HC Deb 05 December 2002 vol 395 cc1049-64 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 9 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Extradition Bill. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

TUESDAY 10 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the European Parliament (Representation) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 11 DECEMBER—Motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House. Followed by a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 12 DECEMBER—Debate on DEFRA issues on a substantive motion covering agriculture and the environment.

FRIDAY 13 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 16 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Hunting Bill.

TUESDAY 17 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill.

WEDNESDAY 18 DECEMBER—Consideration in Committee of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill.

THURSDAY 19 DECEMBER—Motion on the Christmas recess Adjournment.

FRIDAY 20 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The House will return after the recess on Tuesday 7 January. I commend to hon. Members the handy pocket calendar produced by the Clerks of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear. Hear."] For the first time, it sets out the dates in full for a parliamentary Session.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House not only for the business for next week but for the news about the handy pocket calendar. I am sure that it will be essential for us all.

Will the right hon. Gentleman please clarify exactly what the mysterious debate on Thursday 12 December will be about? So far, we are in the invidious position of not knowing what it will be about. We know that it will be about DEFRA, so can we have a guarantee that it will, at least, cover such vital issues as flooding, CO2 emissions, domestic waste and the like? Can we have clarification; otherwise it will look like just another case of "defracation"?

Yesterday in PMPs—[HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] Prime Minister's porkies. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) asked the Prime Minister about the drugs tsar and asked specifically: what has happened to him and his targets? The Prime Minister first waffled about extra finance and increased spending, at which point Hansard records hon. Members asking "What about the tsar?" There was no reply from the Prime Minister.

Matters then got worse. The Father of the House, no less, asked about a curious episode involving the Iraqi football team and FIFA. In his response, the Prime Minister said: I would not say that we had better information than FIFA. But leaving aside that incident".—[Official Report, 4 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 905–6.] At that point Hansard records, "[Interruption]", and no wonder. If the Prime Minister, when he reluctantly appears in the House once a week, refuses point blank to answer questions from myself, my hon. Friends or, indeed, the Father of the House, can we please have a rerun of Prime Minister's questions after this session each Thursday in an attempt to get some proper answers out of him?

Mr. Cook

I have a high regard for the right hon. Gentleman. However, given the pun that he inflicted on the House, it will soon be time for him to take his Christmas recess—and preferably he will not return with puns that have come out of crackers. Those are the worst ones of all.

I do not see any mystery about next Thursday's motion. I am repeatedly asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House to hold debates on agriculture, the environment and foot and mouth. It is right that we should have a full day's debate on those topics and a full motion will be tabled in good time. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that those Members who wish to raise the subject of foot and mouth, for instance, will be competent to do so under the terms of the motion.

The drugs tsar is capable of speaking for himself. I would not dream of entering into that particular debate.

On FIFA, although there appears to be a difference of evidence between those who played in the Iraqi football team, those who have managed to leave Iraq confirm that the incident in the dossier did happen to them, while those who remain in Baghdad continue to insist that the Hussein family is made up of perfect gentlemen, and that they have no complaints. I know which of the two I choose to believe.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the great deal of public concern about the strange sequences of bungled butlers' cases. He will have noted that the Prime Minister yesterday implied at column 902 that the Crown Prosecution Service is investigating that. Can the Leader of the House arrange for a statement from the appropriate Law Officer on who is conducting the investigation? Is it an internal one or is it objective on either side? What is its remit and the time scale?

The Leader of the House will also be aware that, on suspension, the Northern Ireland Assembly had 28 Bills awaiting consideration. Those are now coming to this House in the form of statutory instruments and are jumbled together in threes. As they are to be considered in a Statutory Instrument Committee Upstairs, they cannot be amended. Is that a satisfactory way to ensure proper scrutiny? In particular, is it not curious that staff in the Stormont Assembly, who would usually ensure that the Bills are in a proper form, are being retained on full pay and twiddling their thumbs?

