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25 Mar 2010 : Column 387

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing forward the order on the Back-Bench business committee. I also thank her for her general role in enabling this process to be carried forward to a successful conclusion. This has not been a happy Parliament, but we can at least claim that we have laid the foundation for a slightly happier one next time.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that there will be an opportunity for some consultation on the detail of what she proposes? Will the House have an opportunity to come to a decision on this on Monday?

Ms Harman: It is my intention that the House should have an opportunity to agree the Standing Orders on Monday. I am happy to discuss with my hon. Friend the precise form of the Standing Orders. I have tabled a written ministerial statement today, and my hon. Friend has tabled a motion on the Standing Orders. The Standing Orders that I have tabled differ from his in respect of the process for the election of Members to the committee, the process for the adoption of the agenda, the number of allotted days, topical debates, Westminster Hall and private Members' Bills, but I have set out in my statement why the Standing Orders that I have tabled give effect to the resolution of the House, whereas his motion would differ from and go beyond it. It is fine for him to table such a motion, but not for me, and I hope that we will obtain the House's approval on Monday.

I thank my hon. Friend for his role in bringing this forward. I am confident that we will make further progress on Monday, but even without doing so, we have already made a great deal of progress. I thank him and the members of his Committee for that.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on counter-terrorism policy and human rights? Does she note that it calls for a fundamental parliamentary review of counter-terrorism laws passed since 2001, and does she agree that it is not a review that is needed but the repeal of the Human Rights Act 1998, and a re-evaluation of the European convention on human rights, to protect the British people from terrorist acts and so that we have British laws for British judges? If necessary, we should abolish the Committee that produced this report.

Ms Harman: We strongly support the Human Rights Act which we introduced and which gives legal rights to people in this country if their rights under the European convention on human rights-to which we have signed up-are breached, and it allows them to go to court. That is a reassurance that when this House decides that it needs to pass laws to ensure that people are protected from terrorism, those laws do not breach individuals' human rights. That is what the Act guarantees. We always consider legislation carefully, but we also have the failsafe of matching it against the Act. Indeed, on many occasions, laws that we have passed have been subject to scrutiny in the courts for compliance with the Act. In addition, Lord Carlile reviews terrorism laws on an ongoing basis. We have to respect people's rights, but also ensure that this country is safe.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Following my right hon. and learned Friend's positive response to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton,
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North (Ms Keeble) about the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill, can she say whether she has received any approach from the shadow Leader of the House, whose garrulous ramblings failed significantly and deplorably even to refer to the Bill, to say that the Opposition-a member of whom blocked the Bill-will now co-operate in both Houses to make this desirable legislation law by the Dissolution?

Ms Harman: I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. It is not good enough for the shadow Leader of the House to nod that he supports the Bill: he needs to sort the situation out on his side. The Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill are important Bills. The Opposition say that they support them, so they should get their act together and stop these Bills being blocked.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The UK Border Agency kindly has a hotline for Members of Parliament and their staff to use to take up cases. May I write to the right hon. and learned Lady to demonstrate that, increasingly, when we telephone the hotline, staff just say that they cannot help us? An ever-increasing number of immigration cases therefore end up in permanent limbo in the system. That is very cruel to the constituents concerned and very frustrating for their parliamentary representatives who cannot do more for them.

Ms Harman: This issue is kept under continuous review by Ministers in the Home Office. Indeed, as a constituency MP I have much experience myself of the Members' hotline and I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's depiction of it. There has been a dramatic reduction in the time it takes to determine cases. No one wants constituents to be left in limbo and subject to uncertainty. The time taken has been dramatically reduced, and I pay tribute to the helpline whose staff do everything they can to help us to help our constituents.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): It now seems likely that the two Opposition Front-Bench teams will have as much influence on the outcome of the Digital Economy Bill as my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. If they allow their shadow Ministers to collude with the music industry to bounce through complex copyright proposals in the wash-up, they will be enabling a democratic impropriety to take place. Will she work with business managers to bang some heads together in Departments?

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend has aired concerns that have been aired by other hon. Friends and across the House. I am sure that they will have been heard by Ministers, but if they have not, I will bring them to their attention.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): May I be very gracious, speaking from the Opposition Benches, and thank the right hon. and learned Lady for honouring her response to me last week when I asked her a question about the Falkland Islands? The Minister responsible at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has seen me and said that a letter is on its way to me.

My question to the Leader of the House is a very simple one: she has announced the business, including a debate the week after next on international development. Will she try to ensure that it goes ahead, not just for
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those of us who are leaving the House, but because it will give me an opportunity to raise matters relating to the continuing problems in Zimbabwe, for which this country is uniquely responsible?

