HC Deb 05 July 2001 vol 371 cc401-18 12.32 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House give the business for the coming week, please?

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 9 JULY—Second Reading of the Export Control Bill.

TUESDAY 10 JULY—Second Reading of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill.

Motion to approve the draft special education needs code of practice.

WEDNESDAY 11 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill (1st Day).

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

THURSDAY 12 JULY—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. Until about four o'clock, there will be a debate on post-16 education followed by a debate entitled "The Countryside in Crisis". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

FRIDAY 13 JULY—Debate on small firms on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week is: MONDAY 16 JULY—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Motions to approve the membership of Select Committees.

Motion to approve the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001.

TUESDAY 17 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill (2nd Day).

WEDNESDAY 18 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill (3rd Day).

THURSDAY 19 JULY—Consideration in Committee of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

FRIDAY 20 JULY—Motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House. Can he tell us when the Home Secretary is likely to come to the Chamber, especially as Members will have questions for him about the announcement of the Government's response to the Halliday review on sentencing policy, which he will make today at a conference? In a written answer yesterday, he said that that was how he intended to put that information in the public domain. However, there is very limited time before the House rises for the summer recess, and this an important subject. The House deserves an opportunity to hear at first hand from the Home Secretary and to put questions to him.

Equally, we heard this week of the Government's intention to change the legislation in respect of entitlement to incapacity benefit. Before that is debated in the Chamber, will the Leader of the House arrange for consultation with Members of Parliament on both sides of the House, as many of us are already receiving correspondence from concerned constituents about how this will affect them?

Is there any intention to ensure that the House receives a statement on the future of the tube and, if not, will the right hon. Gentleman make it his personal business to ensure that that happens? Given that negotiations have broken down on how the reform of the tube is to be taken forward, which has caused great confusion, and given the high priority that the Government have placed on improving the tube, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when the House can expect a statement on how this is to go forward?

Last Tuesday, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) asked the Minister for Local Government about the timetable for bringing forward legislation to introduce regional government. We understand that the Government are to produce a White Paper, and the Minister indicated in his response to the right hon. Member for Hartlepool that consultation is currently taking place. Will the Leader of the House ensure that all Members of Parliament are privy to the consultation that is taking place prior to the White Paper, as many of us wish to make our views known in advance of its publication?

Finally, the Leader of the House announced that next Thursday the Conservative party has, yet again, chosen to allocate Opposition time to debating foot and mouth. The Government have yet to provide Government time for a full debate on foot and mouth. When the crisis started, the then Agriculture Minister stated that he could not participate in such a long debate because he was too busy dealing with the crisis. Now that we are told by the Government that we are on the home straight, perhaps the new Secretary of State for Environment. Food and Rural Affairs could honour the House with some time, in Government time, so that right hon. and hon. Members can ask their questions.

Mr. Cook

I thank the hon. Lady, and shall respond to her questions in the order in which she put them.

On the Home Secretary's statement in response to the Halliday report, the hon. Lady will be aware that there is a debate on youth justice in Westminster Hall on 19 July. That will be a perfectly appropriate opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to raise questions on the Halliday report and sentencing. Plainly, it must be right for the Government to act as quickly as they can on a report that spells out that prison sentences should be used and targeted on those who are severe repeat offenders and that shorter prison sentences should be combined with rehabilitation and community provision. There will, of course, be a consultation process on the Halliday report, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will wish to take part in it.

There will have to be legislation before any of the proposed changes on entitlement to incapacity benefit take place. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will have an extended period of consultation with right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House about those proposals.

It may help the hon. Lady and others in responding to the approaches to which she referred if I make it clear that any proposals that are made to change the rules on incapacity benefit by legislation would apply only to new claimants subsequent to that legislation. Therefore, any change in legislation will not have an impact on current claimants. I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend confirmed that to me this morning.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will be making a written statement to the House very shortly. We are looking for a way forward. There is an enormous sum of investment available for London Underground. The funds available from Treasury and private sources amount in total to some £13,000 million—that is £4,000 per household within the London region. It is deeply frustrating that we cannot secure the agreement that we need with London Transport and London Underground so that we can proceed with that massive investment, which many other parts of Britain would be very glad to receive.

The hon. Lady also asked about the timetable for publication of the forthcoming White Paper. I can assure her that all right hon. and hon. Members will know about the White Paper's publication and will be able to take part in consultation.

