Previous Section Index Home Page

On the Budget debate, the right hon. Gentleman will have heard that this is a Budget that helps to secure the recovery, helps to invest in industry and new jobs, helps to protect front-line public services, and helps the many, not the few. He will not have seen in the Budget an announcement that there would be cuts in inheritance tax for the top 2,000 richest families; instead, he will
25 Mar 2010 : Column 381
have seen an increase in the minimum wage and a continued commitment to tax credits. We do not need any lessons from the Opposition about fairness.

As for improving the services of HMRC, the Public Accounts Committee report came out today, and obviously we will reflect on that.

On the question of the number of businesses that have been helped by being allowed to defer paying their taxes, giving them more time to pay, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman and place a copy of the letter in the Library. I thought that more than 200,000 businesses had been able to approach HMRC and ask to defer any of their taxes so that they could stay in business through the recession. Irrespective of the final figures-I will ensure that I give him an accurate version and place a copy in the Library-I would say very strongly that this has been part of the Government's help to small, medium-sized and larger businesses, all of which has resulted in revenue not going into the Treasury; that has been partly why the deficit and public borrowing have increased, which was necessary to sustain businesses through the recession. Whatever the figure is, whether it is 200,000 or 300,000, it represents businesses that have been saved and jobs that have not gone down the pan, and all those things would not have happened if the Opposition were in government, because they opposed these measures.

On the Reform of the House of Commons Committee proposals, we have put on the Order Paper the Standing Orders that give effect to the resolutions of the House, and we will bring those forward for approval by the House on Monday. Those Standing Orders do no more, and no less, than what the House agreed to in its resolutions of 4 March, so they sit absolutely on all fours with those resolutions. Because the Standing Orders will give effect to resolutions that were agreed by the House after debates of some 10 hours-they simply put into effect the express will of the House-it is my expectation that they will be agreed without dissent. I hope that that will happen on Monday.

As regards parliamentary questions, we expect all written parliamentary questions to be answered, and we are liaising with Departments about that.

On the Personal Care at Home Bill, the right hon. Gentleman has drawn to the House's attention the fact that, yes, there is a motion on the Order Paper for the House to sit at 11.30 am on that day rather than at the normal time. We have a short recess this time. I have set out the business on the basis that we will be coming back on the Tuesday after bank holiday Monday, which is quite an early return.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): May I ask the Leader of the House when she decided to adjust the timing of next Tuesday's sitting? Some prior consultation would have been extremely helpful, not only with other parties, but with Officers of the House and others who have to make the arrangements. It is not easy suddenly-on a whim-to change the timing of events.

I hear what the right hon. and learned Lady said about the inaccuracies in the Prime Minister's statements. I agree with her-it was a good thing to have arrangements to help businesses through the recession, but an impressionistic, "This is a good thing" does not excuse the Prime Minister's saying that 300,000 businesses were helped when the actual number was barely half-160,000. It is not good enough for the Prime Minister to
25 Mar 2010 : Column 382
give the House inaccurate figures. Clearly, double counting was involved, and the number of events rather than businesses was given, but let us correct the figure-let us have an opportunity to put it right.

I obviously listened carefully to the Chancellor of the Exchequer yesterday and I heard him announce the people's bank proposals and say that everyone can have a basic bank account. While we are considering double counting, I wonder whether we can find time to contrast yesterday's announcement with that by the Chancellor's predecessor, the current Prime Minister, in the Budget speech in 2000. Following the Cruickshank review, he said that he would

The words are almost the same, but there is an interval of 10 years between the two announcements. Can we please not have re-announcements of policies without subsequent activity?

Last week, I mentioned two important private Members' Bills, which have a great deal of support from Members of all parties: the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, which deals with so-called vulture funds, and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. I add to that the Grocery Market Ombudsman Bill, which is remarkable because we found an hour and a half to debate the Ways and Means motion and the money resolution on it only this week. If the Government can find time for those resolutions, surely they can make clear their intentions about providing time for those Bills to complete their passage in the House. Why must we be kept in the dark about that? Why cannot the Leader of the House tell us whether, if the Government support the measures, they will complete their progress in this House and go to another place in time for Second Reading and to be included in the wash-up?

On the Back-Bench business committee, I am told that I have a suspicious mind-I think that the right hon. and learned Lady said last week that I had problems with trust. For heaven's sake, I trusted the Leader of the House to do what she said: consult the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and me about the content of the motions. No consultation happened. I trusted her to table them in good time to enable debate to happen in good time, yet they have finally been tabled only today. She said that they will be on the Order Paper below the line on Monday. If there is an objection on Monday, will she tell us, without prevarication, when she will allocate one and a half hours to debate them? There is no reference in what she has put on the Order Paper or in her explanatory memorandum to the House's major decision to establish not just a Back-Bench business committee, but a House business committee. There is a motion from the Wright Committee to that effect on the Order Paper. Will the Leader of the House provide time for that?

