HC Deb 08 November 2001 vol 374 cc366-78 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 12 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Animal Health Bill.

TUESDAY 13 NOVEMBER—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 o'clock there will be a debate on an Opposition motion entitled "The Discrepancies in the Accounts of the Secretary of State's Handling of the Decisions Relating to Railtrack". [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not imagine that that comes as a surprise to the Opposition. The debate will be followed by a debate entitled "The Failure of the Government's Stakeholder Pension Scheme".

WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER—Remaining stages of the Sexual Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Football Disorder [Amendment] Bill.

THURSDAY 15 NOVEMBER—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill.

Motion to update the House Sub Judice Rule.

Motion relating to the Quorum of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 4 o'clock.

FRIDAY 16 NOVEMBER—A debate on public bodies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows MONDAY 19 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

Motion to approve the Human Rights Act 1998 (Designated Derogation) Order 2001.

TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill.

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 23 NOVEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to be advised that the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill Committee and remaining stages are expected to conclude at midnight on Monday 26 November. We will table a motion next week to allow amendments to be tabled before Second Reading.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the details of the business. We are also grateful that the Chancellor has finally let us know that his pre-Budget statement will be made on 27 November. I am sure that that was due to inexorable pressure from the Leader of the House.

Given the universal raspberry that the right hon. Gentleman's announcement yesterday about so-called House of Lords reform seems to have elicited, may we have an early debate on the matter so that we can be quite clear about what, in particular, Government Back Benchers think about the White Paper announced to us yesterday? That might help to inform the consultation that will conclude at the end of January.

As the Leader of the House will recall, the Prime Minister once said that his Government would be "purer than pure". Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he thought that the Prime Minister had financial matters on his mind when he said that, or was he referring to integrity and truthfulness? That would help to inform next Tuesday's debate, and give us something to think about over the weekend.

There has recently been an increasing and regrettable use of holding answers by Ministers. I think all Members—including, I suspect, many Labour Members—have found more and more of late that Ministers will not give a straightforward answer even to a straightforward parliamentary question. Will the Leader of the House look into the fact that there is some evidence that answers are leaked to the press before even being given to the House, and report back to us as soon as possible? That rather arrogant attitude is all too typical of the Government. A holding answer is given, and a reply is then sneaked out to the public in one form or another long before a substantive answer is given to the Member of Parliament concerned. I hope that that will be investigated and reported on as a matter of urgency.

Finally, can the Leader of the House confirm that on Monday 19 November the motion to approve the Human Rights Act 1998 (Designated Derogation) Order 2001 may well be subject to the ghastly and unparliamentary deferred Division procedure? It is utterly unacceptable that such an important and substantive measure should be dealt with in that way. Surely even the Leader of the House would acknowledge, even were he to argue that lesser matters such as statutory instruments should be subject to the procedure—I do not accept that for a minute, but Labour Members have produced such arguments—that an issue of substance and importance such as derogations from the Human Rights Act cannot be subjected to an arrangement whereby a debate can take place on one occasion, followed by a vote several days later.

Mr. Cook

Before I respond to the right hon. Gentleman's questions, it may be convenient to the House if I announce business in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.] If the House does not want to hear it, I have no wish to detain the House; but my announcement may be convenient to those who take part in the debates.

THURSDAY 22 NOVEMBER—Debate on social inclusion and sport.

THURSDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Debate on the report from the Public Administration Committee entitled "Public Participation: Issues and Innovations".

THURSDAY 6 DECEMBER—Debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on Government policy towards the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia following the fall of Milosevic.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, we have now announced that the pre-Budget report will be presented to the House on 27 November. That is broadly in line with the experience of recent years. [Interruption.] I must tell the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) that that happens to be true. The statement is normally presented in late November. [Interruption.] The Opposition have been asking for the date of the statement for the past three weeks, and now they have it. I appreciate their gratitude; we shall try to make them happy on future occasions.

I can, in fact, make the right hon. Gentleman happy in responding to another of his questions: there will definitely be a debate on the White Paper on reform of the House of Lords, and I expect such a debate to be held in the other place as well. This is a period of consultation, we want wide consultation, and we certainly want to hear the views of Members on both sides of the House. I hope that by the date that we announce the debate, it will have been possible for the Opposition to reach a conclusion on their own plans for reform of the House of Lords.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned next week's Opposition day. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has repeatedly answered the questions put to him, and he will be happy to come to the House next week and answer them all over again. I should warn the Opposition, however, that there will be a question for them as well. Over the past few days, they have adopted a pose of actually believing that the shareholders' demand for £3.60 a share should be met, although they have been careful not to say precisely that because they know perfectly well that it would cost £1 billion of taxpayers' money—money that Labour believes should be spent on passenger safety rather than shareholders.