Mr. Cook

On the question of the collapse of the butlers' trials, I have no first-hand personal cultural experience of employing a butler and do not know many people who have. The hon. Gentleman will have heard that the police have provided for an inquiry into their handling of the case. Indeed, I heard Lord Harris discussing that this morning. On the CPS, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that he expects it to learn the lessons and to do so quickly. Whether it is necessary to have a review to learn those lessons, I would not wish to say, but I hope that the CPS will reflect on the substantial sums of public money that were laid out on both trials. That must perplex many of my hon. Friends whose constituents come to them because they cannot obtain legal aid to assist them in much more important issues.

On the Northern Ireland Bills, let us be realistic. There are enormous demands on the time of the Chamber and the House. I am pleased that by Christmas we will have had Second Readings of 17 Bills in this place and in the second Chamber. That is probably a record in the interval between the Queen's Speech and the Christmas recess and it shows the substantial progress that we are making. Within the limits of the pressure of Bills that it is necessary for us to introduce, we will obviously try to do all that we can in relation to our duties for scrutiny in Northern Ireland. But none of us is pretending that this place can be a satisfactory substitute for the Northern Ireland Assembly. That is why our efforts are focused on doing all that we can to ensure that the Assembly is restored. I hope that those who are in politics in Northern Ireland will assist us in that objective.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Leader of the House will have read about the latest bullying of the inspectors by the White House yesterday, when it demanded "multiple, simultaneous, aggressive inspections". With this weekend's deadline for the Iraqis to produce their list of weapons or weapon materials due, can we have a debate early next week so that the House can vote on whether it wants to support the dangerous warmongers in the White House or to join with the rest of the world in seeking a non-military solution?

Mr. Cook

We have recently debated Iraq and I am perfectly confident that we will have other debates on it. However, it is very important that we proceed with our legislative programme in the remaining two weeks before the Christmas recess.

On the UN inspectors in Iraq, I have full confidence in Hans Blix, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was Foreign Secretary. I have told the House that I believe he will do the job with great independence of mind and great thoroughness, given the nature of his technical and diplomatic background.

It is worth recalling that at present barely a quarter of the total complement of the inspectors has arrived in Iraq. I am confident that as the complement builds up, so will the number of inspections.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The Transport Act 2000 gave local authorities the right to introduce congestion charges. The Secretary of State for Transport appears, with good reason, to be getting cold feet about that. Given the likely public outcry, and the outcry from business that will face additional costs in January in London, will the right hon. Gentleman find time early in the new year for the House to debate the implementation of congestion charging in London under the Government's legislation?

Mr. Cook

The House has provided the legislation under which congestion charges have been brought forward in London. The scheme for London is the responsibility of the Mayor of London. As we have repeatedly stated, it is important that in bringing forward a scheme, he seeks to achieve consensus and consent from the people of London, and ensures that the scheme will result in a better transport system for London. It is the mayor's scheme, not the Government's scheme. I would not wish to give the mayor the satisfaction of debating every proposal that he makes.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

Will the Leader of the House try to find time for a discussion about the plight of British passport holders travelling in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories? My wife—one of those people—has been virtually arrested four times in a week, and told by the Israeli armed forces that the holding of a British passport is worthless for people of Palestinian origin. I have discovered through our excellent diplomats who are working in the area that this is a situation faced by every British citizen of Palestinian origin. My right hon. Friend will accept from me—I know that he knows this—that it is one of the mysteries of the age that important countries like ours allow Israel to get away with things that no other country would conceivably be allowed to do.

Mr. Cook

In fairness, I should say that my colleagues at the Foreign Office complain robustly if there is any example of a British passport holder being harassed by Israeli authorities. As for the general thrust of my hon. Friend's question, I entirely agree with him. All British citizens are entitled to equal respect and equal attention, both by the British Government and by every other Government. British citizenship is blind on the issues of race or ethnic origin. That is absolutely right, and we are proud of our multicultural diversity. We must insist on the same rights of respect for all our citizens, whoever they might be, from foreign Governments.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As the Leader of the House was in his normal place on the Government Front Bench during question time yesterday, he will have noted the confusion after the Prime Minister's answers to questions about university finance and top-up fees. It was to such an extent that in today's newspapers it is suggested that the Prime Minister has backed down. Yet the Secretary of State for Education and Skills says something that is quite the opposite. There is total confusion.

