HC Deb 11 April 2002 vol 383 cc151-69 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader for the business for next week, please?

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

I would be delighted to answer the right hon. Gentleman's question. The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 15 APRIL—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 16 APRIL—There will be a debate on the middle east on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 17 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will open his Budget statement.

THURSDAY 18 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

FRIDAY 19 APRIL—Private Members' Bills. The provisional business for the week after will be:

MONDAY 22 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate.

TUESDAY 23 APRIL—Conclusion of the Budget debate.

WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose an Humble Address to celebrate the golden jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, followed by Second Reading of a Bill, the nature of which I will confirm next week.

THURSDAY 25 APRIL—There will be a debate on international development on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 26 APRIL—There will be a debate on the quality of life in local communities on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I am aware that many hon. Members are interested in the future of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, which had to be dropped earlier this week. I assure the House that we shall bring that Bill back at an early opportunity, and we are confident that we can take it through in this Session.

Mr. Forth

Are you?

Mr. Cook

I note the right hon. Gentleman's observation.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 23 April 2002, there will be a debate relating to total allowable catches and quotas 2002 in European Standing Committee A.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 24 April 2002, there will be a debate relating to food hygiene in European Standing Committee C.

[Tuesday 23 April 2002]:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 14130/01, draft Council regulation fixing for 2002 the fishing opportunities and associated conditions for certain fish stocks and groups offish stocks, applicable in Community waters and for Community vessels in waters where limitations in catch are required; 15238/01, draft Council regulation fixing for 2002 the fishing opportunities for deep-sea stocks; 6918/02, draft Council regulation establishing specific access requirements and associated conditions applicable to fishing for deep-sea stocks; relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 152-x, HC-152-xviii, HC 152-xxii, HC 152-xxiii (2001–02).

Wednesday 24 April:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 10427/00, draft Council regulation on the hygiene of foodstuffs; draft Council regulation laying down specific hygiene rules for food of animal origin; draft Council regulation laying down detailed rules for the organisation of official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption; draft Council regulation laying down the animal health rules governing the production, placing on the market and importation of products of animal origin intended for human consumption; draft Council directive repealing certain directives on the hygiene of foodstuffs and the health conditions for the production and placing on the market of certain products of animal origin intended for human consumption and amending directives 89/662/EEC and 91/67/EEC; 15475/01, Commission communication on the withdrawal of the proposal for a regulation laying down detailed rules for the organisation of official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption; relevant European Scrutiny Committee reports: HC 28-iii (2000–01), and HC 152-xxxx (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader for giving us the business for next week and a hint of what lies beyond.

Yesterday, at column 42 of Hansard, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) raised the issue of the traffic chaos surrounding the Palace of Westminster. Indeed, I believe that, as a result of that chaos, the Leader of the House was delayed in getting to the House yesterday to chair a Committee. We have chaos on the roads and chaotic railways, and, just recently, we had completely chaotic airlines. Who is the guilty man behind all of this? Can the House guess what is the common thread between chaotic roads, chaotic railways and chaotic airlines? I suggest to the Leader of the House that he try to identify that guilty man, bring him to the House and have him answer all these questions.

Talking of airlines and airways, did not we all tell the Government that what they were doing to air traffic control would be a disaster? Even many Labour Members said that it would be a disaster. The fact is that air traffic control has run out of money. Apparently, it is running out of runways and, now, it is running out of aeroplanes as well. We were told before 1997 that the air was not for sale. It now appears that the air is not for flying either.

I was talking of guilty men. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions appears to have sneaked out yet another announcement, this time—disgracefully—under cover of the funeral of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. The odd thing about this one is that it appeared on something called a website but apparently without an accompanying press release. Uniquely, we seem now to have the Jo Moore memorial non-press release. However, we no longer have Jo Moore or that nice Mr. Sixsmith to blame, so who does the Leader of the House imagine is to blame for all this

Is it not clear that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions must step forward and take responsibility for this recidivism, as he seems unable to give up committing this offence repeatedly? We ought to get to the bottom of the matter and understand the right hon. Gentleman's psychology, since he needs help.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked about post office closures. Memorably, he answered: No, it is not correct that 3,000 offices are scheduled to close. What is correct, however, is that there needs to be a major programme of change within the Post Office."—[Official Report, 10 April 2002: Vol. 383, c. 125.] We need a debate on this matter to flush out the truth. Are there to be 5,000 closures, or nearly 3,000, or will the number be completely different? Does the Prime Minister have a clue about how many offices will close, and does he care? When asked a specific question about a matter of great importance to people in both town and countryside, the Prime Minister was, as usual, quite unprepared to give any sort of answer. Can we therefore please have an urgent debate on what is going to happen to our post office network? If the Prime Minister is not prepared to answer that question, perhaps another Minister will come forward and do so.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his helpful questions. If I were to attempt to parade before the House the guilty people responsible for the difficulty of air traffic chaos, I should have to produce many members of the previous Administration. I do not know which planet the right hon. Gentleman inhabits when he is not here in the Chamber, but I routinely and regularly fly between Edinburgh and Heathrow and I can tell him that difficulties with air traffic control computers did not begin in June 1997.

