PMQs as-it-happened

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By Alex Stevenson

11:00: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our coverage of this week's PMQs. The big development from this morning is that Gordon Brown's prolonged stay at Hillsborough Castle, Belfast, means he will not be in the Commons this lunchtime. He is not on holiday, it should be noted, but trying to rescue the powersharing arrangement in Northern Ireland. It means Harriet Harman will deputise. This leaves David Cameron at something of a loose end, so William Hague will be stepping in. We'll bring you minute-by-minute updates once the action gets underway from midday.

11:15: The last time Hague and Harman clashed was the final PMQs before Christmas; a muted affair which struck this particular writer at the time as being a deliberate attempt to get through the session and get off on holiday. Hopefully today will see normal service resumed...

11:55: How time flies. The Commons chamber is steadily filling as we prepare for this week's encounter. It will be difficult to see how Hague will resist the lure of the economy, in a week when we learned the truly miserable nature of Britain's recovery from recession. Perhaps he will take up the Tories' campaigning baton on last week's issue, the serious case review horrors of the Edlington case. My money's on inequality and social mobility, though - Harman's pet subject.

12:00: Fun though it has been, Cabinet Office questions must draw to a close. Harman is preparing herself, but - it has to be said - she is not confronted by an entirely full chamber. The Labour benches, in particular, are looking a little sparse. Big Ben is bonging 12.

12:03: We begin with a question from Tory John Whittingdale, who wants to know what the government's doing to look after those injured while serving in the armed forces. Harman plays this one with a very straight bat.

12:04: Mark Todd, Labour MP for Derbyshire South, is interested in manufacturing. He wants to know how export-oriented manufacturing can improve. "We recognise the importance of manufacturing in South Derbyshire," Harman responds. This is the most tabled of tabled questions, as she reels off a pre-written answer. "We look forward to strong growth in this sector ahead."

12:05: After wishing Gordon Brown well in his efforts in Northern Ireland, William Hague begins with a question on defence. Mark Sedwill is the new Nato civilian representative to Afghanistan. "Is the government confident his work will be closely coordinated with the UN work so that this time military gains will be followed by effective reconstruction?" Harman says tomorrow's conference will help with this work. There are 70 countries attending, she tells us, in what is not especially relevant to the question.

12:07: Hague isn't impressed, remembering a previous Afghanistan conference. He wants to know whether regular reviews of the progress made will take place. Harman replies with a long list before getting political, accusing Hague of "carping". The shadow foreign secretary responds by saying he is about to visit Hamid Karzai after this. "There is no need to make party political points," he says haughtily.

12:09: After Hague's next question about the government's relations with Barack Obama on banking, Harman retreats to it being "very important" that countries work together "internationally". "Of course this is important!" Hague replies. He wants to know why Brown and Obama have such different positions on reforming the banks, before asking about the banking levy. "Isn't it time to work with the President on agreeing the kind of levy he is proposing and drop the prime minister's Tobin tax on transactions?" Tories looking to get the upper hand on banking reform here.

12:10: Harman's reply is a little cautious at first. "One thing we agree with President Obama on and just about every other country in the world is we need a fiscal stimulus to support the economy out of recovery," she says, predictably. But Hague continues, pointing out Obama has frozen public spending.

12:11: Hague says only the central banks have the "know-how" to manage the banks and asks the government to give back control to the Bank of England. "We have already rationalised the system of regulation," Harman says. This is resembling a testy corporate meeting rather than the usual PMQs knockabout.

12:12: Hague gets a laugh by quoting Brown as looking forward to a "golden age" in the City. He lists Brown's "failures" and finishes with rhetorical flourishes about how terrible Britain's economy is. "Isn't it time to back the proposals of the United States to sort out the banks in the future?" He finishes to roars of 'More!' from those sat behind.

12:13: "We are building up Britain, he is talking it down!" Harman's finish is utterly pre-prepared. These two seem to have given up on the personal remarks. It's an election year, after all. They both played that very, very safe.

12:15: Vince Cable for the Liberal Democrats attacks Harman on inequality. He wants to know why on so many levels inequality is so "shocking". Harman joins with him by saying the report says "under the Conservatives inequality widened". The Tories aren't happy with that, but she ploughs on. "The growing inequality has been stemmed," she points out. "We think inequality matters for the individual, for the opportunity, for the economy, so we are determined to do more!" No one seems happy with that.

