HC Deb 28 June 2001 vol 370 cc779-96


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 2 July—Second Reading of the Homelessness Bill.

TUESDAY 3 July—Second Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 4 July—Second Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

THURSDAY 5 July—Motions relating to the Senior Salaries Review Board report and related issues.

Motion to amend the Standing Orders relating to Select Committees.

FRIDAY 6 July—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 9 July—Second Reading of the Export Control Bill.

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

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

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

THURSDAY 12 July—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition Motion; the subject to be announced.

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

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for July will be as follows.

THURSDAY 5 July—Debate on the role of the Department for Work and Pensions.

THURSDAY 12 July—Debate on the report from the Agriculture Committee on organic farming.

THURSDAY 19 July—Debate on youth justice.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, it will be proposed that the House rise for the summer recess at the end of business on Friday 20 July and return on Monday 15 October.

Mrs. Browning

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. Given the concern on both sides of the House about the current political situation in Northern Ireland, will he, as a matter of urgency, ask the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement to the House on Monday? We are all aware of the discussions that the Prime Minister is having today, and the issues that will come up in the next few days in relation to the future of the political situation in Northern Ireland are of great concern.

Will the Leader of the House also ask a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box next week to confirm, or at least dismiss, the reports that we have read with great alarm in the press this week about the imposition of VAT on residential care home charges? This matter affects all of us as constituency MPs, and clearly has an important read-across for the public sector finances in relation to social services departments. It will also be a matter of great concern to individuals who are either paying for their own residential care or planning and making provision to do so.

The Leader of the House will also be aware that, in the concluding debate on the Gracious Speech yesterday, the Home Secretary, in answer to some very probing questions from the Conservative Benches, confirmed the new calculation by which the Government record asylum applications and the numbers of those denied asylum here. This matter has never been debated on the Floor of the House or announced in the House. We would welcome an opportunity to hear why the formulae have been changed, and to hear how the calculations are now made.

In giving the business for the coming two weeks, for which I am grateful, the Leader of the House announced that Wednesday 11 July will be the first day of consideration in Committee on the Floor of the House of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has announced the possible date of the House rising for the summer recess, can he confirm exactly the number of days on which that Bill will be considered in Committee on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Cook

On the question of Northern Ireland, the whole House will understand the gravity of the circumstances and, whatever our party, we all hope that the Prime Minister, on his visit today, is able to make progress with those who are party to the disagreement over the Good Friday agreement. I can assure hon. Members that the House will be kept fully aware and informed of the developments.

At this stage, it would not be helpful to any of us to commit ourselves to making a statement on Monday, but I assure the hon. Lady that the Government are fully seized not only of the gravity of the situation, but of the importance of keeping the House fully informed, in the hope that we can best preserve a cross-party approach

As regards VAT on care home costs, the hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the decision of a VAT tribunal in an individual case. The Government's position is clear we do not believe that vulnerable people provided with care in residential homes should have to face VAT or be subject to it. There will be an appeal against the judgment. Whatever the outcome, we shall ensure that those in residential homes do not have to face increased costs as a result of the ruling.

On the asylum statistics, I am assured that there has been no change in the practice, but if the hon. Lady is in some confusion as to what is the practice or when it was introduced, we shall take every possible care to disabuse her and make it plain that there has been no change under this Administration in the basis on which such figures are counted.

Lastly, the House will of course have a full opportunity to debate the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, and we shall ensure that a motion to that effect is before the House when it considers Second Reading next week.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend knows that setting up the Select Committees is tremendously important, and we welcome the arrival on the Vote of the suggestion that we should take forward that essential part of our work as quickly as possible. May I have his assurance that Her Majesty's Government intend to get the Select Committees up and running before the break, so that they may not only decide on the subjects that they want to consider, but be able to gather information when the House resumes in the autumn?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her comments, and I hope that I commit no indiscretion by saying that I consulted her and some of her colleagues in considering what proposal we should table on the Standing Orders. That motion is on today's Order Paper and, apart from the modest question of the size of a Select Committee, they will find that the recommendations that they put to us are faithfully reflected there.

