HC Deb 12 December 2002 vol 396 cc395-408 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 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 provisional business for the week after the Christmas recess will include:

TUESDAY 7 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the first two weeks following the Christmas recess will be—

THURSDAY 9 JANUARY—Debate on Housing Benefit Reform.

THURSDAY 16 JANUARY—Debate on the E-Transformation of Public Services.

It may be for the convenience of the House if I announce that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make a statement on the Government's pensions Green Paper next Tuesday.

Members will notice that this week we have experimented with the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that ministerial statements should be distributed in the Chamber after the Minister has sat down. I hope that that has been a help to Members.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for letting us have the business for next week. Is not it now time that we had an urgent debate on blind trusts, which seem neither blind nor trustworthy? If blind trusts are to have a role in public life, surely at the very least we should be absolutely certain that the beneficiaries neither know what is going on nor have any control over what is going on, if indeed that is the object of the exercise. We need a debate to clear up who defines the role of blind trusts and who polices them, because if figures in public life are to resort to such things it is vital that we all trust them. As that seems sadly no longer to be the case, we must deal with this issue responsibly and urgently.

Not unrelated to that matter, it is time that we had a proper look at the ministerial code, which is supposed to provide a framework for the ethical conduct of Ministers. Is not the code written by the Prime Minister, policed by the Prime Minister and monitored by the Cabinet Secretary, who is appointed by the Prime Minister and reports to the Prime Minister? Is not there a circularity about that? If we are to have trust in Government, we should be able to trust something as key as the ministerial code. I hope that the Leader of the House will give us a proper debate on this issue so that we can sort it out and restore some integrity to the Government.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister whether we could have an independent inquiry into, among other things, the ministerial code, the abuse of the civil service that seems to have taken place recently and the role of the No. 10 spin machine. To our astonishment, the Prime Minister said: all questions have been properly answered." —[Official Report, 11 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 247.] Even if that were the case yesterday, today there have been some startling revelations in a newspaper familiar to the Leader of the House—none other than The Scotsman, which is not regarded as a bête noire of No. 10.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Andrew Neil.

Mr. Forth

At least, I did not realise that it was. As far as I know, it is not one of the usual suspects. If Labour Members are telling us that The Scotsman has now been added to the lengthening list of newspapers that they want to ignore in all circumstances, that is another fact that we should add to this ghastly mix.

If the Prime Minister will not set up an inquiry, will the Leader of the House tell us who will? Otherwise, these matters, which are disturbing the public as well as hon. Members, will go on and on indefinitely, and that does neither the Government nor this country any good.

Mr. Cook

I shall endeavour to restore some sanity and perspective to this matter, although after the last week or two I appreciate the great difficulty of doing so.

Let me deal first with the narrow question of blind trusts. Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously arguing that a Minister is not entitled to use his assets to purchase a flat for his son or daughter to live in while at university? That was the implication of his question. The right hon. Gentleman said that the beneficiaries should not know what was going on. Is he seriously arguing that the trustees should have purchased a flat in Bristol and refused to tell the Blairs where their son was going to live? Is that really what he is trying to tell us?

The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that these questions have been answered before. They are answered in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to one of his colleagues, in which the Cabinet Secretary rightly points out: Ministers' ownership of one or more family homes has never been seen as creating a conflict of interest". As for the allegations in The Scotsman, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware—although he did not mention it—that Carole Caplin made a statement this morning rebutting some of them, and I understand that the others are being rebutted even as we speak. [Interruption.] Of course they are being rebutted. They are being rebutted by respected press officers in the civil service—career civil servants.

After two weeks of poring over this matter, no one has established that Mrs. Blair has done anything improper or illegal. If she stands accused of anything, it is trying to provide secure accommodation for her son so that he can attend university, and being a loyal friend. Those are things for which many married women up and down the country will applaud her. They will not join in the cheapjack attempts to make party political capital out of families.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I hope that we can proceed to political matters, and not bring families on to the Floor of the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I want to refer to the much wider issue of the use of civil servants to deal with what are not properly Government matters. I hope the Leader of the House will now be able to tell us when he expects to present legislation relating to the civil service, and when he expects to receive the report from the Wicks committee on the use of political advisers and the way in which some civil servants seem to have been put in a difficult position in the political process.