12:16: Cable blames the failure to reform the tax system for the "brutal truth", no improvement. He wants to know why Labour has prioritised cutting the tax rate on wealthy people paying capital gains at a lower rate than... ok, I'm lost. Something to do with tax. But he finishes with the phrase "multimillion-pound mansions", which sounds impressive.

12:17: "One thing that would not help those on low and modest incomes would be the 'savage cuts' proposed by his party," Harman responds.

12:18: After left-winger John McDonnell comes the SNP's Pete Wishart, who asks about Iraq. He calls it "one of the biggest deceits ever in political history". Harman reminds "this House of Commons" that it backed the invasion and, as if anyone didn't know, points out the Chilcot inquiry is taking place across the road.

12:19: David Chaytor, who faces a tough fight in Bury North, wants to know how severe Tory cuts would affect education. Unsurprisingly Harman thinks they wouldn't be very good.

12:21: David Jones, Conservative, gets a laugh for raising the subject of Tony Blair trying to get "filthy rich". Harman is jeered as she talks about "social mobility". Speaker John Bercow yells "Order!" repeatedly, adding: "I want to hear the answer!" Harman presses on, talking about the National Equality Panel report. David Jones has stolen the show with by far the best question so far.

12:22: Michael Clapham, Labour for Barnsley West and Penistone, talks about training, apprenticeships and mining before being told to shut up. He presses on nonetheless, before the Speaker intervenes. "I will support his urgings," Harman says. That sounds a bit strange.

12:24: Evan Harris, everyone's favourite Lib Dem doctor, asks question six. Harman replies: "It'll be worth waiting for," talking about her answer. "Well, perhaps not." Big laugh. "She was right the second time," Harris says after her answer. He wants to know whether his reform to the succession rules will hurry up and get through; the Commonwealth appears to be getting in the way.

12:25: Harman answers a question about Equitable Life in rather bullish fashion. She says the problems reach back to the 80s - i.e., to the Tory government. Lots of jeering here. Outgoing MP Chris Mullin gets the next question, asking about inequality. He says outsourcing is part of the problem. "Is it not time the government started to discourage outsourcing?" Harman says existing regulations were supposed to tackle this problem and says it has been a pressure downwards on women's wages. She vows to wage war against it, sort of.

12:27: David T. C. Davies is outraged about what he believes is an "outrageous" sentence for a rapist. He reaches out to an unlikely ally, talking about "women's rights". Harman is a little frosty in response.

12:28: Fiona MacTaggart, it has turned out, is "not here" to ask her question. Lots of significant eyebrow-raising from the opposition benches. We're getting to the end of this session, now. Lib Dem David Heath says a company in his constituency has been selling dodgy bomb detectors to the Iraqis. He says agencies are "curiously incurious". Harman doesn't have a clue about this.

12:29: Geraldine Smith wants to know about the pensions deficit, in relation to Royal Mail. Harman says the government is committed to the six-day service, etc., etc., as the clock ticks down. "And we want to ensure the pension liabilities are safe as well," she adds as an afterthought.

12:30: Lots of 'oh dears' and 'oh yes' from the Tories as one of their number, Brooks Newmark, raises concerns about cancer detection. Harman hides behind the clinical judgments of Nice, before turning the question into one about NHS resources.

12:33: Labour's Brian Iddon is worried about the Tories' policy on science in schools. Harman says they'll have changed their policy by the afternoon. And now, a treat: Anthony Steen asks a question about human trafficking. He wants an awareness day. "We need this day even more because for the earthquake in Haiti we had 200 orphanages. Many of them were actually fronts for child trafficking." Steen wants to make sure these children are safe. "The traffickers are circling, we need to make sure they don't catch the children." Harman praises Steen, saying he has "intelligently" raised the issue in the House. Much sympathetic hear-hearing comes from the backbenches for one of the MPs most embarrassed by the expenses scandal.

12:35: That's the end of this week's PMQs. Harman and Hague's exchanges were a little staid compared to their previous encounters; it was only when a series of lively backbenchers roused the mood of MPs that things got interesting. That, as they say, is that. But we'll be back next week when, we hope, Brown and Cameron will be back for the final PMQs before the half-term break.


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