In the past couple of years, business questions have been characterised by complaints from Opposition parties about misinformation, double counting, recycled announcements and business organised for the benefit of the Government, not the House. I hope that we can do better in the next Parliament.

Ms Harman: The Personal Care at Home Bill, which has been through the Lords, is important, and it is right that it should come back to the House of Commons so
25 Mar 2010 : Column 383
that we can ensure that those with the greatest needs get free care in their own home. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the opportunity for the House to consider the Lords amendments.

As far as businesses are concerned, the Treasury briefing that I have here says:

I will get the precise figure, but it is not half of what the Prime Minister said, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) suggested-

That is important. I would say that the hon. Gentleman should be supporting us in allowing the deficit to rise to help businesses so that they do not go out of business. Obviously, it is important that we settle the issue of the figures, but the substantive point is that we have been helping businesses through the recession.

We have been helping not only businesses, but home owners-financial support and advice has helped 330,000 to stay in their homes. In addition to the time to pay scheme from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the car scrappage scheme, numerous other schemes have helped businesses through the recession. The Prime Minister's record on this, bearing in mind what happened to the economy when there was an unprecedented global financial shock, is that he took action to support businesses, to support jobs, and to support people staying in their own home. Instead of carping about what the absolutely precise figure is, the hon. Gentleman should be welcoming the support that was given to businesses in his constituency and around the country. We do care about the figures, and I will get accurate figures to him, but let us just focus on the substance.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill. I reiterate what I said last week at business questions. We strongly support that Bill-there is no doubt about that-and we also strongly support the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill. However, for a Bill to succeed, it not only has to complete its passage in this House, but to have made some progress in the House of Lords. He knows that at this point in the Session-especially given that although we have some rudimentary control over business in this House, the Government have no control over the House of Lords and there are no timetabling procedures there-he should focus his attention, as we are, on seeking the support of the official Opposition. If they stopped their blocking of the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, we could get it through- [ Interruption. ] They are protesting, but they objected on Third Reading, and it was the Chair of the Public Bill Committee that considered the Bill who called, "Object." I ask the official Opposition to get their Members to stop blocking the Bill. If it is the official Opposition's position, they should unblock the Bill.

As for the proposals from the Wright Committee-the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons-if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome thinks there is something about the Standing Orders that we have drafted and that have been on the Order Paper for a number of days- [ Interruption. ] It is a consultation, because it is actually on the Order
25 Mar 2010 : Column 384
Paper. The hon. Gentleman can look at it, and if he thinks that the Standing Orders do not reflect the will of the House-if he thinks they go further or do less than that-he can come and ask me to re-table them in the form that he believes will accurately express that. However, I do not think that he will do so, because the Standing Orders have been drafted exactly to express the will of the House.

The point is that we are not having further decision making on this; we are having enactment. Therefore, we have made it clear what we are doing. If there are any technical objections that we have not done enough or that we have done too much, that is fine, but I do not think that that will be case. We have tried completely and faithfully to put into Standing Orders the resolutions of the House. They will be going forward, but not until Monday, at which point the House should approve them. The hon. Gentleman should be directing his attention to working to ensure that this House seizes the opportunity of completing the process of reform by getting the Standing Orders agreed on Monday.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Speaker: Order. Twenty-six right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to be able to accommodate everybody, but if I am to have any chance of doing so, brevity must be the order of the day.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): It is obvious that we are not going to have time to give the normal scrutiny that we should to the Digital Economy Bill on Second Reading. As someone who is broadly supportive of that Bill, may I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that I am concerned that it will be rushed through-it involves some very complex issues-on the basis of a deal between Front Benchers?

Ms Harman: The Ministers responsible for the Bill are well aware of the concerns that have been raised, not least on many occasions in business questions. They are well aware of the importance of the measure. It is my responsibility at this point simply to announce that Second Reading will be on 6 April, but I can assure my hon. Friend and hon. Members that Ministers are aware of the points that are being made.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): It is widely reported that the sudden, tragic death of 24-year-old Lois Waters from Norton-on-Derwent in my constituency may be linked to that young woman taking this terrible drug, mephedrone. I am sure the House would want to join me in sending condolences to her family and friends. If, because of lack of time, we cannot have a statement on the report of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs-I understand that such a report is about to be presented to Ministers-can the Leader of the House ensure that the advice of Professor Iversen and the council is published, so that voters will know which political party is going to take action on that appalling drug?

