HC Deb 19 July 2001 vol 372 cc429-47 12.30 pm
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House please give us the business for the week after the recess?

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

The business for the first week after the recess will be:

MONDAY 15 OCTOBER—Second Reading of the Football (Disorder) (Amendment) 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—Third Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Cook

I knew that I would have the hon. Gentleman's support for that.

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER—Opposition Day (2nd Allotted Day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject or subjects to be announced.

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

The provisional business for the following week will include: MONDAY 22 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Homelessness Bill.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for that information. Before we discuss the business for the week following the recess, may I say that today should have been renamed "Gardeners' Question Time" because there are no fewer than 67 Government-planted questions on the Order Paper, no doubt in the hope that the answers would not be noticed by hon. Members who are tidying their desks and waiting to depart for the recess?

While I am on the subject of unfinished business and what hon. Members might notice in the next 24 hours, will the Leader of the House confirm that before the House rises tomorrow, the Government will have placed in the Vote Office the promised new ministerial code of conduct designed to prevent a repetition of the controversies that surrounded the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz)? As we understand it, it is to be accompanied by an inaugural code of conduct to govern Ministers' special advisers and spin doctors to stop the bullying of civil servants. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reassure me that that document will be made available and not just slipped on to the shelves once the House has risen.

I also wonder whether the Leader of the House will arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the House in the week after the recess. The Prime Minister appointed Mr. Kiley during the election when there was no opportunity for us to discuss his decision. Yesterday, the Secretary of State sacked Mr. Kiley by press release. Again, the House has had no opportunity to become acquainted with the background and the reasoning behind that.

Perhaps the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will deal with another matter when he comes to the House, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) raised with the Prime Minister yesterday. My hon. Friend expressed concern that the GNER east coast main line contract might be a short-term contract. In reply, the Prime Minister said: Some franchises may be short, while others may be longer. That is sensible, because it gives us the flexibility that we require. As for GNER and the east coast main line, that decision will be taken shortly." [0fficial Report, 18 July 2001; Vol. 372, c. 286.] So shortly was the decision taken that, no sooner had the right hon. Gentleman uttered those words than the Secretary of State announced—again, by press release—that the contract had been renewed for only two years.

Despite what the Prime Minister said yesterday, it is obvious that the Government have torn up their rail policy and delivered a slap in the face for the Strategic Rail Authority. Given that there are so many pressing issues for which the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has responsibility, he should come to the House not just to make a statement, but for a whole afternoon.

Mr. Cook

First, on my hon. Friends' skills in gardening, I am repeatedly pressed in business questions to provide assurances that statements will be made while the House is sitting, not after it has risen. It is to my hon. Friends' credit that they have worked hard to ensure that their questions are answered while we are sitting.

On the ministerial code and special advisers, I am advised that the answer is yes; it will be published and be available to the House before we rise, and I shall seek to ensure that that takes place.

Mr. Kiley was appointed in the spring on the basis that he agreed that he would carry out discussions with the bidders on the public-private partnership plan and that he would try to seek agreement. That was the basis of his appointment, but three weeks ago, he said that he could not carry it out and could not deliver what he had agreed to deliver—an agreement with the contractors. It is well known that, this week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions received an approach from the former chairman of London Transport and a majority of the board, saying that they thought it impossible to work with Mr. Kiley. In those circumstances, my right hon. Friend had the choice of sacking the majority of the board or sacking Mr. Kiley, and I would not like to think what the House would have done if he had sacked the majority of the board.

On GNER, it is the case that because of the very substantial infrastructure works required following the Hatfield incident, it is not presently possible to agree with the bidders a long-term franchise of 20 years. That is still the aspiration of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but in the meantime, to provide continuity, he has extended the present franchise by two years to 2005, but I stress that the agreement to extend it is not simply a matter of the time in that agreement; there is also provision to upgrade the London-Leeds service, so that people can travel every 30 minutes, and for early placement of orders for a new fleet of inter-city trains and early investment in station improvements. All of those will be real gains for passengers and are a welcome result of the announcement that my right hon. Friend made the other day.

Finally, the hon. Lady will have noticed that the last Bill that I mentioned in the business statement was the Homelessness Bill, to which we shall return on the Monday of the second week after our return. She will also recall that I gave an undertaking to the House that we would not programme that Bill, to find out whether we could make progress by agreement. I am pleased to say that proceedings on the Homelessness Bill have been completed in Committee in advance of the date agreed. I welcome that, and provided that we continue to get that co-operation, we will be able, on a case-by-case basis, to consider whether programming motions are required.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

When we return after the recess, can we have an early debate about the London underground because one of Mr. Bob Kiley's persistent criticisms has been that the Government's PPP scheme obfuscates management? I should like to know what the role of London Transport is. Is it just a dog that barks to the Government's tune? What is its future? The infrastructure companies are very secretive. Transport for London, under Mr. Bob Kiley. will eventually control the underground, but only partially. The Government have a primary responsibility for the whole system, but are keeping it at arm's length. So can we have a debate to sort out who does manage the London underground?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend cannot have it both ways; he cannot insist that we listen to the voice of London Underground and then complain when we listen to the majority of the London Underground board, who clearly told the Secretary of State that they could not continue to work with Mr. Kiley and did not think he could find a way forward. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is clear: at the end of the public-private partnership, London Underground and London Transport will manage the service; they will determine the service; and they will be responsible for safety.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

That is waffle.

