HC Deb 10 January 2002 vol 377 cc673-88 12.32 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows: MONDAY 14 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Office of Communications Bill [Lords].

Motion to approve a money resolution on the Home Energy Conservation Bill.

TUESDAY 15 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill.

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY—Opposition Day [7th Allotted Day]. Until Seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "State of the Railways" followed by a debate entitled "The Crisis in the Care System". Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

THURSDAY 17 JANUARY—A debate on Bristol Royal infirmary on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 18 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 21 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Justice(Northern Ireland) Bill.

TUESDAY 22 JANUARY—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the International Development Bill [Lords]

THURSDAY 24 JANUARY—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

FRIDAY 25 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

I should like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Thursday 17 January will now be a debate on victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.

I should also like to inform the House that, on Wednesday 16 January 2002, there will a debate on the sixth environmental action programme in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

Following are the documents:

Reports Session 1999–2000
Report No: Title HC No. Publication Date Govt Reply
38 Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: The Sheep Annual Premium Scheme in England 362 24 November 2000 Cm 5021
39 HM Customs and Excise: Revenue from Gambling Duties 423 8 November 2000 Cm 5021
40 National Savings: Public-Private Partnership with Siemens Business Services 566 15 November 2000 Cm 5021
Reports Session 1999–2000
Report No: Title HC No. Publication Date Govt Reply
41 The Gaming Board: Better Regulation 611 16 November 2000 Cm 5021
42 The Management and Control of Hospital Acquired Infection in Acute NHS Trusts in England 306 23 November 2000 Cm 5021
43 Hip Replacements: Getting it Right First Time 513 13 December 2000 Cm 5071
44 Ministry of Defence: Accepting Equipment Off-Contract and into Service 319 30 November 2000 Cm 5078
45 Ministry of Defence: Acceptance of the Chinook Mk 2 Helicopter 975 30 November 2000 Cm 5078
46 Ministry of Defence: Kosovo—The Financial Management of Military Operations 582 21 December 2000 Cm 5071
47 The National Health Service Executive—Valedictory Hearing: Sir Alan Langlands 624 19 December 2000 Cm 5071
Reports Session 2000–01
Report No: Title HC No. Publication Date Govt Reply
1 Inpatient Administration, Bed Management and Patient Discharge in NHS Acute Hospitals 135 25 January 2001 Cm 5127
2 Public Trust Office: Unclaimed Balances Held in Funds in Court and the Office's 1998–99 Accounts 142 31 January 2001 Cm 5127
3 Emergency Aid: The Kosovo Crisis 143 14 January 2001 Cm 5127
4 Grants made by the National Lottery Charities Board 168 16 February 2001 Cm 5127
5 The Draft Social Security (Inherited SERPS) Regulations 2001 243 18 February 2001 Cm 5127
6 Review of Audit and Accountability for Central Government 260 2 March 2001 Cm 5201
7 Excess Votes 1999–2000: Class X, Votes 2 and 3 284 9 March 2001 N/A
8 Maintaining the Royal Palaces 77 14 March 2001 Cm 5201
9 Managing Finances in English Further Education Colleges 283 21 March 2001 Cm 5201
10 Parole 349 29 March 2001 Cm 5201
11 The Housing Corporation: Overseeing Focus Housing Association 365 2 May 2001 Cm 5261
Reports Session 2000–01
Report No: Title HC No. Publication Date Govt Reply
12 English Heritage: Access to Properties 265 3 May 2001 Cm 5201
13 The Refinancing of Fazakerley PFI Prison Contract 372 5 July 2001 Cm 5261
14 Ministry of Defence: Managing Reductions in the Number of Vacant Family Quarters 391 5 July 2001 Cm 5261
15 Strategic Rail Authority: Action to Improve Passenger Rail Services 392 18 July 2001 Cm 5261
16 The National Blood Service 207 11 July 2001 Cm 5261

[Wednesday 16 January 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union Document: 5771/01, Sixth Environmental Action Programme of the European Community. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-xi (2000–01); HC 152-i and HC 152-ii (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

In thanking the Leader, may I take this opportunity, if it is not too late, to wish him a happy new year?

