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27 May 2010 : Column 283

House of Commons

Thursday 27 May 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business of the House

10.34 am

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster Central) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for the forthcoming week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): Mr Speaker, you informed the House on Tuesday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business for next week will be:

Tuesday 1 June-The House will not be sitting.

Wednesday 2 June-Continuation of the debate on the Queen's Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr Speaker, will be education and health.

Thursday 3 June-A general debate on European affairs.

The business for the week commencing 7 June will include:

Monday 7 June-Continuation of the debate on the Queen's Speech. Constitution and home affairs will be debated.

Tuesday 8 June-Conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech. Economic affairs and work and pensions will be debated.

Wednesday 9 June-Second Reading of the Identity Documents Bill.

Thursday 10 June-General debate: subject to be announced.

In accordance with the Standing Orders, the House will meet at 2.30 pm on Wednesday 2 June.

As previously announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, the Budget will be on 22 June.

Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise at the end of business on Thursday 29 July and, subject to the will of the House, return on Monday 6 September for two weeks.

Ms Winterton: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for setting out the forthcoming business and I would like once again to congratulate him on his appointment as Leader of the House. As I said yesterday, he has served as shadow Leader of the House for some years, so he brings a wealth of experience to his position. Indeed, he brings such a wealth of experience that it is rather a poor show that he has not been made a full member of the Cabinet. Some say he would have brought a touch of class to the table. I am confident that, had he been a full member, there would have been an element of
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common sense and consideration for the House in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government's handling of the £6 billion cuts announcement and the leaking of the Queen's Speech.

The fact that we read about the contents of the Queen's Speech in newspapers at the weekend before it was announced to Parliament displayed a disturbing lack of courtesy to the House. The response from Downing street is that although they are disappointed, there will be no leak inquiry. That demonstrates extremely poor judgment from the Government, and I ask the Leader of the House to explain why no investigation will be carried out.

It was also extremely disturbing that the Government chose to announce £6 billion of spending cuts while the House was not sitting. I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, recognised that that was not the way to treat the House when you granted the urgent question tabled by the Opposition yesterday. We thank you for that. In effect, we saw the Chief Secretary to the Treasury being virtually dragged to the House so that Members could question him on the cuts. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, on the other hand, did not even bother to turn up. I understand that he was spotted walking around Whitehall-but clearly in the opposite direction from the House so that Members could not question him on the cuts.

I think the Chancellor refused to give details of his cuts announcement to the "Today" programme because he did not want to be discourteous to the journalists who were assembling for him at 10 o'clock. I have to say that it is a shame he did not have the same worries about showing discourtesy to the House.

Rumour has it that the Chancellor might be popping in for the Budget statement, which we on the Opposition Benches are obviously quite excited about. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Chancellor will actually be there in person, and not his new friend?

I am sure the Leader of the House is more than aware of the concern among not only the Opposition but his own Back Benchers about the proposal providing for the Dissolution of Parliament only if 55% or more of the House votes in favour. The new Government have no mandate for this change, which could theoretically allow a Government to rule without the confidence of Parliament. That would weaken Parliament and strengthen the hand of the Executive considerably. Given that the Deputy Leader of the House told us on Tuesday that there will be a full process for considering the Bill in question, with no guillotine, and acknowledged that there is a strong case for pre-legislative scrutiny, will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill?

The Leader of the House said yesterday that the Government intend to abolish Regional Select Committees and the important scrutiny function they provide. Do the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government intend to keep Regional Grand Committees, given the importance of scrutinising the regional effect of the cuts that have been announced?

Finally, I am sure the Leader of the House will be aware of early-day motion 105, which followed concerns raised by the Leader of the Opposition on Tuesday about proposed changes in prosecuting rape cases that could grant anonymity to rape defendants.

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[That this House believes that the Government's proposal to grant anonymity to defendants in rape cases sends a message to juries and rape victims that the victim is not to be believed; fears that this could inhibit the effective prosecution of serial rapists; is further concerned that this will reverse the progress made on the prosecution of rape cases noted in the independent Stern Review; is further concerned that the Government has put forward the proposal without any research, evidence or examination of these issues; and calls on the Government to withdraw its proposal.]

As the Leader of the Opposition has said, that could turn the clock back on rape cases, and I ask the Leader of the House to make time for a debate on this serious issue.

