HC Deb 24 January 2002 vol 378 cc1009-25 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House please let us have 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 28 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business, namely the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, for consideration at 7 o'clock.

TUESDAY 29 JANUARY—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of the Post Office"—[Interruption.] I have grown accustomed to a cheer at this point in the proceedings, but it is really not necessary.

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

Motion on 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.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

TUESDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Education Bill (1st Day).

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Education Bill (2nd Day).

THURSDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Tax Credits Bill.

FRIDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Debate on Government measures to regenerate disadvantaged areas on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House may wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Tuesday 26 March, returning on Tuesday 9 April.

In last week's business questions, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) drew attention to the confusion over the precise date of Whit this year; some Members anticipated that, as normal, it would fall in the last week of May. I reflected on the matter and I can inform the House that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Friday 24 May, returning on Tuesday 11 June.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing not just the business for next week but the recess dates. Is he in a position yet to tell us when Budget day will be this year? We are now perilously close to February and we usually expect to have notice of the Budget at this stage.

May I ask the Leader of the House about proposals floating about in the Modernisation Committee on the House sitting in September? I have been approached, as, no doubt, has the right hon. Gentleman himself, by many Members asking for clarification of the matter. It would be helpful if he could give some indication at this stage of whether the House will be, or may be, sitting in September this year. We are anxious that the House should sit in September, as you know, Mr. Speaker, so that we can harry the Government and hold them to account even more frequently, and would be grateful if the Leader of the House could give us some indication. If for any reason we were unable to sit, I am sure that he would be able to give us a very good reason why not.

The Leader of the House announced a debate next week on mismanagement of the Post Office. It is to be held in our time, on an Opposition day, but it gives rise in my mind to the question why, given the uncertainty surrounding the Post Office, the National Audit Office report and the unease among employees—and, indeed, among all of us as users of the Post Office's excellent services—we have had to force the Government to come to the House and give an explanation by using an Opposition day. They have used their time to tell us about volcanoes in Africa and all sorts of other things recently. Why must we drag them here to tell us about what is going on in the Post Office? I am sad to say that that is an indication of the rather odd priorities that they seem to have these days. I can only hope that we will get some far more convincing answers in our debate next Tuesday than we have received hitherto.

Mr. Cook

First, in response to the question about the Budget date, I say to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that we will ensure that they are advised of the date as soon as it is confirmed. At the present time, I have no reason to suppose that it will be significantly different from those in previous years: either in mid to late March or very early in April.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of returning in September. We on the Labour Benches look forward to returning in September as well, although possibly for different reasons from his. We want to do so in order to put before the nation the way in which we are carrying through our programme to improve public services—[Interruption.] I am very glad that I can take the rest as read. None the less, we will want to talk about the record investment in education and health that we are carrying through. I regret to say that there are several good reasons why it will not be possible to introduce that innovation this year. A number of hon. Members have made their arrangements in good faith—I am impressed by the number of Members who are thinking so far ahead—and Mr. Speaker has arrangements to visit Canada and also to represent Britain on 11 September in New York. I am also advised that there will be roadworks outside the Palace. [Laughter.] While I believe that it would be entirely right for us to meet in September, people have taken it in good faith that we will not be sitting and I want the innovation to be introduced in an orderly, satisfactory and successful way. Therefore, I think that it is right to give adequate notice, which means that I would hope that we would introduce this change for next year.

On the issue of Consignia—

Mr. Forth

The Post Office.

Mr. Cook

It is technically and legally constituted as Consignia, but I have no problem with the right hon. Gentleman using phrases that he understands from previous years. With regard to Consignia, the House introduced a Bill only two years ago on this Government's initiative—it was broadly supported by the Opposition during its passage—that created commercial freedom for Consignia. It is absolutely right that we should let the management of Consignia, in consultation with its work force, take forward its plans for the company without constant micromanagement by Government, this House or any external political influence.