May we have an urgent statement on a very serious allegation that has been raised today—what I would have to call the "cash for no question" issue? It would appear—I can scarcely believe this—that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) had a question down to the Prime Minister, but that the powers-that-be in the Government persuaded him to withdraw his question—which was going to be about the inadequacy of funding for a hospital in his constituency—with the promise of £200,000 additional funding for the hospital.

We are used to allegations about cash for questions, but the amount seems excessive, and to be an example of regrettable parliamentary inflation. Apparently, the going rate for the withdrawal by a Government Back Bencher of a question—presumably to avoid embarrassment to the Prime Minister—is £200,000. I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that an urgent statement on this serious matter will be made—if not today, then tomorrow—because we need to get to the bottom of it and to be assured that the allegation is untrue. If it is true, we need to be told how the tactic can be justified.

I hope that the Leader of the House will also make provision for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House and explain his response to the unusually truthful statements from the Minister for Europe. Today's press report that Minister as saying: We have the worst railways in Europe. We started transport investment far too late… We should have been more radical earlier. I quote from The Sun, which the House knows has a direct line to No. 10, so we can rely on what it says. It states: Last night, a Government source"— and we all know who that is— said: 'Peter Hain has finally coughed to what we have known for some time. The transport system has been going to pot since the day Labour won power. John Prescott, who told us for years what he would do to put it right, messed it up once he got the chance."' These are serious matters, because not only is a Minister of State admitting finally that the railways have been put into a disgraceful condition by the Government—which we have known for some time—but a Government source is seeking to undermine the Deputy Prime Minister. I ask, therefore, for a statement, either from the Deputy Prime Minister or from the Minister for Europe. Otherwise, I hope that the Leader of the House will arrange for a statement to be made by the Prime Minister, as it is obviously his man who has given this information to The Sun.

Mr. Cook

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes for the new year. I am very happy to accept them, however late they may come in the course of the parliamentary Session. I shall observe only that it is plain that the Christmas and new year recess has in no way softened his approach to these exchanges, but I would have been surprised and disappointed if it had.

I have no insight into why my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) may not have asked his question. That is entirely a matter for him to decide. However, I am taken aback that the right hon. Gentleman should complain about a case in which an hon. Member, finding that an issue that he has raised has been satisfactorily resolved, decides not to continue to press that issue in the House. I should have thought that resolving the problems of our constituents was what Parliament was for. If this constituency matter has been resolved, I can only commend the speed with which that has been achieved.

I turn now to the railways. The right hon. Gentleman may not have been present in the House when we debated transport matters in the 1970s and 1980s. Had he been present, he would have heard a number of speeches—by me, and by the Deputy Chief Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill)—making the point that investment in Britain's railways was among the lowest in Europe, and that that had caused a relative decline in the quality of our railways. That is why this Government have set about increasing investment in the railways.

I remind hon. Members of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday. He told the House that, in the previous Parliament, this Government increased by half as much again the annual investment in the railways inherited from the previous Conservative Government. In this Parliament, we shall double that amount. Every year of this Parliament, this Government will be investing three times as much as the average for the last years in office of the previous Conservative Government.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe drew attention to what has been a matter for discussion in the Labour party and in the press—that, for the first two years of this Labour Government, we followed the investment and spending plans inherited from our Conservative predecessors. I am perfectly willing to listen to my colleagues and friends in Government ask whether, in retrospect, we should necessarily have shown such patience. I am not willing to listen to lectures from the Conservative party, which left us those spending plans and an inheritance for the railway industry that will take a decade to put right.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May we have a debate on the coal industry that will be wide ranging enough to deal with the problem of equal pay for the female cleaners and catering staff who have missed out on equal pay provisions? It should be broad enough to deal with the continuing compensation problems that exist for those with vibration white finger, bronchitis and emphysema and to take into account the miners' pension fund. The 50: 50 arrangement on surpluses is in an unfortunate position and needs renegotiating so that those pension rights can be extended and developed.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of both the points that my hon. Friend raises; the deep personal concern of the individuals involved has been articulated in the House on a number of occasions.