On Tuesday, we shall want to know whether the Opposition are willing to put public money into that demand. If they cannot confirm that that is the case, I wish they would stop pretending and expressing crocodile sympathy for the shareholders.

On leaks of replies, two weeks ago the right hon. Gentleman chided me about Ministers going on the "Today" programme before making a statement to the House. I have checked the record. I am pleased to say that no Minister since the last general election—no Minister during this Parliament—has gone on the "Today" programme before making a statement, other than in cases such as Northern Ireland and international terrorism where the subject was very much a matter of public debate anyway. However, two leading members of the Opposition have gone on the "Today" programme to say what they thought about a statement that they had not heard. Perhaps he will draw to his colleagues' attention the same message that I have given, which is that views should be first announced in the House rather than on the "Today" programme.

The right hon. Gentleman has always resisted the deferred Division; he has never liked it. I do not object to him opposing it on this occasion, but I remind him that deferred Divisions have produced much bigger results—a much larger number of votes. If he regards the order as an important measure, it is surely one on which he would welcome the larger vote that we will get on a deferred Division.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

I draw to the Leader of the House's attention the campaign by the Central Manchester primary care trust to persuade vulnerable groups, particularly the elderly and those with conditions such as respiratory illnesses, of the need to have flu vaccinations. I hope that he will tell the House that the Government are fully behind that campaign because it is good for the individual, saves lives and prevents beds from being blocked at the worst time of the winter.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the local hospital on its campaign. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department of Health and the Government want to ensure that we have as much success as possible in making protection available to elderly people against influenza.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May we have an urgent statement from the Government on the implications of the resignation of the First Minister of the Scottish Administration? The Leader of the House will be aware that the matter that appears to have caused the resignation relates to the First Minister's membership of this House and our rules for Members. May I ask that those implications be explored with a proper ministerial statement and an opportunity for us to cross-question?

As has already been mentioned, there will be a debate on Railtrack, but may I ask that the Government's position on privatised companies—what we used to call public utilities—be explained more fully, particularly in relation to the chaos, confusion and public criticism of what is going on in British Airways and British Telecom? It seems that if we are not careful the taxpayer will pick up the bill for the incredible incompetence of the previous Government in the way that they sold off the family silver, as a previous Prime Minister put it. Can we have an express statement from the Government on their precise view of taxpayers' liability in relation to those shareholders—big institutions and, of course, directors themselves—who may have mismanaged those companies to that extent since the sell-off?

I remind the Leader of the House that the electricity in this Chamber and in this building is owned by a French Government-owned company, so French taxpayers benefit from the charges that we have to pay.

Mr. Cook

On the resignation of the First Minister, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that Mr. McLeish is making a personal statement at 2 pm, and it would not be right for any of us to speculate on the details until we have heard from him. Should any further action be required in this place, we have the machinery to take such action. I am sure that that machinery is perfectly capable of undertaking a charge.

The only thing that I would say at the present time is that, personally, I have had Henry McLeish as a colleague and a friend for two decades. I have come to respect immensely his commitment to public service. I am sure that he will continue to give the same commitment to his constituents.

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the debate on public bodies. It is right that those bodies that are appointed to carry out part of the functions of the Government, albeit at arm's length, should be subjected to scrutiny in the House. That is why we have decided that it is right for the House to have a full day's debate on those matters.

For the very reason that the hon. Gentleman suggested, it would not be proper in that debate to discuss the privatised industries. Since they have become privatised, the liabilities that they incur are their liabilities. They are not the liabilities of the Government.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the French National Assembly has this week hosted a convention for organisations in civil society to engage those organisations in the future of Europe debate. Will he consider increasing the role that this Parliament can play in stimulating a much wider debate in Britain about the future of Europe and in particular, as part of that debate, increasing the role and effectiveness of national scrutiny through the Select Committee on European Scrutiny?