In conclusion, I thought that the hon. Lady was uncharacteristically ungenerous to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In the short space of time since the Queen's Speech, there may not have been an opportunity for a debate on foot and mouth in Government time, but the first statement to the House this Session was on foot and mouth and my right hon. Friend made it at the first available opportunity. I do not think that anybody can fairly accuse her of having failed to take every opportunity to keep the House informed of progress.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we have a debate on early-day motion 60?

[That this House deplores the misleading television advertisements of loan consolidation companies who promise debt relief by combining debts into a single manageable payment; notes that they increase, usually by more than 15 per cent., the total debts of their clients and lengthen the period of indebtedness; and urges restrictions on their misleading claims and a wider understanding of the similar services provided at no charge by the Citizens Advice Bureau.]

The early-day motion refers to the activities of so-called loan consolidation companies that purport to solve debt problems by rolling up debts into a single manageable payment. The result of their activities is usually to drive their client into deeper debt and to give the impression to many others who might risk debt that there is an easy way out. Can we have a debate so that we can advertise the danger of the activities of these companies and the fact that citizens advice bureaux and the Consumer Credit Counselling Service offer the services entirely free?

Mr. Cook

I fully share my hon. Friend's concern about this issue. I have had distressing constituency cases of people being tempted into further debt and then discovering that the debt repayments greatly exceed anything that hon. Members would ever contemplate entering into. Those who have become caught in that way feel unfairly trapped. I am pleased to say that the Director General of Fair Trading is consulting on the prospect of issuing guidelines to debt management companies. Those guidelines must highlight the importance of giving comprehensible and high-profile warning of what the debt repayment would be.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I warmly welcome the clarification that the Leader of the House has just given us on incapacity benefit. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would have benefited if the Prime Minister had made such a clear statement yesterday in answer to a question on the issue. It by no means seemed to be in his mind yesterday that the proposal would not apply to existing claimants. I hope that the Leader of the House will note how important it is for statements to be made to the House in full detail on issues of this sort. This is yet another illustration of that.

On sentencing policy, the Leader of the House should note that the Home Secretary's answer to a planted question last night was wholly inadequate—there was no detail whatsoever—yet the detail that the Home Secretary gave to the "Today" programme this morning was very full indeed.

Will the Leader of the House look again at the issue of making statements to this House? He will recall that you, Mr. Speaker, and your predecessor on many occasions deprecated the practice of Ministers appearing on the "Today" programme and making detailed statements there, where they were subjected to the questioning of journalists only, while this House did not have an opportunity to put those questions. As Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman has a right and a duty to defend the rights of this House. I ask him, as I did a fortnight ago, please to look particularly at this issue. If Ministers go on saying that Parliament has lost the respect of the public, they are simply contributing to it if they think that Mr. John Humphrys, Mr. Jim Naughtie or even Miss Sue MacGregor are more important than we are in this House.

Mr. Cook

I would disagree with the idea that I hold that view. If my right hon. Friend was able to give a full answer on the "Today" programme this morning, I congratulate him, because I could never get through a full answer on that programme.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important consideration. I draw attention to the fact that the Halliday report is now out for consultation. The Government are not taking a decision on it—it would be wrong to do so until consultation finishes. That consultation will continue until 31 October, by which time the House will have recommenced and there will be a fresh opportunity for Members to table questions and pursue the issue.

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

May I pursue the point that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has just raised? Does the Leader of the House accept that there is an issue of principle here, in that we have been elected to the House to scrutinise Government actions, so Government initiatives and statements should come first to this House? Even though the paper is out for consultation, the House should have the opportunity to raise the first questions with the Government. That is what we have been elected to do. Does the Leader of the House accept that overall position? Will he do all he can to persuade the Government in this Parliament to make a principled stand as a matter of course always to bring initiatives and statements to this Chamber first?

Mr. Cook

I am all in favour of principled stands and will certainly seek to ensure that, where appropriate, statements are made to the House. A balance has to be struck, however. The House has much business to commence with, and if my hon. Friend goes through the business that I have just announced he will see that on many of those occasions it would be inappropriate to make a statement before the House, because it would interfere either with a programme motion or with Opposition business. However, bearing in mind those constraints, I am of course always in favour of the House being fully informed and having as many statements as possible.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can we test the good will of the Leader of the House on the statement that he has just made? Will he give us an assurance that next week the Government will not make important announcements about their policy without first making a statement to the House of Commons?

