HC Deb 14 February 2002 vol 380 cc311-27 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House give the business for the week beginning Monday 25 February?

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

The business of the House for the week following constituency week is as follows: MONDAY 25 FEBRUARY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Homelessness Bill.

Motions relating to the Draft Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order 2002 and the Draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2002.

TUESDAY 26 FEBRUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Proceeds of Crime Bill.

WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Proceeds of Crime Bill.

THURSDAY 28 FEBRUARY—Debate on Welsh Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 1 MARCH—Debate on the achievements of the national lottery on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 4 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill.

TUESDAY 5 MARCH—Opposition Day. There will be a debate in the names of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru. Subject to be announced.—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am doing well with Wales in my statement so far.

WEDNESDAY 6 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Office of Communications Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 7 MARCH—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on policy on environmental taxation followed by a debate on the deployment of Ministry of Defence resources in the war against terrorism.

At 7 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 8 MARCH—Debate on police on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 27 February 2002, there will be a debate relating to the Commission Green Paper on the future of the Common Fisheries Policy in European Standing Committee A.

[Wednesday 27 February 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 7262/01, Green Paper on the future of the Common Fisheries Policy; 7263/01, Report on the state of the resources and their expected development; 7377/01, Report on the economic and social situation of coastal regions; 7378/01, Report on the implementation of the Community system for fisheries and aquaculture over the period 1993–2000. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-xiii (2000–01).]

Mr. Forth

I wonder whether the Leader of the House listened to his wireless this morning, when he would have heard a reference to something called the performance and innovation unit's report on energy policy. The PIU is an important body that was set up to advise the Prime Minister, no less, and on this occasion to advise him on a matter vital to the nation's future, namely energy policy. Yet again it appears that the document or its contents were being liberally leaked on the wireless this morning, and I am told—although I can scarcely believe it—that it might even be available on something called a website at this very hour or thereabouts.

What is going on? Do I have to come to the Dispatch Box every single Thursday and give you, Mr. Speaker, and the House an example of the Government yet again gratuitously leaking vital documents before they come to the House? If the Leader of the House is going to tell me that we have been reduced to a website Parliament, that is simply not good enough. I want real live Ministers to come to the House of Commons and share with us what they are up to, not to leak things on mysterious electronic vehicles.

I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate, which may require a whole day, on the subject "What is a British company?" That is an extraordinarily simple question, but one that seems utterly to defeat the Prime Minister. Yesterday he said: I am delighted that a British-based company has succeeded. He was talking, of course, about the mysterious company LNM Holdings and the equally mysterious Mr. Mittal. He went on to say that the Government wanted to celebrate the fact that the contract"— that is a steel contract— had been awarded to a British company".—[Official Report, 13 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 199.]

The Prime Minister could not have been clearer on that, but we need to know, and it may well take a debate to tease it out, whether, in his mind, a British company is one that is registered here, which this one appears not to be; one in which the majority of shareholders are British, which they appear not to be in this case; or one in which the majority of employees are British, which appears not to be the case here. What, then, is a British company? That question is important because the Prime Minister is writing letters in which he appears to be utterly confused as to what a British company is. That is a serious matter, because if the British Prime Minister does not know what a British company is and he is prepared to back companies against genuinely British companies, which has been the case here, the sooner we get to the bottom of it the better. If such a debate helped the Prime Minister to understand what a British company is, we would have done everybody a great favour.

I hope that the House and the Leader are aware of the Public Administration Committee's excellent report, published this very morning, on the important matter of the reform of the second Chamber. I hope that the Leader will give us an undertaking that we will have an early debate on the report, because it sets out the way ahead in a positive and helpful way and, not least, recommends the establishment of a Joint Committee, something for which the Opposition have been urging for some time. It also gives a timetable for realistic and responsible progress on the matter. I hope that we can hear from the Leader that he is prepared to take up those suggestions and guarantee that we will make that progress towards the culmination of the reform of the upper House.

Finally, may I draw the Leader's attention to today's edition of The Mirror, which has the huge headline "Moore Shame"? Jo Moore has appeared in our lives yet again, and in quite the most dreadful way. I hope that the Leader can deny absolutely the story in The Mirror and elsewhere, and if he cannot, I hope that he will get the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come here to deny that this dreadful woman has, yet again, sought to take advantage of the most distressing and appalling circumstances. We really have heard enough of her; I do not want to hear of her, about her or from her ever again, and I hope that the Leader of the House can give us that promise.