I also want to refer to an issue that has arisen many times before at this point in the week: the fact that the media seem to be informed about important Government statements before Members of Parliament. Today, the media clearly received the strategy for sustainable farming and food, the Government's response to the Curry report, long before it was available to Members. Indeed, we were given press statements from the National Farmers Union before we saw documents that are extremely important for this afternoon's debate. Will the Leader of the House think about that again?

I hope that the Leader of the House has had time during his busy week to look at the first report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, signed by 24 Members of both Houses. If he has, I hope that he noted that we have disposed of the argument that a second Chamber with a substantially elected element automatically challenges the pre-eminence of this House. That myth has gone for good.

When does the Leader of the House expect a debate to take place in the two Houses, and when does he expect us to be able to vote on certain options relating to the composition of the second Chamber. When that happens, if the two Houses choose a different option, will the decision of the elected Members of this House—which everyone keeps telling us must be pre-eminent—prevail?

Mr. Cook

The Wicks report is a matter for the Wicks committee, not for me. I have no information on when the committee might be able to report, but we will consider carefully whatever observations it may make about the civil service, and the possible implications for legislation.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about statements coming to the House first. We have tried hard to ensure that that happens, and I think that hon. Members will accept that there have been some improvements. However, it has been common practice for a long time for reports that will become public to be available on an embargoed basis to those bodies most likely to be approached for comment. I think that it would have been wrong for the Government to have sought to conceal it from the National Farmers Union, but we will certainly try to ensure that this House is the first place where any document goes public.

On the second Chamber, I welcome the report of the Joint Committee; I congratulate it on having achieved its own deadline and on the effort that has gone into the report's preparation. I particularly welcome the fact that one of the first criteria that the Committee identifies as appropriate to a second Chamber is legitimacy. Legitimacy in the modern world is served by representative character, and one way of securing a representative character is by having an elected element.

We naturally wish to proceed with a debate on the report as soon as is practical; I anticipate such a debate taking place in January. There will, of course, be a free vote in both Houses. It is consistent with our commitment to a free vote that both Houses may come to a different conclusion. However, I do not think that it would help the temper of the debate or be diplomatic of me to suggest which view should prevail in those circumstances.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the mounting concern across the nation created by the operation of some claims management organisations that aggressively tout for business on the so-called no win, no fee basis? During his busy life, has he managed to see any of the excellent exposés by the BBC's "Watchdog" and "The Money Programme" that demonstrate how the unscrupulous activities of such organisations cost taxpayers and businesses millions of pounds? Is it not time for an urgent debate in the House to examine where we draw the line between giving people with limited resources the opportunity to pursue legitimate claims while curbing the cancer of cynically touted and, in some cases, bogus claims?

Mr. Cook

I hear what my hon. Friend says and am glad that he has been able to put those observations on the record. I share his anxiety at our society's increasing trend to become more litigious. I believe that the people who are most likely to gain are those who make their livelihood from pursuing claims rather than the innocent people on either side of the case.

In some cases, the no win, no fee arrangement may be appropriate. I acknowledge that many people have been enabled to appear in court on the basis of just such arrangements. However, my broad experience of the legal profession is that whoever makes money out of a case, it usually includes the lawyers.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement or a debate on the preparedness of this country for terrorist assault on the basis that we may have to face, unexpectedly, attack by means of chemical or biological weapons? As part of that debate, may we consider what, if anything, remains of the former civil defence arrangements for facing the threat of attack by nuclear weapons, what remains of the doctrine that was then in place and what it is wise to confide to the public, bearing it in mind that despite recent remarks about the wish not to create panic, the British public is rather good about not panicking when they are told the facts and the dangers that they have to face?