Mr. Cook

If there are strategic statements that represent new policy, the House is the place that would hear of that first. In fairness, to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, he did that by way of a written statement—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Oh, come on!

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman groans, but to make a written statement is an entirely well trodden, well known and well accepted method of informing the House. If we allow Ministers to make only oral statements, with no written statements, there will be little time for other debate in the House.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 23 on missile defence?

[That this House expresses concern at President Bush's intention to move beyond the constraints of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in developing missile defence; and endorses the unanimous conclusions of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which recommended that the Government voice the grave doubts about NMD in the UK, questioned whether US plans to deploy NMD represent an appropriate response to the proliferation problems faced by the international community and recommended that the Government encourage the USA to explore all ways of reducing the threat it perceives.] I urge the Leader of the House to make time for a debate on disarmament so that the House may examine President Bush's proposals for national missile defence. Among other things, the House should explore the fact that the technology is wholly unproven and that it is almost certainly in breach of existing disarmament treaties; that the threat posed to America by a nuclear strike from North Korea is risible; and that the proposals have been opposed by Russia, China and most EU states. It is surely appropriate that the House has a chance to debate—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. May I say to the hon. Lady and to the House that business questions should be short and not statements of policy?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that there will be opportunities for hon. Members to raise the concerns articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Indeed, she and others have expressed those concerns on a number of occasions. However, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that although she refers to President Bush's proposals, we currently have no specific proposal—partly owing to the fact that, as she points out, the technology is still under examination and assessment. For instance, we do not know at present whether the system will be sea or land-based. Whether it is based on sea or on land will have a big impact on the extent—if any—to which facilities in the United Kingdom are required. It would be premature of the Government to make a hard and fast rule.

I advise my hon. Friend not to diminish the very real threat of nuclear missile proliferation—she understates the technological capacity of North Korea. However, the House would be right to be worried about the proliferation of ballistic missile technology.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the Leader of the House ask his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to come to the House as a matter of urgency to make a statement on what is going on with regard to the redundancies at the Marconi companies that affect so many of our constituents? Is the Leader of the House aware that the company is releasing information in dribs and drabs? It is desperately unfair for constituents, such as mine in Chelmsford and in the constituencies of other hon. Members, that they have to go to work today not knowing whether they will be out of work by the end of the day or at some time early next week because the company will not make a full announcement.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the unease, concern and worry of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. Having been through a similar experience with Motorola in my own area, I know how desperately unsettling it is for members of staff not to have full information on what may happen to their plant. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are in contact with the company and are pressing for full details of its plans. We are also seeking contact with local partners, both from the Employment Service and local authorities, so that we are ready to respond once we are clearer about what precisely the company may propose for its British work force.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that an inquiry is under way into very serious allegations about poor conditions and intimidation experienced by asylum seekers at the Landmark and the Inn on the Park tower blocks in Liverpool? Does he have any information on the progress of those inquiries and on when they are likely to be concluded? Will he consider holding a debate on the treatment of vulnerable asylum seekers—a very important subject?

Mr. Cook

I am aware of the complaints that a number of the asylum seekers at the Landmark facilities have made about their treatment. I am also aware of their threat to go on hunger strike if those issues are not addressed. As my hon. Friend is aware, the Home Office is conducting a thorough investigation. I assure her that it will be thorough and that we want to make clear what has happened in this case and to learn the lessons from it. My noble Friend Lord Rooker would be very willing to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the case if she wished to pursue it with him.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the proposed business for next Tuesday—namely, the Second Reading of the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill? In view of the talks on the future of the Northern Ireland Assembly, decommissioning and the peace process, which will presumably involve the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland political parties on Monday, Tuesday and perhaps even Wednesday of next week, would it not be inappropriate to hold that important debate on that occasion, as, no doubt, Northern Ireland elected representatives would like to express their views on the issue? Will the Leader of the House consider deferring the debate for a week?

