Sir George grills Harriet Harman on Christmas recess
22 Oct 2009
Sir George Young: The House is grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business.
Last week, when I asked for the parliamentary calendar, the right hon. and learned Lady said she would bring it before the House as soon as she could, but for the first time ever she has announced the Christmas and February recess dates but not the Easter dates. What problems is she encountering over the dates of the Easter recess?
The Leader has just told the House that we are to go into recess over a week before Christmas—that is the earliest the House has risen, as far as I can recall. Back in 1997, we rose on 22 December. That was when the Government had some leadership and some ideas. Our constituents will be working long after the date that she has just announced, and Conservative Members have an unquenched thirst for doing the job we were sent by our constituents to do beyond that date. Is this not further evidence that the Government are running out of steam?
Last week, the Leader refused to answer my question about when the Chancellor would deliver his pre-Budget statement. Can she do so this week?
The Government are committed to replying to a Select Committee report within six weeks. When will the Government respond to the Public Administration Committee report on lobbying, published on 5 January? In March, the Minister for the Cabinet Office wrote to the Chairman of the Committee confirming that the Government would respond very soon. Since then, nothing. When will we get the Government’s reply?
On the related point of courtesies to Select Committees, will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Government will not consistently turn down the recommendations and findings of Select Committees on pre-appointment hearings?
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on her Department’s lamentable performance in answering questions over the summer recess? There were three days for tabling during the recess, but well under half of the named-day questions were substantively answered. Given that you, Mr. Speaker, have made it particularly clear that Ministers should respond to questions in a timely manner, is this not somewhat casual?
Today’s topical debate is about securing economic recovery. That is an important issue but, thanks to the Opposition, we had a full day’s debate on it three days ago. In that debate, however, the Labour party fielded only four speakers and ran out of contributors halfway through. Does the Leader of the House not think that today’s time could have been more profitably used by having a debate on the future of Royal Mail or the growing rift between the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor? Will she make more intelligent use of these important opportunities for topical debates next week?
Finally, may we have a statement next week from the Prime Minister on Afghanistan? We have long called for regular updates to Parliament, and we welcomed his statement last week. Since then, however, we have learned that there will be a second round of elections there, and additional troops have been called for. Does the Leader of the House not agree that the House should have the opportunity to cross-examine the Prime Minister next week on the security of our troops and the support that will be extended to them?
Ms Harman: I know that the right hon. Gentleman understands this, but it is important that the wider public also realise that the recess is not holidays; it is time when the House is not sitting and Members can take the opportunity to work in their constituency. We are rising earlier than usual in December, but we are returning earlier in January.
I will announce the date of the pre-Budget report shortly, in the customary way. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has in the past argued that there should be opportunities to debate the issues raised in the pre-Budget report on the Floor of the House. I am mindful of that, and I will make absolutely sure that, as well as having the opportunity to discuss the economy in the Queen’s Speech debates, there will be sufficient opportunities after the pre-Budget report for it to be debated on the Floor of the House.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Public Administration Committee’s report on lobbying. The Government’s response has been published and the Committee considered it this morning. He mentioned pre-appointment hearings, no doubt in the context of the appointment of the Children’s Commissioner and the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. Since we introduced this new opportunity for Select Committees to play a part in appointments process, which gives Select Committees more scope for action, there has been the appointment of the chair of the Statistics Board, as well as hearings on the appointments of the chairs of the Care Quality Commission and the House of Lords Appointments Commission and the chair-elect of Ofcom. There have also been a new Information Commissioner and chair of the Office for Legal Complaints. I have to hand a long list of all the pre-appointments hearings, which I could read out, but the point is that Select Committees are playing their part in pre-appointment hearings. However, it remains the case that under the structure that is in place the final decision is still for the Secretary of State. That is, no doubt, illuminated by the questions asked in the pre-appointment hearings.
On the Department for Work and Pensions written questions, the Deputy Leader of the House will meet DWP Ministers to make sure that there is a prompter response to the House. This is an important issue. All Ministers should respond promptly to Members’ questions about their Department’s responsibilities.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the choice of subjects for topical debates. I have to tell the House that there were no proposals from any party’s Front or Back- Bench teams for the topical debate this week. I encourage both Front and Back-Bench Members to make proposals for the topical debate. The right hon. Gentleman asked why we did not choose to debate the Post Office. We did, of course, have a statement on Royal Mail earlier in the week. If we are to make topical debates work, we need suggestions to be made, and I invite him to do so.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about keeping the House updated on Afghanistan. As he said, there was a statement on that last week. As well as answering questions every week in the House of Commons at Prime Minister’s Question Time, the Prime Minister appears before the Liaison Committee.

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