HC Deb 12 July 2001 vol 371 cc929-45 12.31 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 16 JULY—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

Motions to approve the membership of Select Committees.

Motion to approve the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.

Motion to approve a report for the purposes of section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.

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

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

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

Motion to approve the Police (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Order 2001.

FRIDAY 20 JULY—Motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

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

MONDAY 15 OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Football (Disorder) Bill.

TUESDAY 16 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Motion to approve the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001.

WEDNESDAY 17 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER—Opposition Day (2nd Allotted Day).

FRIDAY 19 OCTOBER—Debate on drugs strategy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

For the convenience of the House, I should announce that the topics for debate in Westminster Hall when we return from the recess will be:

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER—Debate on the report from the Education and Employment Committee entitled "Early Years".

THURSDAY 25 OCTOBER—Debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on genetics and insurance.

THURSDAY 1 NOVEMBER—Debate on third world debt.

THURSDAY 8 NOVEMBER—Debate on the reports from the Education and Employment Committee regarding higher education.

THURSDAY 15 NOVEMBER—Debate on housing.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. We welcome the opportunity to debate the Select Committee nominations on Monday. Will he confirm that there will be a free vote for Labour Members on both the Front and Back Benches? The business motion tabled today in respect of the debate seeks to finish the deliberations at 7 o'clock on Monday, so if a statement is made, we will be left with only two and a half hours to debate this important matter. The House will appreciate that the Opposition are very interested in these procedures. I do not expect him to commit himself now, but will he agree to be flexible in terms of that particular business motion if a statement is made? Obviously, we all look forward to hearing from the right hon. Member for Swansea, East (Donald Anderson) and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody). I hope that the curtailment of time will not preclude hon. Members on either side of the House from contributing to such an important debate.

Yesterday, along with colleagues on the Opposition Benches, I voted against the draft special educational needs code of practice because it was flawed and did not recognise the individual and specific needs of children. I am pleased to see that the Government withdrew the code later in the day. Will the Leader of the House outline how the Government will now proceed with the code, particularly as we are coming not only to the parliamentary recess but to the long summer holidays in the educational world? Parents, teachers and Members of Parliament would be anxious if the Government were to publish their changes to the code during the summer weeks when there is no proper opportunity to scrutinise them. How do the Government intend to proceed with this matter?

Earlier this week, the press reported that there are to be significant changes in the Cabinet Office in respect of the way in which the Government deal with national crises. Apparently, as a result of the way they handled the fuel crisis last year and the foot and mouth crisis this year, there are to be changes in the way COBRA—the Cabinet Committee that deals with crises—is run. When the Deputy Prime Minister returns to these shores, could he be asked to come to the House before we rise for the summer recess so that we might all be apprised of the Government's thinking on the way in which national crises are dealt with?

Finally—I am sure that I do not need to ask this question—will the Leader of the House reassure us that the Prime Minister will be available in the coming week to make a statement to the House on the talks on Northern Ireland?

Mr. Cook

I look forward with the keenest of interest to our debate on Monday. I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. On the Labour Benches, the vote on who should be a member of a Select Committee will be a free vote. This is a House of Commons—[Interruption.] If the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) will let me finish my sentence, I think that I shall be able to satisfy him.

This is a matter for the House and it is right that the House should decide who should be members of the Select Committees. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Cook

I was pleading with the right hon. and learned Gentleman to let me finish but, as he is bursting with enthusiasm, I shall repeat what I have already announced to the world this morning, which is that there will be no payroll vote on any of these issues on Monday. It is for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench, and those behind me, to decide how they will vote in any particular case. I note that the right hon. and learned Gentleman may force a large number of votes, having counted his amendments.

In response to the question about timing, I must stress that this is, so far as we can discover, the first time that any Government have scheduled a debate about the setting up of Select Committees in prime time. Such debates are usually taken late at night. This debate will be held in prime time between the end of questions until 7 pm, and I am sure that that will provide plenty of time for the House to explore the issues of concern. I should be extremely surprised if my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) did not contribute to that debate.

The Government have announced their intention to amend the educational code and to bring the matter forward for debate after the summer recess. There will, therefore, be an opportunity for the House to consider it when we return in the autumn.