Mr. Cook

I have announced the business for next week, and I have announced that debate on Tuesday at the request of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is plainly confident that he can attend the debate and play his full part in it. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we ensure that the election system in Northern Ireland. and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, is above reproach, fairly administered and cannot be abused. Whatever view people take on the peace process, it is important that such a Bill should be put in place, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is confident that he can accommodate it next week.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to come to the House next week to explain how increasing the anxiety and insecurity of those people who have had to pass a stringent personal capability test to receive a meagre £69-a-week incapacity benefit helps them to take advantage of the opportunities available through the new deal to help them to overcome the discrimination that they suffer in the labour market? Before he does so, will he reacquaint himself with what he and my right hon. Friend now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in opening and closing speeches in debates on social security legislation introduced when Baroness Thatcher was Prime Minister?

Mr. Cook

I remember that period well, and I am glad that it is behind us. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend fully took in the point that I made earlier in my comment to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Repeat it.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend clamours for a repeat, and I am always happy to repeat it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions assured me this morning that the new legislation would, of course, apply only to new claimants, as is common with social security legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) can therefore provide reassurance to those who may be expressing unease to her.

On the issue of principle, I must say that my hon. Friend and I fought the election on a manifesto in which it was made quite explicit that we would help back into employment those who could work and who would prefer to work. We should not lose sight of the fact that 1 million people currently on disability benefits say, when asked, that they would prefer to be at work, and it should be the function of government to help them and support them in finding work.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what he has just said and what he said earlier are suspiciously like a definitive response to the pressure placed on the Prime Minister by the hon. Members for Walsall, North (David Winnick) and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) yesterday? Can we have absolute clarification by having the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions come to the Dispatch Box next week to explain in detail to the House precisely what he has in mind?

Mr. Cook

I am very happy to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that a debate will start in Westminster Hall in an hour and a half on the role of the Department for Work and Pensions, to which a Minister from the Department will respond. If hon. Members wish to pursue clarification, they have plenty of opportunity to do so this afternoon, although I anticipate that many hon. Members will wish to be in their place for the full debate that we shall have in the Chamber.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Despite his previous answers, could not the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on incapacity benefit to be made at the earliest opportunity by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, so that the fears of some of my most vulnerable constituents—entirely justified fears, given the somewhat insensitive manner in which the issue has been introduced to the public arena—can be set to rest?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has expressed concerns that I hope the statement that I have just made will go some way to addressing. Hon. Members are now perfectly able to say to their constituents that any change in legislation will not alter the basis on which incapacity benefit is received by current claimants.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Leader of the House assist me? I was lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate yesterday in which the question was raised as to who has the power to close footpaths outside infected areas in counties such as North Yorkshire.

The point was made to the Minister for Rural Affairs that the Government should take such decisions. The Minister said that it was the responsibility of local authorities, but North Yorkshire county council is under the firm impression that this is the Government's responsibility. Will the Minister for Rural Affairs come to the Dispatch Box at the earliest opportunity to clarify the matter?

Mr. Cook

I am no legal expert, but my understanding has always been that it was the primary responsibility of the local authority. Indeed, local authorities across England have been acting on that assumption over the past three or four months. However, if there is any doubt about the matter, I shall arrange for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to write to the hon. Lady to clarify it.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the shameless way in which the Conservative leadership and some Conservative candidates exploited the sensitive issues of immigration and asylum in the run-up to the general election?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I must remind him that these are business questions, and that he should be asking questions about the business for next week. If he has not a question on that, I shall move on.

Mr. Prosser

Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on those issues, so that we can discuss the behaviour at the general election? Will he also take the opportunity to celebrate the fact that, last weekend, we celebrated our first-ever multicultural festival in the town square in Dover, and that a good time was had by one and all?

Mr. Cook

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suspect that I should be in some trouble if I attempted to make the statement that my hon. Friend tempts me to make. I said what I wished to say on the matter at the time, and it was well reported. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the action being taken in Dover to promote and celebrate the strength of Britain as a multicultural society.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Can we have a debate next week on the constitutional position of the Prime Minister? The Leader of the House will have noticed that, over the past few days, when the Prime Minister has talked about the privatisation of public services, about the star wars project, about taking money away from disabled people or about giving money to Railtrack executives, he has received no support whatsoever from the those on the Government Benches, but an enormous amount of support from the Tory Benches. Would it be constitutionally possible for the Prime Minister to cross the Floor? Could we have a debate about it?

