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Business of the House

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 8 November 2007

The business for the week commencing 12 November will be—

Monday 12 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be foreign affairs followed by defence.

Tuesday 13 November—Continuation of the Queen’s Speech. The subjects will be health, and education and schools.

Wednesday 14 November—Conclusion of the Queen’s Speech. The economy and pensions will be debated.

Thursday 15 November—Motion to approve the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, followed by a debate on international development.

Friday 16 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 19 November will include—

Monday 19 November—Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Tuesday 20 November—Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.

Wednesday 21 November—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 22 November—Second Reading of the Sale of Student Loans Bill.

Friday 23 November—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall in November will be—

Thursday 15 November—A debate on the reports from the Treasury Select Committee on Financial Inclusion.

Thursday 22 November—A debate on the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Thursday 29 November—A debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on “Stamp of Approval? Restructuring the Post Office”.

Our previous Session was busy, with 29 Government Bills, three Back-Bench Bills reaching Royal Assent and 79 oral statements. As Leader of the House, I am determined that we should be just as effective in this Session. We shall have proper time for scrutiny of Government proposals, ministerial announcements will be to the House first and my door is always open to any hon. Member.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the future business and for her promise that statements will be made to the House first.

Two days ago, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs put out a press release on the European Union’s new foot and mouth movement restrictions for livestock. It allows some farmers to export again, but it means greater restrictions for some farmers in the south-east, yet there was no statement to Parliament on the issue, written or oral. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the new foot and mouth restrictions?

In trying to avoid the West Lothian question, the Prime Minister announced his big idea, Regional Select Committees. Yet when the Leader of the House was asked about Regional Select Committees two weeks ago, she pointedly talked about regional accountability and refused to endorse them. Perhaps they are another Brown policy that is falling apart. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the Government’s policy on Regional Select Committees?

The Roman Catholic bishop to the military says that the Government have a duty to our armed forces in death and in injury, and must do the very best for their anxious and grieving families. Sadly, that is not happening. When the right hon. and learned Lady was Minister for justice, she said that the backlog of 110 military inquests was unacceptable and promised that it would be sorted out. In July, when there was a backlog of 109, she said that

“we cannot have delays to inquests.”—[Official Report, 12 July 2007; Vol. 462, c. 1611.]

This month the Ministry of Justice confirmed that the backlog is now 116 cases. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Justice on this important matter?

On Tuesday, the Governor of the Bank of England said that the Northern Rock crisis could have been prevented, had the Chancellor acted earlier. After the “is he, isn’t he” flip-flopping on capital gains tax, and the pilfered pre-Budget report, there are now serious questions about the Chancellor’s ability to do the job. May we have a debate in Government time on the Chancellor’s competence?

May we also have a debate on honesty in advertising? Last week, the Prime Minister’s spin doctors contacted several schools to tell them that he was going to praise them in his keynote education speech. But, guess what, he did not mention a single one of them. First he used BNP slogans promising policies that are illegal, then we had double-counted troop withdrawals, and now he is playing politics with schoolchildren. A debate would allow the Prime Minister to apologise to the people he is taking for a ride.

The Prime Minister wants to stop Opposition parties campaigning in his marginal seats by fixing the rules on party funding. Of course, he will not scrap the £10,000 communications allowance that Labour MPs voted for themselves—[Hon. Members: “And you!”] We voted against it. Nor will he limit the millions of pounds poured into Labour’s coffers by the trade unions, which, in turn, get taxpayers’ money and changes in the law. May we have a debate in Government time on the union modernisation fund, the Warwick agreement and all the others ways in which Labour repays its union donors?

Last weekend, the Justice Secretary said that the Labour party was “despondent” and that it needed a good week to

“get out of this rut”,

but it is still in the rut. This week, we have had indecision, incompetence and weakness. Is that not the truth of this Prime Minister—all spin and no vision?

The right hon. Lady asked about foot and mouth arrangements. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate later today. No doubt she will be able to raise those questions with the Secretary of State at that point, and he will no doubt be able to answer them.

The right hon. Lady asked about regional accountability. She will know, as a member of the Modernisation Committee, that the Committee has agreed to look into how we can strengthen the accountability to the House for the work that is going on in the different regions. No doubt it will produce proposals that we shall be able to debate in the House. I think that there is general agreement that we want to strengthen accountability to the House for those activities, which are so important in the different regions. The regional Ministers have already made marked progress in that respect.