May I ask the Leader of the House, on behalf of students and parents in my constituency and elsewhere, to arrange for the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, or better still the Prime Minister, to come to the Government Dispatch Box to clarify the situation, rather than hiding behind a suggestion that some time in February, perhaps, a decision will be reached?

Mr. Cook

Early in the new year—possibly in January—a White Paper on the review of funding of students in higher education will be published. The right hon. Gentleman is asking for someone to come to the Government Dispatch Box to announce the results of that review before we publish the White Paper on the review. I know that this will probably be a vain plea, but I would invite the House to be more mature on this matter. There are a number of options to be debated, and it is right that these options should be put to the House and the country for debate. It is the start of a process. We should not start now to rule out specific options on the basis of closing down the process before it has even begun.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool. Riverside)

In view of yesterday's public statement from the chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority, will my right hon. Friend clarify the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and Members of this place in deciding where investment in our railway system should go?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has rightly and properly drawn on the Strategic Rail Authority to try to ensure that the right priorities are set for the railway industry and that we get to grips with some of the major investment projects, such as the west coast main line, which have not been successfully taken forward by those who were in charge of them previously. We are putting a substantial sum into the 10-year programme, of which investment in the railways is a part. Responsibility for that rests entirely with the Secretary of State for Transport, who is accountable to the House. Everyone in the rail industry recognises that it is an advance to make the Strategic Rail Authority more hands-on, so that it can be in the driving seat and provide more leadership in the industry.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I understand the response that the Leader of the House gave the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on Northern Ireland Orders in Council, but may I have an assurance that if faults are found in those orders after they are passed, there will be opportunities, either in a forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly or in the House, to amend them quickly? May I also plead for a debate in the House on Burma, so that its ethnic population and the Burmese rural community can have a sense of peace and provision at Christmas time?

Mr. Cook

I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's reference to the situation in Burma. When I was at the Foreign Office, I had the privilege of visiting one of the refugee camps in Thailand for people from Burma. I was deeply moved by the dignity and patience of people who were obliged to flee and by the tales of the very real brutality which had forced them to walk for days over the mountains to escape, including that of one man of 83 who was a former veteran with our own forces in the last war. We owe a debt of gratitude to those people for assisting us in the war. We will continue both to remember their plight and, as the Government are doing, to put pressure on the Burmese Government to improve and change their ways.

On the issue of Northern Ireland, I am sure that if there are any faults in the orders, we will hear about them. Indeed, I suspect that I personally may hear about them on a Thursday morning. Should any such problems emerge, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is ready to rectify them.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that after business questions there will be a statement on the local government settlement, which makes detailed and complex changes to the financing of local government. It will be difficult for Members to make detailed comments without having had the time to study the settlement. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate in the House so that when Members and their local authorities have had a chance to look at it, we can make studied comments on the changes?

Mr. Cook

It is customary for us to debate the local government settlement some time after the statement, and I fully accept that many hon. Members will wish to express views on it. In fairness to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, who will be making the statement this afternoon, I should tell the House that he asked me last week to provide notice of it during business questions. Having been given advance notice, hon. Members could be here to talk about the impact on their local area. I know that my right hon. Friend is keen to make sure that he maximises communications with the House, for which he should be respected.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was pleased to pray in aid of his estimates and statistics the endorsement of the National Audit Office. I mention that, because I wish to ask for a debate on Government accounting standards. When it comes to accounting for Network Rail's £21 billion contingent liability, the Chancellor rejected the very source of advice prayed in aid of his Budget assumptions. We should therefore have a debate to ensure that the Government are not indulging in any more Enron-style accounting practices.

