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23 Oct 2008 : Column 453

Business of the House

11.32 am

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): Will the Deputy Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 27 October—Remaining stages of the Local Transport Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 28 October—Remaining stages of the Climate Change Bill [ Lords]. Followed by a motion to establish a Select Committee of the House.

Wednesday 29 October—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day] (Second Part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled Olympic legacy, after which the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Thursday 30 October—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by a general debate on defence policy.

The provisional business for the week commencing 3 November will include:

Monday 3 November—Remaining stages of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 4 November—Remaining stages of the Employment Bill [ Lords].

Wednesday 5 November—General debate: subject to be announced.

Thursday 6 November—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by general debate on public engagement on fighting crime.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 November will be:

Thursday 6 November—A debate on the report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on the supply of rented housing.

I am sure all Members would like to wish the Leader of the House a healthy recovery as she has been struck down by the lurgy.

Mrs. May: I assure the Deputy Leader of the House that Conservative Members send their best wishes to the Leader of the House and hope that she makes a speedy recovery.

The Home Office announced today that several police forces have been under-reporting the figures for violent crime. The Home Secretary has been trawling through the TV studios, but may we have an urgent statement from her in the House about that serious matter so that hon. Members can question her on it?

Yesterday, the Government deliberately restricted the time available for debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, contrary to assurances that the Leader of the House gave last week. That meant that dozens of new clauses and amendments were not debated. Not only did the Government schedule a statement, which could easily have been made 24 hours earlier, but they ignored the conventions of the House to ensure that the clauses on abortion were not debated. May we
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have an assurance from the Leader of the House that she recognises her responsibilities to the whole House and that, in future, she will ensure that the timetabling of debates is dictated by the interests of the House rather than by the Government’s convenience?

On Monday, we will debate the remaining the stages of the Local Transport Bill. At this late stage, the Government have tabled 162 amendments and 11 new clauses, and effectively rewritten part of the Bill. Yet again, the Government will railroad a Bill through without proper scrutiny. May we have more time for Report stage of that measure? More generally, when will the Government implement the Modernisation Committee’s call for more time for debate on Report?

In the past three weeks, the House has debated the Government’s fiscal rules, unemployment and small business—all on Conservative motions in Opposition time. Given that tomorrow’s GDP figures are expected to show negative growth, that the Governor of the Bank of England has said that the UK now seems likely to be entering a recession, and that even the Prime Minister has allowed the R-word to pass his lips, when will we have a full debate in Government time on the state of the economy?

There is a report today that the Office of Rail Regulation has ordered Network Rail to correct a design flaw in thousands of points on our rail network. Network Rail has challenged that, but may we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Transport so that concerned Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), in whose constituency the Potters Bar crash occurred, can question the Government on that serious matter?

May we have a debate on Government communications? On 15 October, the Government announced £100 million to help unemployed people retrain. That was not new money—it had already been announced. On Tuesday, the Government announced £350 million for small businesses. That was not new money—it had already been announced. On 13 October, the Government announced that bank lending would return to 2007 levels, but we now know that that was not a commitment but an aspiration. When people are facing the loss of their jobs and their homes, and small businesses face going under because they cannot get bank loans, what sort of a Government give people false promises of hope? They are a Government who believe more in political convenience than proper scrutiny, who are more interested in spin than effective action and who have taken this country from boom to bust.

Chris Bryant: Well, it is very nice, as usual, to hear from the right hon. Lady as she comes out with some of her usual lines, especially the last bit. She talks about the Government re-announcing things, but I think that I have heard her peroration perhaps 25 times in the past year. It is good that she is on her usual form.

First, the right hon. Lady mentioned crime statistics, but she failed to say that the latest crime statistics show that crime again has fallen by 6 per cent. That means that crime has fallen by 39 per cent. since 1997. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order.

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Chris Bryant: The right hon. Lady is mouthing things at me, and she is right to point out that there is a significant issue about how we tackle violent crime. Crimes of violence against the person are also down by 7 per cent., but we all know, in each of our constituencies, of our constituents’ genuine concern about violent crime. There is an issue in that some police authorities this year have chosen, following advice, to report some violent crimes in a slightly different way. However, it is important to acknowledge that all the statistics for homicide and burglary are down.