The right hon. Lady asked an important question about inquests into the deaths of those who tragically lost their lives serving in our armed forces. We, and the bereaved relatives, are concerned that there should be a thorough investigation by the board of inquiry of the armed services, and a full and thorough inquest that should not be delayed. Bereaved relatives should be able to get answers to their questions as soon as possible. We need to keep a careful eye on the length of time it takes to bring a case to the inquest. The actual number waiting for an inquest is a different point. The point is to ensure that every family has an inquest as soon as possible. The Justice Minister will no doubt keep the House updated on the time it is taking for inquests to come to hearing.

The right hon. Lady asked about the Chancellor. The Treasury will be the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate next Wednesday, so hon. Members will be able to put their questions directly to the Chancellor.

The right hon. Lady also made a number of points about party election funding. I am sure that the whole House would agree that we want party election funding to be fair and open, and that we should end the arms race that is resulting in parties spending more and more on election campaigning while fewer and fewer people turn out to vote.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the communications allowance. Hon. Members will know that every report that has looked into the connection between the people in this country and the House of Commons has emphasised the importance of individual hon. Members communicating and keeping in touch with their constituents. The communications allowance, which the House voted for, is important in enabling hon. Members to report to their constituents between elections and to tell them about the good work that they are doing.

The right hon. Lady asked about trade union funding. I am sure that she and all hon. Members will know the difference between one millionaire and hundreds of thousands of people at work who contribute to a party through their contributions to their union. I remind the House that the Secretary of State for Justice will make a statement should he have any proposals following the suspension of the discussions chaired by Hayden Phillips.

A couple of weeks ago, in response to my question on the timing of the publication of the Senior Salaries Review Body report, the Leader of the House said “very shortly.” Has she had the opportunity in the past couple of weeks to consult the thesaurus to indicate to us now when she anticipates being able to publish it?

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on a few days ago celebrating 25 years as a Member of this House. She has had a very successful parliamentary career, which she will celebrate with colleagues later today.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. We anticipated the contents of the Queen’s Speech from the draft Queen’s Speech published before the summer. There was then a consultation. Is she in a position to tell us how many people responded to the consultation, and what notice was taken of the responses?

Why is the marine Bill still not definitely on the agenda? It has been around, and discussed, for some time, and has been in draft form. Why is it not being brought forward? Will the right hon. and learned Lady ask her colleagues to reconsider their view on that?

There are, I think, five or six draft Bills. With the exception of possibly the constitutional reform Bill, for fairly obvious reasons, the others might all be suitable for Committees of both Houses to consider, rather than have separate consideration at both ends of Parliament. That was successfully done for the Climate Change Bill in the last Session, and the model is worth pursuing. However, I follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in saying that we need an honest discussion about Regional Select Committees. If they are to go ahead, will the Leader of the House guarantee that they will reflect the political composition of the region and not be biased in favour of the Government in every case?

On broader constitutional reform, which is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate, when will the report, which we know has been finished, into the Government’s review of election systems across the UK be published? When will we get a commitment to serious constitutional reform of the big questions, rather than just tinkering at the edges?

We know that a very important Commonwealth conference will take place in Uganda later this month. Places such as Sri Lanka—Commonwealth neighbours and friends of ours—are going through a terrible time, in this case with a terrible civil war. May we have a full debate before the conference so that the Foreign Secretary can come here and talk about the Government’s intentions? May we have a guarantee of a statement by the Prime Minister immediately after the conference, when he can be accountable for Government policies on supporting the Commonwealth, which some of us believe is very important?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my 25 years in the House. It has been an honour and privilege to be a Member of the House for 25 years, and in particular to represent the constituency of Camberwell and Peckham for those years.

The hon. Gentleman asked how many people had responded to the publication of our draft legislative programme. The first question for us to ask is whether the Government should work behind the scenes on their draft legislative programme or publish it earlier. We have published it earlier, and that in its own right is an important move towards transparency. We have made something open that was previously kept behind closed doors. It is the first time that we have done that, and the systems for giving information to people about the draft legislative programme, and for inviting people to comment for the first time on something that they have never seen before, are in their infancy. That is why not many people commented, but regional Ministers consulted in all regions. Local authority leaders were also consulted in all regions, and many attended the consultation meetings. Businesses responded to the regional consultations, as did voluntary sector leaders.

