HC Deb 13 December 2001 vol 376 cc1001-19 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

Hon. Members

Hear, hear!

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

I am gratified by the interest in the business for next week.

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 18 DECEMBER—A motion to approve the use of the facilities of the House for those Members who have chosen not to take their seats.

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Leader of the House answer the question.

Mr. Cook

That will be followed by the remaining stages of the International Development Bill [Lords]

WEDNESDAY 19 DECEMBER—Motion to approve a statutory instrument. Details to be announced in the Order Paper.

Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

The business following the Christmas recess will be:

TUESDAY 8 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords]

WEDNESDAY 9 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill

THURSDAY 10 JANUARY—A debate on House of Lords reform on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 11 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 9 January 2002, there will be a debate relating to the 2001 broad economic policy guidelines in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 16 January 2002, there will be a debate relating to the sixth environmental action programme in European Standing Committee A.

[Wednesday 9 January 2002

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Documents: 8261/01, 9326/01, Broad Economic Policy Guidelines. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-ii (2001–02).]

Wednesday 16 January 2002

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union Document: 5771/01, Sixth Environmental Action Programme of the European Community. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports:HC 28-xi (2000–01); HC 152-i and HC 152-ii (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week and beyond. Does he know that this a red letter day? I am sure that he does, as he is always very well briefed. I am sure that you, Mr. Speaker, and the House will wish to be reminded that today is the golden wedding anniversary of Lady Thatcher and Sir Denis Thatcher, without whom, of course, Thatcherism would never have been possible. Will the Leader join me, my hon. Friends and, I hope, all hon. Members in sending our congratulations and best wishes to the Thatchers and in wishing them very many years of happiness together?

Following the conviction of the killer of little Sarah Payne yesterday, will the Leader promise us an urgent statement on what the Government propose to do to give all possible reassurance to parents throughout the country that everything will be done to ensure that something as horrible as this cannot and will not happen again? I believe that it is very important that we make an urgent response to the events leading up to this ghastly incident.

The Leader of the House has told us that there will be a motion next Tuesday to approve the use of the facilities of the House for those Members who have chosen not to take their seats. I notice that the resolution states that those Members who have chosen not to take their seats … may use the facilities within the precincts of the House and the services of departments of the House It refers to Members. Will the Leader of the House promise us that it is solely, therefore, a matter for the House of Commons? Will we be given proper and adequate time to debate such a serious matter? Will the motion be fully amendable? Given that it is a House of Commons matter, will there be a free vote on it? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that it is not subject to the deferred Division procedure, so that we can ensure that those who attend the debate are those who vote on it, and that there will be no hiding behind pink forms on a subsequent occasion?

I pointed out that the motion refers only to Members. That is important. Will the Members who are allowed on to the premises be asked to sign the same form as staff? I assume that their staff will not be allowed in because, mercifully, the motion does not cover them. Will the Members be required to fill in the form, which we have always regarded as important for our security? It asks: Have you ever been involved in espionage, terrorism, sabotage or actions intended to overthrow or undermine Parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means? Have you ever been a member of, or supported a group or groups involved in any of the above activities? Have you ever had a close association with anyone who, to your knowledge, has been a member of or given active support to any such group or activities? If such people—we are talking about Sinn Fein-IRA—are going to be admitted on to the premises, will they be asked to fill in the form? I hope that they will be. Will they be subject to the sanctions that are always enforced on others whom we invite into the parliamentary estate? Those are only some of the questions that will have to be resolved. I know that you will be watching matters closely, Mr. Speaker, and I hope that the Leader of the House can give us explicit assurances before we even get to the debate.

Mr. Cook

I apologise for overlooking the golden wedding anniversary of Lady Thatcher and her husband; I regret failing in that courtesy. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for being so magnanimous on this occasion and I am happy to add my felicitations to his. If that casts a passing shadow over the festivities, I regret it, but I am happy to offer my congratulations.

On the appalling murder of Sarah Payne and the trial that has just concluded with a conviction, I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government already have several measures in hand to increase protection for vulnerable young children. We are introducing restraining orders and sex offender orders, which restrict the activities of known sex offenders. We are conducting a review of sentencing, which pays special attention to the risks posed by sexual and violent offenders. We are also expanding places on treatment programmes in prisons. We have introduced the possibility of extended post-release supervision for sex offenders, and are requiring the police and the probation services to work together to establish better arrangements for assessing sex offenders who have been released. I assure the House that we shall continue to do everything possible to protect young children. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will keep hon. Members informed of further developments.

Let me deal with the questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked about Tuesday's debate. It is a House of Commons matter and there will not be a Whip on this side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nor a payroll vote?"] Nor will the debate be time limited; it does not qualify for a specific limit under Standing Orders and it will therefore be open ended. Like any other motion of the House, it is wholly amendable. Conservative Members can table any amendments that they wish. As the debate commences at 3.30 pm, Divisions cannot be deferred, and we would not wish to have a deferred vote on the matter. We want a full and open debate on whatever amendments the right hon. Gentleman cares to table, and to hold a vote at the end of it.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are dealing with a matter that dates only from 1997, when Speaker Boothroyd made her statement to the House. She withdrew from Sinn Fein Members access to areas within the parliamentary precincts. They had access without passes until then. They also had access to some 20 different services and facilities of the House.

