HC Deb 28 February 2002 vol 380 cc841-59 12.56 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

I should be delighted. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing us to take his time for the question.

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

TUESDAY 5 MARCH—Opposition Day for the minority parties. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Government Support for Mr. Mittal and the Domestic Steel Industry" followed by a debate entitled "Process of Consent for New Nuclear Power Stations in Scotland and Wales". Both debates arise on a motion in the names of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru.

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 provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 11 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill.

TUESDAY 12 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 13 MARCH—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 14 MARCH—Debate on women and equality on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 15 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Monday 18 March there will be a debate on hunting. In the Queen's Speech we promised that we would enable a free vote to take place on the future of hunting with dogs. The Government will table a motion enabling the House to express its view in a free vote between the three options. A similar vote will take place in the House of Lords.

Following those votes my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs intends to bring forward, before the Easter recess, our proposals to resolve the issue.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 13 March, there will be a debate relating to European transport policy in European Standing Committee A and a debate relating to cosmetic products in European Standing Committee C.

[Wednesday 13 March 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 11932/01, Commission White Paper; European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide. 12597/01, Draft Decision amending Decision No 1692/96/EC on Community guidelines for the development of the trans-European transport network. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xv, (2001–02).

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 14 November 2001; Amended draft Council Directive amending for the seventh time Council Directive 76/768/EEC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to cosmetic products. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-vii; HC 152-xix (2001–02).]

Finally, may I make a personal statement regarding my answer at last Business questions to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) a fortnight ago? At the time, I said that there was no disagreement…between Mr. Sixsmith and Jo Moore", which I accept is difficult to reconcile with all that we have since learned. More seriously, I said that there was no such e-mail".—[Official Report, 14 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 314.] The Mirror has since recorded that it was misled as to the contents of the e-mail and that it was not addressed to Jo Moore. But there was an e-mail. I would not have used those words had I been aware of that at the time.

I enjoy our Thursday exchanges and I always seek to be accurate, if combative, in my replies. I regret that on the last occasion I was not in possession of accurate information. I apologise to the House for having, in all good faith, misled it, and to The Mirror for having done it an injustice.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the future business. I also thank him for what he has just said so graciously, but may I suggest, to round off that little matter, that he may want to come to the House on another occasion, following the inquiries that I have no doubt he is continuing to make as to the source of the misinformation that he was so regrettably given and the actions that he and the Cabinet propose to take to ensure that such things do not happen again? That would serve not only the House, but the Government—not to mention the right hon. Gentleman himself.

We have heard the announcement that the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill will be debated on Monday. We have been told that one day is being allocated to consider that Bill on Report and Third Reading. The House must be aware—if not, it is about to become aware—that 32 clauses and seven schedules to that Bill were not even considered in Committee, and that some 68 amendments have already been tabled for debate on Report stage of what is a 92 clause and 13 schedule Bill.

Will the Leader of the House reconsider, even at this stage, whether one day is remotely adequate to consider that number of amendments to a Bill of that size? Will he also give an undertaking that, if any Government amendment is tabled to that Bill between now and Monday, further time will made available properly to consider any such amendment? I hope that he will give that issue very serious consideration, because that important Bill contains some very controversial elements and it must receive proper consideration.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you said: It is not a rule of the House, but a courtesy, that Ministers give as much warning as possible of any statement that they are going to make. I encourage Ministers to do that. If there is any difficulty or short notice in future, I can use my discretion, but I would rather encourage Ministers to give out their statements well in advance."—[Official Report, 27 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 709.] Already, less than 24 hours after you said that, Mr. Speaker, we have had the unedifying spectacle of a humiliated Chancellor, who, having tried to slip out a White Paper under the guise of Question Time, was then obliged to turn a question into a pseudo-statement; but even then he gave no advance warning to my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor of the contents of what he was going to say, which he then garbled and babbled out at the Dispatch Box in a properly embarrassed manner.

What on earth can you now do, Mr. Speaker? In your typically generous way, you suggested to the House yesterday that you expected Ministers to respond to what you had said, but you said that you could use your discretion. Not only do I ask the Leader of the House to give an undertaking that he will use his influence to ensure that we do not have any more of this, but I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to look again at the discretion that you said you might use, because the House is now being abused on a daily basis by the most senior members of the Government who seemingly do not care any more whether the conventions of the House are adhered to. That is regrettable and demeaning to everyone involved, not least to the Chancellor himself on this occasion.

We have now heard the confirmation of what has been widely speculated on in press: we will have debates on the subject of saving foxes, hares and failed Secretaries of State. The debate will have to take that form, will it not? We now know—I want the Leader of the House to confirm or to deny this—that there is a causal link between the parliamentary Labour party's support for the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the not coincidental announcement almost immediately afterwards that some raw meat is to be thrown to the parliamentary Labour party.

