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Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): As my right hon. and learned Friend has mentioned, it is international women's day on Monday 8 March. Will she take that opportunity to make a statement about the tremendous support that Labour Governments have given since 1997 to women and hard-working families?
Ms Harman: I will accept that suggestion. I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of women in her constituency and this country. We should all remember that it is international women's day, and we currently have a very big opportunity to press forward the establishment of the new UN women's agency that will bring together the four parts of the UN that deal with women's issues so that we will have a single UN women's agency. That would be a great step forward this year.
Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): The Leader of the House still has not satisfactorily explained why she has cherry-picked from the recommendations of the Procedure Committee on the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Why are we being allowed to debate today only part of those recommendations, all of which appear on the Order Paper, with the remaining matters in the remaining orders? Why did she table all the recommendations, but move only half of them above the line cutting off matters for debate today? It seems to me that, by her actions, she has made an unanswerable case for a House business committee, so that never again can this sort of gerrymandering take place.
Ms Harman: I actually agree that there is an unanswerable case for a House business committee. That is why we have tabled a motion that will lead to the establishment of such a committee, and that is why I will vote for the amendment that would extend its remit to Government business. We have had the process for electing the Speaker, and I hope that we will move forward to agree a similar process for the election of Deputy Speakers.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): The Leader of the House has referred to next week's debate on the Transport Committee's report "Taxes and charges on road users". It is very important that a Treasury Minister as well as a Transport Minister is present to answer questions on that report, yet the Treasury has refused that request. Does she share my concern, and will she investigate this important matter?
Ms Harman: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's leadership of the Transport Committee, and to the very important work that it has undertaken. As far "Taxes and charges on road users" is concerned, I am sure that the Transport Minister will be fully co-ordinated with the Treasury when he or she comes to answer the debate next Wednesday and that they will be able to respond on behalf of the Government as a whole.
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady will understand the importance of certainty for the operation of financial markets but, in not responding to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the Budget date, she has created more uncertainty about how the Government will deal with our record deficit. With effectively only three weeks to the end of March, will she explain why she cannot tell us today when the Budget will take place?
Ms Harman: It is my responsibility to announce the business for next week, and the right hon. Gentleman will see that that does not include the Budget. He will just have to wait and see when it is announced in the usual way. Meanwhile, the important thing is that we get on with ensuring that we do not pull the plug on the economy, as would happen if his party were in government. We must continue to support the economy through public investment and active intervention, and by making sure that we do everything that we can to protect people, and particularly the younger generation, from unemployment.
Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): May we have a debate about companies that are deliberately and specifically set up as non-trading and loss-making, such as Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd? The debate could perhaps explore whether our tax regime allows such company losses to be used to offset other tax liabilities that might be due to the Exchequer.
Ms Harman: I will ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, or perhaps it should be the Business Secretary, to look into this. Obviously, we all want the maximum transparency, but that is clearly not the case with the issue that my hon. Friend raises.
Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Labour and the Tories have thrown allegations about peerages at each other, and the police have conducted their cash-for-peerages investigation in Parliament. Given all that, may we have a debate about when we will have the fully elected second Chamber that this House has voted for? At a stroke, it would end the allegations about both Lords Paul and Ashcroft, and allow fully democratic parties such as the Scottish Nationalist party to take part-if, of course, Scotland is not independent before then.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken forward proposals to ensure that we have an elected House of Lords. Indeed, this House has voted to change our constitutional arrangements and have an elected House of Lords. I agree with him on that.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate on matters that are before the Electoral Commission? There is concern that some issues of significant public interest-the activities of people such as Lord Ashcroft in trying to influence the general election, and the illegal use of foreign money to finance political parties-might not be reported on until after the general election. A debate would give us an opportunity to stress to the Electoral Commission that these matters are in the public interest and should be reported on before the general election.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): When will the Leader of the House allow the House to vote on the Procedure Committee's recommendation that the House must decide whether the Speaker is re-elected by secret ballot?
