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Joint Venture Property Investments

18. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What recent guidance the Law Officers' Departments have issued to Government Departments on the legal rights of local authorities undertaking joint venture property investments. [321523]

The Solicitor-General: By long-standing convention observed by successive Administrations and embodied in the ministerial code, the fact that the Law Officers have or have not advised on a particular issue and the content of any advice are not disclosed outside Government.

Mr. Pelling: I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for that answer, because it gives me the opportunity to highlight what might be appropriate practice for supporting local authorities that get involved in joint ventures on the basis of property speculation, as Croydon is doing. I appreciate that the economics might be a matter for another Department, but would she think it appropriate to give local authorities good guidance on their legal exposure when they get involved with special purpose vehicles and joint ventures with property companies and the private equity business?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to inform me of the nature of his concern the other night. His council has not sought Government funding, or any approval or consents, for the special purpose vehicle that is the cause of his concern. The Government do not therefore have any relationship or involvement with the council in that regard. He is right, however, to suggest that if the council sought funding,
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consent or associated approval in the future, the Government would consider the nature of the venture with great care.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. We now come to questions to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), representing the House of Commons Commission, and to the Leader of the House. Unfortunately, I note that the hon. Member for North Devon is not here. [Interruption.] Ah, the hon. Gentleman has arrived-and his arrival is most welcome. I call Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Mr. Speaker, this important issue has not suddenly-

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman is getting a little ahead of himself, and a bit confused. "Question 19" will suffice at this stage.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked-

Day Nursery

19. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): What recent progress has been made on the establishment of a day nursery in the House. [321524]

Nick Harvey (North Devon): My apologies, Mr. Speaker, as I think I may have caused the confusion.

Following the Commission's decision to establish a nursery, a project board has been established and good progress is being made on drawing up the specifications.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Apologies for that slight slip, Mr. Speaker.

This important issue has not suddenly arisen before the House. I believe that the process so far has been unacceptable and undemocratic. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that £400,000 has recently been spent on refurbishing Bellamy's bar, and that this proposal will cost an additional £400,000? Will he confirm whether that has been included in the House budget estimates for this financial year? Will he confirm whether the Finance and Services Committee-

Mr. Speaker: Order. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. At Question Time, a Member asks one question, with a modest preamble, which the hon. Gentleman has already had. He has asked his question; he must now listen to the answer.

Nick Harvey: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The recent refurbishment in Bellamy's involves a significant amount of work and furnishing that can be reused-certainly about a third of the cost can be used directly. The hon. Gentleman says that this has come about swiftly, but I would point out that there have been constant surveys of the need for child care provision here, and the decision has been taken to move swiftly with this project
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so that the option is available to new Members as early as possible in the new Parliament to take up this facility if they need it.

Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): It is often said that when we come into this place we do things for our grandchildren rather than for our children, because it takes so long to get anything done. The important thing, I say to the hon. Gentleman, is that we treat the House of Commons as the workplace of parliamentary democracy. Workplace nurseries are important. Will the hon. Gentleman give me an assurance that, after my 22 years in this place, there might be at least some prospect now of having a workplace nursery for my grandchildren, and those of other Members.

Nick Harvey: I hope that it will be available a great deal sooner than that. The project is making good progress. The detailed specification is being worked through at the moment. There are some difficulties, because of the nature of the building, but much work has gone into looking at the feasibility, and we intend the project to continue to make progress and to be ready by the end of August.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I entirely share the perception of the need for such a day nursery, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the House of Commons should establish any such facility on an exemplary basis. Given that, as on this particular occasion, a nursery cannot comply with statutory guidance to providers, I hope he will search urgently for an alternative site-one that would comply with that guidance.

Nick Harvey: There will be no question whatever of progressing with any project that does not meet all the statutory norms. We are progressing the project in consultation with experts and providers, and there is no question whatever of cutting corners and not meeting proper standards.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): May I urge the hon. Gentleman not to be swayed by the anachronistic and vociferous views of a minority of MPs? There are plenty of places to get a beer in this place, but there is nowhere for our hard-working staff to drop off their kids.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation that this project fulfils a very real and serious need. Colleagues who have had to find facilities for their children at short notice will be better served by knowing that there is such a facility on site, and being run professionally.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked-

Parliamentary Questions

20. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues to ensure the completeness and timeliness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. [321525]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter in the House on previous occasions-for instance, in points of order on 9 and 23 February-and that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) raised it in a point of order on Tuesday. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I take any concerns felt by Members about this very seriously, and we have held meetings and written to Ministers about their performance in answering parliamentary questions.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for taking the matter seriously, but I am afraid that her colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions apparently do not. However, she will be pleased to learn-as, I am sure, will you, Mr. Speaker-that some progress has been made since I raised my point of order: only 19 of my questions are now outstanding, although eight have been outstanding for more than a month. At least the Department has answered my question about how many named day written questions it does answer on time-and I am sorry to say that for the last three years it has been the pitifully low proportion of 30 per cent. The position has not got worse, which is something, but it has not got any better either. In the few remaining weeks of the current Parliament, what efforts will the Deputy Leader of the House-and, indeed, the Leader of the House-make to persuade the Department to take its responsibilities to the House seriously?

Barbara Keeley: As the hon. Gentleman says, we have taken specific action in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions. The previous Deputy Leader of the House wrote to the Department and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I met a Minister and officials to discuss their performance. My office recently spoke to officials again. The Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and both she and I spoke to the Secretary of State yesterday.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I can tell my hon. Friend that many of us are given a very good service by most Departments, but I have one caveat: when the Cabinet Minister representing a Department is in another place, I find that I receive much slower service from the Department concerned.

