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a notable level of party self interest
Simon Hughes: Indeed. However, we also have the report that the Leader of the House mentioned, which has been completed in the Ministry of Justice and reviews all the elections in recent years. May I urge giving serious consideration to ending the real mischief, which is holding elections for different levels of government throughout the country on the same day? That means that people do not vote on the issues that are relevant to the various authorities. We are desperately keen to get quick rather than accurate results. There is no public support for counting by machine, when people cannot see what is going on. People prefer counting by individuals, which means that people can see what is happening. Ultimately, somebody has to take responsibility for elections.
The Leader of the House mentioned justice issues for debate. I ask her to put two items on the agenda as soon as possible. The first is prisons. We now learn that some prisons are dedicated entirely to foreign prisoners, yet in other prisons, there are many people suffering from mental illness who should not be in prison. We must put prison issues on top of the political agenda.
Secondly, tribunals in this country are now full of peoplefor example, female local government workers pursuing equal pay casesbut we cannot have group actions, which would resolve many individual issues at the same time.
I asked the Leader of the House a written question, as I said I would, about the draft legislative programme and the consultation that has taken place on it. I know that she cannot tell us today what changes the consultation has brought about, but, given that the Government published a draft legislative programme for the Queens Speech and then consulted, are any changes likely as a result of responses to the consultation, or was the consultation simply a presentation exercisespin rather than substance?
The hon. Gentleman mentioned elections in the UK. It is in the interests of all hon. Members to get everybody who is entitled to vote on the electoral register. Currently, 3 million to 4 million people do not get a chance to cast their vote because they are not on the electoral register. It is also in our interests to ensure that all those on the register vote. A high percentage of people voting gives legitimacy to institutions. That should be our only interest in UK elections when we legislate.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned different levels of electionsEuropean elections, local elections, Scottish or Welsh electionson the same day. The reason for holding them on the same day is to increase turnoutthere is concern about low turnout in some important local elections. There is a balance to be struck. Is it best to hold several elections on the same day, with people perhaps not distinguishing between the responsibility of the different tiers of government, or to have chronically low turnout? We must reflect on those matters.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about counting by machine. Extensive piloting of machine counting has taken place. Obviously, we must keep all those issues
under review. He asked who takes responsibility for the elections. Hon. Members of all parties are responsible for legislation on elections. The Electoral Commission has independent responsibility, and all parties have a responsibility to work together to improve the position.
The hon. Gentleman asked about accountability and scrutiny of prisons. I agreeI am sure that that applies to all hon. Membersthat that is an important issue. One of the improvements that he and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) proposed for our rota of questions is that the Justice Ministry, which is now responsible for prisons, should have an hours Question Time instead of half an hour, which is clearly inadequate given the importance of prisons as well other Ministry of Justice issues.
The hon. Gentleman asked about group actions on equal pay. Several organisationswomens organisations and trade unionsraised that in response to our consultation and we are reflecting on the matter.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether there would be changes in the draft legislative programme as a result of our publishing it in advance. As I acknowledged at the time, publication was very late in the day in the context of the gestation of the Governments legislative programme. The new Prime Minister did not make the decision
Ms Harman: Well, just listen. A new Prime Minister took office in June and the decision was then made to publish the draft legislative programme. Hon. Members know that an awful lot of a draft legislative programme that is to be presented to the House in November is pretty finalised, as one would expect. [Interruption.] It is the Governments legislative programme. Next year, we intend to go beyond simply conducting an exercise in transparencyhon. Members should bear it in mind that the draft legislative programme would be secret until November had we not changed the position in July. We also had a chance to debate it in July. We hope that, next year, we will publish the draft legislative programme earlier so that there is a genuine opportunity for people to influence the outcome and propose Bills that they want. There is a big demand for people to be more engaged in the contents of our draft legislative programme. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will set aside his cynicism for a moment and agree that it is a good idea to be more transparent and have more consultation. We are striving to achieve that.
