Previous Section Index Home Page

Ms Harman: I have always supported positive reform of this House since I came into it in 1982, when it needed massive change. I have always played my part in being an agent for change, not for the status quo. This House is very good, but it could do with improvement. I take the opportunity that my hon. Friend has given me to thank him for his work on the Committee and his
26 Nov 2009 : Column 695
consistent work on this agenda. I know that he was part of Parliament First, which instigated the Committee. One reason why people are pleased with the Committee's work is that it is chaired not by myself as Leader of the House and a member of the Government but by a Back Bencher, and that its members were elected. It therefore has great credibility in the House, and we look forward to bringing the matter forward for debate.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): Yesterday, the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families visited a children's centre in a deprived area of London. One of the key problems that the staff identified was the lack of council housing, leaving children and their families living in expensive, overpriced, damp, often temporary and unsuitable private accommodation. May we have a debate on the need to fund a massive programme of council house building? The 3,000 council houses announced by the Government will do nothing to tackle a waiting list that has gone up from 1 million in 1997 to 2 million today.

Ms Harman: I strongly agree with the sentiments that lie behind the hon. Gentleman's comments. That is why we have introduced the decent homes standard, under which homes in my constituency in London have been renovated and improved, damp tackled, roofs repaired and better lifts and windows put in, and why we have made it a public spending priority to have more public home building. That is important not only for those who will live in those homes but to support the building industry as the economy comes out of recession. Such projects would not be possible under the Opposition's plans, nor, I am afraid, if we went forward with savage cuts in public spending, as the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party suggests.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Who is preventing the Leader of the House from doing the decent thing and announcing today a guarantee that we will be able to vote on the Wright Committee report before the end of January?

Ms Harman: I have said that the normal time for debating this sort of report is not two days after it has been published but within two months. I have said that I welcome the report, and we respect its depth and reach. We will need to consider it, and then we will bring the matter forward to the House. I hope that hon. Members will not talk themselves into a sense of mistrust and anxiety, because there is no need for it. We brought to the House the resolutions to set up the Committee and identify its members. We have asked for this work to be done, it has been, and we will take it forward with the agreement of the House.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): A few weeks ago, there was a tragic death in a social housing property in Torquay-I understand because there was no smoke detection. By contrast, last week in my constituency Steve Pettit was saved by his neighbour Mike Maynard, who heard a smoke detector, broke into the flat and rescued him. Considering the praise by the Leader of the House for the fire services a few questions ago, may we have an urgent debate on the need for smoke and fire detection in social housing?

26 Nov 2009 : Column 696

Ms Harman: That is an issue that I have discussed with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, and I will see whether there is an opportunity to discuss not only the work of firefighters but fire prevention.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Although we all recognise that individual police officers do their best in very difficult circumstances, may we have a debate in Government time on the recent report from the chief inspector of constabulary, which states that British policing has lost its way due to the noise and clutter of Government targets, initiatives and new laws?

Ms Harman: And indeed that might be an opportunity for us to discuss his belief that if there were elected representatives of the police, it would totally trample over the very important and valuable operational independence of the police. That might be something that we look for a topical debate on shortly.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I reiterate the request by the shadow Leader of the House for a free-standing debate on Afghanistan? There is a real sense of drift, about which we are all deeply concerned. We need to know more about the Government's strategy for handing over security to the Afghan national forces and about their sense of a timetable.

Ms Harman: The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have a sense of drift, but the Government do not. We are absolutely clear on the military, political and economic strategies, and we ensure that, every week, there is an opportunity for Members to express their views on, and ask about, Afghanistan. It is one of the foremost priorities for the Government and the country, so it is a foremost priority for the House.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): One of the strange reasons that the Government are now using to justify their decision not to transfer responsibility for air weapons to the Scottish Parliament, which was a Calman recommendation, is that there is no legal definition of an air gun. To be helpful, therefore, and to avoid such student politics and school-boy errors, will she have the appropriate Minister explain to her colleagues the precise purpose and workings of part 2 of the Firearms (Amendment) Rules 2007 entitled "Particulars relating to air weapons"? Will the Government get on with transferring the responsibilities and stop making silly excuses?

Ms Harman: The Government have undertaken an unprecedented devolution of power so that there can be what has been described as "Scottish solutions to Scottish problems" and so that Scottish people can make the decisions affecting them in their Parliament. The depiction of us as being on the back foot over this agenda cannot be right. I do not know the technical issues about firearms, but I am sure that the matter has been looked into very carefully. However, I am also sure that if the hon. Gentleman requested it, he could have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): May I take the Leader of the House back to the Equality Bill, about which I wrote to her yesterday? I also phoned her private office to draw the matter to its attention, so I
26 Nov 2009 : Column 697
hope that it drew it to hers. She gave a cast-iron commitment in the House- Official Report, 25 June 2009, column 962 -to open negotiations with Opposition parties. To date, neither she nor the Solicitor-General have had those discussions either with Opposition Front-Bench Members or through the usual channels about the timetable- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I say to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) that he is an immensely experienced Member. It is plain bad manners to witter away when another colleague is addressing the House.