Ms Harman: The arrangements for the Speaker were changed recently, and I have brought forward motions to improve in a similar way the arrangements for getting the new Deputy Speakers. Those motions can be debated and voted on in the House this afternoon.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Can we have an early debate on the findings of Sir Roger Singleton when he finalises his report on the treatment of children in madrassahs and other religious, part-time schools?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask those questions at next week's Department for Children, Schools and Families Question Time. I pay tribute to her for the concern that she has shown for all the children in her constituency, including those who go to madrassahs.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I ask the Leader of the House whether we can have an early debate on the processes for re-electing Mr. Speaker? She will know that there are two motions, 69 and 74, in her name on today's Order Paper. One is in favour of the status quo, and the other is in favour of the secret ballot used for electing the Chairmen and members of Select Committees, and the Deputy Speakers. Why have we got two motions in the right hon. and learned Lady's name, and when will we be given the opportunity to speak and vote, and to determine the matter one way or another?
Ms Harman: The substantive motion on the Order Paper for debate and voting on this afternoon is about the election of Deputy Speakers. It will bring the arrangements into line with those that we have agreed for the election of the Speaker. We have already changed that process: indeed, our current Speaker was elected by a ballot of all hon. Members.
Mr. Richard Caborn (Sheffield, Central) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to make time available urgently next week to debate the Ashcroftgate affair? We are moving towards a general election, and allegations have been made that really need to be cleared up, as they go to the heart of our democracy. They also go to the heart of a political party that wants to become the Government after the election. It is an important matter, as I am now getting correspondence from constituents asking how a person can spend £120 million and still not pay taxes in this country.
Ms Harman: Once again, I will give consideration to the point that my right hon. Friend makes. There is clearly a desire in the House to understand what has gone on, and he is right to say that the affair affects both our democracy and public trust in it. On Sunday, the Leader of the Opposition said that he was in favour of transparency, but we discovered on Monday that we have had nine years of smokescreen and secrecy. On Sunday, he said that he was in favour of new politics, but on Monday we discovered that this was the same old sleaze from the Tories.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con):
The Leader of the House will share my concern at reports from service charities and in the press about the plight of ex-Gurkhas. Apparently, they are being offered spurious
money advice by unscrupulous organisations in Kathmandu, even though the same service is available free from the Gurkha Settlement Office. Can we have an urgent debate on the matter, and will she raise it urgently with her colleague the Defence Secretary?
Ms Harman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I will raise it with the Defence Secretary and with Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make sure that information is given to people so that they are not exploited.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In the last Session, I introduced a private Member's Bill on financial disclosure. It demands that anyone standing for election or placement in another place must provide full financial disclosure, including tax returns. Is that a Bill that the Government might like to introduce, as a matter of urgency, so that we can clean up the mess that we are in?
Ms Harman: Again, my hon. Friend raises a very important point, and the Government will have to reflect on it. The assumption has always been that people would play fair and by the rules, with everyone working to shore up confidence and trust in our democracy. I agree that we need to restore confidence: the background to the matter is our deep concern about the money-the tens of millions of pounds-that should have gone to pay taxes, but which has gone to the Conservative party instead.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): May we have a debate on the desirability or otherwise of positive discrimination in the workplace? During that debate perhaps the Leader of the House will explain why she is so in favour of all-women shortlists in every single constituency around the country, apart from when her husband is seeking selection, and whether she considers that to be sleaze.
Ms Harman: Even I am not in favour of 100 per cent. all-women shortlists, although when I see the hon. Gentleman it tempts me to think that I might be mistaken. Unlike the Conservative party, more than half our shortlists are all-women-more than half. With regard to the fewer than half of shortlists that are open shortlists, anyone can apply, both women and men. Indeed, women have been chosen from some of the open shortlists that we have had.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I was probably over-generous in allowing the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to ask that question, which did not obviously relate to the business of the House next week. There have been accusations and counter-accusations of sleaze. I really think that it would be for the benefit of the House and our reputation with the electorate if we were to move on from those matters.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab):
May we have an urgent debate next week on parliamentary language? The Clerks, one of whom I think was present, will confirm to you, Mr. Speaker, that 10 years ago, your predecessor but one accepted as parliamentary language my adumbration to Lord Sleaze of Belize. I will not use that again, but it is clear that we now have a
serious problem, because what I raised 10 years ago has turned out to be true, but now the real question is the dissembling and cover-up of leaders of the Conservative party, which deeply shame our democratic parliamentary proceedings.
