HC Deb 29 November 2001 vol 375 cc1103-20 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House for the business for next 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 3 DECEMBER—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day] until 7 o'clock on a subject of which we have yet to be notified. Followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of Wembley Stadium, Pickett's Lock and the Dome", also on an Opposition motion.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I presumed that the right hon. Gentleman was aware of that.

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 the House.

FRIDAY 7 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 10 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Tax Credits Bill.

TUESDAY 11 DECEMBER—Estimates Day [1st Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on waste management policy until 7 o'clock followed by a debate on the staging of the world athletics championships in the United Kingdom. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 10 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. The estimates to be agreed are as follows: Winter Supplementary Summary Request for Supply (HC 391), Vote on Account (For Generality of Government Departments) (HC 392), Vote on Account (House of Commons) (HC 393), Vote on Account (National Audit Office) (HC 394) and Vote on Account (Electoral Commission) (HC 395).

WEDNESDAY 12 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

A Debate on International Terrorism on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

THURSDAY 13 DECEMBER—Remaining stages of the Animal Health Bill.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

FRIDAY 14 DECEMBER—The House Will not be sitting.

The House will wish to know that on Monday 3 December there will be a debate relating to the European arrest warrant and the surrender procedures between member states in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant document will be given in the Official Report.

[Monday 3 December 2001]:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Documents: 13425/01, European Arrest Warrant and the Surrender Procedures between Member States. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-vii (2001–02) and HC 152-viii (2001–02).

Further to my earlier announcement about the Christmas recess, I can now confirm that the House will rise for the Christmas recess on Wednesday 19 December.

The House will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will not sit during the week commencing Monday 18 February 2002.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader for giving us the business and the joyous news about recesses.

Yesterday in answer to a rather loosely worded question, the Prime Minister confirmed at column 964 that he was committed to raising health expenditure to the European Community average by 2005. That leaves us completely in the dark as to what that commitment means. Was it a reference in cash terms? Was it a commitment to a percentage of gross domestic product as it will be in 2005? We need to know these things because there has been a lot of speculation as such large sums are involved. Will the Leader of the House provide time for an urgent statement to clarify what the Prime Minister meant, whether he has the Chancellor's support and agreement, how much money is involved and where it will come from? Before we embark on the great debate on health, which we all welcome, we need to know those key facts.

Hidden away in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report is a reference to the increase in council tax—in local taxation—which suggests yet another alarming increase in the level and amount of council tax. That increase seems to be more every year. I suspect that the increase in local taxation will swallow up entirely what the Chancellor was boasting, the other day, would be an increase in pensions. We need an urgent debate on that, to establish—if nothing else—whether pensioners will be better off as a result of what the Chancellor was claiming, or whether, as I suspect, all the increases will more than disappear in the enormous increases in council tax that we are now getting.

Mr. Speaker, you said yesterday—very helpfully for the House— when Ministers refuse to answer questions, they are expected to indicate in their reply why they have refused by reference to the Government's code. The Public Administration Committee regularly looks into the pattern of answering and makes a report to the House. Again, Members aggrieved at a ministerial refusal to answer might get in touch with the Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright)".—[Official Report, 28 November 2001; Vol. 375. c. 971.] That was a very helpful suggestion, for which we are all most grateful. What I should now like the Leader of the House to do is to commit himself, and to guarantee, that we will have a regular slot for the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee to come to the House and initiate a debate on ministerial refusal to answer questions. I am confident—although I am sad to have to say this—that there are so many such incidents that the report will be voluminous and will require detailed answers from the Government as to why Ministers have refused to answer questions.

Finally, it has been brought to my attention that, in the past, we have normally held our fisheries debate on the basis of a take-note motion, where the House had an opportunity to vote. For reasons that I think I well understand, it would appear that the Government have magicked that into an Adjournment debate, where the House will not have an opportunity to vote. What is the Leader of the House ashamed of? What have the Government got to hide? Why will they not submit themselves to the opinion, the view and the vote of the House on such an important issue as fisheries, but instead try to slip it through by some sleight of hand? We need to know.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for greeting what he described as the joyous news about the recesses. We are approaching the season when joyous news is appropriate, although I ask myself how he and I will pass that time without being able to exchange views every Thursday.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

With great difficulty.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is probably correct.