Mr. Cook

I assure my hon. Friend that the Government favour the widest possible debate on the future of Europe. Indeed, we now have a period in which to carry through that debate in advance of the intergovernmental conference in 2004. It is important that that debate should range widely: not just over the narrow question of institutional amendments, but over the nature of the Europe that we wish to construct and how to achieve the right balance between the European institutions, the member states and the regional bodies.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Leader of the House make time available for a debate on the plight of arable farmers? That would give hon. Members the opportunity to comment on the fact that the Government failed to pull down the agrimonetary compensation that they could have pulled down at the end of October, and that those farmers—many of them in my constituency—face falling farm incomes, crop prices that are a fraction of what they were just four or five years ago, and nasty foreign imports being sucked into the country because of the weak euro.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's last comment is entirely in line with the spirit of the common agricultural policy, which many farmers wished us to join when we signed up to the European Community, but the Government are well aware of the situation in the farming industry and have given great attention to it. That is one of the reasons why we will have a debate on a Bill from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the coming weeks, when I am sure the hon. Gentleman and many others will make their points about the farming industry. It is also why we have created a new Department that brings together the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with the wider interests of the countryside to ensure that we can take a wider view in addressing the future of the rural economy.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

My right hon. Friend's commitment to reforming and modernising our democratic institutions is well known, well respected and most welcome. [Interruption.] Wait for it. But is he aware that the wholly inadequate proportion of elected Members in the revised second Chamber proposed in yesterday's White Paper almost guarantees that there is not a snowball's chance in hell of achieving the consensus that he seeks on the Labour Benches, never mind across the House or the country at large? Given that more than 140 Labour Members have signed early-day motion 226, does he recognise that there is a contradiction between seeking consensus and forcing an unpopular and unworkable measure through on a whipped vote?

[That this House supports the democratic principle that any revised Second Chamber of Parliament should be wholly or substantially elected.]

Mr. Cook

I much preferred my hon. Friend's premise to his question. On his concluding point, I assure the House that we have put the matter out for consultation. I said so repeatedly in the course of the statement yesterday. This is the first day of the consultation and I therefore think that it might be premature to draw conclusions, but we seek consensus and I hope that the consultation will enable us to get closer to one.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate in Government time on the subject of Government appointments? In the past few weeks, we have seen the scandal of Jo Moore and her remaining in post, and the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions apparently making misleading statements to the House, if one is to believe the Rail Regulator appointed by the Government and the chairman of Rai1track, whom the Government were offering the chairmanship of their new body—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman meant to say, "Apparently making misleading statements to the House". I do not think that he would want to attribute that to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The best thing that the hon. Gentleman can do is withdraw that remark and then he can continue with his question.

Mr. Hawkins

I do withdraw that remark. May I say that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions may have been guilty of terminological inexactitude to the House, and we also now have the circumstances that have led to the resignation of the First Minister? Those are important matters affecting the dignity of the Government. Will the Government provide time for such a debate?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman kept twisting his words to come back to the same bogus assertion: that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has misled the House. He will be in the House next Tuesday when he will robustly deny any such allegation, and he will have the full support and confidence of Labour Members in doing so.

Next week's debate arises only because the previous Conservative Government carried through a privatisation of the railway industry that has totally failed—[Interruption.] Opposition Members cannot now deny that their Government privatised Railtrack. They even provided the basis for administration of the kind that we have put Railtrack into. They provided the basis under which Railtrack turned out to be a black hole that swallowed public money, and they now want us to give it more public money rather than put the passenger first.

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

There is continuing concern in my constituency about the number of people on fixed-term contracts. Is there any prospect of a debate on the draft regulations on fixed-term workers, which were due to come into force on 10 July but have now been postponed? I welcome today's publication of the Employment Bill. May we have a debate in the near future about employees' rights so that we can be sure that employers are not evading their legal responsibilities in respect of their work force?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to confirm that there will be a debate in the near future on the Employment Bill, which includes matters relevant to the regulations on fixed-term workers. My hon. Friend can raise those concerns and any others relating to workers' rights during that debate.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the completion of the natural gas pipeline to Northern Ireland is helping to deal with CO2, emissions. However, Phoenix Natural Gas continues to invest private money in the development of that pipeline although the gas comes from the North sea. I understand that the profit made as a result of that pipeline has not been distributed equitably to different outlets. As a result, Phoenix will receive £500,000. Apparently, because of the regional divisions, there is no equality. Will the Leader of the House have a word with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to see whether the regulator should be consulting more with the regulator in Northern Ireland and with the Minister responsible for this matter in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the completion of the gas pipeline. I take on board his point about ensuring that any proceeds are shared fairly. I shall certainly take his advice and draw this matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the increasing public interest in the successive drafts of the report on energy policy being prepared by the performance and innovation unit? When the report is completed, will it be published immediately or simply be presented to Ministers for their deliberation? When it is published, will there be a statement to the House? Can he confirm that there will be a full debate on the report? Will it be subject to public consultation or will it simply set out the details of Government policy, which will then be fixed?