Mr. Cook

More frequently, we are accused of using our record majority in a way that is inconsistent with parliamentary democracy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will notice that, even as I speak, Conservative Members are agreeing with that. They cannot have it both ways: they cannot simultaneously complain about a record majority and a lack of support for the Prime Minister.

Throughout this Parliament, we will carry through the programme on which we were elected. We will ensure that we improve public services in schools, hospitals and transport, and that we carry through a programme of welfare reform that helps those who want to work and can work, and protects those who are unable to work. On that, the Prime Minister has the full support of this side of the House.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Government's youth policy in general? Too often, we debate youth justice and other matters that paint a negative image of our young people. However, I know from campaigning recently that we need to look at the services that are available to those young people, including recreation and sports provision. I believe that we could devote more time in here to discussing matters that affect young people in general.

Mr. Cook

I very much share my hon. Friend's emphasis on ensuring that we provide properly targeted, sensitive policies for young people, and he will welcome the fact that that is reflected in the changes made to the machinery of government after the election. We now have a new Cabinet Committee on children and young people's services and, for the first time, a Minister with responsibility for young people—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs—has been appointed. That will enable us to focus and target our services and policies on young people. Just before the election, we set out a strategy for children and young people on which consultation is taking place, so my hon. Friend and others will have an opportunity to feed in their views.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

The Leader of the House has had a long and distinguished career representing a Scottish constituency in this place. Will he arrange an urgent debate to give us the benefit of that experience and his wisdom, with particular regard to the West Lothian question? In the light of his new responsibilities and in respect of both his long experience and distinguished service here as a great parliamentarian and of any previous pronouncements he may have made on the subject, we would all find it very interesting to hear what he thinks about and what answer he or the Government have to the West Lothian question.

Mr. Cook

I very much appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's observations on my experience, although when he makes such comments I wish that he would make them sound a little less like an obituary. On the question of the participation of Scottish Members in the House, as I said last week and the week before, this is a unitary Chamber. All Members have equal rights. I do not remember respect being paid to the sensitivity of Scottish political preferences when he was in government.

David Wright (Telford)

May I ask my right hon. Friend for an early debate on housing and regeneration policy? The quality of some local housing estates was a key issue in the election campaign in my constituency. Many are still in local authority ownership, but some have transferred to other landlords. There is a clear difficulty in co-ordinating services on many such estates and the funding regimes that can regenerate them are often difficult to assemble and labyrinthine in nature. May we have an early debate on simplifying funding regimes for housing estates to draw together a range of partners and make genuine improvements for local people?

On the Woodside estate in my constituency, local people—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will improve his chances of being called more frequently if he keeps his questions brief and concise. He has said enough to enable the Leader of the House to respond.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises serious issues and raises them—

Mr. Forth

At length.

Mr. Cook

No, in penetrating detail. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's comments are conveyed to the appropriate Secretary of State. We began this Session with the Homelessness Bill and there will be further opportunities to legislate on housing. He and others will be welcome to express their views in those debates.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Why does the Leader of the House think it appropriate to announce in a written answer the fact that the Transport Commissioner for London finds unacceptable the future of the tube as set out in the policy of Her Majesty's Government? Does not that announcement represent a gross insult to the people of London, who have suffered for four long years and more from the unworkable proposals for London's transport system made by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the commissioner made his views clear earlier this week. There were exchanges about that at Prime Minister's questions yesterday, and a full statement has been made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I am bound to say that I think it appropriate that such a response has been made and I am not necessarily persuaded that I should accept the precedent that when the Transport Commissioner for London makes a statement, an oral statement should also be made to the House.

We are the ones who are looking for the way forward; the commissioner has said that he cannot see a way forward. I repeat that £13 billion of investment is available to Londoners to improve the underground, and it is regrettable that the commissioner cannot find a way to access and use the moneys available to him. Most other local authorities in Britain would find a way round the problem.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

Further to the comments of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), my right hon. Friend will be aware that this week there have been a number of disturbing press reports on the recession in manufacturing industry and a downturn in the electronics industry. Given the importance of those industries to the UK economy, while I welcome the debate on small businesses, when will the House have an opportunity to discuss the future of manufacturing per se in the UK?

