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18 Mar 2010 : Column 976

As for the British Airways dispute, we have just had Transport questions, and the right hon. Gentleman will have heard the Minister of State, Department for Transport talking about it. I am not aware of anybody asking the Transport Minister about ministerial air travel, but obviously he is the person to whom that question should have been put. We hope that there will be a settlement of the dispute, for the sake of those seeking to travel on British Airways and those who work in the company.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, add my tributes to Ashok Kumar, who will indeed be missed by the House.

I am not sure that the Leader of the House can quite so easily shrug aside the accusation from the NAO that £780 million has been wasted-not invested, but wasted-on fiddling around with Departments and public bodies, mainly through what amounts to a refined form of vanity publishing, so I hope that we will return to that issue.

Let me ask the Leader of the House about the Standing Order changes. She has complained several times over recent weeks that a cloud of suspicion hangs over her whenever she talks about the issue, but she has not allayed that suspicion by providing us with the text of the Standing Order changes. She has not put her name to the suggestions of the Wright Committee, and no time has been set aside to debate the motion. She may assume that it will go through on the nod, but I think that some anonymous Member will say "Object". The House rose early last Thursday, on Monday and on Wednesday, and I suspect that it will do so again today. It is not difficult to find an hour and a half. Why are we waiting?

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to Friday 26 March? Some excellent private Members' Bills have been tabled for that day: the Water Tariffs Bill, the School Admissions Bill, the Live Music Bill [ Lords], the Contaminated Blood (Support for Infected and Bereaved Persons) Bill [ Lords], and the Council Tax Benefit (Change of Name) Bill. Not one of those excellent measures will be debated, however, because the House will not be sitting on Friday 26 March. Does the Leader of the House now regret that she did not provide more time for private Members' Bills?

I consider two private Members' Bills to be particularly important. One is the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), which deals with "vulture funds". Surely, given that the House is almost united in its support for that Bill, the Government have a duty to find time for it to be debated, and not to allow it to be derailed by the anonymous hon. Member for Christchurch. The other Bill is the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill, tabled by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). That too is an excellent Bill, and the House wants it to be passed. Will the Leader of the House find time for that to happen? Will she also tell us when the Digital Economy Bill will finally be given a Second Reading?

Finally, may I return to the subject of the Prime Minister's "almost apology" yesterday? He admitted that he was wrong, but he could not quite bring himself to apologise to the House for having been wrong. Perhaps an innovation could be introduced in the new Parliament: perhaps, as well as Prime Minister's questions, we could
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have "Prime Minister's errors and omissions". It would be quite a long session, but it would enable the Prime Minister to apologise for those errors and omissions. In a spirit of equity-to make it absolutely fair-an equal amount of time could perhaps be allotted to the Leader of the Opposition, so that he can apologise for his errors and omissions as well.

Ms Harman: Once again, the hon. Gentleman has sought to generate a cloud of suspicion over the progress of the Wright Committee proposals. Let me remind him, by way of reassurance, that when my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) suggested that a Committee on Reform of the House of Commons be established, I immediately took up the offer and the Prime Minister immediately backed the proposal. I presented the motion to the House, so that it could approve the establishment of the Committee, and it was set up with the House's approval. It then reported, and I gave the House an opportunity to make substantive decisions on its proposals. On each occasion it has been suggested that the next step will not be taken and that process will be obstructed, but it has not been obstructed. Indeed, progress has been made, and we are approaching the final step.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that when we present the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, hon. Members might block them. I hope and expect that that will not happen, because the House has resolved the matter, and it would not be right for hon. Members who do not agree with the resolutions of the House and who lost the vote to seek to obstruct the will of the House by objecting to the Standing Orders that would give effect to them. If they do that, however, we shall have plan B.

The hon. Gentleman can be reassured that it is my responsibility to ensure that the will of the House is given effect. Having resolved those issues, the House will have an opportunity to approve the Standing Orders that give effect to its resolutions. The hon. Gentleman clearly has "trust issues"-he finds it hard to trust people; it must be something to do with his personal background. However, I say to him, "Rest assured, it actually will happen."

