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4 Feb 2010 : Column 464

I now turn to familiar territory. When will the Chancellor present his Budget to the House? Finally on dates, this is the last time we shall have business questions until 25 February, and there is still no news of the Easter recess. [Hon. Members: "Question 42!"] Yes, it is question 42. Let me put to the right hon. and learned Lady a scenario on which I believe it might be sensible to proceed. I suggest that the Prime Minister will visit the palace on 29 March and announce the election, that the House will adjourn for the Easter recess on Maundy Thursday and not return, that Her Majesty will dissolve Parliament on 12 April, with a general election on 6 May, and that some of us will return for swearing in on 12 May. Would the right hon. and learned Lady like to confirm or deny that?

Ms Harman: In relation to the Terrorist Asset-Freezing (Temporary Provisions) Bill, which I have announced will have all its stages next Monday, subject to the approval of the House, hon. Members will be aware of the Supreme Court's decision on the vires under which the order involved was made. Clearly we have to set the law in order and ensure that we have the powers that we need to use against assets that have been built up for use in terrorist activity. We are ready to make it clear this afternoon what those provisions are. The Bill will be introduced tomorrow, and on Monday, subject to the House's approval, it will have all its stages and then go off to the Lords.

As will be seen this afternoon, we have made it clear that the Bill's application will be retrospective. It is obviously an absolute priority to ensure that terrorists do not have assets at their disposal to use against people in this country, and we will ensure that the powers are available, and made retrospective, to deal with the issue that the Supreme Court raised, which was simply that the order was ultra vires.

I would make two points on how we are dealing with the Wright Committee recommendations. I have said at business questions that we hope the House will agree to more than 20 provisions in the report, and we intend to table them for approval after a full day's debate on 22 February. If we can approve some, if not all, of the motions that I will table then, that will be a good start. I will bring back those that, because Members object to them, are not approved. We will lay amendable motions, and then the House will vote on them.

As there are more than 20 areas of consideration on which we propose to move forward, it will be helpful if some of them, if not all, can be dealt with after a full day's debate. We can get the debate dealt with so that the House can be heard, and then if there are motions to which there is no objection, they can go through straightforwardly by agreement. On some issues there will undoubtedly not be agreement, and those will then have to come back to the House in motions that are amendable and can be voted on.

The right hon. Gentleman talks as though there were unanimity in the House on all the Wright reform issues, and as though somehow, only the Government stood in the way. He is fostering that impression, but it is a misapprehension. As shadow Leader of the House, he should know that on some substantial matters that the Government are in favour of, there is division in the House. For example, we support the idea of secret ballots for the election of Chairmen of Select Committees.
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He will know that last week the Liaison Committee was split down the middle on that, and voted to support it by only seven to six. So I would be grateful if he did not purvey the view that he and the whole House are reformers, and the Government are standing in their way. That is not true and does not reflect all the progress that the House has been able to make in the past 13 years on initiatives introduced by previous Leaders of the House. Reform has happened, and further reform, with the House's support, will be forthcoming under the Wright Committee recommendations.

Inspection and tight regulation of the out-of-hours GP service are obviously important. All primary care trusts should ensure that the out-of-hours service in their area is in order.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a day of debate on international development. One of the Wright Committee's proposals is for all Back-Bench business and general debate to be determined by a Back-Bench Committee. The Government back that. If it were agreed, the right hon. Gentleman or other hon. Members would not be asking me why we had not had a day to debate international development, because it would be down to Back Benchers to decide when to have a defence day, an international development day or a Welsh day, and to determine the subjects of topical debates. Frankly, I look forward to the day when hon. Members can ask themselves rather than me why such a decision has been made. [Hon. Members: "And in the meantime?"] In the meantime, I use my good endeavours to draw on the will of the House and ensure that we get the debates right. The answer is: as soon as possible.

As for an election date, I shall not be announcing that as part of the business of the House.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Seventeen years ago this week "Groundhog Day" was released-a film in which, hon. Members may remember, the major character was destined to relive the same day until he got things right. I wonder whether there is any similarity to business questions, when we ask exactly the same questions each week, and the Leader of the House has not quite got it right yet.

I do not suppose that there is any point in repeating the question that the right hon. and learned Lady simply does not answer, about the date of the Budget. We had, quite properly, a debate on the pre-Budget report. May we now have a debate on the influential study that the Institute for Fiscal Studies issued yesterday-its so-called green Budget? It disagrees fundamentally with some of the Treasury's rosy assumptions about the UK's future. It says that long-term growth of 2.75 per cent., as forecast by the Government, is an absurd fantasy, that unemployment is likely to rise from 6 to 9 per cent. by 2015, and that the assumptions about Government revenue are entirely bogus. We should debate those assessments, which experts have made, so that we can gauge how deep a hole the country is in.