Will the Leader of the House confirm categorically and on the record that there is no question of any link whatever between the support given by the parliamentary Labour party to the Transport Secretary and the almost immediate announcement of a debate on hunting? If it were ever to emerge that there was any truth in that, it would be seen as the most cynical ploy. It must be a perfect example of the countryside being sacrificed to a Secretary of State at bay.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. Let me deal with his points one at a time.

First, I will continue to reflect on anything useful that I am told with regard to the matter that I dealt with in my statement. However, the matter has been discussed exhaustively in the past three days. I am a humble man and there is nothing that I can usefully add to what has already been said.

On the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, many of the amendments that have been tabled for next week are in the Government's name and are of a technical character. Indeed, in some cases, they are on issues that have been raised by others, to which we want to respond positively. We are confident that the Bill can be properly dealt with in one day if the House is businesslike in its approach. I hope that we can deliver on that next week.

I am strongly in favour of making statements when it is appropriate and necessary to do so. However, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that in the four and a half years since 1997, this Government have made more statements to the House than were made in any four-and-a-half-year period under the preceding Conservative Government. When I was the shadow spokesman on international affairs, they frequently produced documents on Europe without even the courtesy that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just given the House of an additional half-hour of questioning.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, who is fecund in his imagination, on having managed to bring the Secretary of State for Transport into the discussion on hunting. [Interruption.] I would not deny the right hon. Gentleman the credit for having done so. On this occasion, he is hunting a red herring—not worthy of me, but I could not resist it. I assure the House that the decision was taken last week, well before anything was said by Mr. Sixsmith to The Sunday Times, and well before any discussion in the House on the Secretary of State.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

May I draw attention to early-day motion 901, on biochemical weapons?

[That this House calls for the Government to come to an agreement with NATO to declassify the information regarding biochemical weapons taken from the aggressors during World War Two which were dumped off the shores of several European countries around the North Sea and in the Baltic; notes that the 50 year period under which such information is kept private is now finished; calls on the Government, other European countries and other responsible nations to make considerable efforts to combat the pollution that is caused by the sunken vessels which are affecting marine life around European shores; notes that the Russians are already taken action on this issue, and believes that the British Government should do likewise.]

I understand that more than 50 years ago, the Americans, the Russians and the British, after seizing trophies from the aggressors in world war two, put biochemical weapons into 65 ships and dumped them all over European waters, some in the Baltic sea, some in the North sea and some off the shores of Sweden and Denmark. As the 50-year period of classification is over, is it possible to have a debate on getting NATO to agree to declassify this information? The Russians have already taken action and found that some of the vessels are leaking Yperite, which is mustard gas, into the marine environment. They are very concerned about it. If that is allowed to continue it could affect three or four generations.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue, which is clearly of real concern to him. I shall convey his comments about declassifying the documents to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I saw some of the documentation when I was in my previous post and the consensus of international scientific advice is that dumping on the sea bed does not pose a threat to the environment. That in part reflects the judgment on the extent of dispersal, should there be leaks of the kind to which my hon. Friend refers. I shall draw the question of declassification to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate the Leader of the House on his gracious apology. I hope that other members of the Cabinet will follow his good example in future. Does he recall that in the debate on the Committee on Standards and Privileges report on 13 February, he promised, at column 222, to reflect on the issue that I raised with him about the compatibility of the ministerial code with the code of behaviour of Members of the House? Is the right hon. Gentleman yet in a position to make a statement on his reflections? Can he give us any indication of when he may be able to make a statement on that review? Who is undertaking the review of the code of ministerial conduct? Can we be assured that there will also be a parallel review of the code relating to ministerial special advisers?

In view of the admission on Tuesday by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions that he intervened to stipulate the departure terms of Mr. Martin Sixsmith, insisting that Mr. Sixsmith was not to be in receipt of any employment in the civil service in future, does the Leader of the House accept that there is a potential conflict even with the existing code, let alone with the statements made since about the code, particularly in relation to the obligations of a good employer? In view of the substantial evidence that has been added to today that the Secretary of State insisted on equality of treatment as between Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith, can the Leader of the House tell us whether a similar stipulation was applied to her resignation—that is, that she should never be employed in the civil service again?

Mr. Cook

I of course recall the promise that I made to the hon. Gentleman during our debate on the report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Indeed, I predicted this morning that the hon. Gentleman would be vigilant in reminding me of it. This is not a matter that can move overnight; as I told the House, we wanted time to consider carefully the serious points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I assure him that I am certainly reflecting on it—indeed, I hope that it is not an offence to the English language if I say that I am actively reflecting on it. When I am ready to say something, I will come back to the House and make sure that the hon. Gentleman is advised about it.