As for private Members' Bills, I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill. The Government strongly support the Bill. It would limit the activities of what are described as "vulture funds", which seek to profit unfairly from the defaulted debts of heavily indebted poor countries. There is a great deal of support for the Bill throughout the House. We were led to believe that the Opposition would support it as well, so it was extremely disappointing that they objected to it on Third Reading. That was particularly concerning, because it appears that it was objected to by the Chair of the Public Bill Committee that had considered it; by convention, he would have been expected to have remained neutral. I am very concerned about that. This private Member's Bill has the strong support of the Government, and if it has the support of the Opposition it will make progress.

Points were also made about the Sustainable Communities Bill, which would amend the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. The Government strongly support
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that Bill as well, and, again, there is a great deal of support for it across the House. If the Opposition cease their opposition to it, as a private Member's Bill it can make progress. The question therefore is: will the Opposition let these important measures go through? They have to go through not only this House, but the other House. This is a question of Opposition support.

Finally, on the Digital Economy Bill, I will announce further business in due course.

Mr. Speaker: Order. At least 27 Members are seeking to catch my eye. As usual, I would like to accommodate everybody, but in order to have a chance of doing so, brief questions and brief answers are required.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend be more precise in respect of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill? As she knows, it was introduced by two Labour Members and has very broad support in the country, and senior Treasury Ministers have told me that they are willing to adopt it as a Government Bill. That being so, will my right hon. and learned Friend make it a Government Bill and introduce it next week, following precedents such as those set when Richard Crossman was Leader of the House, in order to make sure that, despite the wrecking tactics of the Tory Member about whom we have heard, the Bill can get to the House of Lords and become law before the Dissolution of this Parliament?

Ms Harman: I welcome my right hon. Friend's strong support for the Bill. The position is as follows: if the Opposition agree to support its making further progress, it will be able to do so not only in this House, but in the House of Lords. It is down to the Opposition; they are on the spot on this, and they should be prepared to support the Bill.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Given that the Prime Minister has admitted that he misled the country over defence spending and has been accused by defence chiefs of being disingenuous, will the Leader of the House at least consider having a debate on the Prime Minister's honesty and financial competence?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister answered questions on this at Prime Minister's questions yesterday.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): Will my right hon. and learned Friend try to find time for a debate on the announcement earlier this month by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families of a £30 billion capital investment programme in our schools? That would give me an opportunity to discuss the £430 million invested in secondary schools in Knowsley, the £44 million that is going into primary schools, and Sefton council's ambitious programme for investment in schools. Also, can my right hon. and learned Friend envisage any circumstances in which those sums might be put in jeopardy?

Ms Harman: That is important investment in each and every child's education and future opportunities. It is important for the economy of this country, too. Now that the economy is beginning to recover and unemployment is beginning to come down, the last thing that we
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should do is jeopardise the recovery by pulling support away from the economy. I assure my right hon. Friend that this investment in education will go ahead, and that we will continue to support the economy and education.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As the Remembrance Sunday (Closure of Shops) Bill had widespread support both in the House and the country, and as the right hon. and learned Lady's office kindly informed me that a money resolution would be tabled after Second Reading, why did a Government Whip prevent it from having a Second Reading last Friday?

Ms Harman: I will look into that and get back to the hon. Gentleman. If he had given me advance notice of his question, I might have been able to be more forthcoming, but I will let him know by the end of today.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): The Warm Front programme has benefited thousands of my constituents, but unfortunately my office is spending more and more time trying to resolve disputes between Eaga and its subcontractors. One constituent of mine, Mr. Anthony Coote, has not been able to live in his house at all for many months now. Another constituent, Ken Watton, came out of hospital recently; he is 84 years of age, and he is living in appalling conditions. Please can we have a debate so that we can find out whether my office is unusual in this respect or whether other Members' constituents are suffering as well?

Ms Harman: I will bring this to the attention of Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers. I am sure they will want to be certain that the very important Warm Front programme is being carried out effectively and efficiently.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Given that the Government are cutting university budgets, may we have an urgent debate on foreign funding of British universities? How confident is the Leader of the House that the backers who are behind this foreign investment are not promoting anti-Britishness and anti-western views?

