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Business of the House

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 4 December 2008

Mr. Speaker, you informed the House on Wednesday of the subjects for debate on the Queen’s Speech. The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 8 December—Business of the House motion, followed by proceedings on a motion to establish a Speaker’s Committee on the search of offices on the parliamentary estate, followed by continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The subjects for debate, as you announced, Mr. Speaker, will be employment, universities and skills, and housing.

Tuesday 9 December—General debate on European affairs.

Wednesday 10 December—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Foreign affairs and defence will be debated.

Thursday 11 December—Continuation of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Health and education will be debated.

Friday 12 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 15 December will include:

Monday 15 December—Conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. The economy, pensions and welfare will be debated.

Tuesday 16 December— Estimates (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on energy prices, fuel poverty and Ofgem, followed by a debate on dental services. Details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Energy prices, Fuel poverty and Ofgem (11th Report from the Business and Enterprise Committee, HC 293; Government response - 7th special Report HC1069; and further Oral Evidence of 24 and 25 November); and Dental services (5th Report from the Health Committee, HC 289; and Government response—Cm 7470).]

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 17 December—Third Reading of the Banking Bill, followed by motion to consider the Value Added Tax (Change of Rate) Order 2008.

Thursday 18 December—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

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

Thursday 18 December—A debate on the annual report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on human rights.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week’s business. I have some serious points to raise about the business next week, but before that there are some issues that I want to raise relating to matters outside the House.

First, I am sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about the latest tragic news from Zimbabwe, so will the Leader of the House make sure that before the Christmas recess the House is informed about steps being taken to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe and to ensure that those innocent people are given the help that they desperately need?

Yesterday the Prime Minister announced a new scheme to help home owners who have lost their jobs and are fearful of losing their homes too. Before we debate housing next week, will the Housing Minister make a statement on the details of the scheme, setting out how it will work, who it will help and which lenders are signed up to it?

With only eight sitting days left before Christmas, will the Leader of the House give us a date for the Chancellor’s oral statement to the House on Equitable Life?

I turn to the business for next week. Mr. Speaker, we welcomed your statement yesterday on the search by police of the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and seizure of equipment and material from his office, and welcome the decision to set up a Speaker’s Committee to look into the matter. I remind the Leader of the House that in his statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker said that the Committee was

“to report as soon as possible.”—[Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 3.]

The details were to be set out in a Government motion.

Today we have that Government motion. It bears no resemblance to the statement by Mr. Speaker and no resemblance to what the House understood would be an immediate and speedy inquiry into the police action. Far from an immediate inquiry, the motion says that the Committee will immediately adjourn and will not meet not just until after the police inquiry is finished, but until any criminal proceedings are finished. In other words, it might not meet for months. And the Committee is to reflect the balance of the House. In other words, it will be dominated by the Government. Does the Leader of the House not accept that it is in the Government’s own interests to ensure that there can be no suggestion that there is interference in the work of the Committee by the Government?

I am sure the Leader of the House, like the Prime Minister yesterday, will hide behind the need not to affect the police investigation, but does she not accept that there are different issues at stake? The police investigation is into the leak of information from the Home Office. The Speaker’s Committee will consider the seizure by police of material from the office of a Member of the House and police interference with the ability of a Member of the House to do their job. At heart lies the relationship between a Member and their constituents, who rely on the confidentiality of any information that they give us or material that they share with us.

The matter raises issues of concern across the whole House but, typically, the Government are curtailing debate to three hours, including debate on the business motion. We should have a full day’s debate on this matter. Of course, we should not lose a day’s Queen’s Speech debate on education, skills and housing, so will the Leader of the House change the business and give us a full day’s debate on the Speaker’s Committee motion, another full day’s debate on education, skills and housing and let the Queen’s Speech debate go on a day longer?

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker made it clear that in future a warrant will always be required when a search of a Member’s office or parliamentary papers is carried out. The Prime Minister refused to agree with that. Does the Leader of the House agree with that new procedure? Yesterday, the Prime Minister refused to say that he regretted that a Member’s office was searched without a warrant. Last night on television, the Leader of the House also refused to do so. Will she now tell the House that she does regret the fact that a Member’s office was searched without a warrant?