As for the Government being a good employer, of course all members of the Cabinet are under an obligation to be good employers in their Department. However, all Members of the House—particularly Conservative Members, with their knowledge of business interests—are also aware that the duty of a good employer is to make sure that the Department can function and is not undermined by any employee within that Department. In addition, a good employer is required, perfectly reasonably, to make sure that people in the Department are fulfilling the contract to which they signed up. The resignations the other week have been trawled over extensively. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the statement by the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Mottram, to which it would be unwise for any of the rest of us to add.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although I welcome the debate on hunting with dogs, is my right hon. Friend aware that most Labour Members—certainly not Conservative Members—would like, by the end of this Parliament, to have in place a ban on hunting with dogs, a barbaric practice that should have been banned long ago? If, at a later stage, this House votes for a measure that the House of Lords will almost certainly vote against, would the Government be willing to use the Parliament Act? Even if only a minority of people in the country were in favour of a ban, the view of my colleagues and me would be no different, but there is a large majority in favour of such a ban. It is in this Parliament that such a practice should come to an end.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware that this issue arouses strong feelings on both sides of the House. I also fully respect the strong views of my hon. Friend which he has held sincerely and deeply for a long time. That is why the Government are providing the opportunity, which we promised in the Queen's Speech, of a free vote to enable the House to express its view. I recognise that it is unlikely that the House is likely to express a different view from when it last voted. It may or may not be the case, however, that in the House of Lords a different conclusion is reached when the Lords consider the three options. After that, the Minister for Rural Affairs will consider how to take the matter forward and find a way of reaching a conclusion, which was the commitment that we made in our manifesto. Until we have made that progress, it would be unwise to speculate on what we will do in the event of failure.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does the Leader of the House accept that there is one item of unfinished business arising from the Jo Moore affair, and I do not thereby refer to the impending reshuffling of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions? I refer to the leak inquiry which was commissioned many weeks ago to find out who did the public service of revealing to the world the appalling e-mail that Jo Moore put out on 11 September, from which everything else flowed. May we have a statement from the Cabinet Office as to how this leak inquiry is progressing? May we know whether, if the culprit—so-called—is eventually identified, that person will suffer the same fate as Martin Sixsmith for daring to expose the truth about the twisters in the DTLR.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that only one matter remains from the Jo Moore affair. I will hold him and his entire party to that statement.

It is my understanding that there was no particular inquiry within the Transport Department. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I merely—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh.] It could be that I am over-extending myself, but I would not expect such an inquiry to produce a particular result. What is important is that we make a success of ensuring that the Transport Department works together to meet the needs of the travelling public. I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is that, rather than a leak last September, that concerns people.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

The suggestion that the debates on hunting are a sop that has been flung to the Back Benches is journalistic tosh and demeaning to many people both in the House and outside who have campaigned for years to get a ban on hunting with dogs. It was in our manifesto and the Queen's Speech. To link it to the Secretary of State for Transport is fanciful in the extreme and total nonsense.

The process of having debates on hunting is getting rather boring. As my right hon. Friend said, we know the will of the House of Commons. Why cannot we just revive the Bill that went through the House in the last Session? We could do that quickly and move it to the House of Lords. If it decides to reject it, it will not be Government who invoke the Parliament Act because it will automatically come into force. If my right hon. Friend or any of his colleagues think that there is a soft option called the middle way, they are deceiving themselves.

Mr. Cook

Knowing my hon. Friend as well as I have for many years, I assure him that I would never imagine that he would accept a sop, and no one is dreaming of offering him one. He has genuine and sincere views, which I respect. I ask him, though, to respect the views of those of us who genuinely and sincerely support the middle way.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Has the right hon. Gentleman had a chance to read to the interesting report published by the highly prestigious and authoritative National Audit Office, which shows that Labour's policy on the new deal is a complete flop? Will he arrange for a debate, with the Prime Minister present, on the matter so that the Government can apologise for the enormous waste of taxpayers' money that is so clearly set out in the report today?

Mr. Cook

I have seen a summary of the NAO's conclusion. I remind the House that more than 250,000 young people have entered employment through the new deal, as is set out in the report. The NAO makes highly speculative calculations about how many of those were a result of the new deal. If the figures are as low as it claims, it is difficult for me to reconcile them with the experience in my constituency. If the figures are right, they must relate to West Lothian only and nowhere else in Britain. The new deal has been important in delivering one of the remarkable achievements of the Government, which is a cut in youth unemployment by two thirds from the level that we inherited from the Conservative party. Against that figure, we will take no lecture from the Conservative party on youth unemployment.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

On hunting, one must presume that a Bill will be introduced either in this Session or the next. My right hon. Friend told us that it will be decided on a free vote. Can he assure us that that will be the case and that Government Whips will not ask Ministers to go through the Lobbies?