[That this House expresses its disgust at and condemnation of, Mobile Connections of Bordesley Green, Birmingham, which has cheated a constituent of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton out of hundreds of pounds and has failed to answer a series of letters, over a period of months, from the right hon. Member; and calls on potential customers to have nothing to do with this dishonest organisation.]
It condemns and expresses disgust at the theft by an organisation called Mobile Connections of Bordesley
Green, Birmingham of hundreds of pounds from a constituent of mine. Will my right hon. and learned Friend provide time for a debate on the matter? Will she also ask the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to draw the matter to the attention of the director general of fair trading?
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): May we have an early debate in Government time on the appalling state of the roads and the rip-off of the motorist? Now that taxes on petrol are more than 60p a litre and we are told that we may have to use the hard shoulder because the Government have not provided enough road space, surely the crisis is urgent enough for even this Government to believe that we need a proper debate to explore positive options to get more capacity on our road system.
Ms Harman: Spending on roads has increased by 62 per cent. since the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was part left office and we came in. As I understand it, the use of the hard shoulder is about better use of the road space that we already have.
Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): As part of Inside Justice week, a group of children from Adswood primary school in my constituency are visiting a local magistrates court, where they will have the opportunity to participate in a mock trial, question the judge and pass sentence. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that is an excellent way of involving children in understanding the justice system and that it should be open to all children? Will she also make time for a debate on the subject?
Ms Harman: I will bring that to the attention of my hon. Friends in the Ministry of Justice. I commend the work that is being done in my hon. Friends Stockport constituency on Inside Justice week. I hope that many of those young people will end up in court again as magistrates.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I was always opposed to householders being charged extra for putting rubbish out depending on its weight. However, we understand that the Government junked that idea last night. Ribble Valley council, along with many others that have been rolling out wheelie bins for recycling, were encouraged by the Government to put chips in those bins at an extra cost of thousands of pounds. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister to make an oral statement next week to announce the Governments position and, if the idea has been junked, thereby making the chips possibly the biggest piece of rubbish in the bins, to say what compensation will be made available to local authorities that have put chips in bins?
I thought that the Conservative party was the newly greened party and was concerned about
waste. I would therefore have expected Conservative Members to join positively in the discussions taking place nationally, locally and among members of the public on how to ensure that we collect waste effectively and generate less of it.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that Kent county council has decided to spend £600,000 on its own TV channel, while putting up home care charges for older people in order to raise £600,000? There is no greater supporter of devolution to local councils than I, but should we not have a debate, so that we can expose how Tory councils abuse those powers?
Ms Harman: Heavens above! In the olden days that used to be known as propaganda on the rates. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue, which I will bring to the attention of colleagues in government.
Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Leader of the House not see that we have been shamefully late in having a debate on Burma, which has sent completely the wrong message to the dreadful military Government there? Her saying that the Foreign Secretary might not necessarily lead the forthcoming debate would send an even worse message. Will she therefore rethink her previous answer and assure us that the Foreign Secretary will be present, as the shadow Foreign Secretary will be?
Ms Harman: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman does not welcome the fact that the House is debating Burma in Government time, bearing in mind the terrible events that have taken place there. He will know that the Foreign Secretary has duties that he must carry out in different parts of the world, including at the United Nations. He has responsibilities to the House, too, which he is well aware of, but I assure hon. Members that we will have an important debate, with information coming forth from the Government and an opportunity for all hon. Members to participate.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel that it might be useful to have a debate on the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, which, with a great deal of help from her, was finally given Royal Assent at the end of last Session? Given that the measure received all-party support, which I very much appreciate, it is unfortunate that the press gave it hardly any coverage. The very people who could be protected by that measure through injunctions therefore know nothing of it, and it will not be used until we can get some publicity for it.
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend makes an important point, which I will bring to the attention of my hon. Friends dealing with questions of justice. If people do not know about their rights, they cannot be protected. People do not know that Bills have received Royal Assent. We must do more to bring such important pieces of legislation to the attention of the people whom they are supposed to benefit. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends role in bringing the legislation forward.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con):
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Business,
Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the aftermath of the postal strike? Postal services in my part of London are still nowhere near back to normalthat is my experience, the experience of my constituents and the experience of my small businesses, too. It is becoming a serious matter when we are not receiving our post. Can we have an urgent statement, so that the issue can be discussed in this place?