As for the eccentric idea that this Government should have adopted the Conservative Government's plans for involving the private sector in air traffic control, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that those plans amounted to complete privatisation, in which all responsibility would have been handed over to the private sector. That would have left us in a worse position than at present. We are involved in seeking a way forward so that we can find a solution.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

A final solution?

Mr. Cook

The phrase that I used was "find a solution", and I hope that the record is correct on that point.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst accused the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions of having sneaked out a report on its website yesterday. That report was a private paper from private sector consultants to an official seminar at which there was no ministerial attendance. The Department was under no obligation whatsoever to publish the report at all. Indeed, if the Department had wanted to suppress the report, it would have been simplest not to publish it, as there is no requirement to do so. It is to the Department's credit that it pursues a policy of transparency. Every month, 200 documents are placed on its website—many more than was the case under the previous Administration.

If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst really wishes to raise questions about people who have sought to conceal from the public what they wish to say—

Mr. Forth

I can see what is coming.

Mr. Cook

I am glad, but the right hon. Gentleman should have seen this coming before he raised the question. He may wish to have a word with his party's health spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He told a private meeting of Conservative doctors that the advantage of speaking to them was that he would not read about it afterwards in The Mirror. I am delighted to say that we can find a full account of the meeting in The Mirror. It fully displays the intentions of Conservative Members to dismantle the NHS, if they ever get their hands on it. In the very week when we have shown dramatic reductions in out-patient and in-patient waiting lists, the Conservatives' health spokesman has told the nation that the national health service cannot work and will not work, and that they intend to dismantle it and replace it with private health care.

On the Post Office or Consignia—whichever term the House wishes to use—

Mr. Forth

Post Office.

Mr. Cook

I am happy for the right hon. Gentleman to live in the past, and we shall accept his terminology when it comes to Consignia.

The Prime Minister is right that there has to be substantial change within Consignia or the Post Office. The Post Office is losing millions of pounds, which amounts to a heavy annual debt. I have a simple question for the Conservatives, which I note the right hon. Gentleman did not attempt to answer: how do they propose to pursue their policy of cutting taxation and public spending if they are not prepared to embrace the case for change in the Post Office?

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

May I encourage my right hon. Friend to ignore the sedentary comment by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to the effect that there is no hurry to reintroduce the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill? There is an urgent need to ensure that advertising of tobacco products is outlawed for the thousands of people whose lives can be saved by not being encouraged to take up that appalling habit.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support. I assure the House that it is the Government's intention to reintroduce the Bill. We adopted it when it came from the House of Lords precisely because we are fully committed to it. Indeed, it reflects the text of the Bill that we introduced in the previous Session. I assure hon. Members that it will be timetabled in a way that enables it to be passed this Session.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I warmly welcome the statement by the Leader of the House on the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, introduced in the other place by my colleague Lord Clement-Jones?

I was also delighted to hear the robust exchange on the Post Office and the reference to the question put to the Prime Minister yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to some of the serious problems in the Post Office? Our office received a letter today—I cannot read the exact date on the envelope because it is smudged—addressed to David Lloyd George, which suggests that there are delays in the postal service that need to be urgently addressed.

On a more serious matter, I notice that yesterday the Lord Chancellor said in the other place that he hoped to publish the responses to the White Paper on Lords reform shortly. How shortly is shortly? In addition, may we have a general discussion soon, although obviously not within the next two weeks, on a review of the constitution? I am sure the Leader of the House is well aware of the great public and media interest, especially over the past few days, in the role of the monarchy in the 21st century. That is part of the tripartite nature of the British constitution—the two Houses of Parliament and the sovereign.

Given the conventions on discussing the monarchy in this place and our responsibility for monitoring some of the statutes that affect the monarchy—notably, the Act of Settlement of 1701—surely it is time to review the unequal rights of women and the ban on Roman Catholics in the succession, and to reconsider the transparency of the allocation of the civil list, for which the House is responsible. There is talk in the media about the publication of an annual report. Do the Government have a view on that?

Will the Leader of the House address that issue seriously and urgently? I hope he agrees that it is ridiculous that the pubs, clubs and media of this country can discuss the important topic of the future of the monarchy, yet here in the House of Commons we are prevented from doing just that.

Mr. Cook

I fully apologise to the Liberal Democrats if they have only just received a letter to David Lloyd George. All three major parties represented in the House must share the blame for that, since it plainly transcends Governments led by them all.

I acknowledge the work carried out by Lord Clement-Jones on the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to complete that work within this Chamber.

I, too, want the responses to the White Paper on the reform of the House of Lords to be published as soon as possible. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, I said at a previous Question Time that the bulk of those responses show support among the public for a substantially elected second Chamber.