On the issue of NHS spending, the position is not confused—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

If the right hon. Gentleman is confused, let me try to elucidate. The commitment that was originally given by the Prime Minister, and to which I understand the leader of the Liberal Democrats was alluding, was that within five years of March 2001 we would be at the average for European spending on the health service—that is an average expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product. I am pleased to inform the House that, over the past four years, we have been able to approach that average at the rate of 0.1 per cent. of GDP each year, so we are on course to meet the average—[Interruption.] No, we are on course to meet the average by the time that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I am entertained that Opposition Members should find that they are not impressed by 0.1 per cent. of GDP as an increase. That may of course reflect the fact that during their period in office they never came remotely near increasing NHS spending by 0.1 per cent.—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman and I can put a date in our diaries for the debate in March 2006 when we see whether we have achieved that target. All I can tell the House at present is that we are on course, and in five years I look forward to receiving the right hon. Gentleman's congratulations on our having succeeded—

Mr. Forth

That is not what the Prime Minister said.

Mr. Cook

I have repeated what the Prime Minister said initially—in five years from March 2001.

On council tax, I can inform the House that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will be making a statement on council allocations on Tuesday next week. I suggest that hon. Members do not get particularly excited about what they may read in the papers before the announcement.

I listened with great care to what the Speaker said yesterday in relation to questions. I also noted that he invited colleagues to raise the matter with the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), as the Procedure Committee is carrying out a major study of questions. Obviously, that is a legitimate matter for the Committee to consider and I am sure that we shall return to it. In the meantime, I am pleased to tell the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that I shall be meeting the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee next week and no doubt if he wants to express views to me I shall be happy to listen to them.

Lastly, I have no strong views on whether the fisheries policy is debated on the Adjournment of the House on a take-note motion. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's views to heart and consider them, but the House can divide on an Adjournment motion if it wishes, and it has done so frequently.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I am sure that the Leader of the House heard the exchanges with the Minister for Industry and Energy just before half-past 12, in relation to the payments of equal value for the canteen workers and cleaners. Does my right hon. Friend think that, as the matter has not been fully cleared up, the Minister needs to make a full statement so that we can explain to him that, in the House of Lords judgment in the mid-1990s, when almost every pit in Derbyshire closed and the structure of the National Union of Mineworkers had been completely destroyed, no one was available to tell those canteen workers of their rights, despite the fact that the House of Lords called on Ministers to use a broad-brush approach and make ex gratia payments?

Ex gratia payments have been a feature of every Government since I have been a Member of Parliament. There is no bar to them. If my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy needs a way round this, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) provided it for him a few weeks ago. This is a very important moral issue. The people who worked in the canteens, who saw the industry smashed, the structure of the NUM destroyed and who were unable to make their claims, should be allowed to make them, just like those 400 people in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere who managed to get ex gratia payments.

Mr. Cook

I understand the concerns of those who have not been included in the payments. I remind the House that the Government have fully met their commitment that they would make such payments to all those who were included in the submission that was made to the courts. I understand my hon. Friend's feelings in relation to those who were not included in the several hundred who were submitted to the court. As I entered the Chamber, there was a considerable and vigorous exchange on this matter. I am sure that it will continue to be a matter of debate and that he will, no doubt, look for other opportunities, such as that which he has just taken, to press the point.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I ask the Leader of the House to clarify the arrangements for announcing the subjects of Opposition Supply days. The business statement indicated that no subject has yet been allocated for the first half of the debate on Monday, so it seems that many Members will find out what the subject is only when they come to the House and read the Order Paper. Will that now be standard practice? If so, the Liberal Democrat party will take advantage of that, too.

The exchanges this afternoon, as well as those earlier in the week, show the essential need for a full day's debate on the economy, which we always used to have at this time of year, whenever the Chancellor made a major statement. Indeed, the exchanges that have just taken place reinforce that view.

There are few advantages of sitting on the Opposition Benches compared with sitting on the Government Benches, but the Leader of the House may like to note that one advantage is that we can see the expressions on the faces of his colleagues when the Prime Minister answers questions. The expression on the Chancellor's face when his right hon. Friend replied to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) was a picture to behold. It is therefore clear that some questions remain to be answered by the Chancellor and his colleagues, and that that debate on the economy is surely urgent.

Finally, may I ask the Leader of the House to give an undertaking that if, as seems likely, the Lords messages on Wednesday 12 December contain some extremely important views from them on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, not least from his Labour colleagues in the other place, we will be able to give them precedence over the debate on the international situation? That latter debate is simply on the Adjournment of the House. The issues that relate to that Bill are, of course, matters for votes, and I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will feel that those critical issues should not be rushed through the House, especially after our experiences in recent weeks. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that there will be proper time for debate and Divisions on those extremely important issues and that, if necessary, the debate on the international situation will be moved to the next day, when there need not be a vote?