Every week we discuss the conduct of parliamentary business, and every week we are told that the Government are committed to reforming how Parliament works. In reply to the urgent question that preceded business questions, we heard just how committed the Government are to allowing Parliament a say in matters that are
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properly parliamentary business. We have just heard from the Leader of the House how she intends to approach the Wright Committee's report. No one thinks that there is unanimity on the subject, but we would like the opportunity to debate and agree all, not just some, of the recommendations. She has yet to tell us even which recommendations she will allow us to discuss. Perhaps she would like to do that in the near future.

One of the main criticisms of the House is that we scrutinise Bills so badly. Yet we continue to do it badly. As of this morning, the Committee considering the Children, Schools and Families Bill has scrutinised only 14 of the 50 clauses in that important measure, and the Leader of the House has just announced its remaining stages. Today is its last day in Committee, so the other clauses will not be properly scrutinised. When will we do the job properly? If we will not do it properly, we must give the other place a chance to do it instead. Does she accept that many of the Bills before the House will get no further than Second Reading in another place before we enter the wash-up process, and that that is not the right way to scrutinise business?

We had some discussion of dodgy crime statistics this week. I do not approve of basing arguments on crime statistics that are not right, but let me give some genuine statistics. The retail crime survey suggests that retail crime cost the sector £1.1 billion this year-a 10 per cent. increase. That equates to 72,000 retail jobs. May we have a debate on retail crime so that we can ascertain whether there is anything that we as a Parliament can do to prevent such crime-and, ultimately, its cost to all of us as consumers?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman raised economic issues, following the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. No one could accuse the Chancellor of purveying rosy assumptions. He has always said that it was going to be a difficult time for the economy, and that it would begin to start recovering only at the turn of the year-as has happened. We have been encouraged by the fall in unemployment in the past two months, particularly as unemployment usually continues to rise after an economy begins to recover. In the 1990s recession under the Conservative Government, because of an absolute absence of labour market measures and help for the unemployed, unemployment carried on rising for three years after the economy had returned to growth. In the 1980s recession, unemployment continued to rise for five years after the economy had started recovering. We are encouraged by the improvement in employment, but we make no rosy assumptions.

We are not prepared to go along with cuts in public investment or taking money out of the economy, as proposed by the official Opposition, precisely because we regard the economy as still vulnerable. We will continue to support the economy and to support people who become unemployed to get back into work, and we have a clear plan for reducing the deficit by half in four years.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the amount, as a percentage of gross domestic product, that the Government spend on servicing the debt, which has been necessary to support the economy, is less than the amount that the Conservative Government spent annually on servicing debt in all their years of government, except two. If it comes to a question of whether the debt is affordable, I
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stress that we are spending less as a percentage of our national wealth on debt than the Tories spent in all but two years. I know that is not what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked, but I am sure that he is interested in the answer.

Mr. Heath: Worth sharing, anyway.

Ms Harman: Yes. I am sure the hon. Gentleman wishes that he had asked that question.

I hope that hon. Members will accept my good faith on the Wright Committee report, because I do not do devious. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I am trying to assist the House. We will have a full day's debate, when all the issues in the Wright report can be discussed. We will then consider a series of proposals. If there is no objection to them, they will go through and could be implemented. If there is an objection to them, they will come back to the House for decision, but we will not need to debate them all over again, because we will have done that. We will then get on with making decisions. At that point, the decision about what amendments are tabled will be in the hands of the House. We will cover the full range of the Wright Committee report. I sought to arrange things in the way that I outlined because with 646 Members, who all have a view, we could end up with propositions that would cancel each other out. I thought that it would be good to set a clear programme for approval on the first day we debate the report, and see whether we could get some things sorted and agreed, before getting into a position whereby a plethora of proposals, and more than a plethora of amendments, would be tabled, and we could end up with less than we might have achieved had we been able to proceed on the basis of a consensus, pulled together by me as Leader of the House. I hope that we can proceed by consensus.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome mentioned the Children, Schools and Families Bill Committee stage. He cannot have it both ways. Either there is rigid timetabling, which ensures that every bit of a Bill is scrutinised in Committee but leads to protests about timetabling, or there is no timetabling, the debate is front-loaded, and the Committee does not get to the end of the Bill. How that scrutiny is carried out is really in the hands of the Committee. We all want to make sure that there is good scrutiny on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report.