The Government have no proposals, no intentions and no plans—I want to leave no room for misunderstanding on this—to change the monarchy. As Foreign Secretary I had the privilege of serving with the Queen on a number of foreign visits and I want to record my immense respect for the way in which she fulfils a very difficult and delicate role. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that if we are to maintain the relevance of and respect for the monarchy, it is important that we take sensible, modern steps towards modernisation. If the House can develop a consensus on these matters, we will be willing to respond to it, but it is not an issue on which the Government should be taking a lead.

As the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of equality between the sexes, I think that all hon. Members will wish to applaud the leadership role played by Princess Anne during the recent royal funeral in demonstrating the importance of that equality among members of the royal family.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has my right hon. Friend had the chance to study today's article by the distinguished journalist Nick Davies, in which he reveals the surprising fact that the richest family in the United Kingdom pay next to no income tax? In fact, they make a profit out of the tax system because the subsidies that they receive from their farms bring in a greater income than the tiny amount that they pay in income tax. Should not we take a look at a regime under which families with low or average earnings pay under a very efficient pay-as-you-go system, but billionaires and millionaire farmers pay under a pay-if-you-like system?

Mr. Forth

Good soundbite.

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman is right; I congratulate my hon. Friend on his soundbite. I read the article with interest this morning—I try to read all articles before the business statement—and reflected that I might wish to contact the family concerned for advice on my tax return, as they are doing substantially better than I am.

The tax returns of an individual household are of course a matter for it and for the Inland Revenue, but I am sure that my hon. Friends who are in charge of the Inland Revenue will note my hon. Friend's comments.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

What has been the outcome of the discussions between officials in the right hon. Gentleman's Department and in that of the Lord Chancellor about the implications of the data protection legislation for Members of Parliament?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is of grave concern to many hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I fully share those concerns. We have got into a position in which the data protection provisions are being applied in a way that nobody anticipated or intended when the Act was passed. It is rather strange to be told that if we take up the case of a constituent who has come to see us we are breaching their privacy, even though they approached us for help in the first place. We are exploring ways in which we might resolve the matter, possibly with the Data Protection Commissioner by means of guidelines; if not, I stand ready to ensure that we amend the law to protect the rights of hon. Members and their constituents.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to bringing back the Tobacco and Advertising Promotion Bill at an early date. That is very good news.

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about homelessness among young people? Next week, three young people from Wales will come up to Westminster to show hon. Members a film called "Cold Light", which gives their experience of homelessness, generally caused by violence in their homes, drug addiction and many other tragic circumstances.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for welcoming my comments on the tobacco Bill.

Homelessness is a grave and serious issue for those affected by it, and it is important in the overall context of rising housing and property prices that we should not forget people who are squeezed out of safe, secure and affordable accommodation. My hon. Friend will be aware that the matter has been actively under consideration in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions for the past two Sessions, and I hope that we may be able to bring it before the House again in the not too distant future.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

In his earlier response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Leader of the House referred to a meeting held at the Conservative party conference in Harrogate. He referred to it as a private meeting; it was not. Not only was it a public meeting, but a member of the Labour party was there by invitation, as a courtesy. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to discover the nature of the "free at the point of delivery" health service over which his Administration is presiding, perhaps he would like to visit North Thanet to meet some of my constituents who are currently paying for hip, eye, cataract and other operations that they cannot get under this Government.

Mr. Cook


Mr. Gale

Whoa, I have not finished yet.

In February, I asked the Prime Minister whether he would name the companies on whose behalf he had written to other authorities. In a written parliamentary answer, he declined to do so and referred me to another answer, so I wrote to him on the subject and asked him to answer the question that I had actually asked. Yesterday, I received a letter from the Prime Minister saying that he has written to other people on behalf of many companies that he is not prepared to name, pleading exemption 13 of the code of practice on access to Government information.

I have read section 13 of the code of practice, which mentions confidences, trade secrets or intellectual property whose unwarranted disclosure would harm the competitive position of a third party. I do not believe that that code of practice was designed to protect the Prime Minister from disclosing support for his cronies. Can we please have an early debate on the code of practice on access to Government information, so that we can amend it if necessary?

Mr. Cook

I do think that there is a danger that the hon. Gentleman is getting totally out of touch with reality. Frankly, it is to the Prime Minister's credit that he has written on behalf of many companies in Great Britain to promote their interests, and it has been the practice of Prime Ministers over the years to do so. Indeed, if my right hon. Friend refused to write on behalf of companies to pursue their commercial interests, there would be a wave of criticism from the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches.

On the health service, of course I fully understand, as all Labour Members do, that people have been waiting too long in some cases. That is why we want to reduce the waiting list times, and I am delighted to say that the report of the chief executive of the NHS this week showed that the number waiting for more than 15 months has fallen from 80,000 at the last election to only two in the present context.

