HC Deb 17 January 2002 vol 378 cc431-47 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

TUESDAY 22 JANUARY—Opposition Day [8th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "Failings in the Public Services" on an Opposition motion.

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 have been given in the Official Report, Thursday 10 January 2002, columns 673–75.

FRIDAY 25 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

Provisional business for the following week will be: MONDAY 28 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means is expected to name opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 29 JANUARY—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY—Motion On the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2002–3.

Motion on the Local Government (Finance) Report 2002–3.

THURSDAY 31 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-Natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001.

Motion to approve the Administration Committee Report on the reopening of the Line of Route.

FRIDAY 1 FEBRUARY—Debate on implementing the Learning Disability White Paper on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the beginning of February will be: THURSDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Debate on Child Health and Maternity.

THURSDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Debate on the report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on relocation following paramilitary intimidation.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 23 January 2002, there will be a debate relating to the Barcelona Process and assistance to Palestinian Society in European Standing Committee B. [Relevant European Union documents: 11381/00, Reinvigorating the Barcelona Process; 14778/00 Assistance to Palestinian Society; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 28-vii (2001–02); HC 23-xxvii and HC 23-xxix (1999–02).]

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business. Will he confirm that it is the Government's intention to hold the annual St. David's day debate in the usual way? If so, will he—as soon as possible, please—give us the date when that debate will take place? He will understand that the Opposition are very keen to hold that debate, as we have many points to make in it, so it would help not only us but, I am sure, the whole House if we could have the date as early as possible.

You, Mr. Speaker, will recall, because you take a close interest in such matters, that the Public Administration Committee, in its excellent report of last December on the ministerial code, stated on page viii, paragraph (f): We recommend that when the Ministerial Code is next revised the spirit of the original wording should be restored in respect of announcements of important Government policy. The Government reply stated: The Government accepts this recommendation. It is an important principle that when the House is sitting, announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament.

Then just last week, the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, said: in response to a recommendation from the Public Administration Committee, the Government have agreed to amend paragraph 27 of the code, which now requires that all announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament. The Deputy Prime Minister, with all the weight and majesty of his office and his personality, then said: I am sure that the House will welcome that."—[Official Report, 9 January 2002; Vol. 377, c. 533.] Against that background, Mr. Speaker, are you not as disturbed as I am that the Secretary of State for Health, having said outside the House that his statement was the most important policy statement that he had made during his tenure of office, then went and made it outside the House and had to be summoned here by virtue of the fact that you, Mr. Speaker, granted a private notice question?

Mr. Speaker

Order. It looks as though the right hon. Gentleman is drawing the occupant of the Chair into his argument. His questions should be addressed to the Leader of the House, not to me.

Mr. Forth

Oh, I do apologise, Mr. Speaker, for giving you the credit—I will try not to do that again.

The point is a very serious one, is it not? The Committee has made a statement; the Deputy Prime Minister, no less, has agreed that the Committee was correct and made a commitment on behalf of the Government that something would happen; but then we find that we have to use devices to get Ministers to come here and do what the Government said they should do in any case. Even worse than that, apparently that mysterious person "a No. 10 spokesman" said at the briefing yesterday that he thought it impossible for all statements to be made in the House. We need clarification of that.

The Deputy Prime Minister said what he said in good faith. The Health Secretary was dodging and weaving outside the House and had to be brought in here. Now we find that No. 10 is effectively calling the shots and saying, "None of this matters; pay no attention to it; its all irrelevant trivia." We must get to the bottom of this, and we must get it sorted out, otherwise the only interpretation that we can place on it is that the Government are holding the House in complete contempt.

May I finally ask the Leader of the House whether he will make time for some clarification of a very important matter indeed that came up during Prime Minister's questions? Yesterday, in referring to the Saville inquiry, the Prime Minister said: The cost of the inquiry is £52 million. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said that he believed that that could not possibly be the real total. He said: The cost is already more than £14.5 million to the Ministry of Defence".—[Official Report, 16 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 289–92.] He went on to say that he thought that the inquiry's real, true total cost right across government was greatly in excess of £52 million. Is it not time that the House had an opportunity to get the full picture and, indeed, to express its view on it? Whatever the figure is—whether it is "as little as £52 million", as the Prime Minister seemed to imply, or much more—when will we get the chance to say whether we think that it represents value for money; whether it is a proper use of public funds; and what the view of the House of Commons is on the matter? Will the Leader of the House please arrange for a very early opportunity for that matter to be explored and debated?