Mr. Harper: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House gave those commitments, but those discussions have not happened. She repeated again this morning that they have taken place, but they have not. I suggest that those negotiations be opened by her, that they take place and that we ensure adequate time to discuss the Bill.

Ms Harman: I am sure that Members who are concerned about the Equality Bill, who want to play a part on Report and who played a part in Committee will be able to talk to the Bill Minister about how the debate will be arranged. However, in my view there has been sufficient debate prior to, and in, Committee and there will be sufficient debate on Report. If hon. Members who are spending so much time raising the question about the debate in the House spent that much time outside the House campaigning for equality, we would all be much nearer our goals.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): May we have an early debate on the work of the UK Border Agency, which would doubtless allow many hon. Members the opportunity to ventilate their frustrations in dealing with what is probably one of the most inefficient and inhumane agencies of government? It would also allow someone from the Home Office to explain why the agency will not engage with, or take representations from, Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland or Assembly Members in Wales, despite taking representations from MSPs. Surely it is not for bureaucrats to determine to whom people should turn when faced with the intransigence of such an agency.

Ms Harman: The UK Border Agency has a very big responsibility on behalf of people in this country and has greatly improved the work that it does. The hon. Gentleman raised a point about those from whom it will receive separate representations, and I will ask ministerial colleagues in the Home Office to deal with
26 Nov 2009 : Column 698
that point. It is a point of substance and we want to ensure that the agency takes representations where appropriate.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The ballot for private Members' Bills is taking place today, and several Members will be extremely happy. What they perhaps do not know is that in item five of today's Order Paper, the Government are trying to change Standing Orders so that the number of days allocated to private Members' Bills will effectively be reduced from 13 to six. May we have a proper debate on that and prevent the Government from sneaking it through at the end of the day?

Ms Harman: It is anticipated to be a shorter Session, so this is a question of proportionality.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): Under the right hon. and learned Lady's leadership of the House, fewer new clauses and amendments-including to her Equality Bill-have been reached, debated and voted on than under any other Leader of the House in history. Is she not embarrassed by that, and does she not recognise that the way to deal with the embarrassment is to provide the time needed on her Equality Bill-the exemplar-and to accept the recommendations in the Wright Committee report to deal with the problem so that the House gets to scrutinise in legislation what it needs to, rather than the Government choosing what the House scrutinises?

Ms Harman: Obviously, the House must scrutinise all Bills and it must do so effectively. Also, the Government, elected and commanding a majority in the House, must get their business. One of the bits of business that we want to get through not only the House of Commons, but the House of Lords, is the Equality Bill. I know that the hon. Gentleman supports it, and I look forward to a good debate on Report.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport regarding England's 2018 World cup bid? Football fans across the nation cannot fail to have noticed the rancour, division and bitterness that is dominating the bid. Should the Secretary of State not be banging some heads together?

Ms Harman: I shall raise that point with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Mr. Speaker: I would like to thank and congratulate right hon. and hon. Members. No fewer than 44 Back-Bench Members have questioned the Leader of the House, which in my experience is a record. It is a tribute to both succinctness and a co-operative spirit.

26 Nov 2009 : Column 699

Points of Order

12.27 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), the Leader of the House just said that cross-party discussions were held about issuing the local government finance settlement as a written ministerial statement, rather than an oral statement. May I confirm that that is not the case? She implied that, because this is the third year of a triennial settlement, there is in essence no need for an oral statement. However, last year-the second year-there was an oral statement. Do you agree, Mr. Speaker, that departing from the custom in the House of having an oral statement on local government finance would deny Members a chance to raise questions with the Government about the level of the grant that their authorities receive?

Mr. Speaker: Before I respond to the hon. Lady, given that the Leader of the House is here, I shall let her put her two penn'orth in.

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I understand it, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote-perhaps he did not have verbal discussions-to Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople on 12 November explaining the course of action that he intended to take, but has since received no notice of objections. Hon. Members and other interested parties have the opportunity to make their views known during the consultation period.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I take other points of order, I should say, on the basis of hearing the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and the Leader of the House, that a charitable interpretation would be that there has been something of a breakdown in communication. I also say to the hon. Member for Meriden that instinctively I am always keen that there be the maximum opportunity for matters to be debated properly on the Floor of the House. However, my generosity of spirit is not the only factor involved, and she will know that, I am afraid, I do not determine such matters. They are determined between the usual channels, and it would not be right for me to seek to second-guess those channels or indeed the Leader of the House.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have clearly heard earlier the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) refer to a Member of the other place as "corrupt". That was not only wrong, but unparliamentary. The right hon. Gentleman has now left the Chamber. What arrangements can be made for him to return to the Chamber and withdraw the unwarranted remarks?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order. [Interruption.] Order. The House must calm down a bit. The right hon. Gentleman has raised an important point of order, to which I would like to respond. He has raised a very important matter.