The right hon. Lady’s second point was about the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill. The Government are glad that the Bill passed its Third Reading yesterday with a very significant majority of more than two thirds—355 to 129 votes. There were many free votes yesterday and I think that the House reached its settled mind on the Bill, which I believe will make a significant difference, ensuring that in future scientific innovation can make a difference to people’s lives.

On the Local Transport Bill, the right hon. Lady referred to the large number of amendments tabled for next week’s debate. As she knows full well, many of the Government amendments are often technical and many are a response to Committee debates. One much misunderstood aspect of the political process—it is never reported by the media—is the importance of the Committee stage in improving our legislative work.

The right hon. Lady made various statements about the economy. I make no bones about the fact that we are facing difficult times, which is why we need to be absolutely focused on the needs of home owners, on jobs and on ensuring that if people are going to lose their jobs, they have the skills necessary to find a new one and additional support for paying their mortgage. We have provided the ability to debate these issues in various ways—through regular statements, for example—and when I speak to the Leader of the House later, I will ensure that she understands the House’s requirement to be kept up to date throughout the process.

On Network Rail and last year’s crash, which very unfortunately led to the death of an elderly lady, we of course send our sympathies to those involved. We want to make sure that any lessons that can possibly be learned will be learned. The right hon. Lady could bring the matter up at Transport questions. If a statement needs to be made, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will want to come to the House.

Finally, the right hon. Lady spoke about Government communications. I make absolutely no apology for Government communications over the last few weeks, because we have made it absolutely clear that we will stand by ordinary families as they face the difficult international situation that we all face. I know that sometimes the right hon. Lady would like to pretend that this is just some home-grown situation and that we in little Britain can simply manufacture our own way out it. The truth is that the issues we need to address are international and some of the solutions are international—

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is not the international issues, but those of next week, that we should be addressing.

Chris Bryant: I am very grateful, Mr. Speaker.

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Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): May I congratulate my hon. Friend on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box and on the combative way in which he disposed of the stream of consciousness that we always receive from those on the Opposition Front Bench?

I refer my hon. Friend to early-day motion 2327.

[That this House declares Richard Kay, 287 Middleton Road, Crumpsall, Manchester M8 4LY, to be unfit to be a property owner, since on 30th June 2007 he bought 64 Sandown Street, Manchester M18 8SA from Places for People with a covenant put into the contract of sale that the property be brought back into occupation within nine months of being sold but has flouted that covenant, leaving 64 Sandown Lane virtually derelict, not only making the area unsightly but causing considerable expense to a neighbour; and calls on Manchester City Council to take immediate action against this irresponsible person to require him to conform to the covenant without further delay or face condign consequences.]

It is headed “Richard Kay, Manchester property owner”, referring to a man who, in breach of legal agreements and commitments, is turning an area of my constituency into a slum. Will my hon. Friend refer it to our right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing so that she may assist Manchester city council to get this slum provoker dealt with in the most condign way?

Chris Bryant: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind comments. He was a fine Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport—indeed, he can probably never be bettered in that capacity.

On the issue that my right hon. Friend raises, I know from my constituency that unscrupulous landlords can create slums in a way that we would have hoped had been abolished in the 1920s, let alone today. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing will want to take up the issues precisely as my right hon. Friend outlined them.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I, too, welcome the Deputy Leader of the House to his stand-in role, and ask him to pass our best wishes to the Leader of the House for a speedy recovery.

May I join in the strongest protests that have been made about yesterday’s business? Every objective listener to last week’s business questions would have taken what the Leader of the House of the House said then to mean that the business would follow its normal course: that new clauses would be taken first and amendments next. It was not until this week that the Government tabled a programme motion to change the normal procedure. It is not acceptable for that to be done in any circumstances, but it is even less acceptable given that we were led to believe, literally a week earlier, that it would not be done.

We have been given plenty of reassurances that the Government will consider how we deal with Report stages. Four Government Bills are to be dealt with in the next two weeks, and amendments and new clauses are likely to be tabled. Can the Deputy Leader of the House assure us that there will be time for Opposition Members and Labour Back Benchers to debate those amendments and new clauses, and for a proper Third
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Reading debate to take place? If he cannot, he and the Leader of the House are not doing their job properly in regard to the most serious parliamentary matter.

