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25 Feb 2010 : Column 457

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we remain committed to improving health care, because we believe that investment in public services is not a millstone round the neck of the economy, and that it actually provides vital public services such as health care. We will ensure that we pay down the deficit, halving it over the next four years, without harming vital front-line services such as his community hospital. I do not think that he could be reassured in that way by the position taken by his own Front Benchers.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): In 2004, Robin Singh applied for asylum, and I made vigorous representations on his behalf. However, he was deported. He has now been kidnapped by people in Pakistan associated with the Taliban, and they are demanding a ransom of £100,000. What can the Government do to help?

Ms Harman: I will ask the Foreign Secretary to look into this matter right away, and to contact my right hon. Friend. May I also express every sympathy to the Singh family, who must be beside themselves with anxiety? I will ask the Foreign Office to do everything that it can to help.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): Will the Leader of the House urge her ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to bring forward the statement on rolling stock provision? Northern Rail was originally promised up to 200 new carriages, but there is now great uncertainty about how many it will get and when it will get them.

Ms Harman: There is a debate on railways this afternoon in Westminster Hall. It will deal with rail fares and franchises, and I think that the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to raise this matter there.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In April this year, there will be elections in Sudan if all goes according to plan. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on Sudan as those elections lead up to the referendum in 2011 on whether the south should secede? The all-party parliamentary group on Sudan has just conducted an inquiry into how the elections are going, and into all the possible repercussions involved, and the subject would be well worth a debate, given all the time, effort and money that the British Government have invested in Sudan.

Ms Harman: I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend and the other hon. Members who play a part in the all-party group on Sudan. In the first instance, he should perhaps raise this question with the Foreign Secretary at Foreign Office questions next week.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Before Parliament is dissolved for the general election, will the Leader of the House find Government time in which we can debate the embarrassing infringement procedures being taken against the Government of the United Kingdom by the European Commission in respect of the Government's failure to pay sick and elderly UK citizens the disability living allowance to which the European Court of Justice says they are entitled?

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Ms Harman: I will look into that and get the relevant Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. and learned Friend might well have heard of the recent tragic murder of a Sikh shopkeeper in my constituency. He was a much-loved and respected member of our community and of the Sikh community. Would it be appropriate to have a debate in the House on the value of small shops and shopkeepers, and of small shopping centres? Is it not about time we stood up for small shops and shopkeepers against the Tescos and the Asdas that want to drive them all out of business?

Ms Harman: First, may I express my sincere condolences to the family on that tragic loss of life? I know that it has been felt not only by the man's immediate family but by the whole neighbourhood. I pay tribute to the people from the local pub who went to his aid. This is obviously a matter for the police authorities to investigate, but on the question of support for small shopkeepers, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government take every possible step to support the amenity provided by small corner shops in local communities and neighbourhoods.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): May we have a debate on housing provision for the disabled? Last week, I opened an excellent house that had been retrofitted by the charity Aspire. Two important points were made to me at the time. First, there is a shortfall of 300,000 homes for the disabled in the UK at the moment. Secondly, most of the considerable cost of retrofitting could be avoided if only developers were more mindful of the disabled when designing houses.

Ms Harman: Indeed. The Equality Bill, which is currently being considered by the House of Lords, includes a legal duty, as part of the public sector's combined legal duty, to ensure that it tackles discrimination against, and promotes equality of opportunity for, disabled people. Therefore, when making planning decisions and giving planning approval, that must be at the forefront of the minds of those concerned. I hope I can count on the hon. Gentleman's support the next time I am criticised for political correctness because of my support for the Equality Bill. I also hope I can count on his support in relation to public spending, because provision for disabled people and for their housing costs money. Although we must get the deficit down, we must keep ensuring that we make progress towards equality of opportunity for disabled people.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have an early debate on parliamentary staff? If I hired someone who had worked with an ex-convict to carry out criminal activities, including bribing police officers, breaking into bank accounts and obtaining secret telephone conversations, any such gentleman would quickly have his pass taken off him, yet Mr. Andy Coulson stands accused in The Guardian today of all those activities. Surely it is time to remove the parliamentary pass from that gentleman, so that he cannot roam around the Westminster precincts.

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Ms Harman: All hon. Members, on both sides of the House, ought to be very concerned about the issues raised in the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, to which I assume my right hon. Friend refers. The issues raised certainly reflect quite sharply on those involved, including Andy Coulson, the Leader of the Opposition's press secretary.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Leader of the House has made the extraordinary proposition that Members should be urged to table amendments, which she herself has decided will not be debated, will she explain the extraordinary logic of wanting to remove the title of Chairman but keep the title of Chairman of Ways and Means, as well as, presumably, her own name?

