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Business of the House

Volume 478: debated on Thursday 26 June 2008

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

Monday 30 June—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on energy security followed by a debate on food security. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Tuesday 1 July—The House will be asked to approve Ways and Means resolutions on the Finance Bill followed by remaining stages of the Finance Bill—day 1.

Wednesday 2 July—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 3 July—Topical debate on Zimbabwe followed by motions relating to MPs’ pay and allowances.

The provisional business for the week commencing 7 July will include:

Monday 7 July—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee. At 10 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Tuesday 8 July—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) (No. 2) Bill.

Wednesday 9 July—Opposition Day [Unallotted Day] [First Part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party, subject to be announced, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument, followed by all stages of the Statute Law (Repeals) Bill [Lords].

Thursday 10 July—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by remaining stages of the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill [Lords].

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 and 17 July will be:

Thursday 10 July—A debate on the report from the International Development Committee on reconstructing Afghanistan.

Thursday 17 July—A debate on the report from the Defence Committee on medical care for the armed forces.

My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor has just announced that we will be bringing forward emergency legislation on witnesses. We anticipate that that will be in the week beginning 7 July, and there will be consequences for the timetabling of other business that week. I shall give full details next week of the business as it has changed for the week beginning 7 July.

I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her statement. Earlier, she made a statement on the equality Bill. As Leader of the House, she has a responsibility to ensure that Ministers take Parliament seriously. Indeed, on 10 January she said that

“it is important that Ministers are answerable to this House rather than the media.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 538.]

Will she explain to the House why, as the Minister for Women and Equality, she gave details of the equality Bill to the press yesterday, and on television and radio this morning, before her statement to the House?

Last month, I tabled a written parliamentary question to the Cabinet Office asking whether it had met its self-imposed senior civil service diversity targets by the April 2008 deadline. The Cabinet Office replied that the figures would not be published until the autumn. Soon after, in a desperate attempt to stop The Guardian from publishing an article on diversity target cover-ups, the Cabinet Office released its figures to that newspaper. Does not the Leader of the House agree that it is unacceptable for a Government Department to refuse to give figures in a written parliamentary answer but to disclose them to a national newspaper? Will she undertake to write to the Cabinet Office on behalf of all Members who expect proper answers to their written parliamentary questions?

May we have a debate on the workings of the Government Equalities Office, for which the right hon. and learned Lady has responsibility? It was set up to ensure equality and fairness, yet it is the only Government Department that has failed to set up a database to monitor its equality performance. In the paper “Framework for a Fairer Future”, the table on the percentage of staff who are disabled shows under the title “Government Equalities Office” not a figure but the words “Under review”. The Government are very willing to point the finger at the private sector, but they would do well to set their own house in order first.

We had a statement yesterday on the Pitt review of last summer’s devastating floods, which recommended urgent action that needs to be taken to prevent a recurrence. The Government have announced that they will publish draft legislation in 2009, which might not be in force until 2010. The two-year timetable suggests that the Government have failed to grasp the urgency of the recommendations. As the Government’s business manager, will the right hon. and learned Lady make a statement to the House to explain that delay?

May we have a debate on the property market? Many would-be first-time buyers are not only being turned down by mortgage lenders but faced with having to pay higher rents, which eat even more into their savings. Home ownership is getting beyond the reach of many more people under this Government, so may we have a debate on the subject?

May we have a debate in Government time on the structure of Government Departments? We learned yesterday that the loss of the personal details of 25 million people was a direct result of the reorganisation of Departments brought about by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor. We also know that the changes that he introduced to banking supervision through the tripartite approach to supervision were a factor in the failure to identify Northern Rock’s problems at an earlier stage. The Midas touch turned everything into gold, but the Brown effect turns everything into chaos.

