HC Deb 22 November 2001 vol 375 cc461-74 12.32 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 26 NOVEMBER—Conclusion of consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

TUESDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Employment Bill.

WEDNESDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Civil Defence (Grants) Bill.

THURSDAY 29 NOVEMBER—Consideration of an allocation of time motion followed by all stages on the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 30 NovEMBER—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 3 DECEMBER—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

TUESDAY 4 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Education Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 DECEMBER—A debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 6 DECEMBER—A debate on the common fisheries policy reform and sustainable fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of theHouse.

FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader for giving us the business. Can he tell us what has happened to the debate that we always used to have—just before Christmas, I think—on public expenditure? We are having the Chancellor's pre-Budget report next week, on 27 November. I should have thought that if the economy is such an astonishing success, as the Government like to claim it is, they would be eager to have a full day's debate on public expenditure so that that confidence may be fully expressed. Opposition Members certainly look forward to such a debate. Can the Leader of the House say when it will be and whether the Government are ducking and evading as usual, or whether such a debate would reflect their confidence?

May we also have an urgent debate on the role and powers of Select Committees? The Leader of the House will know very well that Standing Order 152 says that Sub-Committees of Select Committees have power to send for persons, papers and records". He will also know that this is one of the most cherished powers of our Select Committee system; and many people believe that the entrenchment of that power is one of the most important aspects of the Government's accountability to Parliament. I would have thought that all that was uncontroversial.

Is the Leader of the House aware of the recent press notice from the Transport Sub-Committee which says: The Transport Sub-Committee … invited a Minister from HM Treasury to provide oral evidence to the inquiry into Rail Passenger Franchising and the Future of Rail Infrastructure. HM Treasury has declined that invitation and refused to appear before the Transport Sub-Committee"? It continues: The Sub-Committee is astonished that Treasury is unable to assist with this inquiry. I would have thought that you are astonished, too, Mr. Speaker. I certainly am, because it seems to me to challenge the entire relationship that we thought existed between Select Committees and Ministers. This is the second such occasion in a fairly short time, is it not?

Will the Leader of the House please grant us a debate on the matter? In the meantime, perhaps he will clarify what he thinks is the relationship between Ministers and Select Committees, because his Modernisation Committee is busy claiming that Select Committees are very important and central to parliamentary activities. Given that, I hope that the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee may have something to say about this latest scandal.

As I suspect that the Leader of the House is a regular reader of The Guardian, which I happily am not, perhaps he has read it today? I emphasise that these are not my words, but the words of the paper's correspondent. Under the headline: Parliament misled over recycled dioxins", the Westminster correspondent writes: A government minister has twice misled parliament over a serious health hazard…Michael Meacher, the environment minister, admitted that figures for levels of dioxins…have been heavily underestimated by the environment agency … This is the second time Mr. Meacher has had to clarify the issue. Ministers in the other place regularly have to appear before their Lordships to apologise and to retract and correct what they have said. However, manners are much better in the other place and Ministers there obviously regard it as important to their integrity that they apologise, if necessary. Can I ask the Leader of the House for a regular slot—it may not be daily, but at least weekly—when Ministers can come to the House and apologise for what they have said?

Mr. Cook

I welcome the Opposition's interest in debating the Government's record on the economy.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

We'd love to!

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman confirm that. We are very happy to take any opportunity that comes our way to remind the House that Britain currently has the fastest growth rate in the G7, the lowest inflation in Europe and the lowest unemployment for a generation. We are proud of that record and we approach it with confidence.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be coming to the House next week to present the pre-Budget report. I recall that the right hon. Gentleman wanted that. It is right that the Chancellor and the House should focus on that next week. I shall, however, draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the Opposition's enthusiasm for debating our record, and I hope that any amendments that they table to the motion relating to that debate will reflect their pleasure at what the Government have achieved and the contrast between that and their own lack of achievement when they were in office.

