George grills Harriet Harman on Commons business
21 Jan 2010
Please see below the exchange between Sir George and Harriet Harman in the Chamber:

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving us the forthcoming business. Further to the exchanges that have just taken place, which she might have heard, it struck me that a number of issues were left hanging in the air, so I think it might be helpful to have a debate in Government time on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget.
May I repeat my request for a debate on Haiti? The tragic events there have been the most terrifying humanitarian disaster witnessed in recent years, and apart from a very short exchange at Department for International Development questions yesterday, the House has not had an opportunity properly to debate it, so will she take this as a suggestion, yet again, for next week's topical debate?
Further to the exchange of a few moments ago about the Wright report, may I say that I am delighted that at long last the Government have belatedly accepted some of our arguments for strengthening and reforming Parliament, and that we welcome them to the table? The Leader of the House announced that there would be a debate on 23 February, but what really matters is not what the Government have decided-she told us what that was-but what the House decides. She has denied the House an opportunity to debate this until 23 February, some three months after the Wright Committee reported, and there is no good reason for that delay.
May I again press the Leader of the House for a clear commitment on the question that I asked a few moments ago? If, for the sake of argument, the House agrees on 23 February to the setting up of a Back-Bench business committee-I hope that it will agree to such a committee-can she assure the House that all the necessary changes to Standing Orders will be made before Dissolution, so that at the beginning of the next Parliament, irrespective of who has won, we can establish a Back-Bench business committee? I hope that she can give me and the House that clear commitment.
Mr. Speaker, may we play another round of the popular panel game that the Leader of the House hosts each week, "Guess the date of the Easter recess", which still awaits a winner? I have asked seven times why she has been unable to supply the date in the usual way and, although she does not pause and she does not hesitate, she is extremely repetitive. Can she give us the Easter countdown today? Can she also tell the House when the Chancellor will present his Budget?
Can the right hon. and learned Lady clarify what is going on with the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? She has announced two more days for consideration, but there is confusion about whether one of those days will be wasted on debating the alternative vote, when we might be debating the Wright report. Yesterday, the Prime Minister appeared to embrace voting reform, but only three days ago it was reported that the parliamentary Labour party was split down the middle, with the Schools Secretary lobbying against any amendment to the Bill. What is going on? Are we going to debate it? On what side of that dividing line does she lie?
May we have a statement on the Government's nutrition action plan? This was promised by December 2008, but we are now in 2010 and that report has still not been published. All the evidence shows that the incidence of malnutrition in our hospitals is getting worse, not better, so when can the House expect to debate that report? May we also have a debate on the performance of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs? According to the National Audit Office, the department failed to answer 44 million calls last year, with just one in three inquiries being responded to at busy times, such as when tax credits need to be renewed. Vulnerable people cannot afford to be put on hold, so when can we have a debate about that?
Finally, may we have a debate on the speech on inequality that the right hon. and learned Lady is due to make tomorrow? The whole country will be bewildered by the total confusion in the Government's strategy on this. One week we are told that the Prime Minister wants to soak the rich, the next week, following a conversation with Lord Mandelson, he is promising support for middle Britain and now the right hon. and learned Lady is promising to open up a new front in the class war. Is this confusion due to the Labour party manifesto being dreamt up on the hockey fields of St. Paul's?
Ms Harman: I join the right hon. Gentleman in acknowledging the great importance of the international effort to tackle the appalling suffering that has followed the earthquake in Haiti. I wish to pay tribute to the search and rescue teams that have gone out from this country and to say how important the Department for International Development aid contribution is, not only in terms of the search and rescue effort, but of the assessment of and contribution towards the reconstruction that will be required. I should also say how important the incredible generosity of the British public is. I believe that about £20 million of additional aid has been pledged immediately by DFID, but that about £26 million has come from donations by individual members of the public, not only those who have relatives and friends in Haiti, but other good-hearted people who want to help do their part in alleviating the suffering. Not everything good that happens is done by government.
Last week, we made a statement on Haiti and this week, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we had DFID questions and the issue was also addressed in Prime Minister's questions. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we need to keep the House updated on Government and international action, and we need an opportunity for Members to contribute. I shall look for an opportunity, in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week.
On the Wright Committee, yes, of course, what is important is what the House decides. Although I think that it is perfectly right and proper that we place before the people at the general election a big choice of an alternative view as to how Britain goes forward, with the Tories on one side and us on the other-and the other parties in the fray too-when it comes to the way this House operates, we should surely be able to work together, as the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) said earlier, to try to make progress. I shall offer to have plenty of fights with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on many issues and on many occasions, but can we just try to work together sensibly on this, because on 23 February we might be able to make some progress? Rather than spending a lot of time saying, "Why is it on 23 February, rather than 23 January?", let us get on with working together to ensure that we make our 23 February debate an opportunity to make progress. If we make progress then, we will, as I said earlier in questions to the Leader of the House, be able to pass resolutions that put into effect the proposals from the Wright Committee, so that they can begin in operation before the House rises.
As far as Easter is concerned, it is on 4 April.
On the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill-I shall call it the CRAG Bill, as I keep getting the name wrong-we have had a full day on Second Reading and three days on the Floor of the House for the Committee stage already. We have two further days on the Floor of the House, thus making five days in Committee. We have a day on Report and Third Reading, which makes seven days in all. A number of Committees have looked at this Bill, including a Committee of both Houses that looked at the draft Bill, so this House will have given it thorough scrutiny, and the proposals that will be introduced by way of Government amendments or new clauses will be brought forward in the normal way.
On HMRC and tax credits, the right hon. Gentleman can be sure that we are pledged to continue to improve tax credits, which make a very big difference to families on middle and modest incomes. We want to support those who are working, and working hard, by topping up their income with tax credits, and we will continue to support the way that that is distributed.
On equality, it is clear from reading the statement that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made just before last week on race and socio-economic inequality or the Government response via the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Milburn report on access to the professions, as well as the Department of Health's report on health inequalities-the Marmot report-that will be considered soon or the very important report from the National Equality Panel, which is chaired by Sir John Hills, which will be published next week, that this Government is in no doubt that this country ought to be a place where everyone, no matter what their family background, no matter whether they are a man or a women and no matter what their ethnic origin, can achieve their full potential. We should have a fair society where everyone can fulfil their aspirations, not one held back by prejudice or discrimination. The Hills report will show that we have halted the inequality that increased so badly in the '80s and '90s, but we have to take more action to eradicate it, for the sake of not only every individual, but of having a prosperous economy and a peaceful society.

 
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