I take it that my hon. Friend was expressing the view that the Select Committees should be up and running before the recess. As I told the House last Thursday, that is my intention and the Government's wish. We want to get them up and running and we intend to try to achieve that by the week commencing 16 July. If we succeed, that will be the shortest time in any Parliament in which Select Committees have been set up. I stress again that that is a tight timetable that requires two separate motions and debates in the House, so I shall require co-operation from all parts of the House if we are to meet it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I press the Leader of the House a little further? He said last night and again today that he will use his best endeavours, but can he give us a guarantee that he has had the assurance of full co-operation from the Conservative party? He will recall that, after the 1997 election, when there was another hiatus on the Conservative Front Bench, there was a long delay before the House was able to return to its normal practice of scrutinising the work of Departments and, indeed, other matters of Government concern. That represented a considerable problem in respect of Parliament carrying out its business.

In particular, does the Leader of the House have an assurance that the Standards and Privileges Committee will be set up in that time scale? There is important unfinished business, as he is only too well aware. I draw his attention to the fact, of which I am sure he is aware, that Standing Orders provide that, while the domestic and departmental Select Committees require nomination from the Committee of Selection, any Member or any group of Members can nominate for other, important Select Committees, such as the Standards and Privileges Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. If Front Benchers cannot agree by 16 July—that was the assurance that the right hon. Gentleman gave us—perhaps other Members will take matters into their own hands. That, I hasten to say, is not a threat; it is just a promise.

Mr. Cook

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about its being not a threat but a promise. I am sure, however, that what he said has been heard on both sides of the House.

It is not for me to speak for the official Opposition, nor would I seek to do so; but I do not think I am misrepresenting the position if I say that they have been fully co-operative in trying to ensure that we make reasonable progress with the setting up of Select Committees. I hope that, in offering that support and making businesslike progress, they are carrying with them all Members, not just Front Benchers.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)


Mr. Cook

I am assured that they are, so we can now relax a little.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked about the Standards and Privileges Committee. It is, of course, a very important Committee. I think it would be rather odd if we sought to set up Select Committees that did not include one dealing with standards and privileges, and I hope we shall be able to include it in the overall package.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Are we being softened up for the non-renewal of the contract of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? What is wrong with her being zealous in the performance of her duties?

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, in past Parliaments, we campaigned—before and during the "sleaze" allegations—for far tighter controls over matters relating to finance and Members of Parliament? The steps that were taken were very important. For heaven's sake, are we really going back to those former days? The Parliamentary Commissioner has performed her duties correctly. Why on earth should her contract not be renewed?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do require a zealous Commissioner, and we will ensure that the House is served by a zealous Commissioner. As my hon. Friend says, the present Commissioner has been extremely zealous in performing her duties.

I deprecate the speculation that I have seen in the press about the future of Ms Filkin. I do not consider it in any way helpful to Ms Filkin or to her authority; nor does it serve any of the interests of the House. For the record, the House of Commons Commission has not even met in the current Parliament, far less reached any view on what it may or may not to do when that contract becomes open for renewal—next year, not this year. I urge all Members not to rise to the bait that the media offer them to speculate.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman see whether it is possible to organize a debate on the genuinely serious position of some of my elderly constituents who find themselves bed-blocked in hospitals? In the Princess Royal hospital in mid-Sussex, 20 per cent, of beds are blocked at any one time. People are having to spend nights and days on trolleys in the accident and emergency unit before they can get into a ward. All that is because the Government have redistributed—in effect, stolen—£15 million of social services money in order to distribute it to other parts of the United Kingdom, leaving West Sussex very short.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for bate on a matter that affects Members on a much wider scale than that of my constituency? Bed-blocking is a real problem, and is causing great hardship.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman can express his views in many quarters about the standard spending assessment, which is basically what he is complaining about, but these have never been easy judgments under any Government. It is not easy to provide an outcome that is fair to all local authorities—authorities of differing character, and with differing requirements. I shall, however, happily draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of the Department of Health and encourage it to respond.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am sure my right hon. Friend knows how pleased many Members are that the Queen's Speech includes reference to a Bill to promote women's representation in politics.[Interruption.] How soon could such a Bill be introduced? Given that elections to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are due to take place in 2003, selections for candidates are likely to start over the next 12 months, It would be helpful for all political parties if the legislation were in place by then.