Ms Harman: Contrary to popular myth, the issue of the change from Chairman to Chair came out of the Wright Committee, of which I was not a member. It was not my proposal, but made in the Wright Committee report. We have tabled it for the House to vote on, and I would certainly vote for it. As for recommendations that the hon. Gentleman says I have decided will not be available to be voted on, there are none. I have explained the process: we have tabled the motion; he can table an amendment, as can any other Member, and if it relates to the Wright Committee report, it will no doubt be selectable and able to be voted on. Come next Thursday, we will all be able to vote on the matter.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Many jobs have been created and protected in my constituency, with a great deal of partnership working. One of the key partners has been the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which is working with me on a project to rescue Bowater from administration. Can we have a debate on the future of regional development agencies and their importance in helping to create and develop jobs in our communities?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will be able to raise the issue of the Northwest Regional Development Agency in Business, Innovation and Skills questions next week, and he will no doubt receive the answer from the Minister concerned that we greatly value the work of regional development agencies, particularly in the north-west. We remain strongly committed to them, and are determined that they will be protected from the Opposition's threat of abolition.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): May we have a statement next week on the security situation in Northern Ireland, in view of the very serious recent incident in Newry and other incidents that demonstrate the growing threat from so-called dissident republican terrorists? Such a statement would allow us to explore what the Government are doing to meet what is a threat not only to life and limb but to political stability in the Province.

Ms Harman: We all understand the concern felt across all political parties in Northern Ireland, and above all in all parts of every community in Northern Ireland, where people want a continuation of peace and prosperity and of more control over their own affairs. They do not want that to be derailed by a small number
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of criminals through terrorism. I pay tribute to all those who worked hard to protect people and to ensure the minimum loss of life. However, we cannot be complacent, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, all colleagues in the House and those in the Northern Ireland authorities will play their part to ensure that peace and prosperity continue.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend is a supporter of the music industry, so she may share concerns about the slow progress of the Digital Economy Bill in the other place. Will she use her good offices to ensure that the House gets the opportunity to debate the matter, and that the Bill is given every opportunity to get on to the statute book before the election? I am only too aware that I must again declare my interest as a member of MP4, the world's only parliamentary rock band. I know that you are aware, Mr. Speaker, that the excellent charity Help for Heroes will be the beneficiaries of proceeds from our album "Cross Party", which will be released on 18 March.

Ms Harman: I think MP4 is a fantastic group with a great future, and I agree with my hon. Friend that the Digital Economy Bill is very important. The Prime Minister has spoken about the great prospects for our digital and creative industries, green technologies, advanced manufacturing and new information technology. We must invest in those new industries and jobs, so we will provide every support. He can raise the matter at Culture, Media and Sport questions next week, and, if he wants, in Business, Innovation and Skills questions, too.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): We could debate for a long time whether this morning's clarification of the guidelines on assisted suicide amount to a change in the law-in my opinion, they do. None the less, if they are to command widespread respect and confidence, would it not be appropriate to table a substantive motion on the guidelines to ascertain the will of the House on that change in the law?

Ms Harman: It is not appropriate for the will of the House to be stated on that matter, because we have an independent prosecutorial system. It is for the Crown Prosecution Service, not the House, to decide who is to be prosecuted, on the basis of the evidence in each individual case. To assist the prosecutorial decision whether to bring a charge and whether the case passes the threshold for prosecution-sufficiency of evidence and whether it is in the public interest-there are guidelines, which the Director of Public Prosecutions and the CPS draw up, having engaged in the necessary consultation. The DPP and the CPS have done the consultation and are drawing up the guidelines, and a copy will no doubt be laid in the House of Commons Library. It is not for us to investigate crime or to decide whom to prosecute. It is for us to decide the law. We have decided the law, and the law has not changed.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Arising from that point, is it not the case that the DPP has been acting on instructions from the court, which has had a number of cases before it and has therefore decided that guidelines should be drawn up. Although I take a somewhat different position from the hon. Member for
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Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), would it not be useful to have a debate on the subject nevertheless? The last one was in Westminster Hall on 11 November 2008. In view of the controversy about assisted suicide, we should have a debate in the Chamber in the near future.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the DPP took the action to draw up the guidelines because he was instructed to do so by a judicial decision. There has been recent extensive debate in the House of Lords on the matter. It is some time since we debated the matter in this House. We have no plans to change the law, but it is open to hon. Members to seek opportunities to debate the matter further, either on the Adjournment in Westminster Hall or on Opposition days.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I am glad that the Leader of the House has urged people who care about whether our legislation is properly scrutinised to vote next Thursday for the amendment calling for the establishment of a House business committee, which would provide for such scrutiny. That, however, does not help us in respect of business that is before us now. What assurance can the Leader of the House give that all new clauses tabled to the Constitutional Renewal and Governance Bill will be debated next week, and would I be right to suspect-although she always says that we should not be suspicious-that the new clause that I have tabled to end discrimination against women in the royal succession, which I thought she supported, might not see the light of debate?