Sir George Young: Before I reply to the right hon. Lady's questions, may I welcome her to her new post as shadow Leader of the House? She was a respected Minister in the last Government and she has always been a popular Member of the House; I look forward to working with her to further the interests of the House. May I also pay tribute to my predecessor, the right honourable and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the now acting leader of the Labour party? She took her responsibilities seriously and although she did not go quite as far as many of us had hoped on parliamentary reform, many reforms to the way in which the House works did take place while she was the Leader of the House.

There is a vital task ahead in rejuvenating parliamentary life and reconnecting it with the people we serve. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath)-I welcome him to his post-and I want Parliament to be strengthened and to be more effective and relevant, and it is the Government's intention to allow that to happen. Of course, that will be challenging, but this is an opportunity for a fresh start.

On the questions that the right hon. Lady poses, my role as attending Cabinet makes no difference whatever to what I say or do; there is an abundance of common sense in the Cabinet without any need for it to be reinforced by me. I deplore the leak to which she referred. It was a discourtesy to the House and to Her Majesty, and steps will be taken to minimise the risk of such leaks occurring again.

On the statement about cuts, I was surprised to hear the right hon. Lady's comments, because she was a Member of the House in 1997 when the then Chancellor announced the independence of the Bank of England four days after the election, before the House was sitting, and that was not even in the party's manifesto. The right hon. Lady will have seen the relish with which my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury dealt with questions yesterday-a bravura performance-and no doubt the Opposition will think again before they ask to put another urgent question to him. Of course, the Chancellor will deliver the Budget.

On the 55% issue, we had a very useful debate on Tuesday, during which my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome was able to allay some of the concerns that were raised by Members. The Bill will be a constitutional Bill, all stages will be taken on the Floor of the House and there will be adequate opportunity for the House to debate it.

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We have no intention of reintroducing Regional Select Committees as they were not a great success and were opposed by the Liberal Democrats and my party. We will announce our decision on Regional Grand Committees, which are a different proposition, in due course.

The right hon. Lady has raised a serious issue about rape and anonymity. I recognise the concern about this issue, and there should be no doubt in anyone's mind about this Government's determination to tackle rape and sexual offences and to ensure that those who commit such offences are convicted and properly sentenced. No quarter will be given to those convicted of rape. However, the House will also be aware that some people's lives have been wrecked by being falsely and maliciously accused of rape. That is why we have said that we will undertake a careful and sensitive analysis of the options and implications before we bring any proposals to Parliament. Of course, any proposals to change the law will have to go through this House and the other House.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. A large number of Members are seeking to catch my eye. As Members from the last Parliament will know, I have always sought to accommodate everyone if it is at all feasible to do so, but I need a single short supplementary question and a typically pithy reply from the Front Bench.

Mr Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Front Bench and his commitment to a sweeping redistribution of powers from the Government to Parliament. May I urge on him rather speedier action for the setting up of the House business committee, which the coalition document talks about being set up within three years? Surely, it could and should be set up this year.

Sir George Young: I can reassure my hon. Friend that we propose, in the week after the week for which I have announced the business, to introduce the proposals of the Wright Committee to establish a Back-Bench business committee-which the last Administration singularly failed to achieve before Parliament was dissolved. The three-year period refers not to the Back-Bench business committee but to the House business committee, which is a different proposition. I am as anxious as anyone else to get the Back-Bench business committee up and running. We will table the appropriate motions before the House in good time for the debate, which I anticipate will take place in the week after the week for which I have already announced the business.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): As someone who argued in the last Parliament strongly for full and total transparency over Members' claims and opposed the Tory private Member's Bill that would have exempted Parliament from freedom of information legislation, may I ask the Leader of the House whether he is aware that the new system that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has established is deeply bureaucratic and complex, and that it undermines both the work we have been elected to do and that of our staff? Do the chair and chief executive of IPSA not bear a heavy responsibility for discrediting what we all hoped, and certainly the public hoped, would be a new start to end the scandal of what occurred in the previous Parliament?

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Sir George Young: I recognise the concern on this issue. I attended a meeting between returning Members and members of IPSA a few days ago, and it was a lively meeting. No one wants to go back to the old, discredited system whereby the House fixed its allowances and they were administered by the House, and it was absolutely right to hand them over to an independent body. None the less, I recognise the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by Members.