Ms Harman: As the hon. Gentleman will have heard, I announced the provisional business for the week commencing 5 April, including a general debate on international development. Over the past five or 10 years, this has been a commitment at the heart of the Government, from having created a Department for International Development-there was not one when we entered government-to doubling aid and putting the question of development, particularly of Africa, at the heart of the international political agenda. I hope that we will have our debate on Thursday 8 April. That aside, however, a great deal has been done on international development, and I pay tribute to the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in that respect.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): May we have an early statement on the suspension by Justice Ministers of the Cartel claims handling company, which has milked about £20 million off the public and done very little work for it? It has refused to refund most of the money that it has taken. In particular, will the question about whether there should be an investigation into possible fraudulent activity by Carl Wright, the managing director, and his associates be part of that statement?

Ms Harman: Any allegations of fraudulent activity will obviously be a matter for investigation by the police. However, it is important that the Ministry of Justice, in its scrutiny of claims handling, can ensure that we protect claimants from bogus claims-handling services and that we can also protect those against whom spurious claims are made.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May we have an early debate entitled "The Wash-up Period"? That would enable right hon. and hon. Members to express the view that during the wash-up period, we should not be enacting legislation that has not been fully discussed in both Houses.

Ms Harman: The wash-up period allows there to be agreement between the Government and the Opposition. With those Bills that have been agreed on in the House of Commons, which have gone through their first, or all their stages in the Lords, and which have had their first-level agreement in the House of Commons, the choice remains of whether they should be left by the wayside or whether agreement can be reached to make progress on them. That is the process undergone. It is a very exceptional process that happens only at the end of the Parliament. I cannot really add further to that.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): May we have a debate on benefits for pensioners throughout the UK? One of the many achievements of this Government has been free bus travel for pensioners, but I am reliably informed that if the Opposition ever get into power, they will refuse to retain that service.

Ms Harman: I agree completely with my hon. Friend. The truth is that the Opposition seem to find plenty of money to give tax cuts to the wealthiest, but have never been interested in free bus travel for pensioners. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will welcome the Chancellor's
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announcement that he will continue with the winter fuel payment for another year. That will be very important to my hon. Friend's constituents and mine, and to pensioners throughout the country.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): I had always assumed that the Leader of the House was in favour of our freedom of information legislation, so why did she not answer the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and say that the relevant Departments will now no longer block the requests concerning the selling of the gold and the effect on pensioners of taxation under the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will she give an absolute guarantee that those Departments will now withdraw their objections and stop blocking our freedom of information requests?

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister answered that question at the Dispatch Box yesterday. On pensions, however, I would like to say that when we came into government we had to deal with the massive problem of pensioner poverty. Since we have been in government, pensioners have no longer been what they used to be-most likely to be the poorest members of society. Along with tackling child poverty, we have done a great deal to tackle pensioner poverty. Indeed, for pensions of the future, we have ensured that there is an opportunity for employees to pay in, as well as requirements and obligations on employers to pay.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Baroness Deech gave a lecture last week on the negative impact on children born of first cousin marriages, so would now not be an appropriate time to have a full and frank debate on the subject, which might encourage health authorities to publicise their genetic screening and counselling facilities?

Ms Harman: There has been a lot of debate on this subject, and my hon. Friend has played a leading part in that. There are Health questions next week, which no doubt will be an opportunity for her to air the matter with the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Will the Leader of the House agree, in light of yesterday's Budget debate, and given the important responsibilities of the House, that Members might be aided by having access to a Bloomberg terminal, bearing in mind the financial analytics, comprehensive news service and ease of access to economic figures that it provides?

Ms Harman: I understand that the director general of information services has written to the hon. Gentleman regarding that issue and said, in that letter, that the

Although there are no current plans to introduce Bloomberg, staff in the Library are always happy to help hon. Members with requests for specific information.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): In my right hon. and learned Friend's role as one of the primary defenders of the democracy of the House, would she personally be content if the highly controversial Digital Economy
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Bill, much influenced by lobbyists during its passage through another place, were to be rushed through this elected House of Commons on Easter Tuesday-a day, my sources tell me, when hon. Members might well have other things on their minds-and then rushed through all its final stages in a couple of hours the following day, without proper scrutiny?