I think that we were right to publish our draft legislative programme, and we will do better next year by publishing it earlier. Hon. Members should decide whether it is a good idea to publish it, but I think it is. There is no justification for taking it back behind closed doors. I shall publish a report in due course, when we have received the results of the Modernisation Committee’s reflections, and it will state the number of people who did and did not respond.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the marine Bill was included in the Queen's Speech. It will be published in draft, and I expect widespread consultation on it. The hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged how important it was to publish the Climate Change Bill in draft first so that there could be proper pre-legislative scrutiny.

The hon. Gentleman asked about regional accountability. We want to ensure that it is effective and legitimate—legitimate as seen from Westminster, and as seen from the region. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Modernisation Committee is looking into that, and we will present proposals to the House. There will be no perfect constitutional answer, but I am sure that we can do more to strengthen regional accountability.

I shall draw the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the Ministry of Justice’s review of election systems to the attention of the Secretary of State, who may be able to write to him and give him an idea of timing. He asked about the important forthcoming Commonwealth conference: I remind him that there will be a debate on the Department for International Development next Monday, when, no doubt, he will be able to raise some of the issues with the Secretary of State.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that one area in which the House has not got its arrangements right is the monitoring of European legislation. The Committee concerned does a noble job and works extraordinarily hard, but a major transport scheme is coming up—Galileo—which, although it could cost the country billions, has not been debated properly, although it has been debated in the House. I think that we should look at the system again. Perhaps my right hon. and learned Friend will get it right before she celebrates her next 25 years in the House.

I think I shall have much less than 25 years in which to present the House with proposals on how we should do what I think we all agree we need to do—make the scrutiny that the House can give European matters more effective. We voted last week that I should return to the House in three weeks’ time, and I shall do so, having consulted widely with, among others, exceptionally senior, experienced, long-standing Members of Parliament, including Chairs of Transport Committees.

I congratulate the right hon. and learned Lady on having had second thoughts about the absurd proposition that there should be all these Regional Select Committees. Will she also have second thoughts about the automatic timetabling of Bills? If it continues, it will make a total nonsense of all the Prime Minister’s protestations about this place.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but I am not having second thoughts about regional accountability. What I am doing is thinking carefully about it, and consulting widely. I remain committed to presenting the House with proposals to strengthen regional accountability.

As for the timetabling of Bills, I remember a time when there was not effective timetabling. All the debate might bunch up on the first two clauses of a Bill; we would then not debate the rest of it, and important aspects of legislation would remain unscrutinised. Obviously we must manage our time effectively and work together to ensure that our scrutiny is effective.

May we have a debate on the cleaning of hospitals? In it, we should particularly take into account the experience of the 1980s, when ancillary staff numbers were reduced from 171,000 to 66,000—so it is no wonder that we had dirty hospitals then, and that we now need to put that right.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Ensuring that our health services do not expose patients to the risk of hospital-acquired infection is a high Government priority. It is important that members of cleaning teams feel valued and that there is an interrelationship between them and the nursing and medical teams.

Will the Leader of the House tell us when the housing and regeneration Bill will receive its Second Reading—or even when it will be published? The Co-operative estates division of the Co-operative society is one of the largest landowners in my constituency, and it proposes to build 20,000 homes on its own farmland and adjacent farmland belonging to English Partnerships. That will have a devastating effect on rural south-east Leicestershire. Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early publication and debate?

When the housing and regeneration Bill is brought before the House it will be subject to inclusion in my business statement for the previous Thursday. More affordable housing is one of our priorities. Too many people cannot afford to rent the housing they need or buy the home they aspire to. We will back people’s aspirations to have the housing they need—and it would be disappointing if the official Opposition were to try to stand in the way of people’s aspirations for decent housing.

I acknowledge that we will soon have a Westminster Hall debate on the structure of the Post Office, but may we have an urgent statement on the aftermath of the postal dispute? All Members will know of constituents who are still waiting for mail posted four or five weeks ago to be delivered. Many of them run small businesses or are waiting for items such as cash. We ought to know how many items of mail have been lost and how much is still delayed, and before we restructure it we ought also to know whether the Post Office management is capable of sorting out this mess.

