|Sir George grills Harriet Harman on Commons reform, and dementia
14 Jan 2010
See below the exchange between Sir George and Harriet Harman in the House:
Sir George Young: The House is grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for telling us next week's business.
The whole country will be haunted by the traumatic images that are emerging from Haiti as the devastating scale of the disaster there becomes clearer. Many British non-governmental organisations are now mobilising disaster appeals. Given that in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, millions of people donated hundreds of millions of pounds to the relief fund, I am sure that the British people will again respond with generosity. I am also sure that all colleagues will want to support fundraising events in their constituencies over the weekend. We welcome yesterday's statement from the International Development Secretary, and we hope that he will continue to keep the House informed over coming weeks. In addition, might he consider this issue as a subject for next week's topical debate?
Where is the debate on the Wright report? It has not yet appeared on the parliamentary radar. The Government's handling of the report makes the case, more effectively even than the report put it, for the Government relinquishing their iron grip on the business of the House. They dithered for five weeks at the beginning of the process, before the Wright Committee was set up, and now they
are dithering at the end. The Committee set the lowest of all possible hurdles at the beginning of the course by asking for a debate within eight weeks, but the Government have totally failed to clear that hurdle. It is not just the House that is impatient for change, but the whole country, so when will the Government hold a debate on the Wright report, and will there be a decision at the end of it?
Following today's report from the National Audit Office, may we have a debate on the Government's dementia strategy? The strategy was launched with much fanfare earlier last year, but we now learn from the NAO that Ministers have failed to make the disease a priority, that they show no signs of fulfilling their pledge to provide memory clinics across the UK and that they are unable to prove that the money set aside for the strategy is even reaching those who need it. So, may we have a debate on that crucial report?
May we also have a statement on minimum pricing for alcohol? For months, the Government have said that that idea is, in the words of the Home Secretary, a "non-runner", but an article in yesterday's edition of the Daily Telegraph stated that a scheme led by the Health Secretary will fix prices for alcohol units in order to crack down on supermarkets selling cheap drink. Is that a Government U-turn?
Again, may I ask when we will get the dates for the Easter recess? Last week, the Leader of the House claimed that she would publish them "in the usual way", but the usual way is to publish all the recess dates for the year ahead, once, in October. When is she going to end this state of uncertainty?
Is the right hon. and learned Lady any clearer about whether she will give additional time to debate the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? There is an important new clause on implementing the Kelly measures, and, if the Government have resolved their internal differences, on voting reform of the House. The House will want to scrutinise both those elements, so will she guarantee an extra two days in Committee for the Bill?
Finally, may we have a statement on the election night count? A number of senior figures, including yourself, Mr. Speaker, have said that it would be, in your words, "a travesty" for the count to be delayed by local authorities until the next day. Yesterday, no less a figure than the Government Chief Whip told his local paper that delaying the count would increase the risk of electoral fraud. Is there any doubt that having a Thursday night count is the right thing to do?
Ms Harman: I fully support the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the devastation and tragedy unfolding in Haiti. He will remember that the Secretary of State for International Development answered an urgent question about it yesterday. Indeed, the subject of Haiti and of British Government and international support for Haitians at this time was dealt with by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister's questions. I can tell the House that our search and rescue teams, who are recognised throughout the world as having great expertise and experience, have landed in the Dominican Republic and will shortly arrive in Haiti. They will be working on search and rescue, but Department for International Development humanitarian assessment work will also be done, so that, as the search and rescue carries on, the further needs for shelter, water supplies, medicine and food will
be assessed. The work of the disaster assessment and co-ordination team is under way, and it will continue to keep the House updated regularly. Of course, we all support such voluntary work, as well as charitable donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee fund.
As far as the Wright Committee report is concerned, I said to the House last week that there will be an opportunity for the House to debate it and that there will be an opportunity for the House to make decisions. We strongly believe in strengthening the role of the House of Commons and that making it more effective is essential to restoring public trust in our political system. That is why the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Wright Committee last summer and why I brought to the House the motion to establish it and got the House's support.
We have already had a 90-minute debate on the report in Westminster Hall last month, in which 17 colleagues participated, and an opportunity to debate and approve the principle of the election of Deputy Speakers by ballot, which was a Wright Committee recommendation. However, this is a complex matter on which the Government will have to take a view about what it is right to bring to the House. The report was not unanimous in all respects, and there are some complex issues to consider. We want to ensure that we offer the House the right opportunity and that we do not dictate to the House on the matter.
I do not want anybody to misunderstand the right hon. Gentleman's comments as somehow meaning that the Government have stood still on improving how the House works. We have already introduced major reforms to modernise the House, including evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills, greater resources and core tasks for Select Committees, Regional Committees, topical questions, which we have just heard, and topical debates. We have not stood still, but we do have further to go and the Wright Committee will be an important step forward when we bring its issues to the House. I can confirm that the House will have an opportunity to debate the report and decide on its recommendations.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the important question of dementia and the National Audit Office report. He will remember that it was just a year ago that we established the first national dementia strategy, which is on track. It is very important work that is fundamental to work in primary care, in the community, in hospital-based health care and in social care. It is work across the piece and we fully accept that it will not be completed in one year, but it is under way and it is a priority. We will obviously look in detail at the NAO report.
As far as the recess is concerned, the right hon. Gentleman is already complaining about the announcement of the Easter recess when we have not yet even got to the February recess. Again, I would not want him to create the wrong impression, and he knows that although Members of Parliament work in the House, we also work in our constituencies. We work in two places at once, and I would not want him to curry favour with those people who would like to imply that when we are not here in this House we are on holiday. That is not the case.
As far as progress on the Queen's Speech programme is concerned, we have had 13 Second Readings since the Queen's Speech and we are well under way. We will consider what amount of time needs to be given to the
Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill when we bring forward the new clauses to implement Kelly, on which there have been talks with all the party leaders.
I have two concerns about election night. The first is that the count should be announced as soon as the people have voted, and the second is that it should be the right result.