Mr. Cook

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern about the present difficulties in the electronics industry. As I said earlier, I have personal experience of that with the Motorola closure in West Lothian. Manufacturing industry is continuing to perform well in terms of both output and productivity, but there are particular problems in the electronics sector. It is open to right hon. and hon. Members to raise these issues whenever we debate economics and industry, which we did only last week. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that I will draw her comments to the attention of my appropriate colleagues and we will consider having such a debate in future.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

When the Leader of the House makes his business statement next week, will he be in a position to indicate which, if any, Government Bills this year will be draft Bills published and subjected thereafter to pre-legislative scrutiny under the Select Committee system? May I suggest as an appropriate candidate the clauses on incapacity benefit in the welfare reform Bill?

Mr. Cook

On the general principle, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the Queen's Speech we announced four Bills for draft legislation, which will be brought before the House. I have said before that I would like the House to move towards a two-year rolling programme on legislation, with the opportunity for Members and outside bodies to comment on draft legislation in advance of it being included in the subsequent Queen's Speech. That would make for better legislation, and it would have a better passage through the House. We are already in the second year of what might some day be a two-year rolling programme. Therefore, unless we bring forward for Second Reading debate and legislation the current Bills in the Queen's Speech, we shall have a long delay in introducing some measures that are very important to Members and their constituents.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate on domestic energy prices? Many pensioners in my constituency are facing a 25 per cent. increase in their gas bills because they are supplied by a dedicated subsidiary of Eastern. Eastern is itself owned by Texas, so decisions that are made thousands of miles away affect people living in Havering. This is all entirely due to privatisation and deregulation, which was brought about by the previous lot, but now we have to deal with it. May we have a debate or a statement?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the problems of pensioners, and he will be aware that we have set out a strategy for tackling fuel poverty among pensioners and others. The primary impetus behind the current round of gas price increases from last April was the increase in the wholesale price of gas, which distributors can no longer avoid passing on to consumers. The average increase has been not 25 per cent., but 5 per cent. and my hon. Friend may wish to draw that to the attention of his local distributor; and gas prices overall in the United Kingdom are still 10 per cent. down on what they were in May 1997. However, I fully appreciate that certain consumers such as pensioners are facing difficulties, which is why we are trying to target on them our strategy to try to end fuel poverty.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Would the Leader of the House consider an early debate on the state of industrial relations at the Post Office, because the other problems faced by that organisation affect us all and very few of them will be resolved until the underlying problems are tackled?

Mr. Cook

These are problems that must be addressed by the Post Office and its unions: it is for them to try to seek to find a way forward. I am not persuaded that a debate in the House would necessarily help either side find a solution.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the activities of cable companies and other utilities? They are causing huge unnecessary disruption to road users, and I recently learned of the disruption that they are causing to our environment. They are digging up grass verges and not putting them back properly, which means that they cannot be cut, and sometimes they leave equipment around, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. They are preventing grass verges from being cut right across Swindon, so may we please find time for a debate on the wider issues arising from the activities of cable companies and other utilities?

Mr. Cook

I have sympathy with my hon. Friend's point, as I almost missed the Cabinet meeting because of street works on my way there. Such works not only cause individuals enormous inconvenience, but are a big economic cost to the nation estimated at £2.5 billion a year. We have just taken legal powers for local authorities to enter into contracts and de deadlines with utilities carrying out street works, which provide for fines if the deadlines are not met. I am pleased to say that in the short time since those legal powers have been available, 100 local authorities have said that they intend to use them. I hope that that will result in an improvement, and will reduce disruption to the lives of constituents.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

In view of the big climbdown on disability benefits that the Leader of the House has announced, cannot he see that there must be a ministerial statement to tell us why the Government trust existing but not future disability claimants? Will he give us an assurance that the Prime Minister will from now on visit the Terrace more often, in the hope that the Government's unpopular policies will be modified by such action?

Mr. Cook

I would encourage all Members to visit the Terrace, and I hope to do so when we manage to conclude the pressing business of the Leader of the House over the past two weeks. I stress that the proposal on incapacity benefit is intended not, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested, to distress new claimants by putting them in a state of uncertainty, but to ensure that, if they wish and are able to do so, they can open the door to employment. Those who cannot work and are incapacitated will continue to get benefit and have nothing to fear.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 42, on television coverage of the British Lions tour?

[That this House notes that television viewers without access to subscription TV in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland will be unable to view even highlights of the Rugby Union test series between the British Lions and Australia; regrets the fact that BSkyB was prepared to do a deal involving highlights only with S4C and not the BBC; and urges the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to consider adding future test matches involving the British Lions to category B of the listed events which would mean highlights would be available to a wide audience.]