Mr. Cook

It may be Valentine's day outside, but there is obviously no love-in in here. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that no one will ever attempt to put him on a website, and he will be able to stick to his wireless.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's recognition of the performance and information unit as a very important body. [HON. MEMBERS: "Innovation, not information."] Of course. Innovation sums up its fresh look at Departments. The PIU was set up by this Government, not the Conservative Government, precisely to provide an independent assessment of departmental work and to ensure that fresh minds were brought to bear on that. There has never been an occasion on which a PIU report has been brought to the House by means of a statement.

Mr. Forth

Why not?

Mr. Cook

I explained that to the right hon. Gentleman. These are reports to Ministers, not announcements of Government policy. The Government will now reflect on what the PIU has said and reach conclusions, and I am authorised by my colleagues at the Department of Trade and Industry to say that when they are in a position to announce their response to the PIU report, they will of course make a statement to Parliament. I expect that the House will want to hold them to that commitment.

On the question of Mr. Mittal, he is resident in Britain, his headquarters are here and he employs 100 British citizens here. [Interruption.] I honestly do not think that any of them would find that comical, unlike Opposition Members. I can think of many hundreds of British citizens who would wish to be employed in London. If it is to be a matter of criticism to lobby for a company with British connections, I plead guilty. For four years, as Foreign Secretary, I lobbied for hundreds of such companies, some of which were successful. Nowadays, I suppose that I would be expected to apologise for lobbying successfully on behalf of such companies. Sometimes I lobbied on behalf of Swedish companies because British aerospace industries provide large numbers of components for the Grippen aircraft made by a Swedish primary contractor.

It is right that Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers should lobby for people who are employed in Britain. The two most recent Conservative Prime Ministers did precisely that. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh yes they did. The only difference is that we do not know whether the companies on whose behalf they lobbied had made any donation to their party; we have been transparent, but they kept the donations to their party secret.

I end by trying to make the right hon. Gentleman happier. He asked for a denial of the story in The Mirror. I am pleased to give him the categorical denial that the e-mail that appears in The Mirror today is a fabrication; there was no such e-mail; there was no suggestion that the report should come out on Friday; and there was no disagreement on the matter between Mr. Sixsmith and Jo Moore, who was not responsible for what The Mirror alleges.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

On Monday business in the House finished at 5.40 pm; tomorrow, the House is not sitting; on the Friday after we return we have a debate on a general subject, the lottery; and the following week my right hon. Friend has announced an estimates day. Taking those matters into account, is it not clear that the Government had—and have—ample time for the promised debate on hunting with dogs? Is it not now eight months since the Queen's Speech promised to introduce that? Many Labour Members are fed up with the Government's procrastination and their failure to fulfil both a manifesto pledge and a commitment in the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Cook

The commitment in the Queen's Speech was to have a free vote during the course of this Session. I know of no reason why that commitment will not be fulfilled. There are other commitments in the Queen's Speech that have not yet been fulfilled because we are only halfway through the Session. A number of Bills in the Queen's Speech have still to be brought before the House; they mostly will be brought before the House, and I am sure that there will be a free vote on hunting.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity to give Members an indication of the time scale for considering the Modernisation Committee's report on Select Committees, and to deal with rumours about its recommendations, particularly in relation to the payment of Select Committee Chairs?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

We are not having that.

Mr. Tyler

I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman, and hope that he and I will stand shoulder to shoulder on that issue when it is debated.

On the Public Administration Committee report which appeared today, does the Leader of the House accept that, to use his own terms, there is a centre of gravity around which he can develop consensus on reform of the second Chamber. Does he accept that there is no excuse for the dinosaur tendency, represented by his right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, to do nothing? We have to do something and get on with it; can we please twist his arm to get on? When can we debate the report?

Finally, last week, the Leader of the House kicked into touch my suggestion that it was time to review the issue of public funding of our democratic system. In view of the obvious briefing from No. 10 in the past few days to the effect that state funding is again in the frame, when can we debate that important issue which Members on both sides of the House clearly believe needs to be reviewed? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

Let me try to make some peace in this unseemly exchange. I welcome the fact that the hon.

Gentleman has given me an opportunity to refer to the report that the Modernisation Committee issued on Monday on reforming the scrutiny committees. I believe that the report offers the House a way forward. In particular, it sets out a system of nomination to Select Committees which would be independent, authoritative and transparent and would make it plain that Parliament has control over who sits on the Committees that scrutinise Government. It also provides substantial additional resources to support Select Committees in their important and often technical work on financial scrutiny and provides a clear statement of their core tasks.

