HC Deb 06 December 2001 vol 376 cc465-80 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Tax Credits Bill.

TUESDAY 11 DECEMBER—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the staging of the world athletics championships in the United Kingdom followed by a debate on waste management policy.

Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 10 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

A debate on International Terrorism on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Animal Health Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

FRIDAY 14 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the International Development Bill [Lords]

. TUESDAY 18 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 DECEMBER—Motion to approve a statutory instrument. Details to be announced.

Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment debate.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the next five weeks will be:

THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER—Debate on the report from the Health Committee on public health.

THURSDAY 10 JANUARY—Debate cm the report from the Science and Technology Committee on wave and tidal energy.

THURSDAY 17 JANUARY—Debate on child health and maternity.

THURSDAY 24 JANUARY—Debate ion the report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on walking in towns and cities.

THURSDAY 31 JANUARY—Debate on Gibraltar.

The House will wish to know that on Monday 10 December there will be a debate relating to the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states in European Standing Committee B. This rearranges the debate adjourned last Monday

[Monday 10 December 2001:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Document: 13425/01, European Arrest Warrant. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-vii (2001–02) and HC 152-viii (2001–02).]

[Tuesday 11 December

Winter supplementary summary request for supply (HC 392). Vote on Account (House of Commons) (HC393). Vote on Account (National Audit Office) (HC394). Vote on Account (Electoral Commission) (HC 395)]

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week and beyond. On his last point, you will recall, Mr. Speaker, that in response to points of order raised by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), at column 185 of Hansard on 4 December you helpfully invited the hon. Lady in particular to follow up the important constitutional issue that arose following what my hon. Friend called "a shambles" in the European Standing Committee last Monday? Based on what that Committee said—or, strictly speaking, was not able to say; it has yet to reach a decision—and what was said in the equivalent Committee in another place, the Government are surely unable to take a position on European arrest warrants in the Council of Ministers, which is meeting even as we speak.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give an absolute undertaking that Her Majesty's Government will make no commitment on that matter until the proper parliamentary process has been completed. As the Committee will not meet again until next Monday, I hope that he will say categorically that the Government will not take a position on behalf of this country in that Council of Ministers before the Committee concludes its deliberations and the parliamentary process is completed. It is an important matter, and I am sure the Leader of the House, with his well-known respect for the parliamentary process, will readily be able to give that guarantee.

The Leader of the House has so far shared his views on what he chooses to call the modernisation of the House of Commons only, we are told, with the parliamentary Labour party. Before he shares his views with the rest of us—I do not know when that will be—will he guarantee that his proposals will strengthen the House of Commons and Parliament vis-à-vis the Government and reduce the Government's stranglehold on our parliamentary process, which they are seeking to tighten? Moreover, will he guarantee that nothing that he does will give Members of Parliament the opportunity to reduce their role in this place, or allow them to bunk off rather than be here fulfilling their parliamentary duties? Those undertakings will be very important when we all come to consider the proposals, as I hope we will eventually be given the chance to do.

Finally, may I draw the Leader's attention to early-day motion No. 529?

[That this House is deeply concerned by the contents of the Press release entitled 'Labour Thugs Attack MP', issued by the Labour honourable Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham on 4th December, in which he complains of 'an intimidatory move' by the Labour honourable Member for Bradford South, 'prodding in the back' by the Labour honourable Member for Lewisham West, and 'expletive name-calling' by the Labour honourable Metnber for Harwich; agrees with the Labour honourable Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham that 'It is tune that New Labour was exposed for its Stalinist tendencies and desperate methods of trying to intimidate its own MPs'; and whilst, not sharing the honourable Member's view on Afghanistan, calls upon the Government Chief Whip to discipline those members of her office who have infringed acceptable methods of dealing with one of their own back bench colleagues.]

I am sure that the Leader has memorised it, but while he is waiting for his Parliamentary Private Secretary to give him a copy, I can tell him that it concerns a press release entitled, "Labour thugs attack MP". [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh no."] Yes, this is a very serious allegation, which must worry you, Mr. Speaker, as it does the rest of us. The MP concerned is the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), and he has made serious allegations about which we are all most concerned. He says that he has been both verbally and physically attacked by members of the Government.