Mr. Cook

It is important that the House should have another full day's debate on international terrorism, because there is a lot of unfinished work yet to be done. I know that many Members will wish to take part in the debate, and we have had a full turnout on previous occasions. I would be reluctant to lose any time from that debate.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about Lords messages. I think that I am correct in saying that, at present, no amendments have been made to the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in the House of Lords. We must obviously monitor the situation closely and consider where we are if amendments are carried. At present, however, I see no reason to interfere with the arrangements that I have outlined.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on studying the faces of my honourable colleagues. We welcome close scrutiny of our faces in all circumstances and at all times. If anything, I have probably had rather more comment in the press about my face than I would necessarily have volunteered for. I can only repeat that the Government are on course to deliver their target, which is a matter of unity among my colleagues.

I share the hon. Gentleman's surprise about the position in which I have been placed in relation to Monday's business. I cannot recall an occasion in my time when we have been left in the dark about what the Opposition wish to debate. There is a case for perhaps turning up for a mystery debate. However, if the Opposition really knew what they wanted to criticise the Government on, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst should have been able to tell us today.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising the matter of the British Government's contribution to the World Health Organisation study into deep vein thrombosis related to air travel? I have received a letter pointing out that the House will be notified shortly as to what that contribution will be. However, I draw his attention to the fact that the first study group will meet in Geneva on 13 December, so it would be appropriate for the Government to report to the House before then.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I take this opportunity to congratulate him on the assiduity with which he has pursued a very serious issue that is of great public concern. I note what he says about the forthcoming meeting and I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to his comments.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) asked the Government for an early statement to clarify their policy on health. In his response, the Leader of the House, far from clarifying it, confused the position. Yesterday the Prime Minister was asked to commit himself to raising health expenditure in our country to the European average by 2005. Is that still the policy of his Government? He replied: Of course it is."—[Official Report, 28 November 2001; Vol. 375. c. 964.] A few moments ago, the Leader of the House said that the year was 2006. Which is it?

Mr. Cook

As I understand it, the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked my right hon. Friend to confirm the commitment that he gave in 2000 to meeting the average of gross domestic product spent on health.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

That is exactly the question that the leader of the Liberal Democrats asked the Prime Minister. In 2000, my right hon. Friend said that we would meet that target within five years of the end of that financial year, so we will meet it in the financial year 2005–06. There is no room for divide here.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 454?

[That this House recognises this Government's endeavour to improve health and safety in the workplace; and welcomes the campaign by Prospect to increase the resources available to the HSE to improve the effectiveness of inspectors to cut deaths and injuries at work as well as to reduce the number of people suffering work-related ill health; and recognises that if the targets set out in Revitalising Safety and Health and Securing Health Together are to be met there must be more inspectors in the field and more resources for the HSE as well as local authority inspectors to ensure working people are safe at work.]

The early-day motion stands in my name and supports the campaign run by the trade union, Prospect, which represents employees of the Health and Safety Executive. It calls more for resources for the executive.

Last year, fatalities in industry increased by 32 per cent., but the number of inspectors out in the field is only 613. There is a drastic need for more resources so that we can recruit more inspectors. Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on health and safety at the earliest possible opportunity?

Mr. Cook

That is a matter of great concern and interest to those who work in industries that have a poor health and safety record. I commend the HSE's work, which I know at first hand from my constituency. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to making sure that the HSE can fulfil the functions that Parliament confers on it. It that means resources, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will consider that.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

May I press the Leader of the House on the Government's timetable for raising health expenditure to the EU average? The Prime Minister clearly stated yesterday, as Hansard records, that that would happen by 2005. Yet today, the Leader of the House says that the timetable has slipped by a full year—in 24 hours. Can the statement be clarified?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to repeat my earlier comments that the commitment that my right hon. Friend confirmed yesterday was made not yesterday but in 2000. He said that in the financial year 2005–06, we would meet the European average. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I find it entertaining that Conservative Members, who fought the general election on a commitment to cut health spending, ask us when we will succeed in raising it to the European average. If Conservative Members ever got their hands on the Dispatch Box, we would not approach the European average but fall away from it.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on the problem of the growing waiting lists in the Bradford metropolitan district for Asian women who want to learn English? They are enthusiastic about it, but they frequently have to wait for more than a year to join one of the excellent classes in the adult education centres.

Mr. Cook

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend about the importance of that. It is part not only of integration but emancipation for Asian women that we make all possible opportunities available to them to learn English and achieve the skills and qualifications that they need to play a full part in our society. Britain has gained immensely from the rich contribution to our economy of Asians who have made Britain their home. We should give them every opportunity to use their talents.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider providing time to discuss the impact of data protection legislation on Members of Parliament when they carry out their constituency work? I am sure that he knows that there is growing anxiety among hon. Members of all parties about that. Changes in legislation that perhaps grant Members of Parliament some element of privilege may be required.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I can promise a debate on the matter. However, I should be happy to hear from any hon. Member who is encountering specific problems that are related to data protection when carrying out their constituency work. I shall pass on the information to the Home Office.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 489.