Mr. Cook

May I first congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on attempting to speak for Wales? That is a bit rich given the nature of the Conservative representation from Wales. When we have such a debate, of course, the Conservative party's position at the Dispatch Box will be occupied by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I know that Wales is a country of valleys, but that is really not a satisfactory basis on which to claim to speak for Wales. Yes, I am sure that we will have the traditional debate when the time comes, and it will demonstrate once again the extent to which the Conservative party does not have support in and cannot speak for Wales.

On the issue of the announcements of Government policy, in the speech that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made on Tuesday, he was taking forward announcements that had already been made in the course of the 10-year plan. Indeed, the Conservative party normally complains that we keep making the same statement too often. My right hon. Friend had already made that statement once. He came to the House, and he answered perfectly adequately on that occasion. May I say in defence of my right hon. Friend that he will have debated health matters in the Chamber on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which reflects the priority that the Labour party attaches to health?

May I also gently point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, if he wants to encourage Ministers always to announce policy first in the House of Commons, he could have set an example last Thursday when we debated the White Paper on Lords reform. He was invited several times by my hon. Friends and me to announce the Opposition's policy, but he refused to do so. However, on Sunday, we discovered that they had a fully formed policy which was disclosed courtesy of The Sunday Telegraph, not the most pluralist of vehicles by which we can inquire into that policy. [Interruption.] Well, the right hon. Gentleman is not a Minister, and we will do our best to make sure that he never is.

On the Saville inquiry, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was asked about its cost and he gave a perfectly correct, precise and accurate reply. The cost of the inquiry is met by the Northern Ireland Office and it is precisely the figure quoted by my right hon. Friend. Of course, parties to the inquiry and those supporting those giving evidence will have their owns costs on top of that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Of course, they will, and no one has ever denied that, but that is not the cost of the inquiry. [Laughter.] Well, on that basis, every time we have an inquiry and any organisation prepares itself for and gives evidence to it, it will register that as part of the cost.

The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) included in the costs Lord Saville's salary. If we had not had the public inquiry—whatever the Opposition might think about it—we would not have sacked Lord Saville. His salary would have continued to have been paid and would have continued to be a constant factor in public spending. As to the bottom line, there is a matter of public policy to be debated and I would very much welcome Opposition Members' views as to whether they believe that lawyers' fees are too high. However, I do not dispute the fact that we are right to have had the inquiry so that the full facts can be known and so that we can demonstrate to the people of Northern Ireland that we have nothing to hide.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Earlier today, we heard questions about the universal service provision of the Royal Mail, now Consignia. I met members of the east midlands region of the Communications Workers Union in Leicester last week and they are very concerned about the impact of Consignia's management, its clumsy industrial relations and the rate at which it is outsourcing many of its activities. Will my right hon. Friend find time to include in the parliamentary timetable as soon as possible a debate that examines the future of the postal service in the United Kingdom, and Consignia's record so far?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that we regard it as appropriate for the House to debate the management of Consignia given that that is a matter for the company and that we must maintain an appropriate distance from management decisions. However, I have already said to the House—I echo it again—that we were surprised at the manner of the announcement of the redundancies by the management of Consignia. We strongly urge them to enter into full consultations and dialogue with the work force about the financial challenges facing the industry.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House clear up some confusion about the likely date of the Whitsun recess? He will be aware that the Whit bank holiday has been moved this year to allow it to stand beside the Queen's golden jubilee. [Interruption.] I understand that some Conservative Members have already made holiday plans for the wrong week.

In his role as the protector of Back-Bench interests on both sides of the House, will the Leader of the House make representations to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the chaos that is continuing in the correspondence section in her Department? I received in November an answer to a letter that I had sent to the Department in September, but I then received almost the identical answer again just last week from the same Minister signing the same letter. That is rather excessive even if the letter is that much delayed. Clearly, the correspondence section is in chaos. I have already had letters sent to me marked "for the Minister's approval and signature", but without either the approval or signature of the Minister. Members on both sides of the House are suffering from this problem.