On the Transport Sub-Committee, I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to clarify some of what was said in the press statement from the Select Committee. It is not the case that Treasury Ministers have declined to appear before the Select Committee.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

It is true. In the previous Parliament, the Financial Secretary and the Economic Secretary appeared before the Transport Sub-Committee, and in doing so, they reported on their proposals for taxes that affected the transport industries. It is also the case that, in this Parliament recently, Treasury Ministers have appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee to report on the impact of the aggregates levy and on excise duty. Those matters are firmly within the ministerial responsibility of Treasury Ministers. Rail franchising is firmly within the ministerial responsibility of Ministers at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Frankly, I cannot imagine anything that will do more to undermine the system of ministerial accountability to the House and its Committees if the Ministers with responsibility are not held to account by the Committees and if other Ministers are held to account for decisions for which they are not responsible.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

Very clever.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Lady should also take pride in the fact that the Conservative party showed the same cleverness when in office. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) also refused to appear in front of the Transport Committee, when he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) should explain why he believes that this Government should follow practices that Conservative Members never dreamt of following themselves when they were in office.

Lastly, on the report in The Guardian today, I must confess that I did not see that part of the paper—perhaps my yoghurt splashed on it before I turned to that page —but my right hon. Friend has already written to the two hon. Members involved to put the record straight.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the reports in this mornings Financial Times about a very major restructuring of the Department of Trade and Industry and the introduction to the DTI of a significant component from private business? In terms of parliamentary accountability, to whom does the DTI account if those business leaders will be significant in the decision-making mode? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the concept of genuine social partnership will exist in the DTI; or can we perhaps expect a statement from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Cook

I am advised that the DTI will answer a parliamentary question today, setting out the new arrangements for the strategy committee. Under Governments of whatever colour, the DTI has endlessly consulted business men and had committees on which they served. It is absolutely right and proper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should rationalise that system and provide a strategic focus for it by setting up that committee. That will be fully explained in the written answer to be published this afternoon.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. May I draw his attention to the private Member's business that will be conducted on 30 November—in particular, the Home Energy Conservation Bill? Will he confirm that the Government will give that private Member's Bill a fair wind and that they will try to avoid its obstruction and defeat, given its importance to home energy efficiency and energy conservation in general?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill, consideration of which will take place on 29 November? Bearing in mind the fact that the Bill appears to reinstate only one of the four protections of embryos that the courts struck out, is he satisfied that the amount of time allocated is sufficient to hold a properly measured debate and that the Bill's framework is sufficient to allow sensible amendments to be added to it?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House that statements will be made next week not only by the Chancellor, but on local government expenditure? Will he consider holding a full debate on local government finance, especially on the gross inequalities in the funding of local authorities throughout the country?

Mr. Cook

The Government certainly want more energy to be conserved; thus we share the objectives of the Home Energy Conservation Bill's promoter. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is consulting the Bill's sponsors. I hope that it will be possible to find common ground, but that is also down to the promoter entering into discussions in a way that enables us to produce a Bill that is not only laudable but practical.

On cloning, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have appealed against part of the judgment and that has a bearing on the terms of the Bill before us on Thursday. We are seeking to do no more than restore what was understood to be the law before the ruling last week. That is important for the House and for the country. At a future stage, we may need to consider further measures on the issue, but for the time being, we need emergency measures to prevent people from coming to Britain to exploit the loophole that has been revealed by the court decision.

I expect there to be a statement of one kind or another on local government finance in the near future. I will take on board the hon. Gentleman's point that we should have a debate and I shall add the subject to my long list of impending debates.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the future of education maintenance allowances? That would provide Ministers with the opportunity to explain why the county of Durham, the largest education authority in the north-east, is the only one in the area not to be selected for a pilot programme. Because of the pilot, every one of its neighbours has experienced increased participation in further education. Durham would very much like to be included.

