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The business of the House for the week commencing
The provisional business for the week commencing
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business.
Last week, as Ministers celebrated the anniversary of their Government and the Prime Minister boasted about his record, the people gave them—in the words of the Secretary of State for Wales—"a bad kicking". The Labour party lost 500 council seats. The Liberal Democrats lost 250 seats. The Conservatives gained 900.
Last week's elections also gave us yet another of the Chancellor's Macavity moments, although beforehand he had said that the people would be "voting on all" the Government. Does the Leader of the House agree, and as he is the Chancellor's campaign manager, will he make a statement on his behalf?
When everybody's attention was on last week's election results, the Government were up to their old tricks and quietly buried 12 bad news stories. They were not about minor and petty issues. We learned that the Chancellor spent £5 million on legal fees to recover tax credit overpayments from vulnerable, hard-up families. The NHS spent nearly £500 million on clinical negligence claims last year, and the Chancellor's friends at Opinion Leader Research won a £150,000 contract to organise a one-day seminar. Can we have a debate on honesty in government?
I was going to ask the Leader of the House to confirm that no bad news would be deliberately buried today but I understand that it is too late, because the Government have already started by burying the identity cards report. Perhaps he will tell us what other bad news is being announced today.
As I said, the Chancellor spent £5 million trying to recover overpaid tax credits, but according to the Public Accounts Committee £557 million in tax credits has already been written off and a further £1.4 billion is likely to be lost. The Committee says that that was caused by
"the highest rates of error and fraud in central government", and that
"the design of the internet system for tax credits was deficient from the outset".
Can we therefore have a debate on the Chancellor's mismanagement of the tax credit system?
I have previously asked for a debate on the creation of the Ministry of Justice—a decision that two former Home Secretaries called "batty" and "balkanisation". When the Leader of the House was Home Secretary, he did not think that it was too much for one person, so may we have that debate? The Lord Chancellor—the new Secretary of State for Justice—wants to reduce the number of custodial sentences to deal with prison overcrowding. Given that the Leader of the House might be Home Secretary again soon, can he make a statement confirming that sentencing policy must be based on the severity of the crime, and nothing else?
As Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the reform of party funding. While he is still in the job, will he confirm that, as proposed by Sir Hayden Phillips, the Government will not legislate on party funding without cross-party agreement?
There is another post that will be vacant when the Chancellor becomes Prime Minister. The Health Secretary has refused to resign—but I am sure that she will be sacked soon enough. One in six hospital trusts treats patients in mixed-sex—
Order. I have been patient with the right hon. Lady. She must talk about the business of next week, but she is not doing so. Perhaps she can do that.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was going to ask for a debate next week on boom and bust in the national health service, given the figures released today showing that one in six hospital trusts has mixed-sex wards. Moreover, cancer survival rates in this country are the worst in Europe, and there are 10,000 fewer nurses and health visitors than last year. A debate on boom and bust in the health service would give us an opportunity to set out the Government's failure in all those respects.
All these issues show that, whatever the Chancellor spins about providing a new start, he has been the No.2 in this Government for 10 years. Spin, crises in sentencing policy, boom and bust in the NHS—it is not just the Prime Minister's record, but the Chancellor's, too.
[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker—I missed the fact that the right hon. Lady had finished; I do apologise. I was waiting for the finale.
As the right hon. Lady knows, I spent 18 years in opposition and I am looking forward to her spending —[Interruption.] I therefore have avuncular, comradely advice for the Opposition. They should not believe their own propaganda when it comes to local election results. We had a difficult day last Thursday and Friday—that is obvious—and the Conservative party had a slightly better day. In my Blackburn constituency, however, the popular vote was up and we gained a seat. [ Interruption. ] Mr. Heath can speak for himself about what happened in his constituency. If I were a hard-headed Conservative business manager looking at the next election, I would not regard the recent results as anything like the breakthrough that the Conservatives needed. They certainly did not parallel the situation that we achieved in 1995—or, indeed, in 1990, when, sadly, we went on to lose the following election.
On the right hon. Lady's question about the expenditure of £500 million on clinical negligence claims, all of us regret the fact that such large sums are paid out in respect of clinical negligence, but I would be interested to know whether she will make proposals to cut that sum in her manifesto at the next election. Sums paid out for clinical negligence have been rising because of an increase in patients' rights and a greater readiness by courts to award high amounts of damages. If she is saying that in future patients will not have those rights or that the sums paid out —[ Interruption. ] The right hon. Lady is wittering on about honesty in Government, but I do not understand what point she is trying to make.