Speaking of the Prime Minister, and given that we are at the anniversary of his taking over, may we have a debate on the effect of his first year in office on the state of the nation? That will enable us to discuss the 2,500 post office closures, the first run on a bank in 150 years, soaring food, fuel and energy costs, overcrowded prisons and the early release of criminals, the doubling of violent crime, the closure of maternity departments and accident and emergency departments, and the loss of the personal details of half the population. In a year, he has gone from Flash Gordon to Crash Gordon. When will he accept that it is time for change?

The right hon. Lady asked about this morning’s statement on equality. As she will know, a year ago a consultation document was published, and since then there has been a great deal of debate and discussion in both the public and the private sector about the different measures that should be taken forward. There has been a lot of public discussion and debate, which I, as well as many others, have taken part in. The document that we have published today was not circulated to or seen by anybody before it was placed in the Vote Office of this House.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the release of information in relation to the senior civil service targets on equality. I shall look into the sequence of events following her written question. Obviously, if information is available it should be given. I shall write to her to let her know what the sequence of events was.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Government Equalities Office and said that the public sector must set its own house in order. Indeed it must, and that is why we have published for the first time the gender pay gap between different Government Departments so that we can see where things are, take stock and make progress.

The right hon. Lady asked about the legislation arising from the Pitt review on floods. Her point was answered when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made his statement yesterday. I leave her with the answer that he gave: that we need to legislate as swiftly as we possibly can, while ensuring that we get it absolutely right. I cannot add to his extensive and detailed statement.

The right hon. Lady asked for a debate on the property market and expressed concern about the situation for first-time buyers. I remind her that last Thursday, the subject of the topical debate was eco-towns, and the increased supply of housing was very much an issue of debate. The House had a full chance to raise that subject for an hour and a half.

The right hon. Lady asked about the review of data protection, published yesterday. The House had a full statement from the Chancellor on the details of the Poynter review and the Government responses to it, so I do not think that it would be right or necessary to have a further debate. If hon. Members want to make any further points on the matter, we will have the opportunity this afternoon to debate the draft legislative programme and the range of legislation included in it. Members might find the opportunity to make their points.

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that the review of the use of restraint in secure training centres, which was set up following the death of Gareth Myatt and was supposed to report quickly, reported to the Government last week? However, it is not to be published until October, when the Government will publish their response. Does she agree that by any stretch of the imagination, taking a year to publish is not very quick? Will she arrange for publication to be brought forward to before the recess, so that people have the opportunity to read the report before the Government publish their response, which may well be in October?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has raised this issue persistently. She will know that we are considering how young offenders are treated as part of the youth crime action plan. The use of appropriate, but not excessive, restraint is being considered as part of that. On 8 October the Minister of State for Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), announced the appointment of Williamson and Smallridge as independent co-chairs of the review. On 20 June it was announced that they had reported their recommendations. The Government have welcomed their report and will give its recommendations careful consideration. We will consider my hon. Friend’s point about getting the response of hon. Members before the Government publish their response.

May I repeat a request that I make fairly frequently of the Leader of the House? She has announced that two Bills will have their Report stage in the next two weeks—the Finance Bill and the Regulatory Enforcement and Sanctions Bill. Has she yet been able to come up with a formula to allow Opposition amendments and new clauses to be considered, but to allow additional time if the Government wish to make changes to their own legislation, rather than time being taken out of the normal, agreed time for considering the Bill that has come from Committee?

The situation in Zimbabwe is desperate and ever worsening. The Leader of the House has announced that there will be a debate on Zimbabwe. Can we find a way of ensuring that that debate is given the time necessary for colleagues in all parts of the House to express their views? I am sure that that will be agreed to across the House. I do not think that there is a single person in Britain who would not think it perfectly proper for us to spend a full day, after questions, debating Zimbabwe. I am conscious that there are to be motions on Members’ pay and allowances the same day, but I do not think that the public will understand if we do not have adequate time to debate Zimbabwe, and instead take up time debating our own pay and allowances. I am sure that colleagues throughout the House would be willing to sit later to deal with our own domestic arrangements and remuneration. Like the public, we would think it far better to give Zimbabwe the time that it needs. There are many links with Zimbabwe in the House and there is huge concern, and next week presents an opportunity to debate the matter properly.