May I link that with a question about the timetable for next year’s sittings, which was announced last week in a written statement by the Leader of the House? It was announced that the House would sit for 128 days, fewer by far than in any other non-election year since at least 1979.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): That was an election year.

Simon Hughes: Yes, it was an election year. No Government have announced such a small number of sitting days for nearly 30 years.

When people are going to lose their jobs, for us to give ourselves holidays—an extended Christmas and new year holiday, for instance—[Hon. Members: “It is not a holiday.”] It is a break from this place. For the House of Commons not to come back to work between July and October gives it the most adverse reputation out there.

The Deputy Leader of the House and his colleagues have indicated that they are interested in constitutional reform. Will the Deputy Leader now say whether the Government are serious about handing over control of the business of the House from the Government to Parliament? If he does not tell us that, I will table a motion for us to debate, proposing that Parliament should be in charge of Parliament’s business, not the Government, who are clearly rigging it to their own party political advantage.

We heard today of the continuing difficulties of establishing a political settlement in Zimbabwe. May we have an early debate about whether asylum seekers from Zimbabwe who cannot go home should be allowed to work in this country while they wait for their cases to be decided? I gather that there are Ministers who share that view, and it is the logical view. I ask for us to be able to debate the matter, so that those poor people who cannot go back to their own country, who want to work here, pay taxes and contribute, and with whom Britain has the strongest links, can have an opportunity to participate in this country while their future is determined.

Finally, yesterday we received a major lobby on pensions. May we have a debate on the state pension before the uprating statement, so that we can quiz the Government on whether the level of the pension will be what pensioners need and demand, and whether it can be what pensioners who have worked believe, honestly, that they deserve?

Chris Bryant: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place. I am sure that the real reason why he wants that debate on pensions is that he will be able to bring along the leader of his party, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg), so that the right hon. Gentleman can understand precisely how much the state pension is. It is not £30 a week.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting and important point about Zimbabwe. I will pass his comments to the relevant Ministers, and will also take what he said as a suggestion for a possible topical debate.

As for whether the business of the House should be run by Parliament or Government, the fact is that, last year, 59 of the 155 days on which Parliament sat were
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determined not by the Government but by the official Opposition, the smaller parties or Back Benchers. I will only add that it is not right to compare this House, and our constitutional settlement, with arrangements in other countries. In our case, the Government are the Government only because they have a majority in the House. I therefore think that the hon. Gentleman makes a constitutional faux pas.

On next year’s sittings, the dates of the party conferences are an issue, as that has made it difficult for us to start earlier in October than we did this year. There is also an issue in that next year’s Session will finish earlier than this year’s; this year it will finish late in November and the state opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech is not until December, but next year they will be considerably earlier. It is therefore wrong to compare too precisely next year’s dates with this year’s. I should also add that although the hon. Gentleman says that we are on holiday when we are in recess, that is certainly not my experience. Since I was elected to the House in 2001, my experience of parliamentary life is that I work just as hard during the recess as I do when I am sitting here, and I find that my constituents expect me to do so because the job of the constituency MP has completely changed over the last 20 years.

On yesterday’s events, there was a programme motion before the House, which it voted for, so we decided to go forward with the business, and we had a series of votes. In the end, the main issue is that it is absolutely right and proper that we should have an appropriate amount of time to scrutinise all proposed legislation that passes through this House. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was debated in total, on the Floor of both Houses, for 86 hours, with 10 sessions in the Lords and, so far, eight sessions in the Commons. I think that that is an adequate amount of time for us to be able to do our work, not least because there was also substantial pre-legislative scrutiny.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend allow the House time to explore the welcome news, announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, about helping people facing the repossession of their home? I understand, however, that these welcome measures do not apply to Scotland, and given that the whole country is experiencing difficulties during this economic downturn, can my hon. Friend say what support, if any, this House could give to the Scottish people, or, indeed, what the Scottish Parliament could do to help them?

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must make sure that repossession is the last possible outcome when people are having difficulties in paying their mortgage. That is why the Master of the Rolls yesterday approved the Civil Justice Council’s new protocol, which will make sure that every other avenue is pursued first. It would be extraordinary if the same were not to apply in Scotland, and I urge the Scottish Executive to ensure that home owners get that protection in Scotland. That is what is already making a difference in Britain, as opposed to the United States of America.

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