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Business of the House

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 15 January 2009

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 19 January—Second Reading of the Policing and Crime Bill.

Tuesday 20 January—Motion to approve European documents entitled “From Financial Crisis to Recovery: a European Framework for Action” and “A European Economic Recovery Plan”, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to financial management, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to EU-Russia relations.

Wednesday 21 January—Opposition Day (1st Allotted Day). There will be a debate entitled “Access to Emergency and Urgent Care in the NHS”, followed by a debate entitled “The Plight of Savers”. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 22 January—Proceedings on a business of the House motion, followed by a debate on motions relating to freedom of information, followed by motions relating to Members’ allowances.

The provisional business for the week commencing 26 January will include:

Monday 26 January—Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Tuesday 27 January—Second Reading of the Welfare Reform Bill.

Wednesday 28 January—Opposition Day (2nd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

Thursday 29 January—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate on armed forces personnel.

First, may I take this opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) back to his role? The Leader of the House has received numerous requests for a debate in Government time on Zimbabwe. The situation there continues to worsen, and the fact that it is not on our television screens does not mean that it should be out of our thoughts. Will the Leader of the House commit to a debate to give all Members the opportunity to speak on this devastating and pressing issue?

After months of delay, the Transport Secretary will finally make a statement on Heathrow to the House today. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said:

“There will be a debate about what he says”.—[Official Report, 14 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 212.]

I understand that the Prime Minister is to meet Labour Back Benchers after the statement has been made, but Members from all sides would welcome the opportunity for a debate, particularly as so many have signed early-day motion 339.

[That this House notes the Government’s commitment given in the 2003 Aviation White Paper, The Future of Air Transport to reduce noise impacts and to ensure that air quality and environmental standards are met before proceeding with a third runway at Heathrow Airport; further notes the assurance given by the Prime Minister on 12 November 2008 that support for a third runway at Heathrow is subject to strict environmental conditions; further notes that Heathrow Airport is already in breach of the European Air Quality Directive to be implemented by 2010; welcomes the statement by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that these environmental commitments should be honoured; supports the Chairman of the Environment Agency’s decision to oppose the third runway on environmental grounds; and calls upon the Government not to proceed with the third Heathrow runway or mixed-mode and to put the matter to a vote on the floor of the House.]

Will the Leader of the House confirm when we will have a debate on Heathrow, and when all Members, on both sides of the House, will have the opportunity to question the Prime Minister on the issue?

The Leader of the House will also know that 85 Members have signed early-day motion 428 on Royal Mail.

[That this House notes that the Labour Party Conference 2008, with the backing of Ministers, supported a vision of a wholly publicly-owned, integrated Royal Mail Group; welcomes the conclusion of the Hooper Report that the current universal service obligation offered by Royal Mail, including six days a week delivery, must be protected and that the primary duty of a new regulator should be to maintain it; further welcomes the recommendations in the Report that the Government should take responsibility for the pensions deficit which followed an extended contributions holiday; endorses the call for a new relationship between management and postal unions and welcomes the commitment of the Communication Workers Union to negotiate an agreement which would support the modernisation of the industry; observes that in 2007 the Government agreed to a £1.2 billion loan facility on commercial terms to modernise Royal Mail operations; rejects the recommendation of the Hooper Report to sell a minority stake in Royal Mail which would risk fracturing one of Britain’s greatest public services; further notes that the Government is currently advertising for a new Chair of Royal Mail; and urges the Secretary of State to appoint a Chair and management team who are committed to the principles of a modern public enterprise.]

May we have a debate in Government time on the future of Royal Mail, so that Members can discuss the Government’s part-privatisation plans?

Official figures show that 100,000 pupils educated entirely under a Labour Government failed to attain at least one GCSE at grade C or above. That is an appalling record, particularly for a party that promised it was all about education, education, education. May we have a debate in Government time on what Ministers intend to do before it is too late for the next generation of schoolchildren?

The Leader of the House has made her commitment to protecting the primacy of this House, when it comes to announcements of Government policy, clear. On 10 January 2008, she said:

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

Yesterday’s statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), on the loan guarantee scheme was leaked to the BBC on Tuesday and was followed by media interviews with Ministers yesterday morning, and it was briefed in a press conference by Lord Mandelson. An oral statement was made in the House only because Mr. Speaker granted our request for an urgent question. While the country is in recession, not only is the Business Secretary not answerable to the House but there are four Business Ministers in the Lords and only one Minister solely from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in the Commons, which makes a mockery of the Prime Minister’s pledge to strengthen Parliament. What is the Leader of the House going to do to ensure that announcements are made to the Commons so that Members can ask questions on behalf of their constituents?