Mr. Cook

I anticipate that if a report on energy policy is brought before the House and the public, the Government will be expected to show a lead and indicate the lines of their strategy. It is an important issue and I would expect it to have the fullest exposure in public and in Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

In view of the widespread concern among our constituents about the state of the health service, will the Leader of the House arrange for a regular debate, say once a month, in the presence of the Prime Minister, so that we can monitor his solemn pledge to the British people at the general election to introduce a world-class public health service?

During his busy day, will the Leader of the House look at column 236 of yesterday's Hansard where the Prime Minister said that when his Government took office there were no new hospitals being built".—[Official Report, 7 November 2001; Vol.374, c. 236.] Will he then study the list of new hospitals opened in 1997 where he will find that at least five new hospitals were opened in addition to myriad other schemes? He will also see that a similar number opened in 1998.

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to remind the hon. Gentleman that he will have an opportunity to debate health in the near future during the Second Reading of the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill, which I announced in the business statement. We look forward to every possible opportunity to debate the health service so that we can draw to the hon. Gentleman's attention the facts that we are putting in twice as much in additional resources as his Government ever did; that we have 3,000 new nurses since the last election was called; that every year in Britain, 500,000 more patients receive elective surgery; and that 1 million more out-patients receive appointments. It is a fine record and we intend to build on it.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Had there not been a change of Government four years ago, there would have been no change in the House of Lords. I have always opposed a fully elected second chamber. I did so in the 1980s when there was a feeling among Labour Members that it should be fully elected. I opposed it for all the reasons that my right hon. Friend has given. A fully elected second chamber would be a powerful rival to this House. Will he accept, however, that having only 20 per cent. of members elected is far too low? During the consultation, which he mentioned again today, I hope that it will be recognised that the minimum number of elected members should not be less than one third.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his opening remarks, which I endorse. We are debating reform of the House of Lords only because of the change in Government. The Conservative party was in power for 18 years and never showed the least interest in any proposal for reform of the House of Lords. I agree that there is a strong case for ensuring—this view is shared by many hon. Members—that we are careful not to end up with a wholly elected second chamber, which would undoubtedly be a rival to the House of Commons and result in a shift of power.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

That would be a good thing.

Mr. Cook

I do not remember the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying that when his party was in office for 18 years. I am repeatedly urged by Conservative Members to strengthen the powers of the House of Commons. It seems odd that they should urge upon us a course of action that would undoubtedly result in a weakening of those powers. On the balance of elected members, as I said yesterday, there is a legitimate area of debate about how large the elected element should be. I expect that to be at the centre of the consultation exercise on which we are embarking.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the Leader of the House think that it is conceivable that the chief executive of BMW, the chairman of Railtrack and now the Rail Regulator should all have contradicted the accounts given by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions at the Dispatch Box about his meetings with them? Surely before next Tuesday's debate, the honourable thing would be for the Secretary of State to come to the House and resign in the same way as the Scottish First Minister has today.

Mr. Cook

I am glad that the business statement has given Conservative Members an opportunity to rehearse their speeches for next Tuesday, which is where they properly belong.

Mr. MacKay

This is a serious matter.

Mr. Cook

It is indeed. The right hon. Gentleman is larding out accusations as if they were frivolous. If, as he now claims, the chairman of Railtrack did not come to my right hon. Friend and say that the company would not be a going concern by next November without more cash, he needs to explain why he did not say that. Two days later his officials arrived at the Department to negotiate specifically to secure that additional cash to enable it to continue as a going concern. The conduct of Railtrack, its officials and its chairman in the weeks that followed that meeting was entirely consistent with my right hon. Friend's account of the meeting.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for us to debate the rules governing the fitness of people to be directors of companies in this country and the insolvency procedures? I am asking because, during the past few weeks, about 100 employees at the Zephyr Cams company in my constituency have had to watch while machinery was removed from the shop floor. They have been aware that any revenue flowing into the company has been immediately transferred out of it. All that time, the management has refused to meet or say anything to the employees. The company is now in receivership. The employees fear that there will be nothing left of it for their redundancy payments, and many creditors have been left high and dry.

