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21 Jan 2010 : Column 449

Ms Harman: I join the right hon. Gentleman in acknowledging the great importance of the international effort to tackle the appalling suffering that has followed the earthquake in Haiti. I wish to pay tribute to the search and rescue teams that have gone out from this country and to say how important the Department for International Development aid contribution is, not only in terms of the search and rescue effort, but of the assessment of and contribution towards the reconstruction that will be required. I should also say how important the incredible generosity of the British public is. I believe that about £20 million of additional aid has been pledged immediately by DFID, but that about £26 million has come from donations by individual members of the public, not only those who have relatives and friends in Haiti, but other good-hearted people who want to help do their part in alleviating the suffering. Not everything good that happens is done by government.

Last week, we made a statement on Haiti and this week, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we had DFID questions and the issue was also addressed in Prime Minister's questions. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to keep the House updated on Government and international action, and we need an opportunity for Members to contribute. I shall look for an opportunity, in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week.

On the Wright Committee, yes, of course, what is important is what the House decides. Although I think that it is perfectly right and proper that we place before the people at the general election a big choice of an alternative view as to how Britain goes forward, with the Tories on one side and us on the other-and the other parties in the fray too-when it comes to the way this House operates, we should surely be able to work together, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said earlier, to try to make progress. I shall offer to have plenty of fights with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on many issues and on many occasions, but can we just try to work together sensibly on this, because on 23 February we might be able to make some progress? Rather than spending a lot of time saying, "Why is it on 23 February, rather than 23 January?", let us get on with working together to ensure that we make our 23 February debate an opportunity to make progress. If we make progress then, we will, as I said earlier in questions to the Leader of the House, be able to pass resolutions that put into effect the proposals from the Wright Committee, so that they can begin in operation before the House rises.

As far as Easter is concerned, it is on 4 April.

On the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill-I shall call it the CRAG Bill, as I keep getting the name wrong-we have had a full day on Second Reading and three days on the Floor of the House for the Committee stage already. We have two further days on the Floor of the House, thus making five days in Committee. We have a day on Report and Third Reading, which makes seven days in all. A number of Committees have looked at this Bill, including a Committee of both Houses that looked at the draft Bill, so this House will have given it thorough scrutiny, and the proposals that will be introduced by way of Government amendments or new clauses will be brought forward in the normal way.

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On HMRC and tax credits, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we are pledged to continue to improve tax credits, which make a very big difference to families on middle and modest incomes. We want to support those who are working, and working hard, by topping up their income with tax credits, and we will continue to support the way that that is distributed.

On equality, it is clear from reading the statement that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made just before last week on race and socio-economic inequality or the Government response via the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Milburn report on access to the professions, as well as the Department of Health's report on health inequalities-the Marmot report-that will be considered soon or the very important report from the National Equality Panel, which is chaired by Sir John Hills, which will be published next week, that this Government is in no doubt that this country ought to be a place where everyone, no matter what their family background, no matter whether they are a man or a women and no matter what their ethnic origin, can achieve their full potential. We should have a fair society where everyone can fulfil their aspirations, not one held back by prejudice or discrimination. The Hills report will show that we have halted the inequality that increased so badly in the '80s and '90s, but we have to take more action to eradicate it, for the sake of not only every individual, but of having a prosperous economy and a peaceful society.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I welcome the indication that the Leader of the House gave that there would be a debate on Haiti? In her response on that issue, she mentioned the exchanges at yesterday's Prime Minister's questions. May I say that it was hugely welcome that the Prime Minister made a short statement on Haiti, and did so in considerable detail? However may I put it to the Leader of the House that there is a growing tendency for Ministers and, in particular, the Prime Minister to use short Question Times to make what are, in effect, statements, and that that is not helpful to Back Benchers who want to put questions? If there is a statement to be made, will the right hon. and learned Lady encourage her right hon. Friends to make it as a statement rather than using Question Time to do so?

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was also asked a very pertinent question, it seemed to me, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) about the takeover of Cadbury. The Prime Minister's answer was-how can I put it-a little bit "Curly Wurly", and possibly even "Flake-y". May we have a statement from the relevant Department on the role of the Royal Bank of Scotland-a bank owned by the British people-in providing the finance for a takeover of a British company by an American conglomerate? That issue must be answered.

May I welcome the additional day that has now been provided-I had a bit to say about this when we debated the programme motion on Tuesday-for consideration of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? However, the right hon. and learned Lady has still not answered the question put by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the shadow Leader of the House. Will she simply say, without equivocation, whether a Government amendment on
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the reform of our electoral system will be tabled for debate in Committee? Yes or no? She must have decided by now, surely; it has been fought over for weeks. Will she tell us whether there will be such a Government amendment?