Eighteen months ago, the Prime Minister said that all Ministers’ relevant financial interests would be released

“to ensure proper scrutiny of ministerial conduct”.

Yesterday, he said:

“If it has not been done, it will be done.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2009; Vol. 486, c. 211.]

Will the Leader of the House tell us when that report will be published, and will she also confirm that the delay was caused by Lord Mandelson’s “complicated” interests?

Finally, yesterday, the Business Minister, Baroness Vadera, said that she could see “a few green shoots” of recovery in the economy. That was on the very same day that Barclays announced that it was cutting 2,100 UK jobs, a further 800 jobs went at Jaguar Land Rover and the music chain, Zavvi, and Grattan announced that 3,500 jobs were at risk. What on earth was the Business Minister thinking, and do her comments not show that the Government and their Ministers are completely out of touch?

The shadow Leader of the House asks for a further debate on Zimbabwe. Members on both sides of the House are well aware how dire the situation is, and that it is deteriorating. I shall continue to look for an opportunity to debate Zimbabwe on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. Lady asks about the process following the forthcoming decision about Heathrow and the third runway. As she knows, there will be a statement by the Secretary of State for Transport, but the process thereafter is contingent on what he announces, so I shall not seek to pre-empt him by saying what it will be after the decision. That is a matter for hon. Members to put to him when he has given his substantive decision.

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs made a statement to the House on the future of the Royal Mail, bringing the House up to date and allowing it an opportunity to hold Ministers accountable. He reaffirmed our commitment to universal postal services, and the fact that we shall ensure that Royal Mail keeps its commitment to fulfil its pension liabilities. He reported, too, on the Hooper review and on our response to it. The proposals ensure that we keep our pension commitments, that we keep a universal postal service, that we have better regulation to allow Royal Mail to thrive in future, and that we go into a partnership with a minority stake held by a private partner. The proposals were put into the public domain in an oral statement to the House, and they are open to discussion. It is up to the Opposition if, the week after next, they would like to choose that as the topic of their Opposition debate.

The right hon. Lady mentioned educational outcomes for children in this country. We are very proud indeed that, after investment in education, far more and better-paid teachers in our schools, higher valuation of education, more capital investment, and rebuilding our schools, the number of children attaining five A to C GCSEs has gone up from 45 per cent. in 1997 to 64 per cent. We intend to continue that investment and to make further progress.

The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) spoke of the statement on the four-point plan to help businesses with credit lines. The whole House will be aware that the development of our plans has been ongoing: there have been announcements, debates, oral statements and responses by the Prime Minister and other Ministers to parliamentary questions. I am well aware that we need to make sure that the House is kept fully up to speed and that hon. Members have an opportunity to ask questions. Indeed, when I stood in for the Prime Minister at oral questions in December I talked about the plans that we were developing for helping businesses with their credit lines.

We want to strike the right balance between coming to the House with our plans and making sure that they are announced. This House, of course, has primacy and I have drawn up a list of all the occasions since October when hon. Members have been able to take part in topical debates, general debates and Opposition day debates on these matters. There have also been statements—on the G20, for example—as well as the pre-Budget report and the emergency debate on the economy. In addition, the Chancellor has given evidence to the Treasury Committee and we had the Queen’s Speech debate on the economy. I undertake to write to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead to remind her of just how much accountability to the House there has been in respect of the very important priority that we should all give to the economy and to providing help for business.

The right hon. Lady asked when the Register of Ministers’ Interests will be brought forward. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, it will be brought forward as soon as it is complete.

The right hon. Lady asked about Baroness Vadera, who is a highly professional, dedicated and effective member of the ministerial team at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. I would say that five minutes of Baroness Vadera’s time is worth a lifetime of the judgments of the Leader of the Opposition or the shadow Chancellor. In our ministerial team we have serious people for serious times, and I welcome the arrival in our team of Mervyn Davies.

In response to a question three months ago from my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House agreed that the situation in Sri Lanka was such that it required a debate on the Floor of the House. I should be grateful if she reconsidered that judgment, given that 70,000 people have lost their lives since the ceasefire failed. The situation in Sri Lanka is becoming much worse, with thousands of people displaced and their lives under threat.

My hon. Friend raises a point that is of concern across the House. Indeed, it was raised at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, when it received a very forthcoming response from my right hon. Friend.

It is all downhill from here.

The noble Baroness Vadera has one facet that the Leader of the House did not mention—she is unelected. We have got ourselves into a constitutional muddle on this issue, as I shall make clear. The junior Minister in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was dragged to this House yesterday to make a statement and then, rather lamely, the Secretary of State who made the decision was able to make a statement four hours later in another place. I gather that another banker is being added to the ministerial team, but he too will be in the other place.