As other hon. Members will, I welcome the work of the Leader of the House and her colleagues on the Members Estimate Committee in producing their report, which we are to debate. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is also on the Committee. Given that one of the objectives that it has set is to get public confidence in the new systems for dealing with our pay and allowances, if the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life makes comments and observations on the report in good time before next Thursday, will the Government take them into account and be willing to reconsider specific proposals in the light of that external advice? That way, we could see that we were doing something that not only commanded confidence among MPs, and was put to MPs to decide on, but had support outside the House.

Last week, the Prime Minister went to Jeddah to discuss the global energy crisis. May we have a debate on that issue and on the profits of oil companies? Ideally, we would have the Prime Minister here so that we could quiz him on the benefit of that trip and whether it will make any difference in the short, medium or long term to families in Britain. They are still seeing their bills go up, without any immediate prospect of the energy companies contributing to their going in the opposite direction.

Finally, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead pointed out, it would be wrong for us not to mark the fact that this week is our Prime Minister’s first anniversary in office. He told us a year ago, and told the nation again in September, that he wanted to carry on rather than call a general election so that he could set out his vision for Britain. As he has had 12 months of doing that, and as Labour’s ratings in the opinion polls have gone down in that time by a record 13 percentage points to their lowest ever recorded figures—

Ours have not gone down at all in that time, just so that the hon. Gentleman is clear.

In view of all that, may we have a debate on the highs and lows, and successes and failures, of the Prime Minister’s first year in office? In particular, could we link that to considering whether it would have been better for the Prime Minister and the Government to have signed up long ago to fixed-term Parliaments? In that case, the Prime Minister would not have had the embarrassment of last September—will he, won’t he, and then no election happening at all. We would all have known that four years after the previous election there would have been another, so that we could have decided whether we really wanted this Government to continue in office in any longer.

The hon. Gentleman raised the point about having sufficient time to discuss amendments on Report. We timetable Report stages with programme motions precisely to take into account the issues that need to be debated. Obviously the timetable varies from Bill to Bill, but his distinction between Opposition and Government amendments is sometimes quite blurred. Quite often, the Government table amendments because we have undertaken to do so at the request of Opposition Members or our own Back Benchers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Zimbabwe. The House had a chance to hear from the Foreign Secretary in his statement on Zimbabwe on Monday. On Wednesday the Prime Minister answered questions on the matter and reported his and the Government’s action. Next Thursday the House will have a one-and-a-half-hour debate, which will be the first opportunity to debate the matter after the elections. Unfortunately, I doubt that that will be the end of the matter, and no doubt we will need to have further debates, but I thought it important that we should have one as soon as possible after the elections. I think that we would all welcome Nelson Mandela’s comments last night denouncing Mugabe and the Zimbabwean regime as a total failure of leadership.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Members Estimate Committee and whether the Government could take into account the comments of the Committee on Standards in Public Life when bringing the matter to the House. Perhaps I could make it clear to him and to the House that the Members Estimate Committee reports to the Speaker, and it is therefore not for the Government to bring that matter forward. As Leader of the House I am a member of the Committee, but next Thursday’s debate on the report will be led by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I pay tribute to the three members of the MEC—the MEC three—for all the work that they have done in conducting their root-and-branch review. We must ensure that there is proper transparency and public confidence in Members’ allowances, which should be commensurate with their ability to live both in London and in their constituencies, and run effective offices, in the interests of our democracy and of their constituents.

I want to help the House by explaining what will happen next Thursday. After the Zimbabwe debate, we intend to move a motion making it clear that the first debate will be on the Baker review proposals, which we will table in the Government’s name—in fact, they should already have been tabled today—for the House to see and for hon. Members to try to amend. The Government’s approach has been set out in our written ministerial statement. Thereafter, there will be votes on the question of MPs’ pay, and the future comparator and review systems. We propose that they will be followed by a debate on the MEC and also, following the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), on the question of the privacy of hon. Members’ addresses. That is how the debates will go, and I shall bring forward a proposal to the House to that effect. If colleagues want to make different proposals, perhaps they will do so as soon as possible.