I remind my hon. Friend that the Government were anxious to find a solution to the problem of the cleaners and other domestic staff who were caught in the position to which he refers. Indeed, we settled with all those who were nominated by the union. We very much regret that it appears that people were not included in that initial nomination, but there comes a point at which we have to draw a line under the settlement. Although I understand why the individuals concerned may feel aggrieved, we took a step that no previous Government had taken to try to resolve the issue, and we did resolve it with all those known to us at the time.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

When can we expect the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the Dispatch Box and give us a full explanation of what is going on in the rail industry? The crisis is reaching desperate proportions but we have had no full statement from the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House really believe it to be desirable or satisfactory for a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, in the columns of The Spectator, to produce the first analysis of the chaos that the Government have added to by failing to undo the disasters of rail privatisation in their first four years? Does the right hon. Gentleman really think it satisfactory that the Liberal Democrats have to provide the Secretary of State with an opportunity to explain to the House the chaos that has been caused in the rail industry and the confusion that is increasing every day, to the disadvantage of rail passengers?

In the light of what will obviously happen as a result of the Lord Chancellor's duffing up at yesterday's meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is true that Labour Members are being invited, by questionnaire, to tell the Government what proportion of elected Members of the second Chamber they are prepared to accept? Why, as Leader of the whole House, is the right hon. Gentleman not inviting all members of all parties to tell him how the Government have got it wrong?

Mr. Cook

On the last matter, I am happy to put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. No questionnaire from the Government Whips is going round the PLP.

Mr. Forth

Why not?

Mr. Cook

If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to send a questionnaire to all Labour Members, I can predict some of the answers that he will get. However, he is welcome to do so.

We are about to have a debate on the House of Lords in which I will address the matter at greater length—indeed, perhaps at great length. I hope that the process of the debate will help take us forward to find a point of consensus on the plans for reform of the House of Lords.

On the rail industry, a speech will be made by the Minister with responsibility for the railways in the debate next week. In addition, Monday sees the publication of the new four-year plan from the Strategic Rail Authority under its new direction. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will have things to say on that occasion.

David Wright (Telford)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that a review of English Partnerships' activity is under way. English Partnerships is a major landholder in Telford and is key to the regeneration of the town. When will there be a statement to the House on the progress of the review?

Mr. Cook

I am advised that the review is already under way. It was announced in October 2000, and there will shortly be an announcement on its progress.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

The Leader of the House said that he was not prepared to listen to Conservative Members. I remind him that most of the signatories to early-day motion 513 on the parliamentary commissioner are Labour Members: [That this House has confidence in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and invites Elizabeth Filkin to accept reappointment on the terms of the initial contract working four days a week.]

Is the announcement that Mr. John Stonborough has been appointed as the crisis manager for the House of Commons Commission a sign that we are likely to have that debate? What progress is being made in making a nomination to the House? Is it open to the House to say that the present commissioner should be invited to carry on with her work on her present terms?

Mr. Cook

The last sentence is a statement of the facts at the present time. The commissioner remains in post and must continue with her job; indeed, we would be distressed if she did not do so. The offer remains open to her to include herself on the shortlist, on which we guaranteed her a place. I have repeatedly urged her to accept that invitation. We want to ensure that we get the best possible candidate for the House to occupy the role of parliamentary commissioner. That is why we have tested the market. I am pleased to say that we have received a number of excellent applications, on which we will reach a judgment in the next month or two.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will my right hon. Friend secure a statement on Iran's refusal to accept the Government's choice of ambassador to Iran, Mr. David Reddaway, on the grounds that he is Jewish, or that they believe him to be so? Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is plain anti-semitism, that it should not be accepted and that Iran should not be in a position to dictate to the Government who should be our rightful ambassador?