I will bring my hon. Friend’s important questions to the attention of the relevant Secretary of State. My hon. Friend knows that a review is being undertaken into the effect of market liberalisation on the Royal Mail and that we remain strongly committed to universal postal services. There will be a debate in Westminster Hall on 29 November.

On the communications allowance, will the Leader of the House consider insisting that every Member place in the Library and the Press Gallery a copy of all the material that they print for circulation among their constituents?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider the merit of the Government publishing in advance a statement—perhaps in the form of a written ministerial statement—on their objectives for the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference? Do the Government intend to make an oral statement in the House after the conference on what went on and what was agreed?

That is the second time that that important point has been made. I will bring it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development.

Let me correct my answer to the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley): the response should, perhaps, have been not that I will reflect but “They are trying to nick our ideas.”

May we have a statement on the service provided to Members by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs when dealing with correspondence connected with tax credits? I have written on numerous occasions, and I finally received a reply to a letter sent in January. That is a wholly unacceptable service. Worried members of the public are asking for their tax credits to be regularised, but Members cannot obtain the information to assist them. I ask for an early statement on how this will be resolved.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We must ensure that agencies working in the public interest are publicly accountable. I will draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, a Treasury debate is taking place next Thursday, and it might be an opportunity to raise those points.

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we have just had the Competition Commission’s interim report on supermarkets. When we get the final report, will she make time for a proper debate on the role of supermarkets and on what the commission has had to say? Is it not also time that we had a proper inquiry into toy safety? Given the number of toys being taken off our shelves, I wonder whether kids are going to get any toys this Christmas. Is it not time that we examined this issue, including where toys are being manufactured and the standards that are being applied in their manufacture?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. This issue could well be worth a topical debate, which, as a Member, he could propose. Later today there will be a debate on issues relating to the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for trading standards officers, and there is a debate on business, enterprise and regulatory reform next Wednesday.

In her business statement, the Leader of the House announced the Second Reading of three Government Bills and went on to say that she was anxious that the House should have time to hold the Government to account. Against that background, will she reflect on her reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack)? It may well be that, in opposition, she behaved as she described in Standing Committees. Time has moved on. Will she allow one Government Bill to go through un-timetabled, so that the House can properly hold the Government to account and demonstrate that there are better ways of proceeding than 20 years ago?

I understand that the Finance Bill is not timetabled. We will all recognise that we must seek to achieve the right balance to make sure that every bit of a Bill can be scrutinised, and that there is enough time for scrutiny of each clause. That is a matter for discussion between all parties, and we should seek to get the balance right.

Should not the Home Secretary, as the Minister responsible for the Metropolitan police, come to the House next week and make a statement on the future of Sir Ian Blair? Most reasonable people share the view of the Greater London authority that he should no longer be in his position.

The Home Secretary has made a number of comments in this House and elsewhere about the work of the Metropolitan Commissioner, which she and the Government strongly support. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, unlike him, I am a Member of Parliament representing a London constituency. I have discussed this issue with my constituents, and, on the basis of an unscientific opinion survey, I would say that they are very supportive of the work that the Metropolitan Commissioner has been leading in the Metropolitan police. Despite believing that it was absolutely tragic that this innocent young man lost his life, they do not want the commissioner to resign, but to get on with his job of protecting Londoners. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Independent Police Complaints Commission is publishing its report this morning, and that this issue was debated yesterday.

Will the Leader of the House provide an opportunity for an early debate on the National Audit Office report, which was published today and is in the Vote Office, on how the Government managed to squander £33 million on an asylum centre in Bicester that was never built, where a brick was not laid and a sod was not turned? Is it not scandalous that, had it not been for my asking the NAO to undertake this report, none of this would ever have come out, and that no Minister has offered today to apologise? Like everything else with this Government, when they squander such a sum, I suspect that no Minister will apologise. They have been promising Bicester a new community hospital for nearly a decade, and £33 million could have built, staffed and run such a hospital for many decades to come. Will the Leader of the House apologise on behalf of the Government for the monstrous waste of money on this project?

No doubt that report will be examined by the Public Accounts Committee and then debated in the House.