Mr. Cook

I can unequivocally give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, if he looks at the voting record in the last Parliament, he will observe that Ministers voted on two of the three options. I suspect that that will be the case this time.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Can the Leader of the House give me guidance on the crisis that is developing at the heart of the Government's policy on energy, especially as it is reflected in Scotland? This week, the Minister for Industry and Energy, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), is quoted as saying that the building of a power station in Scotland will be a matter for the Scottish Executive to determine. End of story. Conversely, the Minister of State, Scotland Office, the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes), said: it wouldn't be for a legislature which has powers devolved from Westminster to then thwart the policy of a UK government on areas which are clearly reserved to Westminster, such as energy". Scotland cannot afford that developing crisis. How does the right hon. Gentleman intend to resolve it?

Mr. Cook

I anticipate that we will have a full opportunity to explore those issues next week, at which time the hon. Gentleman can put his questions to my colleague who will be taking part in that debate. Whatever the legal and constitutional position, surely the important issue is that Westminster and Edinburgh work together to ensure that they find a solution.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The President of the United States of America seems inevitably to be moving towards war against Iraq, and this morning the Prime Minister made a statement in support of the President's "axis of evil" speech. May I ask that, before any decision is taken on this country joining military action, there will be a parliamentary debate and that any action will be the subject of a vote of this House?

Mr. Cook

It is important to remind ourselves that, despite the best efforts of the media to confuse the point, no decision has been taken in the United States or anywhere else on the question of military action. Indeed, if my hon. Friend looks closely at what the Prime Minister said in that interview, he will see that my right hon. Friend indeed supported action against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, on which I would imagine all Members would support him, but made no commitment to military action in that connection, either against Iraq or anywhere else. Of course, in the event of the kind of outcome on which my hon. Friend speculates, there would be full discussion in the House. It is not something that could be done in secret, and would not be done in secret.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

The Leader of the House will recall the exchange on Tuesday between the Transport Secretary and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on the subject of congestion charging, in which the hon. Lady called for "this ridiculous plan" to be subject to a full public inquiry and environmental audit". In his response, the Secretary of State said: under the terms of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 we are not allowed to deal with it."—[Official Report, 26 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 573.] I understand that the Government have a range of powers under that Act, not least including the matter of exemptions. Will the Leader of the House say when the Secretary of State will return to the Chamber to enable the matter to be debated fully?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend will be answering questions next week, and obviously that question can be put to him. The hon. Lady will be aware from her research that the Government's role in this is very limited. It is a matter for the Mayor to bring forward his proposals, but as she may also be aware, we have expressed the view that it would of course help to ensure full public consultation and consensus around the proposals if the Mayor, as is open to him, were to hold a public inquiry into them.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I look forward to joining my right hon. Friend and hon. Members on both sides of the House in voting in due course for a total ban on hunting. However, on this occasion I would ask whether he could find an opportunity for the House to address itself to another matter: sex and death. He will know that the incidence of chlamydia in this country is terrifyingly high, and that the Government have carried out very useful pilot schemes on screening for the disease. Does he also know that chlamydia ruins fertility, destroys marriages, and because it causes ectopic pregnancy, kills up to 10 women a year? Can we find time to debate the issue and Government action against this silent killer?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a profound and real danger to so many of our young people. The growth in sexually transmitted disease among young people is a matter of concern to all parties in the House. That is why the Government produced only a few months ago their national sexual health strategy. I know that my hon. Friends at the Department of Health are pursuing that vigorously, and I shall draw their attention to my hon. Friend's interest.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Is the Leader of the House in a position to tell us who will respond for the Government in the Opposition day debate in the name of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru on nuclear power, given that we have heard that there is confusion at the heart of government between the Minister of State in the Scotland Office and the Industry and Energy Minister? Perhaps I could helpfully suggest that one opened the debate and the other closed it, and we could see how the debate develops.

Mr. Cook

Since it was at 10.15 this morning that, rather late, the SNP and Plaid Cymru informed us of the subject of next week's debate, I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman's question about speakers. If next time they have an Opposition day they give us the normal notice, the night before, I will be able to answer in good time.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Licensed killing for fun is simply unacceptable. My right hon. Friend may support the middle way but, with respect, he is in a tiny minority. Why do we need to March the troops to the top of the hill yet again when the view of the House of Commons is as plain as a pikestaff? On 18 March, instead of having a completely useless and meaningless indicative vote, why do we not take the Bill passed by the House of Commons in the last Session, debate it, vote on it, and send it to the House of Lords? If the Lords reject it, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) says, it would automatically become law in this Session. We should not continue the farce until 2003–04, when people outside the House and the majority of those inside it want the matter resolved now.