On the ID cards report, I was asked about it two weeks ago as it was slightly overdue. As ever, I took the issue up and we announced it today on the Order Paper. The right hon. Lady witters on about this, but one of the many differences between this Government and the Government whom she supported is that we have greatly increased the accountability of Ministers in large ways and small. One of the things that I had introduced was proper notice for written ministerial statements. One used to have to find planted parliamentary questions buried in the Order Paper, which were sometimes not there at all—
No, we have stopped that because it was wrong. Written statements now appear in the Order Paper.
I note the right hon. Lady's request for a debate on the Ministry of Justice, including sentencing policy, and I will follow that up. In respect of party funding, she should read what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and I said about any legislation. I hope that we are able to reach all-party agreement in the talks that are due to start next Tuesday, but before she starts looking at the mote in our eye, she should examine the beam in the Conservatives' eye. They never sought all-party agreement on party funding. The only legislation that they sought to introduce on party funding was against the Labour party's funding and also protected their funding. The legislation that I introduced in 2000 was done on an all-party basis. I want all-party agreement, but that depends on all parties to the talks being ready to be fair in respect of their opponent parties. I look forward to that happening in respect of the Conservative party—for the first time in its history, going back to the Osborne judgment in 1909.
As far as business for
How Parliament is treated remains to be considered and the Bill will be decided on a free vote by Members. It is important that the House has an opportunity to make the decision. As someone who introduced the original freedom of information legislation in 1999, I can tell my hon. Friend that the original intention—which had all-party agreement—was that Parliament should be exempted from it, as is the case in respect of many other Parliaments, because parliamentarians can use other means to extract information.
I leave aside the issue of Members' expenses and Mr. Speaker has already made clear his intention that the publication scheme will continue regardless of any exemption. That must be right. Indeed, the publication scheme may need to be strengthened. It is right, in this respect as in every other, to review the progress of legislation. It was never an anticipation of this or the other place that a consequence of the freedom of information legislation would be that confidential Members' correspondence on behalf of constituents would be at risk of publication. That was never, ever the intention. Publication of such matters would drive a coach and horses through the relationship that we have with constituents. It is all very well for some people to say that there are some exemptions, but the truth is that the way that some journalists and the Information Commissioner are acting means that that intention is not being met in practice by the Information Committee.
Last Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland made a statement about the failure of electoral arrangements in Scotland. May we have a similar statement about electoral arrangements in England? It should deal with the isolated but quite serious instances of alleged fraud—to which the only response from all parties must be zero tolerance—and the mismanagement in many areas that resulted in postal and proxy votes not being sent in time, and in polling cards sometimes being sent in multiple numbers or not at all. Such a statement will be needed sooner rather than later, given that we will surely have a general election following the forthcoming change in the Administration.
The Finance Bill is in Committee at the moment. Will the Leader of the House look into why that Bill, uniquely among public Bills, is not open to evidence sessions? Surely it is most important that those who are affected by the Finance Bill should be able to give evidence so as to facilitate an informed debate, but it is the one Bill for which we cannot have evidence sessions.
May we have a debate on legal aid? The Government are precipitating a crisis of their own making in what is one of the key fundamentals of the welfare state. That crisis was precipitated by the report from Lord Carter—who, for heaven's sake, has now been asked to review our prison arrangements. It is essential that we get an opportunity to have a debate on the matter and, I hope, to forestall a very serious result arising from the changes to legal aid.
I was surprised that the Leader of the House was not able today to give us a date for a statement on the future of post offices. That is a matter that affects the constituencies of all hon. Members, and I had hoped that we might have a clear date for the Government's response.
Lastly, today we have finally learned the date of departure of the man who has characterised and epitomised the Labour Government for a decade. Therefore, can we have a debate on what exactly is the role of the Deputy Prime Minister, and why he costs so much?
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked first for a statement on electoral fraud. All parties take very seriously any allegations of electoral fraud or mismanagement, and I shall certainly raise the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and invite him to consider making either a written or an oral statement. It is important that we learn the lessons in respect of fraud, which is isolated but which needs to be investigated, and any failures in the administration of postal voting.