We intend to continue that enormous improvement, but it would, of course, be totally thrown away if we ever ended up with the Conservative health spokesman in charge of the health service, given his own view that the NHS cannot work and will not work and his statement at that meeting—I gather that the hon. Gentleman is aware of it—that the big growth market in the United Kingdom is in people paying for health care from their own savings. That is the perfect dividing line between us—under the Conservatives, people will pay from their savings; under the Labour Government, we will pay for the NHS from taxation.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield. Attercliffe)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that we will have a debate on the quality of life. I hope that there will be an opportunity in that debate to discuss the fact that many people's quality of life is ruined by the antisocial behaviour of a handful of their neighbours. That happened in the Westfield estate in my constituency during the Easter recess. While we were discussing a response to those issues, a great welcome was expressed for the statement, made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, that he intends to give local authorities and other landlords greater powers to evict in those circumstances, as well as the Home Secretary's statement that he will speed up the ways in which antisocial behaviour orders can be obtained. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have an opportunity in that debate to express our concerns on those matters and press for the introduction of those reforms as quickly possible.

Mr. Cook

All hon. Members will be aware from their constituency surgeries that the issue that my hon. Friend raises is a pressing one in so many areas, not only rural as well as urban, but suburban as well as in city centres. He obviously has an excellent contribution to make in the forthcoming debate and—with respect to you, Mr. Speaker—he will be guided on what is appropriate. The debate is to take place on a motion for the Adjournment; it can be wide ranging, and we hope that it will provide an opportunity to explore the ways in which we can improve the quality of life in local communities.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange time for the House to debate the suitability, or otherwise, of the well known Australian property developer and pop impresario Lord Levy—who masquerades as the Government's envoy to the middle east and who caused the right hon. Gentleman such trouble by meddling in the middle east during the period when he was a distinguished Foreign Secretary—to continue in that role without being in any way accountable to Parliament at one of the most difficult and serious passages of international affairs for many years? Will the right hon. Gentleman see what he can do to bring him before Parliament?

Mr. Cook

I must correct the hon. Gentleman on one point that he made—[Laughter]—indeed, on several points that he made. Lord Levy did not cause me any difficulty during my time as Foreign Secretary. Indeed, he and I worked very closely together. [Interruption.] We certainly did. He travelled with me on a number of occasions in the middle east and throughout the week that I spent there in October 2000 at the start of the intifada. He was of immense value at the meetings that I attended on those occasions.

This is a time of grave trouble in the middle east—worse than I have ever known. The hope of a resumption of peace is weaker and more faded than at any time I can recall. It is therefore very important that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Office should use all the resources and assets available to them. Lord Levy has a range of contacts which he is able to use with great skill and diplomatic charm.

Mr. Soames

Lord Levy is a great nuisance to all the ambassadors.

Mr. Cook

I have never met an ambassador anywhere in the middle east who in any way has resented what Lord Levy has done. On the contrary, he has opened doors to many of them that would otherwise have been closed.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

My right hon. Friend will know that I, many of my hon. Friends and Members across the House are concerned about the problem of the participation of young people in the political process and the small numbers who apparently take an interest in the affairs of this House. Will he consider when talking to his hon. Friends and others whether it would be possible in organising the business of the House to provide a slot—perhaps 10 minutes—to discuss issues relating just to young people, as we have in respect of issues relating to women? Would not that be an incredible symbol to the young people of this country of the importance that we give to matters of concern to them?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has written to me with his proposition and I responded by saying that I fully understand the reason why he suggests that we should have a distinctive and separate slot for questions on youth policy, but since the Home Office is responsible for youth policy, the first call on the matter must remain with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, as it would be out of that Department's Question Time that such a slot would have to be found. The issue would have to be looked at in the round and the consequences weighed, although I fully appreciate the fact that my hon. Friend has raised an interesting point which underlines his interest in youth policy.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Has the Leader of the House noticed that a number of his right hon. and hon. Friends have taken to addressing him just as "Leader"? Is there any significance that we should attach to that development?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Don't tell Gordon.

Mr. Salmond

I hope that Hansard caught that.

On a serious issue, the Leader of the House will have seen the publicity in Scotland about Dungavel detention centre and early-day motion 1060, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing), which expresses concern.

[That this House notes with concern reports of conditions in the Dungavel Detention Centre for asylum seekers, with the lack of privacy and no freedom of movement effectively creating a prison environment for people who are guilty of no offence, including young children; further notes with concern the reported suicide attempt by Nigerian asylum seeker Mr. Dotun Adeosun in Dungavel; and calls on the Home Office to accede to requests by human rights groups, such as the Friends of Refugees in Ayrshire, to have wider access to visit and meet asylum seekers at the Dungavel Centre and provide them with support, and to inspect conditions for detainees.] Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is widespread concern that people who have committed no crime, including children, are effectively being held in prison conditions? Given that we are some distance from the next Home Office questions, will he arrange a statement for next week or at some other suitable moment on whether the conditions in detention centres are appropriate and on the rights of inspection by human rights groups? There is substantial concern that he should be addressing.