Mr. Cook

On reflection, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that he did not find the right way of making his point. Nor does it assist the House to appear to imply that the public accounts are in any way irresponsible or false in the way that Enron's were. Were such an idea to gain currency, the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to admit that it would have a severe effect on his constituents and everybody else's, because it would reduce confidence in those accounts. The accounts are presented professionally on the advice of professional statisticians, and I see no reason to disagree at all with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's judgment on Network Rail.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

I note that my right hon. Friend announced that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill will be considered in Committee of the whole House. Has he considered whether it might be for the convenience of the House that at least part of the Hunting Bill should be considered in Committee of the whole House?

Mr. Cook

As my right hon. Friend will be aware from his long and distinguished service in the House, the reason why the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill comes back to the Floor of the House is that it is a constitutional measure, and, by convention, we deal with important constitutional issues on the Floor of the House. The Hunting Bill does not necessarily or naturally fall into that category, but I hear what he says and I shall discuss it with my colleagues who represent the Department introducing the Bill. We should not lose sight of the fact that the Government deserve credit for bringing the issue before the House so that it can make a decision. At whatever stage, whether in Committee or Report, there will be an opportunity for the full House to take part in that decision.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Can the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on the derisory Government funding of children's hospices and, in particular, of the Little Havens children's hospice in my constituency, which receives less than 2 per cent. of its income in Government support? We could also debate the Conservative manifesto promise of providing 40 per cent. Government support for children's hospices. Does he agree that that is a more appropriate funding level?

Mr. Cook

I shall happily look into the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I fully understand that it must be a matter of immediate concern to his constituents. On the broad issue, however, we are frequently struck by the fact that we are faced outside the Chamber by Conservative demands for reductions in spending and taxation, but inside the Chamber we hear only demands for further spending. At some stage, the Opposition owe it to the rest of us to try to square that circle.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

When does my right hon. Friend anticipate that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform will report to the House? When will the House have an opportunity to vote on any options that the Committee might propose? Will those options be amendable and is it intended that the issue should be decided on a free vote?

Mr. Cook

We have given an assurance that the issue will be taken on a free vote. That was the basis of my statement last June. Indeed, any motion that we put before the House is, by definition, amendable. My understanding is that plenty of options will be proposed by the Joint Committee, and I am not sure whether it will be necessary to table amendments to provide for any more options than the many with which we will be presented. As to the timing, I said last week that the Chairman of the Committee had given an undertaking that he would report before the winter solstice. The solstice is even nearer than it was last week, but, nevertheless, I believe that the Joint Committee has a programme of sittings that should enable it to meet that target.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

The Leader of the House will be aware that in the days preceding the terrorist atrocities in Bali and last week in Mombasa, certain Governments issued warnings to their travelling public. The British Government did not do so. In the light of the closure of the high commission in Nairobi, will the Foreign Secretary come to the Dispatch Box to explain the situation before more lives are lost?

Mr. Cook

We have taken the decision about the high commission in Nairobi—it may be said that we have done so with reluctance, as we do not welcome the closure of business in any important capital—because of specific intelligence that we received precisely about a threat to that high commission, so it was right, proper and responsible for us to respond. We have received no information about a specific threat to residents in Kenya generally. That is why no specific warning was given.

If we were to be pushed into a position in which, whenever we received a general warning that was not specific, we urged people to close down business in a wide range of countries, we would be doing exactly what al-Qaeda wants us to do. It wants to disrupt business, normal life and commercial success in such countries, and we should not try to anticipate it by doing that for it.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), does my right hon. Friend agree that Richard Bowker's statement this week is more evidence of the catastrophe of rail privatisation that was inflicted on the country by the Conservative party? Does he therefore agree that we should have a full debate on the Floor of the Ho use on the future of the railways in which we could even discuss the possibility of bringing the whole railway system back into public ownership and operating the state-owned system that works so well on the continent of Europe?