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to consider Mr. Speaker's ruling after the 10 o'clock vote last night about the occupancy of the Opposition Front Bench and the use of the Dispatch Box? Is the Leader of the House aware that there are useful precedents for the representatives of the main third party in the House to speak from the Dispatch Box? No less than former Prime Ministers Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Asquith did so long after they ceased to lead the Opposition or Government parties? Would it not be for the convenience of the House, when the Liberal Democrats are leading a debate or are the only Opposition party present, for them to use the Dispatch Box so that there can be a genuine debate across the Floor of the House?

Mr. Cook

I am intrigued to hear that some hon. Members have arranged holidays for the Whit recess. I can only admire them for thinking that far ahead on such arrangements. However, I am not able to announce firm times for the Easter or Whit recesses at present. I hope to have made some progress on that when we meet again next Thursday, and I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's point.

On DEFRA, the House is aware from previous exchanges of the massive increase in correspondence to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Ministers in that Department. Indeed, that correspondence has trebled over the past year. As a result, DEFRA is seeking to improve and increase the number of people working in the correspondence section. It is currently attracting additional staff and I hope that that will lead to an improvement. No one is trying to defend the response rate, which is, of course, a reflection of the very strong increase in interest in DEFRA matters over the past year.

On the subject of last night, far from studying Mr. Speaker's ruling, I was present to hear it, and a very entertaining and enjoyable sight it referred to too. I am sure that a good time was had by all. However, it would be unwise for me to comment on a matter that is within a Speaker's ruling.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that despite the Prime Minister's responses to questions yesterday, there is still sizeable public disquiet over the transportation and incarceration of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners? Can he arrange for a debate, hopefully based on access by British consular officials to those prisoners who are deemed to be British citizens, because that would help to calm public disquiet? It would also help to ensure that we cease to give comfort to those who want an expansion of international terrorism and who use scenes and statements that seem to bear out their argument that western powers have little respect for, or consideration of, Muslim lives, religion and human rights. [HON. MEMBERS: "Heartbreaking!"] If you have a heart to break.

Mr. Cook

I do not think I will get involved in that exchange.

What will be of importance, although I cannot predict whether it will calm the disquiet, is the visit by the Red Cross to Guantanamo bay, which I understand will take place later today. I hope that that will provide clear, authoritative guidance on the state in which the prisoners are being kept and whether it is consistent with international humanitarian law.

On the general issue, I would only say that we did, of course, fight in Afghanistan to end terrorism and uphold the values of law and order and of decency and the right of everyone to lead a peaceful life. It is important that we treat those whom we capture in the process of that exercise in ways that are consistent with our principles.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the joy felt by Conservative Members at the splendid innovation of having a Minister for Women and questions to her. He will also be aware that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 says that there should be equality of both sexes, of which a significant minority are men. When will we have 10 minutes of questions to a Minister for Men?

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to detract from the hon. Gentleman's joy at the appointment of a Minister for Women. I can assure him that all the Ministers in this Government will be very happy to answer his questions about men.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is nigh on impossible for Ministers to give all new statements of policy? We had evidence of that in Question Time today when the Minister for Industry and Energy was going to announce a new Government policy of paying out lump sums of £2,000 to those miners who finished working way back in 1975. He was not able to deliver that statement because we did not reach question No. 10, which is a pity, so I thought that I had better make the statement on his behalf.

As that lump sum is a decent start in dividing up the pension surplus, I look forward to many more chunks being handed out to other categories of miners in the future. On a similar issue, will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister to come back to the House, when he has time, and ensure that all those colliery cleaners and those who work in the canteens get the money that they are owed from the settlement made by the previous Energy Minister?

Mr. Cook

I shall bear in mind the useful constitutional innovation provided by my hon. Friend in making the statement on behalf of the Minister for Industry and Energy. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the additional funds that the Minister will make available to those who have the lowest pension from their days in the mines. That is a valuable and useful way in which to use the surplus, and one that I know the mining industry will welcome.

On the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, as he has done vigorously and repeatedly over the past few months, I cannot add to the answers that I have already given, which is that we have honourably settled with and paid all those who made a claim within the time set out in the legislation. It specifies that all claims have to be made within six months of leaving employment, and we have no latitude within the legislation to make payments to others.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

The Leader of the House will have seen the publicity this week surrounding the quashing by the Appeal Court of the verdict on Stephen Downing. Will he give consideration to the way in which Parliament may be informed of the lessons that need to be learned from this vast miscarriage of justice? Inquiries need to take place for the sake not only of Stephen Downing's family but of the surviving family of Wendy Sewell, who have suffered the devastation caused by the case being continually regurgitated in the national media. This is a very sad and moving case. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government are able to learn all the lessons from this grave miscarriage of justice?