Ms Harman: I understand from my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House, who has just informed me, that the Secretary of State met the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on Monday. We are keen to ensure that the backlog is cleared as soon as possible and that the situation is resolved.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the BBC is central to our democracy? Will she agree to encourage an early debate on the BBC, in view of what is happening? We all believe that the BBC should live within the licence fee, but the way in which cuts are being made and people are being selected suggests that members of staff who ask uncomfortable questions are being made scapegoats and getting fired, whereas people such as Alan Yentob and other senior managers seem to survive whatever happens. The BBC is central; it is a wonderful institution. At least it cannot be bought by Lord Ashcroft, as he has bought the Conservative party. Can we ensure that we have an early debate on what is happening in the BBC?
Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is right that the BBC is central and important in our democracy. The issue has not had the importance in the House that it perhaps should have. That is one of the reasons why it has been agreed throughout the House that we should increase the time for Culture, Media and Sport questions to 50 minutes.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): As we enter the season when the Government will be making statements on the financial settlements for many organisations, I understand that there might be a radical reform of the formula to determine police funding, which could particularly affect Welsh police authorities. There is a statutory consultation document out, but the Welsh police authorities have not received copies and have had to ask for it. Will the Leader of the House therefore gently remind her colleagues in the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government that although policing, and police funding in particular, is a reserved matter for Westminster, the Welsh police authorities want to be involved in that consultation? May we also have a pre-settlement statement on the change of the formula, so that hon. Members can be involved, rather than just reacting to the settlement?
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab):
Loughton parish council in my constituency has been forced to hold a parish poll on the subject of an EU referendum[Hon. Members: Hear, hear.]by just 10 electors, spearheaded by a local Conservative
councillor who seems to be strangely close to UKIP. The poll will cost £1,000, which is 10 per cent. of the parish councils budget, which would otherwise be used to improve life for people. Both the parish council and the National Association of Local Councils are extremely concerned about the hijacking of parish councils for party political purposes. Could we look seriously at amending the Local Government Act 1972 with urgency, to prevent parishes throughout the country from seeing their funds diverted to a purpose that is wholly outside their purview?
Ms Harman: I will certainly ask my hon. Friends to look into that question. Spending by parish councils is supposed to be limited to parish affairs. I remind hon. Members that it is we in this House who will be debating and making a decision on whether to ratify the treaty. It will be for hon. Members, no doubt having consulted their constituents, to bring their views to the House and make them known.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): For some weeks now, we have been expecting to see on the Order Paper the names of members of the Regional Select Committees, trailed by the Governments paper in July. Can we take it from the Modernisation Committees announcement that it is consulting on this matter that the Government are having second thoughts? Will the Leader of the House confirm that one option would be not to proceed with this misguided proposal?
Ms Harman: I think that the House will want us to proceed with the proposal to have greater regional accountability [Interruption.] The Modernisation Committee will discuss how we can increase regional accountability in the House. When it has concluded its deliberations, it will make proposals. We remain committed to the principle of regional accountability and we will widely discuss the precise formulation. I hope that all hon. Members will contribute to the consultation.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have an early debate on the problem of prostitution, particularly about how we curb demand? There are 25,000 sex slaves operating in Britain, while brothels and massage parlours are growing in importance. It is a huge industry. Young women of only 12, 14, 16 [Interruption.] I see Conservative Members sniggering about this; they should stop it. Young women of those ages are being beaten up and forced to act as sex slaves. It is more a matter of demand than supply, which we cannot do much about. I have a quote from a 12-year-old from the Balkans, who was beaten up:
I remember vividly the first time I was with a customer. . . He was in his late sixties and smelt awful. As he crouched over me, his hands groping my body, I felt sick, but there was a guard standing outside the room, so I couldnt escape.
That is happening in 21st century Britain, and unless we curb demand and make men accept their responsibility for the cruelties they impose on women, it will get a lot worse. We need an urgent debate. Britain must rid itself of this foul and evil trade.
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