Mr. Cook

I fear that the ambition of my hon. Friend's policy objectives would require more than one day's debate on the Floor of the House, but I would not disagree with his preamble, as what we are trying to do in introducing the additional remit that we have given to the Strategic Rail Authority is to remedy the weak regulation under which privatisation took place. We would not have had to take those steps or have this discussion if privatisation had not proceeded with such haste and been introduced with such incompetence.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Would the Leader of the House agree to our having a debate on social affairs? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said: I believe that signing the social chapter was essential in order to keep this country's influence in social affairs."—[Official Report, 4 December 2002; Vol. 395, c. 898.] I think that I have missed something, as before the Prime Minister signed the social chapter, we ourselves had complete control. I would be interested to hear about the benefits of the social influence that the Government have gained by signing the social chapter.

Mr. Cook

I have always taken the view that if one is patriotic, one will want British people to benefit from the same rights as are available to those in our neighbouring countries. I cannot for the life of me see why the British people should be denied the advantage of the working time directive, which will give more than 2 million British residents the right to a paid holiday this Christmas—a right that they never had before. I recall the Conservative party saying before the last election that, if we signed the social chapter, it would cost Britain half a million jobs. Five years on, one and a third million more people are in work than before we signed it. The only people who lost their jobs were the Conservative MPs who opposed our signing the social chapter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May I get back to the royal butlers and the aftermath of the collapsed royal butler trials? Many people will be deeply concerned about the affect of recent events on the reputations of senior royals. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read early-day motion 281, which I tabled?

[That this House believes all members of the Royal Family who receive gifts from heads of state or heads of government should be invited to enter these in a register updated annually which would be made public, specifying in each case where the gift is located or how it was disposed of]

The motion respectfully calls for the establishment of a royal register of gifts, which would specify the gifts' location. If they had been disposed of, it would specify when and where. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to draw the motion to the attention of those at the palace?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's concern for the reputation of the royal family does him credit as a staunch monarchist. I read his early-day motion with interest when I studied all the motions this morning and I note the innovative idea that he proposes. I hope that it may be possible for the royal family to consider the proposal in the review that they are currently carrying out. No doubt, it would add some transparency, but it is a matter for the royal family to consider and I am sure that they will do so very carefully.

On the two trials, we should not lose sight of the fact that the questions and lessons that need to be asked and learned perhaps rest more with the public services—the police and prosecuting authorities—than with the royal family.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the impending disaster facing the Scottish fishing industry, in which some 40,000 jobs are on the line. He may also be aware of today's mass rally meeting in Edinburgh, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). Does he accept that the urgency of the situation and the dire consequences for Scotland—the key decision in the Fisheries Council is being taken in December—merit an urgent statement from the Prime Minister to let us know what he intends to do as UK Prime Minister to fight for Scotland's fishing industry?

Mr. Cook

We had a debate on the fishing industry only a couple of weeks ago. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), the Fisheries Minister, has done all that he can to keep the public and the House informed of our attitude. Of course, we fully understand the very deep concern in the fishing community about the proposed reductions. However, the hon. Lady should also express some concern about the state of North sea cod stocks. There will be no future for her community or the fishing industry if there are no fish. Unless we take urgent action on conservation, there will be no fish left. She owes it to her constituents not merely to represent their anxieties in the House, but to provide leadership in the local community to ensure that it is sustainable in the long term.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

May we have early clarification and transparency on the Government's policy on the London Underground public private partnership? Have the Government backtracked on their commitment on an early transfer of the tube to Transport for London? What financial commitments flow from that?

Mr. Cook

What the Government said in the recent statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is that we want to proceed with the PPP. It is precisely because we want work to continue in preparation for the PPP that we have provided the proposed indemnity against court action. However, it would be rather strange for us to transfer the London Underground to the Mayor of London while he is still contemplating court action to prevent the PPP from proceeding.

I would say, as a constituency Member, that I am slightly baffled by the attitude taken by the Mayor of London on this question. I can assure the House that, if the sensible, pragmatic, forward-looking West Lothian district council were to be offered the billions of pounds now on offer to the mayor, it would, by now, have found some way for such a scheme to proceed. If the mayor really has the interests of his people at heart, he should now stop putting delays in the way of this project, and enable us to make the essential investment necessary to improve the London underground.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for us to have a debate on parliamentary answers? Is he aware that I have put a number of questions to various Departments asking whether they would list the funds that they make available to organisations and individual members of the public who might apply for them? Most Departments have given reasonable answers to that question. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills, however, has provided me with this answer: "We do not hold information centrally on all organisations and individuals who apply for grants, or the amounts paid. Therefore, this question could only be answered at disproportionate cost." Is it not ridiculous that the Department cannot tell elected Members of Parliament how it is spending public money, for which it is accountable to the House?