On Northern Ireland, I am absolutely confident that the Government will take every possible measure to ensure that the House is kept informed of the progress of the talks. Indeed, as the hon. Lady will have noticed from the business statement, there will be opportunities for us to explore Irish issues next week, starting on Monday when we shall debate the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.

I note the hon. Lady's request for a statement from the Deputy Prime Minister on the new arrangements for responding to national crises. It is sensible that we should examine ways in which we can achieve an integrated, co-ordinated and prepared response, although we do not seek national crises. I note and log her request for a statement, but I would gently remind her that the first point she made was that she did not want a statement on Monday. As always, I have to balance the requirement of the House for a statement with the wish to protect the business of the House.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I thank my right hon. Friend for being so effective after my intervention yesterday afternoon when he was carrying out his caretaker role. I asked for an early decision on the Hastings bypass, and it was made at about 12.30 pm today. Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. [Interruption.] It may be amusing, but not for my electors in Hastings and Rye, who are devastated by the decision not to proceed. Despite unanimous support from the local council, the county council and the south-east region, the Government have made a different decision. Can we have an early debate on the matter so that the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions can explain how it could have overlooked the poverty of my constituency, which includes the 28th poorest town in Britain, local democracy and overwhelming public support for the bypass, and reached the wrong decision? When will such a debate be possible?

Mr. Cook

I promised my hon. Friend an early decision, and he got one. However, as he knows, the Hastings bypass has been a contentious matter. All the evidence collected at the public inquiry and the expression of public opinion did not point in one direction. I regret that the outcome disappoints my hon. Friend, but it is in the nature of public inquiries that pleasing both parties is often impossible.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On the subject of the treatment of Government Back-Bench Members, I draw the Leader of the House's attention to the leading article in today's Evening Standard. It states that the names of some Labour London Members of Parliament have been attached to a motion in support of public-private partnership for the tube, apparently without their approval. Will he urgently investigate that serious matter, which pertains to the respect of the House for its Members and vice versa, as well as to the respect of Government for their Back Benchers?

Will the Leader of the House consider the way in which effective opposition to the Government is provided largely from the Government Back Benches as well as from the Conservative Back Benches and the Liberal Democrats? Will he particularly examine the way in which Opposition Front-Bench Members are financed? In the provisional business last week, he announced that the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001 would be considered next week. It includes an increase in the amount paid by the taxpayer to the Conservative leader in the House of Lords to £60,961 and to the Conservative Chief Whip in the House of Lords to £56,224. Will that be backdated now that the increase will be postponed until October?

Will the Leader of the House take into account the fact that those increases are on top of the considerable sum already paid to the leader of the Conservative party? I presume that that is why five people are still interested in that ludicrous job. The Conservative party leader receives £63,000 and the Conservative Chief Whip receives £35,500, although he cannot control his Back-Bench Members. In view of the total disarray on the Conservative Benches, does the Leader of the House believe that taxpayers are getting good value for money?

Mr. Cook

The statement on the London tube was an initiative by London Members, not the Government. Any Member who feels misrepresented will have plenty of opportunities to make that clear. We welcome support for a proposal that will enable investment of £13,000 million to proceed. That will provide a basis on which commuters and travellers on the London tube will have trains that run on time, new, more comfortable trains and cleaner stations. Those are important gains, which will be secured without changing London Underground's responsibility for managing, running and ensuring the safety of the service.

The hon. Gentleman tempts me sorely to comment on value for money considerations, for not only the tube but Opposition Front-Bench Members. However, the increases that he mentioned follow from previous references to the Senior Salaries Review Body. As I said recently when we debated pay and rations, I believe that our pay and increases should be independently assessed. Once that has happened, we should accept the assessment.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Does my right hon. Friend know that a public inquiry is about to start into the proposed development of an international airport on the former RAF base of Finningley in Doncaster? Does he know that the main objector is Manchester Airport plc, which also owns Humberside airport and East Midlands airport? Does he believe that it is right and acceptable that a company owned by council tax payers in one region is trying to thwart regeneration in another region? Will he ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to hold an investigation into the use of public funds?