The hon. Gentleman's question about the Finance Bill is a rather late entry. We introduced changes to the public Bill procedure to provide evidence sessions for Bills that are programmed. I do not think that there is any objection in principle to having evidence sessions for the Finance Bill, but they would have to be programmed and I am not sure that the House would find that acceptable. Moreover, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the parliamentary proceedings on the Finance Bill, he will see that they are more extensive than those on almost any other Bill. The four days of debate on the Budget deal mainly with the legislative proposals that it contains. They are followed by one day for Second Reading of the Finance Bill and two days for Committee stage on the Floor of the House, after which the Bill goes upstairs. Whatever else one might say about proceedings on the Finance Bill, one cannot argue that it is not examined fully. It is examined very extensively, and although a few years have passed since I sat on Finance Bill Committees, my experience is that hon. Members of all parties are very well briefed and that some forensic examination is carried out.
The hon. Gentleman asked about legal aid, which was the subject of a debate in Westminster Hall in January. I am aware that there are some concerns about the future of legal aid, but the hon. Gentleman will know that its budget has been vastly increased in recent years, with no commensurate increase in court proceedings. The Government must take account of the fact that money is limited—I know that Liberal Democrats do not have to bother about such matters—and make choices accordingly.
Given the continuing, unfolding tragedy in Darfur, where latest estimates are that more than 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million people have been displaced, will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Floor of the House about that tragedy?
The answer is yes. I think the whole House shares my hon. Friend's profound concern about the deteriorating situation in Darfur. Although the business is still provisional, we plan to hold that debate in the week beginning
The Leader of the House will be aware that I represent a large number of constituents who are members of the Albert Fisher pension scheme and have obviously suffered a huge amount of grief over the past five years. Those people have been seeking the advice of the pensions expert, Ros Altmann, so will the right hon. Gentleman clear up some confusion? Did she advise No. 10 and the Government on their pension policy over the past five years?
My deputy tells me that she was never a formal adviser. All of us have constituents who have suffered from the collapse of private pension schemes, but I have personally looked closely at the evidence behind their collapse and there is much independent evidence—I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with details—that suggests that the impact of the abolition of advance corporation tax on the later collapse of the schemes was remarkably small. Their collapse was principally to do with other reasons.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 1303 on the effect of legal aid reform on black and minority ethnic solicitors?
[That this House notes the speech by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Vera Baird QC to the Black Solicitors Network in June 2006; further notes that she told her audience that black and minority ethnic solicitors should regard her as an ally in the fight 'to make the legal profession one that represents Britain in the 21st century'; further notes that black and minority ethnic solicitors are more likely to undertake legal aid work than the profession as a whole and that they are more likely to be small firms; further notes that one of the intended consequences of the Government's legal aid reform is to cut the number of small firms and encourage consolidation and that the Black Solicitors Network now estimates that up to two thirds of black and minority ethnic law firms will have to close as a result of the Government's legal aid reforms; believes that such an outcome would be bad for the cause of encouraging black entrepreneurship and for the cause of encouraging diversity in the legal profession and above all bad for clients; and urges the Government to look at this issue as a matter of urgency.]
The whole House applauds the Government's wish to get value for money in legal aid spending, but it is becoming increasingly clear that among other flaws the legal aid reform will decimate black and minority ethnic solicitors who are more likely to be in new or small firms, or more likely to be dependent on legal aid work. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the Floor of the House on the excellent report of the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs on legal aid reform, which particularly emphasises its worrying effects on black and Asian solicitors?
I know that my hon. Friend held a short debate on that yesterday in Westminster Hall. I understand the concern she shares and, going back to my time as Home Secretary and my establishment of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, I know how important it was to getting the inquiry established that there were minority ethnic firms of solicitors who could represent the family during their campaign in the mid-1990s for me—as it happened—to set up the inquiry in 1997. I understand my hon. Friend's concern and I am glad that she, in turn, recognises the pressures on the legal aid budget. I shall certainly consider a longer debate, either in Westminster Hall or on the Floor of the House, and in addition I will ensure that her concerns are made known to my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor.
Is the Leader of the House aware that each year hundreds of people are needlessly killed and scores more injured all because we go through the ridiculous ritual of putting our clocks back every autumn? May we, therefore, have a debate on the benefits of extending British summer time throughout the year? [Hon. Members: "Definitely not."] If the Leader of the House cannot give us that debate next week, will he at least tell the House today why the Government appear to be wedded to the current obsolete and unsatisfactory practice?
All I say to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he were to observe the views of his colleagues he would say that it is not a Government issue, but one on which there is much to be said on both sides. All of us greatly regret road and other deaths, but to attribute them to the change from summer time to Greenwich mean time is questionable, but I wish the right hon. Gentleman luck in obtaining a debate on the matter.