In relation to the confidentiality of constituents’ business, can the Leader of the House confirm that to access the electronic files and e-mails of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, the police would have gone into the parliamentary server and on to the shared drive, and will therefore have been able to access all hon. Members’ e-mails and files? Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that no other hon. Member’s files or e-mails were accessed by the police?

Finally, the Home Secretary is making a statement on this matter this morning. However, the Home Office reportedly passed responsibility for the leak investigation to the Cabinet Office. When will the Minister for the Cabinet Office come to the House to make a statement setting out what he knew about the matter and his involvement in it? At the heart of this issue lies the ability of Members of this House to do their job and represent their constituents. It is the job of the Leader of the House to protect the interests of this House. The motion for Monday’s business manifestly fails to do so; the Leader of the House now needs to think again.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of Zimbabwe. There is a state of emergency in that country because of the cholera epidemic, and I am sure that that issue will be very much on Members’ minds next Wednesday when we have the Queen’s Speech debate on foreign affairs.

On housing, the right hon. Lady mentioned the Government’s announcement about additional help so that people whose income is affected by the global economic circumstances affecting the economy of this country should not have to fear that, as a result, they will face repossession. She will know that what was announced yesterday is part of a number of measures. One is that if people lose their jobs, they will be able to look to social security to help them with the interest payments on their homes; that has been increased to cover mortgages of up to £200,000. It has been brought forward to January, and will be available after 13 weeks instead of 39 weeks. She will also be aware that the courts are operating on a protocol that repossession must be granted only as a matter of absolute last resort, and that the banks are agreeing that they will not start proceedings until six months after the relevant person falls into arrears; previously, the period was three months.

In respect of the arrangements announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, they are a further Government guarantee to protect people. People will not lose their homes if their income falls because they are put on short time or lose their jobs. The arrangements are by way of a Government guarantee to banks in order that they should allow interest deferral for a period of two years. Further details are being worked up and will be made available to the House.

The right hon. Lady raised the question of Equitable Life, and a statement on that will be made before Christmas—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister said yesterday that it would be made before Christmas.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the motion that I have laid before the House to facilitate debate on Monday. It was tabled yesterday and is available to Members. The business motion is amendable and the motion is amendable. I would say that there are four principles that are important for us all to—

There are four principles that, as Leader of the House, I strongly support. The first is that Members should be able to get on with their job as Members of Parliament, the job to which they have been elected, and that the Opposition must be able to get on with their job of holding the Government to account—that is a job not just for Opposition Members, but for Government Back Benchers as well.

The second principle is that Members are not above the law, and the third principle is that we should support the operational independence of the police. It is very important for hon. Members to bear that in mind at all times—including later today and on Monday.

I add a fourth principle that I hope that the House would support: the impartiality and professionalism of civil servants and the civil service and the upholding of the civil service code. I will not respond to the right hon. Lady’s invitation to comment on the police investigation—that would, in my view, invite me to interfere with the police carrying on their job in respect of a current investigation.

The security of hon. Members’ e-mails is a security matter and therefore a matter for the House authorities.

Will the House be able to add names to the Speaker’s Committee or leave names off? Will Members be able to apply to join the Committee, because I would rather like to be a member? [Laughter.]

I thank the Leader of the House for her statement. I also thank her for the fact that we know that we will have a statement by the Home Secretary today and the debate on Monday. I appreciate that outside the House people are concerned about their homes, jobs and finances, but these matters are to do with the House and its business. I will work on them with my colleagues in the Conservative party and in other parties, and with Labour Back Benchers, to ensure that the rights and privileges that we have on behalf of our constituents are upheld. I ask these questions, or make these comments, in that context.

First, let me say to the Leader of the House that your statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker, was helpful but made it absolutely clear that somewhere among the authorities of this House and/or the police there was a fundamental failure to protect the rights and interests of our constituents. We have great respect for you, Mr. Speaker, for the Serjeant at Arms, for the Leader of the House and for the police—both for the offices and the persons—but there can be no escaping the fact that we must have accountability for the failures that meant that police came into this building without a warrant. That is unacceptable, and I hope that the Leader of the House accepts that. Although she appears, understandably, to be separate from this issue, she has the same duty as we do in making sure that the rights and liberties of all Members of Parliament are upheld, and that if Officers of the House, however eminent, do not do that, they are held to account. I cannot say otherwise, because it is really important that we do that.