It is one thing for the Government to hold the House in contempt; we have almost got used to that. But it is quite another if the Government are now so desperate that their Ministers—Whips, after all, are on the payroll and have ministerial boxes and cars—are now physically and verbally attacking an independent-minded Member simply because he takes a view that is different from, and independent of, that of the Government. If the House of Commons is about anything, it is the ability of Members to take an independent view and to be accountable to their electorate and no one else. Here we have another direct threat against Members' independence, and I hope that you agree, Mr. Speaker, that it is urgent that we debate the matter. Let us have it out in the open and hear what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has to say, and then let us decide how we, the House of Commons, can protect Labour MPs from their own Government.

Mr. Cook

On the right hon. Gentleman's first point, may I say, Mr. Speaker, that I read with care your words inviting my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) to raise the matter with me this morning? I was delighted to see her in her place when I entered the Chamber. The right hon. Gentleman has slightly stolen her thunder, but since he has asked the question, I may say to him that there is no question of those matters being agreed by Her Majesty's Government in any meeting in Brussels until the meeting on Monday 10 December. In practice, we anticipate that the issues will be resolved at Laeken, not at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, and the Laeken meeting will take place after 10 December.

The forthcoming paper on the modernisation of the House will be circulated to members of the Modernisation Committee this weekend, and discussed at meetings of the Committee next Tuesday and Wednesday. I hope that it will be available to all Members of the House next Wednesday.

Mr. Forth

Will the Leader of the House guarantee that?

Mr. Cook

I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that guarantee. However, I also want to point out that before the Modernisation Committee takes forward that programme of work, it is important that it has before it the views of all Members of the House, which is why it is important that the document should be shared with all Members.

I am very pleased to give the right hon. Gentleman the guarantees that he asked for. The whole purpose of the exercise is to make sure that Parliament is able to do its job more effectively and able to scrutinise legislation more effectively, and that it has Select Committees that can scrutinise the Executive more effectively. It is important that we get across the message that the modernisation of Parliament is not about making life easier for MPs; it is about making the job of the MP more effective and more rewarding. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear, and I look forward to his support in this matter, that the total impact of my proposals on the sitting hours of the House will be to increase, not diminish, them. I know that he personally will fully support me on that.

On the other matter that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I accept responsibility for many things, but not for what happens in the Strangers Bar at 3 am. My rare experience of being in the Strangers Bar at 3 am is that it is a place for robust exchange of views, and I should not have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would be surprised or dismayed by that, but there is a categorical denial of any physical violence.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I am delighted to hear that European Standing Committee B will have an opportunity to look again at the very important European arrest warrant. Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is an extremely far-reaching measure? It is not simply a matter of a small adjustment; it will affect many aspects of British law. Before we accept the right of a foreign Administration to issue a demand for arrest on matters as wide as crimes of homosexuality and abortion, does my right hon. Friend agree that we should debate the consequences and the implications on the Floor of the House of Commons, where all hon. Members can be aware of what we are being committed to?

Mr. Cook

I am quite sure that all hon. Members are well aware of the proposals of the Justice and Home Affairs Council. They have, after all, been debated during the passage of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, and will no doubt be debated again when we consider statutory instruments under that Bill when it becomes an Act. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome for the fact that there will be a debate in the Standing Committee. That debate will be timely, before any decision is taken. I would not disagree with her that important and serious issues are involved. It is precisely because of the need for co-operation across Europe and with our immediate neighbours to defeat terrorism that we are taking the measure.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In the context of the improved scrutiny that the House should undertake, does the Leader of the House recall the infamous memo from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), in which he advised his colleagues to "bunk off'—to use his own expression—on a regular basis? Does the Leader of the House also recall that late on

Tuesday night we missed the right hon. Gentleman in the Chamber, when he, too, seemed to have bunked off at an early hour?