Mr. Cook

I understand my right hon. Friend's disappointment. I am sure that it is reflected in his constituency. However, it is in the nature of pilots that not every area is selected. I hope that the experiment will be successful and that we shall be able to extend the programme to areas such as Durham that have not been included in the pilot scheme.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Did the Leader of the House share my shock when he read this morning's newspapers and discovered that he was not one of the Chancellor's new best friends? Is that because he, like half the Government, has a long-standing feud with the Chancellor? Can we have an early debate to see whether these tantrums at the Treasury are impairing the proper functioning of government?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman obviously has an interesting question to put on the pre-Budget report next week. I shall give my bestest of friends the Chancellor advance notice to look out for it.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The shadow Leader of the House did not raise this issue, but will we have a statement on why the advertisement for the post of Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards states that the job is only for three days? [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] Three days a week, I mean—although I suspect that, if some people in the House had their way, it would be three days a year.

Why did the House of Commons Commission come to the view that the present occupant should not have her contract renewed, unlike the offer made to her predecessor, Gordon Downey? It is being interpreted—in my view rightly—as an Officer of the House being sacked for doing her job in a zealous manner; so does my right hon. Friend accept that that reflects badly on the House and on us all? I hope that, even at this late stage, the matter can be reconsidered. This person is doing a fine job; there is no need to sack her.

Mr. Cook

The reference to three days a week reflects precisely the terms of the advertisement placed on the last occasion the job was advertised. It is the basis on which Mrs. Filkin was appointed, but she negotiated an increase to four days. It will be open to any incumbent that we may appoint to enter into similar negotiations. The advert this time is exactly the same as the one used when Mrs. Filkin was appointed.

Sir Gordon Downey indicated that he did not wish to seek a second term, so the question of reappointment did not arise. I keep pointing out to my hon. Friend—and I am pleased to do so again for the benefit of the whole House—that it is important to be fair about the case of Mrs. Filkin. She has not been sacked. Nobody has expressed any dissatisfaction with the way in which she has carried out her duties. The decision of the House of Commons Commission is that it is right that the post should be filled by open competition and that the best candidate should be appointed. Mrs. Filkin has been invited to apply, and if she is the best candidate, she will be reappointed.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the Leader of the House not understand the widespread concern that has been expressed on both sides of the House that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill will have only two days for its Committee stage and Report, with the second day on Monday? Will he also explain why he was not on the Front Bench yesterday when the programme motion was debated and the hapless Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), failed to explain to me and to others why the British Overseas Territories Bill, which is being debated today, was so important that it had to be discussed this week? We could have had an extra day in Committee on a vital Bill.

Mr. Cook

I attach great importance to the British Overseas Territories Bill, as do the residents of British overseas territories and a number of hon. Members. Moreover, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that those residents have been waiting some time for the Bill to be introduced and proceeded with. When I was Foreign Secretary I was regularly asked when it would be introduced, and it is important that it should proceed.

On the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, I understand that hon. Members want to debate its important contents. It is therefore a matter of regret that some of the right hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends wasted time yesterday debating not the Bill's substance, but a programme motion that had already been put before the House.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

The Leader of the House knows that we are entering a difficult stage in which health authorities have to manage their demise by next spring and the transfer of their responsibilities to primary care trusts. Although I have nothing but praise for my health authority in Nottingham for the professionalism with which it is attempting to do that, I am conscious that we face the problem of staff haemorrhaging from health authorities to the embryonic PCTs. Some health authorities face the prospect of meltdown as they try to get the staff to support existing and essential services. Can we have a statement on how the Government are supporting the transition of responsibilities to the new PCTs and on what additional resources we are putting in place to ensure that existing services are not damaged in the process?

Mr. Cook

I accept that that is an important aspect of the NHS Reform and Health Care Professions Bill, which is before the House. I anticipate that my hon. Friend and some of his colleagues will want to explore that issue as the Bill proceeds. I welcome his praise for his health authority and believe that there is a broad welcome for our proposed measures to put the funding of local services in the hands of local health service staff, especially general practitioners.