Members are concerned about the staff whom they employed during the last Parliament-they want to go on employing them-and about their ability to retain offices in their constituency. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have welcomed the communication, which we all received, that indicated some flexibility from IPSA on both issues and said that there is no need to make staff redundant or, indeed, to give up one's constituency office. IPSA hopes to come to an arrangement whereby, later this year, funds will be made available for that to continue.

A large number of other issues need to be resolved. I am in the foothills of the technological mountain of making a claim. We need an intelligent conversation between the House and IPSA to resolve these issues. It needs to exhibit some flexibility in the rules it has set out. There needs to be a more thorough review of the regime in the very near future. To the extent that I have any responsibility, I should like to play my part. It is absolutely crucial that the allowance regime enable Members to do their jobs and the House to hold the Government to account, and we cannot have an allowance regime that gets in the way of that process.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I wonder whether the Leader of the House could find time for a debate to follow up the excellent question asked by the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). In his opening remarks, the Leader of the House mentioned Parliament reconnecting with the people. May I suggest that a debate on IPSA would be useful, so that we could share best practice? Perhaps hon. Members could visit IPSA, so that we could see its working conditions and how it operates. By the same token, perhaps members of IPSA could come to constituency offices to see how we work.

Sir George Young: The chairman and the acting chief executive of IPSA will have heard the generous invitation that the hon. Gentleman has extended to them. I go back to what I said a moment ago: we need intelligent and serious discussion between the House and IPSA to resolve the real issues that he raises. Together with the usual channels and perhaps the political parties, I would like there to be a channel of communication that can resolve such issues without the sort of shouting matches that we have heard in recent days.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I share the concerns about the fact that the coalition agreement included a commitment-to my mind it was a firm commitment-to give anonymity to defendants in rape trials. May we have an urgent debate on that, and will the Leader of the House confirm that the issue is so controversial that it should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny and considered in the round, along with the issue of the number of rapes that go unreported, and the number of reported rapes that do not result in a prosecution?

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Sir George Young: The hon. Lady will know that no legislation on the issue has been proposed in this Session. In the debate on home affairs on Monday 7 June, there will be an opportunity for the real concerns that exist on the issue to be ventilated. Of course we need to have adequate discussion. The proposal is that we go back to the regime that existed until, I think, 1988, in which there was anonymity. In her recent report, Baroness Stern did not come out on either side, but she said there should be full debate on this very sensitive issue, and that is what I want to promote.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the 2008 report from the Procedure Committee on electronic petitioning, an opportunity that the previous Government denied this House? Is my right hon. Friend aware that a system of e-petitions would make this House more accessible for many, and would also mean that there would be no need to maintain the rather useless system on the No. 10 website?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for all the work that he and his Committee did in the previous Parliament on e-petitions. We are anxious to take the matter forward. He will have seen in the coalition agreement specific commitments on the issues he has raised, so the answer is yes, of course I want to take forward the Procedure Committee's recommendations. I would also like that Committee to look at the commitments given by the coalition in the agreement to make even faster progress on this important issue.

Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): May I ask the Leader of the House when more information will be available about the £1.1 billion-worth of cuts to local government? In Lewisham, 18,000 homes are due for improvement under the decent homes programme. The previous Government indicated that £154 million would be made available for that work. Will the new Government honour that commitment, and when will the House have a proper opportunity to debate the future funding of social housing?

Sir George Young: I am sure the hon. Lady will welcome what the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said yesterday about the additional resources that were found for investment in affordable housing. I hope that some of that money will go to her constituency. Frankly, the previous Government's record on building social housing was deplorable.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will the Leader of the House give us a debate on the awarding of jubilee medals? I have been approached by immigration officers who live in and around my constituency, who are understandably upset that immigration officers were not awarded the golden jubilee medal, unlike other important public servants such as police and prison officers. Immigration officers are on the front line against terrorism. Will the Leader of the House agree to speak to the relevant new Minister, so that we can recognise the good work of immigration officers, retrospectively award them the golden jubilee medal, and consider them for the diamond jubilee medal?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He may want to seek an opportunity for a wider debate on the subject, either in Westminster Hall or on the Adjournment. Of course I will pass on to my ministerial colleagues the forceful case that he makes.

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