Mr. Cook

As I understand the situation, the friction to which my hon. Friend refers does not exist. Mr. Reddaway is an excellent diplomat. I knew and worked with him when I was at the Foreign Office and have full confidence in him. It is not unusual for there to be a short delay between one ambassador leaving and another arriving. There is no friction of the sort to which she refers.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Will the Leader of the House find time soon to debate an issue that I first raised on 5 November—namely, European Union regulations on the disposal of refrigerators? Are the Government aware that this is entirely a matter of their creation, because they failed to seek a derogation from those regulations, thus making it impossible for refrigerators to be disposed of, which is leading to fly tipping and all sorts of problems? Does he recognise that it is a problem that must be rectified, and soon?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I share his view that that is a serious and pressing problem. It is having a serious impact in a number of areas. The Government are fully seized of the issue and are looking for a way to deal with it as quickly as possible.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Following the question about English Partnerships, which often used to get rid of land in new towns without consulting the local community, is my right hon. Friend aware that Defence Estates is also engaging in that practice? For instance, it has given the local Royal Air Force benevolent club in my constituency notice to quit. I hope that he will urge Defence Ministers to explain to the House that Defence Estates will act in the interests of communities, not against them, when they take such decisions.

Mr. Cook

I cannot say that I am familiar with the case that my hon. Friend draws to the House's attention, but I am glad that he has been given the opportunity to ventilate what is obviously a serious issue for his constituency. I will happily draw his comments to the attention of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

As the Government grapple extraordinarily ineffectively with the winter of discontent that has descended on public services in many parts of the country, is the right hon. Gentleman, who was on the Government Benches in 1978, suffering from a sense of deja vu? Will he reconsider the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and I made, which is that we should have regular debates—say, every month—that are attended by the Prime Minister so that we can monitor on behalf of our constituents how he is getting on with his solemn pledge to the British people at the general election that he would deliver world-class public health services?

Mr. Cook

I am refreshed to see that Conservative rhetoric has not changed in 30 years. It is helpful in this world of change to have such a reassuring statement of stasis and paralysis. Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities for the House to debate the state of the public services during this Parliament. Indeed, the Prime Minister has shown a refreshing and welcome interest in those matters. In December, he took part in discussions on health policy, and he will continue to do so. The hon. Gentleman should not run down the improvement that has been secured through the increase in the number of doctors and nurses in the health service and the first increase for more than a generation in the number of beds in our hospitals. That is why this winter has passed so far without the sort of crisis that we saw in the closing years of the Conservative Government. They did not increase the number of beds in our hospitals; they dramatically cut the number.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Will the Leader of the House take soundings throughout the House to establish the views of Members on two points: first, whether there is now a consensus, as I suspect, in favour of a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber, on the principle that, in a democracy, the people should decide who sits in our Parliament; and, secondly, whether now is the time for the responsibility for policy on the subject to be located in this House—the House of the Executive—and specifically in the office of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House?

Mr. Cook

I think that I would be very unwise to respond to the last part of my hon. Friend's question. On the other matter, I invite him to listen attentively to the half hour that I am about to embark upon.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern in the House about the relationship between India and Pakistan. The Prime Minister recently visited those countries, yet we have not had a statement on what happened. Specifically, is it possible to have a statement on whether he made any representation to the President of Pakistan about the person in Pakistan who is agitating for attacks on this country, and whether there is any chance of extradition to enable that person to be brought here to be tried for such activities? Concerns were expressed about London being a centre of international terrorism; now it seems that we can be attacked from abroad, by encouragement. Is it possible that there might be that ambiguity in the Government's viewpoint between home-bred terrorists and international terrorism?

Mr. Cook

I see no such ambiguity in that case. I believe that the hon. Gentleman refers to Mr. Butt, whose inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric we would all deplore. It must be borne in mind that on several occasions in the past he has made wild statements that have turned out to have no substantial basis in fact.

Without referring specifically to the case of Mr. Butt, our security and law enforcement services monitor the situation very carefully and look very hard to see whether there is any evidence of a threat to this country from within or without it. I am pleased to say that, as a result of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, those authorities now have more means with which to conduct that search for any threat to the country and hold to account those who are a threat to this country.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that should a full-scale war break out in Kashmir, it would have a disastrous effect on community relations in many towns and cities in Britain that have a substantial number of citizens of Indian and Pakistani origin? It has been said that the conflict could produce civil unrest on Britain's streets that would make the current disturbances in north Belfast seem like a teddy bears' picnic. Will he find time for the House to be regularly updated on the worrying events in Kashmir, and will he ask our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to encourage peaceful dialogue in the region?