Mr. Cook

I should be happy to consider the hon. Gentleman's question, but, the way I apprehend what he was saying, he was asking about grants to individuals. Frankly, I am not surprised that the Department for Education and Skills cannot say what individuals have received financial grants up and down the length of Great Britain. I would be surprised if any Minister were in a position to collate such information—indeed, I am rather glad that they are not. Ministers are there to ensure that the policy directions of their Departments are correct. They should not make individual decisions about who gets money out of them.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the debate in the Chamber on 24 October on the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002, in which the Minister, accepting the world-wide mountain of evidence that white asbestos was dangerous to health, expressed an intention to implement those regulations. It is outrageous, therefore, that the Lords are seeking to annul those regulations this morning. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, if the Lords make that decision, the regulations are brought back to the Chamber so that they can be implemented directly?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has a long record of pursuing this issue, and he is to be complimented on that. It is certainly a matter that has a serious impact on those who have come into contact with white asbestos. I do not know what the outcome of the hearing next week will be, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it will be considered very carefully and, I am sure, expeditiously, by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

Notwithstanding the debate due to take place a little later today in Westminster Hall on the third report of the Select Committee on International Development, can the Leader of the House hold out any hope that we might have a debate on the Floor of the House on one of the most important international conferences ever to have taken place—the world summit on sustainable development, in Johannesburg? Alternatively, does he think—perhaps this is a question for you, Mr. Speaker, rather than for the Leader of the House—that the all-embracing omnibus DEFRA debate in a week's time might give us the opportunity to raise these important issues?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to confirm that the debate next Thursday will provide the opportunity for issues relevant to the Johannesburg summit to be raised. It is a debate on agriculture and the environment, and DEFRA was, of course, one of the lead Ministries to go to Johannesburg, so it would therefore be entirely competent to raise those issues in that debate. I am well aware of the interest, both in the House and among our constituents, in the contribution that the Government have made to international development, and I personally take great pride in the fact that we have increased by half as much again the overseas aid budget that we inherited from our predecessors. I will certainly look for opportunities for the House to debate that.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

In view of the confusion that has been created this week in the press and the media over health boards up and down the country, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the fluoridation of public water supplies? A legal case to prove that Strathclyde regional council was in breach of the Water (Scotland) Act 1946 has cost £2 million, and Lord Jauncey said at the time that he thought that fluoride was a "medicinal product". If that were the case, the council would be in breach of section 130 of the Medicines Act 1968, and would need a product licence to provide fluoride. It would also need to have the product passed by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines. Could we find time to debate this matter in the House?

Mr. Cook

I fear—I say this with deep regret—that this might be an issue on which my hon. Friend and I have differing views. I should declare an interest in that I am vice-president of the British Fluoridation Society. Since my days, long ago, as a health spokesman for my party, I have never been in any doubt that fluoridation has a real and significant impact on dental health. As someone who has had more than his fair share of hours spent in the dentist's chair, I would wish to do all that I can to spare future generations that experience.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

May we have a debate on Government abuse of the work permit system? In it, perhaps Ministers could explain to my constituent Toni Prior why her American fiancé, Troy Ridgeway, cannot obtain a work permit—despite the fact that he has gone through the legal process, has a job to go to, a home, and no recourse to public funds—when 1,200-plus permits are available to people from Sangatte who have no known jobs, homes or skills, and have shown their determination to abuse and bulldoze their way through the asylum process.