Ms Harman: Once again, there is evident concern. There are questions to be answered that pertain to our democracy. They are not to be answered by the Government. The Select Committee investigation will be important, but I will think whether there is any way in which we can assist light being shed, because there are genuine concerns and fears.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Is the Leader of the House ashamed of herself for the dissembling way in which she has answered questions about the election of the Speaker following the return of Parliament? She has tabled motion 69 in her name, which is not yet available to be debated in the House. Can she assure the House that she will not withdraw-
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word "dissembling". I have a matter of seconds ago indicated to the House that we should have seemly exchanges. That word in this context is not seemly. I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it and to complete his question in parliamentary language. [ Interruption. ] Order. That is the request, and I expect it to be honoured.
Mr. Chope: I am saying to you, Mr. Speaker, that, obviously, if you say that the word "dissembling" is non-parliamentary, I will withdraw it, but it does not alter the substance of my question to the Leader of the House. She has put down motion 69 calling for the re-election of the Speaker at the beginning of the Parliament to be with a secret ballot. She is now saying that she has no proposals to debate that or to allow a vote on it. Is she now proposing to withdraw motion 69 from the Order Paper so that we are deprived of the opportunity of voting on the first report of the Procedure Committee? If not, what will she do about it.
Ms Harman: The motions on the Order Paper and the amendments to those motions that are for debate and decision this afternoon arise from the Wright report. If we can get on with agreeing not only the election of Deputy Speakers, but with the election of Chairs of Select Committees, the election of members of Select Committees and a new House Committee to decide Back-Bench and non-Government business, we will have done a good days' work.
Talking about unparliamentary language, I could hear somebody behind me-I think that it might have been my Parliamentary Private Secretary-saying "He's Chopeless." I wonder whether that is unparliamentary.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op):
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept from me that I would like a debate on Lord Paul? I have been a friend of his and an admirer of what he has done for British
business and manufacturing for many years. He has never sought control of the Labour party or influence in marginal seats. I would be happy to see a debate on a motion comparing Lord Paul with Lord Ashcroft, because I think that he would come out damned well.
Ms Harman: There is, of course, absolutely no comparison. As I understand it, Lord Ashcroft was a British citizen, who-I will be corrected if I am wrong-left the country for tax purposes, whereas Lord Paul is an industrialist from India who has genuinely global financial interests, who has never made any dissemblance about his tax status and who never gave any assurances. The point about Lord Ashcroft is that he gave assurances in order to get into the House of Lords and then breached those assurances.
Mr. Speaker: Order. We must not go further on these matters. There has been a request for a debate or a statement. That request has been answered. We move on now. I know that the House will want to hear Jo Swinson.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Leader of the House may have seen today's distressing reports on the BBC about the increased rate of birth defects in Falluja, which are now 13 times higher than what we see in Europe, and there is a concern that that is as a result of weapons used by the United States during the Iraq war. May we have a debate about this issue, so that we can hear from the Foreign Secretary what representations he is making to his US counterpart about this appalling legacy of the Iraq war?
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): In a further request to my right hon. and learned Friend about the need for a debate next week on the Ashcroft affair, may I suggest that if someone is not paying taxes and is giving money to the Tory party all over Britain, in essence the British taxpayer is bankrolling the Conservative party? Secondly, will she ensure that the Leader of the Tory party and the shadow Foreign Secretary are asked the appropriate questions: what did they know and when did they know it?
Mr. Speaker: Order. I must ask the Leader of the House not to respond to that question. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has put his thoughts clearly on the record, but I am afraid that it is not a business question.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My Macclesfield constituency has a substantial rural area, including hill country. May I support the request made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for a debate on the rural economy and the report of the Rural Advocate? Rural areas are suffering tremendously from the closure of shops and schools, very little public transport and the withdrawal of post office facilities, and this is critical to large areas of the country. May we have a debate on it, please?
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