I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should take exception to our coming to the House with a statement on our response to the emergency situation caused by a volcano erupting in the Great Lakes area. I welcome the fact that a statement was made to the House on the matter. Many people outside in Britain would expect their Government to respond sympathetically and humanely to that emergency.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the issues arising from the use of personal cases to illustrate what is happening in the national health service? Is he aware that the shadow Health Minister, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), said in his maiden speech that dredging up personal cases of misery to try to find the one case that has gone badly in the national health service and overlooking all the reforms and successes that we have had was the lowest form of political debate"? He went on to say: To try to say that every case that has gone wrong is typical is loathsome."—[Official Report, 12 May 1992; Vol. 207, c. 541.] Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate would give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to explain why he now thinks that it is acceptable for the Leader of the Opposition not only to raise such a case, but to do so without the common courtesy that we would all observe of contacting the hospital first?

Mr. Cook

It is regrettable that the good sense of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has declined since his maiden speech. Every hon. Member would echo some of the sentiments that he expressed in it. From time to time, I have raised personal cases in the House; they probably live in the memory of some hon. Members who were present at the time. However, my hon. Friends and I did that with the full support of the relevant staff, who were appalled at the poor resources with which they had to work. I cannot recall an occasion when I or any Labour Member took up a personal case to attack NHS staff. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) attacked not simply the health service but those public servants who work in it. That will not be forgotten.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I thank the Leader of the House for clearing up the confusion about the Whit recess. It will enable my Liberal Democrat colleagues to stop juggling their constituency commitments during those two weeks. It may also enable them to fix their matrimonial arrangements.

When can we expect a Government response to yesterday's statement from the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the confusion about what is being investigated in relation to foot and mouth disease cannot continue? Several inquiries are in progress, but they are leaving unresolved and unexamined important matters such as the effects of the disease on rural Britain and the way in which the Government tackled it. A Select Committee, which has a Labour majority, has called for an overarching, comprehensive inquiry. I hope that the Government will take that more seriously than previous requests from us and hon. Members from other parties.

In the past, Mr. Speaker, you have deprecated Ministers' habits of making statements to the media before they make them to the House. It appears that, in an interview on "Today" this morning, the Foreign Secretary signalled a change of policy on the internees at the Cuban base. He suggested that he expects any British citizen there to be brought back here to face justice. Is that now the Government's policy? Is it also their policy that other nationals should return to their home states to face justice rather than facing the perhaps peculiar justice of the United States? What is the Government's position on the use of the death penalty? The Minister of State has signalled a different conclusion on that. Are we trying to insist that our American allies respect the Geneva convention?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman began on a happy note, and I welcome his welcome for the Whit recess. If that enables the leader of the Liberal Democrats to achieve his marriage in good order with a good honeymoon, I am all the happier that I have been able to give the dates to hon. Members. For once, perhaps all hon. Members can agree to ask the hon. Gentleman to convey our congratulations to his leader.

Mr. Forth

Can we have a vote?

Mr. Cook

No. I take it as a foregone conclusion.

The report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was published only yesterday, and it is premature to expect a Government response. We have established three separate inquiries; one may report soon and the others will do so in the longer term. That panoply of inquiries gives us a good basis for examining what happened and, more important, looking ahead to what we shall do with the countryside and the rural economy. At an appropriate time, the House will have an opportunity to examine that. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions will take place next week.

As I have said previously about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, whether the Geneva convention applies is not the most important consideration. Even if it does not apply, international humanitarian law does. I believe that it is accepted here and in the United States that it is important to ensure that our humanitarian standards apply to the detainees, and that we thus show our superiority and that of our system to the ruthless terrorist values that they pursued.

On the issue of the death penalty, the Foreign Office and the Government have repeatedly expressed the view to all countries that they should abolish the death penalty, as we have done. We shall continue to campaign for that. Should there be a case for charging the three British citizens, we would expect them to face those charges in Britain if they have broken British law. That is not a new position; it is the position that we have always held.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Leader of the House reflect further on the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) for a debate on the national health service, to enable Members of the House to express their full support for all staff, black and white, at the Whittington hospital in my constituency for the very caring way in which they look after all their patients, and for their dedication to the principles of a national health service that is free at the point of use? If allegations are made concerning inadequate care or support for any patient, it is incumbent on us all to listen to both the family and the hospital concerned first, and at all times to try to prevent a public debate about the care of an individual patient. Surely all of us deserve the right to privacy in matters of medical care.