Mr. Cook

I see that the Bill will be opposed, so that will be a factor in the decision of the business managers as to when we introduce it. I am fully aware of the urgency of the issue, and as a Scottish Member I understand my hon. Friend's point about the desirability of getting this measure in place in good time for the elections in 2003. That is why we included a reference to it in the first Queen's Speech of this Parliament, and we shall try to make diligent progress with it—in so far as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will allow us.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware of the fact that the last full debate in Government time in this Chamber on their national drugs strategy took place on 2 July 1999. Bearing in mind the recent changes introduced by the Government, whereby responsibilities have been transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Home Office, and the United Kingdom anti-drugs co-ordinator is no more, retaining only an international remit, does the right hon. Gentleman feel that a debate in this Chamber on the national drugs strategy, with all its implications, is long overdue?

Mr. Cook

The House has just completed the debates on the Queen's Speech, during which a full day was available to discuss home affairs and there was also a full day on health issues. The Secretaries of State of those Departments took part in those debates. The issue that the hon. Lady raises will continue to be a serious and grave problem throughout this Parliament. During yesterday's debate, a number of hon. Members drew attention with force and vigour to the severity of the problem, and I assure the hon. Lady that she will have a number of occasions during this Parliament to ventilate her concerns.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

In warmly welcoming my right hon. Friend to his new post, may I add my voice to those calling for the speedy setting up of Select Committees? Does he agree with me that he and the House have a unique opportunity to make an historic advance in parliamentary democracy by strengthening Select Committees? Will he give us an early opportunity to debate the Liaison Committee's and the Hansard Society's reports on strengthening Select Committees?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support of our progress in setting up the Select Committees. Members from all parties have urged on me that the important, urgent priority is to get the Committees set up, but other questions need to be addressed. That is why I stressed last Thursday that the Modernisation Committee is among those that I want set up at an early date.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Oh no!

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman can be relied on to resist anything that smacks of the modern era, and to take our processes back to something more akin to the Gillray cartoon era, from which he comes. Most of the House want such a Committee to be set up and to examine some of the issues that my right hon. Friend raises. I shall be speaking at the Hansard Society conference in two weeks' time.

Mr. Forth

So will I.

Mr. Cook

Indeed, I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman will be speaking at the conference, and I look forward with great interest to seeing which of its recommendations he welcomes.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Does the Leader of the House acknowledge that there will need to be an early motion to create the Committee of Selection if his timetable for the creation of departmental Select Committees is to be met? Will he confirm that if there is any delay or exception taken in the early stages of the creation of the Committee of Selection, that could prejudice his timetable?

Will the Leader also say a word about the business motion that he has helpfully tabled for 5 July? Is it tight enough to ensure that if the motion were amended—for instance, some of us would like the number currently suggested for the Education and Skills Committee to be increased from 11 to 17—there would be no danger of the outcome of any such motion prejudicing the timetable for the creation of the other departmental Select Committees?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is right to outline again the pitfalls that lie along the way in order to secure the tight timetable that is necessarily set by the date of the rising of the House. I hope that all hon. Members will take his point on board.

On the business motion for next Thursday, I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that those who wish to table amendments to the current motion on Standing Orders will have an opportunity to do so, and if they are selected, to have them voted on.

The motion that I drafted and placed on the Order Paper fully reflects consultations with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Liaison Committee. I hope that, in the spirit of making good progress, what we have tabled will find consensus in many quarters of the House.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will my right hon. Friend indicate when the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs will meet? Does he accept that there is growing unrest about regional disparities and growing concern about the lack of accountability for regional quangos? Will he accept that there is unease about responsibility for the regions being spread across at least three Departments, and that that means that it is essential for the Committee, for which so many hon. Members fought so hard, to be reconvened at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to an important policy dimension. The Government have placed particular importance on regional policy and that is why we want to ensure that our decisions are properly scrutinised. I cannot give a date for when the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs will meet. I understand that it met only once in the previous Session. I hope that it can meet early enough in this Session to guarantee that it can meet again this Session.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new position. Will he use this opportunity to break with the practice that has been established over the past four years—of Ministers not answering the questions put to them? I should like to pray in aid an answer given to a question that I tabled to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to which I received a reply from the Financial Secretary on a much narrower point.

My question was on the representations that the Chancellor had received on the taxation of company cars and the assessment he had made of the impact of that taxation on company car use. I wonder whether the Leader of the House will agree to an early debate on the issue, because I have received many representations from employees who are lamenting the fact that they will lose the tax advantage. Regrettably, the reply I received was on the narrow point of the new CO2 emissions-based company car tax, which was not what the question I tabled was about. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that we will have a debate on the issue and that the Government will answer the questions put to them, oral and written?

