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22 Mar 2010 : Column 35

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister today sought the Cabinet Secretary's assurance that Departments had looked into the claims. Inquiries had already been made, as they would following any such serious allegations. As soon as such an issue is raised, the relevant Departments will immediately look into them. The relevant permanent secretaries at the Department of Health, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and Department for Transport have assured the Cabinet Secretary that they are satisfied that there has been no improper influence on Government policy or decisions. That is their assurance, which they are setting out in public statements later today. That is the information that the Prime Minister sought.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Given that the apparent defence of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) to these very serious allegations is that he is a liar, does the right hon. and learned Lady regard him as a fit and proper person for elevation to the House of Lords, which presumably is what he is looking for, come the next election?

Ms Harman: The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards will be investigating the conduct of the right hon. Member for North Tyneside. It is not for me to pronounce on that. It is a matter for the commissioner, as far as the House is concerned.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Did Lord Adonis inform the permanent secretary as soon as he had been approached by the right hon. Member for North Tyneside, who was representing the interests of National Express? Is not the real problem that we are relying entirely on a Minister's word that the ministerial code has been complied with? Who enforces the ministerial code? Is it not Ministers themselves and the Prime Minister? Is there not a case for putting the ministerial code for Ministers and former Ministers on to a statutory footing?

Ms Harman: The Secretary of State for Transport has answered questions on precisely that issue in the House of Lords today. The hon. Gentleman will know that the foremost responsibility of a Minister is to Parliament. Ministers are bound not to mislead Parliament. The Secretary of State for Transport has answered questions at the Dispatch Box. He told the House of Lords that he has acted with total propriety at all times. He has given that absolute assurance to the House of Lords, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will accept that.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): In her statement the Leader of the House said that partially to avoid "any inappropriate or undue influence . . . details of Ministers' meetings with outside interest groups and individuals" are published. Given that we are told, and we see on the television, that Charlie Whelan has regular access to 10 Downing street and is alleged to have a desk in 10 Downing street, can the Leader of the House assure us that any meeting between the Prime Minister and Charlie Whelan is published?

Ms Harman: I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the situation in relation to the Prime Minister's diary. I know that if Ministers meet representatives of organisations, those meetings are reportable on a quarterly basis.

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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. and learned Lady will know that I am a practising barrister. I have always declared that and, as such, I have always defended the right of hon. Members to have declared external interests. I make no comment about the three Members referred to in The Sunday Times article because I have no special knowledge at all, but what surely would be wrong and very difficult to justify would be for an hon. Member to use their position as a Member of Parliament to perform parliamentary functions in return for a specific payment. What would be quite impossible to justify would be doing that without declaring the fact. Is that not where the evil lies?

Ms Harman: I think that that would count as paid advocacy. No one can be paid for taking a particular action in this House, whether it is making a speech or tabling a question. We outlawed paid advocacy, but I agree that, notwithstanding what my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said, the public distinguish between people who pursue what was their profession before they entered the House, perhaps as a doctor or even as a lawyer, and people who take on commercial interests once they have entered the House. That is the big dividing line about which the public are concerned. Notwithstanding that, it is important that all payments are revealed, including payments to those who sit as judges on the bench and those who act as lawyers.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I reiterate to my right hon. and learned Friend that the overwhelming majority of constituents and, I think, Members here believe that being a Member is a seven-day-a-week job, 52 weeks a year? There is simply no room for other employment, and it should be outlawed. Will she look at the attendance of some of our colleagues who are subject to criticism? They do not turn up to vote-some of them, I forget what they look like. I believe that we should work right up until the final whistle blows on 9 August, or whenever it is, and until we reach that stage everyone should be here every day.