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that the reference to an increase in pay for chairs of Select Committees should be seen in that context and kept in proportion. There is a view in the House that there should be an alternative career structure for MPs through scrutiny and for that reason the Modernisation Committee on balance has put forward a proposal that the House should consider in principal whether the Chairs of Select Committees should be paid. However, that is a matter for the House and I recognise that there will be differing opinions on it. I look forward to the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on that occasion.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Cook

I welcome interest in this statement, but perhaps hon. Members will let me finish. I welcome one clear signal that comes from the Public Administration Committee's report on the House of Lords, although I have not yet had an opportunity to scrutinise it in full. I can only say that the report has been produced on the basis of unanimity. That shows that it is possible to find a centre of gravity among those who wish to reform the second Chamber. I promised some time ago that consultation would be followed by a period of reflection. We promised that we would not conclude consultation until we received the Select Committee report and we will now consider carefully its conclusions.

On public funding, the Government have no proposals or plans to introduce the public funding of political parties. I note that we would not secure a consensus across the Floor were we to do so. It is a matter for legitimate debate and I am sure that hon. Members will be looking for ways of raising it in the House.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 779 on Saudi Arabia?

[That this House notes the recent widespread reporting of the use of torture in Saudi Arabian jails, particularly against a number of British nationals accused of participation in bombings in Saudi Arabia; recalls the disturbing findings of the 1997 report entitled 'Torture in Saudi Arabia: No Protection, No Redress' published by the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group and REDRESS; condemns the use of torture in any circumstances; and affirms that the provisions of the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture must serve as the standard to be upheld by all governments.

Is it not time that we had a debate in the House on our relationship with that country, given that Conservative Members lobbied so hard for the Al Yamanah arms deal; that a previous Conservative Prime Minister was involved in that lobbying; and that we have no information about it because the National Audit Office report was never published. Given that British nationals continue to be tortured in Saudi Arabia and that most of those involved in the incident on 11 September in New York were also Saudi Arabian citizens, the time for soft shoe diplomacy in our relations with Saudi Arabia is over. We should face up to torturers and have a proper discussion of our future relationship with that country.

Mr. Cook

Foreign affairs are discussed in the House on a regular basis and I am sure that there will be opportunities for my hon. Friend to press this point with my colleagues at the Foreign Office. I assure the House that vigorous and repeated representations have been made to the Saudi Arabian Government in connection with those who are detained. They go back some time; indeed, I repeatedly raised the case of one detainee who was released last year. I can assure the House that the Government have full regard to protecting the interests and rights of British citizens who are detained and will proceed in the way that we believe is the best way of preserving their rights, protecting their standards and respecting the wishes of their relatives.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

As yesterday's answers from the Prime Minister concerning the LMN Holdings affair were widely seen as woefully inadequate, and as the Leader of the House failed to answer properly the questions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) a few moments ago, is it not essential that the Prime Minister should come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement so that we can ask how many companies employing fewer than 100 people have been assisted in this way; why it is right that a company that is registered in a Caribbean tax haven is helped by the Prime Minister in that way; why a company with less than 1 per cent. of its work force in this country is helped in this way; and just how many companies have been the subject of representations from the Prime Minister to the Romanian Prime Minister?

Mr. Cook

I suspect that whatever the Prime Minister says will not satisfy the right hon. Gentleman. For the record, whenever I was asked to lobby on behalf of a company with a British base, I never asked how many people it employed or introduced a threshold before making representations on its behalf. I do not recall the right hon. Gentleman or any member of the Conservative party making representations to Lord Ashcroft about the fact that his business was based in Belize rather than Britain during the years when he handled the party's entire finances.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I shall not ask my right hon. Friend to comment on the performance and innovation unit's report on energy efficiency to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred earlier. Clearly, that would not be right. Apparently, it recommended a step change in energy efficiency, and I am sure that all hon. Members would welcome that. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the Home Energy Conservation Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) promoted? Will he try to ensure that ample time is made available for debating the important subject of energy efficiency?

Mr. Cook

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government have tried to be helpful during the passage of that Bill. [Interruption.] We have. The measure has been in Committee, and the relevant Minister has held discussions with the sponsors. I hope that we can make progress and that the Bill will reach the statute book. However, we need co-operation not only from the Government but from the sponsors.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I appeal to the Leader of the House seriously to consider holding a debate on Zimbabwe, in Government time on the Floor of the main Chamber. He knows that the Swedish head of the EU observers was recently refused accreditation. I have just heard that Sir Garfield Todd, the former Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, a former Senator in Zimbabwe and a citizen for 67 years, has effectively been disfranchised along with some 2 million other Zimbabwean citizens. I believe that we should have a timely debate to ascertain whether any hon. Members have constructive ideas to help the people of Zimbabwe. That is the least we can do for that country.