With regard to modernisation, does the Leader of the House recognise that we have a problem? Members of the Select Committee have been sworn to secrecy about the ideas that we are currently discussing, yet the briefing which emerged from the meeting of the parliamentary Labour party last night, most of which seemed to be erroneous, puts us in the awkward position of not knowing whether we are allowed to discuss those matters with our colleagues or with the media. Can the Leader of the House release members of the Select Committee from that vow of secrecy? We recall that on many occasions in this place, members of Select Committees have been strongly criticised for disclosing matters that were being considered by their Committees.

In particular, can the Leader of the House give an undertaking that, as part of his proposals, he will examine the vexed issue of the rationalisation and regularisation of the allocation of Opposition Supply days and the way in which subjects for debate on those days are chosen? He will recall that over the past week or so, considerable confusion resulted from the failure to give us information in good time so that we could prepare for those debates.

Mr. Cook

I hope that the paper on modernisation will be circulated to members of the Modernisation Committee in the course of today and that it will be available for the weekend. The normal rule to which the hon. Gentleman refers is correct. A Select Committee would be expected to proceed with its papers on the basis of discussion only within the Committee.

We must be mature and recognise that if we are to discuss the modernisation of Parliament, changes in the working practices of our colleagues, and the right of the House to carry out effective scrutiny of legislation, we cannot do that in conditions of secrecy. It is important that we share that with colleagues, and that they can offer their own input. That is why we intend to release the document after it has been discussed in the Committee next week. I leave it to the discretion and good faith of members of the Committee as to whom they consult and the conditions on which they consult them before we meet to discuss the paper next week.

On the views that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) expressed to the Conservative party, I well recall his proposal that Conservative Members should divide themselves into teams, each of which would turn up on one day of the week.

Mr. Forth

It never happened.

Mr. Cook

Yes, I regret to say that the right hon. Gentleman's proposal failed to be implemented. The rest of us were rather looking forward to the outcome, with only a fifth of Conservative Members turning up on any one day.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On an issue not raised by the two Opposition parties today, should not there be a statement in the House next week about why the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards did not have the opportunity of having her contract renewed, like her predecessor? Is it not clear that her successor, whoever that may be, will be under tremendous pressure, rather like Mrs. Filkin has been? If her successor carries out his or her duties in the same conscientious and honourable way as Mrs. Filkin, the feeling may be that that successor will not have his or her contract renewed. Is there not a case for the appointment to be made by an outside body, not by us? That form of self-regulation is almost becoming a farce. Why should not the Committee on Standards in Public Life do the appointing? I must tell my right hon. Friend that the whole shabby business is regrettable and has reflected no credit on the House of Commons.

Mr. Cook

I cheerfully say to my hon. Friend that I am open to bids from other Committees to take that burden upon themselves. I am certainly not fighting to keep it for the Committee on which I serve.

David Winnick

Outside bodies.

Mr. Cook

The Standards and Privileges Committee is not an outside body. I remind my hon. Friend that the procedures of the House are clear; when an appointment is proposed, the nomination will come before the whole House of Commons on the Floor of the House and it will be for the whole House to approve or reject it. I think that I am correct in saying that it will be an amendable motion, so it will be open to my hon. Friend at that stage to table an amendment to test the opinion of the House on whether the present commissioner should be reappointed.

I do not think that it will help my hon. Friend's cause of ensuring proper inviligation of the standards and conducts of Members of Parliament if he starts a campaign to decry the process of appointment. It is in the interests of everybody in the House to attract a quality field and approach the task of finding the best possible candidate to become commissioner.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

Will the Leader of the House find an opportunity for an early debate on health so that we can ask the Government whether they support a hypothecated health tax, like the Secretary of State for Health, or whether they oppose such a tax, like his very best friend the Chancellor?

Mr. Cook

I have no doubt that the House will have the ingenuity to ask those questions on many future occasions.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend find time soon to debate the guidelines currently followed by Customs and Excise on personal imports of tobacco and alcohol? Under the guidelines, my right hon. Friend will be aware, Customs and Excise have not only made large seizures of alcohol and tobacco, but impounded motor vehicles, which are then sold. The European Commission has declared those guidelines unlawful. May we therefore have a debate or statement to clarify the position on the validity of those guidelines?