The situation in Northern Ireland has changed since 1997. We have had the Good Friday agreement, and seen the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly. We have also seen the first ever verifiable act of decommissioning in the history of Northern Ireland and, only yesterday, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, including its Sinn Fein members, agreed on a new crest for the police, which includes a stylised version of the crown.

There have been enormous changes in Northern Ireland, and I do not see a case for this place remaining frozen in the position that it took in 1997, before all those events took place. One of the four Members currently barred from these premises is now a Minister in the Northern Ireland Executive. If he can be Education Minister for a part of the United Kingdom, why on earth can he not have access to the Vote Office, the Library or the travel office in the House of Commons?

Members in most quarters of the House support the peace process. If we really want to see peace in Northern Ireland, we surely ought to take this one modest step forward towards normalising the politics of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been eagerly awaiting the publication of the performance and innovation unit's energy review. Today's New Scientist claims to have a leaked copy of it. Now that the document is in the public domain, will the Leader of the House ensure that Members can have a copy of the report, and ask the appropriate Minister to come to the House and make a statement on it? Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that anyone who has been married to Lady Thatcher for 50 years deserves a medal as big as a dustbin lid?

Mr. Cook

I shall not rise to the tempting invitation in my hon. Friend's closing remark.

As to the energy review, I have no idea whether the document that the New Scientist has is the right document. In my experience, leaks are often inaccurate. I told the House at the start of the review that I wanted to ensure that hon. Members were informed when it was complete, and that commitment remains.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We welcome the publication of the Leader of the House's discussion paper on the modernisation of the House. Will he give us some indication of his timetable for consultation on it, as all Members are obviously extremely interested in these matters? Even if it is not within the time scale of the business that he announces this afternoon, will he tell us when he expects there to be a debate in the House on the matter?

In that connection, will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that he will look carefully at the way in which the proposals that he has so properly set out in this discussion paper apply to our recent discussions on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill? We take very seriously his statement that good security makes for good government. Is he satisfied that that has happened on this occasion? Given the Home Secretary's overheated threats last weekend, will the Leader of the House tell us whether every part of the Bill is essential to prevent and deter terrorist attacks over the Christmas holiday period? For example, does he really think that part 5 of the Bill, which relates to race and religion, must be on the statute book to deter and prevent terrorist attacks? What other parts of the Bill are essential for that purpose?

Mr. Cook

On the modernisation paper, I have requested the Clerk of the Modernisation Committee to mail a copy of my memorandum to all hon. Members, with a covering letter inviting comments and views on the proposals, preferably in writing, by 31 January. If we are going to take forward this modernisation package, it is important that we do so in a way that reflects the views of as many hon. Members among whom it is possible to get agreement as possible.

I stress that the objective of the package is to secure a more effective House of Commons. It is not about making life easy for Members of Parliament, and I do not imagine that any Member came to this place expecting an easy life. They did, however, expect the opportunity to do an effective job, and that is what we are seeking to secure.

On the other matter, I was interested to hear the shadow Home Secretary say on the radio yesterday: I am fully convinced we can have this Bill through well in time for the Christmas break, and we need it. I fully agree—we do need it and it can be done. We need the Bill because it contains measures that are important to the security of our constituents, such as ensuring that we have better control over airfields, better control over access to nuclear material and better powers for the Ministry of Defence police and the nuclear police. It is important to show our constituents that, given that we can identify those serious loopholes in our law, we can deliver on them in a reasonable time and we can have the Bill in place by the end of the year.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Has the Leader of the House made time available to debate the shipbuilding industry throughout the UK? A question was asked in the other place about the number of schemes set up since 1997. I notice that the answer was nil.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend's constituency interest and the great importance of the shipbuilding industry to our economy. There is an Adjournment debate on the matter next week, but obviously I shall consult my colleagues on what further facilities they can make available to allow my hon. Friend to register his views with them.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the appalling measure he proposes to introduce next week with respect to Sinn Fein/IRA does not apply to the staff of those concerned?

Mr. Cook

The position in relation to staff of the four Members who have not taken the Oath will be precisely the same as that for any other member of staff.[Interruption.] No, they will be subject to the same security vetting as any other member of staff.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge)

With reference to my right hon. Friend's answer on paedophiles, can a statement be made on the monitoring of all the features that the Government have put in place since 1997, to find out how effective they are? I took the Protection of Children Act 1999 through the House and I am very concerned that effectiveness is not being monitored, although such monitoring is desirable. With reference to paedophiles in particular, will my hon. Friend reassure me and the House that the sentencing White Paper promised for spring will be introduced then or preferably sooner, but certainly not later?

