even though the oil depot is completely cleared-it is a clean piece of land apart from the pollution-the control of major accident hazards safety licence still exists, and thus the oil companies can rebuild it any time they wish. May we have a debate on how the safety of our communities is affected by COMAH licences?

Ms Harman: I will ask my ministerial colleagues to liaise directly with the hon. Gentleman on his specific point about Buncefield. I know that from his constituency experience, he will have had great reason to thank and pay tribute to the fire services, and I should like to take this opportunity to pay my tribute to them, as they have done a remarkable job in my constituency this morning. More than 150 people had to be evacuated because there was a massive fire, which spread from a derelict site and set fire to a block of flats in which they were asleep in their beds. We are very hopeful that no life will be lost, and if that is the case it will be an absolute tribute to the fire services. I will raise the issue of Buncefield with my ministerial colleagues.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May we have an early debate on changes to immigration regulations to prevent mainly young men from acting as sponsors of a wife from abroad following the acquisition of indefinite leave to remain and possibly an Islamic divorce?

Ms Harman: That might well be worth raising at Foreign Office questions next week. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work in protecting vulnerable women from being pushed into marriages and exploited.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): In supporting the responsible calls for a further day on the Equality Bill, may I make a request of the Leader of the House for a debate on the textile industry? In 1997, the number of employees in the industry in Great Britain stood at 313,000. By 2007, it had been reduced to just 93,000. It is a strategic industry, so may we have a topical debate on it at an early date?

Ms Harman: The textile industry is indeed an important part of our manufacturing, which is a very important part of our economy. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman could take the opportunity to raise the issue with Treasury
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Ministers or seek to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, in the debate that will follow immediately after business questions.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be aware that a number of changes to the membership of Select Committees proposed by the Committee of Selection have been objected to and as a result not passed in this House. Will she make Government time available to decide the membership of Select Committees?

Ms Harman: As my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House reminds me, there is to be an Adjournment debate on that subject shortly, and of course we asked the Reform of the House of Commons Committee to examine the selection of Chairmen and members of Select Committees. Good work has been done on that, and I am sure that the points that concern my hon. Friend and hon. Members throughout the House will be addressed.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Not content with ripping off their customers with extortionate charges, high street banks now want to charge people for accessing their own money via cash machines. If that is not bad enough, they are also, despite protests from business and community groups, planning to abolish the cheque. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is about time that the banks were reminded that their job is to serve their customers, not the other way round? Will she find time for a debate on these urgent issues?

Ms Harman: Many people will have been very disappointed that the case against the banks in relation to charges on overdrafts and other matters did not succeed in the Supreme Court, but that does not let the banks off the hook. People can apply for ex gratia and discretionary payments, and the Government are absolutely determined to ensure that we give every protection to the consumer. The banks need the trust and confidence of the public, and they need to do a good job. They provide the lifeblood of small business and support the economy, and they should not be ripping the country off.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): In respect of the Wright Committee on the reform of the House of Commons and the "signals" that my right hon. and learned Friend talked about earlier, she will recall that the Committee is the first in this House to be elected secretly by Members of all parties. She will also know that it has reported in record time. However, the signal was that the setting up of the Committee was delayed until two days before the House rose for the summer recess. Will she take this opportunity to be very clear about when the House will not debate but decide yes or no on some of the recommendations? May I offer her this stage on which to make the most enthusiastic signal possible about the reform of this House?

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