I am concerned that, although Australian terrestrial television viewers have been able to see live coverage of the opening overs of the Ashes test series in the past couple of hours, terrestrial viewers in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland cannot see even the highlights of the British Lions' games. If there is not time for a debate on this important issue, will my right hon. Friend at least draw the early-day motion to the attention of the Secretary of State?

Mr. Cook

I very much doubt whether a debate in the House would alter the grave situation to which my hon. Friend draws the House's attention. He has made his point, and I hope that it will be registered with the appropriate authorities.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

Will the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for a debate on policing in Northern Ireland? He will be aware of the demoralisation of the police force in Northern Ireland, which has been accentuated by the recent discussions between the Government and republicans with a view to making further concessions to them. Such a debate would provide an early opportunity for the Government to set the Royal Ulster Constabulary's mind at rest and to make a statement on the long-term future of the RUC reserve.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that that matter has been much debated in the House. We set up an independent commission to review the RUC. It made its report, and we have acted to implement its recommendations. Those actions were taken to encourage consensus and support for the RUC. I fear that we will have a number of opportunities in the immediate future to return to Northern Irish politics and issues, during which the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends can make their comments on the police. As he will understand, the current priority of the Northern Ireland Office is to ensure that we cope with the difficult situation regarding the Good Friday agreement.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the report published by Barnardo's yesterday called, "No son of mine! Children abused through prostitution"? It deals with the hidden problem of boys abused through prostitution. Many of those young people have run away from difficult situations at home or in care. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on that important subject?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important and sensitive report on the problem of child prostitution. She will be aware that last year we issued guidelines on the handling of sex prostitution of young people. We stressed that in child prostitution the child should be regarded as the victim and those who exploit child prostitutes as the criminals. It is important that we target those who abuse vulnerable young people, and that we provide every possible opportunity to protect young people from such exploitation, and to be rehabilitated and returned from it when we find them.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Leader of the House persuade the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on the alleged dumping of poisonous combination ash at the Pitsea tip? This serious issue came to light in last night's edition of "Newsnight". May we be told whether the ash contains dioxins and other poisonous substances, as has been claimed? May we be told when the ash was first deposited, what controls have been applied since, when concerns were first raised, what investigations have been carried out, when the dumping was stopped, what assessment has been made of the impact on public safety and the environment in the communities of Benfleet and Canvey Island, what is the radius within which the risk might arise, and what action will be taken to remove these dangerous materials?

Mr. Cook

I hope the hon. Gentleman will not be disappointed when I say that I cannot answer each of his questions in full. I will, however, draw them to the attention of the Minister for the Environment, and encourage him to write fully to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will the Leader of the House consult the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the refranchising of the railways, to establish what progress is being made? There is a particular problem with the Wessex franchise, which needs to be resolved quickly. I gather that the Secretary of State will make an announcement on 16 July; it would be very helpful if he also made a statement in the House.

Mr. Cook

I have noted my hon. Friend's comments carefully, and I will draw what he said about the Wessex franchise to my right hon. Friend's attention. I am aware—partly from my constituency work—of the difficulties regarding investment in and development of the service that can arise from uncertainty about the future of franchises, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government understand the importance of making as reasonable progress as possible in providing certainty.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Next week, the House will deal with the Committee stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Does the Leader of the House think—particularly in the light of his previous experience—that there is a case for changing the way in which the House considers the ratification of treaties? At present, we can consider only their legislative consequences. Should the House not have an opportunity to debate ratification on a substantive motion, which might give us more democratic legitimacy in the context of matters that are important to the country?

Mr. Cook

That point has been at the heart of the debate about the powers of the House ever since I became a Member of Parliament. We have made some improvements, in that Select Committees can now take more of an interest and more of a scrutinising role in regard to treaties that the Government have undertaken to ratify. I think it important that when legislative change is involved it should be fully debated, as the Nice treaty is being debated on the Floor of the House.