Mr. Cook

I can assure the House and my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State for the Home Department attaches great priority to the matter, and work is proceeding with all speed. I hope that we can keep to the timetable we have set ourselves. It is important that sentencing policy should be reviewed and, as my hon. Friend says, it is important that we put the sense into sentencing.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House further clarify the grounds on which the decision has been taken to permit Sinn Fein/IRA and their staff access to the facilities of the House of Commons? To many of us, the decision displays further contempt for the traditions of the House. Furthermore, will the freedom being extended to Back Benchers be extended to the payroll? I know that hon. Members—principled Members—from the Government party are as appalled as me. Will the Prime Minister be present on Tuesday to explain to the House how he made a deal behind all our backs to bring this about?

Mr. Cook

I am advised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that the matter was discussed two years ago, so it has not arisen unknown and unheralded. As to the vote next Tuesday, it will be on a one-line Whip. If Labour Back Benchers do not share the view I have expressed, they are perfectly entitled to express theirs. As to other members of the Government, I shall move the motion on the Government's behalf and of course I shall, not unreasonably, look to the Government for support.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The Leader of the House is aware that I have never been soft on Sinn Fein or the IRA, but is he further aware that Sinn Fein, at one time, would not take its seats in the Republic of Ireland or in Stormont, because there was no united Ireland at the time? Now it is involved in those bodies and involved in the Northern Ireland Executive. A Sinn Fein Member has toured the Floor of the House as a guest of the British-Irish parliamentary body. The more such people are involved in our activities, the more influence that will have on them. Their involvement means that they are selling out some of their distorted principles from the past, which is very welcome indeed.

Mr. Cook

Before I reply to my hon. Friend, may I clarify something that I said earlier? I am advised that it was the SDLP that agreed to the crest for the Northern Ireland police yesterday; Sinn Fein has no members on the policing board for the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

I fully recognise my hon. Friend's deep and long-standing interest in Northern Ireland politics, and I welcome the sentiments that he expressed. We are engaged in a process; we want that process to advance; we want to draw into that process precisely those who have resisted peace in Northern Ireland in the past. If we refused to take the modest step of allowing them into the precincts—[HON. MEMBERS: "Modest?"] Indeed it is a modest step to allow them access to the Vote Office and the Library. If we refused to take that step, would it be any surprise if they themselves doubted whether we were interested in taking the process any further?

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that he began by saying that Tuesday's debate would involve a free vote, went on to say that there would be a free vote for Back Benchers, and then said that the equivalent of a Whip would be issued to all Labour Front Benchers—all Ministers and all parliamentary private secretaries? That means that the right hon. Gentleman will, in effect, be whipping through the House of Commons entry to the House of Commons for people who deny the basic constitution of this country. Is that what the right hon. Gentleman is saying?

Mr. Cook

The motion that we will move will reverse a decision made in 1997 in very different circumstances, and restore to those Members access to the premises of a kind that was commonplace when the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were in office.

As for Tuesday's vote, yes, it will be unwhipped for the parliamentary Labour party. But the right hon. Gentleman has been a Chief Whip: he is not wet behind the ears. He knows perfectly well that when a Minister moves a Government motion he will expect other Ministers to support him.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I know that a private notice question was asked last week, but should there not be an emergency debate or a statement next week, given the events of the past 24 hours in the middle east? Does my right hon. Friend agree that our correct condemnation of terror attacks on buses in no way gives a green light for tanks on the streets of Ramullah, jet or helicopter gunship attacks, or what now appears to be a rather blatant attempt by the Sharon Government to topple President Arafat altogether?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will know that there was a statement on the middle east the other week. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will want to consider when another might be appropriate. In the meantime, I fully share my hon. Friend's anxiety about the present desperate situation in the middle east. We are particularly concerned about the statement that the Israeli Government will not engage in further talks with Chairman Arafat. The fact is that there will be no progress on peace unless there is dialogue about peace. As I have told the House before, it is not by means of tanks or helicopter gunships or suicide bombers that we will establish peace in the middle east; we will do so only by means of negotiations at the peace table.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

As we look across the Chamber at the crest of Airey Neave, we should bear in mind the fact that this is a week in which immigrants may have to swear an oath of allegiance, and in which IRA funds from the United States may finally have dried up. Next week, we will debate a completely contemptible motion giving special recognition to people who refused to swear any allegiance, and whose funds will now be provided by the state. Will that motion be amendable, allowing those people's cash benefits and allowances to be set at zero?

Mr. Cook

The motion will be amendable. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues can table any amendment that is in order. That is out of my hands, but I would expect amendments of the kind proposed by the hon. Gentleman to be capable of being tabled and debated in the House.

The whole purpose of the peace process is to ensure that tragic deaths and murders such as that of Airey Neave do not occur again. It is therefore important to make certain that the peace process continues. Yes, it is challenging, and many people in Northern Ireland have had to face challenging decisions as a result of it; but I hope that the House will not shrink from what it is asked to do.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 238.