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to be alarmist about the consequences of conflict in the sub-continent. We have witnessed such conflict in the past without any sensational developments on our own streets, although we must be careful about the rhetoric that we use. However, having expressed that reservation, I would have no dissent with my hon. Friend's concern about the consequences for the region and the world of any conflict. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put so much effort into speaking to the Prime Minister of India and the President of Pakistan and urging them to return to dialogue. I find it very hard to understand why some have criticised him for going to that very substantial area of partnership for Britain, of community ties with the British people, and of concern about tension for world peace. I believe that he was absolutely right to go and absolutely right to try to ensure that peace continues.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Will the Leader of the House take an urgent look at the format of Transport questions, as under the present arrangements we can question only the Secretary of State for Transport Local Government and the Regions and his junior Ministers, none of whom runs the Government's transport policy? Will he find an early parliamentary opportunity for us to question the Government Deputy Chief Whip, who is responsible for negotiating with the striking unions, Lord Birt, who is in charge of long-term Government thinking on transport policy, and the Minister for Europe, who seems to be in charge of telling the truth on transport policy?

Mr. Cook

I have to tell the House that I know of no ministerial team from any Department that has appeared more often in the Chamber or any Cabinet colleague who has come more often to the Dispatch Box since the general election than the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and his team. It was entirely wrong for some in the press to criticise him for taking a holiday over the new year, for heaven's sake, and I should like to know whether those in the press who made that criticism have taken fewer holidays than him during the past 12 months.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend make a clear commitment to the Government's commitment to mutual and co-operative organisations? Will he have a word with his colleagues in the Government—principally, those at the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry—to ensure that they carefully consider the two Bills that will be debated on 18 and 25 January? Those Bills would make a significant difference to mutual organisations, so anything that could be done would be of major importance all round.

Mr. Cook

The Government are highly supportive of the development of co-operative forms of ownership and partnership in industry and business, and we shall continue that record of support and ensure that there are no legal barriers in the way of such of organisations flourishing and competing successfully. I will pass on to the relevant Department my hon. Friend's comments on the forthcoming private Members' Bills.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Leader of the House will know that the Government have recently published proposals—albeit, in consultative documents—seeking to make radical changes to our town and country planning system, including dealing with planning applications of national significance. As those issues are vital to all our constituents, does he agree that a debate on that matter would be very helpful to the Government and, indeed, the House at this time?

Mr. Cook

I am always open to suggestions for debates that would be helpful to the Government and will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says. He raises a very serious and strategic issue, and he is right to say that we are consulting on it. It is important that that consultation process should enable all those in the country to express their views. I understand that the proposals cannot proceed without legislation, so they are bound to be debated in the House at some stage.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

May I tell my right hon. Friend how fearful many families in my constituency with friends and relatives in Kashmir are about the growing tension between India and Pakistan? I endorse the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) to hold a debate on this subject in the near future. May I tell my right hon. Friend that my constituents appreciate the Foreign Secretary's efforts in seeking to mediate between India and Pakistan? Does he agree that this is perhaps now the time for the United Kingdom to play a more proactive role as a mediator in the conflict between those two nations?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct. Some 3 million people in Britain have community and family ties with the sub-continent, all of whom will watch, with close interest and apprehension, what may happen to their relatives and back any effort to try to preserve peace. Those efforts are strenuously pursued in the Foreign Office and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I appreciate my hon. Friend's call for more discussion of this issue in the Chamber, and I will retain a watching brief on it and consider what he says.

In the meantime, I should mention that I suggested in my modernisation proposals that we should reduce the period of notice for oral questions to increase topicality. Tuesday's Question Time was a good example of the need to do that, as the Order Paper contained not a single question to the Foreign Secretary on India and Pakistan. That would not have happened if we had a realistic period of notice.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Is the Leader of the House aware that he has singularly failed to explain why the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has not voluntarily come to the Chamber since the House returned on Tuesday, when my constituents and others are suffering from neanderthal industrial action on the railways at the hands of the RMT? Is the real answer that too many Labour Members, starting with the Deputy Prime Minister, are far too close to the RMT?