May we have a specific debate in the relatively near future on the grave situation in Pakistan? I appreciate that the House will have the opportunity to debate this matter next Monday, but clearly the situation is continuing and deeply troubling, and the House will want to keep a close eye on it.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House yesterday on the grave issues in Pakistan and that foreign affairs is the subject of the Queen’s Speech debate next Monday. We would all agree that we want the elections confirmed for January, we want Musharraf to relinquish his military position, and we want the preparation for free and fair elections by the releasing of political prisoners and the freeing of the press.

I am sure that everybody present was delighted to hear the Leader of the House’s opening comments about her commitment to ensure that hon. Members hear about matters in the House rather than through announcements in the press. Does she accept that it did her Government’s reputation for spin and for putting presentation over substance no good when, in responding to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) about the foot and mouth disease statement issued as a press release, rather than as an oral or written statement to this House, she tried to dismiss the issue immediately and said that there will be a debate on it in a couple of days’ time? Surely that is just not good enough, and does not reflect the commitment that she was making earlier.

May we have a debate on single status, because there is a lot of concern among local authorities and the trade unions in particular about the lack of progress on it?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is on the Front Bench now and will shortly lead the main debate, so no doubt he and other hon. Members will be able to raise that important question with her.

Does the Leader of the House recall replying to a debate in Westminster Hall on coroners’ courts last summer, in which she said that the system was badly in need of reform and that there would be a Bill in the Queen’s Speech? Is that not even more important now that we have had the Healthcare Commission’s report into the 90 deaths of people in Kent hospitals from C. difficile, none of which were reported to the local coroner? Will she look into that and tell the House why no Bill is coming before it in the near future?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the health and social care Bill included in this Queen’s Speech will make further progress on improving provision for death certification. I still hope that if we can make progress on the other aspects of the legislative programme time will be found for the important reforms contained in the draft Coroners Bill, which has already been considered by this House through the relevant Select Committee.

I congratulate the Leader of the House on her first 25 years in this place and on the brevity of her answers; it makes a refreshing change and long may it last. May we have an urgent debate on the link between taxation and the funding of public services, because over the past 10 years, my constituents have paid more in national insurance, more in stamp duty and more in income tax due to this Government’s use of fiscal drag, yet they have faced the closure of two local hospitals and overcrowded trains, and they now face a reduction in police numbers? What has gone wrong? Why cannot this Government show my constituents a little bit of love?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my 25 years. There will be a Queen’s Speech debate on the Treasury next Wednesday. I am sure that he will know, as his constituents do, that under this Government the economy has been stable, employment has risen and is full, and there has been record investment in schools, hospitals and other public services in his constituency. We intend to maintain that record.

Will the Leader of the House speak to the Chancellor about his proposals for capital gains tax rises and small businesses? In my constituency and across the land, millions of small firms are unclear about where they stand. They are unclear because we have had spin from No. 10, changes in proposals from the Treasury and uncertainty from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. The result is that small firms do not know how to make their arrangements over the next six months. Will the Leader of the House make it clear to the Chancellor that waiting to make a statement in the Budget will not do? Those firms need an answer so that they can plan. After all, they are the employers of nearly half the private sector work force. They deserve a debate and a statement from the Chancellor, so will she now ensure that that happens?

I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. As the hon. Gentleman knows, he will have the opportunity to raise those issues in the Queen’s Speech debate on the Treasury next Wednesday.

The Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph has been running an important campaign, called “Shout on a Lout”, to highlight the harassment, alarm and distress caused to both people and animals by the antisocial and sometimes criminal use of fireworks. May we have a debate in Government time about the effectiveness or otherwise of the Government’s legislation on fireworks, because—in my opinion and that of my constituents in Kettering—it is a growing problem?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue and I will bring it to the attention of the relevant Secretary of State.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Leader of the House about the Prime Minister telling some schools that he would be using their names in a speech and then not doing so, but she appeared not to address that particular issue. One of those schools is in the Bradford district and it has caused a lot of upset to those involved. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the House and makes a statement on why he told those schools that he was going to use their names in his speech, but then failed to do so?

We would all want to back up the Prime Minister’s view that those schools that are working hard to increase the involvement of parents in their children’s education are to be congratulated, including those schools in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency that are doing exactly that.