Mr. Cook

I have been pressed repeatedly in business questions for several weeks to schedule a debate on hunting, and I cannot say that I have been overwhelmed by gratitude for having responded to the demand. As for my position, my hon. Friend and I have in our time both been part of tiny minorities; that did not make us feel at the time that either of us was necessarily wrong. It is entirely possible that when he considers the options, my hon. Friend will feel that the Bill that was presented in the last Parliament is the way forward, and no one has excluded it as such. However, many of those who were involved in the debate on that legislation, including some who pressed for a ban, have perceived ways in which that Bill could be amended. That will require further consideration and should not be ruled out at the start.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Leader of the House accept that to many people the debate on 18 March shows a Government with the most extraordinarily twisted priorities? At a time when the Government are about to dismantle the Fleet Air Arm, the transport system is in chaos, there is a serious shortage of teachers, and the hospital trusts and social services in my constituency are underfunded to the tune of more than £20 million and unable to deliver the services they should, is not this spiteful and reckless attack on the rights of minorities a total waste of time and an irresponsible delusion of public opinion?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman and I have both been Members of Parliament for a long time and we both know that those on either side of the House can produce their own list of important matters that the House should debate. I would like the House to have more opportunity to debate the fact that this country has the fastest growth of any of the major economies, the lowest inflation in Europe, the lowest unemployment for a generation, and the biggest investment in health and education of any of the G7 countries. The totality of a parliamentary year provides opportunities for us to debate matters of deep public concern, and whatever view he takes of hunting, I am sure that he, as a fair-minded Member, admits that it is the subject of genuine public concern.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

On 14 February, Channel 4 transmitted a programme that showed the application within the national health service of futile care theories. That is when medical staff make subjective judgments about their patients that can lead to death by dehydration and starvation—procedures legitimised in 1993 by the Bland judgment. Rather than the courts and the medical profession leading the debate, is it not high time Parliament began to debate that difficult area of policy?

Mr. Cook

That sensitive and delicate issue has been raised on a number of occasions. I fully understand the sincerity with which my hon. Friend raises the question, but I have always taken the view—it must be a personal judgment—that such decisions are best left to the discretion of the medical doctors involved, who in hospitals throughout the country are daily faced with difficult judgments. I am not sure that high-profile political debate would assist them to make those difficult judgments.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the passing of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, Her Majesty's Government promised the House a regular debate on London issues. The Leader of the House will have heard the excellent question of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) on congestion charges. Surely the House should be consulted on the merits of that iniquitous scheme, which will weigh particularly heavily on Londoners at a time when their public transport has been steadily run down? Will the Leader of the House now assure us that we will get that early debate, preferably before Easter?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that it is a good use of the House's time to debate matters over which the Government have no legal powers. Our main angle on congestion charges is whether the revenue from them is used to improve public transport; that is the locus of Government. We do not have a locus to prevent the use of the powers that the House has given the Mayor of London. However, I am sensitive to the need for a debate on London, and I said in the last business statement that I shall keep under review the opportunity for a debate on London issues.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

May I raise a matter of interest to my north-east constituents in Hartlepool? We had been led to expect that the White Paper on devolution to the English regions would appear in the new year, then March and then by Easter. However, according to a report in today's Financial Times, it has been postponed by the Government until a future date. Can my right hon. Friend say whether or not that is the case and, if it is, offer an explanation? Will he give an undertaking to the House that that will not mean that the Government's legislative timetable, whatever it is, will not slip?

Mr. Cook

Of course, no date was ever given for publication of the White Paper on the regions, so it is difficult to understand the allegation in the press that there has been a delay in a publication date that was never set. The bottom line is that all in the Cabinet want to introduce a White Paper on the regions. As my right hon. Friend, who follows these matters closely, will know, there are difficult issues to be resolved; they are being actively worked upon in repeated meetings. As soon as we can produce a White Paper, we shall do so.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

I feel sure that the Leader of the House will agree that the situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating dangerously. I was grateful a few weeks ago for his assurances that Ministers would come to the Dispatch Box to keep us informed of developments. Does he think it appropriate, when the Leader of the Opposition and other Opposition politicians there are clearly being intimidated ahead of the presidential election, to have a statement next week?

Mr. Cook

I wholly agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the gravity of the situation in Zimbabwe. As he seeks a Government statement, I can say that we fully deplore the way in which the Leader of the Opposition there has been treated: on all the alleged evidence produced so far there is obviously no motivation other than a political one for the charges that have been brought against him.

I will indeed keep under review when it may be appropriate for a Minister to make a statement at the Dispatch Box. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the elections, a week on Sunday, will take place very shortly; the House will obviously want to consider what happens after those elections. Whether it would be helpful in the context of those elections to have debates which would be relayed within Zimbabwe is another matter.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

There were excellent exchanges today during Treasury questions on international debt relief and educational developments in the third world. Has my right hon. Friend noticed early-day motion 885 on tackling global poverty?