May we have a debate on the insane competition among developers to build taller and taller buildings in London? A proposed 38-storey block in Clapham Junction and a 39-storey block in Wandsworth high street are to be joined by a tower that is 1,000 ft high—equivalent to 100 storeys—next to Battersea power station. That will be exceeded only by a tower in my right hon. and learned Friend’s own borough, which will be 1,117 ft high. May we have a debate about reintroducing height guidelines to stop that madness?

My hon. Friend raises a matter that is important in his constituency and all other London boroughs, but perhaps he should seek a debate in Westminster Hall.

What is the point in having an independent review body on Members’ pay if its recommendations are always turned down, however modest they may be?

The point of an independent review is that it can be reported to the House, as has happened with the review by Sir John Baker, whom I should like to thank once again most warmly for his work. The House will have a choice whether to accept his proposals or the alternative resolutions tabled by the Government. That will be a matter for the House, but I pay tribute to Sir John Baker: he has given the House a review, which it can choose, if it so wishes.

May we have a debate on the role of the third sector in international disaster relief? Last Saturday I was in Porthcawl, where members of Rotary were collecting money for that organisation’s Shelterbox scheme. A Shelterbox contains a 10-person tent, a water purification system, bedding, cooking equipment and a small toolkit. The boxes are pushed out of the back of aeroplanes flying over inaccessible regions and are used to help families survive until international aid efforts are put in place. The kits save lives, and we should acknowledge them. Can we debate that?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster led a debate a week or so ago on the important role of the voluntary sector. It focused on the work done by many organisations such as Rotary in Porthcawl. This country makes a great contribution to development through the work of the Department for International Development, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recognises that that is added to many times over by the work done by individuals and organisations in constituencies around the country. I shall draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

May we have a debate, or at least a statement, on today’s reports that the powers of the Criminal Records Bureau are to be extended? As I understand it, people who have foreign exchange students in their houses would have to be subjected to a CRB test, as would I if my children’s friends came for a sleepover. We could also then look into the fact that most child abuse takes place within families, including extended and step families. We could consider whether parents or step-parents—or girlfriends and boyfriends—should have CRB tests, and determine whether there is a real issue, which would be addressed by the proposed powers.

I think that we would all agree that if a person with a criminal record, especially one featuring sexual offences against children, applies for a job with an organisation, especially one involved with the care of children, it is important for the relevant data to be kept and shared. In that way, paedophiles who seek out work with children will be prevented from getting jobs with organisations that are unaware of their criminal background. It is very important that we support the CRB’s work in that respect. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to write to the hon. Gentleman setting out what changes to the CRB are likely to be forthcoming, but it is most unlikely that parents will be subject to criminal record checks before their children bring friends home.

May I press the Leader of the House on an issue raised by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), which she elegantly sidestepped? It has to do with the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we are to debate next Thursday. I remind her that at business questions last week she said:

“It would help the House’s debate for Sir Christopher Kelly to have an opportunity to put forward his views on the proposals on which the House will decide”. —[Official Report, 19 June 2008; Vol. 477, c. 1092.]

Does she agree that it would not be in the interests of good governance if this House were to take a final decision on allowances and salaries next Thursday, only to find that the Committee on Standards in Public Life was dissatisfied with the process and then reopened the whole issue? Will she do all that she can to ensure that we have the Committee’s views before next Thursday’s debate?

I understand that when the MEC three drew up their report they had discussions with the Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. However, the right hon. Gentleman raises a good point when he asks how the House will know what that Chairman’s views are when the debate is held. Perhaps I will invite the MEC to liaise with the Chairman to see whether he wants to write a letter to hon. Members, so that they will know his position before the debate. That would be better than having the House debate the matter and come to decisions, only to see on the television that something had been missed that the Chairman would have wanted to draw to our attention.