Mr. Cook

I have to confess that I am not familiar with the question and answer to which the hon. Lady referred. There are remedies for her to pursue if she feels that her initial question was not answered properly. The House has many opportunities to debate tax matters. The hon. Lady may wish to lobby her party, as she will be aware that, during the business statement, I announced a day on which the Opposition can choose the issues they wish to raise.

Andrew Mackinlay

The Leader of the House has announced what is, in effect, a three-month closure of Parliament. I realise that in his early weeks as Leader of the House he cannot alter what has, unhappily, become a pattern over so many years. Will he look ahead to next year and discuss through the usual channels and with the Modernisation Committee the possibility of having a more even distribution of the parliamentary calendar, so that scrutiny and accountability can go on in this place even if the Government do not want to consider legislation? We should sit not just when we are considering Bills, but to provide scrutiny. Over the summer, will he consider an innovation and ask Ministers, with the support of the Prime Minister, to produce a report, on our return, on the activities of Departments over the closure so that the stewardship of those Departments over the summer months can be the first business to be considered by Select Committees?

Mr. Cook

It is for the Select Committees to decide what business they wish to pursue. I am sure that my hon. Friend will pursue his suggestion with whatever Select Committee he chooses to serve on. For the record, the recess that has been announced is 86 days long, which is almost the average for the past eight or nine years—it has varied between 81 and 87 days. In the first Session after the 1992 election, which Conservative Members will remember was the last election they won, the recess was 94 days long.

I agree that it would make sense for us to have a rolling programme of legislation. It is one of the issues that I want to see addressed early in the Modernisation Committee, and I hope that we can get a smoother process than the sudden fits and starts with which we conduct our business at present within a 12-month period.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I warmly welcome what appears to be the co-operation in all parts of the House over the re-establishment of Select Committees. The sooner they are set up, the better for the House and its role in monitoring the Executive and holding the Government of the day to account.

However, I point out to the Leader of the House in a friendly fashion, following the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), that he failed to respond to the question by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), a past Labour Chief Whip, who asked whether the Leader of the House would find time in the near future for a debate on the Liaison Committee's report, "Shifting the Balance Unfinished Business". The right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland did not ask about the Modernisation Committee; he asked about the Liaison Committee. Does the Leader of the House not accept that that Liaison Committee report is very important, and may even go well beyond anything that the Modernisation Committee might do in due course?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm welcome for the speed with which we intend to proceed with setting up the Select Committees. On the Liaison Committee's report, which I have read with interest, he will be aware that when we met—I; hope that I do not cause him embarrassment by saying that I have consulted him—I said that I would want to take a fresh look at some of these issues in the autumn. I would like to do so with his advice and consultation, and with that of anyone who serves on the Modernisation Committee with us. At an appropriate time, we can examine these matters on the Floor.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Does my right hon. Friend agree, further to the answer that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), that now is the time to look at the date for the start of the summer recess in 2002? Does he agree that one recommendation of the Modernisation Committee relating to the carry-over of Bills would help him in that; and that the electors of this country have just elected a Parliament for a parliamentary term, not for a year-on-year dogfight that finishes each October?

Mr. Cook

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the Government have been elected for a full parliamentary term, and with every intention of serving their full parliamentary term. I was therefore disappointed by comments suggesting that matters that were not in the Queen's Speech were not going to happen. The Queen's Speech is for one year; this Government are here for a full parliamentary term.

Much as I would want to help my hon. Friend, I believe that I would be in difficulty in being tempted into announcing now the date of the summer recess in 2002. I would hope to get just a little more satisfaction in the House for having announced the date for 2001.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Following the Government's announcement that they are embarking on a major review of energy futures, including a possible enhanced role for nuclear power, will the relevant Minister make a statement to the House on the terms of reference of that major review, so that we can be reassured that there will be a genuine level playing field, given the very powerful vested interests in that field?

Mr. Cook

It is very important that any examination of that subject should cover all the issues, and that all the various vested interests should be properly assessed. However, I would not really encourage the House to seek a statement on a review when it has just been announced. It seems to me much more logical that any statement should come towards the end of the review rather than at the start.

As I have repeatedly emphasised to the House, I have encouraged the setting up of the Select Committees as soon as possible. I would imagine that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry night well wish to consider the energy review as one of its urgent items of business.

Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

It is now a year since the unfortunate outbreak of anti-paedophile riots in my constituency. It is also three weeks since the longstanding leader of Hampshire county council was convicted of being a paedophile; we also have a city councillor held on far more serious charges, on the same basis. May we hold a debate on that issue, to ensure that checks are far more stringent and that anyone involved in this evil is precluded from public office?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an important issue and one that must be of grave concern to his constituents and the local media. I fully understand why he has taken this opportunity to raise it on the Floor of the House. I encourage him to explore the avenues that are open to him to ensure that he can deal with the matter in greater detail, perhaps in an Adjournment debate or in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Forth

May we please have an urgent debate entitled, 'The Great Census Cock-up"? Is it not time that we had a thorough explanation of why a procedure that has taken place efficiently for hundreds of years cannot be conducted by this Government? Is it a conspiracy, or is it just sheer grotesque inefficiency that we are no longer able efficiently and accurately to count the number of people in this country?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the census is still being examined—[HON. MEMBERS: "The right hon. Gentleman."] I am sorry if I demoted the right hon. Gentleman and will take great care not to do it again. He is well aware that the results of the census are being collated and will be available, as they usually are, in the fullness of time. In the meantime, if he wishes to pursue the matter he has a remedy through both oral and written questions and I suggest he takes it up that way.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Did my right hon. Friend see the story in yesterday's edition of the Financial Times, under the headline Blair and Kennedy to press on with Lib-Lab alliance"? The years have mellowed me and I am much more relaxed about these things than I used to be, but will my right hon. Friend be innovative and forward looking and perhaps arrange for regular reports to the House on the nature of the discussions that take place between the Prime Minister and the so-called Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's closing line was perhaps his most provocative and plainly demonstrated that he has not in any way mellowed with his years in the House. He calls for regular reporting. From my recollection of the previous Parliament that issue was not underventilated or underdebated in the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister looks forward with confidence to being asked about the issue frequently and to exploring it in this Parliament as much as in the last. I would tell my hon. Friend one thing: whatever may pass between the Cabinet and Front-Bench Liberal Democrat Members, it has broadly been my experience that one does not have to wait long to hear it fully reported—often in even greater detail than I remember from the meetings I attended.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Would the Leader of the House look again into the request for a debate on asylum seeker statistics, bearing in mind the fact that the decision to regard a family of six as one unit on arrival and as six on departure is not only a change of policy but a statistical fiddle and the sort of practice that one would not expect from a decent democratic Government?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that a full statement is made to the House—I imagine it would be a written statement setting out the basis for the figures. Let us be clear that in the past year the Government made much rapid progress to ensure that decisions are taken more quickly and that those asylum seekers who are turned down are removed more quickly. If the hon. Gentleman had attended the Chamber yesterday, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary express his commitment to remove 2,500 per month within the near future. At the same time, we are ensuring that genuine asylum seekers get their decision more quickly and have the doubt about their position removed. We have achieved faster decisions, quicker removal and quicker acceptance of genuine asylum seekers than was achieved by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. I urge him to welcome that fact rather than to continue to complain about the figures.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May we have a debate on the vexed question of mixed-sex wards? The Oldchurch and Harold Wood hospitals in the borough that I represent—they are not in my constituency, but they are used by my constituents—still have such wards, which is causing much offence and upset, despite the policy pursued by the Department of Health and the promises that the trust made to me.

On another matter, the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill was the first intended extension of the business vote since 1832 and it was promoted by a right hon. Gentleman who has since retired. It was supported by the Tories in their droves and was brilliantly sabotaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will never see that Bill again?

Mr. Cook

If I may, I shall respond first to the very serious issue that my hon. Friend raises about mixed-sex wards. As he is aware, the Government's policy is that mixed-sex wards should be eliminated by 2002, and the last report showed that we are 93 per cent, on target to achieve that. I entirely accept that that is cold comfort to those hospitals that my hon. Friend mentioned which have been unable to achieve that progress.

I understand that the difficulty at Oldchurch hospital is that refurbishing the wards to provide single-sex accommodation is regarded as inappropriate pending the very large development that is about to take place. I am informed that the hospital's managers are considering other management practices to secure that objective, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to press them to deliver on our commitment.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On reflection, does the Leader of the House consider that his response to the perfectly sensible request of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in relation to Northern Ireland was adequate? Was it adequate merely to say that he would keep the House aware of developments in the Province? Is he not profoundly concerned by the turn of events there? Is it not the case that the community has been polarised and that there is the potential for a breakdown in democratic institutions, caused by the failure of Her Majesty's Government's policy, especially on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons? Can we have a full day's debate on that grave subject, which is of concern to the whole kingdom?