[That this House opposes the increase in segregated faith schools as outlined in the Education White Paper, Schools achieving success; notes that the White Paper says that church and other faith schools must be inclusive but that schools with a particular religious ethos cannot by their very nature be inclusive, because there is discrimination through selection with those of a particular faith being favoured over children who are not of that faith or indeed are atheist, that religious schools choose their children rather than the other way around, that an increase in religious schools may lead to less integration of communities, causing division; and being taught in a religious school is not necessarily a sound basis for living in a multi-cultural society; and further notes that events in Northern Ireland and also in Bradford indicate that we should be working for the greater integration rather than the division of our schools.]

In the light of recent reports on the riots in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, which clearly point to segregated education as a problem; and of Lord Ouseley's report, published during the summer, which blamed segregated education for the lack of understanding between different cultures; and of the fact that, in opinion polls, an overwhelming number of people come out against any more faith schools, may we have a debate just on that issue before it appears in a Bill and is lumped in with lots of other things? Given the overwhelming opposition to more faith schools, we need to debate the issue.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the anxiety that prompts my hon. Friend's question. The Cantle report drew attention to the serious problems that can arise in schools that have one single race or culture among their pupils. It is precisely for that reason that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has urged all faith schools to include children from other communities, cultures and faiths. My right hon. Friend will put that position forward when we debate the Bill.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

I seek further clarification from the Leader of the House in relation to the disgraceful motion that is to come before the House next Tuesday. In view of the fact that IRA-Sinn Fein youth were involved in serious violence against military installations in South Armagh at the weekend, supported and condoned by the leadership of Sinn Fein-IRA; of the murder of a man in South Armagh by republicans earlier this week; and of the fact that, as everyone knows, Martin McGuinness is chief of staff of the IRA, is it not appalling that the Government should come forward with the motion at this time, especially in view of the recent comment by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that Northern Ireland was becoming a cold house for Unionists? Is this not more evidence of that fact? Is it not appalling that at a time when the House is debating and considering stronger measures to combat terrorism, the Government should consider putting forward measures to allow IRA-Sinn Fein and terrorist front men into this House and this precinct?

Mr. Cook

I gently put it to the hon. Gentleman that his party has participated in over 2,000 committee meetings with Sinn Fein members present. Unionists sit on the Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly with a Sinn Fein Member, the Minister of Education. I do not see that it is possible to have that type of co-operation and dialogue in Northern Ireland and at the same time to keep them out of the building of Westminster.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall how, during the 30 years of IRA terror, time and again all the parties represented in the House of Commons urged the IRA to drop the terror and adopt politics? Would it not therefore be right for office accommodation to be provided, possibly as a first step to Sinn Fein Members of Parliament taking their seats, bearing in mind the fact that, whether we like it or not, they were elected as Members of Parliament no less than ourselves? [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I realise how sensitive this subject is but this is not a debate. It is the Leader of the House stating what the business for next week is. I ask hon. Members to be calm.

Mr. Cook

The last point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) is valid. Some 200,000 people took part in the elections of those four Members. Whether or not they voted for those Members, they are entitled to have their constituency interests adequately represented and looked after. I see no reason why we should deny those 200,000 electors Members who can have access to the precincts and to the House's facilities.

On the other point, my hon. Friend is correct. We have sought over the years to engage Sinn Fein and the IRA in the political process. We cannot now draw up the drawbridge and say that they cannot have a part in these political facilities.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The Leader of the House might at some stage explain what use of the House was made by the people elected for Sinn Fein before 1997. To my recollection, they came here only for publicity and to provoke public reaction.

Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House early-day motion 513:

[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.]

The right hon. Gentleman said that the 18 signatures it had attracted were not impressive. The number has now doubled to 36. Does he need it to double again to 72 before he will allow hon. Members to demonstrate to our constituents that we understand how they feel about the matter? The Prime Minister said that it was a matter for the House, so will the Leader of the House give us the opportunity to vote on a motion of confidence in the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and to invite her to accept reappointment on the present terms?

Mr. Cook

I predicted last Thursday that after I had drawn attention to the fact that the early-day motion had only 18 signatures, the hon. Gentleman would be able to attract more. I congratulate him on his efforts since then, but I stand by the point that I made—that the number of signatures is still modest by comparison with the number attracted by other early-day motions, which have obviously achieved a resonance with hon. Members that the hon. Gentleman's one may not have. On the question of a debate, I cannot, even if I wished to—and I do not—avoid a debate on the matter. Any appointment made by the House of Commons Commission has to come before the full House for approval. That motion will be amendable and the hon. Gentleman may then, if he wishes, test the opinion of the House by seeking to amend it to reappoint Mrs. Filkin.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

I was disappointed to discover that we will not have a debate next week on my right hon. Friend's plans for modernisation of the House, which would have given us the opportunity to lavish on him the praise that is his due for an excellent first step. It would also have given us the opportunity to add a few ideas. I offer my right hon. Friend the suggestion that it is nonsensical that when Ministers make statements to the House, we are not allowed to have the documents supporting those statements until the Minister has finished. If we could collect the relevant documents on an embargoed basis before the statement, we could ask informed questions instead of engaging in the knockabout that we have at the moment.