The hon. Gentleman invites me to reflect on the experience that I gained in my last post. I personally would regret it very much if the United Kingdom drifted into the situation in which the United States now finds itself. Treaties negotiated at length by the US Administration, and signed by them, are subsequently repudiated by Congress and Senate. I do not think that that has assisted the standing of the United States in international treaty negotiations, and I would not wish to put a British Prime Minister or Foreign Minister in the same position.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Too many people are losing their homes, having made their mortgage repayments, because of our scandalously unfair and out-of-date leasehold laws. When will the leasehold reform Bill be put before us, so that we can protect and enhance the rights of home owners?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend knows that we committed ourselves to such legislation in the Queen's Speech. With respect, we have worked hard to ensure that we can deal with as many Bills as possible before the recess, but my hon. Friend will have to wait for this one until after it. I note what she has said about its being a priority, as, I am sure, has my noble Friend Lady Scotland, the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Could the Leader of the House persuade the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about the provision of beta interferon? As he will know, the issue affects many of my constituents and those of other Members. I believe that when the drug would have an efficacious effect for multiple sclerosis it should be prescribed, and I know that many others agree. The Prime Minister was asked about the matter on three occasions. Each time, his answer was characterised by spin and prevarication. Is it not now time for action? Should not a statement be made in the House as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook

I recall answering this question last week, or the week before.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Cook

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman confirms my memory, although it unaccountably slipped my mind that he had asked the question.

I do not think that even the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) would say that my reply was characterised by spin. The fact is that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence rejected the view that the drug could be provided on the basis of clinical excellence and value for money. Essentially, NICE judges whether the health service should provide the drug, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

In the past 50 minutes, there have been seven different requests for oral statements, which underlines the point that I made earlier: at some point, we have to strike a balance between oral statements and the business of the House.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Two weeks ago, the Government announced a comprehensive review of energy policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is crucial to the future competitiveness of the economy and to the quality of the environment? Given that in the previous Parliament not a single debate, as I recall, was dedicated to energy policy. and given that there is a growing and urgent public debate about the future of nuclear energy, the need for investment in renewables and the Department of Trade and Industry's attitude to both forms of energy, does he agree that there should be a debate in Government time before the performance and innovation unit completes its report on energy policy?

Mr. Cook

I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of the energy review and its fundamental significance to both our industrial strength and our environmental health. I would be surprised if the review could be concluded and announced without giving the House a full opportunity to consider it, but I would take a bit of persuading that the right time to debate it was before the review, rather than after.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Leader of the House has already been questioned on the subject of Marconi and spoken about his experiences with Motorola, but is not a pattern developing: international companies are making more job cuts in the United Kingdom than in continental Europe and elsewhere? Is that not a reflection of our fall in the world competitiveness league from ninth to 19th? May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on how she intends to redress that balance and to return us to the position that we enjoyed in 1997, when we were in ninth, not 19th, place?

Mr. Cook

Those factors played no part in the decision of Motorola to locate in Germany. It did so because it had suffered large tax losses in Germany, which it wished to write off against future profits. That was its sole reason for going to Germany. Personally, I have always deprecated the fact that it took a decision affecting my constituents for reasons of tax management.

On Marconi, as far as I am aware, we do not yet know how the job cuts will be distributed, but the company has committed itself to shedding 4,000 jobs throughout the world, not within the UK.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Sadly, the Prime Minister's home straight appears to be stretching out without apparent end. Some estimates suggest that foot and mouth has cost the country £20 billion. As problems rise in the rural economy, the pressure for a full public inquiry mounts inexorably. Why are the Government so pig-headed about that? Why is the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs not coming here next week to announce a full impartial inquiry, under the chairmanship of an independent judge?

Mr. Cook

The Secretary of State did come here only the other week and she made a full statement on foot and mouth. In the course of that, she made it clear that there would have to be an inquiry and that its terms would be announced at the end of the outbreak. That position is fully shared by many people in the industry, including the vets. When the foot and mouth outbreak is over, that will be the time to ensure that we carry out a full inquiry.

Mr. Bercow

Given the welcome advances in medical science and the fact that, whenever a new cure is devised, a new queue is necessarily created, may we please have an urgent debate on the lessons that we can learn from our continental neighbours about the use of private resources to complement those of the public sector, in ensuring that we turn care from a word into a deed?

Mr. Cook

I very much welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is willing to learn lessons from our European partners—a breakthrough on which we must try to build. I should remind him and other Members that our continental partners also make a heavy investment in public health provision. We must match that, as well as anything that we do in the private sector.