Mr. Cook

In fairness to myself, I must say that I expressed my concern at the gravity of the situation, and I do not think any hon. Member on either side of the House fairly listening to what I said would accuse me of not recognising that gravity or the deep concern felt on both sides of the House. I said at the time that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is, at this very moment, in Northern Ireland engaged in discussions on such matters. It would not be right for the House to jeopardise my right hon. Friend's efforts by anticipating the outcome, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that in the event of the negative outcome that he anticipates, the House will have many opportunities to examine the issues.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Keetch Cottage children's hospice, on the edge of Luton, has recently discovered that it has a £1 million deficit, thus jeopardising the palliative care for children in Luton and the surrounding area? I am sure that he will want to join me in offering thanks both to all those in the hospice movement who do so much for the care of our children in very difficult circumstances and to the community, which contributes the vast majority of resources to keep local hospices going, but will he please agree to hold an early debate on Government funding for hospices? That is necessary, given that hospices are saving the national health service considerable amounts of money and that they are so vital to patient care and medical services.

Mr. Cook

I fully appreciate the enormous value of the hospice movement, which provides particular support not just to the patients for whom it cares, but to all the relatives of those patients at a time of difficult crisis. That is why a commitment to the hospice movement was very strong in the NHS plan that the Government set out two months ago. I am very sorry to hear of the situation that my hon. Friend describes. I assure her that the Government and, I believe, all hon. Members support the work of those in hospices, and I ask her to convey our support to the staff of the hospice that she mentions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement next week from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office about the code of ministerial conduct and, in particular, about which of its provisions allows for the sacking of a competent junior Home Office Minister simply because he insisted on telling the truth about a telephone call from one of the Prime Minister's Cabinet cronies?

Mr. Cook

It would be inappropriate for me to enter into a commentary on why particular decisions were made during the last reshuffle; otherwise, I might detain the House much longer than it would have anticipated. My hon. Friend, to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, did an excellent job at the Home Office. Indeed, that was reflected in many of the statements that were made yesterday, and it is for my hon. Friend to add to that if he wishes, but he made a speech of great dignity and utility in yesterday's debate on home affairs. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is wide of the mark.

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

I, too, warmly welcome what the Leader of the House has had to say about establishing the Select Committees before we rise. I infer that he accepts that both sides of the House want to return to the Liaison Committee report. The House accepts that, in the interests of speed, the Select Committees will be established on the existing basis, and will remain dominated by the Government through the Whips Office. Does my right hon. Friend accept that Select Committees are parliamentary Committees, not Committees of the Government, so it is wholly illogical that their membership should be determined by the Government, by whatever means? It is wrong for anyone to appoint their own scrutineers. Does he accept that case in principle?

Mr. Cook

The process by which Labour Members will be chosen to serve on the Select Committees is set out in the rules of the parliamentary Labour party. Decisions will be taken by the PLP, not the Chief Whip. If my hon. Friend wishes to serve on one of the Select Committees that we have nominated on the Order Paper today, he will receive an invitation in the Whip this Thursday. That democratic process through the PLP is to be commended, and I hope that all parties in the House will follow a similar democratic process.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Leader of the House may have heard the news this morning of yet another major Government computerisation project running into serious problems, this time affecting the courts service and the criminal justice system. Given that such difficulties are clearly a cross-departmental problem affecting the whole of government, will the Leader of the House look for an early opportunity for his colleagues from the newly beefed-up Cabinet Office to come to the House to debate the Government's information technology strategy?

Mr. Cook

I cannot say that I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman draws my attention, but I shall report it to my right hon. and learned Friend and he may respond to him.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I welcome the Government's announcement today about family-friendly and flexible employment policies. Concern has been expressed, however, about the way in which employment agencies treat their workers, those workers employment rights and their access to employment tribunals, especially in relation to proposed changes to the award of costs. Does my right hon. Friend intend to make any time available to discuss employment relations policies in the near future?