Mr. Cook

I remind my hon. Friend that everything that Customs and Excise does is done under United Kingdom law, with the authority of the House and, indeed, the elected Government. Of course, I appreciate that the matter is of concern to people who have been stopped by Customs and Excise and had property

confiscated, but the country faces a major problem of tobacco smuggling. It is important for all of us in the House to send a strong message to Customs and Excise that we welcome its vigilance against illegal smuggling.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The consultation period on the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords runs out at the end of January. May we have an assurance that there will be a full day's debate on them before that period expires?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I anticipate that that debate will be held in the first week after the recess, subject to progress on business.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

After more than 14 years of persistent rebellion in the House, never once have I had any physical or verbal abuse from the Whips. I am wondering whether I do not go to Strangers Bar enough or whether people are not taking me seriously.

My question to my right hon. Friend refers to early-day motion 532, which deals with a mineral planning guidance note:

[That this House welcomes the gains made in the revised version of Mineral Planning Guidance Note 3 (MPG3) which can and should be used by planning authorities to prevent dangerous forms of open cast mining; is disturbed that these gains stand to be lost entirely by favoured changes which are due to take place to MPG ll, which itself is supposed to mitigate the environmental effects of mineral extractions, including open cast mining; notes that the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions is currently placing an entirely unjustified reliance upon a deeply flawed survey from Newcastle University which restricted its examination of the effects of dust particulates to PM 10 size, measured within the limited distance of l km of mineral extraction operations, when the professionals conducting the survey must have been aware that fine particulates travel exceptional distances and that PM 2ߝ5 particulates could easily have been measured at no additional costs to their study; is disturbed to discover that such an inept and incompetent study is being used for the benefit of open cast mining interests, although many reputable alternative surveys have reached different conclusions; and calls upon the Government to commission its own detailed and rigorous research into such matters before the revised MPG 11 is adopted and published, so that environmental, health and communal interests are placed to the fore.]

Improvements proposed by mineral planning guidance note 3 have made it much more difficult for opencast mining applications to be granted. Currently, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is investigating MPG 11, which is supposed to mitigate the environmental effects of mineral extraction. However, from correspondence that I have had with the Department, it appears to be taking too much into account a survey conducted by Newcastle university, which was published in 1999 by the Department of Health and does not take seriously the impact of coal dust on young people. It is clear that, at some point, we shall have a statement on new MPG 11. Can representations be made to ensure that that is not dumped on us, thereby undermining the situation achieved by MPG 3?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Far be it from me to bully the hon. Gentleman, but I think that that question went on a bit too long.

Mr. Cook

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) for confirming what I have long supposed: that the Government Whips treat Labour Members with respect to their person if not always with respect to their opinions.

My hon. Friend is correct that the Department is conducting a review of planning guidance on opencast mining. The review can reflect the evidence to which he referred and can also take full account of the early-day motion that he and others have tabled.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Can the Leader of the House remember on which day he was quoted referring to the whispering campaign against the current Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? If he cannot remember, it was on 20 August, on page 3 of the Financial Times. The Leader has also told the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) that he wants to have a quality field of candidates for the next term of office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Will he therefore, perhaps in next week's debate, follow up on those remarks by saying whether he remembers his words of 28 June 2001, when he said that the current Parliamentary Commissioner is "zealous…extremely zealous"?

Is the Leader trying to ensure that the field is less zealous by associating himself with a cut in the commissioner's days of service per week from four to three, in the mistaken belief that Sir Gordon Downey worked three days rather than four days per week? Will he please also give the House an opportunity as soon as possible to debate and vote on early-day motion 513, which states:

[That this House has confidence in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and invites Elizabeth Filkin to accept reappointment on the terms of the initial contract working four days a week.] As I understand it, such a debate and vote are the only way in which the House can offer reappointment to the commissioner on the terms that she is currently on and that Sir Gordon Downey was on.