Mr. Cook

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of supporting the principles of the NHS and the staff who work hard to try to deliver on those principles. It is important that the national health service should, as it goes about its business, be a model employer that is blind to any racial discrimination or division, and that it should provide for fair opportunity and an excellent quality of care. I would remind the House that the hospital in my hon. Friend's constituency was only recently praised for the quality of its care for patients.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the importance of having regular debates on the state of the health service. Has the Leader of the House had a chance to see the very worrying reports in the press in the last week that, despite increased expenditure on the health service, the amount of NHS activity in the last quarter has declined? Does he understand why our constituents are enormously concerned about the state of the public services, and the health service in particular, under this Government's stewardship? Will he, therefore, accept the need for regular debates, with the Prime Minister in attendance, so that we can monitor the extent to which the Prime Minister is delivering on his solemn pledge to the British people at the last election that the NHS would improve under his stewardship?

Mr. Cook

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report of the NHS Modernisation board, which, only the other week, confirmed that we now have more nurses, more doctors and more beds in the NHS than ever before. Indeed, last year was the first year for 30 years in which the number of beds in the health service actually increased. As to activity rates, 500,000 more operations are now performed every year than during the Conservative years, which is a 10 per cent. increase. I welcome that increase in activity, and we will continue to put in the investment to ensure that it continues. I would ask the hon. Gentleman, and any other Opposition Member inclined to raise the issue of the NHS, whether they will give a commitment to match our level of investment. If they are committed, as their leader has said, to introducing tax cuts, will they please explain how they will do so without bringing in public spending cuts?

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given the statement by the Secretary of State for Health last week that we should privatise the management of the national health service, and the statement by Lord Haskins this morning that corporate business should run the NHS, may we have an urgent debate on the failed privatisations—such as the privatisation of the railways, and of care for the elderly—brought in by the last Conservative Government, so that we can expose once and for all this neanderthal thinking, and the myth that the private sector can run our public services better than the public sector? All the evidence points to the fact that it simply cannot do so.

Mr. Cook

We have debated the failed privatisation of Railtrack on a number of occasions recently. The net effect of the many attempts by the Opposition to attack us on that matter has been to produce a poll for ITN which showed that more people blame the Conservative Government than the Labour Government for the difficulties on the railways. I welcome the fact that we have now taken Railtrack out of an environment in which it had to struggle between its priority to the travelling public and its priority to its private shareholders.

On the question of the management of the NHS, I say to my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has proposed that we should devolve management within the NHS and provide more discretion for local hospitals to take the initiative, run their affairs and respond to local circumstances. We must strike the right balance between a national health service with national standards and values and local initiative at management level.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Has it not been the House's practice regularly to debate in Government time key issues such as taxation, public expenditure and the performance of the economy? When in this Parliament have the Government provided time for such a debate, and when does the right hon. Gentleman plan to hold one?

Mr. Cook

The whole House understands that the Chancellor is unable to play a full part in our proceedings at present, but, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, there will be a Budget debate shortly and plenty of opportunities to examine the economy in that context.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Did my right hon. Friend see this week's Sunday Herald report of the allegation made by a former corporate lawyer with Arthur Andersen in the UK that the firm's auditors in this country were bullied by Enron in Europe into signing off audited accounts that inflated earnings? Will my right hon. Friend ask his colleagues to investigate that claim and arrange a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, on the relationship between external auditors and the businesses they audit?

Mr. Cook

If the US law enforcement agencies carrying out the investigation approach the UK authorities, they will receive full co-operation from all our people if we can assist with the investigation into the affairs of Enron. My hon. Friend refers to an issue that is a concern to a number of Members. The importance of safeguarding the independence of auditors and finding ways in which to ensure that the commercial world and our constituents are confident that audits are independent, not the result of pressure or bullying, has been raised in a number of areas and there is no excuse under any circumstances for bullying people into signing fraudulent accounts.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the growing problem of antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism, graffiti and loutish behaviour, which affect all our constituencies and make the lives of so many people, especially the elderly, a misery? Often, they live in constant fear. He is aware that in many of our constituencies the police simply do not have the resources to tackle those issues because they are so overstretched elsewhere. May we have an urgent debate in Government time so that the Home Secretary can tell the House what he plans to do about those matters?