Mr. Cook

No, I am not waffling at all. The reality is that there will be a public service, publicly run by London Underground.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In the light of this week's events, does the Leader of the House accept that Select Committees are only one way in which the House exerts its authority over the Executive and holds them to account, and undertakes proper scrutiny on behalf of the public? Does he accept that the Home Secretary's announcement of the crime figures today to the media and not directly to the House is not acceptable, as it does not give us an opportunity to question him on what is clearly a deplorable situation, especially in relation to violent crime and the clear-up rate? Does he also accept that for Members to be given a spinny document by the new Home Secretary entitled "Time to Deliver" today is totally inappropriate? With street crime as bad as it is, it should surely be "Time to Stand and Deliver".

Does the Leader of the House accept that there really should not be 50 different mini-statements by way of written answer on the last day before the summer recess?

The Leader of the House will be aware that the House has on the whole been able to maintain an all-party approach to events in Northern Ireland. Does he accept that the situation is very fragile at the moment and that peace in Northern Ireland is extremely delicately balanced? Will he give an assurance that, if the House is faced with a major change in the situation in Northern Ireland, it will be recalled?

Mr. Cook

I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's comments on the publication of crime statistics. Annual crime figures have repeatedly been produced in public when they are ready and are available for debate by the public as well as by Parliament. They have not been released in a statement to the House. As Leader of the House, I do not think that it would be possible to manage business if we had to have a statement for every annual publication of statistics.

On the substantive issue, let us not lose sight of the fact that the figures show that overall crime is down by 2.5 per cent., burglary is down by 8 per cent and vehicle crime is down by 7 per cent. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that violent crime is up. It is up by 3 per cent., which is a lot less than the trend over previous years. Although any increase is too much, the trend is down. I hope that our efforts to reduce violent crime will achieve a decline, as there is in other crimes at the present time.

Obviously, if there is a serious situation in Northern Ireland, the recall of Parliament is an option for the Government, and Members can call for it. However, it would be a very unusual Leader of the House who gave a guarantee that the House would be recalled before it even adjourned.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that it is rather disappointing to see on today's Order Paper that the Science and Technology Committee is not to be constituted prior to the summer recess, especially given the Government's commitment to a knowledge-based economy, in which matters to do with science, engineering and technology should feature prominently? Is it his view that that Committee is not as important as others—or can he give some other reason?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that we have set up every other departmental Select Committee and, indeed, pretty well every other Select Committee of the House. Seventeen of them met yesterday. The sole reason why we have not been able to set up the Science and Technology Committee is that we do not have a satisfactory number of nominations to it. That matter is beyond the powers of the Leader of the House.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Why on earth have we not had a statement from the Prime Minister about Northern Ireland? Does it not seem odd, even to the Leader of the House, that there were protracted crisis talks last week but the House of Commons has not been informed of where we are, where we are going, what is going on, who said what and what the Government expect to happen? How can we possibly contemplate a summer recess when we have all been left in complete ignorance of what is going on and what the future holds? Please will the Leader of the House get the Prime Minister here tomorrow for an emergency statement?

Mr. Cook

Since the Prime Minister is due to attend the G8 summit tomorrow, I should have thought that most Members, if not the right hon. Gentleman, would attach greater importance to the agenda of reducing world poverty, launching a trade round—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman speaks for himself and says that he does not attach importance to poverty reduction, the world trade round or tackling the AIDS epidemic in Africa, with which my right hon. Friend will be dealing on Friday—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no point in the right hon. Gentleman asking the Leader of the House a question and then shouting him down. What is the point of that?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

The right hon. Gentleman perfectly illustrated why a statement on Northern Ireland at the present time might not help. He demanded to know who said what to whom. I cannot imagine a statement detailing that as anything other than disastrous in the context of talks that are continuing and will continue during the recess.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the increasing number of personal injuries resulting from the use of air rifles and air pistols? Is he aware that such attacks can often result not only in blindness and partial blindness but in permanent brain damage? Will he give Members an early opportunity to debate measures to regulate, if not prohibit, the use of those weapons?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has raised a serious issue and I fully understand his concern, which he has expressed to me privately as well as publicly. I can assure him that there will he many opportunities after we return from the recess to debate crime and criminal justice. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to make his comment in that context.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