Mr. Cook

The House shares the hon. Lady's anxiety. The subject has frequently been discussed in the House and I anticipate that it will continue to be debated. I know Pierre Schori personally, and he has a wealth of experience of Africa and the third world through years as a Minister with responsibility for development in the Swedish Government. He is a man of integrity and impartiality, and he is an excellent choice to head the observers on behalf of the EU. I deplore the difficulties that have been placed in his way and that of other observers. We should bear it in mind that, most of all, the people of Zimbabwe want independent observers in order to moderate the intimidation and thuggery to which they are subjected. I assure the hon. Lady that we are taking every possible measure to ensure that observers get in.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate on the Floor of the House on early-day motion 800 entitled "Safety of Ships and Seafarers at Sea"?

[That this House congratulates the MV Derbyshire Family Association and their supporters for their successful campaign to re-open the formal investigation into the sinking of MV Derbyshire with the loss of 44 lives in the Pacific Ocean during typhoon Orchid in 1980; congratulates the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution on their exhaustive survey of the wreck at a depth of two and a half miles; thanks the Government for re-opening the formal investigation in the light of this survey; observes that the re-opened formal investigation attributed the sinking to the weakness of the foredeck hatch covers, with consequent bow flooding; notes that the assessors at the original formal investigation, although instructed not to provide conclusions, had nevertheless concluded that the ship's crew had been negligent; notes that no apology for this has been received by the families of crew members, notes that Mr. Justice Colman made many important recommendations at the end of the reopened formal investigation but that none of these appear yet to have been implemented; notes that before 1980 two of MV Derbyshire's five sister ships of similar construction had suffered structural damage, that after 1980 all suffered structural damage, one sank and one was scrapped, and that between 1980 and 1998 over 40 bulk carriers have been lost at sea with a further loss of 1,634 seafarers; and calls upon the Government to schedule a debate in Government time on safety at sea, and to ensure that Mr. Justice Colman's recommendations are implemented as a matter of urgency.]

Since the sinking of the merchant vessel Derbyshire in 1980, bulk carriers have been lost at the rate of one a month world wide. Last year, after the completion of the official inquiry into the loss of the Derbyshire, Mr. Justice Colman made several recommendations that would save thousands of lives at sea. I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree to a debate on the matter.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important early-day motion and an important subject. All hon. Members will have been shocked by the figures for loss at sea to which he refers. I shall consider my hon. Friend's comments and refer them to the appropriate Department to ensure that when we consider safety—we shall probably do that in the next Session—we adopt as many recommendations as we can.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

The Leader of the House will know that I first raised the matter of the links between the Government and LNM Holdings and Ispat International (UK) Ltd. at business questions two weeks ago. The Leader of the House replied: I will investigate the matter and make sure that one of my colleagues responds to the hon. Gentleman."—[Official Report, 31 January 2002; Vol. 379, c. 433.] May I ask the right hon. Gentleman how the investigation is proceeding? When can I expect a response? Given that the press is questioning the accuracy of the Government's statements on this affair, is it not vital that we should have a full debate on the Floor of the House so that we can preserve the integrity of Parliament?

Mr. Cook

I cannot think of anything more preposterous than the House having a full day's debate every time a Minister of the Crown lobbies on behalf of a company with a British connection. Nor have I heard anything more preposterous than the claims of Plaid Cymru that, somehow or other, Corns was disadvantaged by LNM succeeding in Romania, when Corns was not even bidding in Romania.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

I am sure that the Leader of the House will recall the case of my constituent Diane Blood. I want to raise a question about her son, Liam Blood. The rest of us have the opportunity to claim our parents as our own on our birth certificate. Will the Leader of the House consider how we could frame legislation to enable my constituent Liam Blood to fill in the blank space on his birth certificate that should rightly be filled with the name of his deceased father? In so doing, my right hon. Friend would be maintaining the commitment to introduce such legislation made when a private Member's Bill fell before I was elected to the House.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a profound issue, on which there will be different views within the House.