That is the constitutional problem, so will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on how, in this economic crisis, we make sure that key ministerial posts are filled by people who are properly answerable to this House? They are dealing with important economic matters but at the moment they answer to a House that is not supposed, constitutionally, to consider public finances. We are the elected House, and this is where such debates should happen.

May we have an urgent statement on the response to the High Court decision on the rights of Gurkhas to settle in Britain? Many people, myself included, feel that those brave men have been treated shamefully by this country. We have been waiting for a Government response since September, and we need a debate on the matter. Can the Leader of the House also deny categorically the report in one newspaper that the Brigade of Gurkhas is to be disbanded?

I guess I have to declare an interest in Heathrow as I am now a landowner—of a very, very small portion of land in the path of the new Heathrow runway. The Prime Minister promised us a debate. The Leader of the House does not have to be so coy about whether there will be a debate. The Prime Minister promised a debate in the House, and every indication is that the majority of Members want the opportunity to vote against what we expect to be announced shortly on Heathrow. This, again, is a constitutional issue. If most of the House want to have the opportunity to debate the matter and have a substantive motion to vote on, we should have one.

Lastly, I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Lady regularly reads the Almaty Herald or Kazakhstanskaya Pravda, but if she does she may have picked up a headline along the lines of “Prime Minister tells Ministers to answer questions”. Prime Minister Karim Masimov of Kazakhstan said:

“I order all Ministers to start personal blogs where people will be able to ask you questions that you must answer.”

I am not sure about the blogs, but would it not be an excellent precedent for this country as well if Ministers actually answered the questions that they are asked?

The process in relation to ministerial roles in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is the normal process whereby there are Ministers in the Lords and Ministers in the Commons. The most important issue is to ensure that this House is kept fully abreast of all the developments and that there is an opportunity for Members of this House to question the responsible Minister.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the Gurkhas. As he knows, new guidance is being prepared. Once it is complete, former Gurkhas’ applications for the right to live in this country will be considered case by case. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has consistently, including at the end of last year, expressed his absolute commitment to the role of the Gurkhas in the British Army.

The hon. Gentleman asks about Heathrow. I shall not pre-empt the statement. The substance and the process of the Heathrow announcement need to be looked at together. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about that after he makes his statement to the House.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s announcement that next week we will debate the important topics of freedom of information and publication of Members’ allowances. Can she assure me that we will be given the chance to debate and to vote to make our allowances even more transparent?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will have heard me announce that on the Order Paper next Thursday there will be a statutory instrument on freedom of information, followed by motions. The draft statutory instrument is in the Table Office and the motions are on the Order Paper. What I, as Leader of the House, aim to achieve by next Thursday’s business is to ensure that in respect of allowances paid to Members of Parliament, which is public money, the public can be certain that there is a clear and reasonable set of rules against which money is paid out, that there is a proper audit system to make sure that those rules are obeyed, that the amount is paid under clear headings for each individual Member of Parliament every year and is made public, that it is proportionate and affordable, and that all this is done at a reasonable cost.

That is what we are proposing in a statutory instrument and a series of motions next week. Hon. Members will see that whereas in the past we have published about 13 information headings, the combination of the statutory instrument and the motion that I will put before the House will mean that the public instead have 26 categories of information. The public will have more information than they have ever had before and we will take that back to 2005, so that for all Members, since they have been in the House, each year their allowances against 26 headings will be made public. We want to make sure that the public have confidence that there are clear rules and that they know what is going on.

I will put a business motion before the House before the substantive debate. The business motion will prescribe that the first debate will be on the statutory instrument under the Freedom of Information Act, which will be Government business. In the same debate there will also be a motion that sets forth a publication scheme. That motion will say that we will publish once a year back to 2005 for every individual Member under those 26 headings. At the end of that first substantive debate there will be two votes—one on the Government business under the Freedom of Information Act, and the second one, which will be House business, on the publications scheme.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that investment in green energy technology is essential if our economy is to be developed for the future? The north-east is ideally placed to take forward the application of that technology—critically, in continuing to develop a manufacturing base to support renewable energy. Will she make space for a debate soon on this important topic?

My hon. Friend makes an important point across both the environmental and the economic agendas. We want to provide help to businesses to invest now and hope for the future of the economy. Renewable energy and green issues will be extremely important. I will bring that to the attention of my right hon. Friends and seek an opportunity to debate it.

When the Green Book was last debated in July, a rather bizarre and unnoticed resolution went through linking capital gains tax to the additional costs allowance. There was no word of debate about it, it was completely misunderstood by the House, and it is unworkable and almost certainly unenforceable. May I suggest that next Thursday a further resolution be tabled saying that the original resolution does not come into effect until there is further debate and consideration of the matter?