May we have a debate on the continuing problem, which I know affects a lot of Members on both sides of the House, of funding in further education and the activities of the Learning and Skills Council? After the fiasco of last year, a huge number of decisions are waiting on a backlog of schemes that were given provisional support but on which the funding has not been confirmed. That delay affects a college in my constituency, Frome community college, and the college is now desperate to know whether the scheme, which is supposed to be going ahead this year, can go ahead and whether the funding will be provided. May we have a debate on that?

May I return to a point made by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire? The Leader of the House has answered, very helpfully, with the date of Easter. I am personally not terribly interested in the dates of the Easter recess, but I am very interested to know when the Budget will be. Will she tell us what the date of the Budget will be?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman mentioned statements and the question of Haiti. As I have said, we had a full statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on Haiti and I think that it was important for the Prime Minister to update the House yesterday during Prime Minister's questions. It is important not just that we hear from the Secretary of State but that the Prime Minister has the opportunity to update the House. The Prime Minister has made an unprecedented number of statements in the House on a range of issues and we will continue to keep the House informed on action in Haiti.

As for the Cadbury's debate, I would certainly not want to give a "Flake-y" response. Perhaps I can give a "Crunchie" response and tell the hon. Gentleman that there will be an Adjournment debate on the matter on the Floor of the House next week. This is an important issue because people are concerned not only about their pride in this historic brand but, above all, about the work that is generated for 5,500 people in factories up and down the country. It will be debated on the Floor of the House next week.

On the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, the Secretary of State for Justice will bring forward amendments and new clauses in the normal way. This is not an occasion for the announcement of Government new clauses on individual Bills.

On the Learning and Skills Council, I shall ask Business Ministers to look into the case of Frome community college. We all recognise that despite the fact that there has been a great deal of important extra funding for further and higher education, the LSC presided over mismanagement on that very important programme, which is only just being sorted out. I shall ask Ministers to look into the case of that college but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that Frome community college and all other further and higher education would not prosper if his party had its way and introduced savage cuts.

Several hon. Members rose -

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Mr. Speaker: Order. Twenty-seven right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to be able to accommodate everybody, but if I am to have any chance of doing so, I shall require the help of the House in the form of short questions and short answers.

Hazel Blears (Salford) (Lab): I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend can clear something up for me. On 4 January, the Leader of the Opposition said that giving married couples a tax break was


Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide time on the Floor of the House for a debate on married couple's allowance so that we can all be enlightened about the difference between a promise, a belief, an aspiration, a pledge and any other word that might describe the Leader of the Opposition's policy?

Ms Harman: I note that the Opposition have not chosen the married couple's allowance as the topic for their Opposition day debate next week. One thing that my right hon. Friend's question brings out is the fact that families cannot rely on the Opposition. They can rely on this Government to back them up. We would not penalise women who get divorced and we would not use a tax penalty to penalise men who find themselves divorced. We want to support families in all shapes and sizes, including not only families made up of parents and children but grandparents, who play an important role.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Leader of the House will know of the work of the Liaison Committee in improving financial scrutiny in this House, which has led to the alignment project in the Treasury, which I welcome. As we will debate increasing the powers of Select Committees on 23 February, will she say that she is at least open-minded-I am not asking for a commitment-about giving Select Committees more resources through the Scrutiny Unit and eventually more powers through substantive motions to control spending in the House of Commons, which was a traditional function of the House of Commons?

Ms Harman: The Wright Committee made some recommendations in that regard and when we come to the debate on 23 February, that issue can be thoroughly aired.

Jacqui Smith (Redditch) (Lab): May I push my right hon. and learned Friend on the subject of a debate about support for families so that I can raise the concerns of working parents across Redditch-married and unmarried-who fear that they will lose the little bit of help that comes from their tax credit, as well as access to Redditch's children's centres, so that funding can be given to an unthought-through and ill-conceived tax break to encourage them up the aisle?

Ms Harman: It might well be a good idea to have a debate on this issue. On that occasion, we will ask the Opposition to explain whether they think that any couple has got married thinking, "Well, we weren't
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going to get married but we will get married now because we have heard that there will be a tax break." Relationships do not work like that and there is no evidence that couples can be made to stay happy together simply on the basis of a tax break. The point about the proposed tax break is that it will not work when it comes to making families happy together. However, it will penalise those who find that their marriage has failed and stigmatise children in families who have not stayed together. Such a debate might be a good opportunity to air the subject on the Floor of the House.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on immigration? On Monday, the Bradford Telegraph and Argus reported how the Somali man who hid the killer of PC Sharon Beshenivsky won his appeal against deportation on the grounds of human rights, rightly angering the family of Sharon Beshenivsky and the West Yorkshire police federation. Surely, when the Government passed the Human Rights Act, they did not have it in mind that it would stop Somali nationals who hide the killers of police officers from being deported from the country.