Mr. Cook

I shall overlook the hon. Gentleman's characteristically mischievous opening line, and tell the House that I am delighted—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I am far too humble to be flattered. I am perfectly happy in my present role and would not wish any Member to suggest anything that should remove me from it.

The particular point raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) is of course a devolved matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my colleagues in the Scottish Executive and to the Home Secretary.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of yesterday's lobby of the House of Commons by postal workers, which closely followed reports last week, particularly in Tribune—a newspaper known and loved by Labour Members old and new. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Perhaps it is known and loved on the Opposition Benches too. The reports were to the effect that the Department of Trade and Industry had been planning to flog off the Royal Mail to the Dutch post office, TPG. Those reports followed the statement from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to the effect that the Post Office could cut thousands of jobs but there was nothing that the Government could do about it. In view of the shoddy treatment meted out to postal workers and, frankly, the Secretary of State's inadequate response, could we have another debate on the Post Office?

Mr. Cook

As the Leader of the House, I am under no illusion about the fact that that is a matter of grave concern to Members on both sides of the House, and that it will also be raised with them in their constituencies. I am fully aware that the House will wish to discuss it and have reports on it in the future, and I assure my hon. Friend that I expect that to happen.

I have now had an opportunity to study the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), and I see that the detention centre that he referred to is for asylum seekers, so that is not, of course, a devolved matter. None the less, if he will allow me, I will still take up the matter both with the Home Secretary and with the Scottish Executive.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I fully endorse the views expressed by the Leader of the House about the Princess Royal, Princess Anne, who happens to be the colonel-in-chief of the regiment with which I served, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). She is a magnificent person, and plays a major role in the life of the regiment.

May I also ask the Leader of the House a question following on from the question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer)? A substantial lobby came to Parliament yesterday, representing postal workers throughout the country, including two postal workers from the sorting office in Macclesfield. I share their concern that the universal postal service could be eroded. We now have collections seven days a week, and deliveries five days a week. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that that service, which is critical to people's quality of life, particularly in rural areas, will continue? If he cannot find time for a debate, will a Minister of the Crown come to the House to give an assurance that the universal postal service will continue?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the Princess Royal, Princess Anne.

I am sure that we will have other opportunities to discuss the postal service at length in the House, but I stress straight away the Government's commitment to the universal postal service. The universal service obligation is the Post Office's prime obligation, and in our dialogue with the regulator, Postcomm, we are making it clear that any changes that it proposes must be consistent with that obligation.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

Further to the reference by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to the involvement of youth in politics, may I remind my right hon. Friend about the UK Youth Parliament, of which Mr. Philip Carey is the member for Hastings and Rother? To encourage young people, would it be possible—during the summer recess, perhaps—for the UK Youth Parliament to use this Chamber, thus encouraging their involvement in politics?

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)


Mr. Cook

I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) that I could not envisage this Chamber being used for any purpose other than the sitting of the elected House of Commons. Indeed, strictly speaking, it is an act of treason to take a seat in this Chamber without being elected to it. [Interruption.] I think the shadow Leader of the House is going a little far; we are seeking to encourage rather than discourage youth. I fully sympathise with my hon. Friend's observation that we should try to encourage young people to have an interest in their civic duty and in the political democracy of their country. We did have a gathering of young people from each constituency in Scotland, but that met in Westminster Hall, which does not raise the same sensitivities—

Mr. Forth

Hear, hear.

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman's robust views on Westminster Hall are well known—and because of such robust views, it might cause less controversy if my hon. Friend were to aim at having such a gathering in Westminster Hall.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the concern in all parts of the House about the changes in disability living allowance introduced in regulations on 8 April? They mean that people who suffer fear and anxiety out of doors will be prevented from receiving the lower rate of the mobility component—nearly £15 a week—unless they can demonstrate that their fear and anxiety arise from severe mental disability. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot find time for an early debate on the Floor of the House, early-day motion 1054 has been tabled, including the appropriate prayer:

[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Social Security (Disability Living Allowance) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 648), dated 11th March 2002, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th March, be annulled.]

Can the right hon. Gentleman arrange for a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation to consider those matters? Reasonable concern has also been demonstrated by the Social Security Advisory Committee, so important issues concerning those changes remain to be discussed.

Mr. Cook

I know that the hon. Gentleman follows these matters closely and speaks with authority on behalf of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, and I shall draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Should an opportunity present itself for the statutory instrument to be debated, I shall obviously take on board what he says.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

My right hon. Friend, with his renowned powers of total recall, will remember that at the last business questions I asked him about bringing the Foreign Secretary to the House to disavow the speech made by George Bush on "the axis of evil." My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave a rather uncharacteristically unsatisfactory response, more or less suggesting that my question was about withdrawing support for the action in Afghanistan, which of course I had not intended. Does my right hon. Friend accept that unless that speech is disavowed, there will continue to be major concern among Labour Members about any action in Iraq, because that will be seen as the first stage of an activity which extends beyond Iraq to Iran, North Korea and any other country which might be deemed to be part of that so-called axis of evil? Therefore, I ask my right hon. Friend again: will he ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House in order to disavow the "axis of evil" speech?