Ms Harman: We have said on a number of occasions that the ending of discrimination in the succession is being discussed with other Commonwealth countries. The Queen is, of course, not only the Head of State of this country, but Queen of the Commonwealth countries.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman discuss the timing of clauses and new proposals in relation to the remaining stages of the Constitutional Renewal and Governance Bill with the ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May we have an early debate on the failure of the regulators in the health service to pick up serious failings in hospitals? That has happened on a number of occasions in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, for instance. It is plain that the system is not sufficiently sensitive to detect problems. The statement was not enough; we now need a full debate.

Ms Harman: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, a statement was made about the matter on Wednesday, and the Prime Minister responded to questions about it during Prime Minister's Question Time. A great deal of action is being taken as a result of the lessons learned from the tragic Staffordshire hospital case. I add my sympathy to all who have suffered as a result of bad treatment at the hospital, and send my condolences to the families of those who have died as a result of bad treatment. It is hard enough to face a family tragedy, without feeling that it was unnecessary. Nothing can bring back the loved ones of all the people who have suffered so badly, but it may be of some comfort to them if they can be absolutely confident that lessons have really been learned so that this can never happen again.

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David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): The Leader of the House may be aware of a petition presented at No. 10 yesterday by myself and others, entitled "Homeopathy worked for me" and signed by 25,000 people. Given that, and given the controversial report published this week by the Select Committee on Science and Technology-which had failed to call as witnesses members of the Society of Homeopaths, doctors who practise homeopathy, and primary care trusts which commission it-may we have an urgent debate on the subject?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman might wish to raise the subject on the Adjournment.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): May I return the Leader of the House to the issue of the growing tensions in the south Atlantic? Surely it is not sufficient to depend on the vagaries of Foreign Office questions next week in order to hear what Ministers have to say. Will the Leader of the House think again, and agree that the Foreign Secretary should make a statement to the House? She knows as well as anyone else what can happen when a desperate leader who is likely to lose the next election-such as President Kirchner-can do in desperate circumstances.

Ms Harman: I shall leave aside the rather stupid ending to the right hon. Gentleman's question. The UK Government's position in relation to the Falklands has remained that of successive UK Governments, and I am sure that it will not change in the future. Our view is that the sovereignty of the Falklands is simply not an issue. How many times does that have to be said? The Foreign Secretary has made the position absolutely clear, and I cannot imagine that any further light would be shed on the matter if he made an oral or written statement. I shall look through the statements that have been made recently and send copies to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should not do anyone a disservice by implying that there will be some sort of change of approach, because there will not be.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Notwithstanding her earlier protestations, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on assisted dying? It is Parliament that writes laws, and it is for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the courts to interpret those laws. There is real concern out in the community that the House is not having a say about the change in the law. People are very concerned about the possibility that it represents a new back door to euthanasia in the United Kingdom.

Ms Harman: It is clearly our view that there has been no change in the law, and the Government have no proposals to introduce a change in the law. I will look into when the House last had an opportunity to debate the issue, and will consider, with my colleagues, whether there is an opportunity for a further debate on it. Even if such a debate takes place, however, I do not think that there will be any question of the Government's proposing legislation. We have new guidelines under an order of the court issued by the DPP, and I think that the position is clear. Nevertheless, the House may well wish to debate the issue, and I shall have another look at it.

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Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): May we have an urgent statement on the financial fiasco surrounding the Learning and Skills Council before it is wound up and replaced next month by the Skills Funding Agency? It is of great concern throughout the House-not least to the Leader of the House's Cabinet colleague, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and to me-that there is to be the first "hard" federation between Exeter college and Bicton college in my constituency. The LSC has been told that it will have to borrow £3 million and make a loan of £1 million, and it will withdraw its support for Bicton by the end of March unless that happens. May we have an urgent statement to clarify what is going on?

Ms Harman: I will ask the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to write the hon. Gentleman a letter about the issues involving the Learning and Skills Council in his constituency.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): May we have a debate on tertiary and sixth-form colleges? The Government recently cut the support grant for capital projects, which was roughly 15 per cent. That means that the colleges cannot reclaim VAT, and it is affecting capital programmes at all sixth-form and tertiary colleges throughout the United Kingdom. If the situation continues, the training of younger people will be stymied, because the colleges cannot spend the capital.

Ms Harman: I will ask the relevant Ministers to write to the hon. Gentleman. However, I could have looked into the matter and given him a substantive answer if he had given me a call or popped into the office to let me know that he was going to ask his question.

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