Mr. Cook

It certainly would be a matter of legitimate public concern if public funds rather than proceeds of the trade of the airport were to be used in such ways. Having said that, I was asked that very question yesterday and I responded by assuring the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is considering ways in which he can expedite the public inquiry. The best way forward is to have a public inquiry during which all interested parties can express their views. I am sure that my hon. Friend will robustly express the views of his constituents.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House, bearing in mind his interview in The Times today, which tells us how he will take Parliament more seriously, arrange for an explanation to be given to the House as to how a Minister recommended approving a code on Tuesday evening, with the House approving it in a Division yesterday afternoon, while, at the same time, the Department for Education and Skills was withdrawing it?

Mr. Cook

I see no conflict whatever between what I have said about modernising the House and improving scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has responded to criticism and to concern, which was expressed from the Opposition Front Bench only 10 minutes ago. I think it absolutely right and proper that she should listen to those representations and consider them.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding an early debate on the recent report "Sea Changes", which has been produced by the seaside resorts taskforce? That fine report contains excellent recommendations for seaside towns. There is so much concentration on rural tourism at present—I am equally concerned about it, as I represent a rural constituency—but it is important that we do not forget the seaside resorts and the problems that they have faced over the years. I would welcome an early debate on that.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a legitimate point, and makes it with force on behalf of the constituency that she represents in the House. It is important that we consider all the significant elements of the tourism industry and all the different communities that depend on it. One of the obvious lessons of the past few months is that decline in tourism in one part of Britain can affect tourism in the other parts, as many of those who take holidays use more than one centre.

I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will want to reflect on how we ensure that we have a balanced tourism policy that covers those seaside resorts that find it a challenge to maintain their tourism industry in the modern world.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Given that, since the general election, the axe has fallen on a Foreign Secretary who believed in Europe. a junior Home Office Minister who believed in telling the truth about a telephone call from a senior Cabinet Minister and two independent-minded Select Committee Chairmen who believed in doing their job—holding the Government to account—is there anything that anyone can believe in under the aegis of this Government without facing the sack?

Mr. Cook

I note that the motion on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that we shall debate on Monday includes the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whom I seem to remember being, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, a vigorous teller of the truth. My hon. Friend will recall many exchanges and his survival is a clear example of the Government's commitment to open scrutiny.

I note also that my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) is again on the Select Committee on Health—he was robust and vigorous in his scrutiny in that Committee in the last Parliament—and that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has been appointed to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. [Interruption.] Well, he is on the list for approval by the House on Monday and I have no intention of moving an amendment to his inclusion or that of either of the other two. My hon. Friend has distinguished himself by his outspokenness since the general election and the House can take confidence from that. The Government are committed to having successful Committees carrying out scrutiny.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have a free vote on the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001? Some of us have a constitutional objection to the growing disparity between Back Benchers' and Ministers' salaries. It is unhealthy, and discourages principled resignations.

My right hon. Friend's suggestion, canvassed in The Times today, that Chairmen of Select Committees should receive salaries might commend itself to us, provided that the anointing of Chairmen was not at the disposal of Government Whips.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has fully lived up to my expectations.

The proposal for payment for Select Committee Chairmen has been made from within the House on a number of occasions. It was made by the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament, and was made again in the report of the Hansard Society, whose conference I shall address later today. It is not unproblematic. One of the principles that we have advised the SSRB to follow is that all Members except Ministers should receive the same pay: but we should examine the proposal, if there is support for it, and refer it to the SSRB for its consideration and advice.

As for ministerial salaries. my hon. Friend is wrong about the widening of the gulf: proportionately, it remains the same. Nevertheless, I look in hope towards the day when my hon. Friend will be in a position to carry out a principled resignation.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

We have heard that the Prime Minister has set up a crisis management unit to scan the horizon for political black clouds. Have those sharp-eyed folk focused on next Monday's business? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise the risks of trying to compress into a fairly short debate the vital issue of how the House is to hold the Government to account—a process made more necessary by what was done in the last Parliament? If he really wants to put an end to cynicism in the political process, could he not give a lead by voting for the reinstatement of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions?

Mr. Cook

As I have said, Monday's debate will mark the first occasion on which we have discussed such nominations in prime time rather than in the small hours. That is a major gain for the House, as I hope Members will recognise.