In March, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told us that foot and mouth was under control. Yesterday, there were 10 confirmed cases. Will the Leader of the House review the information and advice given to farmers by the current Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and her Department about what they have to do in the course of this outbreak? Public footpaths are open, some through farmyards, yet farmers are told in a pamphlet and video issued by the Department to wash their wellies and change their overalls between every task. Public footpaths through farmers' own farmyards are open, yet if their children visit neighbouring farms, they are told to change their clothes. What is the point of giving that kind of information and still saying that public footpaths have to be open?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the statement made yesterday about footpaths provides that some of the counties most affected, such as Cumbria and Devon, can retain blanket bans. In other counties where blanket bans have been removed, it remains open to local authorities to close individual footpaths; indeed, they would be expected to close footpaths within 3 km of any affected farm. It is important that farmers and others involved in the livestock industry observe every possible biosecurity measure because they handle animals and are therefore at greater risk than people walking across the land.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 23, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge)?

[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.]

To date, 264 Members of Parliament have expressed deep concern about the United States proposals to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty and deploy the national missile defence system. Given that the Prime Minister is today meeting President Bush and that the matter will no doubt be discussed, does he have any intention of coming to the House and making a statement about our position before we go into recess?

Mr. Cook

I have no doubt whatever that that matter will be on the agenda when the Prime Minister meets President Bush and that they will be asked about it when they conclude their discussions. The American Administration are not proposing, as my hon. Friend put it, to tear up the anti-ballistic missile treaty. What they are doing, and what we have encouraged them to do, is have a dialogue with Russia to see if they can find an alternative strategic framework. We should encourage the United States and Russia to reach that agreement; I would not rule out the possibility that it can be reached.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Could the Leader of the House invite the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House and explain why there is such discrimination against small livestock farmers? When they are taking small loads of animals to slaughter they have to have them inspected twice by vets, whereas large farmers can take their animals straight to slaughter and are subject to only one inspection.

Mr. Cook

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to the hon. Gentleman's observation about the differential impact on smaller farmers. I can well understand the familiar problem that smaller enterprises perhaps find it more difficult to meet the burdensome requirements which are very important at this time of biosecurity measures.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister shares the concern that has been expressed in the House about the stubborn tail-end of the disease and the failure to achieve the point, which we all want to get to, of total eradication. He has invited my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to look at what further measures we might take to speed up the eradication of the disease.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 149, which was tabled my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings)?

[That this House recognises that the 50 per cent. clawback by the Government of any surplus of the Mineworkers' Pension and Superannuation Scheme is grossly unfair; and invites the Government and the trustees of the Pension and superannuation Scheme to enter into negotiations and agree upon a more just appointment of the surplus and so enhance the pensions of thousands of retired mineworkers and widows.]

The early-day motion draws the attention of the House to the fact that the Treasury still receives half of all the surpluses from the mineworkers' pension scheme and the staff superannuation scheme. My right hon. Friend may well be aware that the combined value of those two schemes is about £25 billion. The average pension paid to a member of the mineworkers' pension scheme is about £36, and 28,000 beneficiaries to the scheme receive about £10. Will my right hon. Friend therefore urge the Treasury team to meet the administrators of the scheme as soon as possible to review the 50 per cent. take with a view to devising a procedure that will make more money available to those beneficiaries at the bottom of the pile?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend' s anxiety and I know that there are hardship cases such as those that he mentioned. The original bargain between the Treasury and the miners' pension scheme was that the Treasury would guarantee that pension payments would increase in line with inflation even if there was a deficit in the scheme. As my hon. Friend knows, there is currently a healthy surplus in the scheme, which means a substantial accrual rate to the fund year on year.

The other side of the bargain is that, in return for the guarantee in case of a deficit, the Treasury has the right to take up to 50 per cent. of any annual increase in the surplus. However, I full understand my hon. Friend's point. He knows that the trustees are currently reviewing the scheme. The Government are awaiting the outcome, which we are willing to discuss with trustees when we receive the review.

Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

The Leader of the House knows that the Prime Minister is expected to complete a set of proposals with the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic next week. The House will be in recess, and the right hon. Gentleman may be aware of the rumour that the information will be provided only to selected individuals. Will he ensure that it is published so that all hon. Members can see the proposals as soon as they are completed?

Mr. Cook

I am confident that, in the event of the completion of talks with all parties—I hope that they will be successful—the outcome will be made publicly available. Even if we were minded otherwise, any agreement between all parties would become public knowledge quickly and loudly.