Let me also say that the police, whom we respect, have a duty to be respectful of the job that we do on behalf of our constituents, and if they have made mistakes, then they, too, must be held to account, because they are not above the law either; nor are they above understanding the constitutional position that they have in relation to this place.

Secondly, I will not stand up here and support civil servants acting improperly—I share the Leader of the House’s view about that—but the Government have failed to bring a civil service Bill before Parliament, although they have had opportunities to do so since 2004, when we had a draft Bill. May we have an assurance that in this Session we will have a civil service Bill so that we can legislate to put the rights and responsibilities of civil servants on to a statutory footing, for which we have argued for a very long time?

The Leader of the House announced that the week after next we will have a debate on the prayer that my hon. Friends and I have tabled on the VAT increase. It is nonsense that the Chancellor can come to Parliament and make a pre-Budget statement that is actually a Budget and that has immediate effect the following week—on 1 December, when the tax changes were implemented—yet Parliament has no say in that decision. Last year, the Prime Minister said at the launch of his leadership campaign:

“I want to build a shared national consensus for a programme of constitutional reform that strengthens the accountability of all who hold power”.

I put it to the Leader of the House that he is not succeeding if he brings measures to Parliament whereby Parliament has no right to vote on money spent and money raised.

Unless this Parliament can take some of its powers back and manage the spending and raising of money, we are in trouble, and we are not doing our job.

Lastly, I put this point to the Leader of the House throughout the last Session, and she was sympathetic in words but not yet in action. We have a relatively short legislative programme. During the previous Session, week after week, there was no time for amendments or new clauses tabled by her colleagues or those in other parties to be debated. Will she today give an undertaking that all legislation this year will be properly debated and that there will be a new procedure, like that of many Parliaments, through which a business committee is established so that Parliament can decide its business, not the Government? We need less power with the Executive and more power with Parliament and the people, and unless she can deliver that, she and her colleagues will fail the country badly.

I take it that the hon. Gentleman was saying that we should have cross-party support for the four principles that I have set out as Leader of the House—the principles of MPs being able to get on with their job, the police being operationally independent, the impartiality of the civil service and MPs not being above the law. We should not pick or choose one or the other of those four principles for our convenience. It is incumbent on this House to support all those principles and make sure that we get the balance right. I know that the hon. Gentleman understands and reflects deeply on constitutional issues, and he will recognise that we need a cross-party, whole-House approach to the question of the four principles, not a party political divide.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the civil service code, which we support, and we also introduced the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 in order that there should be provision for civil servants who felt that it was on their conscience to disclose information in the public interest to give out information.

The hon. Gentleman talked about all legislation being properly debated. It is my concern to ensure that Bills are in as good an order as possible before they are introduced to the House, so that amendments can only be those introduced as a result of debate in the House. I share the view of the House, and support it in its concern, that policy should be established clearly in advance so that a Bill is brought to the House in as complete a form as possible. We always have to introduce amendments if they have been tabled in another place or by Back Benchers from across the House, but I agree that it is my responsibility to ensure that all legislation is properly debated.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me and most Members of this House about the importance of the independence of Members of Parliament and the way in which they should be allowed to carry on with their work? Many of our constituents will not forgive us if we get this matter out of proportion but accept that we are in the midst of a global economic meltdown, and my constituents would be very displeased if we were distracted from the main purpose of this House, which is making sure that the people of this country survive and thrive in this global economic turmoil.

I agree with the sentiments that lie behind my hon. Friend’s points. We have to have a proper focus on the four principles that I have set out today. They are important constitutional principles, and we should guard them jealously and properly. However, there are also important issues on a daily basis for our constituents throughout the country who are worried about their jobs, their businesses or their homes. The business of Government is to ensure that we act and do everything that we can against a background of a global economic crisis. We need to ensure that we give people real help now, and more than that, we must ensure that the economy in this country is in a position to move forward when the downturn ends.