It is important for us to complete Monday's business, so that the Select Committees can meet next week and decide on their business priorities before the recess. I gave the House that commitment, and I am delivering on it. The specific membership of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee is a matter for the House. As I have promised, there will be a free vote for members of the Government as well as Members of the House.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

Will my right hon. Friend provide time for an early debate on the criteria for the selection of successful bids under the Government's regeneration schemes—which, I must say, are very good schemes? Jaywick Sands, in my constituency, has 2,000 residents, 81 per cent. of whom live in households without a wage earner. They are living in 1930s holiday homes made of wood, and they are desperate for help. There are no proper roads in the area, and there is no proper street lighting and no proper drainage.

The residents have applied for neighbourhood renewal, and have been told that they do not meet the criteria. They have applied for help under the new deal for communities, and have been told that they do not meet those criteria either. They have applied for neighbourhood management, whose criteria they did meet, but they have just failed again.

What my constituents now want is not to know when the next round of bids will he presented, but when they will receive the support that they desperately need from the Government.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the regeneration scheme. He has put with force and clarity a case in his constituency in which renewal and regeneration are plainly needed. I shall happily draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and will invite him to consider with my hon. Friend whether there is any problem with the criteria that is causing the difficulty.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I am trying to reconcile the stunning words of the Leader of the House about Select Committees in The Times with the shambles that he will preside over next Monday. Can he honestly tell the House from the Dispatch Box that Labour Members have not been removed from the Whips' nominations because of their independence of mind and spirit? Secondly, can he explain how the system can possibly be fair to minority parties when they have no representative on the Committee of Selection and the party that is meant to represent them, the Liberal Democrat party, blatantly pursues its own interests with no consultation in order to substitute its Members for those in other minority parties?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman tempts me into far too hot water when he asks me to intervene between other parties and the Liberal Democrats. That is a matter for them to resolve between themselves. It has been a long-standing convention for the Liberal Democrat party to represent the interests of itself and other minority parties. It is a matter for the hon. Gentleman to resolve with the Liberal Democrat party. I cannot intervene—

Mr. Salmond

It is the right hon. Gentleman's job.

Mr. Cook

No it is not my job to run the Liberal Democrat party, nor do I aspire to it.

On Monday the hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity to comment on the list and on any unsatisfactory treatment of his or another minority party. Indeed, if he wishes, he may comment on what he regards as unsatisfactory treatment of any Labour Member.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on our architectural heritage? This year's English Heritage buildings at-risk register includes the Mechanics' Institute in my constituency. The building was once glorious. The people of Swindon used to learn there, spend leisure time and court each other there. It is now in total disrepair. Last year English Heritage found only £5.7 million in grant aid towards 98 buildings on that register. To put right all the buildings which will be found in many hon. Members' constituencies £400 million is required. May we have a debate so that we can all put our heads together and see what money can be found, so that these precious buildings, loved by so many of our constituents, can be preserved for the future?

Mr. Cook

I am familiar with the building that my hon. Friend mentions. I have passed it on many occasions. I fully agree with her on its importance not merely as part of our architectural heritage, but as part of Britain's wider cultural heritage. My hon. Friend drew attention to the funds available for these buildings. I do not disagree that those funds are stretched, given the large number of buildings concerned. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will have heard what she said. My hon. Friend may wish to pursue this with the Department.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May we have an early debate to discuss the failures of the health service in Lincolnshire? Is the Leader of the House aware that my constituents have to wait 68 weeks for an appointment with a consultant neurologist at Pilgrim hospital, Boston? Is he further aware that my constituents in and around Sleaford cannot get on to national health service dental panels, so cannot get NHS dentistry? Is he further aware that my constituents suffering from multiple sclerosis cannot get beta interferon? Is not that a scandal and should not the Government now be held to account for their failure?

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to inform the right hon. and learned Gentleman that not only have waiting lists fallen by 125,000 in the past four years, but waiting times have also fallen. I am sure that he will wish to express full support for our NHS plan which proposes to cut the average waiting time of 13 weeks for an out-patient appointment.

I am rather surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should have the gall to complain about the provision of NHS dentists. During the 18 years in which he supported a Conservative Government the NHS dentistry service went through a massive reduction. This Government have increased the dentist panels and are looking for an increase in and return to NHS dentists across the land in the way that should have been maintained under the Conservative Government.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

May we have a debate on early-day motion 93? [That this House is concerned that Financial Services Authority research proves that nearly five million endowment policies may not grow sufficiently to repay their mortgages; regrets that only 10,500 people have been compensated out of at least three million who were mis-sold endowments 'guaranteed' by salespeople to pay off mortgages fully; and calls on the Government to instruct the FSA to launch a mis-selling inquiry funded by companies' shareholders and to write to those facing possible shortfalls with details of how to claim compensation.]

