PMQs as-it-happened

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By Ian Dunt

11:00 Well it may be the last PMQs of the year, but it's been delegated to the deputies. Brown's enduring the snow and negotiations in Copenhagen, so Harriet Harman is taking over. She'll presumably face off against William Hague. Observers are often disarmed with how capably she conducts herself at these things, and she's got the better of the shadow foreign secretary more than once - something Blair usually failed to do when the two were party leaders. Expect questions on Copenhagen and Afghanistan - the MoD cuts will be an easy target for Hague. He may also bring up the abortive attempt to arrest former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni.


11:26 - Oh, and Vince Cable is representing the Lib Dems. Officially, that is. He's pretty much representing the Lib Dems all the time.

11:46 - It's Northern Ireland questions right now, and that will go on for the next 15 minutes. Our correspondent in parliament will soon be making his way to the Chamber after finishing off an interview with Ann Widdecombe. Lucky man. Frankly, he appears to be rather smitten.

11:59 - We should be ready to go any minute now, Northern Ireland questions are still going strong.

12:01 - And off we go. Harman begins by issuing condolences to the soldiers who died in Afghanistan yesterday.

12:02 - Andrew Mackay asks a question on the BA strike. Will Harman use her influence to prevent the strike? Harman says the PM and the transport secretary have already said they want to avoid a strike. She hopes a settlement will be reached this afternoon.

12:03 - Standard sniping from Labour sees an MP use the Copenhagen summit to berate Cameron's Euroscepticism. "There's a contrast with the prime minister at the centre of events..." Harman begins, but Tory jeers drown her out. Hague gets up. He subdues the noise by joining her condolences. Osborne can't stop smirking, even during that. Hague says the Commons is rising for Christmas earlier than usual so he'd better ask her some questions: one is on what is going on in Copenhagen.

12:05 - Harman says his point about the House is "spurious". "We are rising early, but we are coming back early," she informs him.

12:06 - Hague proves his environmental credentials by expressing concern about the rainforest. He suggests the government stole Tory funding proposals. Import possession and distribution of illegally harvested timber should be made a UK offence, Hague suggests. Harman says she's sure the government will take all actions necessary. She then attacks Tory backbenchers who doubt climate change. "He should deal with the members on his own side who are climate change deniers," she shouts.

12:08 - Hmph. I got it right. That doesn't happen very often. Hague raises his concerns about the arrest warrant on Livni. How can we play a leading role in the peace process, if Israeli officials can't visit Britain without fear of arrest? Harman backs him, basically. They're on the same page. Hague asks her to shine some light on it. He suggests the laws are being abused. Are magistrates applying the law correctly, and if not, will the government issue fresh advice? When is a minister going to come to the House to report on what they're going to do? Harman says ministers will be "looking at it and making sure the situation is resolved".

12:10 - Rather weakly, Hague insists the government do more to secure EU sanctions against Iran. Very lukewarm session from Hague. He says the PM has twice announced new sanctions against Iran without them taking effect. He wants "serious" financial sanctions, "like those that exist in the United States". Harman: "How telling it is" that when we see unemployment benefit claimants falling for the first time in two years, Mr Hague still doesn't come to the House to "say the Tories got it wrong".

12:12 - Cable gets up. One government achievement is that the share of tax revenue in the economy has fallen to the lowest level since the days of MacMillan. He documents the money being evaded. Where is it? Bercow tells off government backbenchers. Harman says tax revenue fell because of fewer houses being bought and sold. "We think it's important an example is set, not just in this House, but also in the House of Lords. "For the second time in the last couple of weeks, Harman insists the government will tackle non-doms, and suggests legislation is on its way.

12:15 - Cable causes laughs by saying he is not being partisan. We welcome both parties becoming interested in Lib Dem policy agendas. Remarking on the cheers from Tory benches, he says he welcomes the turkeys voting for Christmas. Harman says she'll be more party political than him. She says Ashcroft promised his tax affairs would come on-shore. Hague can tell us what the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury says he knows - has Lord Ashcroft.... Suddenly, Bercow interrupts her. "I'm grateful to the honourable lady, but we needn't discuss that subject any further."

12:18 - A bit of a humiliating moment for Harman, who had Hague and Osborne laughing in her face as the Speaker stopped her turning PMQs into 'PM asks the Qs'. The attempt to rub the Tories' faces in the Ashcroft nightmare doesn't seem to have paid off. It's interesting to note the chummy manner with which Harman instantly allies herself with the Lib Dems against the Tories, though.

12:19 - New Labour MP Willie Bain (Glasgow North East) asks a pointless and irritating scripted question berating the Tories' tax cut for millionaires. "He can rely on this government protecting his constituents," Harman says of the fresh-faced MP.

12:20 - Simon Hughes attacks Harman for ministerial pay. She tells him pay has been frozen and the increase forgone by cabinet members. Mark Francois talks about homelessness. He says many are ex-service personnel. Is there any more the government can do to honour the military covenant? Harman says she'll do everything possible to support service personnel and their families. If he has any suggestion he should send them in.

12:23 - Will the minimum sentence for murder by knife be raised? Harman says the sentence is being upgraded to put it on a par with gun crime. John Redwood stands to say how an unelected minister let a planning application through. Harman says the planning system follows the legislation passed by the House. He should have done something about it then, she suggests.

12:25 - Bercow says Labour's particularly noisy today, but it doesn't seem accurate., MPs are already on holiday, in their head. It's a downbeat, relaxed mood. No-one can even be bothered to launch a proper attack. "Does the leader have a favourite fairy tale," - weird question from the Tory benches. "You should avoid the Brothers Grimm," Harman says. Huge laughs all of a sudden. Bercow struggles to wrestle back control. "We have to reassure the public, not disgust them," he pleads. Most MPs are too foolish to pay heed.

12:27 - Bercow insists a question from the Tory benches was too long. But because the mp kept talking, he was forced to shout. He's very irritable today, and it's becoming increasingly clear that MPs are not respecting his interventions.
12:29 - Roger Williams is worried that older people will be confused by the death of cheques. Harman says the point is "significant". She says her equality bill insists older people are taken into account during local authority decision, so they'd better take that into account.

12:31 - Nigel Evans, for the Tories, says the administration in the UK is run by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. If Brown wants to give new year cheer he'd better announce an election sooner rather than later. Poor. Harman tells him that she doesn't think "that turkeys are going to fly". It's a battle of the wits, with very little wit.

12:32 - And with that we're done. Bob Ainsworth is giving a statement on the Nimrod review. We'll leave it there. Hague probably won it, in that he didn't embarrass himself like Harman. But that was a pretty soggy victory. His performance was really bad. Hers wasn't much better, but the Ashcroft manoeuvre really ended her stature here today. Well that's it for 2009. We'll see you back here in the New Year for the first session of 2010.

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