However, I cannot give a commitment that my right hon. Friend will disclose the outcome of talks with any one party, whether the Prime Minister of Ireland or one of the Northern Irish parties. Any such outcome is sensitive to trying to achieve an overall agreement. We all support that.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Will the Leader of the House make time when we return for a debate on the role of Select Committees? They are Committees of the House and their chairmanship is a matter for hon. Members. It is wrong for Government Whips to insist on a named individual being Chairmen. They may make suggestions but the chairmanship should be up to Select Committee members.

Mr. Cook

We have not been short of opportunities to debate Select Committees this week. Indeed, we have another debate on them today. However, the Modernisation Committee—

Mr. Forth

Oh, no!

Mr. Cook

I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no point in the House asking for proposals and then objecting to the Committee that is plainly the logical body to introduce them.—[HON. MEMBERS: "He wants morel I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman wants more Select Committees. However, if he wants Select Committees whose members are chosen transparently and independently, he should welcome the fact that that is the first priority for the Modernisation Committee. I hope that we can present a report shortly after the recess.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister hid behind the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and stated that rural people had not demanded a full public inquiry. Does the Leader of the House understand that so many sectors of the rural economy have been devastated by foot and mouth that the countryside will accept nothing less than a full, public inquiry under the independent, impartial chairmanship of a judge?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not hide behind the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons—[HON. MEMBERS: "He did."] No, he did not. He accurately reflected its statement, in which it made it plain that it favoured an inquiry that resembled the one that followed the last outbreak of foot and mouth, rather than the protracted public inquiry into BSE.

It is worth while reflecting on the reasons for the royal college's view. It wants any lessons to be learned and any conclusions to be drawn as expeditiously as possible through a proper, full inquiry. As the House knows, a public inquiry takes years. It is a matter of judgment whether we want to wait for years before learning the urgent lessons of the recent outbreak.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Further to his comments of a few moments ago, could my right hon. Friend give an indication of when it is likely that the Modernisation Committee will present proposals on changes in decisions on Select Committees membership? It would be useful to have a debate on that subject later this year. Is he aware that many of us are encouraged by the fact that the Government seem to have learned the lessons from Monday—unlike the last Tory Government, who never learned the lessons from 1992 when they prevented the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) from being reappointed to the Health Committee?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having made the second mention of the Modernisation Committee, thereby obliging the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to leave the Chamber.

On the question of a timetable, I think that the best I can do for my hon. Friend is to give an assurance that we will bring one forward as quickly as possible. How quickly that is depends of course on how quickly we can establish agreement within the Committee. However, we have agreed to meet in September to consider the matter. If we make good progress at that meeting in September, I would hope that we can bring forward a report early in our proceedings after the recess.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I reinforce the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for a statement or a debate on the east coast main line? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the dismay at the decision not to grant a long-term franchise? Does he realise that a two-year extension is bound to put back the date when we will see continuing investment of a substantial type, and that only the grant of a long-term franchise will really provide the basis for continuing large investment in an overcrowded line?

Mr. Cook

There is nothing between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Government on whether there should be a long-term franchise; we would prefer a long-term franchise. The reality is that so much infrastructure work is required post-Hatfield that it was not practical to reach an agreement with bidders on the basis of the current state of the infrastructure and the work that is required to it. That is the reason, and the only reason, for the two-year delay.

GNER is of course one of the operating companies. It is itself, therefore, very much responsible for the rolling stock, but not for the track. A two-year period should not of itself inhibit investment in rolling stock, as any successful bidder thereafter will be obliged to take over that rolling stock.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

Did my right hon. Friend hear the exchanges in Treasury questions on the Barnett formula? If he did, he would be aware that there are calls from both sides of the House for the system of funding the regions and nations of the United Kingdom to be renewed and reviewed. May we have a debate on the matter immediately after the recess, so that the House can help the Government to take the matter forward and we can introduce a system that is based on real need and fairness?

Mr. Cook

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his offer of help in taking the matter forward. However, he will be aware that the Government have repeatedly said that we have no plans to review the Barnett formula.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Will there be an opportunity for the House to discuss—it would be particularly appropriate now as President Bush is in the country—the situation of my constituent Mr. Steve Morgan of Frome, an experienced journalist who accompanied the Greenpeace demonstration against the star wars test and is now facing charges in Los Angeles, subject to a minimum five-year prison sentence for photographing a peaceful demonstration? Will there be an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to say what consular support is being given to Mr. Morgan and what representations have been made at the highest level for his immediate release?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that his constituent is getting full consular support. We have been in contact with him and the other UK nationals involved since the day of their arrest. We have also been in contact with their lawyer. We will continue to do all we can to provide consular support to him. I know from my previous work at the Foreign Office that it would be counter-productive for us to intervene politically in what is a judicial matter, but all possible consular support will be given.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's plans to part-privatise air traffic control are rapidly falling apart? It looks as though the income generated from the sale will not even cover the inherited debt of the National Air Traffic Services. Can we have a ministerial statement in our first week back giving us a progress report and looking at the options on how we can dig ourselves out of this fiasco?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a delay in the bid coming from the consortium. We understand that the delay reflects some financial issues which plainly have to be resolved to the satisfaction of the bidder. However, we expect the bid to proceed and the process to continue. I am sure that it is a matter on which right hon. and hon. Members will wish to table questions when we return.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Regardless of what the Leader of the House said earlier, we had an admission from the Treasury this morning that the Barnett formula is indeed a convergence formula. The Government have admitted to the existence of the Barnett squeeze. Will the Leader of the House respond to that announcement by ensuring that there is an early debate on the subject so that we can examine this admission and the effect that the Barnett squeeze will have on Scottish public services.