[That this House notes that international currency transactions total more than $1 trillion a day and that the vast majority of this is unrelated to the real economy of tangible trade goods and services; believes that such enormous speculative flows have contributed to serious economic damage to countries and regions such as Mexico (1994), Southeast Asia (1997), Russia (1998), Brazil (1999) and Argentina (2001); further believes that a small levy on such currency speculation, the Tobin tax, named after the Nobel Laureate who originated the concept, could both dampen down the scale and scope of speculation and raise substantial revenues, potentially in excess of $50 billion each year, for projects targeted towards ending global poverty, is pleased that this initiative now enjoys the backing of a number of governments and parliaments across the world, including France, whose parliament recently passed a law authorising its implementation; is heartened by the words of the Chancellor that innovative ways need to be urgently found, including currency taxes, to finance development; wishes the Chancellor a successful mission to the UN 'Financing for development' conference in Monterrey, Mexico; urges him to take steps towards the introduction of a internationally co-ordinated currency transactions tax, with the proceeds ring-fenced for international substantial development objectives; and further urges the Chancellor to ensure that these proceeds do not replace either existing international aid disbursements or agreed commitments to increase international aid.]

The first six signatories to the motion are from different political parties in the House and are concerned about introducing an international tax on international currency transactions and ring-fencing the money for third world development. Can we have a debate on that, which perhaps could be tied in with Monterrey and discussions on financing development, whether before or after the conference?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter, and welcome his reference to the useful exchanges during Treasury Question Time. The United Kingdom has been very much in the forefront of international debate on this issue and, in fairness, the last Conservative Chancellor was active on the matter too.

The Monterrey conference provides a useful opportunity to refocus international energy and interest on providing finance for development, which has not been sufficiently prominent in international affairs. I can assure my hon. Friend that my colleagues attending the conference will do all they can to make sure that a successful outcome is secured. That may not involve a Tobin tax, which has its own serious technical problems, but must involve equivalent ways of helping the third world.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

As one of those involved in the Middle Way Group option which seeks to offer an alternative to the rather entrenched positions of the pro and anti-hunting with dogs lobbies, and given that polls indicate that the public are moving away from criminalisation of hunting with dogs towards regulation, may I ask the Leader of the House whether, in the event of the Commons and Lords disagreeing with regard to the options in the Bill, he would consider setting up some sort of three-way dialogue so that, with some generous listening and mutual respect, we might be able to find a workable and fair solution that is accepted by a majority of the British people?

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman will be talking to himself, then.

Mr. Cook

I hear what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) says, and I gather that some of my hon. Friends did, too. I have just announced that there will be a vote in both Houses in some two weeks, and we need to wait and see the outcome of those votes before we consider the next step. The Government go to bed every night in the hope that they may wake up and discover that both Houses have voted for the same thing.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

On the subject of hunting, I welcome the debate but this will be the fourth debate and free vote on the subject of hunting with hounds. We have had crushing majorities on all three previous occasions. Is it not about time that a Bill was introduced? Contrary, to what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) just said, if the Bill is passed in this place and goes up the Corridor to the other place and the Lords decide to sabotage it, the Parliament Act would automatically be invoked—we would not need any commission—and the legislation would be passed. Then we could get on with abolishing the House of Lords.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure to what extent my hon. Friend's final remark will provide an incentive to their lordships in the other place to be co-operative. I recognise the logic of his argument in terms of the application of the Parliament Act, but that would depend on all sides being satisfied with the precise terms of the Bill in the last Parliament. Some people, not necessarily those who are in any way friendly to hunting, have suggested ways in which that Bill could be improved. That, of course, cannot be done within the terms of the Parliament Act.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

The Leader of the House will know that the European Scrutiny Committee has been conducting an inquiry into democracy and accountability in the national Parliaments. In the context of the constitutional convention that is taking place in Brussels today and in future months, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure, so far as he is able to do so, that the Minister for Europe comes before the House regularly so that proper questions can be put to him and we, and representatives of all parties in all parts of the House, can be properly informed about what is going on there? There is a strong feeling in the House that the disproportionate direction in which the convention is going could severely limit future democracy in this country.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as anyone else in the House that the convention meets for the first time today, so it may be a little premature to say what direction it is travelling in. He will have noted the speech of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary setting out a perspective quite distinct from that of some of the other countries that will be participating in the convention. I am not sure that all the rest of the House would share the hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for regular statements on progress in the convention, but it is a matter of legitimate interest, which I am sure will be aired. I look forward to the report from the European Scrutiny Committee on how we could improve our procedures in this House.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the establishment and inauguration of the convention on the future of Europe which, by bringing together national Parliaments with the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, will provide a unique opportunity to involve civil society and the people of Europe in a discussion and debate about the future limits and future direction of Europe? Does my right hon. Friend agree, first, that we should give central importance to the work of the European Scrutiny Committee, both in assisting our representatives on the convention to report back to the House, and in monitoring the progress of the convention, and secondly, that in parallel with the report of the Modernisation Committee on the work of Select Committees, this is a good opportunity to review and upgrade the work of the House in scrutinising European legislation? Perhaps we could consider some small experiments such as appointment by the European Scrutiny Committee of a rapporteur on the convention, or larger ideas such as the establishment of a Grand Committee on European affairs. Thirdly, does he accept that—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Twice is enough.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes some very interesting proposals, and I would be very happy to discuss with him privately whatever else he was about to propose. On the question of appointing a rapporteur, the Modernisation Committee suggested in our report on Select Committees that they could make more use of rapporteurs. Of course, it is open to the European Scrutiny Committee to consider that possibility. I am pleased that the House is well represented on the convention and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) on her election by the convention to its collective presidency. She will be able to play a major role in shaping its direction and procedures.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Roger Casale) touched on the key issue: the convention should be not merely a body of politicians talking to each other, but a forum that can liberate and allow civil society and the public of Europe to take part in the debate about their future. Ultimately, we have to find a solution that is acceptable to the public and supported by them.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the accuracy of communications? Has he had a chance to consider early-day motion 904?