I fully respect the importance of the point that he raises; these are sensitive matters for the individuals concerned. I am not sure that the Government would have it in mind to introduce legislation on such a difficult and sensitive point, on which there are different views. I fully appreciate my hon. Friend's wish to see the matter handled by private Member's legislation, and we would make sure, if possible, that if such a Bill were introduced, it would receive a fair hearing in the House.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I press the Leader of the House on a matter that has already been raised twice, namely the Public Administration Committee's report? Does he recognise that the report speaks of the importance of "maintaining the momentum", and outlines a programme involving a Government response in April and a draft Bill in June? Does he agree that that is an entirely reasonable timetable, to which the Government should seek to adhere?

Mr. Cook

I fully accept the importance of maintaining the momentum on this issue, and I welcome the fact, as I have said, that the Select Committee has demonstrated that it is possible, by unanimity, to achieve consensus. We shall continue to look for that, and to try to identify that centre of gravity. Given that that will necessarily mean trying to find common ground among people of different views, I would not fix myself to a particular date on the calendar, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are trying to maintain that momentum.

Thu Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

The Leader of the House has heard the surprise expressed on both sides of the House about the lack of a statement on the energy policy announcement today, although it may fashion energy policy for the next 20 years. He is also reluctant to take any further questions about a debate on the subject of the British company LNM. May I suggest a way of killing two birds with one stone, to save parliamentary time? Will the right hon. Gentleman instigate a debate on energy policy—and, in particular, energy efficiency—to consider the interests of British companies operating in eastern Europe, especially steel companies in Romania, in relation to their energy efficiency and their record on greenhouse gas emissions, and in relation to the question of improving energy efficiency, in contrast to companies operating more conventionally in the United Kingdom which may be called British companies? Such considerations could also examine whether energy inefficiency and greenhouse gas emissions by British companies now operating in Romania should count against greenhouse gas emission targets for British companies operating out of the United Kingdom. That is a very important point.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity, although I nearly got lost halfway through the long paragraph that followed his opening question. We should remain clear, in all our exchanges on this matter, that we want countries in central and eastern Europe, such as Romania, to come into the European Union. We want to support the steps that are necessary for that, such as economic reform and the privatisation of their big state monopolies. We certainly also want them to play their part in cutting greenhouse gas emissions within the overall European basket, to ensure that we fulfil our Kyoto target. All of that is a necessary part of coming into the European Union.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 755, on gender equality in the Church of England, which notes that the Church of England and, of course, the Church in Wales are exempted from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975.

[That this House notes the Church of England is exempted from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 due to the attitudes and activities of a minority who are in disagreement with the ordination of women; affirms the need to strengthen and forward the movement against discrimination on grounds of gender; trusts the Church will thus be encouraged to catch up speedily with the vast majority of institutions; and believes that the appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury could provide the perfect opportunity to forge leadership which would unite the Church of England behind justice for women and end the unfortunate and embarrassing need for 'flying' bishops.]

I remind my right hon. Friend that, sadly, the Church in Wales has lagged behind the Church of England in respect of the ordination of women. Does he agree that, if the established Church and other denominations wish to be relevant in contemporary society, they must abide by the principle of equality for women and men before the law?

Mr. Cook

As a lapsed Presbyterian from Scotland, I am badly qualified to respond to that question.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will know from his sojourn in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that the Republic of Ireland's Criminal Assets Bureau to some extent mirrors the body that we are trying to introduce through the Proceeds of Crime Bill. On a recent visit to Dublin, we discovered a basic difference between that Bill and similar legislation in that country. Our Bill will affect only criminals who have appeared before the courts twice. Before it completes its remaining stages in the House and the other place, can we establish whether it is wise to allow two strikes in that way? As our experience shows, many godfathers who have never appeared before the courts have enriched themselves through the proceeds of crime.

Mr. Cook

I assume from the hon. Gentleman's last point that he is fully behind the Bill's principle, which is to ensure that criminals cannot profit from their crimes and that such profits can be returned to the community. Of course, there will be an opportunity to explore the Bill's detail during the two full days of its remaining stages. We have given an undertaking that there will be six full hours of debate on both days, and the hon. Gentleman still has time to table an amendment if he so wishes.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Does my right hon. Friend recall his answer to my request of several months ago, during business questions, for a debate on the energy review? He said that the appropriate time for such a debate was following the review's publication. Notwithstanding his assurance that the Government will make a statement on the energy review in due course, does he agree that there is an argument for having that debate now, so that the views of the House can inform the Government statement?