We are aware that there will be a period when staff of the health authorities are worried. That is why we have given an assurance that those who may not be transferred by 1 April 2002 will remain employees of the Department of Health, which will run a clearing house to ensure that existing staff are placed. There is no need for staff at the present time to become anxious about their future after 1 April. We will ensure on a national basis that staff are placed.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to page 63 of "Erskine May", which says: ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest"? No doubt the right hon. Gentleman will have read in Hansard the exchanges that occurred yesterday in which it was evident that a number of right hon. and hon. Members had great difficulty in obtaining answers to their parliamentary questions in pursuit of their duties as Members of the House. He will also be aware of the ombudsman's finding on my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). To that extent, will the Leader of the House consider making a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity about the way in which the code of ministerial conduct is being operated in respect of the answering of parliamentary questions, so that the House knows what service it can expect from Ministers in the provision of information?

Mr. Cook

I did read yesterday's Hansard with great Interest and I notice that you, Mr. Speaker, have undertaken to reflect on the points made. I stand ready to communicate to my colleagues any views that you may express.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Can we have a debate or a statement next week on the length of time that patients have to wait on trolleys before being admitted to hospital wards in Leicester? I appreciate that the Government have made a huge commitment to spend billions of pounds on our health service and that many dedicated staff work in it, but the news this morning that a 53-year-old Leicester woman died after being on a trolley for eight hours before receiving treatment has caused enormous concern. Can we have a debate on that important subject?

Mr. Cook

I understand the deep concern in my hon. Friend's constituency about the case to which he referred. He will be aware that the trust has expressed its regret to the family of the woman concerned. Waiting for a long time in accident and emergency is unacceptable, and that is why we have applied targets in the national health service plan to ensure that people are admitted to hospital within four hours of being assessed in accident and emergency as requiring such admission. I am pleased to say that the longest periods of waiting on trolleys are being reduced, but as long as anybody has to go through the experience described by my hon. Friend, we plainly cannot be complacent and have not achieved a satisfactory outcome. We must keep trying.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill is effectively unamendable, in that the main clause is the same as the long title. He claimed in his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) that the Bill seeks to restore the situation that existed before the judgment. If the right hon. Gentleman is advised and convinced that it will not do so, will he give an undertaking that there will be scope to amend the Bill so that it does achieve that stated aim? Does he share my concern that the Bill is to be passed by both Houses of Parliament in one day, which makes it not only unamendable but practically undebatable?

Mr. Cook

By definition, no Bill is unamendable. It is beyond the wit and knowledge of even the parliamentary draftsmen to produce a Bill that it is not competent to amend. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the Bill is tightly drawn. That is because its focus is to restore the position that we understood to be the state of the law before Friday, apart from those matters that are still subject to appeal.

The Bill is indeed being brought before the House next Thursday under an emergency procedure, for the simple reason that it is surely not in the country's interest that we should end up with no legal controls—controls that we thought did exist—to prevent people from coming here to take advantage of that legal ruling. I would hope that all Members recognise the importance of closing that legal loophole before it is abused.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

Several weeks ago I was fortunate enough to lead a debate on manufacturing in Westminster Hall. Many Members from both sides of the House attended and many important issues were raised. However, the time allocated to the debate was far too short to flush out the Government's response to the issues that are affecting British manufacturing. Can my right hon. Friend allocate a whole day to a debate on that subject and the impact that it is having on our economy?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having secured that debate in Westminster Hall, demonstrating once more the value of that Chamber in ventilating some of the issues that we cannot accommodate in the House. I will happily add my hon. Friend's bid for a day's debate to the three other such bids that I have had in the last half hour. Perhaps I could point out that the Department of Trade and Industry will answer questions next week, and I am sure that that will provide an opportunity for an exchange on manufacturing.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

The Leader of the House will no doubt be aware of the plight of the 12 British tourists still being held in custody in Greece without having been charged. They include my constituent, Mr. Peter Norris. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a Foreign Office Minister to come and make a statement on that situation?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Office, through its consular department, is maintaining contact with the British citizens who have been arrested. We understand that they have been given access to legal representation and that they have had opportunities to contact their relatives by phone. We will continue to give the closest consular attention to their case.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Assuming that there will be a statement on Monday from the Foreign Secretary on his very important visit to Iran and Pakistan, could he include some comment on policy on the dropping of cluster bombs and other ordnance that may not be exploding? Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of our colleagues were disturbed by what General Sir Hugh Beach, Richard Lloyd and other experts from the all-party land mines group said, when they came to the House, about the amount of ordnance that has been dropped but has not exploded? Somehow, someone—perhaps the Halo Trust—is going to have to clear it up.