[That this House notes the call of Amnesty International for a public inquiry into the mass killing of Afghan prisoners at the Qala-i-Jhangi Fort on 25th and 27th November; conscious of the presence of British and American special forces on site during the massacre and the heavy bombardment of the prisoners by the US Air Force, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to support the setting up of such an inquiry; further notes that the Northern Alliance commander of the Fort, General Dostum, is a notorious killer with a long record of war crimes; and reminds Her Majesty's Government and the US Government of the international opprobrium which still surrounds General Ariel Sharon resulting from his 'indirect responsibility' for the massacres in the Sabra and Chatilla camps in Lebanon in 1982, which though committed by others, would not have been possible without his involvement.] Will my right hon. Friend ask the Government to make a statement on the matter? Will he also ask them to state clearly that the perpetrators of the massacres in Kabul and elsewhere, whichever side they are on, will answer for their war crimes at an international criminal court convened by the United Nations?

Mr. Cook

Although I welcome any further information that my hon. Friend wishes to produce, I am not aware of massacres in Kabul. The relative orderliness of life in Kabul has been a remarkable feature of events since the defeat of the Taliban. The great majority of the population have welcomed the defeat and disappearance of the Taliban.

We do not have full information on events in the fortress at Mazar-i-Sharif. It is plainly desirable to acquire more information, and considerable debate will continue on the matter. International law is clear: prisoners' human interests and needs should be respected. However, it is also robust in providing that those who are combatants need not expect to be treated as prisoners of war. The matter for debate is whether the response was appropriate for prisoners who had armed themselves with kalashnikovs, mortar guns and a tank and, in those circumstances, whether it was right to regard them solely as prisoners.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Can the Leader of the House tell us whether there are obstacles to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee meeting in Northern Ireland? Can I have his assurance that he will look into that matter and help facilitate us having such a meeting in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Cook

Offhand, I am not sufficiently familiar with the Standing Orders to give a categorical assurance to the hon. Gentleman. Personally, I see no problem with the Committee meeting in Northern Ireland. I will be happy to examine the matter and write to him.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

My right hon. Friend was asked by the shadow Leader of the House about next Thursday's debate on the motion for the Adjournment, which will be fairly specific because it relates to the common fisheries policy. I think that I heard that there will be a debate on Wednesday on something that is perhaps less specific, described as European affairs. Previously when we have debated European affairs we have been able to hang our speeches on voluminous Commission documents. Are we going to be able to do that this time?

Mr. Cook

As somebody who has introduced many of those debates in the past, I can say with confidence that hon. Members will have all the European documents that any human being could possibly wish for.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Are we going to have a statement from the Government on the farce and scandal of the individual learning accounts? The Secretary of State for Education and Skills told the House: People who already hold ILAs have until 7 December—six weeks—to use them".—[Official Report, 6 November 2001: Vol. 374, c. 129.] Some 1.2 million people received letters from the Government giving them that assurance, but that assurance was broken last week by the Government, without any notice at all and without the House being informed, and more than 1 million ILA holders have now been told that they cannot take up their accounts by 7 December. Is that not scandalous? Why do the Government not come along to the House and admit that it is a farce that deserves to be put under close scrutiny by hon. Members, and what message—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Cook

I am slightly at a loss to understand how the Government can have broken a commitment on 7 December when we are still a week away from that date. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills has written to all hon. Members for the relevant constituencies, advising them that any registered holder of an ILA will have that registration honoured.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

My right hon. Friend will know that Rolls-Royce today announced further job losses across the United Kingdom, many of which are in the north-east. Our region can ill afford to lose those skilled jobs. He will also be aware that the north-east continues to have the highest unemployment in the UK and too often comes bottom of important social and economic indices. We cannot afford to wait for regional government to begin tackling those issues, so can we have an early statement from the Government on when and how they are going to tackle regional disparities, which have gone on for too long and are too great?

Mr. Cook

I share my hon. Friend's concern about the impact on his constituents and others of job losses in the present circumstances. I understand why he wants to press for an opportunity to ensure that it is raised in the House, and I will convey his comments to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Would the Leader of the House let us have a debate as soon as possible on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation? That would give us the opportunity to debate the age of Greek aircraft and the competence of the Greek Air Force to distinguish between tourists and spies. Does he realise that there is growing anger in Wiltshire that the Greek Government seem to have the resources, time and energy to pursue plane spotters, but do not have the resources, time and energy to pursue the assassination of Britain's defence attaché in Athens only a couple of years ago? Does he also realise that that is a scandal and makes Greece look ridiculous?