Ms Harman: For those hon. Members who are standing for re-election, it is their constituents who will decide what is appropriate based on what they have done; it is their constituents who will judge their record of attendance and what they have said while they have been here; and it is their constituents, too, who will judge the work that they have done in their constituencies, because hon. Members work not only in this House, but in their constituencies. Ultimately, the electors will have the final say, and rightly so.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): A few years ago a lobbyist offered me a sum of money to make a speech in support of redundancies at the National Blood Service, which I found very strange, but because the speech would have taken place outside, not inside, the House, I could not get the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to intervene. In reviewing the rules, could we ensure that MPs are able to report lobbyists who ask for improper actions outside, as well as inside, the House?

Ms Harman: I think that any money that is paid to Members for what they do inside or, indeed, outside the House-every single pound that is paid in that respect-has got to be registered so that the public can see and the voters can make their judgment.

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Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Can the Leader of the House inform hon. Members whether the Prime Minister spoke to the Transport Secretary before ruling out an inquiry into all those shady dealings?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister sought assurances and received those assurances, but, obviously, permanent secretaries and the Cabinet Secretary would keep all those things under consideration. However, the Prime Minister sought the assurances and received them.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): This is another low ebb for the House-as bad as cash for questions and 1997. Does the Leader of the House think that it is perhaps time for more Independents in this House?

Ms Harman: No, but I do think that it is time for the tough rules that we have to be swiftly and effectively enforced.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Leader of the House has been very precise in her choice of words. She said that the civil servants advised that there had been no improper influence. By inference, there was influence, therefore, and it was proper, so will she tell the House the extent of that influence?

Ms Harman: It is an unusual accusation-that I have been precise in the imprecision of my words. I have simply tried to assure hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman. People would be rightly very troubled if they thought, and were right in their fear, that massive and important decisions such as those on food labelling and the distribution of franchises for rail operators were made because a Minister listened to a former colleague who was being paid. The public would be rightly horrified-we all would be-and I want to assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that that was not the basis on which those decisions were taken. If there is a question of wrongdoing by those other than Ministers, such as those who are being investigated, that is not a matter for me. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that there was no impropriety or undue influence when those very big and important decisions were taken.

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Points of Order

4.20 pm

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance and advice? My understanding is that when a Department seeks to group questions together at Question Time, it is a common practice and courtesy that hon. Members whose questions are going to be grouped together are notified in advance by the Department that that is going to happen. I have spoken to a number of my colleagues who had their questions grouped at today's Home Office questions, and they all tell me that none of them had been notified in advance. I certainly know that a few weeks ago I had a question grouped and the first time I knew about it was when I saw it on the monitor rather than from any notification to my office. Can you confirm that Departments should still be continuing the practice whereby they notify hon. Members, and could you use your offices to ensure that they return to the courtesy that we always expected from them?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. His understanding of the custom and practice is entirely correct, and that custom and practice should continue. It most certainly should have applied on today's occasion and, indeed, on all others. It is helpful that the Leader of the House is present when I am answering the hon. Gentleman's point of order, and she may wish to respond. She is not obliged to do so, but she may wish to do so. I can say only that I regard it as a fundamental courtesy that when a grouping is proposed the ministerial team should notify Members affected in advance and without fail. Does the Leader of the House wish to comment?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman) indicated dissent.

Mr. Speaker: Okay. However, I have made the position very clear and those on the Treasury Bench have heard it.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to seek your guidance having already given you prior notice in writing. On 15 March, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Malik), issued an answer to this written parliamentary question from me:

The Minister's reply was as follows:

That gave a clear impression that the London fire control centre was still on course to be operational by September 2011. As we know, Mr. Speaker, the Olympics run from July to September 2011. [ Interruption. ] In 2012-I beg your pardon. However, I have subsequently discovered that on 9 March the Minister wrote to the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority to say:

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The ministerial code states that

and that Ministers should

In this context, the Minister's reply represents a significant and inadvertent misleading omission in failing to indicate that he was preparing to delay the project. I therefore ask what guidance you can give so that we can bring the Minister to the Dispatch Box to make a full statement to the House.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for giving me advance notice of it. It is not, of course, for me to adjudicate on the accuracy of answers. It is open to the Minister to issue a correction if his answer was erroneous. Otherwise, the hon. Gentleman may seek advice from the Table Office about ways of pursuing this matter.