Mr. Cook

I think that the whole House echoes the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and we fully recognise that there can be no more appalling injustice than to be imprisoned for as long as Stephen Downing has, knowing throughout that period that one is innocent. There has obviously been a serious miscarriage of justice in this case. I am sure that my colleagues at the Home Office will want to consider what lessons can be learned from it, and when they reach a conclusion they may well want to share it with the House. In the meantime, the urgent question will be that of compensation, and I doubt that they will be in a position to say anything until that is resolved.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

The Leader of the House will be aware that tomorrow is the last day for consultation on the revised proposals on congestion charging in London. Will he find time in the next couple of weeks for a debate on congestion charging in London? Is he aware that the charging zone goes right through Kennington in the heart of my constituency, and there has been no environmental audit of the proposals whatever? People are up in arms—fortunately not literally—and I urge my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate so that the Secretary of State can consider carefully whether now is the time to call in the Mayor's plans. In my view they will do nothing to ease the flow of traffic or to help pedestrians or indeed anyone who wants to get around London more easily.

Mr. Cook

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to ventilate an issue that is of concern to her constituents and to many other people in central London. Anybody who has taken a taxi lately must be well aware of the strength of feeling among taxi drivers on this question. It is, of course, primarily a matter for the Mayor of London and the Greater London Assembly, and I would be loth to enter into a situation in which we sought to override what is, in the first instance, their decision. However, I hope that in taking that decision they will bear in mind the importance of carrying with them the population of London, particularly central London, and will listen carefully to the results of consultation.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

One month ago I wrote to the Leader of the House concerning one of my constituents who happens to be the Opposition Deputy Leader in the other place. Unfortunately, he was taken ill in the other place and was left waiting two hours for an ambulance to arrive. In my letter I suggested that the Leader of the House give careful consideration to providing the Palace with proper medical facilities, with a doctor present at all times, and its own ambulance. Has he considered my letter, and does he think the subject worthy of a debate?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, which I am sure is of close personal interest to all Members. I assure him that I will consider carefully the points that he has made and reply to him.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will recall that after the publication of the reports into the disturbances in Burnley, Bradford and Oldham last November, it was indicated that the Government were considering holding a debate on the important issues involved, which, with the proposals resulting from the reports, have implications that go far wider than the three places concerned. I recognise the difficulties experienced by my right hon. Friend in finding time for debates, but is he aware of any progress on that matter?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the importance of that issue to my hon. Friend's constituency and the House, given the wider questions raised in the report. We shall certainly consider at what point in the Session it would be appropriate to find time for that important issue.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 678, on access to the facilities of the House:

[That this House notes that access to the facilities of the House has been granted to four Members who refuse to take the Oath or Affirmation of Allegiance; believes that the individuals concerned should be required to place an entry in the Register of Members' Interests and be subject to the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to lay a Resolution before the House to rectify matters immediately.]

As you will be aware, Mr. Speaker, a decision has already been taken to permit elected representatives of Sinn-Fein IRA to have access to the House, and nothing in the early-day motion seeks to deny that. However, many right hon. and hon. Members believe that all MPs who have access to the facilities of the House should be required to make an entry in the Register of Members' Interests; elected Sinn Fein-IRA representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly already do so. Early-day motion 678 has the support of Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and Unionist Members of Parliament. A letter has already been sent to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee which also has cross-party support. I appeal to the Leader of the House to consult him and lay a resolution before the House urgently to rectify the situation.

Mr. Cook

This was a matter that came up in our debate in the week before the House rose for the recess. A number of Members expressed strongly the sentiment that appears in the early-day motion to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As I said at the time, the present position is that the authorities of the House are committed to the resolution of the House which specifies that Members should make an entry in the Register within three months of taking their seat. It is open for debate whether that should be amended to be within three months of being elected to the House. I personally very much welcome any view that the Standards and Privileges Committee may wish to express to guide us on that point.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

Will my right hon. Friend give consideration to a debate on regional devolution in England, given that at some point we are to have a White Paper on the subject. Does he agree that the issue should be aired as widely as possible to facilitate the Government's aim of consulting widely throughout the regions on what will be an important issue in future?