26 Nov 2009 : Column 700

I made clear to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) at the time my disapproval of his immoderate language, and I think it would be better if the word were simply withdrawn. As in so many things, there is precedent on the subject: specifically, "Erskine May" pages 438 and 439, which exhort Members to recognise that reflections must not be cast upon the conduct of Members of either House except on a substantive motion. No such substantive motion had been tabled or was in play on this occasion. The right hon. Member for Rotherham is no longer in his place, but I feel sure that my ruling, the observation of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and the wider sentiment of the House will have registered with him.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You were in the Chair yesterday when I raised with the Chancellor a very serious matter: namely, that contrary to precedent, having issued an indemnity to the tune of £62 billion to HBOS and RBS, and having chosen to do it in secret-his choice-he did not inform me as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee or the Chairman of the Treasury Committee. The Chancellor told me in reply that he did not need to do so because of legislation. That legislation was not on the statute book till some months after he issued the indemnity. In any event, it covers a different sort of transaction. That is a serious matter. Nobody in Parliament was informed, even in confidence, of what was going on, contrary to ancient traditions and conventions. May I write to you in detail and ask you to defend the privileges of the House?

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer is with us- [Interruption.] Order. As the right hon. Gentleman is with us, I offer him the opportunity to respond if he wishes.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): I am very grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I anticipated the hon. Gentleman's point of order, not least because he wrote to me earlier today-he will, of course, get a reply. It is right that the Banking Act 2009 came into force during the course of this year. However, when I replied to him yesterday, I made the general point that such operations are conducted by the Bank of England. Yes, of course I issued an indemnity for reasons that I explained yesterday, but the operations were not disclosed because, as I set out yesterday, of the prevailing conditions at the time. I said that the decision about when we disclosed the matter publicly was a fine one, although I remained of the view that the Governor was right. Clearly, I will reflect on the procedures for advising the Chairman of the Treasury Committee and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, because it must be right that Parliament is kept informed, but equally it has to be right that, especially in the tempestuous conditions we had just over 12 months ago, we had regard to the effectiveness of the Bank's operations. I will reflect on what the hon. Gentleman said. I would, of course, have said exactly the same had he chosen to intervene on my speech, which I hope to make in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for that considered and reasonable reply. As Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon.
26 Nov 2009 : Column 701
Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has immense experience of the subject, and that should be respected. He has explained-and the Chancellor has confirmed-that there is correspondence between them. The hon. Member for Gainsborough has written to the Chancellor, and I think that he should await the reply with eager anticipation, and I should be grateful it he copied me in on it. Let us see where that takes us.

John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I support the covert operations, but I fear that perhaps next week, a report from the National Audit Office will be published, which indicates that the £61 billion had been given. Given that the Governor of the Bank of England disclosed that at a Treasury Committee sitting, I fear that the Bank of England and the Treasury have been caught with their fingers in the till. There is a serious question mark over public and parliamentary relations in the Treasury and the Bank of England. Given that the loans were repaid in January 2009, I do not understand why they were not disclosed. I feel that both Parliament and the Select Committees have been short-changed. There is a need for a protocol that affects Select Committees and Parliament. I look forward to its being developed as a result of the correspondence.

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman is a distinguished Chairman of the Treasury Committee, and it is therefore with sadness that I have to tell him that, although he has put his views firmly on the record, they did not amount to a point of order. I know that he will not in any way seek to entice me to participate in a debate on policy. Any impression that might have been conveyed to that effect is certainly accidental.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In business questions a few minutes ago, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), the Leader of the House said that discussions had taken place about the timing of the Equality Bill, as she promised in an earlier business questions session. However, I have it on good authority from the Deputy Chief Whip of the Conservative party, the Conservative spokesman on the Bill, our spokespeople on the Bill and the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats that no such discussions with spokespeople or the usual channels have taken place. Would it be in order for you to invite the Leader of the House to withdraw her assertion that discussions had taken place? Otherwise, something that has the effect of misleading the House is left on the record.

Mr. Speaker: Unfortunately, I do not think that it would be in order. The hon. Gentleman is engaged in a rather rebarbative pursuit of a point of difference with the Leader of the House. He has placed his views very clearly on the record-they will be intelligible, I hope, to all hon. Members. The amount of time that is allocated is a matter for the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman makes his view clear. I have indicated my preference for maximum debate, but I know my place, and such matters are not, sadly, determined by me.

Dr. Harris rose-

Next Section Index Home Page