Mr. Cook

I remember the assassination of our defence attaché and I visited Athens at the time to express my concern. We continue to assist in any way that we can in tracking down those who were responsible for the assassination, to ensure that they are brought to justice and that the terrorist threat is eliminated.

On those British citizens who have been detained on a charge of espionage, I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and the broad concern of the British public. That is why we have raised the matter at a variety of levels—between the Prime Ministers, between the Foreign Secretaries, between the European Ministers and between the Defence Ministers—and why we will continue to press Britain's concerns.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Following the welcome statement yesterday on the future management of the financial liabilities of the nuclear Railtrack, given the continuing debate about the future management of radioactive waste—that held by British Nuclear Fuels, the Ministry of Defence and private generators—and given the continuing debate about the role of nuclear generation in the future mix of energy supply, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is an overwhelming case for a debate on the future of the nuclear industry? Does he agree also that it is remarkable how little time is given to debating the industry in the House? Had more time been given over many years, perhaps fewer mistakes might have been made. Can he find Government time for a debate on the industry in the near future?

Mr. Cook

I shall happily add that request to the growing list of requests that I have for debates. Of course, there are other ways in which my hon. Friend can seek an opportunity to raise the matters to which he has referred.

We attached importance to ensuring that the House received a full oral statement at the earliest possible opportunity after the BNFL statement, and that took place yesterday. I cannot promise that there will be a further opportunity in the Chamber to debate these matters next week.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

The Government's position on their commitments to health spending is still extremely murky. May we have an early statement to clarify what the Government mean by "European average"? Does that refer to Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, or does it mean the European Union? If we mean the EU, is it the EU as constituted, or is it the EU in 2005 or 2006, which could include the accession of several countries from eastern Europe? If that is the case, are the Government hoping that the average will come down and the EU will meet us halfway? Could we have a specific percentage target?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure to what extent the hon. Gentleman's question has illuminated this issue. I rather suspect that if we took the wide interpretation that he is proposing, we would already have surpassed the average gross domestic product. Therefore, I am happy to put him at rest on this point. When we have referred to the average, we have been referring to the existing members of the European Union.

The hon. Gentleman believes, to use his word, that our commitment on health spending is "murky". I would welcome some clarity on what exactly is the commitment of Conservative Members on health spending, and whether they intend to meet the EU average or the average of the countries of central and eastern Europe.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The international community should keep a close watch on happenings in post-Taliban Afghanistan. That is the view of those of us who fully supported the military operation.

Would it be possible to have a statement next week so that a Minister could announce a public debate on whether health care should be provided, as now, largely through the national health service, or through private insurance, which to a large extent is now Conservative policy? Would not it be useful if the country had such a debate so that we could ascertain whether our view on maintaining the NHS for all is one that is generally approved of? I am sure that it is.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a tempting suggestion for a debate. I shall promote it as a priority on my list of issues awaiting debate. I agree that it is clear from the evidence that has been produced during the week that the way in which we fund the national health service out of general taxation provides the most efficient, fairest and most universal system of health care. We look forward to the Opposition telling us whether they are willing to destroy that.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I join those who have called for greater clarity from the Government on the question of health spending. Has the Leader of the House not realised that as Britain increases expenditure on health, so the amount of the European average will increase? If any other member state were also to increase its expenditure on health, the average would effectively translate into a moving target. Will he clarify how we are supposed to hit that target?

Mr. Cook

These questions are descending from the entertaining into the pathetic. Despite the right hon. Gentleman's befuddled arithmetic, the fact is that we have closed the gap over the past four years. We shall continue to do so over the next five years, and we shall succeed in matching the average in 2005–06.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

The Chancellor's pre-Budget report includes on page 114 an important commitment to review the fairness of public expenditure across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. In light of the answer that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), will he at least consider referring that issue and all issues related to my hon. Friend's points about rising employment problems in the north-east to the Committee of the Regions?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has identified a valid forum in which to explore the issue which, I know, is of great importance to him and other Members. It is vital to reflect the regional variety and dimension of the United Kingdom—one of the strengths of our country—in our debates and ensure that our forums reflect that adequately. I am pleased that the Government have given that commitment. From what my hon. Friend said, I take it that he welcomes that commitment, and I am sure that he and others will want opportunities to make sure that the Government deliver it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the right hon. Gentleman, as Leader of the House and a member of the House of Commons Commission, give the House the opportunity to discuss the facilities for visitors to the House? Does he agree that when constituents come to the House of Commons they should be treated equally and fairly? At present, they are not.