Mr. Cook

The Government are strongly committed to decentralisation to the regions, as well as encouraging regional identity and, wherever possible, regional decision making, which is why early this year we shall produce a regional White Paper. I am sure that when it is produced, it will attract much interest in the House and it may be appropriate at that point to make sure that it is adequately debated and aired in the House.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Can we have an early debate on the composition of Cabinet committees that shape Government policy? Is it not profoundly unsatisfactory that the Government's policy to deny the electorate the opportunity to choose substantial numbers of Members of the second Chamber should be shaped by two unelected Ministers, the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House of Lords, neither of whom has condescended to stand for election to public office and both of whom may be reasonably supposed to have a prejudice, not to say an interest, in denying the electorate a say in such important matters?

Mr. Cook

We had a full debate on that on Thursday, when a number of vigorous views were expressed. I said at the time that the Government will need and wish to reflect on the views expressed in the debates last week and in the response to the consultation White Paper. I am sure that the House will have opportunities in future to return to that matter. While it is important that the Lord Chancellor and my colleague the Leader of the House of Lords should necessarily play a full part in shaping the proposals, those proposals will be widely debated and shared in government and, I suspect, outside government.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that just before Christmas, the Minister for Housing and Planning produced a Green Paper that proposes several significant and wide-ranging changes to the planning system, which could in due course affect the lives of our constituents. Because of the conventions of the House, as it was a Green Paper rather than a White Paper, there was no requirement for a ministerial statement, so there has been no opportunity so far for the House to debate the matter or question Ministers on it. Will my right hon. Friend therefore find time in the near future, before the consultation period ends, for a debate on this important matter?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter which, as he is probably aware, has been raised on a number of occasions. It was raised several times last Thursday. I shall certainly undertake to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions the expression of views and interest within the House. At some point it will be appropriate for these matters to come before the House. Apart from any other consideration, as I said last week, they cannot be taken forward without primary legislation. Whether we have yet reached the point at which it would be appropriate for a statement and an expression of policy in the light of consultation is not a matter that I can judge, but I am sure that at the appropriate time the House will have plenty of time to debate the matter.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Is the Leader of the House comfortable with the grossly escalating costs of the Saville inquiry? Is it not time that we had a proper debate? One must consider the costs of the Ministry of Defence, as those come out of taxpayers' money, and the figures are getting very large indeed. The right hon. Gentleman has presumably noted that the charge has been led, characteristically, by that great Government supporter Mr. Michael Mansfield and his fee charges.

Mr. Cook

On reading such stories, I have sometimes reflected on whether I have mis-spent my life and might have been better becoming a barrister. I am sure that the same thought has entered the mind of many people looking at the figures. There may be a debate about whether the rate of pay is appropriate, but I do not think that there is ground for a debate about the fact that it is important that we have a full public inquiry and bring the matter out into the open. On Thursdays I frequently hear demands from the Opposition for more public inquiries, not fewer. Next time they are minded to do that, perhaps they will reflect on today's exchanges.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon)

I refer to the forthcoming convention on the future of Europe, and draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the recent report of the European Scrutiny Committee and its recommendations for the selection of the representative of this Parliament to that convention. Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever the outcome of the discussions that are taking place about the selection of our representative, we must not lose sight of the important topics that will be discussed at the convention itself? As a central theme of the convention is to be enhancing the role of national Parliaments in European decision making, may we have an early debate in this place about how democratic accountability in European decision making can be enhanced through the scrutiny process? Finally, I renew my request for the House to take the lead in bringing non-governmental organisations and other organisations from civil society into the debate, to determine how this Parliament can play a role in reconnecting the European citizen with European decision making in the future.

Mr. Cook

On my hon. Friend's first point, there have been discussions between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs about who should go forward to represent Parliament in the convention. I hope that those discussions will bear fruit in the near future, and that the names to come before the House will be agreed by consensus by both parties. That will have to be laid before the House and approved by the whole House, so the House can have a say.