Mr. Cook

The Barnett formula reflects population changes. There is no way in which the Treasury or anyone else can protect any area from a change in the population base on which the Barnett formula is calculated. I am wearily resigned to the fact that this is an issue that we will hear much about when we return and I have not the slightest doubt that it will be repeatedly ventilated in the Chamber by people on both sides of the argument.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 72 on women in Parliament?

[That this House believes that a democratically elected Parliament should seek to reflect the make-up of its population; notes that while women make up 51 per cent. of the UK population, only 18 per cent. of elected honourable Members are women; considers such an imbalance to be unacceptable in the 21st century; welcomes the Government's promise in the Queen's Speech to draft legislation to enable political parties to take positive action in the selection of women as parliamentary candidates; and urges the Leader of the House to bring forward the legislation as soon as possible to ensure the selection of many more women candidates for the next general election.]

In two weeks it has attracted the signatures of more than 100 Members representing five different political parties. Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring the fact that only 18 per cent. of elected Members are women and can he tell us when he might find an opportunity to introduce legislation that would enable political parties to make some attempt to tackle that democratic deficit?

Mr. Cook

I fully share my hon. Friend's concern at the relatively small number of women in Parliament and the fact that it has declined rather than increased at the last election. I would like us to take measures that would give a better prospect of the increase in women in Parliament and make sure that this democratic Chamber fully represents all of Britain. In respect of the legislation to which my hon. Friend refers, I cannot introduce legislation that does not exist. I will look sympathetically at timetabling a Bill if one can be introduced soon after the recess, but at the present time we await confirmation that such a Bill is ready.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When can we have a debate about the Government's home energy efficiency scheme which has failed so miserably and has caused pensioners in my constituency to wait more than a year to get replacement boilers? Will the Leader of the House ensure that the questions that I tabled and that have received holding answers are answered extensively before the end of the week? Written questions are one of the means by which we can hold the Government to account to some extent. Can the right hon. Gentleman ensure that when the House returns all Departments are strongly advised to reply to them within a reasonable time scale? At the moment the standard of Departments is deteriorating badly.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall look into his question about responses to written questions. I very much hope that all Departments will seek to clear all written questions before the House concludes its work for the summer. That would be a normal standard to expect. The home energy efficiency scheme is a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I shall convey what the hon. Gentleman has said to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I would stress, however, that the United Kingdom has done well in making sure that energy efficiency is applied across our economy, and to our homes and transport. That is why we are well ahead of the Kyoto targets and are one of the leading nations in the world in making reductions in greenhouse gases.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I note that the first debate after the recess will be on the Football (Disorder) (Amendment) Bill. There is a lot of disorder and dismay in my constituency about the ownership of Carlisle United, which is owned by Michael Knighton, of whom hon. Members may have heard. Three weeks away from the beginning of the season, we do not have 11 full-time footballers, we do not have a manager and we do not have any money. The Football League and the Football Association know about the problems that Carlisle United is facing and are refusing to intervene. My only concern is that when we come back in October Carlisle United will no longer exist. However, I should like to be able to move an amendment to the Football (Disorder) (Amendment) Bill.

Mr. Cook

I am humbled to say that I am unable to promise either a ministerial statement or Government legislation to save Carlisle United. My hon. Friend makes his case forcefully, and I am sure that he has ventilated an issue of deep concern to his constituents and his local press. I am very pleased that he will have an excellent platform on which to repeat his concerns when we resume, on the first day back.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I hope that the Leader of the House will bear up stoically and with fortitude under the burden of being deprived of our convivial company over the next three months.

Can we please have an urgent statement in Government time on the extraordinary decision of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to transport large quantities of ash hundreds of miles from Newcastle to the Shanks and McEwan landfill site at Calvert in my constituency? Ought not the Secretary of State to tell us why it was sensible to transport that ash hundreds of miles from an infected area to an area thus far, thankfully, uninfected with foot and mouth? Would it not be useful for her to tell me how it was proper and courteous of the Department to inform me of the involvement of my constituency in this worrying matter only on the day on which the first transportation took place?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) for his concern about my being able to stand tall and survive the absence of his company and that of other hon. Members. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman—no, on this last occasion, I shall call him my hon. Friend—that in Italy I shall say daily to my wife, "I wonder what the hon. Member for Buckingham is getting up to in my absence."