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree. Indeed, during the time in which I have been Leader of the House, I have reflected on the fact that, as a Parliament, we miss an immense opportunity to convey to the tens of thousands of people who come to Parliament the importance of the Commons as an expression of democracy in the United Kingdom. I welcome the fact that, at present, they have adequate opportunity to see our buildings, study our architecture and consider our history, but we should look at ways in which we can ensure that they also receive a message about the importance of a contemporary Parliament and its role in our democracy. I shall wish to explore that with the Modernisation Committee.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on regional development agencies? That would give a Minister an opportunity to explain that the Government have insisted—rightly, to my mind—that those agencies are business-led. However, neither the chairman nor the vice-chairman of the regional development agency for the north-east of England are from the business sector, and it has just summarily got rid of representatives from the Confederation of British Industry and the chamber of commerce. If my right hon. Friend cannot find time for a debate, will he look into the matter and tell us what is going on?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's invitation but, if he will forgive me, I shall decline to dip my toe into that particularly hot water and leave it to the region itself to resolve the issue. However, on the generality of what he said, I am conscious of a number of regional issues that are a matter of legitimate public debate and interest; I am also conscious of our obligation as a Parliament to ensure that they can be ventilated. I certainly want to look at our procedures and opportunities to make sure that there are adequate chances for Members to raise issues of concern to their regions.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

I wonder if the Leader of the House can help me. If a Bill is considered and passed on a Sewel motion in the Scottish Parliament, but is significantly amended by the House making aspects of it substantially different, should it not go back to the Scottish Parliament for further consideration and approval? If not, why not?

Mr. Cook

The short answer is that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman without notice, but I shall reflect on his point. So far, we have not experienced the difficulty of amendments changing the character of the Bill so much that it would require a fresh Sewel motion. However, I can assure him that we maintain close contact with our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. So far, that contact has worked to the advantage of both the Scottish Parliament and this place, but we shall certainly wish to discuss any such difficulties.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Can the Leader of the House find time to arrange a debate on the charter of BBC 'Wales and language discrimination? That would enable us to debate the reasons why the vast majority of the people in Wales who do not speak the Welsh language are increasingly excluded from senior positions and why BBC Wales is now sacking people, not just because they do not speak the language but because their accent is not Welsh enough—that was agreed in a recent court ruling. We could also debate the reason why every controller of BBC 'Wales in the past 50 years has been a Welsh speaker and 'why 25 members of a 30-strong political unit are Welsh speakers. The vast majority of people in Wales are now being excluded or discriminated against by BBC Wales.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his point with great force and vigour. I expect that other hon. Members from 'Wales may wish to express a contrary point of view with equal vigour and clarity. I would strongly support the right of anybody to take part in broadcasting or any other activity, irrespective of their accent.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Leader of the House agree to the request from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for an early debate on the ministerial refusal to answer questions? The issue is the reply to my question about emergency legislation to prevent an application for interim review from Railtrack, and an answer that was given to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). Since when do internal communications cover draft legislation that is due to come before the House?

Mr. Cook

Any draft legislation is necessarily the subject of internal communication within the Government. That is not particularly new, nor is it an invention of this Government, as opposed to the previous Government. I listened with care to what the Speaker said to the House yesterday. It is important that the House accepts his advice and pursues the matter through the two relevant Select Committees that he mentioned. I anticipate that in the fullness of time we will have a debate on the Procedure Committee's report on questions.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Rolls-Royce is by far the largest employer in Pendle. It came as a real shock—a body blow—to learn from the company this morning that up to one third of the employees at the two Rolls-Royce plants in Barnoldswick, where I live, are to lose their jobs. My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) referred to the crisis in aerospace. Is not the situation serious enough for an early statement from the relevant Ministers to the House next week, to see what the Government can do to help the industry, which is in crisis? We all understand that the Government cannot force people back on to aeroplanes, but there are steps that the Government can take and should be taking to help that high-tech leading-edge industry, which needs our help now.

Mr. Cook

I entirely understand why the impact of such a large number of job losses in my hon. Friend's constituency is a matter of deep concern to him and to his constituents. I am glad that he has had the opportunity of drawing the House's attention to that deep concern. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be following the matter closely, and the Government will want to do anything they can to assist, within the reasonable bounds that my hon. Friend outlined. I shall make sure that my hon. Friend hears from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry as soon as possible.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I refer the Leader of the House to the ongoing crisis in the countryside as a result of the foot and mouth epidemic. He is a countryman; he has lived in the New Forest, he spent much of the last Parliament at Chevening, and he spends a lot of time at the racecourse. He must understand the dismay. Has not the time come for the Government to arrange a full and comprehensive public inquiry? What is his personal view?

