Sir George presses Harriet Harman on Commons Reform
28 Jan 2010
This is the text of 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 but she has not actually been very forthcoming. We already knew the business for next week and she has only given us the business for one day on the following week. Can she share with the House her plans for the week after next?
Will there be a statement next week on today's conference on Afghanistan? While I am on international matters, may I ask once again for an opportunity to debate Haiti? Last week the right hon. and learned Lady said that she would look for an opportunity "in some form or another, for Haiti to be debated on the Floor of the House next week".-[ Official Report, 21 January 2010; Vol. 504, c. 449.]
Given the huge international effort that will be needed to rebuild that country and the problems of rehousing millions of people who have been left homeless, surely this is an issue for which we should find time in this House.
We are due to debate the Wright report on 23 February. Despite the Prime Minister's warm words at Prime Minister's questions last week, there is now widespread suspicion that the Government have adopted an approach that is simply designed to fail. Today's edition of The Times reports that we will be voting only on an unamendable order, which could be blocked by a single Member. Is that consistent with the spirit of consensus to which the right hon. and learned Lady has constantly referred? The last time a similar package of reforms was debated in the House, in 2002, we had a debate and then we voted on a series of resolutions on the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. Why is that not an appropriate precedent for the Wright Committee? Will the House be able to vote on the resolutions of which the Government approve as well as on those that they do not? Does the Leader of the House agree with my suggestion that we should postpone the February recess by one day and debate the Wright report earlier than she proposes, given that we are seriously beginning to run out of time? Yesterday she admitted that she was not much good at reversing. Today she risks stalling.
May we have a statement on the release of material to the Chilcot inquiry? When he announced the inquiry, the Prime Minister unequivocally said that
"no British document and no British witness will be beyond the scope of the inquiry."
Yesterday, Sir John expressed his frustration that key documents relating to the legality of the Iraq war had failed to be declassified. Has the Prime Minister now backtracked on that commitment?
May we adopt the Chinese menu approach to Business questions? When I say "No. 41", that means I am looking for the date of the Budget; when I say "42", I am looking for the date of the Easter recess. Last week, the right hon. and learned Lady very helpfully pointed us in the direction of Easter. We are getting warmer, but may I repeat that I am asking this question on behalf of people who work in the House and who can take leave and holidays only when the House is not sitting? Can she provide us with another clue today?
May we have a debate on how Britain is governed? Two reports in as many weeks from senior civil servants who have worked under Labour paint a picture of a dysfunctional Government, with a "strategic gap" at the heart of Downing street that allows Ministers a free rein to produce endless reams of unnecessary and bad legislation.
On behalf of Conservative Members, may I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for one thing and offer her our full support? According to a survey this week from the National Centre for Social Research,
"New Labour has helped ensure that British public opinion now has a more conservative character."
Ms Harman: I am sorry that I unable to announce any business after Monday for the week after next-the reason is as follows. The Supreme Court has made a decision about the freezing of assets of those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. As hon. Members will know, it is very important that we stop money flowing into organisations that will then use it for terrorist activities. Freezing assets is an important part of the armoury to tackle terrorist activity. The Supreme Court has given a judgment that the methods of freezing are outwith the law. We therefore need to address that issue, because we are absolutely determined that we should be able to freeze assets, but we must do so in a way that is compliant with the substantive law. We have applied to the Court for a stay of implementation of the release of those frozen assets to allow us to consider whether or not we can bring forward legislation before those assets are unfrozen so that we can put the law in order, but prevent the release of assets to those whom we think should not have them.
I am sorry that I did not have a chance, because these things are ongoing at the moment, to give that explanation to colleagues. A decision will be made at 12 o'clock in the Supreme Court to say whether it will give a stay of implementation of its judgment such that will allow us to legislate. I did not want to announce the business for the week after next given that it may be subject to decisions relating to information that we will not have until after 12 o'clock.
On Afghanistan, we had a debate led by the Foreign Secretary and closed by the Secretary of State for Defence last week. Obviously, the very important conference is taking place today and I know that the House will want to be updated. Similarly, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for referring to Haiti, which remains an important issue. We will look for opportunities to ensure that the House can be updated, not only about the work that the Government are doing-the doubling of the aid that has gone to Haiti-but about the £50 million that the public has donated and the very important work that our search and rescue teams are doing. I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's request about Haiti, which I know is shared by many hon. Members, and I shall do what I can about it.
On the Wright report, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about "widespread suspicion". It is fair enough for people to be suspicious if there is something to be suspicious of, but he should not be suspicious because we are trying to be very straightforward about this. The Government have been very positive about reforming and improving how the House of Commons works, and we have a clear record of bringing to the House of Commons reforms that have then been accepted by it. We are keen to continue that reform by taking forward the recommendations in the Wright Committee report. The Government's preference for reaching decisions on these reforms is that we proceed on the basis of consensus, and proceed as quickly as possible. We would like to recommend to the House no fewer than 21 of the Wright Committee's recommendations. We thought it would help the House to have a full day's debate-as the right hon. Gentleman said, we have given a provisional date of 23 February for that-at the end of which we will place all 21 before the House under the Remaining Orders of the Day. I hope that some of them will go through without objection, as I know that there will be consensus in the House. That will probably not be the case for all of them, but let us hope that it will be for as many as possible. If there are objections, we are committed to bringing back to the House those motions that have been objected to. Resolutions will then be tabled that can be amended. At the point at which they are amendable, any recommendation from the Wright Committee's report can thereby be attached.
It is important for people to understand that there is no consensus on some aspects of the recommendations. The Liaison Committee issued a report yesterday about the election of Chairs of Select Committees, and we are in favour of the Wright Committee's proposals on that-we want the House to be able to elect those Chairs by secret ballot-but the Liaison Committee was split down the middle. It agreed to support the Wright Committee's proposals, but only by seven votes to six votes. If the right hon. Gentleman is trying to convey the view that there is consensus and that we are trying to oppose it, that is wrong. There are different views and we are trying to get consensus- [ Interruption. ] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, that I have had to go on so long about that. I hope that people will understand that we are being completely open about this and are trying to make progress.
On the question of the material for the Chilcot inquiry, the Government will obviously do everything by the rules as laid down. On the right hon. Gentleman's question about the machinery of Government, we had Cabinet Office questions yesterday and I suggest that he should have put that question to Cabinet Office Ministers.
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