The Speaker has published the new Green Book, which was prepared by the advisory panel on Members’ allowances and which was considered and approved by the Members Estimate Committee. If he looks in that, the hon. Gentleman will see that a way of dealing with that is laid down. We need to make sure that while we are not changing the provisions of the Finance Act in relation to how the selling of homes is dealt with by way of capital gains tax, we have a flexible and sensible situation for the treatment of the second home under the ACA. I am happy to have a further discussion with the hon. Gentleman after business questions so that we can go through the Green Book and I can explain it to him. My deputy and I are more than happy to go through any aspects of the motions or of the Green Book individually with Members between now and next Thursday, so that everybody can be as clear as possible before they have the opportunity for a full day’s debate on Thursday.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend consider allowing a debate on the Legal Services Commission’s latest consultation paper? It states that organisations wishing to deliver immigration and asylum advice would need to have a permanent presence in an area of high demand. Most of the immigration casework that I do is with a law centre in Gloucester, which would be expected to have a base in Bristol to continue to be able to apply for funding. That would not work and would not be acceptable. We have a very good rapport with the centre and much of my casework is about immigration, so I hope the Department of Justice will consider that.

As luck would have it, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice is present and has heard my hon. Friend’s point. My right hon. Friend has said that he will request a meeting with my hon. Friend to sort the matter out.

Given the unprecedented number of responses to the south-west regional spatial strategy, will the Leader of the House allocate parliamentary time so that a representative group of MPs from across the region can participate fully in debate on these issues?

That is exactly why the House voted to set up regional Committees—so that there can be such accountability for and scrutiny of regional spatial strategies.

My right hon. and learned Friend must realise that the issue of the third runway is of concern to Members on both sides of the House. Will she at least concede a debate in Government time, rather than there being an Opposition day debate and the opportunism that that involves? I see from the Evening Standard that the Government have a lot to say on the matter, even in advance of the statement. Will a Government debate be allowed, and will it end with a vote so that the House can express its view?

I do not want to pre-empt the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport; until he has said what his decision is, hon. Members will not know whether they really want a debate.

As the noble Lord Mandelson is now widely acknowledged to be the deputy Prime Minister, would it not be a proper answer to the questions previously put to the Leader of the House if the Prime Minister deputised for the noble Lord in this House?

The ministerial team at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is disposed between the Lords and the Commons, and accountable in both Houses.

May we have a debate on consumer protection? If someone buys a faulty pair of shoes, they can take them back. If they buy a faulty large electrical item from a company such as Comet, they are required to make themselves available for four hours so that the company can remove the faulty equipment that it has delivered. Is it not time that we looked at how we protect hard-working families who cannot take such time out and whose e-mails and letters are ignored? Should the onus not be on the company putting the issue right, rather than on the consumer being available at the company’s behest?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which goes for utilities as well. If families are hard-pressed, working hard and looking after their children and elderly relatives, they do not want to be messed around by Comet, the gas board or anybody else. I shall raise the issue not only with Lord Mandelson, but with Ministers in this House.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving a positive answer to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House about a debate on Zimbabwe. Despite the tragedy and horrific events in Gaza, it is important that we do not overlook Zimbabwe, where the death and suffering are as great or greater than in Gaza.

I turn to my main question to the right hon. and learned Lady. Will she find Government time for a full day’s debate on the economy, so that Back Benchers can express to Ministers the impact in individual constituencies of what is clearly the worst credit and financial crisis of my lifetime? The Government would be the wiser if that debate took place.

As well as the Queen’s Speech debate on the economy on 15 December, we had in Government time the emergency debate on the economy on 26 November. If we think that there has not been enough business before the House giving an opportunity for Members to comment more broadly on the economy, we will bring forward specific time for such debate. It is important that the House should play its full part, with Members bringing information from their constituencies and holding the Government to account for our handling of the economy. That is very important indeed.

Zimbabwe is a preoccupation of all Members, not least the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister himself are doing a great deal of work on Zimbabwe. The Prime Minister personally liaises with world leaders to try to mobilise the European, United Nations and African Union effort to better effect. I will look for an opportunity for an early debate on Zimbabwe.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reflect on her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)? The Prime Minister’s answer on Sri Lanka yesterday was helpful, but at the moment 300,000 Tamils are under siege because of the actions of the Sri Lankan Government. The Leader of the House changed the business this week to deal with the situation in Gaza. The situation in Sri Lanka is just as bad. Will she please allow an emergency debate on the catastrophic situation there?

My right hon. Friend raised that issue forcefully and to good effect with the Prime Minister yesterday, and we will take seriously the points that he has so rightly raised.