Mr. Cook

I hear what my hon. Friend says and we will consider what might be done on that matter. On the wider issue of the modernisation package, I remind the House that we are at the start of the process. We issued yesterday the proposals for a programme of work, not the outcome of that programme. My hon. Friend offers tempting reasons why we should have an earlier debate, but the best time for the House to debate the matter is when the Modernisation Committee puts firm recommendations to the House. In the meantime, we would welcome the contribution of any hon. Member who wishes to comment on the consultation document.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

When the Leader of the House prepares his introduction to the motion next Tuesday, on access to the House of Commons, will he consider whether it is appropriate for the public to elect two sorts of Member of Parliament—those who are prepared to accept the constitution, take the Oath and use the facilities of the House and the Chamber in the way we all do, and those who are not prepared to accept the constitution and who have spent much of their lives campaigning to bring it down? Is it right that under our constitution we should have two sorts of Member of Parliament?

Mr. Cook

As I understand it, the hon. and learned Gentleman and his party would wish to make the distinction between the two sorts even greater than I propose. They would keep anyone elected who does not take the Oath out of even the precincts—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am grateful for such ready confirmation of my interpretation of what the hon. and learned Gentleman says. If the Conservatives want to make the gulf even larger than I propose, it does not lie with them to complain about two tiers.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on Consignia, following reports of huge job losses and then speculation that they might not happen? The House deserves an answer on the future of Consignia at the earliest possible date.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern and it is widely shared on both sides of the House. I am confident that opportunities for discussion will arise in the future, but I remind my hon. Friend that we introduced an Act of Parliament to confer greater commercial freedom on Consignia and the Post Office. The decisions that have to be taken are not for Ministers, but for the management. I hope that the management in making those decisions will work with, and fully consult, the work force.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Yesterday, the Leader of the House published proposals to make the House more meaningful. Many of them are useful and constructive, but how do they square with his refusal to allow a debate on the fate of the existing Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? How can the House hold the Executive to account if it cannot debate its own procedures? The right hon. Gentleman said that we could have a debate on the next commissioner. Does he mean that a debate could be held after that person has been selected by the House of Commons Commission? Would it not be invidious to have a debate when a person has been appointed, and for the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) to move his motion then? How many hon. Members have to sign early-day motion 513 before the Leader of the House does his democratic duty and allows a debate on the existing Commissioner for Standards?

Mr. Cook

There is no minimum threshold for the number of signatures that must appear on an early-day motion to attract a debate. Many early-day motions with several hundred signatures have not been debated, and I regret that I cannot give a commitment that they will be. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has correctly apprehended what I said, so I repeat that the Commission does not make the appointment, the House does. The Commission can only make a recommendation. If the hon. Gentleman and, if I may use the term, his hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley)—who appears to have other pressing matters to attend to—really feel so strongly about the matter, I do not think that it would be invidious to expect them to table an amendment when the matter comes before the House.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating my predecessor on gaining the Scottish Parliament's Committee member of the year award? The Committee that my predecessor chairs is called the Public Petitions Committee, and it allows ordinary people to access the Scottish Parliament and interact with its procedures. Will my right hon. Friend consider that as a model to be reviewed in future stages of the modernisation of this House?

Mr. Cook

I well remember Mr. McAllion's diligence and commitment to this House, and I am not at all surprised that that has been transferred to the other place in Edinburgh. I congratulate him on receiving the award.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Is it not likely that the debate on Tuesday will prompt a consideration of the Oath? As currently phrased, the Oath does not fully or wholly accurately reflect the duties of Members of Parliament. Should it not contain a provision that all hon. Members should vote and speak in accordance with their own judgment and opinion? An advantage of such an Oath would be that Government Front-Bench Members would not feel constrained to support the Leader of the House on Tuesday.

Mr. Cook

I rather anticipate that my hon. Friends will feel enthusiastic about supporting me on Tuesday. I look forward to their willing and voluntary vote in that Division. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has a talent for spotting points that the rest of us have not focused on. If he wishes to propose a change to the Oath we will, of course, consider it. However, I should be very reluctant for the House to revert to the version used in the previous century, when the Oath occupied a full page and swearing-in took much longer.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend be able to find time for a debate on the powers of public utility companies? Transco has caused massive disruption in the Hollins Green area of my constituency while laying a pipeline. Access for residents was cut off and good farm land spoiled. The company consistently displayed a cavalier attitude to people living in the areas. Can we have a debate on how the public utilities can exercise their very necessary powers while demonstrating proper concern for local residents?