Mr. Cook

I cannot hold out the prospect of any immediate debate on that issue, but it is one of great importance and my hon. Friend is right to raise it. I hope that the House and its Committees will find opportunities to look into it. There will be regular opportunities to examine the responsible Ministers.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his well-deserved and long overdue advancement within the ranks of the Government. Can we please have an early debate or a statement on the provision of beta interferon for the treatment of multiple sclerosis? Given the evidence that the drug is likely to be effective only if used early in the course of the disease, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that hundreds of people risk permanent disablement if they are denied access to the drug during the extended National Institute for Clinical Excellence appraisal, especially as that appraisal has been the subject of an enormous amount of cogitation over two years. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the very least that sufferers and their representatives are entitled to expect from the Government is a comprehensive statement or debate on the matter before we rise for the summer recess?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the issue has been aired repeatedly in the House and in the press. He is a knowledgeable Member who does his research well, and he will be aware that the central problem is that NICE, which was set up to advise us on the use of drugs, has not advised the use of this drug in the NHS. Nevertheless, I shall happily convey to my colleagues in the Department of Health the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter again so that they can bear that in mind in their future considerations.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on safety at sea following the damning report published this morning by the chief inspector of marine accidents? It links the astonishing decline in safety standards at sea with what it describes as the lengths that some shippers will go to make a profit. It goes on to say that of the 1,453 accidents reported in United Kingdom waters last year, just 3 per cent, were investigated. Will my right hon. Friend find time to discuss that urgent problem?

Mr. Cook

I heard about the report this morning and understand my hon. Friend's concern. Transparent reporting and full investigation of what goes wrong is vital to the confidence of those who use our merchant navy and to ensuring that such events are not repeated. I shall happily draw his comments to the attention of the relevant Minister and perhaps also to that of the Deputy Prime Minister who, as my hon. Friend knows, takes a close interest in such matters.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I warmly welcome what the Leader of the House said about VAT on care homes, but does he recognise the accelerating crisis in long-term care? That was demonstrated by the closure of yet another home in my constituency last week, which distressed residents of the home and their relatives. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to debate the Government's strategy for long-term care, in particular how they propose to ensure that local social services departments have the cash available to house people properly when they most need it?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming my response to the tribunal ruling on VAT. He is right: the provision of long-term care is a worry to an increasing number of our constituents, and that problem will continue because of demographic changes. That is why we made the commitment that long-term care will be an important priority for the national health service plan that we are developing and why we have secured the basis on which free nursing care will be provided from October for those who require it in the long term. I will be surprised if this Session proceeds much further without a suitable opportunity for us to examine such matters. Health legislation is proposed in the Queen's Speech and we will introduce that as soon as possible.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

My right hon. Friend will be as appalled as everyone else about the rioting in recent months in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham and the specific ways in which the National Front and the British National party have targeted areas to foment racial divides that split and devastate communities. Will he arrange for the House to debate the conditions of squalor and poverty and the shroud of hopelessness and despair that affect those communities and scar the urban landscape across Britain? They form the fundamental challenge that the House has to address if it is to confront the poisonous politics of the far right. Will my right hon. Friend give us the opportunity to set out specific ways in which we intend to do that and to build the unified, cohesive, inclusive and multiracial communities in which I hope most of us want to live?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's concern, which is fully shared by those on the Front Bench. Indeed, in yesterday's debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in strong terms to the recent riots. There was also an exchange in the House when my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) asked a private notice question. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that the only people who gain from violence and destruction are extremists such as those in the BNP, who want to turn racism to their own poisonous political objectives. It is important that we defeat them. I agree that to do that, we must address not only the racism that was demonstrated in the riots, but the social conditions that breed tension.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Will my right hon. Friend hold a debate in Government time on the need to bring the working practices and hours of the House into this century? Hon. Members on both sides of the House raised that in the debate on the Gracious Speech and it was mentioned again today. Why is it necessary for hon. Members to take 20 minutes going to the Table Office with a question for a Minister when an e-mail takes two minutes? Why do we not start Tuesday's and Wednesday's important work in the House until 2.30 pm? There are big issues to address. I know about today's debate, but I am concerned that we will not be able to represent our constituents and to scrutinise legislation properly if we continue at this pace and do not have a wider debate on the subject. We will need to hit a few more centuries before we make progress.

Mr. Cook

I must confess that I do not think that I have too many more centuries left in me.

Mr. Bercow

More, more.

Mr. Cook

I am deeply encouraged by the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure that I can rise to that challenge.