Mr. Cook

I cannot comment on the case of the hon. Gentleman's constituent—[Interruption.] I think it would be deeply improper of me to comment, given the fragmentary information that I have been given in his question. On Sangatte, the one issue that has been raised more than any other in the Chamber over the past couple of months—including frequently at business questions—is the importance of the Government taking action on the number of people trying to come here illegally from Sangatte. We have now secured an outcome in which the camp is to be closed. We shall now no longer have illegal immigrants coming over from Sangatte. Only four arrived through the channel tunnel in the whole of October. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot demand action to close Sangatte, then criticise the Government for achieving exactly that objective.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Following the question from the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) about the decision by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General and head of the National Audit Office, that the £21 billion loan guarantee to Network Rail should have appeared in the Treasury balance sheets earlier in this Session, will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on this matter? The amount of off-balance sheet activities that the Chancellor is sanctioning now aggregates to £100 billion or more, which is 10 per cent. of gross domestic product. This is more than a concern for sad accountants who ought to get out more; it is a concern for the House. We should demonstrate to the public at large that decisions at the heart of our economic strategy are based on professional decisions and not on political dogma.

Mr. Cook

I am not quite sure what point my hon. Friend was making in his closing remark. [Interruption.] No, I mean that genuinely. I believe that we have immensely handicapped the investment in our public sector by the way in which we have refused to recognise that the economic activity of investment in our transport system has precisely the same economic impact whether it is done by the public or the private sector. If it is right for Network Rail to invest when it is a private company, it must plainly also be right and economically beneficial for it to do so when it is within the public sector. My hon. Friend should not be putting up barriers against sensible investment in our future transport system, which will be good and efficient and will make Britain more competitive.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the subject of increasing violence between next-door neighbours? I understand that, only recently, a married man living in the Westminster area was viciously mugged by his highly aggressive next-door neighbour after a long-running dispute over something called top-up fees. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Prime Minister has now officially applied for an antisocial behaviour order against his own Chancellor?

Mr. Cook

I—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer!"] For a moment there, time stood still for me. I think that the hon. Gentleman was trying to be funny—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Yes, he was.

Mr. Cook

Ah! I am glad to have that confirmation, because there was some doubt on this side of the House as to whether he was so trying. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he waits for the review next year, he will find that all neighbours within the Government are in full support of each other.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West)

Further to the question on asbestos from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), if a proposal from a Conservative Front Bencher in the House of Lords on the annulment of regulations that have been debated in the House in Government time and signed into law can be passed, where does that leave us in terms of the process? The regulations on white asbestos are long overdue and we cannot afford a parliamentary ping-pong while people go unprotected.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Get rid of the Lords.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) expresses a characteristically robust view.

Clearly, that is an issue of great gravity and of considerable and wide political interest. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will take note of our exchanges and whatever outcome there may be next week.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the Leader of the House's disappointing replies on top-up fees to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), may I reiterate the plea for an urgent clarificatory statement of Government policy? Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise the fact that, for so long as Ministers continue to argue like ferrets in a sack, doubt will continue to persist as to whether he stands by his statement of 24 April 1997 to Leeds university student radio, to wit, "Tuition costs must be picked up by the state. We are quite clear about that"?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking me down memory lane. My interview at Leeds university had slipped my mind, but I shall certainly make a point of reinvestigating it.

Again, I must tell the House that if we are to have a review and if that review is then to provide a number of options, there is no point whatever in the House trying to decide which options should be in and which should be out before the first paper has even been published. It is important that the Government should have the capacity to propose options for consultation for debate, and I think it important that the Government should ask hard questions and be willing, occasionally, to ask themselves tough questions. That does not necessarily mean that the specific tough questions may be those that result in the chosen option, but we should not try to close down a debate before it has even begun.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Will the Leader of the House consider scheduling a debate following yesterday's announcement in Germany that unemployment there has risen to 4.16 million, which is 9.7 per cent. of the working population? Only seven constituencies in this country have a greater percentage of unemployed. Given that we are constantly being told that the euro is a great success, can we have a debate on what failure means?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has strong views on those matters. If I may, I invite him to retain, if it is possible, perhaps not an open mind, but just the chink of a loophole in his mind to accept some new ideas on them when we receive the economic assessment. On the specific question of Germany, if he reviews the matter with German industrialists, he will find that many of them are clearly of the view that the German export industry would have been badly hit had Germany stayed out of the euro.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the future of adult placement schemes? I raised the matter in the summer Adjournment debate, I have written letters to Ministers and tabled written questions, but I have not received a single answer. Is he aware that families who take in vulnerable adults and keep them out of the care system are giving up because they are regulated by the National Care Standards Commission and they have to work through 33 policies and a huge bureaucracy? Why cannot they be regulated by local social services departments, just like foster care schemes and as they were for many years?