Mr. Cook

I have noticed the growing number of articles in the press on the conduct of Transco. I cannot promise my hon. Friend that there will be an opportunity for a full debate, but I am delighted that she has had this opportunity to put on record a matter that is clearly of serious concern to her constituency.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does not the Leader of the House understand that Tuesday's motion will be seen first as a public relations coup for Sinn Fein, and secondly as appeasement of men of violence, given that the provisional IRA has only just begun to decommission very few of its illegally held arms and explosives? Does he further understand that there is a simple solution to the problem—that the hon. Members concerned could use the House's facilities if they took the Oath like everyone else? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is entirely wrong to try to push the matter through before Christmas in the hope of avoiding publicity, and to whip the payroll vote on what is essentially a House of Commons matter?

Mr. Cook

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that on one point he is grossly wrong—I do not anticipate any lack of publicity for what I have just announced and for what we will be debating on Tuesday. Indeed, I can think of no circumstances in which it would not receive publicity.

The act of decommissioning is described by the commission that we have appointed to prove and verify decommissioning as "significant". That significant step forward requires us to ask ourselves why we are still living in 1997 and have not recognised that there have been major changes since then.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

What is it?

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman shouts as loudly as that again, he will be removed from the Chamber. It is not allowed, and perhaps senior Members will tell him so.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will know that as well as the Cantle report, other reports were published on Tuesday dealing with the disturbances that took place in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham earlier this year. Those reports have many common themes regarding the causes of the disturbances. Those themes are relevant not only to those three places but to many others in the country where there could equally have been disturbances. Certain circumstances meant that the disturbances occurred in those three places in particular. Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is a good case for these issues to be debated in the House so that we can look at a way forward, because we never again want to see such disturbances anywhere in this country?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this matter. He has deep commitment to and concern for his constituency, and I know the strong and active part that he has played in promoting community relations. He will be aware that the Minister of State, Home Office has followed the matter closely and played an active part in the preparation of the reports. I assure my hon. Friend that Home Office Ministers will be pursuing the necessary follow-up to the reports with great vigour and, at an appropriate moment, I am sure that they will share with the House what action they propose to take.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that the Leader of the House will understand when I say that I view the business of next Tuesday with the gravest concern. Is he establishing a precedent that no longer in this place are all Members equal? To qualify for our parliamentary salary and the use of facilities, we have to take the Oath or affirm. Is this a precedent? Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that Members of this House are no longer here on equal terms? If so, perhaps we should have a debate on this. Bearing it in mind that he will be inviting into this place people who are closely associated still with acts of terrorism and killing, what guarantee can he provide that they will not come in with weapons or be guarded by those with weapons and that our own safety will not be put in jeopardy? I was the last person to speak to Airey Neave

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Cook

I fully respect the sincerity with which the hon. Gentleman speaks. May I correct one point of fact? The motion that we will discuss on Tuesday will make no provision for salaries to be paid to the four Members who have not taken the Oath. It will provide for them to have access to the precincts, as they had throughout the years of Conservative Government up until 1997. Such access will not differ from the access of those individuals. However, that provision of access to the precincts will not apply to any members of staff they bring with them, who will be subject to exactly the same scrutiny that any other member of the public or member of staff working for Members of Parliament undergo.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Peni stone)

I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 557 in my name.

[That this House is gravely concerned about the implications for asbestos-induced mesothelioma sufferers and their families by a recent Court of Appeal judgment that a claimant cannot recover damages if he was exposed to asbestos by more than one employer on the grounds that it is not possible to say which one was to blame, ending a situation of joining defendants and apportioning liability accordingly that has lasted for more than 20 years; is further concerned that the judgment directs that claimants may have a claim under the Pneumoconiosis (Workers' Compensation) Act 1979, costing the Exchequer tens of millions of pounds each year, and creating conditions for the insurance industry to escape its responsibility; and calls for this injustice to be righted by legislation if necessary.]

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the horrendous decision made in the Court of Appeal on Tuesday that people suffering from asbestos-induced cancer can no longer claim compensation when more than one employer is involved, on the grounds that it cannot be determined which employer the fibre that started the cancer came from. The judgment went on to suggest that people in that position may claim under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers Compensation) Act 1979, which was set up to provide compensation when the insurer could not be traced. The Act does not provide compensation in this case—it is not an alternative to common law damages. The Appeal Court declined leave to appeal to the House of Lords. Will my right hon. Friend bring the issue to the notice of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, with a view to considering the possibility of bringing in a small Bill to rectify that massive injustice?

Mr. Cook

Obviously, I cannot commit myself to legislation without consulting my colleagues and reflecting on the matter. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the judgment, and can understand the sense of injustice and hard feeling experienced by those who lost such a case. I can see that the implications of the principle contained in the judgment could go much wider than such cases. I am informed that the Association of British Insurers is consulting its members on their response to the judgment, and I hope that a way forward can be found that will not deny remedy and justice to those involved.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Will the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate—next week or in the first week of January—on industrial relations in the civil service? Given that the staff of the Department for Work and Pensions are on strike and that that may cause immeasurable difficulties for vulnerable people seeking benefits or advice in the pre-Christmas period, and that staff of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are also on strike, thus meaning that farmers will not receive the payments owed them under IACS—the integrated administration and control system—which in turn will cause them great difficulties, especially after the events of last year, is it not clear that macho management is not working and that it is certainly not delivering for the public?