I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and press her on the importance of providing prior notice to Members of Parliament.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Many of us are heavily dependent on mobile phones for communicating with our friends, our offices and our constituents, particularly over the summer holidays, so can we have an early debate on the inadequacy of the service provided by mobile phone companies in large areas of Britain where it is impossible to receive a signal? Vodafone has spent millions of pounds on buying a German company and provided £800 million of share options to its chief executive yet has written to me to say that it cannot afford to spend money on increasing its coverage in parts of Wales.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend speaks for the whole House, in that we have all had the experience, somewhere in Britain—often in our constituencies—of being unable to get the connection that we need. I am sure that her point will have been suitably logged by those at Vodafone who monitor our proceedings, and I hope that she will be hearing from them shortly.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Leader of the House will be aware that by the time we return we will not have had a debate on defence procurement for almost a year. In view of the grave decisions taken recently by Her Majesty's Government, is not a debate long overdue on Bowman, on which we shall have an announcement today; on the cancellation of the future aircraft system for the Royal Air Force; on the possibility that the new aircraft carrier is to be put out to tender to foreign yards; and on the loss of 1,000 jobs on the Clyde following the type 45 order? Is it not high time that the Government faced up to their responsibilities and involved the House in those important matters?

Mr. Cook

In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, he made a well-attended statement on the type 45 destroyer on which he took many questions from both sides of the House, and he is about to make a statement on Bowman. That is two discussions in the House on defence procurement in two weeks. I do not think either that the House can be accused of failing in its job of scrutiny or that my right hon. Friend can be accused of failing in his job of informing and making announcements to the House.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

What is the expected time of arrival of the British Overseas Territories Bill from the House of Lords? It is a welcome measure, but it is drawn very narrowly in relation to the important issue of citizenship. I am somewhat disappointed that it does not also embrace the question of representation, a concept that was canvassed by Baroness Symons before the Foreign Affairs Committee. For example, it was mooted that overseas territories might have access to the House and be able to petition it at the Bar. Should not the Government reflect, before they are arraigned before a court, on the fact that the existing representation for the citizens of our overseas territories is deficient in relation to the European convention on human rights? This is ultimately their Parliament, and we will not have full adult franchise until the British subjects peppered around the globe have representation here.

Mr. Cook

I stress to my hon. Friend that the British Overseas Territories Bill fulfils an undertaking that we gave in the last Parliament to extend British citizenship to all those in the overseas territories who wish to take it and who fulfil the residency requirements. That was welcomed in the overseas territories, especially but not only in St. Helena, where people felt a sense of injustice that they had lost their rights to British citizenship. This is an important Bill which fulfils our part of a bargain that we made with the Governments of the overseas territories that they would in turn take tougher action to ensure that they had stringent financial measures in place that reflected the international agreements we had made in their name.

On the wider question, we should reflect carefully before taking the steps that my hon. Friend suggests. It is an important principle—and important politically—for the residents of the overseas territories that they are self-governing and only involved with the UK to the extent that we handle their external affairs, defence and international obligations. We must be careful not to take any steps to erode their rights of self-government, which might turn out to be unpopular in the overseas territories.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

The Leader of the House will know that the Government have confirmed that they intend to close two transplant units in April 2002. The hospitals at Wythenshawe in Birmingham and in Sheffield have been left with an uncertain future for a year. It is a source of great disappointment to those hospitals and the many thousands of transplant patients who depend on them that we still have not had a clear statement from the Government on what their recommended decision will be. Can we have an urgent statement and, for the sake of those hospitals and the people they serve, learn the Government's intentions, so that proper preparations can be made in time before April next year?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is right that the concentration of transplant facilities has been under review for some time, and I stress that it is in line with sound medical advice and practice to ensure that adequate specialisation is focused on one site and is not dissipated too widely. I am not aware of the Department of Health having reached a decision on the local consultations or whether it has received a view from the local health authorities, but I shall ensure that if any announcement is made during the recess the hon. Gentleman is informed, preferably in advance.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Given the huge scale of the Government's achievements, can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explain why the Government have discontinued their annual report? Is there not a case for having a debate, perhaps when we return from the recess, about a possible role for the Office for National Statistics, which could publish a report independently of the Government that would look back to the manifesto commitments that were made?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarkably loyal opening line. I have given several assurances that I shall write to fellow Ministers and I shall certainly write to the Whips to draw attention to my hon. Friend's opening sentence. Whatever we politicians might imagine, the outside world would regard it as strange if having had a general election only a few weeks ago we were suddenly to produce an annual report going back well before the election. The people have had the opportunity to reach a verdict on our performance in the previous Parliament, and I am happy to say that the result was a resounding success for the Government.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