Mr. Cook

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the calm and stoicism of the British public. I wish that those sterling British qualities were more often demonstrated by the press that sells to the British public. On defence against such an attack, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that several measures have been put in hand to strengthen those protections and make sure that we are up to speed. I am not sure, however, that a sensible way of approaching such a debate would be to go back to the historic arrangements and see whether there should be a natural continuum. The historic arrangements for civil defence were put in place when we anticipated a possible major attack by another major state power armed with substantial nuclear arsenals and other weapons. That threat has receded in the modern era. We are faced with a quite new and, until recently, unanticipated threat of a major attack by a terrorist organisation that is a non-state actor. That certainly puts an obligation on the Government to ensure that they are in a good position to protect the public, but it is a different threat and may require different solutions.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Can my right hon. Friend arrange for an emergency debate—or, better, a statement from a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry—about the situation of the deep-mine coal industry? Maltby colliery in my constituency is under threat, primarily because of the cheap coal coming into Europe from different parts of the world. We cannot compete with that, and frankly, the investment aid programme now being touted by the DTI will not help in any way whatever. We need a reintroduction of the operational aid for Maltby and other collieries in the same situation. We are about to lose 30 million tonnes of reserves: great assets for this country that will be locked away for ever if action is not taken quickly.

Mr. Cook

I entirely understand the enormous importance of this issue to my right hon. Friend's constituents, as well as the importance of deep mine coal to our country's long-term strategic energy resources. I will draw his remarks to the attention of Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry and ensure that they respond.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will it be possible to have a debate in the near future on immigration and asylum policy? I, for one, am extremely concerned at the letters that I am receiving, across the political spectrum, from people saying that they might be tempted to vote for extreme parties because the issue is not being taken seriously by the mainstream political parties. The figures are worrying. Sir Andrew Green mentioned 250,000 people a year coming into this country. The problem is especially severe in the southeast, where there is great pressure on housing.

Mr. Cook

I do not think that any serious observer could argue that either the Government or the Opposition have failed to take seriously the issue of asylum and migration, which has certainly been a major element of debate and legislation in the House, and has been a high priority for the Government. Through our actions, we have shortened the time taken to reach an initial decision on an asylum application, and we have increased the rate at which failed applicants are removed from the country.

We are faced with a change across the whole of Europe, and it must be said that our actions compare reasonably favourably with the statistics for other European countries. We especially welcome the fact that the number of illegals arriving at Dover has dropped dramatically over the past few months. We will certainly continue to do all that we can, partly because it is an important issue but partly also because of the point that the hon. Gentleman made: this serious matter, which we must address soberly and with priority, should not become the basis for the election of extremist parties, which would bring much hardship and injustice—which would have nothing to do with asylum and migration—to the nation and to those who vote for them. With that in mind, it is important that those of us who raise this issue should also stress our personal commitment to ensuring that we have in Britain a tolerant and open multicultural society.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is the Leader of the House aware that today is the last day on which the House of Commons can object to a minute laid by the Secretary of State for Transport offering a very considerable indemnity to London Underground in order, he says, to get one of the tube contracts signed by 31 December? We have a foreshortened time to debate the subject, and it seems odd that one contract should take precedence over all the others. Will he ask the Secretary of State to come here and explain what is so urgent, why this has happened and why we have not been given the normal time in which to object to the contents of the minute?

Mr. Cook

No, I will not ask the Secretary of State to come and make such a statement. This issue has been before the House for a number of years and has been repeatedly debated. I have said from the Dispatch Box several times, as has my right hon. Friend, that what is necessary for the people of London is to get a modernised underground system with the substantial investment that is there waiting for it. Frankly, if it is necessary for us to take such steps to remove barriers that have been put in the way by those who are responsible for London transport, it is important that we should do so. I cannot believe that people outside this place who use the underground would share my hon. Friend's view that we should do anything that would hold up that investment.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Given the encouraging remarks by the Minister for Europe in last night's European Union debate about the Foreign Secretary's now intending to discuss the crisis in the fishing industry with the Prime Minister before this weekend's European summit, can the Leader of the House confirm that that crisis will be placed squarely on the agenda over the weekend and that the Prime Minister will do everything that he can to ensure that it is addressed?