On the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, I am well aware of the central feature of the review leading up to the next intergovernmental conference, which puts national Parliaments centre stage. I am aware of it because I played a part in making sure that that happened. We should be doing more to connect the national Parliaments with the debate and the decision making in Europe. As to our procedures in the House, the Scrutiny Committee is carrying out a review of procedures relating to European legislation and decisions, and I look forward to discussing that with the Committee when it has completed its report.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

May I tell the Leader of the House that I have recently received a number of representations from constituents who support a campaign to ensure that posthumous pardons are given to many of those who were shot for cowardice in the first world war, when it was apparent to just about every right-thinking person outside this House that they were guilty of no such thing? I am aware that this matter has come before the House on previous occasions, but I say to him that it is not an issue that will go away. Can we have an early opportunity to bring it back to the Floor of the House?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the strength of feeling of the relatives of those who were shot. I think that everybody in the House would express great sympathy with their position and concern about the action that was taken at the start of the last century. It is plain now, in retrospect, that many of those who were sentenced and executed at the time would never have been sentenced or executed under modern law or standards. However, as the hon. Gentleman will know from previous exchanges, there is a bona fide issue as to whether it is credible to apply a legal pardon posthumously in very different circumstances—including the state of the law—from those that applied at the time. Nor would this be the only occasion when we might be invited to do so. Therefore, what I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that he should offer comfort to relatives by telling them of the very strong sympathy and regrets of all of us who are alive today about what happened. However, it is not really for us to make legal judgments by today's standards about what happened 100 years ago.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Leader of the House correctly said that there was strong interest in DEFRA matters. He will be aware that the first of the three reports that the Government commissioned following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease is to be published at the end of the month; that is, the report produced by Sir Donald Curry on the future of food and farming. First, can he give an assurance that the report's findings will first be reported to the House? Secondly, instead of allowing us to deal with the matter in the first instance merely through a statement, will he consider as a matter of urgency the possibility of having a debate on what will be the first of three very important reports that affect the fundamentals of the future of our farming industry?

Mr. Cook

I am advised that the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's first question is yes and that the report will be brought before the House. The appropriate time for a debate is a matter of judgment that we would have to consider in the round. I am not immediately persuaded that it would be sensible to have three separate debates on three separate reports, but I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government and my DEFRA colleagues will be considering how we should best take the matter forward.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

My right hon. Friend will have seen recent press reports on the damage caused by alcohol misuse. He will also be aware that the Government have long promised an alcohol strategy, although it has yet to emerge. Will he encourage Ministers to bring forward the Government's alcohol strategy at an early date? Even before that, will he make time for a debate on alcohol abuse on the Floor of the House? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

May I say straight away that I would wish to rule myself out as the opening speaker in any such debate? None the less, my hon. Friend raises a serious issue that causes immense distress in the families of a number of our constituents. I shall certainly convey my hon. Friend's views to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and ensure that Ministers reflect upon the urgency and importance that he and many other hon. Members obviously attach to the question. I cannot promise a debate in advance of a strategy, but I am sure that my hon. Friends will consider how they can quickly take forward a response.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Given that the BBC's "The World at One" programme yesterday made the extraordinary decision to devote more than half its running time to concerns about the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners, the Leader of the House may think that far too much time has already been spent on the issue. Nevertheless, I should like to join those of his Back Benchers who are calling for a statement from the Foreign Secretary on the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners and the way in which they should be tried. Surely, such a statement would give the Foreign Secretary the opportunity to point out that, in past conflicts, people who engaged in the sort of outrageous terrorism of which the prisoners are accused were by no means and by no stretch of the imagination ever subject to the provisions of the Geneva convention. It would also enable him to point out to the House that it was as the result of trying such people in a civilian court after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 1993 that bin Laden was informed that his telephones were being listened to. If that had not happened, the later attack might not have succeeded. So, let us hear why it is that military tribunals are indeed a necessity.

Mr. Cook

It is plain that there are two views on the treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. I advise hon. Members to wait until we have heard from the Red Cross, which is visiting today. It will be able to provide a clear statement about the matter and say whether it wishes to make representations about changes.

On the legal background, whether the prisoners are covered by the Geneva convention is not immediately germane. Requirements of international humanitarian law transcend the Geneva convention, and they have to be observed, even if the convention does not apply.

I am delighted to say that I have no responsibility for the content of "The World at One".