As the Leader of the House will know, my constituents will be concerned about the east coast main line, which does not, as is often thought, end at Edinburgh but carries on to Aberdeen. In his answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), the right hon. Gentleman gave an assurance that the franchisee, GNER, would be able to purchase rolling stock despite the uncertainty. Does he recognise, however, that the type of rolling stock required may depend on the type of track improvements that are decided on? Given that uncertainty, will he ask the Secretary of State to see whether he has any powers under section 56 of the Railways Act 1993 to underwrite the purchase of that rolling stock, so as to remove the uncertainty and ensure that at least some of the improvements come to the line as soon as possible to benefit our constituents?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to hope for an underwriting of costs by the operating company, but he has highlighted a problem associated with giving a 20-year franchise at the present time. The actions of any operator, including GNER, depend on the state of the track, which is why a two-year extension has been granted.

I am well aware of the line to which the hon. Gentleman refers. It is one of the most attractive lines in the United Kingdom, and I hope that it will soon be among the best.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

As a reforming and modernising Leader of the House, does not my right hon. Friend think that the debate on drugs to be held in October would be far more valuable if a motion were tabled on which the House could vote? The "World at One" radio programme has announced the result of its survey of opinion among hon. Members. It found that, of the hon. Members surveyed, four out of five want there to be a royal commission on drug use, because they think that the present drug laws perversely increase drug harm and are unenforceable.

Mr. Cook

I note what my hon. Friend says, although I would not wish to adopt the innovation of "World at One" surveys becoming the basis on which the House reaches a decision. At the present stage of the debate for which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has called, it is right that the House should have an open-ended debate in which hon. Members can express their opinions freely, without being polarised by a substantive motion and an amendment. That is appropriate for this stage of the debate, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take part in the debate in October.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the Government's attitude to the atrocious behaviour of the Russian army in Chechnya? That army is not merely in combat with guerrillas, but is perpetrating gross human rights abuses against the civilian population. If we cannot have a statement, may we at least have an indication of whether the Prime Minister will take the opportunity, when he meets President Putin, to raise these terrible issues?

Mr. Cook

There have been exchanges in the House on this matter on many occasions in the two years since the invasion of Chechnya. There have also been many exchanges on the matter between my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Foreign Office representatives and their opposite numbers in the Russian Government. I fully share the hon. Gentleman's concern about human rights abuses in Chechnya, and I have often impressed on the Russian Foreign Minister the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the public in the effort to isolate people from the guerrillas. We shall continue to urge that view on the Russian Government.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

My right hon. Friend may remember that, in April, the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced that £5.5 million in assistance would be given to fishing communities, to be delivered through the regional development agencies. Will he confirm that the Department of Trade and Industry is now responsible for that initiative? Will he ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to make a statement on the methodology used to divide that sum between the regions containing fishing communities?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the apportionment should reflect the size of the fishing communities in each region? The bigger the fishing industry in an area, the more local economies have been dented, and the more assistance is needed. I have found no evidence of that thinking in the figures that I have seen regarding the apportionment of the money, so I should be grateful for any help that my right hon. Friend can give me.

Mr. Cook

I understand my hon. Friend to be correct in saying that the matter now comes within the scope of the Department of Trade and Industry. He makes an interesting point about the way in which the compensation scheme is distributed among communities that have been involved in fishing, and I shall be happy to draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yet another case of foot and mouth disease has been confirmed in Vale of York today? Will he take this opportunity to impress on the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that this is not the most appropriate time to revoke the blanket closure of footpaths in north Yorkshire? Will he also investigate the failure of that Department's officials to respect the biosecurity rules that the Department set out? The experience in Vale of York is that farmers have been ruthless in applying those rules, but that the Department's officials have been less so.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to confirm that, in making her announcement today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirmed that she agreed with north Yorkshire's proposals temporarily to retain closures in parts of the county. Therefore, the immediate threat that the hon. Lady apprehends does not exist and north Yorkshire can continue with blanket closures for the time being. As I said earlier, it is a source of disappointment to Members on both sides of the House that the tail of this outbreak is proving so stubborn and that it is taking so long to achieve our aim of complete eradication. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked us to examine what further steps can be taken to achieve the goal of no further outbreaks of the disease.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 134?

[That this House congratulates Barry Town Football Club on their outstanding victory over FC Shamkir in the first leg of the Champions League; recognises the achievement of a two goal advantage for the second leg and only the second ever win in this competition for a League of Wales team; appreciates the contribution made by goalkeeper Tim Clarke in his debut match; and wishes the team all the best for the return match in Baku Azerbaijan, next week.]