Mr. Cook

There are indeed many land mines throughout Afghanistan which are the detritus of a decade of civil war. Tackling that will be an important priority in the reconstruction of the country, and it must include tackling any unexploded ordnance from the bombing. I am not aware of the statistics that may have been presented to my hon. Friend and his colleagues, but in present circumstances I would be a little sceptical about whether we could be precise about the amount that has not exploded.

As I said to the House when we last discussed the subject, any cluster bombs that have been used—they have been used on very limited occasions—are designed to explode on impact.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

In his statement, the Leader of the House announced the Second Reading of the Employment Bill. I genuinely seek information because I, like the right hon. Gentleman and others, fervently support pre-legislative scrutiny. Bearing in mind the impact that the Bill may well have on manufacturing industry—a subject that has already been mentioned—will he say whether it has been the subject of pre-legislative scrutiny, and if not, why not?

Mr. Cook

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is that the Bill has not been through the process of pre-legislative scrutiny—[H0N. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I do not see why that comes as a surprise, given that the Bill was first published only the other week. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I would like pre-legislative scrutiny to become the norm, not the exception, but several other changes to our proceedings would be required to make that feasible. One of those is to deal with the sessional cut-off and decide whether to adopt the interesting proposal in the—Conservative—report by Lord Norton that there should be a fixed period of 12 or 14 months within which a Bill can run, which would provide adequate time for exactly the sort of pre-legislative scrutiny that the hon. Gentleman wants.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that 119 Labour Members have now signed early-day motion 226:

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

The motion has also been signed by Members from other parties, including the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). When will we have a debate on reform of the House of Lords, and will that debate take place before Christmas?

Mr. Cook

I have followed the early-day motion and other representations on our proposals with the greatest of interest. As my hon. Friend is aware, we have said that we want the consultation period to run until 31 January. It is my intention that the House should have a full day's debate on the proposals. Because of the legislative pressure, I cannot commit to having that debate before Christmas, but if not then, it will certainly be held in very early January and well within the consultation period.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Leader of the House is aware of my constituents' great interest in the east coast main line route, so he will share their disappointment about the refusal of Treasury Ministers to take questions from the Transport-Sub Committee. I echo my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in requesting a debate at the earliest possible opportunity on the powers of the Select Committees. I remind the Leader of the House that the Treasury team was invited to field Ministers for an inquiry into rail passenger franchising and the future of rail infrastructure. He will be aware that the Strategic Rail Authority requested a 20-year extension for Great North Eastern Railway on the east coast main line route and that the Secretary of State refused that request.

Mr. Cook

That is entirely a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. As I said, it does not assist the question of ministerial accountability to Committees of the House for that accountability to be passed to other Ministers. Treasury Ministers have in the past been perfectly willing to appear before the Transport-Sub Committee in respect of matters for which they are ministerially accountable. It is absolutely right that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions should account to the Committee for matters for which he is responsible.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury. North)