[That this House notes the report in the Evening Standard of 26th February that the Shooting Stars Children's Hospice has not yet been built; and consequently calls upon the Liberal Democrat honourable Member for Richmond Park to justify her press release stating that 'It was an honour to meet the brave children at the hospice. The work the doctors and nurses do at the Shooting Stars Children's Hospice is second to none'.]

The motion refers to comments by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) about visiting the Shooting Stars children's hospice, but unfortunately, as it says, the hospice has not yet been built.

There are other occasions in respect of which the Leader of the House could consider the need for a debate about communications. I notice that the 22 February edition of Liberal Democrat News announces that there is to be a by-election in Matlock on Hurst farm. A number is given for contacting helpers, and the announcement states: Party defending seat: Liberal Democrat. Cause: Resignation. As of yesterday morning, there had been no such resignation. Could we have a debate on the accuracy of the information that is being circulated?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman memorably raised a matter concerning communication by a Department last time, so I am immensely relieved that he is being non-partisan. He has not yet attacked the Conservative party about communication, but no doubt he will have many opportunities to do so in future. I am pleased to say that I have no ministerial responsibility for these matters, but the House will have heard his remarks.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

My right hon. Friend may have seen a recent BBC poll on the national health service, which showed that the No. 1 popular priority was free, long-term care for the elderly. Subsequently, he may also have seen a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research saying that such care should be a priority for the Government and was popular with the electorate. He will have noticed early-day motion 351, on the Right to Care campaign.

[That this House welcomes the launch of the Right to Care Campaign; believes that the formation of a campaign grouping involving 20 major campaign groups, charities and trade unions is testament to the depth of feeling surrounding the issue of long-term care felt by the members of these organisations and by many members of the public; is concerned that distinguishing between personal and nursing care is impractical and will prove unworkable; further believes that these differences in policy between regions of the UK are creating major disparities in the type and levels of care available to elderly and disabled people; and urges the Government to fully fund personal and nursing care that is free at the point of use for all who need long-term care, wherever they live throughout the UK]

The motion has the signatures of 122 hon. Members, the majority of whom come from the Labour Benches, and calls for free long-term care for the elderly. Will my right hon. Friend make time for another debate on this subject in the very near future?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a profoundly important issue that will one day affect all of us in this Chamber. It is also a matter of real and legitimate public debate. I have noted the reports to which he referred and will bear in mind this topic among the many others for which there are bids for discussion in the House. I remind him and the House that the Government have acted by providing for the first time that all nursing care in private residential homes will be provided for free. We have honoured that commitment and it is making a genuine difference.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will agree that the forthcoming debate on the armed forces and terrorism will be an opportunity to acknowledge the professionalism, ability and skill that the armed forces have shown in the fight against terrorism. Will it not also be an opportunity to commit ourselves to providing the armed forces with the resources that they need to fulfil their task? It is especially important that, as some personnel have been wounded and injured or have become sick as a result of their service, we continue to look after them afterwards. I remember from my parish days in Belfast that the prisoners whom we cared for were often far better looked after than the soldiers whom we sent to protect the citizens.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and many others will wish to use the debate to record the House's deep debt of gratitude to those who serve us in the armed forces and our appreciation of their professionalism and dedication. They are repeatedly demonstrated to be among the finest anywhere on the globe, and we can take pride in them.

The Ministry of Defence goes well out of its way to try to provide help for those who have been injured in the line of duty and to protect and help bereaved families, as it did—exceptionally so—in the case of the bombardier who was killed in Sierra Leone. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about specific cases, I shall be happy to transmit them to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I am sure that the Leader of the House will be delighted to hear that I wish to help the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to do his job properly by calling for a debate on transport as soon as possible. During that debate, we could consider the success story of Chiltern Railways, which has just been awarded a new 20-year franchise; the progress of crossrail; the difficulties of Central Railway; and the appalling mess of the London underground, which is severely affecting my constituents. Perhaps the Secretary of State could explain to us why his mind was not on his job the other day when he appeared not to know that the Metropolitan line, which runs into my constituency, is the worst line on the London underground. He could also give us the guarantees that we seek—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I should not like the hon. Lady to anticipate her speech in such a debate.