Ms Harman: I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend: obviously we want proper scrutiny when passing Bills that have a level of technical complexity, such as the Digital Economy Bill. However, I know that he will agree that it is very important that we have the right sort of regulation for an industry that is important not only to lobbyists, but to the music, film and other creative industries. There are digital issues more widely, and others relating to access to fast broadband-all those issues about the economy of the future-and this Bill will play a part in ensuring that we have the right framework for those jobs in the future.

Christopher Fraser (South-West Norfolk) (Con): The Leader of the House will be aware that I have been championing in the House, for many years, the cause of men's health and, in particular, prostate cancer care. I was assured in 1998 that the Government were committed to seeking to provide equal access to high-quality services in this area. Does she agree that the Government have failed to deliver on this and that the opportunity has been wasted to put prostate cancer care on a par with that for other cancers?

Ms Harman: There has been a massive effort to improve cancer treatment, and mortality in respect of cancer has fallen. We are building on that with a guarantee for every individual for the period after they see their GP, but before they get to see a specialist oncologist. As well as the investment that we are putting into the health service, those guarantees for people who suspect that they have cancer-guarantees that the official Opposition would abolish-will be very important indeed. I recognise the role that the hon. Gentleman has played in raising awareness, and improving diagnosis and treatment
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of prostate cancer, and I suggest that he raise the issue with the Secretary of State for Health on Monday in Health questions.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Can we have an urgent debate on the NHS? Given that paediatric services, and accident and emergency services at the Princess Royal hospital remain under threat, why did the Government announce yesterday that they were taking £4 billion out of the NHS budget? Is it not now clear for everybody to see that the NHS is not safe in Labour's hands?

Ms Harman: Hon. Members, and indeed everybody in the public, will have heard our absolute commitment to primary health care, hospital services and community health care. We have transformed the NHS since we have been in government, and people will know that they can judge us on our record. People will also remember what the NHS was like when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government. Indeed, I can remember visiting Guy's hospital and talking to a cardiac surgeon, who showed me an operating list on the wall, with names and addresses of my constituents on it, and told me, "20 per cent. of those people will die before they're operated on, because there's not enough investment in the NHS." That does not happen anymore. We will of course continue to improve the NHS, but one thing that could never help it is the election of a Conservative Government.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The Leader of the House will have seen my early-day motions in 2007-08 and 2008-09 that sought to stop MPs abusing their expenses and second jobs. Even now, can we plan to meet in the House on 31 March to debate the matter and press forward on the remaining, much-needed changes to the House? [ Interruption. ] As the Conservative party is shouting out at me, can we also include party political funding and Belize in that debate?

Ms Harman: I gave a statement on that issue on Monday, and there has been much debate in this House about Lord Ashcroft and the apparent failure to abide by the reassurances that he gave in order to get into the House of Lords. However, I am afraid that this is not a matter for me; it is a matter of unanswered questions by the leadership of the Conservative party.

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Points of Order

12.22 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the exchanges in business questions, the Leader of the House, no doubt inadvertently, misled the House. She asserted in respect of two private Members' Bills-the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill and the Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill-that they had been blocked not by a Back Bencher, but by the official Opposition. Will she take it from me that the official Opposition support those two Bills and are not blocking them at all?

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am extremely pleased to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, although that does not entirely excuse the activities of some Conservative Back Benchers. However, is it not the case that the matter is entirely academic anyway, because those Bills are private Members' Bills, for which no more time has been allocated by the Leader of the House? Unless Government time is allocated, those Bills cannot make progress in any case, whatever the official Opposition's position. Is that not the case, Sir?

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations. He has put his views firmly on the record, although I am not sure that this is point-of-order territory or that I need to respond. However, before I give the opportunity to the Leader of the House-if she wants to take it-to come to the Dispatch Box, let us hear a point of order from Ms Sally Keeble.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a mistake on the Order Paper, because although it says that there is an amendment, I understand that it was withdrawn this morning, so unless anybody raises any further objections or tables a further amendment to the legislation, I understand that the Bill can go forward to the wash-up. However, that will require a bit of good will on both sides and a self-denying ordinance by Members; and, with your long track record on the issue in question, I am sure that you will be keen to see that happen.

Mr. Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, to which I shall respond straight away, before returning to that of the shadow Leader of the House. What I would say to the hon. Lady is twofold. First, so far as the Order Paper is concerned, if something was withdrawn this morning, it is not a mistake that it is on the Order Paper, because obviously it will have been put on last night, or some other time yesterday, and then printed. The point is simply that a decision has since been made to withdraw it. As for her second point, I note the force with which she has made her concern known, but as she will know, the question of whether a Bill survives in the wash-up is a matter for others, not the Chair.

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