Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Business of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:33 am on 19th March 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, Minister of State (Government Equalities Office), The Leader of the House of Commons , Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee, Party Chair, Labour Party, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party 11:33 am, 19th March 2009

At last week's business questions, I answered the hon. Gentleman's question about the encampment of protesters in Parliament square by saying that he or other colleagues could raise the issue at Justice questions. I added that we had said that as part of the legislative programme, there would be consideration of a Bill on constitutional reform that could address the issue. That is very much under consideration, so I endeavoured to answer him fully on the issue.

On the question of the national health service, there was a statement yesterday about the regrettable situation in Stafford hospital. There will be questions next week. The hon. Gentleman asked about our priorities for the NHS. They are simple and straightforward: that there should be more doctors, nurses and other staff in the NHS—and that is what has happened—that those staff should be better paid, because when we came into government they were extremely badly paid; that there should be tough targets, so that nobody should have to wait in accident and emergency or for a referral for cancer treatment; and that there should be tough inspections. We have pressed forward with our NHS priorities, which people who need treatment can expect and deserve.

The hon. Gentleman raised a serious point about responses to Members who write on behalf of their constituents, or of organisations in their constituencies, to NHS authorities—the chief executives of trusts or PCTs. He has raised an important point on behalf of the House. He had mentioned it to me already, so I have spoken to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend Mr. Bradshaw, who has raised it with Sir David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS. They have said that they completely agree with the shadow Leader of the House and that if a Member writes to someone in authority in the NHS, that letter should require personal consideration by the chief executive, and a personal response. There is no guidance to that effect at the moment, but my hon. Friend and Sir David are absolutely clear about their view. They are considering whether they should issue guidance, although the matter should have been self-evident. That is the absolutely clear position. If hon. Members have any concerns about the issue, they can take them to the shadow Leader of the House and he can raise them with me, or go directly to my hon. Friend the Health Minister. We do not expect Members' letters to go into a complaints system that is designed for individual patients, not for accountability, which is what the House's job is about.

The hon. Gentleman asked about reserve forces, and I should say that next week there will be a full day's debate on defence. He also made comments about the Solicitor-General, with whom I work closely and with whom I will be taking the equality Bill through the House. In her role as Solicitor-General, she is a great champion of victims of crime. She is also a great champion of her constituents and her region in the north-east. She is a fine Member of Parliament who cares about these issues and is a valued member of the Government. I will not hear a word said against her—I hope that I have made myself clear on that one.

Alan Duncan also asked about Regional Select Committees. When we passed the resolution to set those up, we determined that they would last just for this Parliament, and be reviewed thereafter, so they have that consideration of review built in. I appreciate that I am not making progress with Opposition Members, but I still take the view that there are important agencies working at regional level, investing hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, and it is a shame if Opposition Members cannot be bothered to hold them to account on behalf of their regions. I hope that they will have a conversion with regard to Regional Committees, although I do not set much store by that expectation. That is a pity, but in the meantime Members who are prepared to hold agencies to account in their regions—Labour Members—are getting on with the job. Until other Members join the Committees, they should not be complaining about them.

As for Equitable Life, when the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made her statement in response to the ombudsman's report she said that the failures that have affected a large number of people were rooted in the original mismanagement of Equitable Life, which goes back to the '80s. That was compounded by regulatory failure, for which she has apologised. We have acknowledged that regulatory failure and exceptionally, although there is no legal obligation so to do, we are determined to make ex gratia payments, for which a judge has been asked to set up a scheme. Of course, as one would expect, those in the greatest need will be dealt with first. That is how we are proceeding, and we believe that we have made the position clear to the House. The work is under way, and if the Opposition want to hear about it further or debate it, they can choose it as the subject of an Opposition day debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned unemployment. We are very concerned indeed for every person who loses their job, whether they are a man working in the car industry or banking industry, a woman working part time or an older person who is heading towards retirement but whose job is still important to them and to their household budget. Employment in the economy is important for the economy as a whole. That is why we are ensuring that we will not be cutting capital spending, as Opposition Members propose, which would make unemployment even worse. It is why we are providing a fiscal boost and putting more money into the economy to help get it going and help staunch the problem of job loss. That has led to an increase in debt as a percentage of GDP. Hon. Members complain about that, but if they are concerned about unemployment, why do they argue that we should not do all the things that we are doing to try to protect the unemployed and prevent even more people from becoming unemployed?

Of course, one thing that the Opposition simply refuse to acknowledge is that there is an unemployment problem across the country as a whole—[Hon. Members: "Too long!"] I have not taken as long answering as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton took asking his questions— [Interruption.] All right, I apologise. I shall therefore finish by mentioning FE colleges.

I remind the House that when we came into government in 1997, the capital budget for FE colleges— [Interruption.] I would just like to ask hon. Members whether they can remember what the capital budget for FE colleges was then. It was £0—there was no capital budget. Since then we have invested massively in further education, and rightly so. I reassure hon. Members that there are 261 colleges for which final approval has been given, or at which there is already work on site, and that the capital investments in those 261 colleges will go ahead as planned. Sir Andrew Foster will examine how preliminary approval has been given beyond the programme budget. We acknowledge that that is a problem, and it is being looked into. However, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, we will go ahead with the £2.3 billion in this comprehensive spending review period that we have allocated to further education colleges—and I think that £2.3 billion contrasts favourably with £0.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website