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Does my right hon. Friend know that coal-mining communities are well served by CISWO—the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation? In my constituency, it is setting up a one-stop shop with a wide range of services at the Mastin Moor miners' welfare. However, CISWO is currently in financial difficulties because there is no National Coal Board with which to negotiate to advance its financial position. Its difficulties will lead to considerable loss of important services in coal-mining communities.

Last week, I asked for a general debate on the coal industry. The matter that I have raised today could be included in such a debate. Other items, such as equal pay for women, compensation for vibration white finger, bronchitis and emphysema and the statement of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on the miners' pension scheme could be covered in an omnibus discussion on important matters for coal-mining communities.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the vigour with which he promotes and defends the interests of the coal-mining communities that he represents. A Thursday rarely passes without his raising them. That is a good example of Parliament being used for the proper function of articulating our constituents' interests. I am sure that my hon. Friend will ensure that the issue that he raises today is included in the discussion to which he referred. I shall give advance warning to my colleagues in the relevant Department.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House may know that people in Northern Ireland, especially Omagh, are worried about mixed messages on terrorism. The American authorities have banned funding of the Continuity IRA, which uses the alias the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. Is it not time for the Home Secretary to list that organisation? The legislation that was introduced after Omagh has not brought anyone before the courts in Northern Ireland, and the Continuity IRA continues.

Mr. Cook

I do not believe that there is anyone in the Northern Ireland Office, the Government or the House who does not regret that people have not been brought to court for the Omagh atrocity, which we all deeply deplore. I assure the hon. Gentleman that our security services vigorously pursue the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA or anyone engaged in terrorist activities. We will take any opportunity to bring to court those against whom we can bring a charge with sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows about the increasing number of women in prison. I learned through a response to a written parliamentary question earlier this week that 169 women from Wales are in prison in England because there is no women's prison in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend bring that to the Home Secretary's attention and ask him to use all the means at his disposal, not to build a prison in Wales but to reduce the number of women in custody by encouraging sentencing in the community? The devastating effect on families, especially children, could thus be avoided.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to say that it will not be necessary to draw this to the attention of the Home Secretary, because I know that he is well aware of the rapid rise in the number of women in prisons across England and Wales. He is also vigorously involved in the review of sentencing. He has said that he wants to bring sense to sentencing. Serious sentences are applied to those who have committed serious offences, but those who have not, and who can be treated in other ways, should be so treated.

In fairness to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to everyone involved in the system, it must be said that there has been a rapid rise in the number of women offenders. That is reflected in the statistics to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) referred. They are not simply a result of sentencing policy; they are also a reflection of the number of offenders. There is, unfortunately, no short-term, easy solution to the problem of increased demand for places for women in prison. It is, however, an issue to which the Home Office attaches high priority, and to which it will respond over time.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Leader of the House sought to raise to an art form his disingenuousness in his original response to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. Does he not recognise that most of us realise that Ministers constantly bypassing the House and making statements to the media first, rather than to the House, is a tactic to which we all expected the Government to return, the minute the wheels started to fall off? Regarding the Saville inquiry, does he not realise that, in a constituency such as mine, in which many members of the Parachute Regiment and their relatives live, I doubt that a single constituent thinks that any public money should have been spent on this ludicrous inquiry? It was a craven act of appeasement by the Government to terrorists, and it should have been stopped long ago.

Mr. Cook

I do not honestly see that anyone interested in the affairs of Northern Ireland should be afraid of our bringing out into the open what may have happened on that occasion; nor do I believe that anyone in the United Kingdom would wish to create the appearance that we have anything to hide.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, he said—if I apprehended him correctly—that I had out-performed myself in my disingenuousness. I shall try to continue to set new standards of clarity and fact in the House.

Mr. Forth

Starting now?

Mr. Cook

Starting right now. Before I came into the Chamber, I asked for the comparative figure for statements made to the House in the last five years of the Conservative Government and the first five years of this one. I shall try to express these statistics clearly so that the hon. Gentleman can follow them. We have made more than 60 more statements in our first five years than the Conservatives made in their last five years. I therefore decline to take any lectures from them on the importance of accountability to the House.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of a recent judgment by the Law Lords to the effect that term-time workers in schools are not allowed to claim jobseeker's allowance during the three months of the year in which they are not employed and, therefore, not earning. Unusually, the Law Lords made it clear that they foresaw a change in the law being necessary, and recommended such a change to allow those workers to claim that benefit. Like many hon. Members, I have constituents who are caught in this trap. Is there any chance that the appropriate Minister could make a statement to the House to set out just where the Government see this going?