Mr. Cook

In my experience of European summits, there are two ways in which the agenda can be progressed. One is within the formal Chamber, and the other, which is sometimes more satisfactory, is at the margins. There will doubtless be discussions about this matter at the Copenhagen summit. As I have repeatedly said before, we must not lose sight of the root problem, which is that cod stocks are collapsing. They must be managed and conserved, and if there are no fish left in the sea, there will be no fishing either.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

The Leader of the House told us that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will make an oral statement next week. Can he assure us that outcome of the consultation on the size of the Scottish Parliament will be announced as an oral statement in this House next week?

Mr. Cook

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I am well aware of the interest in this matter—indeed, I take a close interest in it myself—and I anticipate that the House will wish to hear by means of an oral statement the outcome of the review.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Does the Leader of the House accept that his disingenuous response on the issue of blind trusts will be deeply unacceptable to most people in this country? There is considerable uncertainty, in that the Prime Minister has one idea of blind trusts, and the rest of the country has another. The matter therefore needs to be clarified by a statement by the Prime Minister, from the Dispatch Box, on blind trusts. Finally, does the Leader of the House accept that two flats were involved, and that the second flat constituted a speculative investment that it was quite wrong to make from a blind trust?

Mr. Cook

I would not characterise my reply as disingenuous—frankly, I thought it was passionate and blunt.

Mr. Forth

It was both.

Mr. Cook

It was both passionate and blunt. Mr. Forth: And disingenuous.

Mr. Cook

I do not accept that it was disingenuous. What is the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) saying—that the Blair family were not entitled to have access to their funds in order to provide accommodation for their son to attend university; or is he seriously arguing that the Government's whole housing and economic policy would be warped if they purchased one flat for renting? If he is labouring under such a delusion, he should look at the letter from the Cabinet Secretary, which explicitly rebuts that allegation. I come back to the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say again that we are treading on the area of the family, and, with the greatest respect to the Leader of the House, I do not want this to happen on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past week another startling announcement was made about Members of Parliament that has been largely ignored by the press? I am referring to the publication of the Register of Members' Interests. If he has time to read it, he will be shocked to learn that one Tory MP is picking up probably £200,000, and another—the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer—is getting more than £100,000. I have already mentioned the previous Tory leader, and another half a dozen Tories are making more than £75,000. People out there are not too concerned about blind trusts; they are concerned about the fact that it is high time that we had legislation to insist that Members of Parliament be well paid, and have one job and one job only.

Mr. Cook

I am very glad that my hon. Friend has been able to put the record straight about the omission of these very important facts. I hope that his contribution will be given greater prominence tomorrow than those concerning the Prime Minister and his family.

On legislation to ensure that MPs have only one job, we have always—

Mr. Forth

What about Ministers?

Mr. Cook

Ministers are constrained already in terms of what they can undertake. They are Ministers of the Crown, who are answerable here. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that MPs should cease to be MPs when they become Ministers, we will end up with a sad Parliament indeed. Ultimately, this is a matter for Members. Most important of all, it is for their constituents to decide whether they wish to re-elect them.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 78, which concerns the postponement of Criminal Records Bureau checks on more than 300,000 carers who are meant to be caring for vulnerable adults. It states:

[That this House agrees with the Home Secretary that the function of the Criminal Records Bureau is to reduce the risk of abuse by ensuring that those who are unsuitable are not able to work with children and vulnerable adults; deeply regrets the decision of the Home Office and Department of Health to postpone criminal records checks on 300,000 care home staff agency nurses, agency domiciliary care staff residential family centres, and adoption centres; is concerned that the establishment of the Protection of Vulnerable Adults list has been postponed indefinitely; believes that in reducing demand for CRB checks Ministers have put the lives of vulnerable people at risk; further believes that this announcement should have been made by way of a statement in the House, not as a written answer in the House of Lords on a Friday afternoon; calls on the Home Secretary to make a statement on this matter; and further calls on the Home Secretary to publish the report of the Carter Inquiry into the Criminal Records Bureau and Capita.]

May we have a statement on, or an opportunity to debate, the progress of the CRB, not least to obtain an explanation from the Home Office as to why it has so far taken more than a month to answer questions that I tabled as a result of a written statement made in the House of Lords on a Friday, when there was no other opportunity for Members to scrutinise it?