Barbara Keeley: We have accepted recommendations from the Procedure Committee, and new procedures will operate in the new Parliament. There will be regular monitoring of late answering of questions, and further work will be done on challenging unsatisfactory answers. Better guidance on answering questions has already been provided for Ministers and officials, and the Prime Minister recently wrote to Cabinet colleagues reminding them of the need to answer questions both fully and in a timely manner.

Back-Bench Business Committee

21. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): What discussions she has had with hon. Members on the means of implementing the House's decision to establish a Back-Bench business committee in time for the start of the next Parliament. [321526]

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Barbara Keeley: The Leader of the House will table a motion to give effect to the resolutions of the House that were agreed following the recent debate on House of Commons reform.

Dr. Harris: I think the whole House is pleased to hear that, and we should acknowledge that, but it is only half the answer to my question, which involves whether the "Wright" Standing Order will be brought forward. I hope the Deputy Leader of the House accepts that the most appropriate procedure would be to consult the Wright Committee members whose amendment, essentially, was carried last Thursday, to ensure that the detailed Wright Standing Order, and also motion 62 in the Remaining Orders and Notices-and the Standing Order tabled, too-are submitted to the House for decision. Can the hon. Lady tell us when that is likely to happen?

Barbara Keeley: The Leader of the House has to consider the motions that are required to give effect to resolutions of the House. Having looked at the motion tabled by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, I note that some of it differs both from the recommendations in the Committee's report and from our debates. Because there are some departures, further consideration will be necessary. However, hon. Members can rest assured that there will be motions giving effect to the resolutions of the House, as the Leader of the House told the hon. Gentleman yesterday. We ought now to be pleased with the progress that we are making.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): May I reinforce the importance of this matter, and may I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to specify the respects in which the Wright Committee's proposals do not match what was voted for by the House? If we are to implement what was recommended by the Wright Committee and voted for by the House, a good starting point will surely be the Wright Committee's own idea of how Standing Orders should be used to give effect to the House's decision.

Barbara Keeley: The starting point is that some good steps were clearly taken, given that the resolutions were passed overwhelmingly. It is good that we know the will of the House. I can specify one of the details for which the hon. Gentleman has asked. Moving the power that currently resides with the Liaison Committee to the new Back-Bench business committee was not discussed during the debate. There are other differences between the resolutions that we agreed in the House last week and the detail of the motion, but the matter is being considered.

Parliamentary Questions

22. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If she will bring forward proposals to provide that hon. Members may only table one question for oral answer to each Government department at each Question Time. [321527]

Barbara Keeley: As I said to the hon. Gentleman in January, the Modernisation Committee concluded that Members should not have to choose between tabling the two types of question. It is for the hon. Gentleman
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to make representations to the Procedure Committee if he wants to change the way in which topical questions are processed.

Mr. Hollobone: Everybody would agree that topical questions are a very good thing, but one of the unintended consequences is that some Members get to ask a Department two questions on one day, while others get no chance at all.

Barbara Keeley: I am in danger of repeating the last answer that I gave on this subject. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but in implementing topical questions, we have not forced a Member to choose between asking a substantive question and asking a topical question. A Member may have a reason for wanting to do both in one sitting. As the hon. Gentleman has said, topical questions are a successful innovation.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is all very well for questions to be asked and answered, but the Deputy Leader will recall that on 26 November last year during Business questions, she was refreshingly candid in saying that a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions had been rebuked for not answering questions properly-or, rather, was questioned about his accuracy. I note that the Leader of the House has written to the Secretary of State for Work and Questions, but will the Deputy Leader consider publishing a regular list of all offending Ministers with whom there have been meetings, or to whom the Secretary of State has written?

Barbara Keeley: I am not sure that that is necessarily appropriate. We have accepted the Procedure Committee's recommendations, and in the new Parliament there will be regular monitoring of the number of questions answered later than the conventional answering period of five days. There will also be the possibility that the Procedure Committee can challenge any answers that are considered unsatisfactory. With those two measures, we are feeling our way towards finding improvements. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, are very concerned that we should start to get this right. There has been a great deal of action, and to some extent, we will have to wait and see whether it proves to have been good action.

Mr. Vara: I am afraid that that simply will not do. The Deputy Leader of the House is on record on numerous occasions as having spoken about openness and transparency, but when she has an opportunity actually to do something about it, she fudges the issue. What is the problem with naming and shaming errant Ministers?

Barbara Keeley: I need to make it clear that I am always happy, as is the Leader of the House, to make representations to any Department on any situation that Members want to raise-and I shall leave it there. I have in the past been clear and candid about where steps have been taken. We are talking about working through issues with one Department, and the matter has been addressed.

Report Stage of Legislation

23. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If she will bring forward proposals for the amendment of Standing Orders to prevent programme motions applying to the Report stage of legislation. [321528]

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Barbara Keeley: The House has recently agreed to new procedures for managing its own business, including establishing a House business committee in the next Parliament. That Committee would make decisions about scheduling business, including the Report stage of Bills. I know that the hon. Gentleman will not be here to see the new Committee operate, but I am sure that he is pleased, as we are, with our progress on Commons reform.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does not the Deputy Leader think it, both constitutionally and democratically, utterly wrong and unacceptable that a Bill should go to the other place with new clauses and Government and Opposition amendments undebated in this place? Members whose constituencies might be affected by the Bill have no opportunity whatever to participate in the debate.

Barbara Keeley: I have answered questions on this matter time and again. Programming does not always work perfectly, but it does serve to provide great certainty in timetabling the different stages of a Bill; it is, for instance, very helpful in timetabling Public Bill Committees. We must see these changes in the context of the other steps forward that we have taken in improving scrutiny, especially pre-legislative scrutiny and the introduction of evidence taking. Therefore, there are now many more opportunities for the scrutiny of Bills than previously.

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