May I ask the Leader of the House to clarify a little more the procedures that we can expect in the various debates to do with Members’ own concerns on Thursday?

First, it has been proposed that MPs’ private addresses should not be published. In no small part thanks to the robust support exhibited by the Leader and the shadow Leader of the House, it is clear that that proposal will be carried overwhelmingly. Indeed, there is a danger that it may not come to a vote at all. Given that one of the purposes is to express on the record the strength of feeling in the House, can arrangements be made to ensure that, one way or another, a vote is held on the matter? In that way, Mr. Speaker will be able to gauge how many hon. Members feel strongly that our private addresses should not be disclosed.

That is a rather simple matter, but my second question has to do with the much more complex issue of the additional cost allowance for hon. Members’ second homes. Is the Leader of the House satisfied that enough time has been allocated for us to debate all the complexities involved? For example, one might want to raise the hypothetical situation that would arise if there were a change of Government. In that case, certain Opposition Members would become Ministers and therefore have to spend many more nights in London than previously. As a result, they might fall foul of the rules that say that their main home must be the one in which they spend most nights.

Unless we get rid of the wretched allowance system, those are the sort of complexities that we will need to consider next week. I am not happy that we will have enough time.

The hon. Gentleman will be able to raise those points in the debate. If he wants clarification before then on the detail of the Members Estimate Committee report—on what it intends and what lies behind it, but is perhaps not explicit in it—he should get it from the House authorities. The hon. Gentleman has time to do that before the debate next Thursday; there is plenty of time, as the report came out yesterday.

The hon. Gentleman said that a vote would assist the Speaker and everybody else to understand the strength of feeling about the privacy of Members’ addresses—and about the protection of democracy in this House, so that Members can speak up without fear or favour and without looking over their shoulders. All the hon. Members who have signed his early-day motion have contributed to that understanding, and no doubt signatures can still be added to it. It is important for there to be an opportunity for a formal motion of the House.

If no one votes against a motion, that is not because people do not feel strongly about it, but because there is unanimous support for it. I am sure that we will not need to debate it at huge length next Thursday, because there is a fair degree of unanimity across the board. Even some of the usual suspects, who can usually be counted on to be on the other side of the argument, are on the side of the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion.

May I, too, support the calls for some sort of parliamentary review? I agree that now is an appropriate time, given that the Prime Minister and the right hon. and learned Lady have taken over the helm and so effectively engaged the public with a range of popular policies. She will know that this is not the only parliamentary anniversary: it is also one year since the Scottish National party Scottish Government came to power. Has she any explanation for why we are experiencing high satisfaction in the opinion polls, while her Government are at historic lows?

I must draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to another forthcoming anniversary: 60 years of the national health service.

May we have a debate on the future of the Post Office card account? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concerns about the potential impact on the Post Office Network should the franchise not be given back to the Post Office. I should like to highlight one particular concern: the actions of the Department for Work and Pensions, which appears to be ringing Post Office card account holders and encouraging and coercing them—perhaps even misleading them—about the supposed need to have a bank account rather than the Post Office card account. Is that fair? Is it fair to the Post Office?

I cannot comment on what is happening in relation to the Post Office card account contract, as it is subject to the rules on public procurement. However, as the Post Office has made clear, I can say that it has put in a strong bid for the contract and regards it as very important in respect of the services that it provides through its extensive network.

The cryptosporidium outbreak at Pitsford reservoir in Kettering constituency this week has caused widespread alarm across Northamptonshire and is forcing some 250,000 people to boil all their drinking water. It is the largest-scale contaminated water scare in Anglian Water’s history. May we have a statement, verbal or written, next Thursday from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the response of Anglian Water and other agencies to the outbreak?

I understand that the Secretary of State was asked about that issue yesterday during his statement on the Pitt report. The House has already had an opportunity to hear his views on the matter. However, I understand that the drinking water inspectorate will investigate the incident. As the hon. Gentleman has said, it is important that in the meantime customers consider the information that the water company has given them.