It is about the plight of 5 million endowment policy holders whose endowments will not mature and pay off their mortgages, let alone pay the nest egg that they were promised by the sales people who made huge commissions. Only 10,000 of those 5 million people have been compensated. Can we ask the Financial Services Authority to send its leaflet advising on how to claim compensation to all those families who have received amber or red letters?

Mr. Cook

All endowment mortgage holders should have been sent the FSA factsheet explaining the situation, and their right to complain and to take it forward if they are concerned. Indeed, I can confirm that the factsheet has been sent to a number of endowment mortgage holders because I received one myself.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Today, the Home Secretary is meeting 80 chief constables to talk about ways in which the performance of the police service can be improved. Will the Leader of the House invite the Home Secretary to make a statement on those matters in the light of the disturbing headline in the Lancashire Evening Post on Wednesday 11 July: Besieged police operators 'cannot cope' with 25,000 emergency calls each week. The police admitted that they have do not enough staff to man the 999 call system. In the same article, the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is in the Chamber, states: Our area has been failed. The biggest complaints that people bring to me are that people can't get through to the police. This is a scandalous situation and it needs to be probed. The Home Secretary should come to the Dispatch Box and answer for it.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that, come the autumn, there will be plenty of opportunities to discuss questions as to the competence of the judicial system and criminal procedures, because there will a number of pieces of legislation on those matters and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be at the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions.

In the meantime, I am pleased to tell the right hon. Gentleman and the House that he can take encouragement from the fact that in the past year, for the first time in a decade, which also embraces the period when his party was in office, we have seen a reversal of the decline in police numbers. Police numbers went up by 1,350 in the past year. I am even more pleased to tell the House that the number of people being attracted into training for the police has gone up by 75 per cent., so we can look forward to a much greater increase in future years, which will assist with the problems that he identifies.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding an early debate on the wide implications of a recent Court of Appeal judgment? The court has decided that private trusts to which public tasks, such as care of the elderly and disabled, are transferred are not subject to the Human Rights Act 1998. Apparently, that is the case even though they are clearly carrying out functions hitherto undertaken by public authorities and are often subsidised by public funds. If there is to be a great increase in the use of private entities in public service delivery, will that not mean that our brand new. much-coveted human rights legislation will have less and less relevance to ordinary people?

Mr. Cook

I am not aware of the judgment to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will happily inquire into it and ensure that she receives a response. Plainly we take pride in the fact that we introduced the Human Rights Act for Britain—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Cook

Obviously, not everyone agrees with us: in a sense, the hon. Gentleman's opposition fortifies me in the view that we were right to introduce the Act. We want to ensure that all citizens, whatever their condition and wherever they are, have proper and fair access to its remedies.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Will the right hon. Gentleman be kind enough to offer the House guidance about his views on Select Committees? Does he believe that they are a happy and convenient retirement place for sacked Ministers? Alternatively, does he believe that Select Committees perform a useful function in the House? If so, has he remonstrated with his Whips about the removal of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)? If it is true that her removal was in order to get fresh blood into the Committees, does he recognise that there is more vitality running through the veins of the hon. Lady than many of the yes men and women with whom he seeks to replace her?

Mr. Cook

I would not seek to differ from the hon. Gentleman in his description of the vitality of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich. On his first point, I do not think that we should exclude the experience, energy and knowledge that those who have served in government can bring to the work of Select Committees. Indeed, I recall that when the hon. Gentleman's party was in government several of their former Cabinet Ministers also served on Select Committees. If I may so, I think that the then right hon. Member for Guildford, now Lord Howell of Guildford, performed well as the Chair of a Select Committee and served the House with distinction.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

May we have an early debate on the implications of the Government's devolution policies on the structure of government in Whitehall? Surely it is no longer justifiable for Scotland and Wales to continue to have Secretaries of State representing their interests in the Cabinet, given that they have their own Parliament and Assembly. Does not that further disadvantage the English regions, which do not yet have an assembly, let alone a Cabinet member, to represent their interests?