Mr. Cook

I indignantly deny that suggestion. For the record and in case anyone subsequently complains, I explain that I have had a long relationship with the RMT, which has been regularly and annually declared. I am happy to make that clear.

The position that the Government have taken on the current dispute has been to invite both sides to go forward to arbitration. There is provision for arbitration in their agreement, and we hope that both sides will agree to arbitration.

Over decades, the House has discussed the Government's role in disputes and, by and large, the consensus has emerged—a consensus that was certainly followed by the previous Conservative Government—that industrial disputes are a matter for the business concerned. They are not for politicians to resolve on a political basis.

Clive Efford (Eltham)

May I ask for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the House to make a statement on the performance of the train operating companies? Too much of the debate about the railways has focused on individuals rather than on what people in the street want done to improve the railways. My constituents suffer the daily misery of travelling to central London on Connex South Eastern, which is almost certainly the worst-performing train operating company on the rail network. We need a proper debate—not one that is petty and backbiting about who is or is not running the railways—that will bring about the improvements that we need. The performance of the train operating companies and the persistent poor performance of the management of those companies is worthy of debate in the House.

Mr. Cook

I echo the central thrust of my hon. Friend's remarks. This issue is not a matter of personalities and it should not be personalised. Fundamental strategic issues are involved and those who use the railways are aware of some of them. They would like those issues, and not personalities, to be at the centre of the debate.

I invite my hon. Friend to look forward to the announcement on Monday of the Strategic Rail Authority's four-year plan. I hope that it will provide a way in which we can create a consistent theme to take forward the future of the railways and to address some of the problems that they face.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a brief debate on the helicopter industry? He may be aware that just one hour ago Westland helicopters, which is now part of AgustaWestland, announced 600 job losses at its base in Yeovil. That will have a serious effect on my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws). Is it not time that we had an opportunity to hear from Ministers in the Ministry of Defence about the strategic importance to both military and civil avionics of our helicopter industry, and from Ministers in the Department for Work and Pensions about the help that they can afford my constituents at this very difficult time?

Mr. Cook

I fully sympathise with the position of the hon. Gentleman's constituents. I was notified of the recent announcement of the redundancies in Yeovil and elsewhere in the south-west. The Government will obviously examine any way in which, through the Department of Trade and Industry and the Employment Service, we can assist communities to cope with the impact of the redundancies. However, at the end of the day, the decision is one for the company. It was not taken by the Government, and although we of course bear in mind the strategic importance of preserving our own weapons and armaments industries, those industries must ultimately decide what is required of their work force and the size of the work force they need.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the adverse effects of prescribed drugs? It has been reported that the young pilot who crashed into the skyscraper in Miami was being prescribed Roaccutane, which is notorious for producing side effects including depressive illnesses and suicidal tendencies. A few years ago, a young constituent of mine died after being prescribed this drug and his parents have been campaigning ever since for clearer labelling of the drug and for warnings that it had such awful side effects. I have seen no improvements since then on the warnings about Roaccutane. When can we debate the issue?

Mr. Cook

I have to confess that I am not technically qualified to enter into a discussion on the particular drug to which my hon. Friend refers. I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Department of Health. There are requirements on the information about and on the labelling of all drugs and they usually draw attention to the kind of side effects that he has mentioned. However, if there is a problem, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will wish to address it.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon)

Given that in two weeks' time South Hams district council will produce a local plan that almost certainly will provide, thanks to Government pressure, for a new town in the middle of my constituency for up to 4,500 houses that no one locally wants, may I add my weight to a call for a debate in Government time on town and country planning? Two points need to be made. First, while the Government consult on new rules, district councils up and down the country are producing local plans on the basis of existing rules and are confused whether the new rules will apply to that process. Secondly, we need to be able to argue the case for existing national housebuilding targets to be scrapped so that decisions on the number of houses to be built locally can be taken by local people.

