Sir George presses Harriet Harman on serious case reviews - and other matters
11 Mar 2010
Sir George Young: The House is grateful for next week's business.

May we have a statement from the Prime Minister on his assertion at Question Time yesterday? He said that under this Government

"the defence budget has been rising every year."-[ Official Report, 10 March 2010; Vol. 507, c. 291.]

That is a claim the Prime Minister made repeatedly at the Chilcot inquiry last Friday, but as he should know, spending on the Ministry of Defence was in fact cut in real terms between 2003-04 and 2004-05. The Leader of the House will know that the ministerial code requires Ministers to correct

"any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity."

Given that the Prime Minister is at risk of inadvertently misleading Parliament, when will he put the record straight?

May we have a debate on the failures of the system of serious case reviews into child abuse? We all assumed when we read of the Fritzl case in Austria that it could never happen in Britain, but it has, despite the involvement of 100 social workers from more than 28 different agencies. It was a particularly horrifying situation and it is right that we do everything we can to protect the privacy of the victim and their families. However, as Professor Cantrill poignantly noted yesterday, every time a horrific case of child abuse leads to a serious case review the authorities pledge to learn from their mistakes, but we never seem to. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that we need to debate the wider implications of publishing serious case reviews and, indeed, learning the lessons from them?

May I again press the Leader of the House on the mystery surrounding the debate on overseas aid? I have raised it several times but never had an adequate answer. We were supposed to have had that annual debate in November, but it was cancelled. It was rescheduled for February but pulled at the last minute, and now it looks as though we may not get it before Dissolution. It is an important debate, particularly given our involvement in Haiti, and I would not want anyone to get the impression that the Secretary of State for International Development is too busy strategising the election to fulfil his ministerial duties to the House.

Turning to the Wright Committee, may I welcome the enormous progress that the House made last Thursday, particularly in persuading the Government to get the Back-Bench business committee up and running by the beginning of the next Parliament as I had originally hoped? Swift work has been done on turning the resolutions into draft Standing Orders, but, as we heard in relation to Question 21, there is now some issue as to whether the resolutions on the Order Paper will have the support of the Government. Will the right hon. and learned Lady give a commitment that this issue will be debated and resolved before we rise for the Easter recess?

When will we complete the truncated debate on the Procedure Committee's report into the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers? The right hon. and learned Lady will recognise the sense of dissatisfaction felt across the House about the way in which this matter has been handled. She tabled all the relevant resolutions and remaining orders, but although some were debated, others seem to have got stuck on the Order Paper. The Procedure Committee has asked for a decision to be made, but the Government are standing in the way. Is that not symptomatic of the old way of doing business that the House rejected last Thursday?

Now that we know the date of the Budget, will the right hon. and learned Lady confirm that we will have the usual four days of debate thereafter? Finally, given that it was the Prime Minister who chose to announce the date of the Budget, can I now assume that it will be the Prime Minister who will give us the date of the Easter recess? That is a bit of information that I have been seeking in vain from the right hon. and learned Lady since last October.

Ms Harman: The Prime Minister gave evidence to the Chilcot inquiry last Friday, he answered questions about defence spending in Prime Minister's questions yesterday, and there will be a defence debate on Monday. I strongly refute any suggestion or implication from the shadow Leader of the House that the Prime Minister has in any way misled the House or, indeed, anyone else. He has been absolutely forthright about the defence budget and about this Government's long-standing and strong commitment to ensuring that our defence forces have the resources they need. They have the full backing of the Government and, indeed, the British people.

As far as serious case reviews are concerned, we publish the findings of such reviews so that lessons can be learned. The serious case review process was itself reviewed in 2006, and I do not remember the Opposition coming forward at that time with any suggestion that background information to such reviews and their conclusions should be published. The important thing is that the findings are published, which indeed they are in what is described as the executive summary, as well as the lessons that have to be learned. I think that we all share the absolute horror about the recent case. The lessons have been published and the Government have accepted the need to act on, and they are acting on, the issues that have arisen out of that case.

On overseas aid, the Government feel very committed to and proud of our record. Before we came into government, there was no Department for International Development. We now have DFID and we have doubled our aid budget, so we are strongly committed to overseas aid, to keeping the House informed of the Government's work on international development and to listening to Members' concerns. There is obviously an opportunity to raise questions with the Secretary of State and Ministers in DFID questions, and there have been numerous statements. I have not been able to announce a debate on overseas aid within the next two weeks, but the shadow Leader of the House will see that there is a general debate on defence. However, there will be the usual opportunity to raise issues of international development in the debate following the Budget statement.

As far as the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, the Wright Committee, is concerned, as my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House said in answer to an earlier question, we should all be gratified with the progress that was made last week. We have agreed a major programme of reforms-the election of Select Committees Chairs by secret ballot, the election of Deputy Speakers by secret ballot, the election of Select Committee members, the ability of private Members to table motions that can be debated and voted on, and a new way of deciding the business of the House, whereby it will not be done by the Leader of the House at the Dispatch Box after a process of private discussions among the usual channels, but by a Committee of the whole House.

As my hon. Friend said, it is gratifying that there were very big majorities in the House last week to resolve this matter and move forward. We have the resolutions of the House. My task now is to make sure that the House is given an opportunity to endorse the Standing Orders that will give effect to them. My mandate is the will of the House as expressed in the resolutions. We need Standing Orders to give effect to them-nothing less. There is no suggestion that we should try to do anything less than what the House agreed to in the resolutions, because that would not be right.

It is helpful that a resolution has been tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) and others. We have that as a basis, and we will see whether the advice to us is that it is in exact compliance and that it does no less-but probably no more-than the resolutions of the House. Whether or not that is the case, I can assure the House that we will bring forward the Standing Orders, and there will be an opportunity for the House to endorse them before the next election.

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