I would like more rapid progress than my hon. Friend suggests might be made, and her comments are relevant to the debate that we are about to commence. I agree entirely that there are many ways in which we can make our House more efficient and ensure that we use the latest methods of communication in order that we are able to use our time effectively in the task of scrutinising legislation.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 44?

[That this House notes that Railtrack purchased their business apparently without a full understanding of their assets and liabilities; notes that railway bridges all over the country are now being closed or having their use restricted as a result; notes that some closures are putting lives at risk, such as that at Green Lane, Bolton, which lies on a main access route to the Royal Bolton Hospital and is expected to be closed for up to three years; requests Railtrack to repair those affected bridges which are causing the most disruption as a matter of urgency; and asks Her Majesty's Government to assess the scale of the problem and enter into a dialogue with Railtrack in order to persuade them to deal with this emerging situation.]

All over the country, local authorities have been given the duty to inspect Railtrack's railway bridges, and they are closing them or severely restricting their use. Of several examples in my constituency, the worst is Green lane railway bridge, which has been closed for up to three years. That bridge lies on a main access route to the Royal Bolton hospital. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that the situation is intolerable.

My constituents have of course noticed that Railtrack continues to pay dividends to its shareholders and, more recently, paid £1.3 million to its ex-chief executive. May we please have statement from the Minister for Transport on whether he believes that Railtrack can meet all its financial liabilities in the near future?

Mr. Cook

I am aware of the early-day motion that my hon. Friend has tabled. He raises an issue that must be of great concern to travellers in his constituency and he has highlighted a matter of considerable concern among the wider public: payments to the former chief executive of Railtrack and the question that that raises about the company's relative priorities. I will draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and ensure that it responds to his local concerns.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position as Leader of the House? I assure him that there are many on the Labour Benches who welcome his wholehearted commitment to modernising the arcane proceedings of this place.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend to consider finding time for a matter that should be debated and be of concern to all democratically elected politicians: the appallingly low turnout at the recent general election? I respectfully suggest to him that reform of our democratic processes is an essential precondition to reconnecting with the swathes of disengaged young voters.

Mr. Cook

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point about the importance of modernisation and welcome the support that he expresses for it. I am not sure that I necessarily see it as the main response to the question of voter participation in our democracy. The electorate will judge us by the extent to which we deliver on the programme that we set out at the election. If we do that, we can convince the public that democracy works and that the policies for which they voted are those that we implemented. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that when our electors look at how we behave, the hours that we sit and the absence of fast, efficient electronic communications, they sometimes wonder whether we are living in the same century as them.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I raised with my right hon. Friend's predecessor the delay in the publication of the report of the review of support for student nurses. Obviously, that was some months ago. Given the need for many more student nurses in our hospitals, I urge my right hon. Friend, following discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, to publish that report at the earliest possible time.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a point that follows on neatly from a previous question. We have committed ourselves to an increase in the number of nurses over and above the increase achieved during the previous Parliament. My hon. Friend raises an important part of the process to ensure that we are able to provide nurses to match the substantial expansion in the number of beds in our 10-year plan. I shall make sure that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health responds to my hon. Friend's question.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

May we have an early debate on the social value and economic prospects of independent retailers and community shopping parades? Many hon. Members will be aware of the continuous erosion of those community facilities, not least, in recent times, community pharmacies which are being forced to close by the drop in drugs prices. Will urgent consideration be given to council tax concessions for some of those groups, so that we do not end up with the retail deserts created when large retailers such as Tesco withdraw to make ever higher profits and leave various groups in our communities who lack proper transport without adequate retail facilities?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an issue that must be familiar to any hon. Member who represents a constituency containing small towns from which such facilities are disappearing, and I share the deep frustration of Members who represent those towns and their residents when they find that their local pharmacy has disappeared and there is no readily available alternative. We have to be realistic: the secular change in shopping trends is one in which the public have fully participated because they find it attractive in many ways. It is important that local authorities and the supermarkets work together to preserve shops in villages and small towns where they can, and, where they cannot do so, to make sure that there is readily available, free transport to the supermarket

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)


Mr. Speaker

Order. Members must be in the Chamber for the Leader of the House's statement if they want to ask a question, so I cannot call the hon. Gentleman.

John McDonnell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise, but I got stuck in traffic on the way here.

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry to hear that.

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