As for the crime statistics, we have to look to reduce crime across all areas, including both violent crime and acquisitive crime. One encouraging thing is that the fall in crime, both violent and acquisitive, has been so marked that it has not increased during the recession. I think that this is the first time that that has happened during a recession. Usually, a recession is accompanied by an increase in acquisitive crime. On this occasion, with the roll-out of neighbourhood policing, police community support officers and all the other crime prevention measures, we have not seen crime rising; indeed, it has continued to fall.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Twenty-eight right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. If I am to accommodate everybody, as I would naturally wish to do, short questions and short answers will be required.

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Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I am deeply honoured, Mr. Speaker, to be the first of those 28. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend shares my view that it is wrong that religious organisations should be able to discriminate against, for example, gay people or women who apply for non-religious posts in those organisations. She will also know that a Government amendment on that subject was defeated recently in the other place. Will she therefore take this opportunity to clarify for hon. Members whether she will reintroduce such an amendment when the Equality Bill returns to the Commons?

Ms Harman: I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. The Government's policy is clear and has not changed. Our view remains that religious organisations employing people should comply with the law that applies to all other employers, whether that is the requirement to have written contracts, pay sick pay or the minimum wage, or the requirement not to sack people unfairly or discriminate against them. However, our position has always been that for specifically religious work-as a vicar, priest, rabbi or imam-religious organisations would be exempt from non-discrimination law. A religious organisation cannot discriminate against gay people or women when it hires a bookkeeper, but it can when choosing a minister of religion.

The amendment that we proposed in the House of Lords did not intend to change that policy position. What it sought to do was make the distinction between religious and non-religious jobs clearer. The Lords did not regard our amendment as helpful. We will therefore leave the law as it is, and not bring the amendment back to this House. The law will remain as it was: in anti-discrimination law there is an exemption for religious jobs but not for non-religious jobs.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): May we have a statement on Thameslink? It is recorded in Hansard that the Thameslink programme is now

and that

That is a year's slippage from the 2015 Thameslink project announced previously. Either the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) was not on top of his brief, or he made a statement in that Westminster Hall debate that the Thameslink programme was being slipped by a whole year.

Ms Harman: Obviously, I try to keep on top of all the issues relating to all the train lines relating to all hon. Members, but I am not able to give the hon. Lady a very specific answer on this. If she had given me notice of her question, I might have been able to give her a more substantive answer, but as it is, I will ask the Minister to write to her.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen early-day motion 480, standing in my name and those of a number of other Members, with regard to the disgusting way in which Bestway Northern Ltd treats its employees?

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[That this House expresses its extreme disapproval of Bestway Northern Limited, a business which seeks to treat its employees like serfs, which conducted a show-trial of two employees, constituents of the right hon. Member for Manche s ter Gorton, defamatorily accusing them of gross misconduct when their alleged offence was simply waiting for a decision on their immigration status by the UK Border Agency, which was entirely outside these two employees' control; strongly objects that they have now been dismissed on the grounds stated by their director, Dawood Pervez, that these employees 'are not permitted to work in the UK', which is a lie, since the right hon. Member has in his possession a letter dated 4 December 2009 from the UK Border Agency confirming that these two men 'will be allowed to continue with their employment in the United Kingdom, until a decision has been made on their outstanding appeals'; warns anyone seeking a job to steer clear of Bestway Northern Limited; and further warns possible customers and clients to have nothing to do with these duplicitous tyrants.]

The company staged a show trial of two of my constituents and found them guilty of gross misconduct when they had done nothing but wait for a decision by the Home Office. It sacked them despite the fact that I have a letter from the Home Office saying that they have the right to work until their appeals are heard. Is that not utterly disgusting, in the year 2010? Will my right hon. and learned Friend get the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to deal with those people?

Ms Harman: There will be an opportunity for my right hon. Friend to raise issues of immigration law in Home Office questions next week. I know that he feels very strongly about this; he has spoken about that employer in business questions before.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please may we have an urgent debate on the health protection of our citizens in this country, and the Government's policy on that? Three years ago the Government decided-very wisely and quite rightly-to rebuild the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response at Porton Down in my constituency. On Monday they told the 800-strong work force of distinguished international scientists, who protect this country against swine flu, ebola, green monkey disease, and emerging diseases and viruses-and who, incidentally, are involved in the response to terrorism-that instead of rebuilding the centre on site, they were going close it down and move the 800 jobs to Essex. That has caused huge distress locally, but of course it cannot be in the national interest at this particular moment, facing the threats we face, to disrupt the entire service on which we all so depend.

Ms Harman: I can see that the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly about this matter on behalf of his constituents. If he had given me notice of his question, I could have given him a more substantive answer-and, I am sure, reassured him and his constituents. However, as it is, I will ask the Minister concerned to write to him.

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