Ms Harman: We have ensured that over the period we have been in government there has been a 25 per cent. real-terms increase in investment in universities and higher education, which has resulted in 24 per cent. more students. I have certainly seen that in my own constituency, where there has been a big increase in the number of young people going into further and higher education. I will look into the hon. Gentleman's specific point and respond to him on it, but so far as foreign money is concerned, we and the Public Administration Committee still need some answers about Lord Ashcroft's donation to the Conservative party, because he has managed to avoid, according to the Liberal Democrats' estimate, more than £100 million in tax. That should be going into the public purse, not into the Tory party coffers.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): I want to reassure my right hon. and learned Friend that I do not have any trust issues with her. However, I remain concerned about the Digital Economy Bill, and in particular the complex technical measures on copyright
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reform. If the House were asked to consider this in the wash-up, the law of unintended consequences might kick in. I know that all three Front Benchers are in favour of these measures, but may I just gently warn them all that it would be very electorally unpopular if we were to go down this route?

Ms Harman: I know that my hon. Friend is a great expert on these matters and understands how important this Bill is for the future. We obviously need to make sure it has proper scrutiny before it passes into legislation, and I shall make a further business statement when the House returns after the recess.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): May we have a debate on the detention of asylum seekers, with particular reference to the Dungavel detention centre? I and many other people are concerned about the atmosphere among detainees there, and especially about the removal last Friday of the Baptist pastor from Guinea, Seth Ganley, after he was deemed to have led peaceful protests about the conditions in Dungavel.

Ms Harman: I will raise those points with the relevant Minister.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): The Leader of the House has referred to the shadow Foreign Secretary's refusal to appear before a Select Committee despite being prepared to answer questions on BBC radio. Does she agree that we need to have an urgent debate about the powers of Select Committees to summon Members before them to answer legitimate questions-particularly questions about their knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the appointment of a Member of the House of Lords? Does she also agree that it is a gross discourtesy to this House for a Member to fail to appear before a Select Committee?

Ms Harman: I think that my hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I also believe that Select Committees should not need a power to compel Members of this House to appear before them. Select Committees are Committees of this House, and all Members of this House ought to be prepared to comply with their requests. A flagrant contempt for the Select Committee in question has been shown, and there can be only one explanation for that: the shadow Foreign Secretary is afraid to answer questions about when he knew Lord Ashcroft was not paying tens of millions of pounds in tax despite the fact that he was paying millions of pounds to the Conservative party. There is a connection between these two things. The shadow Foreign Secretary is not prepared to appear before a Select Committee of this House because he is not prepared to acknowledge that he knew that Lord Ashcroft was a non-dom but kept quiet because he wanted to carry on taking the money.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The question has been asked and the point has been made very strongly, but I do think that we should not have any further focus on what really is a criticism of a Member of the House who is not present today, in relation to a matter about which I do not think a business question has been asked.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The Prime Minister made it clear at the Chilcot inquiry that the military had got all that it wanted and that defence expenditure had risen in real terms year on year. Given that we now know that not to be true and that there were cuts, with
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troops suffering as a result, particularly from a lack of helicopters, will the Leader of the House make time for a statement from the Prime Minister to this House so that he can apologise and explain his actions? That is the least we can do for our troops in theatre.

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister answered this point at Prime Minister's questions yesterday.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. and learned Friend try to squeeze in a debate in the next few days on how monopolistic supermarkets squeeze the life out of communities? Could we not have a 5 per cent. tax on supermarkets, with the money dedicated to investment in social enterprise, the third sector and charities in the locality? In that way, something would be given back by these companies that suck the life out of communities.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend raises an important point, which relates to town centres, monopolies, corporate responsibility and the corporate citizenship of the supermarkets. I shall bring his point to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Prime Minister's main effort in the substantial preparation that he put in for his evidence to the Chilcot inquiry was to maintain that defence expenditure had increased every year, notwithstanding the evidence that had already been given to that committee. We now know that defence expenditure was cut when the nation was fighting two wars. Does the Leader of the House really not think that to be worth more than just a mention at Prime Minister's questions or in the Budget debate? Does she really think that we should not have a statement from the Prime Minister on this very important matter?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister appeared before the Chilcot inquiry and he added to what he had said at that inquiry at this Dispatch Box yesterday. That contrasts strongly with the approach of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is prepared to answer questions on the radio but is not prepared to answer the questions of a Select Committee of this House. When it comes to accountability-

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I just say to the Leader of the House that I know that this matter has already been covered, but what we cannot have is the situation in which continuing reference is made to a Member of the House who is not present, and in particular -[Interruption.] Order. Allow me to deal with the matter. That is particularly so when a question on that matter is not being asked. One question had been asked on that matter, but my understanding is that there is not currently a question being asked on it, and therefore it is not appropriate for there to be answers on that subject.

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