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 11:30 am on 16th July 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 11:30 am, 16th July 2009

I can tell the House that on Tuesday we will commence our business at the normal time [Hon. Members: "When?"] We will not sit earlier than normal, because one item of business is the consideration of Lords amendments, and we have to give time for their lordships to have their deliberations before the legislation, as amended by them, comes back to this House. That is why, unlike what usually happens on the last day before the House rises, we will sit at the normal time.

In relation to written ministerial statements, obviously it would be better if they could be spread more evenly, but there is something about the summer recess that concentrates Departments' minds to ensure that, if they have material that they have to make accountable to the House, they do it before the House rises. If they have put out some ministerial statements today-rather than doing it on the last day-that is some time before the House rises, which is important.

The hon. Gentleman asked about eco-towns. We remain strongly committed to the fact that we need more housing for people in this country and high ecological standards for those new homes. We have had many debates in the House about eco-towns. Ministers have remained fully accountable to the House for the policy, and for the individual announcements made. I am disappointed that the Opposition do not welcome the extra eco-homes that will be in those eco-towns.

The hon. Gentleman asked about Equitable Life; he will know that at Treasury questions earlier this week, there was extensive discussion about it. I would like to emphasise that the ombudsperson, in her report, looked at the generality of the situation, and drew conclusions about the principles of the approach. Sir John Chadwick is taking the matter forward, looking at which individuals have suffered from action for which there is culpability, and which have suffered an injustice. He will have to set up a system of paying money to individuals.

There are nearly a million policyholders, many of whom have lost out, and given that public money is about to be expended, it is important to look at setting up a framework for doing so. Information on who the policyholders are, what their policies were, when they took them out, and whether individuals made any changes to their policies has been forwarded to Sir John Chadwick's actuarial advisers, Towers Perrin, which is going through that information. Hon. Members, as well as everybody else, have been asked to make their views known to Sir John by this Friday, and he will produce an interim report in August. If we were tipping money out without a proper framework, the Opposition would rightly object and ask us what we were doing. There will be a statement, and there have already been oral questions on the subject.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the backlog of written answers. I look at the issue regularly, but I did so particularly in response to the points raised on the subject by hon. Members at the last business questions. I looked particularly at the Treasury backlog of questions and letters. There is an 80 per cent. standard for responding to correspondence within 15 days, and in the last 12-month period that was reported on, that standard was adhered to. Since then, because of the economic crisis, there has been a doubling of the number of questions and letters, and there needs to be a commensurate response. It has taken a while for that response to be forthcoming. In defence of the Treasury, there has been a doubling of questions and letters, but in defence of the right of the House to hold the Treasury to account, we want to make sure that standards of timeliness do not slip, precisely because the issues are so important at this time.

The hon. Gentleman asked about accountability during the recess, and that, too, is a very important point. He identified the question of swine flu; hon. Members will want to be able to hold the Department of Health to account on how it is dealing with the issue. I also suggest that the issue of Afghanistan will remain of concern to hon. Members throughout the recess. On swine flu, Cobra will meet fortnightly throughout the recess. The Secretary of State for Health hopes to update the House before it rises for the recess, by way of an oral statement. He is considering how he will keep hon. Members informed during the recess. That will include all hon. Members getting a weekly update on figures in their constituency from the strategic health authority and/or primary care trust, so hon. Members will be given the figures as a matter of routine, without their needing to ask for them.

As I say, Cobra will meet every two weeks. If there are issues that need to be communicated to Members in particular areas, those concerned will make sure that they find additional ways of ensuring accountability, while, of course, recognising the particular interest of members of the Health Committee. The Secretary of State is considering how he can ensure that accountability does not suffer during the recess, and any new technology, such as telephone conferencing or the online activity that the shadow Leader of the House suggested, will be used. In fact, last summer, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did exactly that and communicated with those hon. Members who represent areas that were flooded.

There will be a debate on Afghanistan and defence this afternoon, there was a statement this week, the Prime Minister answered oral questions yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence answered oral questions on Monday, and there will be a debate during the week that we return from the recess. That leaves the question about the period over the summer, and, like the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Defence is concerned that there should be specific arrangements, which he will communicate to the House, about how we will ensure that accountability does not slacken when the House rises.

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for welcoming the reappointment of Trevor Phillips as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I was slightly baffled by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that I had said that there should be more northerners on quangos, not because it is not a good idea, but because I cannot remember ever having said it. However, I am sure that if he says that I said it, I must have done. I remember that there was lots of shouting about northerners during Prime Minister's questions yesterday. I wondered what it meant, and I think that I have worked it out: the problem is that there are not enough northerners on the Conservative Benches-and long may that remain.

Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website