Mr. Cook

We have repeatedly said that the performance of the Criminal Records Bureau has been unacceptable, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that we increase its throughput. There has been a substantial rise in the number of cases that it is capable of clearing per week, and we will continue to work to clear the backlog. It is entirely sensible and rational that, faced with the CRB's inability to cope with current demand, we should establish priorities. It is very important to ensure that the CRB's priority is to focus on those who have access to children, to ensure that they are protected. When we have secured that priority, we can move on to the other cases.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate the work of the Child Support Agency? The promised review of the implementation of its procedures is more than 12 months overdue. Some 30 per cent. of families who are entitled to maintenance are not receiving it, thereby causing greater poverty among children. When the Department for Work and Pensions is asked for explanations, it has little to offer. If the CSA were a local government body, it would be charged with failing its responsibilities, and the Government would threaten to send in private operators. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time that this House was allowed to debate the work of the CSA, with a view to improving its efficiency?

Mr. Cook

It is of course open to hon. Members to pursue any matter of concern to them through the many avenues available in this House, and to raise such issues if they feel that their constituents have been particularly badly treated by the CSA. However, I should remind my hon. Friend that one of the first pieces of legislation that we introduced was concerned with trying to ensure that the CSA was better able to perform its job. Since then, there has been some improvement in its performance, and I have noted that the number of complaints in my own constituency has declined. On the issue of principle, we fully agree that those who are legitimately and legally liable to maintain their children should be obliged to do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the so-called Cliffe airport consultation, so that Ministers can explain to the House why they refuse flatly to attend a public meeting in my constituency, which I am prepared to arrange for them, to explain this Labour proposal; so that they can explain why they flatly refuse to answer my parliamentary written questions on this issue; and so that they can explain why they flatly refuse to reject the "crosswind" runway option, which will result in the over-flying of Canvey island, Hadleigh and Leigh-on-Sea 24 hours a day?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has now secured a very comfortable paragraph in his local paper through that intervention; that of course is the important function of the House of Commons. I understand entirely his concern, and he will doubtless welcome the fact that there are now an additional four months in which this matter can be debated and examined. I am familiar with the area that he refers to, and I fully understand the powerful environmental considerations.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

May we have time for an emergency debate on the lack of co-ordination between the former public utilities? Last week, hundreds of thousands of gallons of water entered the gas main in the Belgrave area of Leicester, causing 1,500 people to be without heating for several days. It is astonishing that no formal mechanism exists to enable Severn Trent to talk to Transco and to East Midlands Electricity, now Powergen. I know that this problem is the result of privatisation that was undertaken by the previous Government, but it is important that we have a debate, so that we can formalise the relationship, so that my constituents will not have to face any more days without heating, and so that they can get compensation from one of the statutory authorities.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a very valid issue, and many of us will have similar experiences. In my own constituency, a repair to the electricity supply in the street resulted in the loss of the water supply, and the repair to the water pipe resulted in the loss of the gas main. I therefore fully understand, and sympathise with, the position of his constituents. I shall consider the point that he makes, and invite Ministers to reflect on whether a more legal remedy could be made available to those who suffer interruption.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the inside cover of today's Order Paper regarding forthcoming Westminster Hall Adjournment debates? I hesitate to ask whether a genuine mistake has been made or whether there has been an inadvertent change of procedure about which the House was not advised, but I note that subjects can be requested only from certain Departments, one of which is that of the Advocate-General. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have made it my mission in this Parliament to hold the Advocate-General to account. I hold the hon. and learned Lady in the highest regard but as she appears unable or unwilling to answer on any particular issue at Question Time, what will she do during a whole half-hour Adjournment debate? Where is the right of an individual Member of Parliament to table the Adjournment debate of their choice—perhaps on an issue that is topical in their constituency—rather than having to ask for a debate on a subject answerable only by those particular Departments?

Mr. Cook

If I apprehend the end of the hon. Lady's question, she was referring to the new procedure recommended by the Modernisation Committee and on which we voted in October, which provides that debates in Westminster Hall will follow a weekly rota. The delay involved for any one Department is thus only a week. There was unanimous agreement among all parties in the Committee and the recommendation was not disputed in the House.