Ms Harman: The Human Rights Act is a matter for interpretation by the courts, but whenever the Government believe that an interpretation by the courts has crossed the line and interfered with national security, we do not hesitate to take action either to appeal or to amend the substantive law.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a debate in parliamentary time on the subject of regional spatial strategies and their current status, particularly in the south-west, where we have been waiting for them for quite some time? As we have been waiting, local authorities such as Stroud district council have been working with speculators and developers to dump their entire housing allocations on the end of places such as Tuffley in the Gloucester district area. Clarity, an early debate and early decisions would be very helpful.

Ms Harman: Perhaps that is something that my hon. Friend, who I know strongly supports the communities living in his constituency, can raise in Communities and Local Government questions next week.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I indicated earlier at Question Time that I welcomed the debate on the reform of the House, and that I shall certainly support the motions to be tabled by the Leader of the House. However, will she admit that there is ongoing concern that the House Committee that she has announced will deal only with Back-Bench business and not with the overall business of the House? Does she accept that there has been no mention as yet of the reduction or removal of guillotines-programme motions-on the remaining stages of a Bill? Those stages are very important for Back Benchers who were not part of the Public Bill Committee and were not called to speak in the Second Reading debate.

Ms Harman: The Wright Committee made a great many proposals on a wide range of issues, and recognised that they needed to be taken forward step by step. The
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hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: what I said in my comments this morning, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday, was that we had identified the need for a House Committee for Back-Bench business to be brought forward. I hope that we can agree that on 23 February. I also hope that those who think that we should have a House Committee for Government business will not make the best the enemy of the good, and that we can achieve a wide range of agreement the next time we debate the matter on 23 February.

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I am sure that the Leader of the House remains a committed reformer of Parliament, but the Prime Minister made the incredible commitment yesterday that he would implement all three tranches of the Wright Committee report. Will she assure the House that there will be an immediate vote as well as a full debate on 23 February on the resolution that the Wright Committee prepared, rather than any other device?

Ms Harman: Actually, there are four tranches, as follows: the Chairs of Select Committees to be elected by the House, the membership of Select Committees, private Members' motions that can be brought to the House to be debated and voted on, and the question of the House Committee. We want to take the opportunity to debate those matters and then adopt resolutions to give them effect. If, as I hope and expect, there is consensus in the House on those four areas, we want to get work under way. The point is to make a start on those matters over which there is the widest possible agreement.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady will have heard the evidence given to the Chilcot inquiry by the former Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), to the effect that it was the decisions of the present Prime Minister that resulted in British forces going to war in Iraq under-resourced, and in the lack of helicopters in Afghanistan. She will also have heard the Prime Minister's statement that he is willing to give evidence to the inquiry before the general election. Can we have a debate next week so that the House can encourage Sir John Chilcot to call the Prime Minister to give an account of his activities before the general election?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister has made it clear that the Chilcot inquiry operates under the general procedures that usually govern such inquiries. Sir John Chilcot has said that he will take as much of the evidence in public as he can without risking national security. The Prime Minister has said that he will give evidence as and when requested to do so. We should leave it to the members of the independent Chilcot inquiry to get on with their work, and not constantly breathe down their necks or tell them whom they should call, and when. We should not try to discuss the results of the inquiry before it has even produced a report.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): May we have an early debate on a possible conflict of interest in the Office of the Rail Regulator? The ORR has responsibility for both investment and safety, but we now discover that 1,500 front-line workers are to be made redundant
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by Network Rail. Those people have responsibility for track inspection and maintenance, overhead cabling and signalling, all of which are crucial to the safety of the railways for passengers and rail workers. Could we therefore have a look at this conflict of interest?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is a great champion of rail users. She has urged that more freight as well as more passengers should go by rail, and she is also a great champion of those who work on the railways. Perhaps I could suggest that she raise the issues that she has brought to the House today with Ministers at Transport questions next week.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): The Wright Committee, which was elected by this House, addressed itself to the problems that arise at Report stage, when key groups of amendments go undebated and key decisions on legislation are not even put to the House. In its conclusions, the Committee said that

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