Mr. Cook

It always worries me when Opposition Members say that they are going to be helpful. However, I agree with the hon. Lady about the success of the Chiltern line. I noticed that it has been decided that it will now be a classless line with one single class. That flatly contradicts the prediction of a previous Conservative Minister of Transport, who said that privatisation would bring in several classes, including a cheap and cheerful class for typists. I am sure we are all glad that they were wrong about privatisation in that respect, as in so many others.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I thank the Leader of the House for the charming and gracious way in which he corrected the record from two weeks ago. However, in line with "Erskine May", is it good enough to have to wait two weeks for the correction? It became clear at 4 o'clock on the afternoon on which he made his statement that he had been misled and had therefore inadvertently misled the House. I raised that on the Floor of the House before 6 o'clock that evening and again last Monday. Does two weeks meet the requirement of correcting as soon as possible inadvertent misleadings of the House?

I invite the Leader of the House to correct the reply that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill has 68 amendments tabled for Monday, all of which are in my name and in those of my hon. Friends. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for confirming that there will be Government amendments. I understand that they may be substantial amendments arising directly from our debates in Committee. The fact that we did not debate 32 clauses and seven schedules, yet finished with time to spare, must be taken up by the Modernisation Committee. We must be able to do our job as legislators properly.

Mr. Cook

On the time taken before correcting the record, I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that from 7 o'clock that day until Monday the House did not sit. This is the first business statement since then, and I have corrected the record at the appropriate time to the appropriate audience.

As regards the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill, I am sorry if I was wrong about the composition of the 68 amendments to which the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred. I understand that technical Government amendments will be moved to fulfil the commitments that we made in Committee.

I am not entirely convinced that the hon. Gentleman's revelation that all the amendments are in his name makes a compelling case for another day's debate. However, we shall reflect on that in the light of what happens during the debate. If we take a businesslike and professional approach, I am sure that we can do it in the one day.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I wish the Leader of the House a happy birthday. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Can he find time in the near future for the Secretary of State for Defence to explain to the House, through a debate or a statement, exactly what is intended for the Fleet Air Arm and the Sea Harrier force? I understand that a press conference will be held at the Ministry of Defence this afternoon. There has been further speculation in the press this morning, which has been enormously unsettling for the people I represent at the royal naval air station at Yeovilton—the pilots and their families in particular. It would appear that significant changes are being made to the Ministry of Defence's assessment of the economic case for moving the Sea Harriers away from Yeovilton, without any explanation. As the Member representing that constituency, I have not been given the normal courtesy that I receive from the Ministry of an explanation of what is intended. Will the Leader of the House make it plain to the Secretary of State for Defence that it would be extremely helpful to the members of the Royal Navy who serve this country well if they were given a clear understanding of what is intended?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Brevity would also be helpful.

Mr. Cook

In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, it is my experience that the Ministry of Defence is one of the most punctilious Departments in making statements to the House. Its Ministers have probably made more statements than those of any other Department during the course of this Session. In the spirit of the good wishes that the hon. Gentleman has offered to me, however, I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend and suggest that he contacts the hon. Gentleman to clarify the situation.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Can we have an early statement on the disposal of school playing fields? As the right hon. Gentleman will recall, his Government were elected five years ago on a pledge to stop the sale of school playing fields, yet we now know that, in spite of the comment by the Prime Minister as long ago as 1999 about the disgraceful waste of sporting talent due to the loss of school playing fields, the Government have done nothing about this. I also know, from a written answer that I received this week, that of 100 applications received since the Government supposedly tightened the rules only two have been rejected. The Government clearly have no intention of keeping their promise on this matter. The National Playing Fields Association has said that the Government have not kept their word. Can we have a statement on this, so that Ministers can explain why they have not kept their word?

Mr. Cook

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government acted quickly after 1997 to change the regulations and guidelines under which they would grant licences. Indeed, the number of applications for transfer has declined, because local authorities—very reasonably, having seen what the Government said they would and would not agree to—do not submit applications when they know that they will get a negative response. That is why we should not read significance into the fact that the applications that are submitted are then granted, because that does not take into account the much larger number that are not submitted because they know they will be refused.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

This week has seen the publication of the latest edition of Members' voting records, which many of our constituents use as a measure of the diligence of Members of Parliament. The Leader of the House has also announced another free vote—one of a number that we are expecting in the next few months. Will he give some thought to making available a desk in one of the voting Lobbies, so that Members who wish to do so can formally register an abstention which will then go on the record?

Mr. Cook

I am not entirely sure whether, given three options to vote on Monday 18 March, anyone would really need to abstain on all three options. I personally deprecate the use of the voting record as conclusive evidence of the activity or contribution of a Member.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman asks why. I think that I had the third-lowest voting record during the last Parliament, for the very good reason that I spent so much time going around the world. Hon. Members are entitled to have their contribution judged in the round, rather than having it reduced to one simple statistic.