As we now know, it took only seven months in New Zealand, nine months in Australia and 12 months in Canada, so does my right hon. Friend agree that it is frustrating that in the United Kingdom it should take almost four years to implement freedom of information legislation? Given some of the clauses of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, will he find time in the near future for a debate—or at least a statement—on the implementation of the freedom of information provisions?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is uncharacteristically unfair about the proposals. He will remember that the terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 provided that the Act would be implemented in a five-year period. In fact, we are to bring it fully into force a year earlier than that, but it is not a matter of waiting four years for implementation: the roll-out of the Act's provisions will start next year. It conforms entirely with the advice that wt have received from the person appointed to oversee the implementation of the Act's procedures that it should be done one part at a time, so that we can gain experience and properly train and prepare staff to bring the measures into existence. It is a massive public administration undertaking and the House should not understate it. Broadly, there has been a welcome for the way in which we are proceeding with it—starting next year and completing by 2004.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Leader of the House convey my thanks to the Government for finally offering help and hope to many multiple sclerosis sufferers by making beta interferon more widely available? Those talks are going on even today. May we have a debate to ensure that there will be no postcode restrictions, that we will allow at least 10 years before we start to draw conclusions on the trials, that consultants and patients will be able to choose between a variety of products and that the cohort who use those drugs will be about 10 per cent. of all MS sufferers?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the way in which we are proceeding. He is correct: talks are currently under way with the commercial manufacturers to try to find a financially viable and clinically acceptable way forward. I am not medically qualified, so I hesitate to comment on the particular parameters he imposes on the study, but I hope that we can reach agreement on it.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Two weeks ago, on 8 November, Garry Fagan of Kegworth in my constituency was among the group of 12 plane spotters who were arrested in southern Greece. The position is rather more serious than the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) suggested. Those 12 British citizens were charged with espionage on 12 November, and some or all of them may face even more serious charges next week, on 27 November. I am reassured as to the extent of consular and family contact, but will my right hon. Friend use his influence either to obtain a statement, to initiate a debate in the House, or to speak to colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which he led with such distinction, to ensure that they take a close look at a case that is starting to spiral in the most worrying fashion?

Mr. Cook

I fully appreciate my hon. Friend's concern and can well understand the deep concern that must exist in the family he represents. I am pleased to tell him that the Foreign Office has already been in contact with its opposite number in Greece. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe raised the case of the 12 people who have been detained with the Greek Foreign Minister only a week ago. We shall continue to take every action that we can to ensure that we draw the attention of the Greek authorities to the deep concern in the country and in the Chamber on this matter.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the questions put by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the need for an urgent debate on the working of the Select Committee system, does the Leader of the House not realise that the Chancellor is demeaning his office, and that it is for the Select Committee, in the exercise of its prerogative, to decide which persons and which papers to summon? It is not for Her Majesty's Government to decide which Minister should or should not go. If the Chancellor is to do his duty to Parliament, and to oar constitution, he has an obligation to attend.

Mr. Cook

I do not think that anybody can accuse Treasury Ministers of not carrying out their obligations to Select Committees. Earlier, I gave the House some examples: the Economic Secretary appeared before the Transport-Sub Committee on landfill tax and the Financial Secretary on green taxation. The reasons for their appearance before the Committee had everything to do with the Treasury, but rail franchising has everything to do with the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—[Interruption.] I put this question to hon. Members who are braying from a sedentary position: if they really disagree with it, why did they follow the same practice when they were in office?

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

If my right hon. Friend has studied the school league tables that were published this week, he will have seen that the selective system of education in Kent is failing hundreds of my constituents by creating sink schools that do no one any good. My right hon. Friend has just announced the Second Reading of the Education Bill. If, on Second Reading, we find that changes to address the system of selective education and to make it a practical possibility to hold a parental ballot on the subject in Kent have inadvertently been omitted, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Committee and Report stages are programmed in such a way that we can thoroughly debate appropriate amendments to make those changes to the Bill?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern. He is right to take the opportunity to stress the case for fair treatment of all the schoolchildren in his constituency. We are some way away from the Report stage of the Bill to which he referred, but I shall bear in mind what he said when we come to that point.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), if we cannot have another day's debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, could we at least have a debate specifically on the powers that the Government have taken to pass into British law anything agreed by European Union home affairs and justice Ministers without introducing a proper Bill in the House? Last night, we had just 14 minutes to discuss an enormous constitutional change. I am sure that the Leader of the House will have seen, as I have, early-day motion 452 in yesterday's Order Paper. It states:

[That this House congratulates the entertainers comprising Puppetry of the Penis on their work to raise awareness of testicular cancer; notes that testicular cancers are the most common cancers in men under the age of 40; further notes that each year approximately 1,500 men in the UK develop the disease; further notes that testicular cancer is one of the most curable malignancies if caught at an early stage but that 81 per cent. of males do not know how to conduct a self-examination, further notes that self-examination is quick and easy and can form part of a regular awareness regime; and draws hon. Members' attention to NHS Direct's information webpage on this subject which will be of invaluable use during Check Your Tackle Day on 21st November.]