Mr. Cook

It is very important that the House and the Government should ensure that they have proper channels of communication to the devolved bodies. I have often found my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales to he of great value in ensuring that we work in partnership with the devolved organisations that represent the people of those two countries. I fully share my hon. Friend's concern to ensure that the north-east is fairly represented. That is why the Government have created the prospect of a regional assembly for the north-east and any other region that wishes to have one. That is the best way forward to ensure that the people of the north-east and other regions can have a direct say in who runs the local services that are directly relevant to them.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a ministerial statement or an early debate on the measures to prevent a repeat of last year's floods in Sussex? Is he aware that when the House returns in October a full year will have passed since those devastating floods, which affected Uckfield, Buxted and Hellingly in my constituency alone, and that there is growing dismay and despair that no work has been carried out to prevent their recurrence? May we have a statement to discover why so little money has been spent and why it has taken so long for anything to be done?

Mr. Cook

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a debate or a statement in the week that remains before the House adjourns for the recess, but I assure him that the Government will continue to function during the recess, that my right hon. and hon. Friends will continue to work and that I will ensure that they are aware of his concerns.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a regular debate, possibly yearly, on the work of delegations from the House. to international bodies, which would allow them to report back to the House? I am a member of the delegation to the Council of Europe, which is not to be confused with the European Union. It is a completely separate organisation, with an important role as the parent body of the European convention on human rights. Our role on the delegation is multifaceted; we are ambassadors, diplomats and politicians, but most of all we are delegates from the House to that body, yet we never return here to report.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and important point. I am well aware of the excellent work done by the Council of Europe. Since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war, the Council of Europe has played a very important part in encouraging and supporting the countries of central and eastern Europe into democracy and adopting the important principles of freedom and human rights, in all of which it can take a lot of credit. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend says, but I am reluctant to make a commitment to hold further annual debates, which already reduce the flexibility of the House to carry out its important business of scrutinising the Government. However, there may be ways—for example, in Westminster Hall—in which we can allow those involved in the Council of Europe to report, and it is right that they should have an opportunity to do so.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The right hon. Gentleman will remember that last week the House voted by a margin of 289 to 33 to instruct the trustees of the parliamentary pension scheme—a statutory scheme—to extend bereavement benefits to unmarried couples, including same-sex couples: indeed, he supported that decision. Has he held any discussions with colleagues about how other public sector statutory pension schemes such as those for NHS staff and teachers, which do not offer those benefits, can be amended to ensure that those benefits are available? I think that he will recognise that less well-paid people will not understand how Members of Parliament and Ministers can vote for those rights for their bereaved partners, yet prevent those benefits from being made available to public servants in the teaching profession, the NHS and other professions.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman invited the House to vote for that measure, and I was very pleased to support him. He should not therefore now criticise those who supported him in that vote. I have not had an opportunity to pursue this point with the trustees, and the House will be aware that other issues that arise from last Thursday also engage me. However, I hope that the trustees will be able to reflect on the will of the House and develop the means by which it can become part of the Commons pension scheme. Once they have done that, it may be possible to learn lessons elsewhere, but the first step must be to interpret the decision that the House has taken and to put it into practice.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the unfortunate consequences that flow from the European Community's personal protective equipment directive? I raise the issue because my constituent, Mr. Lindsell, suffered a severe accident in 1979, as a result of which he has to wear specially adapted industrial boots. Hitherto, those boots were adapted in the local hospital for his particular needs, but since the directive came into force there has been some uncertainty about whether that is still lawful. I have been in correspondence with our right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of Health for more than a year but I have received no satisfactory response on this issue. Will my right hon. Friend agree to an early debate to consider this important question?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a constituency case that is of great importance to him and to his constituent. My hon. Friend should be congratulated on pressing vigorously and openly on the Floor of the House the claims of his constituent. I will happily draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and shall invite him to consider further the correspondence.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister—the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), I believe—to come to the House to make a statement on the working of the emergency business rate relief scheme that resulted from the outbreak of foot and mouth? My area of Macclesfield is the only borough in Cheshire not to be eligible for the relief, which is causing great unhappiness and anger among retail businesses, hotels, pubs and other outlets that tourists and visitors normally frequent and patronise. Those businesses are in grave financial difficulties and it appears to be an anomaly and an injustice that an area that is 90 per cent. rural and agricultural and has a population density that meets the criteria should not be eligible for emergency business rate relief.