Mr. Cook

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for polishing my rural credentials. I shall plead them in aid next time we have an exchange on rural affairs. The Government have appointed three separate inquiries into the foot and mouth episode. We have constructed them in a way that will enable us to learn the lessons as soon as possible and get on with them. I honestly believe that it is in the interests of the countryside and of all hon. Members that we get those answers and learn those lessons as quickly as possible, and that we do not devise new ways to delay finding out what we need to do next.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

The Leader of the House will note that the Opposition are to give us an Opposition day debate on the funding of the English national stadium. No doubt we will be expected to engage in the usual yah-boo and synthetic anger between the two Dispatch Boxes, and then the matter will be swept up. The question should have been put to the Prime Minister on Wednesday last week, and would have been if we had an effective Opposition. If I am expected to go through the Division Lobby with the usual ritual, I expect the Minister to tell us what mandates there were to hand over a large sum of money to a very profitable English soccer industry, where the money is now, when it will come back and how much will come hack. I need to know those things before being expected to acquiesce by my silence to something that looks to me to be highly irregular.

Mr. Cook

I assure my hon. Friend that silence is not something that I would ever expect to demand of him. I shall give my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who will be speaking in that debate, advanced notice of his concerns. I share his sense of puzzlement about why the Opposition have singled out this subject for debate when they have failed to raise it with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister even though they have had ample opportunity to do so.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland comes to the House to make an early statement clarifying the role and term of office of the de Chastelain commission in Northern Ireland? Given that the remit of that body runs out in February 2002, and in light of the Secretary of State's remarks yesterday, will he assure the House that there will be no further attempt to push back the deadline or to fudge the issue of the complete handover of all IRA weapons? Has it not come to the time when the people of Northern Ireland deserve a situation in which the republican movement gives up all its weapons or is put out of the government of this part of the United Kingdom?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be answering questions in the House next Wednesday, when the hon. Gentleman and others can raise those issues with him. I shall continue to have close dialogue with him.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May we have a debate on GM contamination? My right hon. Friend will be aware of this morning's news that contaminated maize has turned up in a remote area of Mexico that is separated by some 60 miles and several years from the last recorded GM plantings in California. Given that the UK has paltry separation distances, that UK farmers cannot get insurance against GM contamination and that we have been consistently blocked from having a GM producer liability regime by the industry that wants to pursue the trials, could we have an urgent debate to dispel the public myth and criticism that UK policy is increasingly either in the pay or the pockets of a biotech industry that is currently driven by a bunch of crooks and shysters?

Mr. Cook

I anticipate that there would be considerable difficulty for me, including with you, Mr. Speaker, if I were to assent to my hon. Friend's last proposition. I am aware of his vigorous views and I know that the issue to which he refers polarises opinions sharply. Evidence from Mexico or anywhere else is a matter that the Government will seriously consider as we take forward the debate.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

A few short weeks ago, I raised with the Prime Minister at Question Time the case of my constituent, Councillor Tony Lanchester, who was at that time suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, but could not be given the drugs that he needed because the South Staffordshire health authority did not have the money to prescribe them. I must tell you, Mr. Speaker, that, since then, he has died. He died because his immune system was reduced as he was not getting the drugs that he needed. A problem that all hon. Members face from time to time is that of health authorities hiding behind the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and saying that because NICE is investigating a drug, they cannot prescribe it. That is the not the case. Can we have a debate so that it is made clear to health authorities and all hon. Members that if a drug is available, a consultant who wishes to prescribe it may do so, even if it is being investigated by NICE?

Mr. Cook

May I express to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents the deep sympathy of the whole House about the death of his constituent? When speaking about such issues, it is appropriate for all of us to respond with respect for the family concerned. This is not a matter that would be appropriate for a party political debate.