Mr. Cook

I must apologise to my hon. Friend if I misrepresented his question in the answer that I gave to it. I am always keen not to misrepresent any Member of Parliament.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will address the House next Tuesday. It is right that we should be given a day for a debate on the middle east at an early opportunity after our return from the recess and I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will want to take that opportunity to question my right hon. Friend and to make their own contributions.

I fully understand the different views taken on Iraq in the House, but I hope that all of us can find common ground by first recognising that weapons of mass destruction should not proliferate within the globe; that we shall live in a situation of greater difficulty and danger to ourselves, never mind to the neighbours of the countries that acquire them, if we permit that to continue; and that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is right when he says that we have to take action in order to prevent those weapons of mass destruction remaining in the hands of people such as Saddam Hussein, who in the past have shown a willingness to use chemical weapons. How we proceed from that is a matter that we shall now discuss with our allies and our friends in the United Nations, and I hope that a way forward can be found. But I hope that we can all proceed from the same starting point: that we want to see an end to those weapons of mass destruction.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The Leader of the House has just announced a four-day debate on the Budget statement, which I welcome. Will that not be the first time since the Queen's speech nearly a year ago that the House will have debated in Government time key issues such as public expenditure and taxation? Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to move away from this feast and famine approach to debates on the economy and ensure that the House has an adequate opportunity throughout the year to hold the Government to account on those key issues?

Mr. Cook

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recognition that we are about to have a feast of debates on the Government's handling of the economy and their record in achieving a sound economy in Britain which has the lowest inflation in Europe, the lowest unemployment in a generation and a secure and stable economy whose growth rate compares with any other within the G7 economies. All those are matters that we can debate at length over those four days. In fairness though, I would say that there was an extended discussion of public expenditure when the Chancellor presented his autumn statement only last November and he regularly appears before the House to be held to account by the House. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, I heard his voice on my way into the Chamber.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be aware of the welcome announcement made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions designating nine pathfinder areas in the north-west and the midlands to tackle housing in areas of abandonment. Will the Leader of the House give maximum opportunity for the House to make representations on the need for a properly funded housing markets renewal fund so that those pathfinder areas can be meaningful? Does he agree that this is a regional issue and that it should also be discussed at the next meeting of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the progress that is being made at local and regional level by my colleagues in ensuring that we tackle issues of urban regeneration and housing shortage. It is worth noting that throughout the country, where such initiatives have been taken on urban regeneration, they have evoked wide support and interest from the affected communities. In a number of ballots related to our progress on urban regeneration, a higher turnout has been achieved than for elections to the House; notably, that happened in Glasgow only the other week. I assure my hon. Friend that I shall convey her welcome for the measures to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and that we will continue to take all the action that we can to build on the success that we are securing in urban regeneration.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

At column 20 of yesterday's Official Report, the Prime Minister said in answer to a question on standards in government that most of what was being raised by Opposition Members was "complete nonsense". When early-day motion 1112 is published tomorrow, will the Leader of the House talk to the Prime Minister and see whether there will be an opportunity for a debate in the House on standards of government and the ministerial code, as well as whether the Prime Minister is interested in upholding that code, whether there is a complaint and whether the Government will make a submission to the Wicks Committee on this and related issues?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is to be congratulated on having stumped my Parliamentary Private Secretary, who cannot produce an early-day motion that is to be published tomorrow, as opposed to one that is currently on the Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman will, therefore, understand if I cannot comment on the motion. On standards in government and public life, I have always said that we should keep the matter in perspective. I believe that standards in public life in Britain bear comparison with those in just about any other country that the hon. Gentleman might care to name. We should not contribute to the agenda of some of those in the press who wish to discredit the standards in public life in this place or elsewhere. I intend to make a submission to the Wicks Committee, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will study it with care.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Will the Leader of the House consider early-day motion 725 and the cross-party support for it?

[That this House notes that the widows of police officers who retired after 5th April 1978 and subsequently married are entitled to a pension under the Police Pension Scheme, that the widows of police officers who retired before 5th April 1978 and subsequently married are not entitled to a pension under the Police Pension Scheme, and that the widows of a marriage entered into before retirement would receive a pension under the Police Pension Scheme whether or not the retirement was before 5th April 1978; believes that this creates an inequitable and arbitrary position for police officers' widows; and further believes that the Government should take urgent action to remedy the situation and to ensure appropriate entitlement to pension provisions for the widows of all retired police officers.]

Will the Leader of the House ask the Home Secretary to make a statement to the House on the plight of widows of police officers who remarried, but retired before 1978? Such widows do not receive a pension, despite contributions having been made to the pension scheme. Will the right hon. Gentleman congratulate The Mail on Sunday on its campaign on the issue?