Mr. Cook

I know that my right hon. Friend continues to keep the working of the scheme under review. It has been in operation for only a few weeks, so it must be kept under review. I do not want to encourage the hon. Gentleman to imagine that a scheme that was devised to provide assistance to the countryside is one that we can readily apply to an urban area, even if it is surrounded by countryside. None the less, I shall happily draw his remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be aware of yet another tragic and premature death. A woman in Scotland died from deep vein thrombosis after recently travelling on an aircraft. Given the growing public concern about the incidence of this condition and the apparent unwillingness of airline companies to carry out proper research into the matter, will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate in the House on the subject? We do not definitely know whether the condition affects just a handful of people or is of epidemic proportions, so does he now think that we should have a public inquiry into the matter?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue that concerns many air travellers. I am not immediately persuaded that a debate in the House would necessarily throw further light on the scientific issues involved. I welcome the fact that the airlines are now providing considered advice on how people can avoid deep vein thrombosis when flying. It is in the airlines' interests, as well as those of their passengers, that there is confidence in the use of the airlines.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

The right hon. Gentleman did not confirm that the Prime Minister will come to the House next week to make a statement on Northern Ireland. Given the gravity of the situation, does he not agree that despite the burdens on the Prime Minister's time it is right for him to make such a statement before the recess? Will he guarantee that his right hon. Friend will do that?

Mr. Cook

I have been very careful not to anticipate the outcome of the talks, which recommence tomorrow. I remind the hon. Gentleman that twice next week we will debate Northern Ireland orders and the Prime Minister will, of course, be answering questions in the House on Wednesday.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the introduction of free school meals for youngsters whose families receive the working families tax credit?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend proposes an extension of the working families tax credit, which has been a very successful scheme. For many low-paid households, it has provided an additional £20 to £30 a week. That has made a real difference to those families and the standard of living of their children. The policy is consistent with our commitment to lift another 1 million children out of poverty, as we did in the last Parliament. I would be much more comfortable with our continuing that strategy of lifting children out of poverty than reverting to means-tested benefits, which would keep them trapped in poverty. Let us work on our strategy to ensure that we end child poverty within a generation. That has to be right and it is one of the most important priorities for Britain.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions make a statement to the House next week on the Government's decision on the proposed development of a fifth terminal at Heathrow airport? Is he aware that with every week that passes its competitive advantage over gateways such as Charles de Gaulle and Schipol is being eroded? The Government have no excuse for procrastinating any longer.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

They should reject it, but they will not.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend helpfully makes it clear that there is more than one view on this matter, and I am grateful for that observation. [Interruption.] Indeed, it was a clear bid for a job.

My right hon. Friend has to proceed with care. He has a quasi-judicial capacity that is open to judicial review. so I would not want to press him to cut corners or act hastily. He will certainly reach a considered and careful conclusion that reconciles the differing views as best it can.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May we have an urgent debate before the recess on the public-private partnership that is being foisted on the London tube? It is not a proper partnership but the backdoor privatisation of chunks of the tube, which involves breaking up the network in a way that could be deeply dangerous to the travelling public, many of whom are my constituents. The Minister for Transport should come to the Dispatch Box before the recess and tell us what he is playing at.

Mr. Cook

The Government would very much wish to find a way to make progress as fast as possible. That is why we have asked London Underground to enter into negotiations with the bidders. I stress that the proposals will leave London Underground managing and running services. It will be responsible for safety and will manage an integrated service.

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Health and Safety Executive has a double lock on the safety of the proposals. First, it will report, probably by the end of the month, on the safety of the package; secondly, it will report, probably towards the end of the year, on the safety of each contract as it proceeds. I urge him to reassure his constituents that the safety issues are a priority for the Government and are fully safeguarded in the plans for the tube.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

One of the national crises that the Government are dealing with is that of foot and mouth. A week ago today we had our first case in Vale of York and we now have five. North Yorkshire, with 107 cases, is the third worst affected county. What assurance can the right hon. Gentleman give that the issues that we have raised with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be responded to before the recess? Will the problems that may arise should the epidemic escalate—it is clearly not under control—be brought to the attention of the Department and the Government during the recess?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure the hon. Lady that during the recess she will have plenty of opportunities to raise the matter with Ministers.

Miss McIntosh

The House will not be sitting.