Mr. Cook

First, on a point of fact, police numbers are increasing and there is a record increase in the number of those being trained for the police force. Quite properly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering ways to ensure that uniformed police maximise the time spent on patrol and in the community and minimise the time that they have to spend on paperwork at the station.

Every Member of the House has constituency experience of the grave impact on the quality of life that can arise from antisocial behaviour. We have already introduced orders to try to deal with that and we are considering ways in which they might be improved by further legislation.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

This month, the worst outbreak of salmonella poisoning in Bolton in more than 50 years occurred in my constituency. Dozens of people have suffered and seven were admitted to hospital, including 80-year-old Ted Ivers, who was in intensive care, his wife Edith and their son-in-law. Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending best wishes to all those who have suffered? A few days ago, the Government published "Getting Ahead of the Curve", which is a strategy compiled by the chief medical officer for combating infectious disease. Will the Government give time to debate that important document?

Mr. Cook

I have no hesitation in joining my hon. Friend in wishing a speedy recovery to those who have—

Mr. Forth

An individual case.

Mr. Cook

All of them. I presume that my hon. Friend has contacted those affected and has their authority to speak. I send all those affected our best wishes for a speedy recovery. I am sure that the report makes a number of interesting points and recommendations and I have full faith in the Government's plans for coping with infectious diseases. This may be an excellent case for a debate in Westminster Hall on which he might wish to reflect.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

Is the Minister aware that bed blocking at Birmingham Heartlands hospital by clients of Birmingham social services department is delaying operations for Solihull patients who also use that hospital? May we have a debate on bed blocking?

Mr. Cook

In fairness to the House, this issue has been ventilated on several occasions and we have had a number of opportunities to examine policy in the NHS. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those exchanges have shown that both sides of the House recognise that this is a serious issue. That is precisely why the Government have made significant sums of new money available to local authorities, to assist them to move patients into more appropriate care.

This is a problem not just for patients with an acute need for an acute bed, but for the people in those beds who have nowhere more suitable to move to. It is important for both groups that we find a way forward. We are seeking to do that through better management and by providing more money.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will my right hon. Friend make a definitive statement on the Government's attitude to the opposed private business on Monday, the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill?

Mr. Cook

It would be improper of me, on behalf of the Government, to express a view on that private Bill one way or the other. I am aware that my hon. Friend and some of his colleagues have expressed vigorous views on the Bill. As the Leader of the House, I am content for it to be a matter for the House to decide, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and his colleagues will continue to express their vigorous views.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the vexed question of the proposed Bill to ban tobacco advertising? He will be aware of the growing frustration in Scotland about the Government's inaction on this issue. The Health and Community Care Committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering asking the right hon. Gentleman to give evidence to it and to explain the lack of Government action. What is the status of the proposed Bill, and will the right hon. Gentleman attend that Committee if asked?

Mr. Cook

I read with great interest the press release from the hon. Gentleman's colleague in the Scottish Parliament. Should any such decision be approved by that Committee as a whole, I will reflect on how I can be helpful without straying across the clear boundaries that we set up under the principle of devolution. I am fully seized of the importance of the tobacco Bill, and should an opportunity arise to address that measure during this Session, I will take it.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend and the House to a candlelight vigil that will take place outside St. Stephen's entrance this evening in memory of the 44 people who have died from deep vein thrombosis related to air travel? I welcome the Government's statement in a written answer this week that they are unequivocally committed to an investigation into the incidence, extent and causation of deep vein thrombosis related to air travel.

It is more than four months since the Civil Aviation Authority placed before Ministers research that it had carried out on aircraft seat spacing, but the House has not had a response. It is important that we get a response, because one of the recommendations of that independent research was that seat spacing in United Kingdom aircraft should be increased immediately.