Mr. Cook

I will not do so; there are some things that hon. Members can ask me to do, but it is a step too far to ask me to congratulate The Mail on Sunday on anything. The hon. Gentleman raises an issue of great sensitivity, and I appreciate its importance to the people who are caught up in the situation that he describes. Of course, there is a downside, as any extension of pension rights must be paid for. It is a matter of judgment for the members of any such scheme as to whether they are willing to pay and accept the additional contributions that would be necessary. Within that limitation, I fully accept that we should be moving to a situation in which pensions are not withdrawn on remarriage.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Three months ago, as the Leader of the House will obviously recall, I asked him whether he would find time for a debate in the House on the two Green Papers published by the Government making radical proposals for changes to our town and country planning system and major inquiries. He fairly pointed out that there was a consultation period and that any changes would have to be brought before the House. I think that the Government and hon. Members in all parts of the House would find helpful a debate in which we could inform the Government of our views and opinions before they make definite proposals for approval by the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the matter?

Mr. Cook

I shall certainly reflect on what the hon. Gentleman says. Having sat through the past 45 minutes of questions, he will be aware that I am not short of bids for time and debate in the Chamber or elsewhere in the precincts. I understand that he makes his observation in good faith and with a genuine wish to help. I anticipate that we will return to the matter on a number of occasions in future; whether we can do so in the near future is a matter of judgment that I shall have to consider.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

While it was unfortunate to say the least that the accident-prone Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was yet again caught giving out controversial information at a sensitive time, does the Leader of the House agree that an even more serious issue is at stake? At a time when there is terrific congestion both in our cities and on our motorways, our constituents will fail to understand why the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has not come to the House to make a statement and why the Leader of the House has not organised a debate on transport and congestion, which has increased so much under this Government. When will that happen?

Mr. Cook

As I have said before, I do not think that there is a member of the Cabinet who has been more willing to make statements to the House than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I am sure that there will be many future opportunities for us to debate transport policy.

The hon. Gentleman reminds me that the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), expressed concern about the impact on Parliament square of yesterday's traffic disruption. I share Members' concern about that issue, and we will pursue with the authorities the need to ensure that Members have reasonable access to the House of Commons.

Mr. McLoughlin

In the previous Parliament, I initiated an Adjournment debate, to which the then Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) replied, on improvements to the A50—the M1-M6 link—and the associated dangers. An intolerable burden has been placed on the A515, which has not been improved at all, and residents along that road now live in fear. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House on road safety and the associated problems?

Mr. Cook

I am confident that my hon. Friend gave an excellent answer in the Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Gentleman. I cannot promise an oral statement to the House on that precise topic, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's observations to the Secretary of State's attention.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Before we debate the provisions in this year's Budget, can we examine the implementation of some of the measures in the previous one, particularly the aggregates levy? One justification for the sustainability fund was that it would go some way towards mitigating the environmental effects of quarrying. Why, therefore, will the three counties that produce the greatest part of the aggregate in this country—Somerset, Leicestershire and Derbyshire—not receive a commensurate sum from the sustainability fund? In fact, they will end up as losers as a result of the fund's operation. Will we have an opportunity to debate that issue?

Mr. Cook

I regret to say that I have not been briefed this morning on the aggregates levy, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for that oversight. He asks a fascinating question to which I do not have the answer, but I shall ensure that somebody writes to him with it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May we have an early debate on the state of our railways, not least in light of an article by Libby Purves that appeared in Tuesday's edition of The Times? She wrote: What an extraordinary country this is. The railways are in tatters and hospitals in crisis: clearly we can't run a whelk stall. Then at a few days' notice we put on a vast, immaculate procession of brass and plumes and pomp, timed to the second…If the Royal Horse Artillery fancy taking over Railtrack, I'm for it. The state of our railways is a matter of concern to all our constituents. When can we have an early debate on the fact that the Government have still failed to lift Railtrack out of administration?

Mr. Cook

The timetable for Railtrack's removal from administration was set out long ago. That process will necessarily take some time, given the need for legal and accountancy procedures. In the first instance, it is the administrators, rather than the Government, who must assess the alternatives to Railtrack. That said, it is well known that the Government welcome the fact that a company limited by guarantee is available to take over Railtrack. I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that, if he is in any doubt, he should talk to the travelling public, who greatly welcome seeing the last of Railtrack as a private company. Railtrack constantly struggled with the question whether to put first the interests of the travelling public, or private payments to shareholders. We have removed that conflict from the minds of those who run Railtrack.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

The situation has got worse.

Mr. Cook

On the contrary, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the latest figures, I think that he will find that the situation is getting better.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I ask the Leader of the House to respond robustly and positively to calls for a debate on congestion. Is he aware that disruption to freight operation through the channel tunnel is costing freight operators £500,000 a day? By the end of March, the total cost of disruption had reached £15 million. Curiously, however, French operators are still functioning, and it is British operators who are losing out.