The change does not in any way remove the exposure of Ministers to debate in Westminster Hall, nor does it reduce the right of Back Benchers to seek debates. It means only that they have to fall in with a fortnightly rota, which will ensure that they can hold their debate within two weeks. In all the circumstances, that is not unreasonable.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for an early debate to assess whether the five economic tests to join the euro have already been met? I ask because, today, the Labour Movement for Europe, which is widely seen as a Government front organisation, stated that the tests have already been met, thus calling into question the integrity of the Treasury's assessment. Will my right hon. Friend also tell us whether the Government's position, which we could discuss in such a debate, is that: If we don't have a referendum next year, Britain ain't going to be in the euro for eight years at least"? Is that the Government's position, and does the Leader of the House accept or repudiate it?

Mr. Cook

I do not understand the eight-year calculation that my hon. Friend has just announced—indeed, I am almost tempted to hold a debate in order that he might explain that slightly surprising conclusion. The Labour Movement for Europe speaks for itself; it does not speak for the Government. When the Treasury has carried out an assessment of the five economic tests, I am sure that it will want to tell us.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Leader of the House is obviously aware of the growing crisis in the small firms sector as a result of soaring liability insurance premiums. What does he say to a south-coast firm in the insulation business that requires cover of £5 million to secure contracts from its regular customers? This year, the business was able to secure cover of only £l million at a cost of £8,000, whereas last year £12,000 bought cover of £10 million. The small firms sector needs immediate action, not a report that may come out in four or five months.

Mr. Cook

I understand the urgency of the issue and the impatience of those who are affected. However, to be fair, we cannot take action until we are clear about the best action to solve the problem. That is why the Chancellor indicated in the pre-Budget report that we were carrying out a short review. It will not be of immense length—it will not take minutes and last years. It is important that before we take action we should consider carefully whether it is right, but no one on the Government Benches underestimates the importance or the urgency of the situation.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

I welcome the circulation of written statements when they are made to the House. I also welcome my right hon. Friend's statement that we will have an early opportunity to debate the report published yesterday on House of Lords reform. At the end of the debate, will we be able to vote on the seven options set out by the Joint Committee, or does my right hon. Friend plan to separate the votes from the debate itself' Will we have an opportunity to vote on the peculiar suggestion that we need at least 600 Members in the second Chamber?

Mr. Cook

All parts of the report will be available for debate and I am sure that hon. Members will want to express their views on each paragraph. My hon. Friend identifies one issue on which the House will certainly hold divided views.

As regards arrangements for the vote, it is important that both Chambers try to march together when taking their decisions. We shall need to hold consultations and discussions on the matter. I note that the report suggests that initially there should be a take-note debate that is open and that there should be a subsequent opportunity for a Division, which would, presumably, be separated by a period of time from the actual debate. Obviously, we shall give close consideration to that recommendation and we shall consult the other place in order to find a common way forward.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Will the Leader of the House find time to read early-day motion 270?

[That this House welcomes the launch of Action for Blind People's new campaigning group, People in Action and their first campaign, Work, Rest and Play, which will work to challenge inequality, promote social inclusion and change attitudes about blind and partially-sighted people; supports Action for Blind People in its mission to 'inspire change and create opportunities to enable blind and partially sighted people to have equal voice and equal choice'; believes that the services provided by Action for Blind People in the areas of work, housing, leisure and support enable blind and partially sighted people to transform their lives; and calls on the Government to address inequality and inconsistent provision, to promote opportunity and choice for all blind and partially-sighted people and to raise awareness of the issues affecting visually impaired people.] It welcomes the campaign by the charity, Action for Blind People, to emphasise the difficulties faced by blind people, in particular the fact that the unemployment rate for blind people is 75 per cent. May we have a ministerial statement on what the Government plan to do about that?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue that is of real and immediate concern to many of our constituents. We understand the difficulties that people who suffer from any form of disadvantage face in securing employment, and that particularly embraces those in the blind community. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to equality of opportunity and to trying to ensure that there is no discrimination, for whatever reason, against people seeking employment in the work force. We shall certainly consider ways in which we can be of assistance in trying to reduce the disturbing figure cited by the hon. Gentleman.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the full and final report by George Bain on the firefighters' dispute will be published on 16 December. May we have a guarantee that the Deputy Prime Minister will make a statement on the Floor of the House so that we can question him about the final Bain report?