Mr. Cook

I would not advise the hon. Gentleman's council or any other to put decisions on hold pending a change in legislation. As Leader of the House I can say that there is no guarantee when legislation will be completed and come into force. It is important that decisions are not left in suspense until then. I understand the controversy that such a proposal must cause in any constituency, but there are many ways for the hon. Gentleman to ventilate his concerns, and I would encourage him to do so.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Is there time for a debate on the energy industry? We need that debate for two reasons. First, Ofgem, the energy watchdog, plans to complete the deregulation of energy pricing, which has implications for rising energy prices for low-income families. Secondly, confidence tricksters are going around switching energy supplies to various homes without the permission of the people who live in them. Clearly that is to a large extent a result of deregulation and we need to crack down on those cowboys. Can we have a debate, or at least a statement, on those problems in the energy industry?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes his concerns most forcefully and I shall ensure that they are drawn to the attention of the relevant Minister. I understand that the Office for Gas and Electricity Marketing is consulting on some of those matters and he may wish to express his concerns directly to it.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

In 1997, the Deputy Prime Minister said: I will have failed in five years' time if there are not fewer journeys by car. He went on to say: It is a tall order—but I want you to hold me to it. I mention in the light of today's report that since 1997 there are 3 million more cars on the roads of the United Kingdom. May I press the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on transport so that we might first explore the total failure of the Government to move people from cars on to public transport and secondly consider the roads policy? It seems to me that most of those 3 million cars are parked permanently on the M6, unable to move because of the Government's failure to reach conclusions on the development of those vital routeways.

Mr. Cook

There have been more debates on transport than any other issue in this Parliament and I am sure that it will continue to be a priority. However, the right hon. Gentleman might, for completeness, have shared with the House the fact that more people are travelling by bus than before and more people are travelling by train than ever before. I would have thought that the Conservative party would welcome the new subsidies that we introduced to ensure that there are more rural buses.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Leader of the House aware that quite a few of us on the Opposition Benches think that, all things considered, he was a capable and able Foreign Secretary, and in particular that his ethical foreign policy would have had more impact on Zimbabwe? Does he agree that the Government's policy on Zimbabwe is not delivering? It is about as much use as an ashtray on a motor cycle, and that country is facing its gravest crisis since independence. Is it not time that we had a full-day's debate on the crisis in Zimbabwe?

Mr. Cook

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's opening comment, but it would have been nice if it had been made when I was Foreign Secretary, rather than afterwards.

Zimbabwe is in a grave crisis. Indeed, no one in the Government has sought to diminish that in any way. I read the comments of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary at Question Time on Tuesday. He clearly laid the degree of persistent serious violation of human rights in Zimbabwe on the line and made a new commitment that if the situation does not improve the Government will speak up for the expulsion of Zimbabwe from the Commonwealth.

We have gone through the gamut of measures available to us as sanctions. We have reduced aid and targeted it only for humanitarian purposes. We have used the political measures available to us. We have withdrawn the British military advisory and training team from Zimbabwe. We are working with both the Commonwealth and the European Union, with some success, to increase that pressure and we will continue to do everything that we can.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Can the Leader of the House find time in the near future for a Government statement on the ombudsman's report, published at the end of last year, on access to official information? The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the ombudsman found that this was the only occasion when a Government had failed properly to respond to a report of his on access to information. As a result, he laid it in the Library of the House, but there is still no Government response. Can the right hon. Gentleman ask the Deputy Prime Minister, who is responsible for relations with the ombudsman, to come to the House and make a response so that we can question him about what the Government are trying to hide?

Mr. Cook

The Government are not trying to hide anything; indeed, as the ombudsman's report accepts, the Government were acting entirely within the principles of the code and the decision concerned was not wrong, even though he himself may have chosen to disagree with it. The hon. Gentleman will have many opportunities to pursue the matter, and I am sure that he will do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

I became aware yesterday of some of the issues surrounding the withdrawal of a question to the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). We heard more about that today from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The matter raises serious issues about Back Benchers' ability to hold the Government to account, Government control freakery, which is becoming all too apparent, and the status of Parliament itself. We ought to have a debate so that we can investigate all those issues.

Mr. Cook

Whatever can be said about the matter concerned, I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that it hardly seems to be an example of Parliament failing to hold Ministers to account; on the contrary, it demonstrates the Government responding quickly, expeditiously and appropriately to a Member's concern.