I accept that that is important, but have we reached a stage in the House where there is time to check your tackle, but there is not time to check the Government's legislation?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman's closing line was beneath the dignity of the House and the seriousness of fighting international terrorism. I remind the House that when we met in the recall days immediately after 11 September, there was widespread concern in the House that we should act to make sure that the security of our citizens was foremost. The Government are doing that. If we had been debating the legislation in the mood that was around after 11 September, Opposition Members would not be objecting to us taking the measure through Parliament quickly to protect our constituents.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

I should like to raise with the Leader of the House an issue that affects every taxpayer in the country, and urge him to raise it with the Chancellor. I am referring to yesterday's debate on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. There was no opportunity to discuss part 3, which relates to the Inland Revenue's ability to disclose information on personal tax records; colleagues on both sides of the House were deeply disappointed about that. Part 3 represents an unprecedented breach of personal confidentiality. The danger to the Chancellor is that there will be a significant problem in raising Government revenue. I therefore urge the Leader of the House to ask the Chancellor to make an early statement to the House that would establish clearly whether our constituents' tax records are dealt with by the Inland Revenue in complete confidence.

Mr. Cook

I remind the hon. Gentleman and the House that the provision was introduced so that we can succeed in seizing terrorist funds and preventing them from being used for the commission of terrorist acts. Like many hon. Members, I was appalled to discover that it was possible for terrorists to use our banking and financial system to move their money around. My right hon. Friend should be praised, not criticised, for taking vigorous action to stop that.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I understand from the BBC that the Government intend to make an announcement on Monday by means of a written answer that they are converting another male prison into a female prison; that is in the face of a four-year sustained rise in the female prison population. So far, such decisions have been taken with about a week's notice for the prison to begin the changes. Could we have a statement rather than a written answer so that those of us who represent not only prisoners whose rehabilitation programmes have been disrupted but staff who are being asked to move around the country at a week's notice can make direct representations to the Minister concerned?

Mr. Cook

I cannot say that I am familiar with the pending question to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I am happy to draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The House will be aware that the Government have suddenly decided to end education action zones. They were a flagship initiative, as the Leader of the House will know, but the House will have learned of their scrapping not through a proper debate in the House but through press reports. Should not the House have an opportunity to debate the matter, which comes on top of scrapping individual learning accounts? If the Government are going to get rid of some of their important flagship initiatives, the repercussions for people employed in EAZs and the affected children should be fully debated in the Chamber.

Mr. Cook

As I understand it, education action zones were time-limited from the start. Therefore, the time at which they come to an end, far from being a sudden surprise, has been known ever since the date on which they commenced. As to communication with the House, I am advised that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has written to every hon. Member who has an education action zone in his or her constituency.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Did the Leader of the House see today's report in The Times which read: Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is to announce the death of Cool Britannia, the slogan that summed up Tony Blair's flirtation with youth culture…She will describe the label…as meaningless. May we please have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport so that Opposition Members can congratulate her on that sudden outburst of candour, and may we offer a similar incentive to other Ministers who have been promoting meaningless slogans similarly to dispose of such catch-words and catch-phrases as "stakeholders", "communautarianism", "the third way", "joined-up government" and last but not least, that under Labour "things can only get better"?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his preparation. He has elevated the question to an art form and deserves congratulations from both sides of the House or entertaining us. Whether, as well as entertaining us, he illuminates politics in our time, I am more doubtful. I have heard "cool Britannia" buried three times over the past three years, and I am not surprised to hear it all over again. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will find that the phrase has been used by any Minister for a very long time.