Mr. Cook

The Government attach the greatest importance to the Bain review and to the final report and we look forward with great interest to its conclusions. Of course, we fully understand that the House will want to hold a full exchange of views about the report. To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, he has always shown willingness to make statements on the issue to the House. No one could fault him on his willingness to come to the House to give an account of the Government's position and to ensure that it is kept fully informed.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the report commissioned by the Prime Minister and published by the strategy unit in September, entitled "Private Action, Public Benefit"? It examines the law and regulatory structure for the charitable sector. Charitable purposes were last defined in statute about 400 years ago, so the report has been widely welcomed. The consultation period finishes at the end of this month, so will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on the report, in Government time, so that the Government can take the mind of those Members on both sides of the House who, for obvious reasons, have considerable expertise in such matters? I am sure that such a debate would result in a better end to the consultation process.

Mr. Cook

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is time that we addressed both law and convention on charities, which require modernisation. I regret that I cannot possibly offer time for a debate on the issue before the end of the month as there are only five sitting days left. However, the subject could usefully be ventilated in the debate on the motion for the Christmas recess and if the hon. Gentleman would like to do so, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be delighted to respond.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

This week, the Audit Commission published its comprehensive performance assessment of local authorities. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the grievance felt by some local authorities, not least my own—Bury metropolitan district council—about the final grading that they received? Authorities are concerned not only about the grading itself but also about the discrepancies between the final grading and the written report that accompanied the CPA. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in view of the enormous growth industry in auditing and inspection regimes for local authorities, national health service trusts and further education colleges, as well as the continuing work of Ofsted in the schools sector, there is an argument for a public debate on the way in which the Government deal with the audit and inspection functions and on the criteria that are used in those inspections?

Mr. Cook

I would not have the temerity to comment on the individual results of my hon. Friend's local authority. I can fully understand that, from time to time, local people will feel that they would have reached a different judgment. Having said that, we should not lose sight of the fact that the overall result of that survey was positive. Indeed, I think that I heard the spokesman for the National Audit Office say this morning that 60 per cent. of all councils were either good or excellent, and those of us who are strongly committed to the health of local government must take some encouragement from such a positive result.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I know that you are a keen reader of the Bible, Mr. Speaker, so I rest assured that, one day, the last will be first—[Interruption]—but perhaps I should not bank on it.

In view of the story in The Times today about the continuing catalogue of incompetence at the Office for National Statistics, will the Leader of the House pledge to allow a statement on the continuing controversy that surrounds the 2001 census figures, which play a very important part in ensuring that some of the most vulnerable people, particularly in our inner cities, have proper public services?

Mr. Cook

As I recall my Bible, the day on which the last shall be first was judgment day, and I would not suggest that the hon. Gentleman should wish to rush forward to that day.

Of course the census is a valuable tool for public policy, but it should not be the only tool; there are other ways in which we can ensure that we adequately reflect the needs of vulnerable people in our inner cities.

Mr. Foulkes

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to refer to the abuse of business questions. As you know, this is a very important opportunity to cross-question the Leader of the House about the next week's business. The shadow Leader of the House did not even make a pretence of asking anything about next week's business or, indeed, any business of the House. Instead, he used it as a gratuitous opportunity to attack the Prime Minister and his family. That is an abuse of business questions, the like of which I and, I bet, you, Mr. Speaker, have not seen in our 23 years in the House. I seriously hope that you will look into that and insist that questions relate to the business of the House next week.

Mr. Speaker

As always, there is a loophole in the procedures of the House. I think that I heard the shadow Leader of the House ask for a debate. As a debate was requested, the shadow Leader of the House was in order. The right side of the line is all right for me.