It has now been revealed that the same thing happened a few years ago, involving the same owner, to two companies using the name Quality Engineering Products, based in Weston-super-Mare. Resources from those companies were transferred to Zephyr Cams, involving £2 million of unpaid debt. Now it is believed that the resources from Zephyr—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I expect brief questions. The hon. Gentleman's question has been far too long; I must ask him to sit down.

Mr. Cook

I am glad that my hon. Friend was able to put that on the record; his comments make a very disturbing story. The DTI is at present engaged in consultation, with a view to changing the law relating to bankruptcy and insolvency. My hon. Friend may wish to feed his views into that process. Our objective will be to try to present to the House legislation that ensures that those who become insolvent in all innocence have the opportunity to make a fresh start, but that enables us to be robust in identifying and barring rogue traders who have taken advantage of those who supply and work for them.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

It would be helpful if we had a debate early next week on how the Government's proposals on the House of Lords have been contrived. We are entitled to know which of the 243 Labour peers appointed by the Prime Minister were involved in that process. After all, they have a direct interest in ensuring an unelected House. Is it not absolutely intolerable that the two leading Ministers in the formulation of policy appear to be the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House of Lords—neither of whom have in any way condescended to stand for election to public office? Is not that shameful, even by the standards of Ceausescu's Romania?

Mr. Cook

It would be an extraordinary proposition that the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House of Lords should not be involved in the preparation of the document— [Interruption.] I do find that a preposterous suggestion. I am not entirely surprised that the tight hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) regards it as common sense, but to everyone else it appears preposterous. I would not want to take any credit for the White Paper from the Lord Chancellor.

This is the second time this week and—I have lost count, but something like—the seventh time in this Parliament that the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) has offered a proposition that is flatly in conflict with his conduct during the 18 years of the Conservative Government, for whom he was a Minister. I have no problem with him saying that he had got it wrong, wished that he had done something different, had changed his mind and had recognised his mistakes, but I rather wish that he would stop expressing his views as though he were right all along and that all the previous Government's mistakes were as a result of decisions taken by others while he was out at the loo.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's promise of a debate on the House of Lords, but given that many Labour Members were still standing following 25 questions, on his statement yesterday, as we had to move to other pressing business, should we not have that debate at an early date, before consultation ends? Some of us feel that although it is right to get rid of the privileges of birth, those privileges should not be replaced by the privileges of position and connections. If there were such an early debate, some of us would have the opportunity to show that the argument that the position of the House of Lords in comparison with the Commons would be enhanced by democratic elections is spurious, because no powers can be passed to the Lords unless this House agrees to do so.

Mr. Cook

I do not think that my hon. Friend would find it quite so easy to stand pat on that view if the second Chamber were claiming as good a democratic legitimacy as this Chamber. That is not the nature of the real political world. Of course the debate must be timely. Two weeks from now, we shall be heavily engaged in the anti-terrorism Bill, which we all know is of great gravity and urgency to our people—ensuring that we provide them with the best possible security. I would hope that we would find an opportunity to debate House of Lords reform as soon as is reasonable.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

With the loss of the right hon. Gentleman's former hon. Friend as First Minister of Scotland this morning, and the possible emergence of a job opportunity for him, will he find time for a debate on the remit of the Secretary of State for Scotland's consultation on numbers of Members of the Scottish Parliament, so that we do not lose any more?

Mr. Cook

The issue of numbers of MSPs and, indeed, of Scottish Members of Parliament in this place has been aired on a number of occasions, not just in business questions but at other times in the House—and no doubt will continue to be so aired. Of course, we debated the matter when we passed the Scotland Act 1998, committing ourselves to a reduction in the number of Scottish Members of this Parliament. With that inevitably comes a reduction in the number of Members of the Scottish Parliament. I remind the hon. Gentleman that his party did not object to those provisions in the Scotland Act.

The former First Minister will be making a statement in an hour's time, and he should be allowed to speak in his own words. All I would say is that Henry McLeish was my friend this morning, and he will be my friend this afternoon.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the crisis in the Children's Society in Wales, which announced earlier this week that it was pulling out of Wales, closing all its projects and making all its staff redundant? Will he draw that matter to the attention of his ministerial colleagues and ask them to use any influence that they might have on the Children's Society nationally in order that it reconsiders its decision to withdraw from Wales?