Does the Leader of the House agree that our constituents should be concerned if they are subject to unlawful search and seizure? Does she agree that newspaper offices should be concerned if they are subject to unlawful search and seizure? Does she understand that if Members of Parliament cannot be protected from unlawful search and seizure, why should anyone else think that they can be either? That is the key point. When—as, eventually, it surely will—the heat goes out of this episode, during which, I am afraid, there has been disgraceful conduct, we must appreciate that the key point is that our offices and the confidential communications from our constituents should be protected from unlawful search and seizure.

I invite the right hon. and learned Lady to make a constructive response, so will she tell me what she thinks that we need to do—we do not need to wait for the Committee, which, as we have just learned, may not meet for months—to ensure that confidential correspondence from our constituents is protected from unlawful search and seizure?

I think that no one, whether hon. Members or ordinary citizens of this country, should be subjected to unlawful search and seizure. The issues that the hon. Gentleman raised will be debated next Monday. I remind hon. Members that, although we must ensure that we protect the privilege of Parliament and the rights of Members of Parliament to get on with their job without unwarranted interference from the law, we must also respect the operational independence of the police.

First, the Leader of the House is correct to base the matter on principles other than those that protect only our interests. The whole picture must be seen. Secondly, will she urge hon. Members to avoid, if possible, making blatantly prejudicial statements, which imply that there is a prima facie case of unlawful activity by the police? That is untrue and will prejudice the investigation. Thirdly, we must remember that all the parties to the dispute—the House authorities, the Home Office, the Cabinet Office, Members of Parliament and the police—have the opportunity to state their case except the police. We should give them the benefit of the doubt until the investigation has been carried out rather than prejudicing the inquiry before it has begun.

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. It is incumbent on us all not to do anything that would prejudice the prosecution—if there is a prosecution. It is also incumbent on us all to do nothing that might prejudice the defence. We all have a responsibility. There is currently a police investigation and there are suspects. It is not for one side of the House to be the prosecution and the other to be the defence. The matter should not be party political—[Hon. Members: “Quite right.”] I am glad that I have the whole House’s support on that. It should not be party political—it is a matter for the criminal justice system. When there is a current police investigation, none of us should take sides.

Does not the Leader of the House accept that the financial crisis is totally separate from what occurred last Thursday? It is wrong to keep saying that the House should debate the financial crisis and not matters relating to the House’s integrity. Unless the House has independence and integrity, it cannot deal with the matter properly. Will she think again about providing only a three-hour debate on Monday? As far as I am concerned, we have a mission to try to restore some integrity and independence to the House. How can we do that unless a wide range of Members from all parties can participate in the debate? Will she provide a full-day’s debate? That was my interpretation of Mr. Speaker’s responsible and helpful statement yesterday.

I will seek to ensure that the House has adequate time to debate important issues such as the economy, jobs, small businesses and people’s homes and focus appropriately on what I have acknowledged to be important constitutional principles. We must have time to consider both and strike the right balance between them. As I said, the business of the House motion is amendable.

Is it in order to drag the discussion back to items that are a high priority for millions of UK citizens? I refer to those persons with disabilities. I tabled early-day motion 2191 in the previous Session and referred to it in business questions, when I asked about the ratification of the United Nations convention of the rights of persons with disabilities.

[That this House is concerned by the delay in the Government’s ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; notes that to date 41 signatories have ratified this progressive international human rights instrument, including Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, China, Cuba, India, Kenya, New Zealand, Niger, Paraguay, Qatar, South Africa, Spain and Tunisia; believes that the UK’s delay in ratification compromises the Government’s existing achievements and objectives in tackling disability discrimination; and calls upon the Government to ratify the Convention without reservation or further delay.]

The Leader of the House gave me a helpful answer and the strong impression that ratification would be announced before the Christmas recess. Can she confirm that and say what the form of that ratification will be? Will it require primary legislation? If so, was that announced in an appendix to the Queen’s Speech yesterday, because I could not find it?