Mr. Cook

The rule, if I recall it rightly, that those leaving school cannot claim benefit until September is of long standing. If the Law Lords have made a ruling on it, I am confident that my hon. Friends at the Department will be considering its implications, and I will advise them to write directly to my hon. Friend.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

Further to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Secretary of State for Education and Skills made a major speech outside the House this week on an apparent change in the Government's policy on school exclusions, ironically at a time when the Standing Committee on the Education Bill—of which I am a member—has been discussing that same issue. Will the Leader of the House tell me when the Secretary of State will come to the House to make a statement about that policy change?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman has just confirmed that this issue has been debated in the Standing Committee, and it will continue to be debated as the Bill proceeds through the House. I anticipate our having a very full period of time in which to consider the Bill on Report, when it will be open to the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member to table an amendment or a new clause that could ventilate this or any other part of education policy. I would say to the House that we have to get real on this issue. Cabinet Ministers have made speeches outside the House from time immemorial, and sometimes that has taken forward the development of Government policy. The ministerial code rightly and properly places an obligation on Cabinet Ministers and others to bring serious developments in Government policy to the House. However, if every single development in Government policy came to the House, we would be debating nothing else—certainly not Opposition motions.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

May I remind my right hon. Friend that Holocaust Memorial Day is approaching? Will he consider how the House and individual Members may better support such commemorative events?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to a very important approaching date—and the commemoration was of course introduced by this Government. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a speech on the day to mark its significance and I am sure that hon. Members will consider how they can best do likewise in their constituencies.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on backstabbing in the Government? He will have seen the comments of one of his Cabinet colleagues: Unlike David Blunkett, who bought time at the Home Office by dumping on what Jack Straw had done, Steve hasn't taken the knife to Prescott's legacy—and that is maybe what he should do. Will the Leader of the House support that incredibly helpful advice from his Cabinet colleague to help the beleaguered Transport Secretary?

Mr. Cook

Perhaps the House requires a debate on backstabbing in the Conservative party. [HON. MEMBERS: "There isn't any."]I am interested to hear that, because the shadow Chief Secretary says that the Conservative party is seen as racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-youth". That goes further than even I would dare, but I do not dissent from his conclusion that the Conservative party is in a worse state than ever.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May we have an early debate on the cost of public inquiries? The recently published planning Green Paper includes specific Government proposals to prevent public inquiries from dragging on for years at great public expense. If that is now Government policy on public inquiries, why have they allowed the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday to be granted a blank cheque?

Mr. Cook

Because it is not a planning inquiry.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

Given recent comments by former military chiefs that the armed forces are dangerously overstretched, particularly following the Afghanistan deployment, and given that British military reservists are being compulsorily called up for first time since the Suez crisis, does the Leader of the House accept that this country must either increase the defence budget or reduce its commitments to ensure that no damage is done to our fighting capability and that lives are not unnecessarily put at risk?

Mr. Cook

It is important to ensure that our armed forces can carry out the tasks that we give them and that those tasks can be carried out without putting unnecessary and unreasonable strain on family commitments. It would be much easier for us to achieve that had the Conservative Government not cut 30 battalions from the military. I would like to hear how the hon. Gentleman would square any commitment to increase our military capability in terms of numbers, equipment and capacity with the commitment made today by his leader that the Conservatives' first priority is cutting tax.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

The Leader of the House will be aware of a situation in the Somerset and Avon area over the past few days—a gentleman has induced young girls to remove their clothing. The police are unable to pursue the matter because a loophole in the law precludes them from doing so. The White Paper "Setting the Boundaries: Reforming the Law on Sex Offences", published in July 2000, proposes to bring the loophole under control. Will the House have a chance to introduce that proposal as quickly as possible and close the loophole before other children are put at risk?

Mr. Cook

I am aware of the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers and I share the sense of surprise and puzzlement of all Members that the incident does not constitute an offence. He will be aware that a sex offences review is under way. We attach high priority to it and we shall bring its conclusions before the House at the earliest opportunity. In the light of recent events, the review will want to consider this particular point.