Mr. Cook

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I remind him that Mrs. Filkin applied for a job and that the job description said that it would be for three days; that is the basis on which she was chosen. Subsequently, it was negotiated that she should be paid and employed for four days. It has always been open to her to pursue that course, and it has always been open to any candidate who has been appointed to secure an extension of the three days. That is precisely what we did last time.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that Sir Gordon Downey was employed for four days a week. It is also the case that, before he retired, he wrote to the authorities indicating that, in his view, the job merited three days a week, not four. The job description for his successor was drawn up on that basis.

I have of course studied the early-day motion with care; I always pay respect to early-day motions. Quite often, they provide a useful expression of a weight of opinion in the House and often attract a very large number of signatures. I noted with care that the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion has been signed so far by 18 hon. Members, and therefore does not attract the priority for debate that many others do that demonstrate a much larger body of opinion behind them in the House.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

Hon. Members on both sides of the House were very grateful that, yesterday, you, Mr. Speaker, were able to take a private notice question on the middle east from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). However, given the very serious nature of events in the area, will the Leader of the House try to find time as soon as possible for a full debate, in Government time, on the situation in the middle east, particularly in relation to the west bank and Gaza? Although hon. Members have been able to address those issues in debates on international terrorism, I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that we deserve time to debate Palestine and the problems there outside of that context. I do not think that we have had such a debate in the past year.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an issue that is of deep concern to many hon. Members. He is also quite correct that there is an opportunity to raise those issues in the course of our exchanges on international terrorism. There will be another full day's debate on that subject next week, which will be the sixth such full day's debate since 11 September. There have therefore been many opportunities for hon. Members to raise those issues of concern. I underline the Government's deep anxiety about the present situation in the middle east and our appeal to both sides for restraint and a return to the negotiating table. I know that this is a matter of deep concern and priority for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that he and his team will continue to do all that they can to ensure that Britain and the European Union play their part in trying to bring both parties back from the brink.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Leader of the House accept that the House of Commons Commission is not an all-party body, as it was described by the Prime Minister yesterday—a number of parties in the House are not represented on it? Will he ask the Prime Minister not to describe it as such in future? As I understand it, the Leader of the House said earlier that we could have a debate on the Floor of the House about the appointment of the next Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Should not we have a debate on what happened to our current commissioner before we have a debate on the next one, either through early-day motion 513 or by some other means? How many signatures does he require that motion to have before he will agree to the democratic aspect of a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is correct: his party and the other minority parties do not have direct representation on the House of Commons Commission. However, the Commission embraces representatives of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. The right hon. Member for Bromley yand Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) serves on the Commission—indeed, I think that he did so even before he held his present position—although I must confess that it was not entirely clear to me in respect of some of the questions asked during Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday whether it was understood in his party that he is a member of the Commission and has played a full part in all the decisions that we have taken.

I do not believe that the issue has lacked adequate ventilation in Parliament or the press. There is no question of the matter being dealt with secretly. After all, the advert itself is a public document by definition. I urge everybody now to focus on the important task ahead of us, which is to ensure that we get a person of calibre, ability and commitment to carry out the job properly.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Will my right hon. Friend put paid to the nonsense that is being circulated today to the effect that any people other than hon. Members can come into the Chamber when the House is sitting or into Committees when they are doing business? Should not he be introducing measures that encourage hon. Members to be here more as legislators, instead of encouraging them to be back in their constituencies acting as social workers and parish council mayors? Can he give me an assurance that when these matters come before the House, they will, as House matters, be decided as usual by free vote? Will he put them forward separately and not as a full package?