Mr. Cook

Of course, I am well aware that my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members have expressed an interest in the energy review as it has proceeded, but I repeat that the review is not yet complete. There must be a Government response to the study, which may be published in the form of a Government publication, and which will certainly be introduced in a statement in the House. Of course, any Member can seek to debate the matter in, for example, Westminster Hall, and I am sure that a number of my colleagues will examine such options.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Leader of the House has announced only one day for debating the final stages of the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill. Because of the shambolic way in which the Government administered and programmed its Committee stage, at least 36 clauses and seven schedules remain entirely undiscussed. The Bill deals with very important matters, and although it does not give rise to controversy between the parties, details such as the introduction of an entirely new youth justice system in Northern Ireland are terribly important. That is a poor way to treat the people of Northern Ireland and a dreadful way to treat legislation. Will the Leader of the House reconsider the way in which the Bill is proceeding in Committee?

Mr. Cook

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Bill, which reforms the court system, is an important one for the people of Northern Ireland, and I hope that the House can make progress on it. I should point out that adequate time was provided for its consideration in Committee, although I fully understand his frustration with those proceedings. Programme motions provide a basis for full scrutiny of a Bill, but they do impose a discipline on members of the Committee to ensure that debate focuses on the major issues.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend spoke previously about the Government requiring a lengthy period of reflection to digest the comments on Lords reform. Given that a unanimously agreed Public Administration Committee report was completed in little more than a month, will the Government stick to the convention of replying to it within two months?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having joined the consensus on the Committee and I even more warmly congratulate the Chairman of the Committee on having persuaded him to do so. I do not recall using the word "lengthy" for the period of reflection, but I would not wish to use the word "rushed". We must proceed with care, but also with all expedition to ensure that we maintain the momentum to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred earlier. The requirement on the Government is to respond to Select Committee reports within two months and we shall endeavour to achieve that deadline.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Following the precedent that has now been set by the Prime Minister in lobbying for small companies, will the Leader of the House today give us an assurance that in future, Ministers will always be ready to meet companies that employ perhaps 200 constituents and which have problems with Government policy, whether or not the companies have given money to the Labour party?

Mr. Cook

As I said earlier, the common-sense question is whether the Prime Minister should have supported a company with British connections in its bid—[Interruption.] The company in question has British connections. Mr. Mittal is a British resident and he employs 100 people in Britain. I do not understand why Opposition Members are so scornful of companies that employ 100 people in Britain. As for small businesses, my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Trade and Industry regularly meet representatives of the small business sector and I am sure that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)

Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the near future in which we could congratulate the Chancellor on his work in beating off efforts by the European Commission to cap public expenditure? Could that debate include an examination of the stability pact and the impact that it would have on public expenditure in Britain, should we be so foolish as to join the euro now?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his point about the euro robustly, and I am sure that he will have many occasions on which to do so in the future.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

I wish to return to the subject of the energy review, which is now available to hon. Members, and to express my regret that we cannot take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on the Cabinet Office's apparently bold position on renewable energy. The review starts with a sentence from the Prime Minister: I hope that this report will launch a thorough debate. Why cannot that thorough debate occur here, especially as we had an extensive debate on the last major performance and innovation unit report, on sub-post offices, within hours of its publication?

Mr. Cook

Of course, the hon. Gentleman will understand the distinction between a debate and a statement. I welcome his support for the conclusions of the report, and I also welcome the emphasis that it places on conservation and the tight targets that it sets for energy conservation in British homes. I certainly would not wish the hon. Gentleman to feel inhibited from expressing his support on any occasion offered to him.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When may we debate early-day motion 841?

[That this House notes that the principle of funding political parties from public funds has been accepted in the allocation of Short money; and believes that reliance on funding from individuals and companies intent on influencing political decisions could be largely eliminated by funding main parties activities in the same manner with moneys allocated by an independent trust on the basis of votes cast in past elections.]

That would give us an opportunity to celebrate with some pride the fact that in recent history not one British Government of any political colour has been corrupt. Those who make such accusations do more to demean themselves than they do to demean the standing and reputation of British democracy. As the principle of public funding of parties has been accepted by all the parties in the House, and as the sum of £25 million will be paid in this Parliament to opposition parties, is it not a small step to extend the funding to other party activities so that parties can be absolved from accusations of corruption—some of which are legitimate but many of which are mischievous?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a contribution to a debate that will continue for some time, both in public and in the House, and he raises an important point for consideration. We do have public funding of the official Opposition, which I have not noticed them resisting. My hon. Friend fairly asks them to consider whether that principle should be confined to them or shared more widely.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

Could the Leader of the House arrange for the teaching of geography in schools, especially Scottish public schools, given the Prime Minister's remarkable assertion that the Dutch Antilles are British? It is easy to see how his confusion has arisen because he travels around the world so much that he does not really know where Britain is, let alone the Dutch Antilles. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has now gathered enough air miles to visit them. Could that debate be tied to a more serious debate about the Government's much-vaunted foreign policy and whether it is ethical to say to a country that is keen to join the EU that its membership could be affected by whether it gives an important contract to a company that supports a British political party or to a French company that does not?