The rights and opportunities of, and support for, people with disabilities are very much part of the Government’s legislative programme, in particular the Equality Bill and the public sector duty on all public authorities to support the inclusion of people with disabilities, protect them from discrimination and ensure that they have the right levels of support. As for my hon. Friend’s question about ratification, I will ensure that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions writes to him about that.

I had hoped that after your helpful statement yesterday, Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the House would have taken the opportunity to bring the parties together on the issue. Nevertheless, the motion before us today appears to be taking the mickey. Having said that, let me return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) raised, which concerns the other constitutional issue that we should be discussing. Our primary responsibility in the House is the control of supply—the control of taxation—yet just before Prorogation, we were presented not just with a Budget, but to all intents and purposes with a radical Budget, on which we had no debate except for your agency, Mr. Speaker, and no opportunity to vote. Is the House doing its duty on behalf of the British people—a duty set out in the Bill of Rights—to ensure that there is no taxation without parliamentary consent?

We have many occasions to debate the economy and it is right that we should do so. As for the motion, it will be debatable on the proceedings on a motion to establish the Speaker’s Committee. That will be a business of the House matter that will be debated and voted on by hon. Members on Monday.

In reply to an Opposition Member, the Leader of the House said that we would have the opportunity to discuss Zimbabwe on Wednesday. I am more concerned about the plight of the citizens of that benighted country who are stranded in Britain without having had their applications for asylum granted, but whom it is not planned to return to Zimbabwe. They are starving. Could we not have an announcement before Christmas on arrangements to allow them to work?

I think that my colleagues in the Home Office are very well aware of the difficulties for people from Zimbabwe, to which there are no forcible removals, and whether they are in a position to support themselves. I know that my colleagues will have heard the points that my hon. Friend has made, but in any event I shall refer her points to them.

Since the narrowly drawn terms of reference for the committee of senior Members that the Leader of the House has set out seem to relate entirely to the future, what conceivable justification is there for providing that it should not start its work until the criminal investigation has concluded?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman, being a former barrister and a former Home Secretary, will know that it is very important that we prejudice neither the prosecution nor the defence in this case. Mr. Speaker has said that the arrangements for a search of the House in the future are already changed. It is important that we discuss and ensure that the constitutional principles, all four of which need to be upheld by the House, are the subject of reflection. The Committee will undoubtedly be part of that, but it is not wise to set up a concurrent investigation when a police investigation is under way. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman reflects on that even for a few moments, he will know that I am right.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for proving all the doubting Thomases wrong: we did bring forward in the Queen’s Speech the marine and coastal access Bill, which is long overdue. However, it was somewhat disappointing that the floods and water Bill will be published only in draft form. Will she seek early publication of that Bill, so that we can undertake pre-legislative scrutiny? The Bill is important for those of us in certain parts of the country and we need it at the earliest opportunity.

Yesterday, I wrote to the Chair of the Liaison Committee about which Bills should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. I take my hon. Friend’s point that the floods and water Bill should be subject to such scrutiny.

Why have the Government overruled the Speaker’s statement that he alone would choose the membership of his Committee?

The motion says that the Speaker will choose the members of the Committee according to the composition of the House.

May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), as many of my Wakefield constituents are facing their second Christmas outside their home, following the devastating floods in 2007 and the repeat floods of this summer in 2008? I know that this is a real issue for right hon. and hon. Members who represent Hull as well, so may we have a debate, perhaps in Government time, or pre-legislative scrutiny to consider what measures can be brought in to manage better the risk of flooding in our areas, particularly in Yorkshire and in the west country?

Those matters might well be debated and considered alongside the marine and coastal access Bill.

May I take the opportunity to remind Members that the motion on the Speaker’s Committee clearly says:

“That the Committee consist of seven members appointed by the Speaker”?

The Leader of the House wrote to me yesterday asking for my views on these constitutional questions—and I hope that I will not get arrested for disclosing that fact. In addition to all the other matters that have already properly been raised, does she agree that a Committee of this kind should be chaired by a member of the Opposition? Furthermore, in respect of her remarks on the criminal law, does she accept that the rules and precedents of this House already adequately deal not only with concurrence, but with the whole question of the law and custom of this House in relation to criminal matters?