Mr. Cook

I rather thought that my hon. Friend's earlier observations sounded a little bit like an editorial in The Guardian. I was rather surprised that he should express himself in such terms, as I know how much he values his constituency work, having visited him there. It is important that the House should strike the right balance. We are indeed here to legislate and scrutinise Government, but we are here also to represent our constituents. We cannot carry out that proper job of legislating and scrutinising Government if we do not have adequate contact with our constituents and pay adequate attention to their views. I know that he does that, so I am rather surprised by his comments. As to when and how the House considers the issues to which he refers, we are still some months away and I agree that the matter is one for the Modernisation Committee to resolve. I do not imagine that there will be one composite portmanteau or resolution. Even if we dealt with the matter on one day, I imagine that a number of different issues would have to be addressed.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

Will the Leader of the House provide some Government time to review the progress that they are making on their policy on planning? In particular, are the Government considering the impact on national heritage sites, where planning appears to be confused? In my constituency, between Hampton Court station and Hampton Court palace, there is a site that provides scandalous evidence of the failure of both owners and planners to come to any terms. As a result, the public constantly see the mess that is on the site when they leave the station to visit one of the finest palaces in this country. It would be useful to know what the Government are thinking about how to get proper planning quickly on such sites.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman raises an important planning issue. I hesitate to express an off-the-cuff

opinion about such an historic site, which he has the distinction of representing. I shall draw the matter to the attention of the Minister in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions who is responsible for planning.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I am mindful of my right hon. Friend's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). However, despite the good progress in shaping an inclusive, post-conflict Government for the people of Afghanistan, does he agree that the prospects for renewing or retrieving the middle east peace process have become very bleak this week? Does he also agree that it is essential for Europe, the United States and the international community to show the same determination as they displayed in Afghanistan in putting pressure on both sides in the middle east conflict to come back to the negotiating table? We are in danger not only of losing the possibility of a long-term settlement, but of not finding a way back to the peace process at all.

Mr. Cook

I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The Government will endeavour to achieve the outcome that he seeks. However, I would take a step back from the suggestion of putting pressure on either side. It is important to lobby, to try to bring both sides together and encourage them to reach agreement. It is also important to recognise that what we ask of them is in their interests. We are not asking them to do something as a favour to world opinion; we are asking them to return to the negotiating table and exercise restraint on violence for the sake of their people. The only way in which to secure a permanent peace in the middle east is through a negotiated agreement. It will not be achieved by helicopter gunships on one side and suicide bombers on the other.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Each time a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, confusion reigns about when the Government will implement their election pledge to increase national health spending to the European average. Earlier, the Chief Secretary, aided and abetted by a nodding Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that we would achieve the European average of 1998 in 2005. Is not it time that the Leader of the House asked the Prime Minister to make a statement on health? The Prime Minister pledged that he would take personal responsibility for the NHS; he should therefore answer questions on it exclusively.

Mr. Cook

I can only remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister answers questions in the House every week and that he has answered that specific question twice in the past two weeks.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

A few weeks ago, I asked my right hon. Friend whether he would arrange a debate on the Auld report's recommendations for the reform of the criminal justice system. He gave me a sympathetic, but non-committal reply. Has he any firm proposals for such a debate during the consultation period, which ends at the end of January next year?

Mr. Cook

I cannot commit myself to a debate by the end of January. We have already made one commitment for January, when there will be a heavy volume of legislation to tackle. However, we attach great importance to the Auld recommendations, and hon. Members will have to consider them in future in the context of legislation. If the opportunity arises, it would be appropriate for the House to express its view on the matter.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

When the Leader of the House presents the Modernisation Committee recommendations next week, I hope that he will not use "family friendly" as a smoke screen for changes that the press suggest are geared towards clockwatching earth mothers. He knows that if hon. Members clock off at 5 pm, only very few will go home to the bosom of their family. Most of us live many hours' journey from our families. Will he bear it in mind that many hon. Members would be footloose and fancy free in the city from 5 pm onwards? I cannot believe that that is in the family's interest.

Mr. Cook

Nor do I imagine that London would welcome clockwatching earth mothers being footloose in the city. Let me repeat my comments of last week. The idea that the House can ever agree to hours of 10 am to 5 pm is garbage. I never proposed that, although the newspaper that suggested that I had done so reported last weekend that I had withdrawn the proposal in the face of criticism. I am wearily reconciled to the ways of the press, and I am happy to bear an allegation that I withdrew an idea that I never proposed.