Mr. Cook

I would be the last person to defend macho management—or macho anything else. I very much hope that a common way forward can be found.

The strike in the Department for Work and Pensions relates to the introduction of changes that will be very much in the interest of the public. Although I hope that we can find agreement on taking forward those changes with the support of the staff—without staff feeling threatened in any way—our duty is obviously to the public and to ensure that we provide them with the best possible service.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the good sense and imagination that runs through his modernisation paper and especially on his comments that the proposals are a first step towards changing practices and the balance between this place and the Executive, and that the process will continue. I also welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the nature—albeit limited—of the free vote next Tuesday. That seems to go some way towards recognising that membership of the House and the use of its facilities are not in the gift of the Government—they are a matter for the House. It is the House—properly—on a free vote that should decide such matters.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct about the free vote for Members of the party. He is entirely free to vote as he wishes on Tuesday. I would have neither the temerity nor the courage to advise him how to vote on Tuesday.

I welcome his comments on the modernisation proposals. I also agree with him that, important though the package is, work will remain to be done and that modernisation will not stop with this programme.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Bearing in mind the motion that the Leader of the House will introduce next Tuesday, is he aware that the vast majority of Members take their responsibilities to Parliament very seriously indeed? Several of those Members are currently in shared accommodation and in accommodation that is not up to the standard of that occupied by other Members. Why the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the House that he will give Members who have no intention of taking part in its proceedings the same sort of space that he gives Members who take this place seriously?

Mr. Cook

Against the historic achievement of the Good Friday agreement, the first-ever verifiable decommissioning in the history of Northern Ireland and the election of the Northern Ireland Assembly, to argue over whether we can find a room for those Members does not match the gravity of that process in Northern Ireland.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Following an earlier question, may I remind my right hon. Friend that the board of Consignia has a long history of ignoring its work force and failing to consult them on major decisions? I was involved in a campaign to keep open the sorting office at Mount Pleasant in east London and visited the board of the then Royal Mail with three of my hon. Friends. I saw then the contempt with which the board treated the work force—collectively sounding like a third-rate 1980s management textbook.

Massive job losses are in the pipeline. Some of my constituents and people from the poorest parts of London will lose their jobs with Consignia. When we are talking about job losses on that scale, it is a matter for the Government and for the elected representatives who represent those people who are on the receiving end. Can we have a debate?

Mr. Cook

Of course, my hon. Friend raises a very important priority—ensuring that Consignia' s management consults fully and tries to reach consensus with the work force, because the problem that faces Consignia is common to the management and the work force. I am very much in favour of Select Committees having access to all available information and to hearing, whenever possible, Government policy announcements. I was a bit taken aback to hear the scale of redundancy that was announced first to a Select Committee. I hope that the management will now remedy that by moving quickly to try to reach agreement and a way forward with the work force.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

On Monday this week, the report that the Home Secretary commissioned from Ted Cantle produced its first recommendation saying that the rights and, in particular, the responsibilities of citizenship need to be more clearly established and should be formalised into a statement of allegiance. That view was endorsed by the ministerial group on the issue, which states that the public realm is founded on negotiation and debate between competing viewpoints at the same time as it upholds inviolable rights and duties. Given the motion that will be moved in the right hon. Gentleman's name on Tuesday and the fact that the Ministers who made that comment will be invited to support it, is this an example of joined-up Government or double standards?

Mr. Cook

Not in the slightest. The citizenship of Britain of course embraces the fundamental right to vote in a parliamentary democracy. Many of the citizens of those four constituencies have exercised that right and they have elected those four Members of Parliament. The House has to ask itself whether it is consistent with what we preach in parliamentary democracy not even to let them into the precincts. The hon. Gentleman was a special adviser to the Conservative Government, so I find it surprising that he never expressed that view to those whom he advised at the time who, throughout their period in office, let those four Members into the precincts.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there have been requests for other debates from both sides of the House. Is it not passing strange, therefore, that the Government have selected next Tuesday for the debate to allow Members who have not taken their seats to use facilities in the House, especially when that party has not been prepared to nominate people to the police board and to take a fuller role in Northern Ireland? At a time when we have been debating international terrorism, is that not giving a wrong signal? The shadow Leader of the House said that today was a red letter day—perhaps some hon. Members and many people outside the House will think that it might be a white feather day.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman's party sits on the Executive and the Government of Northern Ireland with one of the very four Members whom we are discussing. I cannot accept that it is right to sit down at the same meetings of the Executive in Belfast with him, but to say that he cannot even get in to use the Vote Office, the Library or the travel office here. That seems to fail to recognise the logic of the process, to which the hon. Gentleman has contributed greatly.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