I am not quite sure about the hon. Gentleman’s final point. I know that the hon. Gentleman, as a former shadow Attorney-General, has great experience and has reflected at length on these issues, but if he is suggesting that we can with impunity have a concurrent investigation by the House of something that is subject to a police investigation, I am sure that he would not want to say that.

Many of my constituents, particularly those who work for Ford, are worried about whether they will still be in their jobs after Christmas. Given that today’s figures show a significant decrease in demand, will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the future of the British car industry to ensure that we have one at the end of this recession?

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has said that we are mindful to take whatever action the Government can take to support manufacturing industry and the important manufacturing skills base in our economy during the global downturn. I will draw the hon. Lady’s comments to his attention. There will be an opportunity to debate those issues on Monday 15 December as well as at next Thursday’s business questions.

On Monday, when the Leader of the House moves the motion in her name on the Speaker’s Committee, will she be able to explain to the House how this Committee, which will have no powers whatever, will be able to carry out the task outlined by Mr. Speaker yesterday more effectively than an existing Committee of the House, which has all the necessary powers, has no party majority and was specifically set up to look into issues of privilege?

I have tabled a motion to facilitate debate of the issue that arose in the Speaker’s statement—that there should be a Speaker’s Committee to which these matters should be referred rather than to the Standards and Privileges Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman chairs. That is a matter for the Speaker.

Will it be possible in the near future to have a debate on the requirement for Criminal Records Bureau checks for those working with children being extended to madrassahs? In my view, the current situation discriminates against Muslim children.

Obviously, if any child care services are being provided in madrassahs, they are subject to inspection and registration. If my hon. Friend is identifying the fact that such provision is being made, in effect, in madrassahs but is not coming within the inspection regime, I will invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to look into that and liaise with her on it. We need to ensure that all children are protected.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you obviously took great trouble to be very clear and precise about the nature of Monday’s debate. May I ask the Leader of the House why she has so totally ignored the Speaker’s advice?

I have tabled a motion for debate by the House. It is amendable, and I would say to the right hon. Gentleman that he, too, should be supporting all four principles to which I have referred. I do not want to be the only person besides you, Mr. Speaker, who is concerned about and alive to the issue of the sub judice rule. I would say that it is quite wrong to suggest that I have any other motive than to protect those four principles, one of which is the sub judice rule.

Can the Leader of the House help to clarify one point that has troubled me overnight? [Interruption.] No, it is a serious point. A certificate was signed by the Serjeant at Arms waiving the need for a warrant. Surely the only person who could have done that is the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). If somebody wanted to search the flat that I rent, my managing agent could not authorise that. Only I could, surely. Can we have some clarification of whether the only the person who can say, “Yes, you can come into my flat or my office,” and authorise that is that person himself or herself? Is that not the case?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the question of the ownership of material, and also the premises, and of consent to enter them. Those are two different things. I would say that they might well bear examination, but I would counsel him, too, that examination should take place after the current police investigation is concluded. Those issues certainly should be looked at.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you said to the House in your statement that to the Speaker’s Committee should be referred the matter of the seizure by the police of the material belonging to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) and that the report should be done as soon as possible. Does the Leader of the House accept that the motion that she has placed before the House complies with the Speaker’s statement in neither respect? It does not deal with the seizure of the material and it specifically prevents an early report.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is himself a learned Queen’s Counsel and when he reads the motion he will understand exactly why I tabled it in the terms that I did. I seek to protect all four principles—important constitutional issues of great concern that arise from this matter. The motion does that.

Last week, we had the devastating coroner’s verdict from the inquest on my constituent, Dr. John Hubley, who died as a result of “a catalogue” of failures at the Eccleshill independent sector treatment centre, described by the coroner as “mickey mouse” and “a recipe for disaster”. Already, I have written to the Secretary of State for Health to ask for a full public inquiry, but as this matter has thrown up the issue of safety at independent treatment centres such as Eccleshill, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this to restore some confidence among my constituents, but also among the wider public, that it is appropriate to send NHS patients to that centre?