We need to find hours that will enable the House to be effective. Much of the debate about the hours of the House focuses too much on the end of the evening, when we go home. There is a much stronger case for focusing on the earlier part of the day when we do not sit, and for asking why we do not begin our proceedings until 2.30 pm, three days a week.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West)

As the Leader of the House may be aware, Dovecotes primary school in Pendeford in my constituency is this year one of the 20 most improved primary schools in the country. I am sure that he will agree that the hard-working staff, head teacher, pupils and parents of Dovecotes primary school deserve the House's warm congratulations on their magnificent achievement. Does he also agree that the latest statistics are a welcome step towards a more sophisticated analysis of work and achievement in our education system, and represent a move away from the simplistic raw tables of bare results? Will he find time for the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to make a statement to the House next week on the achievements of so many schools around the country, including Dovecotes?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having a primary school in his constituency that is in the top 20 in Britain. That must be a source of satisfaction to him as a Member of Parliament, and a source of pride to his constituents and to the head teacher.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on what has been dubbed "operation homework", in which the Ministry of Defence supplied information to one Master

Euan Blair on the arguments in favour of the nuclear deterrent? If the Secretary of State has more important things to do, may Conservative Members, in the spirit of Christmas, offer free tuition to Euan on the merits of nuclear deterrence? We would be quite happy to teach him about that subject now, just as we had to teach his father about it 15 or 20 years ago.

Mr. Cook

I expressed admiration for the hon. Gentleman at the last business statement, and he subsequently rebuked me for undermining his status and street cred among hon. Members on his own side. This week, for balance, I must tell him that I cannot think of anything more sad than those who have lives so empty that they worry about such trivia.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern throughout the House about the continuing use of the Barnett formula. Would it be possible to have a debate on that in the near future? In the context of Northern Ireland, while we appreciate the extra money that has been coming forth at different levels throughout the nation, we are concerned that, according to the Executive in Northern Ireland, the health service there will get worse if we continue to use that formula.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are providing substantial additional resources for the health service for the whole of the United Kingdom, and that embraces Northern Ireland. I assure him that I follow closely the Barnett formula, and we shall ensure that it applies in a way that reflects the principles behind it, and the changing population statistics, which undoubtedly have a legitimate impact on the arithmetic involved. Our wish is to ensure that health standards across the whole of the United Kingdom are raised, whatever an area's allocation may be under the Barnett formula.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

May I press the Leader of the House a little more about the European arrest warrant? He helpfully said earlier that this would not be agreed before the European Standing Committee had reconvened on Monday. However, in yesterday's debate on the European Union, the Minister for Europe said: Already we have agreed that there will be a common European arrest warrant."—[Official Report, 5 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 388.] That conflicts with a motion passed by the House on 17 November 1998, which clearly states: No Minister of the Crown should give agreement…to any proposal for European Community legislation or for a common strategy, joint action or political agreement before the scrutiny process is completed. Will the Leader of the House give an absolute assurance that the letter of this resolution of the Commons will be adhered to in full, particularly as Ministers are always boasting that the House is to become more involved in European Union matters?

Mr. Cook

I have already given an undertaking to the House, on the authority of the Home Office, that that matter will not be agreed to until we have had our debate in Standing Committee on Monday, because it will be resolved at the Laeken summit, not at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, although it has been discussed there. The right hon. Gentleman is well aware of that fact and that there is broad agreement that there should be a Europe-wide arrest warrant so that we can expedite and make more efficient our own action against terrorists who pose a common threat to each of us. That has been well reported and extensively debated in the House, but the technical steps to put the matter into effect will not be agreed to until after Monday.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Has the Leader of the House had a chance during his busy week to read the report of the excellent debate in the other place on clause 110 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill? In the work that the Modernisation Committee is doing, will he bear in mind that that clause, which will have a fundamental effect on British criminal law, was not even discussed under the terms of the guillotine in this House? Will he ensure that that never happens again?