It has been signed by Members on both sides of the House and me. Barry Town won the second leg of its champions league tie in Azerbaijan, against all the odds. It was a stunning victory. Although I appreciate that my right hon. Friend probably will not be able to find time for a full debate on this success, will he inform his right hon. Friends of this result, join me in congratulating these giant slayers and wish them all the best in the next round against Porto in Portugal?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating his local team, and I assure him that I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to this signal success of British sporting endeavour abroad. I will have to make a particular point of attending the debate on the Football (Disorder) (Amendment) Bill when we return, which plainly will be very interesting.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The Leader of the House has mentioned the importance of fighting the worldwide epidemic of HIV. He will be aware of the growing problem in this country, where new HIV cases last year totalled nearly 3,500—the highest-ever incidence of new HIV infection. The picture is similar with gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia among young people.

In spring 1998, the Government promised an HIV strategy for the autumn. In spring 1999, they promised a sexual health strategy for the year 2000. In spring 2000, they promised an integrated strategy for spring 2001, and a draft strategy for autumn 2000: nothing has appeared. Nearly six months ago, the Government said that a strategy would be published shortly, and people were expecting it to be published today. It has not been published.

The Leader of the House is a man of the world. Perhaps he can tell his more coy and bashful colleagues that they must stop behaving like giggling schoolboys and be prepared to tackle the sexual health problems affecting this country. The strategy must be published so that young people in this country can be protected from further infection.

Mr. Cook

Coy and bashful are not words that I would associate with any hon. Member of this House. I shall meet the Minister with responsibility for public health in an hour's time and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to her attention. This is a serious issue and there is no doubt that countries that have run vigorous public campaigns of information and warning have coped best with the epidemic.

On the forthcoming G8 meeting and the action being taken in Africa, we hope to confirm in Genoa that $1 billion will be available to combat the spread of AIDS and other diseases, such as tuberculosis, in the poorer parts of the world. It is important for those countries that we take that step, but it is also important for us, because until we tackle the worldwide epidemic there can be no insularity for ourselves.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

After references to Barry Town and Carlisle United, I am tempted to make a special plea for Greenock Morton, but perhaps not now.

On a serious note, does my right hon. Friend welcome the announcement from the Japanese Environment Minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, that her Government will sign the Kyoto agreement? Does that mean that the outstanding obstacle is now the attitude of the American Administration? May we have an early debate on this and the other aspects of the so-called special relationship that many of us fear are looking increasingly bad for our health?

Mr. Cook

I appreciate my hon. Friend's comments on Morton. I should take this opportunity, perhaps in sheer self-defence, to congratulate Livingston football club on its promotion to the premier division—it is long overdue.

On Kyoto, my hon. Friend raises a serious issue that will be at the heart of the discussions between President Bush and the Prime Minister today. We have given a commitment that, with our European colleagues, we will try to ensure that the Kyoto protocol comes into existence. To achieve that, we need the support of other countries such as Japan, and we are working to get that support in Bonn at present. I hope that we will be successful when that conference reconvenes again in November in Marrakesh. On the wider question, I have never taken the view, either as Leader of the House or Foreign Secretary, that the House is short of opportunities to explore and discuss the special relationship.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on channel tunnel safety? Is he aware of reports that the French authorities continue to arrest as many as 250 would-be illegal immigrants at Coquelles every night, that dozens are still getting through and that they often end up in my constituency? Those desperate people are resorting to desperate measures. There have been many serious injuries and, sadly, four fatalities. Will my right hon. Friend find time for us to debate such matters and to review channel tunnel security?

Mr. Cook

I am very much aware of the problem to which my hon. Friend rightly draws attention. It is, of course, of national and not only local concern, important though it is in his constituency. We have had dialogue with the French authorities on the problem, particularly at Calais. I am pleased to say that we are enjoying good co-operation from the French police. Together, I hope that we will be able to secure our goal, which is to ensure that immigrants who come here illegally are halted as soon as possible at the far end of the tunnel.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on cremation charges for very young children? Is he aware of the case of my constituents, Rose and Philip Jones, whose stillborn baby Lisa was disposed of in an incinerator? In the 1980s, the parents had been promised a proper cremation. As a result of that and many other cases, cremation is available for miscarried babies. According to press reports, however, charges may be introduced—for the first time in many cases—for the cremation of very young children. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should have a debate on ensuring that parents are not punished at their time of greatest grief?

Mr. Cook

I understand entirely the enormous distress caused to a family when a child is lost through miscarriage, and I fully appreciate the great need for emotional sensitivity when handling such a case. My understanding is that in Wales, as elsewhere, the family have the option of having the hospital deal with the foetus or of arranging privately for a cremation. Cremation charges are a devolved matter for the Welsh Assembly, and I am sure that the Minister responsible there will have heard my hon. Friend's comments. I understand the need to approach the matter in a different and more tactful way than one would in other circumstances.