Mr. Cook

The House may not be sitting, but I can assure her that my colleagues at DEFRA will continue to work on foot and mouth through the recess, and I am sure that she will find ways to communicate with them, even though she will be unable to attend the Chamber.

The hon. Lady has a point when she says that we are not yet at the end of the outbreak. That is why we have continually stressed that it is important that everybody, including the farming community, take all possible steps to make sure that the biosecurity mechanisms are in place and are observed. We have made good progress. There are now half a dozen or fewer new cases a day, which is a big improvement on the 40 to 50 cases a day that were confirmed at the height of the epidemic.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

My right hon. Friend will be all too aware that on Tuesday BAE Systems announced that 1,150 jobs will be lost on the Clyde and in Barrow. Scotstoun, the biggest yard on the Clyde, will bear the brunt of the losses. Will he call an urgent debate, not only on the Clyde but on shipbuilding in the country as a whole?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue for his constituents and the wider Scottish public. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence made a statement to the House earlier this week, which has increased the orders available to the yard and, in the longer term, should provide security of employment on the Clyde. We are disappointed about, and very much regret, the short-term situation in which there will be a number of lay-offs on the Clyde. I assure my hon. Friend that the Scottish Executive and the Employment Service are fully engaged in trying to find ways in which they can meet the needs of those facing redundancy.

I cannot offer my hon. Friend a debate before the House rises next week because of the pressure of business, but I assure him that Ministers, both here and in the Scottish Executive, are following the matter very carefully.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In the light of the concern among hon. Members on both sides of the House about Government interference in the appointment of Select Committee Chairmen, may I remind the Leader of the House about the scandal of the last Parliament in which the Liaison Committee report "Shifting the Balance" was never subject to a free vote in the House? Will he make time available now for the House to express its views, on a free vote, on that vital report?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I see the way forward as reverting to a vote on the document from the last Parliament, as the Liaison Committee itself may well have a different composition in this Parliament. [Interruption.] It is perfectly true, and unless we make it a rule of the House that the Chairmen of Select Committees never change, that is bound to follow. However, I have already indicated to the House that I want to revisit some of the issues in the Liaison Committee report. I look forward to consulting and working with the new members of the Committee, and I intend on Monday to include the Modernisation Committee in the Committees that we set up. Among the issues that the Modernisation Committee should address are some of the recommendations in "Shifting the Balance".

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

On that very point, on Monday we will agree the membership of the Select Committees for a full Parliament, and there is great disquiet among hon. Members on both sides of the House and in the Hansard Society about the way in which that will be done. Is there not a case for agreeing the membership of the Committees for, perhaps, 12 or 18 months, so that in the interim we could debate and vote on the second report of the Liaison Committee, "Unfinished Business", which was published in March but has never been debated or voted on? The way in which we appoint members of Select Committees is highly unsatisfactory. In the words of the Select Committee, the

present system for nominating members of Select Committees must be changed", so why do we not do so?

Mr. Cook

I have said to the House before, and I am happy to repeat it for what I think is the fourth time, that I am very willing to examine the process of appointment to Select Committees when we return in the autumn, when the Liaison Committee has been set up and when we have a Modernisation Committee to consult. However, I have also stressed to the House that to meet the genuine will of the House that the Select Committees be up and running before the summer recess, there is no alternative but to act under existing Standing Orders and procedures. Members on both sides of the House urged me to get the Select Committees in being before the recess, and we have delivered on that: the Committees have been set up faster than in any previous Parliament. I could not have done that and at the same time reformed the process.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the highly pertinent inquiries of my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), I appeal to the Leader of the House to reconsider and to facilitate a full day's debate next week on the operation of Select Committees. Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that such a debate would allow scores of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to testify to their belief that the contribution of the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) has always been marked by intellectual rigour, devotion to the House and an unfailing readiness to stand up to the motley crew of third-raters who dominate the Government? Why does he not accept that?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must use temperate language.

Mr. Bercow

That was temperate language.

Mr. Speaker

It might be temperate by the hon. Gentleman's standards, but not by mine.

Mr. Cook

I was just going to say that by his standards the hon. Gentleman's mode of expression was very moderate.

For half a day in prime time on Monday the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to expatiate at length on the issues he raises. I understand that two and a half hours might not be long enough to exhaust his rhetoric, but it ought to be long enough for the House to have a considered debate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.