Mr. Cook

Following 11 September, I very much hope that the House does not find itself in such a position ever again. This is emergency legislation. It is important to show our constituents that we can scrutinise legislation adequately and thoroughly, and that we can act expeditiously when that is necessary for the safety of our constituents. That is why we want the Bill to become an Act before the end of the year. Three months after 11 September, the hon. Gentleman's constituents would find it odd if the House of Commons had not provided a legislative response to that danger to ensure that they are safer.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern at the way in which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards undertook her duties. Equally, other right hon. and hon. Members have expressed their support for her reappointment. In answer to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), the Leader of the House said that the matter has been ventilated widely in the press and in this place. That is true of the press, but not very true of this place, and most of us have no information apart from that which we can gather either from the press or from our colleagues.

Would not it help the House to publish in full the allegations made by the parliamentary commissioner and the reasons for the House of Commons Commission choosing to readvertise the post rather than reappoint her, so that we can have a debate based on fact, not backstairs rumour and gossip?

Mr. Cook

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's closing point. Mrs. Filkin made general observations that excited much comment in the press, but when she was interviewed on radio yesterday and asked to provide chapter and verse for the allegations, I was struck by the fact that she produced none and said that she was referring to stories told to her by journalists.

I welcome the statement made yesterday by the Speaker and I look forward to Mrs. Filkin's response detailing the allegations that she has made. I say to the hon. Gentleman that I and the other members of the House of Commons Commission are not clear about what she may have been alluding to in those allegations. Having made them, I hope that she provides detail to the House, the Commission and

the press, because it is not fair to the civil service generally to refer to a named civil servant and then decline to name that civil servant.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Macclesfield borough council's housing officers have approached me on a serious matter that is developing as a result of the reference point rent system, which relates to housing benefit allocation. Where housing rents are high, it appears that the system does not enable sufficient housing benefit to be awarded to allow poorer people to retain their accommodation. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement so that the House may refer to the problem, which is occurring in an increasing number of constituencies?

Mr. Cook

It is indeed of serious concern to many. There is a real dilemma for all of us: we want to ensure that people can occupy the accommodation that they require irrespective of their income, but we do not want to return to past circumstances in which landlords have felt free to exploit the housing benefit system by charging unreasonable rents. A balance must be struck. I shall, however, invite my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

When the Prime Minister was questioned about Mrs. Filkin yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, he replied that that was a matter for the House. Will the Leader of the House grant the House a debate so that it can express its opinion? Such a debate would give us an opportunity to express the feeling of many of us that this is a job not for a civil servant or, indeed, a self-publicist, but for a judge.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman characteristically provides a new angle on the search for a successor to Mrs. Filkin, and the House of Commons Commission will take his proposal on board. It seems to me, however, that the logical next step in the process is for Mrs. Filkin to reply to the letter sent to her by Mr. Speaker inviting her to explain the allegations that she has chosen to put in the public domain. When that has been done, Mr. Speaker and the Commission must consider what is the next appropriate step; but I look forward to the reply.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House will be aware that on Tuesday I presented the Health (Patients' Rights) Bill. The gist of it was that patients who had been waiting too long for treatment in the NHS should have a right to treatment overseas, or in the private sector.

I was delighted to see the Secretary of State for Health on the airwaves this morning, apparently adopting my proposal as Government policy. I am always happy to be as helpful as possible to the Secretary of State. Could the Leader of the House bring forward my Bill's Second Reading, scheduled for 18 January, to next week? We could then have a debate in Government time, and the Secretary of State, instead of merely saying that he wants to offer patients that right, would be able to give them a statutory right to treatment within a maximum period.

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to withdraw from the hon. Gentleman the satisfaction he evidently feels about the fact that what he proposed one day became Government policy the next. I know, however, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has been working on the matter for some time. His announcement was one of a series made by the Department of Health about the need for us to ensure that patients have a right to operations and, when those operations are cancelled, a right for them to be replaced within 28 days. We will continue to work on that within the targets of the national plan, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to support and encourage us as we proceed towards our joint goals.