Obviously, we want to make sure that there is absolute patient safety in the national health service, the private sector and independent treatment centres, and I will bring the hon. Gentleman’s comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

While sharing the fury felt by colleagues in all parts of the House about the House’s own issue, may I bring our attention back to the 100,000 workers in ports today, many of whom face redundancy? The woefully inadequate concession by the Government on the ridiculous, huge back-rating demand that has been put on hundreds of small businesses still leaves the directors in a position where they will be breaking the law if they continue to trade for more than another few weeks. May we have an early debate on this matter?

We will have a debate on the economy on 15 December, at the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and the hon. Gentleman can, no doubt, raise those matters then.

Yesterday’s statement revealed that the police had been in possession of the computer of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) for four days, and they will therefore have been able to access the parliamentary information and e-mail system that contains files of constituency records held by all of us, including e-mails we may have exchanged with my hon. Friend, possibly on complaints against the police including named police officers. Has the Leader of the House urgently taken steps before next week’s debate to retrieve any such information so that we can restore the confidentiality and integrity of exchanges between us and our constituents, and will she not shuffle off responsibility about this on to unnamed House officials and instead start to stand up herself for the rights of this House, Back Benchers and those whom we represent?

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker addressed the question of the return of the seized material, and Members can rest assured that I will stand up for all the four principles—not just one, but all four—in respect of all parts of the House in this matter.

I am sure that, like every other assiduous constituency MP, the Leader of the House has during the course of her parliamentary career frequently given absolute assurances to constituents who impart sensitive personal information to her that what they say will be covered as if it were the secrets of the confessional. In the light of recent developments, what advice can she give to Members as to what we should say to constituents who urge us to treat what they are about to impart to us with total confidentiality?

The hon. Gentleman will know that, as was said by Members yesterday, we are not above the law; subject to the proper procedures and processes, we are subject to the criminal law.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that the statement on Equitable Life will be an oral statement and that, given its importance, it will be given by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and can she tell the House what considerations led her to produce a motion that was inconsistent with Mr. Speaker’s statement yesterday?

The details of the statement on Equitable Life will come forth in due course and, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, before Christmas. I would expect it to be an oral statement. The hon. Gentleman adds to the complaints across the House about the motion I have tabled to facilitate a proper debate in this House; he, like other Members, can amend it if he so chooses.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) asked the Leader of the House whether the police had access to information pertaining not just to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), but to other Members on the House’s IT systems. The Leader of the House tried to shuffle that responsibility off on to unnamed people, but she is a member of the House of Commons Commission, and she is therefore a member of the House authorities; and she is the only one whom we can bring to the Dispatch Box to answer questions. Members will want to know that their information is secure. A breach of that would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, which in itself would be a criminal offence. The Leader of House must take this matter seriously, and be able to answer, if not now then in the debate on Monday.

Both the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), who asked that question, and I are members of the Members Estimate Committee and the House of Commons Commission, and we are available to discuss any matter with the Speaker and advise him on any matter. Mr. Speaker has already made comments in his statement about the return of the computers.

May we have a debate on sentencing? On Saturday 29 November, a judge sent somebody to prison for six weeks for theft, yet, unbelievably and directly as a result of the early release scheme, the same offender came before the same judge three days later, on Tuesday 2 December, and was again charged with theft. Is it not a scandal that somebody can be sent to prison for six weeks by a judge and be out of prison within a few days, because of the early release scheme, free to commit the same offence? Should not the criminal justice system be focusing on sorting out this kind of scandal, rather than on a Member of Parliament going about his legitimate business?

There will be a debate on justice and home affairs after the Home Secretary’s statement today.

I listened very carefully to your statement, Mr. Speaker, and I was very encouraged by the fact that we are going to have a debate on Monday. We have learned, however, that it is to be a three-hour debate, so what will happen is that the Front-Bench spokespeople and senior Back Benchers will speak, but junior Back Benchers will not have an opportunity to do so. I fully support your efforts, Mr. Speaker—unlike some Members of this House. Would the Leader of the House please explain why the debate will be a truncated one, rather than a full day’s debate?

I tabled a motion to allow for three hours’ debate. This was discussed in points of order yesterday and it has been discussed for the best part of 50 minutes today. I know that hon. Members will want to make speeches and put forward proposals, and the opportunity for debate will be on Monday.