Mr. Cook

While it is important to have a local dimension to any inspection system, it is also important that schemes are operating to national standards. I would not accept any criticism of the importance of our having national standards to ensure that adults in care are properly cared for. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State responsible, who may wish to write to him, but I see nothing wrong with having national standards to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of my constituent, Mr. Sandy Mitchell, who has been sentenced to beheading in Saudi Arabia. The legal process is under way in that country. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that time is found for Ministers to keep the House informed of any developments?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend touches on one of a number of very distressing cases that are of real concern to Her Majesty's Government. We have repeatedly made representations on those cases and our consul in Saudi Arabia is in contact. My hon. Friend rightly refers to what one might describe as the opaque character of the Saudi Arabian judicial system, but we will do all that we can within the limits of operating under that system to ensure that the case is represented and to secure fair treatment of Sandy Mitchell and the others who have been accused.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

May I reiterate the request for a debate made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins)? In January 2002, the Strategic Rail Authority told my constituents that the West Anglia Great Northern modernisation and enhancement would be complete by 2006–07. Now we are told that it may happen in five, 10 or 15 years, if at all. The Leader of the House must recall that the chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, said in January that that plan marked a line in the sand. When will the House have an opportunity to find out what happened between January 2002 and today that means that all those potential rail network enhancements have been thrown out of the window?

Mr. Cook

In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, he has taken action to try to ensure that we can achieve greater certainty and a greater sense of priorities among the major projects that are necessary to modernise our railway system. The Conservatives, however, suspended virtually all investment during the rail industry privatisation, which resulted in spectacular failures of investment in major lines, so it hardly lies in the mouth of a Conservative Member who supported that privatisation to criticise us as we try to sort out the mess that they left behind.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Following on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), there seems to be a widespread and genuine belief that the Government intend not to transfer the tube from the aegis of London Underground Ltd. to Transport for London. Some of us have dealt with the senior London Underground managers and, if for no other reason, we are filled with alarm when we envisage them dealing with some of the sharpest operators in Britain in the form of Jarvis and the others. Can we have a debate, or at least a statement, to clarify the confusion that seems to be generated as to the tube's future?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to do what I can to roll back any confusion that may exist. As I understand the position, there is no doubt that Government policy is to transfer London Underground to Transport for London. The only question that has arisen in the light of the Secretary of State's statement is how quickly we can do that. Plainly, it is difficult to contemplate transferring London Underground when the Mayor of London is still maintaining the possibility of legal action to stop the PPP proceeding. The way forward is perfectly clear and perfectly simple: the Mayor of London has to accept that London needs a modern underground system. It needs investment to secure that, and the way to get ahead with that investment is to allow the PPP to proceed. We must not put the money into the lawyers rather than into the underground.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House make time for the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to make a statement on UK relationships with Iran and afford the opportunity to discuss the abuse of human rights there as well as the execution of women and of prisoners who are politically opposed to the brutal regime of the mullahs? I believe that the matter is urgent, and there are allegations that Iran, too, is acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Cook

Of course, there are human rights abuses in Iran—indeed, the Government have repeatedly condemned and made representations about them—but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss our relations with Iran he should also recognise that there have been elections in which the overwhelming majority of those voting elected for people who want to take Iran forward in the 21st century and who want to roll back the repressive power of the mullahs. It does not help those who want change and modernisation in Iran to confuse their representatives with those mullahs to whom he refers.