Mr. Cook

I understand entirely the concern that the decision must be causing to my hon. Friend's constituents. I shall certainly draw her comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I remind the Leader of the House of Her Majesty's Government's pledge to hold regular debates on London matters, notwithstanding the passage of the Greater London Authority Act 1999. Is not it imperative that we have such an early debate so that we can discuss the future, if there is one, of the public-private partnership for London Underground, the implementation of which is four and a half years late? That cannot all be blamed on the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, notwithstanding his totally incredible statements on Railtrack.

Mr. Cook

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for saying that such matters cannot all be blamed on my right hon. Friend. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the PPP has been so long delayed because of difficulty in reaching agreement with Mr. Kiley and the Mayor of London.

I remain mystified as to why it is not possible for them to find common ground with us. After all, we are offering £4,000-worth of investment for every household in the Greater London area. If such a sum were offered to my local authority to invest in my area, it would certainly find a way of getting its hands on it.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

In response to three questions from Labour Members, my right hon. Friend has said that the plans for the House of Lords are out to consultation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said yesterday, the most recent Labour party conference voted for a largely elected upper House by something like 3 million votes to a few hundred thousand. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is a pretty decisive contribution to consultation?

Mr. Cook

As I recall the entertaining intervention yesterday by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), he referred us to the 1976 decision, in which a similar majority voted to abolish the second Chamber in its entirety. So, we have a rich tapestry of guidance from which to draw. I shall obviously listen with great respect to responses from the Labour party and other parties in the next three months.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Has the Leader of the House had the chance to study the evidence given to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee yesterday, in which the Rail Regulator gave a very detailed and well documented account of his meetings with the Secretary of State and Railtrack's chairman and chief executive? Although I welcome the Opposition day debate next week on the mishandling of Railtrack, would not it have been better for the Secretary of State to have come to the Dispatch Box to explain in Government time why their two accounts are so wildly different?

Mr. Cook

That is a question that also falls to the Rail Regulator to explain. On reading his evidence, I was much impressed that the Rail Regulator also blasted Railtrack, stating that it was remarkable that it had kept so much information from him. There is a lot to be explored in the evidence, much of which will take us back to the previous Government, who designed Railtrack in the first place.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office about the deplorable decision to mount a leak inquiry inside the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to find out who leaked the dreadful e-mail from Jo Moore about it being a good day on 11 September to bury bad news? Is it not quite astonishing that the person who leaked the e-mail might lose his or her job while the person who wrote it retains hers? I would have asked for a statement from the Minister with responsibility for freedom of information, but I think that that post may have been abolished, along with the Government's commitment to open government and public accountability as defences for leaks.

Mr. Cook

As I recall, the statement about the investigation was made by the Cabinet Secretary and not by any Minister at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. The hon. Gentleman is a man of great talent, integrity and experience. I do think that the time has come for him to move on to another subject.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

I fear that the Leader of the House may not have fully understood the questions about the circumstances this week relating to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I am a new Member and it was my understanding that the validity and accuracy of statements made by Ministers to this House was absolutely sacrosanct. The Leader of the House will be aware that, on Monday, the Secretary of State told the House that no threats were made to the Rail Regulator when they met on 5 October. In public evidence yesterday to the Select Committee, the Rail Regulator clearly said that the proposition that was put to him on that date would have led to his resignation. Will the Leader of the House explain the contradiction between the two statements? If he cannot, does he believe that this is a matter of sufficient importance to require the Secretary of State to return immediately to the House to explain matters?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that there is a single member of the Cabinet who has made more statements to the House or appeared more often at this Dispatch Box since we returned from the recess than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Whatever else the Opposition may complain about, they cannot complain about the opportunities to question him or to put statements to him. So far, I am delighted to see that my right hon. Friend has robustly defended his record. Indeed, it is the record of the previous Government that is on trial, not this Government.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Will the Leader of the House provide time for a debate on how we can secure greater cross-community support within this country for the coalition's military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan? Is he aware that, on 6 November, I asked the Prime Minister which Muslim leaders in this country had expressed support for that military action, and he was unable to name a single one?

Mr. Cook

There have been statements by the Labour Muslim Council and from hon. Friends who are Members of this House and members of the Muslim faith. They have been quite robust in their statements, to which I refer the hon. Gentleman. However, I fully echo his wish that we build the broadest possible consensus—a consensus not only behind the urgent need to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, but to make it clear that this is not a conflict between the west and Islam but between both of us against terrorism. With that in mind, it is a matter of regret that the Conservative party has not signed the pledge that has been signed by other parties. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked us to build consensus. I cannot think of a better way to build consensus than for us all to demonstrate support for the same pledge.