Mr. Cook

I conclude from the hon. Gentleman's final sentence that he would have preferred the French company to receive the contract. I have to say that he will find himself very lonely among the British public. As for his remarks about the Dutch Antilles, I merely ask him why the Conservative party was content to accept Lord Ashcroft as a British treasurer when he was based in Belize. I should be interested to hear from Conservative Members how many people Lord Ashcroft employed in Britain.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Leader of the House will have discovered from his careful reading of the newspapers that the Government have published findings and recommendations on flood defences and future expenditure on them. That will have an enormous impact on constituencies such as mine and its neighbour City of York, which experienced severe flooding November 2000 and face serious flood threats as I speak.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for a full debate on a Government motion dealing with the implications of that? I am thinking particularly of the notion of charging householders a levy, thus making them personally responsible for houses that may have been built by developers who secured huge commercial gain. The current law absolves householders from any prior knowledge when they purchase their homes.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the importance of this issue in a number of parts of Britain, particularly the hon. Lady's region, and of the concern about rising water levels that has been felt over the past few days. It is because the Government attach so much importance to the matter that we have tried to proceed as rapidly as possible with flood defences, which often constitute a complex and long-term engineering project. I assure the hon. Lady that I will draw her remarks to the attention of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is fully seized of the position.

I agree that those who built houses in places exposed to flooding should reflect on their responsibility to people who bought the houses in good faith.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The House will have noted the right hon. Gentleman's weasel words. He did not describe LNM Holdings as a British company, as the Prime Minister did yesterday not once, not twice, but three times. It has now been downgraded to "a company with British connections". May we, as a matter of urgency, have a debate in Government time on the interpretation of the English language by the Prime Minister and other Ministers?

May we also have an opportunity to explore the fact that, notwithstanding the disingenuous suggestion by the Leader of the House that no one in Britain could possibly suffer as a result of LNM's takeover of the Romanian steel firm, companies—including companies in my constituency in which jobs depend on the success of Corns—will be hugely damaged by the ability of a friend of and donor to the Labour party to undercut Corns worldwide and cost British jobs as a consequence of the Prime Minister's wholly inappropriate intervention on behalf of a company. 01 per cent. of whose work force are employed in Britain?

Mr. Cook

Of course British industry faces a growing challenge across the board from the countries of central and eastern Europe, which in many respects provide a lower production base. That challenge would remain constant regardless of who had acquired the privatised steel industry in Romania. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is supposed to be his party's objective to support countries such as Romania in their preparations for membership of the European Union.

I am bewildered at how far behind the times the Conservative party has fallen. It now discusses whether we should support only companies that are officially registered in Britain. Millions of people in Britain are employed by companies that are not registered in Britain, and are not British in the legal sense. That should not prevent the Government from lobbying on their behalf, and on behalf of the people whom they employ.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Two weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House whether he could secure an urgently needed statement from his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the readiness of the Trident refit complex at Devonport. Since then, not only has there been no statement but it has been revealed that the estimate for completion of the complex has risen by some £400 million, and that HMS Vanguard sits awaiting its refit while the complex remains uncertificated by the nuclear installations inspectorate.

May I ask again for that urgently needed statement? Could it be made on our return after the break? I think the Leader of the House said that this was not just a constituency issue but a national issue.

Mr. Cook

It sounds as if the hon. Gentleman has within him an excellent speech for the forthcoming debate, and I urge him to stay in the Chamber to make it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the very important issue that was raised by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) yesterday in the debate on the report by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, namely, the relationship of the Prime Minister to the ministerial code and its enforcement? In advance of such a debate, can the Leader of the House make available the suppressed internal Labour party document about the Leicester, East Labour party? We could then discover what the Prime Minister knew—he did know about goings on in Leicester, East—when he appointed the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) as a Minister. As The Guardian said on 15 March: It seems extraordinary the lengths to which Mr. Blair and Mr. Cook have gone to defend the man".