Ms Harman: I join the hon. Gentleman in sending my condolences to the family of his constituent. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, just because something has yet to be banned does not make it safe. It is very
25 Mar 2010 : Column 385
important that the warning goes out to all young people that they should not be taking mephedrone. As far as the advice is concerned, it is being brought forward expeditiously. The Government will consider it expeditiously and make our decision clear soon, but I think it is important in the meantime for us all to be warning young people that just because mephedrone is yet to be banned does not mean it is safe.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Sure Start children's centres have been one of the most transformational aspects of policy in recent years? There are now 3,500 in this country. The Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families will publish a report on this very subject next week. Is there a way for us to have a short debate to focus on that, because I think that people in this country ought to know what the attitudes of all the political parties are to the maintenance of such a wonderfully transformational policy?

Ms Harman: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that the Select Committee that he leads has been doing on Sure Start children's centres and the emphasis that it has put-for a long period of time-on early years. Not only are there clear educational benefits from good early-years provision, which is what Sure Start children's centres provide, but they are absolutely what parents want. They want to see their children happy, safe and developing well in the children's centres. On the conclusion of the Budget debate on Tuesday 30 March, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families will be speaking, and there will be an opportunity for hon. Members to speak in that debate or to intervene on the Secretary of State.

However, I would say this to my hon. Friend: whatever the Conservatives say about Sure Start children's centres-especially in the run-up to an election-I would not trust them as far as I could throw them on the question of protecting children. When they were in government, they did nothing for child care. They have all the way moaned that it is about political correctness and that it is undermining the traditional wife-at-home scenario. They have never supported this agenda, but they have been caught out because it is what the public want. The Conservatives cannot be trusted on this.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Notwithstanding Government spin, does not the Leader of the House accept that the freezing of personal allowances will hit the poorest and the low earners the hardest?

Ms Harman: I think that what really matters to people are tax credits, the minimum wage, the opportunity to have and keep a job, and that we make sure that this economy keeps growing and that we tackle unemployment. All those things will help people, unlike the only tax commitment from the official Opposition, which is to cut inheritance tax for the wealthiest together with cutting tax credits and cutting child trust funds.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the expenses of Members of the European Parliament, because Mr. Nick Griffin, the well known racist and anti-Semite, has already trousered several hundred thousand pounds, which have disappeared we know not where, to promote his noxious creed, and
25 Mar 2010 : Column 386
because the £2 million that Mr. Nigel Farage boasted on television about claiming in expenses last year are still totally unaccounted for? We need transparency, and certainly in the case of Mr. Farage we need a full investigation and audit so that we can know where some of our taxpayers' money has disappeared to.

Ms Harman: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This is all public money and the public should be concerned if it is being misused. I will take the opportunity to get the relevant Minister to write to him, and I will place a copy of the letter in the Library. No doubt my right hon. Friend will place it in the public domain.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Why can we not have a proper day on Tuesday, sit on Wednesday and have the Adjournment, and thus give proper time to the Personal Care at Home Bill? That would be entirely in accord with the wishes of most Members.

Ms Harman: Well, on Tuesday, we have the conclusion of the Budget debate, which will be opened by the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families and closed by the Chief Secretary. After that, we will have time for consideration of Lords amendments to the Personal Care at Home Bill, and that is a good form for business before the House rises for the recess.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill is down for consideration today with an amendment that the sponsoring Member has tried to withdraw-although it was not selected for consideration in any case? Will that count as an objection and prevent the Bill from going into wash-up? If so, will she have urgent discussions with the Opposition business managers to ensure that the Bill can reach the statute book before the election? That would go a long way to restore the confidence of much of the public not just in one party or another, but in the proper working of this Parliament.

Ms Harman: We strongly support that private Member's Bill, but without the support of the Opposition we cannot get it through this House and the Lords. If they will give that support, we will do everything that we can to give it a fair wind. I would support my hon. Friend's efforts to ensure that the Opposition are put on the spot as they hold the key to unblocking the progress of this Bill.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): May I ask the next Leader of the Opposition whether we may have a statement next week on the failure of the Chancellor to freeze personal tax allowances, which is the biggest rise in the Budget-although he did not mention that-and will affect the poorest people in our society? May I suggest that that statement is entitled "We can't go on like this: it's time for change"?

Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to amplify all these points as the Budget debate proceeds, not only this afternoon-led by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions-but on Monday and Tuesday next week.


Next Section Index Home Page