In addition to a debate on guilty men, will the Leader of the House also invite the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—a guilty woman—to debate the demise and collapse of ITV Digital, and the resulting awful effect on sport and on football clubs across the country?

Mr. Cook

I fully share the hon. Lady's concern about the impact of the collapse of ITV Digital, but, with the greatest respect, that cannot be laid at the Government's door. I hope that those involved in the discussion are able to find a way forward that does not leave football a casualty of a failure by the commercial television sector.

The hon. Lady has diligently raised freight transport via the channel tunnel at three successive business questions. I again repeat that my colleagues at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are fully engaged with the matter and continue to make representations on a disruption that of course stems primarily from the French side of the tunnel, not the British.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

May I associate myself with the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for an early debate on the operation of the aggregates tax? The Leader of the House will be aware that it came into effect on 1 April, perhaps appropriately, and it is already threatening to bring the aggregates extraction industry in my constituency to a grinding halt. It is also causing a great deal of concern in the agriculture industry, in Orkney in particular, because of the suggestion that it will apply to sand used for liming agricultural land. May we have an early debate to assess, in the light of experience, the disastrous effects that the tax will have, before it is too late for small rural and island communities such as those that I represent?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that, since 1 April, we have had sufficient time to make a mature assessment of how the system will work in practice, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I shall draw the attention of the relevant Minister to what has been said in the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the weekly parliamentary Labour party meetings to be held in the Chamber, notwithstanding what he said to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) about the dignity of this place? If he does so, we could all see the endemic divisions in the Labour party on Iraq, missile defence, private finance in the public services and so on, instead of having to read about them in the newspapers the next day.

Mr. Cook

Had the hon. Gentleman been present at the PLP meeting, as I was, he would have been impressed, as I was, by the thunderous and warm applause given to the Prime Minister. However, I am pleased to respond to his contribution on bringing serious debate to the House. If we continue at the next general election on the trajectory that we set at the last two, the PLP will occupy this Chamber entirely.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I refer the Leader of the House to the Prime Minister's reply on Sea Harriers at column 16 on Wednesday 10 April. Judging by the Prime Minister's response to a straight question, it is perfectly obvious that he did not have a clue about the answer. Indeed, it is perfectly obvious that he would not know what a Sea Harrier looked like if one landed on the lawn at Chequers. If he is to deploy our armed forces round the world, should he not at least first properly do his homework on our capabilities? Does the Leader of the House agree that, until a credible alternative is in place, withdrawing the Sea Harriers from commission would be an absolute disaster?

Mr. Cook

I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is knowledgeable in military matters, so he is aware that the Sea Harrier is an air-sea defence weapon whereas Harrier GR7s and GR9s are principally weapons to be used to support ground offensives. It is in support of such ground offensives that we have found the carriers most useful. That is what we shall require if we are to intervene to carry through the actions against terrorism and to make sure that we secure the world, which is why we propose to upgrade the Harrier offensive system from GR7 to GR9. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, if he wants to support international action.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a debate at an appropriate time on the possibility of establishing a permanent public memorial to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother? Such a debate would enable the official Opposition to make common cause with the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, who is reported to have made the excellent suggestion that a statue of her be erected in Trafalgar square. Acting on that suggestion would give the public an opportunity to subscribe to such a statute, even if that upsets those of the chattering classes who have been filling the empty plinth in Trafalgar square with their perverse, self-indulgent and inconsequential offerings in recent months.

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to stand in the way of any rapprochement between those on the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Benches at a time when we are all concerned to promote world peace. The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting suggestion, on which I am sure both parties may wish to build. I am not sure that I see the case for the House spending a day debating that matter, but plainly, should a consensus gather, the Government would naturally want to be part of it. [Interruption.] This is an issue on which we should proceed with a consensus; it should not be a party political issue.

I sat through the entire debate last week in which the House paid tribute to the Queen Mother, and [I thought that the House distinguished itself with a moving and very touching celebration of the Queen Mother's strength, humour and commitment to duty. I am content that the House was able to play its part in celebrating her life.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The right hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention to the heroic achievements of the chief executive of the NHS. Earlier this week, I received a letter from a lady who, having reached the politically sensitive threshold of having waited 18 months for an operation, was telephoned and asked whether she wanted to take up the opportunity of having the operation carried out by another NHS trust. She accepted, and when some three months later she inquired as to when the operation would be she was told that, as she had been waiting for only three months, she did not have a prayer. The trick was that the clock had started again when she moved to the other trust. May we have a debate on those heroic achievements so that we can scrutinise precisely how they have been achieved?

Mr. Cook

If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health with the details of that case, we shall certainly pursue it. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that if he looks at the figures—produced by the chief executive of the NHS, not by Ministers—he will see that we have made dramatic progress in both in-patient and out-patient waiting times. We have also reduced by a quarter the delay in discharge resulting from bed blocking. Those are substantial achievements and the chief executive was right to say that we should sometimes congratulate NHS staff on the progress that they are making instead of constantly knocking them.