Mr. Cook

I invite the hon. Gentleman to move on. We debated these issues yesterday and took a decision. The hon. Member at the centre of this is now suspended from the House. The hon. Gentleman should find something to occupy his intellect and passion.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Is the Leader of the House aware that last week I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health and faxed his private office asking for his urgent intervention in the case of a cancer patient in my constituency, since when I have heard absolutely nothing? I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman because the constituent in question was operated on for cancer in November and was told by the surgeon that she would require radiotherapy within four to six weeks. Since then she has been told by national health service managers that she will have to wait up to 16 weeks—until March—and that there is no possibility of her having radiotherapy before then.

Unfortunately, that is not an isolated incident in east Sussex, but is typical of the lack of resources and sheer shambles in cancer treatment in the south-east. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House, make a statement, accept responsibility for that failure and tell us when he will get a grip on cancer care in east Sussex?

Mr. Cook

Of course the whole House will—[Interruption.] Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) will allow me to respond in my own way. The whole House will, of course, share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the individual case that he raises. I am not sure that I would serve the House well if I were to commit myself to bringing the Secretary of State for Health to the House for a debate on one case, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are committed to increasing substantially the number of cancer specialists in the NHS. Unfortunately, it takes seven years to train a cancer specialist. If the Government of the party he represents had increased rather than cut the number of trainee consultants, we might have a better service in his constituency.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to another aspect of the crisis in Zimbabwe: the urgent need for reconstruction in the country if Robert Mugabe were to lose the election in four weeks' time? Last Wednesday, my hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Moore) and I met senior officials of the Movement for Democratic Change in Johannesburg. What was striking was that, despite all the obstacles that have been placed in their way, they still believe that they can win the election. However, they stressed that there was a vital need for assistance in the reconstruction of the country, which has been ruined by corrupt rule over many years. Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on Britain's role in the reconstruction of Zimbabwe and on what we can do to assist, bearing in mind the urgent need for that to happen as soon as possible were Robert Mugabe to lose the election?

Mr. Cook

Although it would be premature to debate what we would do in the event of President Mugabe's defeat, the hon. Gentleman raises an important point on which my colleagues will be reflecting even now. It gave us no pleasure to withdraw economic development aid from Zimbabwe and we took that step only because it was impossible to work with President Mugabe's Administration. Nothing that we could achieve through aid would undo the damage that he is inflicting on Zimbabwe's economy. If we can find partners in Zimbabwe to work on the country's reconstruction on behalf of its people, they will find Britain a willing partner.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), does the Leader of the House recall from his time as Foreign Secretary any example of an ambassador losing his diaries? Does he believe that Ambassador Ralph, our man in Bucharest, lost his diaries, or were they buried by the Labour spin machine? Can we have a statement from the Prime Minister on this sorry event?

Mr. Cook

I must confess that I am not up to speed on the allegation of Mr. Ralph having lost his diary, but I know the gentleman in question. In fact, I think that I appointed him to the post. He is an excellent diplomat. I believe that it is absolutely right for Britain, as a champion of EU enlargement, to send a strong message of welcome for Prime Minister Nastase's bold decision to break up Romania's monopoly state-owned steel industry, which is a sign of the important preparations he is making for EU membership.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

The Leader of the House will recall that, before the 1997 election, the Prime Minister said that there were 24 hours to save the national health service. Since then, the NHS has developed severe problems, crime in our inner cities has soared and, in some instances, public transport is close to collapse. Can we have a general debate on our public services? May I suggest that the Prime Minister takes time out of his busy worldwide schedule to lead that debate so that we can scrutinise his actions in relation to our great public services?

Mr. Cook

The House has just been treated to the hon. Gentleman's next constituency report. May I put his remarks in context? Since this Government came to office, we have 20,000 more nurses and thousands more doctors in the NHS. For the first time in 30 years, we have more general and acute beds in the NHS. If the Conservative Government had paid the same attention to it, we would be in a better state. We are making as much progress as we can possibly hope to achieve from the low base that the Conservatives left us.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Does the Leader of the House recall that the Minister responding to the recent social care debate said that she would investigate the allegation by the 15 social services departments in the south-west that the funding crisis is so severe that they have to divert money from care of the elderly to prop up child care and child protection? When the investigation is complete, will the Secretary of State for Health make a statement to the House?

Mr. Cook

I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a statement, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health and invite him to ensure that he communicates with the hon. Gentleman when the study is complete.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

To provide clarification for all small and medium-sized businesses based in this country, will the Leader of the House say whether the Prime Minister is prepared to write a letter on behalf of companies employing 100 or more people that are trying to win contracts overseas?

Mr. Cook

The Government have given full support to companies of whatever size that try to win contracts overseas. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will get the same service the next time any British business acquires a steel mill in central or eastern Europe.