I shall take on board what the hon. Gentleman said about NICE and refer his remarks to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. However, I think that the principle of NICE was right. We should have a central body that can consider with medical and scientific expertise the drugs that are coming on to the market and establish whether they represent a clinical advantage and value for money. That is appropriate in an age where it is important to ensure that we get value for money from our new, fresh investment in the health service. That must be the right way forward and I do not want to disturb that principle.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

The Leader of the House has already heard concern expressed from the north-east and the north-west about job losses in the aerospace industry. Given that 225 jobs were lost this morning at the Rolls-Royce factory at Hucknall, can we have an early opportunity to debate what short-term steps can be taken to maintain high-skill, high-technology, high-value jobs in a sector that obviously has a long-term future?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important aspect of this matter, which is that we should not lose a skilled, experienced work force through short-term difficulties, when we shall require that team to work and produce for Britain in the long term. I note that several points have been raised this afternoon by hon. Members concerned by the Rolls-Royce statement, and I am sure that Rolls-Royce will also note the deep concern that it will cause in Members' constituencies and in the Chamber.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern at being repeatedly pressed on the question of health spending. However, that is nothing compared with the irritation of the Chancellor when he heard the Prime Minister's statement yesterday. The fact is that we get sharper and clearer answers from the Leader of the House than we could ever expect from the Prime Minister. Will he, therefore, tell us whether the Government's commitment to raising health expenditure refers to overall health expenditure in the EU, or merely to Government health expenditure in the EU? Will he also tell us whether the Government's commitment refers to total health expenditure in this country or merely to Government health expenditure in this country?

Mr. Cook

I speak without having had an opportunity to examine the footnotes to the statistics but, as I understand it, we are discussing the overall envelope of health spending in both cases. But the great majority of that, whether we are considering the European Union figure or the UK figure, is public spending, and that will drive the increase. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, but, I should be grateful if he did not try to dig a deep hole for me with regard to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there has been a proposal floating around for a few years now to the effect that there should be an EU-wide ban on cosmetics that have been tested on animals. I now find that, according to a letter from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the European Commission has decided that such a ban might offend the sensibilities of the World Trade Organisation. This is disappointing, but hardly surprising as the Commission spends all its time kissing the corporate backside. Nevertheless, could we have a statement or debate on the issue?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter into which I would hesitate to enter without having had the opportunity to brief myself, but I note what he says. I share his concern, and the Government are committed to ensuring that we minimise the suffering caused to animals through animal testing, and to ensuring that, whenever possible, we proceed in ways that do not require animal testing. I am sure that my hon. Friends in the relevant Departments will wish to take on board his comments.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the Leader of the House bear in mind the clear commitment of the Government, notwithstanding the passage of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, to continue to have debates on London affairs on the Floor of the House? Following his statements today, it seems unlikely that the Government will find time for such a debate before Christmas. Is that because they are concerned that the Prime Minister's statement on the modernisation of the tube through a public-private partnership as the best way forward would be unsustainable in a debate, or is there some other reason that they are unwilling to reveal?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to reveal that the reason why we are unlikely to have such a debate before Christmas is that there are two and a half weeks before the Christmas recess, and in the course of these proceedings I have heard enough bids for debates to fill up all that time. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that nobody in the Government imagines that this matter will not have further ventilation in the House and in public. We would expect there to be further discussions, and I have no doubt that hon. Members will wish to express their views in the course of them.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Would my right hon. Friend care to take this opportunity to debunk some of the more fanciful reports in the weekend papers that the Modernisation Committee is about to recommend new working hours for the House? Will he confirm that the Modernisation Committee has not yet had the opportunity to discuss working hours or the parliamentary calendar, and that, when it does, there is not the remotest possibility of proposals to impose a nine-to-five culture on this place ever seeing the light of day?

Mr. Cook

I hope that this does not disappoint any hon. Member, but my hon. Friend is correct. Claims that the House could ever meet from 10 am to 5pm are unsourced and unchecked with my Department. They are also total garbage. I am sorry that what was once a serious newspaper should have found it in itself to run that story without bothering to discover whether it has any credibility.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Leader of the House find time before Christmas for a debate to explore the energy options in the light of the performance and innovation unit energy review, which is due soon? That would enable us to ensure that we replace nuclear with nuclear to achieve a safe, secure, environmentally friendly and affordable energy supply for the medium and long-term future of this country.

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Gentleman knows, energy policy is being reviewed and the nuclear component is part of that review. At an appropriate time, the House and its Committees will express a view on the issue.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

And finally, Mr. Speaker, is not the right hon. Gentleman's confidence in the Government meeting their health spending target based on the trick of including UK health spending in the European average? Any fool knows that UK health spending brings the European average down. If it is excluded, there is not a cat in hell's chance of the Government reaching the European average. Does not the very nature of this morning's exchanges confirm that we need at least a statement on the issue, if not a full debate?

Mr. Cook

There is only one way in which to resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the House: my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills must arrange a seminar in the Grand Committee Room on how to calculate percentages. In the meantime, I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), we have closed the gap over the past four years; we shall continue to close it over the next five. We await with great interest the opinion of Conservative Members on how much wider that gap would be if they ever got into office.