I think that the Leader of the House is aware of the proposals of Post Office Ltd to close 70 of its Crown post offices in our town and city centres and also of the proposal to replace them with outposts in nearby branches of WH Smith, and in the case of Leicester in the basement of a nearby branch of WH Smith—much smaller premises. As Post Office Ltd is not allowing debate on the principle of those moves, may we have a debate here about that serious change in the provision of vital public services so that the considerable public concern that has been expressed can be reflected in the Chamber?
I shall certainly consider that. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will make a statement on the issue in due course. In my case, the Crown post office building in Blackburn is not an object of beauty—unlike that in King's Lynn—so I have never been given a print of it. The Crown post office was moved to one run by a private contractor. I am afraid that the public meeting I attended attracted only 50 people, so the move came into force without incident. Although it is hard, the fact of the matter is that the Post Office is having to adjust to major external changes in people's habits; above all, the internet facilities that have greatly reduced post office business. There is a lot of external competition as well.
Following the Scottish Parliament election results and the victory of the Scottish National party, may we have a debate in Government time so that we can learn how they will work constructively with the incoming SNP Administration? Will the Leader of the House clarify the Government's position, bearing in mind the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement that he will not work with the SNP? Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to take this opportunity to be the first Minister graciously to commend and congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Salmond. [ Interruption. ]
The Opposition Whip says, "Don't be tempted", but I always congratulate everybody who wins an elected position in any forum because that is the essence of our democracy. That can be taken in the spirit in which it is intended— [ Laughter. ]—generously.
On the wider issue, it is of course the duty of the British Government to co-operate with all institutions of governance across the country. We have shown that we do so in respect of local government and we shall do so in respect of the devolved Administrations. That is nothing new and it will continue.
May we have a debate on the security procedures at airports, especially those of the British Airports Authority, where personal searches have become robust and intrusive? Many of my constituents have complained to me about the process and I have experienced it myself as I travel back and forth. Could we not introduce a system of handheld scanners, such as that in other countries?
It is an issue about which I have thought a great deal. I understand my hon. Friend's concern and will certainly give consideration to a debate on the matter. However, on the other side, BAA and all other airport operators are under a paramount duty to ensure security—
It is also a Government requirement, as the right hon. Lady says. Although the process can be inconvenient, it is inconvenient for everybody, and none of us would forgive the Government or the airport operators if, as a result of changes in procedure, a terrorist got through and passengers' lives were put at risk.
May I ask the Leader of the House a serious question? Mention has already been made of the freedom of information legislation. Is it not wholly unacceptable that private and confidential correspondence between a Member and a Minister does not remain private and confidential? It should not be released into the public domain. Departments are releasing correspondence from Members, on what they say are legitimate requests, so will the Leader of the House give instructions to all Departments that Members' correspondence with Ministers is private and, if necessary, will he come to the House and make a statement on the matter? I believe that trust and confidentiality between Members and Ministers is at risk unless action is taken immediately.
I am happy to accede to all the requests that the hon. Gentleman makes. I share his concern. The House of Commons Commission has given consideration to the issue. New guidance has been agreed with the House of Commons and what was then the Department for Constitutional Affairs and is now the Ministry of Justice, advising public authorities on how to handle requests that involve the correspondence of Members of Parliament. I personally accept that certainly the spirit, and in some cases the letter, of the guidance has not been properly followed and that public authorities, including—but not exclusively—Departments have sometimes been too ready to accede to third-party requests for the release of such correspondence without giving the Member of Parliament any say whatever. The issue is not about protecting the amour propre of Members of Parliament; it is about protecting the rights of our constituents to correspond with us in confidence.
May we have a debate on so-called size zero models? [ Laughter. ] I am not joining them. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the organisers of London fashion week, who have not followed the lead of the organisers of Madrid fashion week by condemning size zero models? Two models have died recently. Sadly, such women are role models for many teenagers and we have seen a substantial increase in anorexia.
I will certainly give consideration to that. My hon. Friend puts his point well. As he says, there is no danger that he will drift down that route, but he raises a serious issue. Anorexia nervosa is a terrible disease. The fashion industry has a profound responsibility not to do anything directly or indirectly to encourage young women, in particular, to become anorexic.
May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 814 on excessive packaging?
[ That this House notes with concern the excessive levels of packaging used by manufacturers and retailers, accounting for 4.6 million tonnes of household waste every year and 17 per cent. of the average household food budget; commends the recent campaign against excessive packaging run by the Independent newspaper; and urges supermarkets to reduce where possible packaging on goods sold, encourage the re-use of plastic bags, recycle packaging waste and encourage suppliers to reduce packaging further up the supply chain. ]
May we have a debate on this important issue? The early-day motion has been signed by 147 Members, so there is clearly concern across the House. At a time when there is concern, controversy and debate among the public about how to deal with our refuse collections, should we not have a debate in the House about how to reduce what goes into bins in the first place?