22 Mar 2010 : Column 40

Justice and Northern Ireland

Mr. Speaker: Order. Before I call the Secretary of State to move the first motion, I understand that it may be for the convenience of the House if the three instruments are debated together.

4.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I beg to move,

Mr. Speaker: With this we shall discuss the following motions on Northern Ireland:

Mr. Woodward: Today's business will enable the completion of devolution in Northern Ireland through the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont. The three orders before the House will give effect to the historic vote at Stormont on 9 March. The vast majority of the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to request the transfer of those powers, which was hoped for from the time of the Belfast agreement and envisaged in the St. Andrews agreement. An agreement on a timetable was reached at Hillsborough castle earlier this year.

The completion of devolution will see the arrangements for sharing power fully realised on 12 April. It will ensure that local politicians in Northern Ireland can take responsibility for decisions that should and can be taken in Northern Ireland. Today we complete our responsibilities for the peace process and complete the political process for which we have responsibility, and we enable the Assembly at Stormont to complete its arrangements for full devolution.

I am grateful to all those who have enabled us to reach this crucial moment in the history of Northern Ireland. I thank the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and all the Assembly party leaders in Northern Ireland, even if agreement was not quite unanimous last week. That Northern Ireland can today live with its disagreements and ensure that division is contained within democratic institutions sends a signal of how the political process and the peace process have transformed Northern Ireland. Today in Northern Ireland we can disagree, but we can be certain that politics will be the only way forward to reconcile disagreements. Today's Northern Ireland has demonstrated that politics has come of age, and when the will of a cross-community majority is respected, we know that we have succeeded.

We could not have made such progress without the political will of right hon. and hon. Members of all parties and the Members of another place. Cross-party support has been essential, and that has been true for many years. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Irish and American Governments for their respective roles in helping to reach political agreement. I am sure the House will want to place on record its thanks especially to Secretary of State Clinton and the United
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States economic envoy for all that they have done, and continue to do, to bring the dividends of political agreement to people in every community in Northern Ireland.

The three orders before us give effect to the devolution of policing and justice matters in Northern Ireland, in line with the framework set out in Acts of Parliament since the Good Friday agreement. They reflect the Hillsborough castle agreement and the request of the Assembly for the devolution of policing and justice responsibilities approved in its cross-community vote of 9 March.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 3) Order 2010 is the key document. It provides for policing and justice matters, which until now have been reserved, to be transferred so that the Assembly can legislate on them without having to seek consent. The matters being transferred reflect the Assembly's request of 9 March. Some matters, such as national security, will remain excepted; some will remain reserved, one of which is parading. The Hillsborough castle agreement, however, envisages that responsibility for parading will transfer after a cross-community vote, once the proposed new and improved framework has been agreed and finalised.

Also reserved is the special provision for 50:50 recruitment to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We are confident that we shall reach our target of 30 per cent. Catholic composition by March of next year, and we are committed to returning to Parliament and ending the provision at whatever point in the year it becomes clear that we will reach that target. National security remains excepted under the order. It remains just that-national security-and it will remain the responsibility of UK Ministers, accountable to this House.

The second order, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Devolution of Policing and Justice Functions) Order 2010, makes a large number of amendments consequential on the changes in legislative competence. They largely involve the transfer to Northern Ireland authorities of executive functions, reflecting the transfer in legislative responsibility. The main recipient of those functions is the new Northern Ireland Department of Justice, which the Assembly has already legislated to establish.

In the case of some functions that will transfer, there is potentially an interface with national security matters. That will remain the Secretary of State's responsibility. In those cases, the order makes clear the respective roles and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Justice Minister and the Secretary of State. The order provides, in line with the Hillsborough castle agreement, that quasi-judicial decisions may be made by the Justice Minister, and need not go to the Northern Ireland Executive.

The order also gives effect to various transfers of property and of most of the staff in the current Northern Ireland Office. Those staff will move to the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, leaving a small number who will continue to work to me as Secretary of State on my remaining responsibilities.

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