The Leader of the House said that the Sinn Fein-IRA Members would not be eligible for parliamentary salaries. However, will they be eligible for parliamentary allowances? If so, will not the British taxpayer hand over almost £500,000 to Sinn Fein-IRA? Will the right hon. Gentleman also investigate whether the ribbons in the Members' Cloakroom can support the weight of a kalashnikov?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's last question is worthy of the House of Commons or its exchanges. I happily confirm that the motion will provide for allowances to be payable on the same basis as those for any other Member of Parliament who has been elected by his constituents.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

To inform the debate on access to the House, will the Leader of the House make available the information about the terrorist activities of the Members concerned? At least one of them, Martin McGuinness, was to my personal knowledge the commandant of the IRA in Londonderry. I interviewed him when he was in that capacity and, during the interview, he told me that he had had a dozen Catholic informers killed. If he has, indeed, put that bloody past behind him and now believes that constitutional change should come about only by operating within the constitution, is not the appropriate test that he takes the Oath?

Mr. Cook

Martin McGuinness is, at present, the Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Assembly. He plays a full part in the government of Northern Ireland and in the administration of the education system there. I think that it is wrong for us to say that that is all right for the people of Northern Ireland but that we will not allow him anywhere within the precincts of Westminster. As to what may or may not have been his past or the past of any of the others, we shall not get peace or make progress on the peace process if we constantly start from the very beginning and do not accept that some of these people have played a part in achieving a period of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The House will recall the tragic murder of a special constable on the A64 in north Yorkshire. What does the Leader of the House propose that I say to the constable's family and my constituents in the Vale of York who are deeply distressed to hear of the despicable motion that the Leader of the House has put before the House.

In relation to the Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning (Amendment) Bill, does the Leader of the House agree with the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) that only a token gesture towards decommissioning has been made?

Mr. Cook

The de Chastelain commission described the act of decommissioning as significant. That is the basis on which we proceed.

On the hon. Lady's point about what she should say to her constituents, she might tell them whatever her predecessor said before 1997 when the four people involved were admitted to the precincts and had access to the facilities to which we shall propose on Tuesday they have access. Our proposal will be made in circumstances that are very different from those of 1997 when they had such access to the precincts. However, it is precisely to prevent murders and violence and the grief of relatives in the future that we signed the Good Friday agreement and entered into the peace process.

I make no apology for having a peace process that provides a relative peace and stability that Northern Ireland did not know beforehand. If we want that peace process to continue and we want to avoid murders in the future, we have to show our willingness to enter into that process.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Although I associate myself with the comments made by my right hon. and hon. Friends—I include my hon. Friends on the Unionist Benches—I wish to raise a matter that concerns my constituents in east Cowes. I refer to the loss of 650 jobs—one third of the work force—at GKN Westland that has been announced today as result of the downturn in the British aerospace industry. Would it not be a better use of time on Tuesday next week to debate the downturn in the British aerospace industry and what the Government propose to do to help those who are suffering because of it?

Mr. Cook

I fully sympathise with the position of all those, including the hon. Gentleman's constituents, who suffer as a result of the recession in the aerospace industry. That reflects the reality in aviation at present.

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from previous exchanges, Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry have sought to do whatever they can to make sure that we enable the aviation industry to come out of this difficult period. I am particularly concerned that we act to ensure that the skilled and experienced teams of people who will be needed in the future are available when the industry returns to normal.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Prime Minister opens the debate next Tuesday so that he can explain to the House and to the nation the extraordinary contrast between his laudable pursuit of the al-Qaeda network, which attacked the two tallest buildings in New York, and his craven behaviour towards the network of the IRA-Sinn Fein—they are inextricably linked in his own words—which attacked the two tallest buildings in London, namely the NatWest tower and Canary Wharf in 1996? These people whom he is inviting into the House should, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) suggested, be providing answers in criminal proceedings instead of being asked into the House.

Mr. Cook

The logic of the hon. Gentleman's position—I suspect that he may be prepared to follow it through—is that we would never have signed the Good Friday agreement.[Interruption.] He agrees with me on that. We would still have the IRA as an armed organisation at war with the British state. We would still have the IRA murdering people in Britain and letting off bombs in London. That is what the hon. Gentleman would embrace rather than the peace process.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Leader of the House mentioned the progress that has been made in the peace process, but that came about only at the last moment, at the eleventh hour and three quarters. Is he aware that there is every possibility that IRA-Sinn Fein will revert to their campaign of violence and terrorism against the British state? If their Members had taken their allowances and moved into their offices, what would happen if they did revert to that campaign?

Mr. Cook

Plainly, in the event of a breach of the Good Friday agreement and a reversion to the war with the bullet and the gun, many policies and attitudes will change, but it is precisely so that we do not have that reversion to violence that it is important that we maintain momentum in the peace process. We must be willing to show that we ourselves, and not only the other side, are committed to maintaining that momentum.