I agree with the sentiment that the hon. Lady expresses. The waste strategy report is due out quite shortly and I will look for an opportunity for that matter to be debated.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that next Tuesday the Department for International Development, on behalf of the Government, will publish the first ever report to Parliament to arise from the International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006. Given that, on Third Reading, when the Act was carried unanimously by the House, there was an overwhelming view that the report should lead to a debate on the Floor of the House, is he in a position to assure us that that important debate will take place? The report covers issues such as the achievement of the 0.7 per cent. gross domestic product target, the millennium development goals, aid effectiveness, and, above all, transparency itself.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the great achievement of the Government over the past 10 years—one of the many achievements of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—in ensuring a huge increase in the resources available to the Department for International Development and ensuring that resources are better targeted. Our record on international development is exemplary and better than the records of any of the other major industrialised countries of the world. As he says, the report is due to be published. We are certainly giving active consideration to whether there can be a debate on the Floor of the House.
There will be questions on Tuesday in respect of the Ministry of Justice. [ Interruption. ] May I just say in response to the sedentary intervention that the time allocated for parliamentary questions to the new expanded Ministry should be longer? We are looking at that. On the wider issue raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I refer to the statements that were made when the original announcement was made in March about a Ministry of Justice. There is an expectation that in due course the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice will sit in this House.
May I support my hon. Friend Sir Peter Soulsby in asking for a debate on the takeover by WH Smith of the Crown post offices, including the one in my constituency? I believe that that will be bad for customers, that the facilities provided will be inadequate, and that there will be a cut in the wages of the counter staff and a cut in their conditions. A debate would give the Minister responsible for the Royal Mail the opportunity to defend himself against the charge that he is indifferent to the concerns of hon. Members on the issue.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is not remotely indifferent to Members' concerns. It was he who secured hundreds of millions of pounds by way of additional subsidy to ensure that post offices, including those in rural areas, can continue to operate. But none of us is able to resist the changes, not necessarily in our habits, but in the habits of our constituents, and the advance of technology. Of course I understand my hon. Friend's concerns and I will ensure that they are relayed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will also look for an opportunity to debate the matter.
May we have a debate on houses in multiple occupancy or HMOs? Their impact on constituencies such as mine is considerable. The problem seems to be that dwellings that were built with just two or three bedrooms are being converted to have six or seven bedrooms, with a major impact on parking, antisocial behaviour, noise and nuisance. Local authorities seem powerless to do much about it.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I will certainly look for an opportunity for a debate. It may have to be in Westminster Hall. If he wishes to give me more details, I will make sure that they are put before the relevant Secretary of State. There were some improvements to the powers for local authorities under housing legislation about two years ago. The legislation gives local authorities powers better to control and regulate private landlords, who often lie behind houses in multiple occupation. But I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman raises.
May I ask for a debate on a sensitive matter? There is never a right time to mention it, but it is a serious constitutional point. I am talking about what happens when a Prime Minister suffers a sudden incapacity or dies. Neither of the two main political parties has adequate arrangements to deal with such circumstances. Is there not a case for institutionalising the post of the Deputy Prime Minister? The Conservative party does not have an elected deputy leader. The Labour party does, but that deputy leader might be out of government. Buckingham Palace would be obliged under the conventions to send for that person to fill the post. It is rather sloppy of our generation that, at a time when the country could be in the middle of an international crisis, we could have uncertainty about who should be in charge of Government if the Prime Minister were incapacitated or suddenly died.
I was going to observe that there are plenty of hazards of being Prime Minister, but dying in office is a very rare one.
Yes, but he was shot and the protection arrangements are different now. That was a very long time ago. Our constitutional arrangements, which have allowed for the transfer of power between one Prime Minister and another mid-term on five occasions since the last world war, are perfectly adequate.
Given the enormous financial commitment that the nation is making to the 2012 Olympics, does the Leader of the House agree that we should have a debate in this House on the legacy of the Olympics? Given that not everybody can compete in the events, we want to give a chance to young people and British companies at least to get involved and participate.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the notice he gave me of his question. We had a statement in March, but there has not been a debate on the Floor of the House since the proceedings on the legislation two years ago. I will certainly give consideration to a debate. I cannot promise exactly when it will take place.