Mr. Cook

I commend the diligence with which my hon. Friend raises this important matter in the House. I was saying only this morning, when I heard about the vigil, that I was sure that he would raise the matter during business questions. We are seized of the importance of this issue, which is why on 30 November we issued new guidance to passengers and the public on how to minimise the risk of deep vein thrombosis. We remain willing to consider other ways in which we can be of assistance. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks on seat spacing to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health—with perhaps the rider that, as a frequent air traveller, I would welcome more seat space.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

The Leader of the House will recall that yesterday there was a significant debate on Zimbabwe in Westminster Hall, and Opposition Members also questioned the Prime Minister and expressed grave concern about the deteriorating situation in that country. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an absolute assurance that in the coming weeks, in the run-up to the March presidential elections and probably thereafter, when the Mugabe regime will almost certainly behave despicably, Ministers will regularly be available to update the House and to take questions from us?

Mr. Cook

I have no doubt that the House will wish to be kept informed on the issue, and I fully appreciate and share the deep concern in the House about the entirely improper way in which the Mugabe regime is seeking to rig the presidential election. There will be two important meetings next year, a European Union meeting to discuss the EU's approach to Zimbabwe and a meeting of Commonwealth Ministers to discuss the country's place in the Commonwealth. Whether a statement is appropriate is a matter that we will keep under advisement, but I assure Members that we will keep them fully informed of our views and of the action we are taking.

Mr. Anthony D. Wright (Great Yarmouth)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the chief medical officer's report on myalgic encephalomyelitis—ME—which was published last week, and is he aware of the effects that it will have for ME sufferers? May we have an early debate on the report on the Floor of the House, and on all the problems that sufferers throughout the country have experienced for far too long? The report in itself—produced by a working group—gives them hope and encouragement, but I think it should mark the beginning rather than the end of a campaign.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that all ME sufferers will be pleased that my hon. Friend has drawn attention to their case, and to the need for more recognition of, and a better response to, their requirements. I have no plans to arrange a debate on the report, but I am sure that my hon. Friend and others will look for ways of ventilating its conclusions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I was going to ask for a debate on early-day motion 700, which states:

[That this House is dismayed by the report in the Evening Standard of 21st January that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has blocked the appointment of the career civil servant Ian Jones as head of media in his Department; notes that his preferred choice, Ms Ann Wallis, is an outsider who is a friend and former colleague of Jo Moore; urges him to abandon this further attempt at politicisation; and fears that if successful, this will bury the impartiality of the Civil Service.]

In other words, it concerns the Transport Secretary's attempt to impose a crony of Jo Moore as head of media in his Department.

As that question has been blocked, may I instead ask why the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the roadworks scheduled for September will hinder us from sitting then? We have been informed by the office of the Serjeant at Arms that both the Black Rod's Garden entrance and the Carriage Gates will be open, and that access will be unimpeded. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that such minor roadworks will be an obstacle, what does he think will happen in 2003 and 2004, when massive roadworks are planned for Parliament square as a result of one of the crazy schemes of his former parliamentary colleague, Ken Livingstone?

Mr. Cook

The post of head of media has been filled according to civil service rules and with a civil service commissioner involved in the appointment.

The main reason for our proposal not to proceed with the change in sittings this year is that it will be convenient for Members who, in good faith, have already made arrangements for September. That includes Mr. Speaker, who has undertaken to fulfil a commitment in Canada. We want him to fulfil that commitment, and also to represent Britain in New York on 11 September.

I personally am strongly committed to ensuring that we make changes in the long recess. After all, I proposed them. I think that they will be convenient to the House, and that the public will be pleased to see us sitting in September. From next year, we shall do so.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Many of us have campaigned for a shorter recess over the years, and I am glad that at long last the House is to sit in September, even if it does not do so this year. Oddly enough, such a proposal—despite the delay by a year—has been criticised by Opposition Members, and was opposed by past Governments, who always resisted any proposal for the House to return in less than 10 or 12 weeks. The 1992 summer recess lasted at least three months.

Mr. Cook

I thank my hon. Friend for his observation. I welcome the Opposition's impatience for us to act on my Modernisation proposal, and I hope that it will extend to the other recommendations.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

As the Leader of the House will know, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has existed for more than seven months. It has probably the worst record in Government for replying to Members' letters, and responding to the concerns of our constituents. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the Secretary of State makes a statement next week about how she will improve the Department's responses?

Mr. Cook

The Secretary of State will be answering questions next week. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and others will seek to raise that point, but as I have said before, the reason for the delay in replies from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is that the volume of its correspondence has gone up threefold, which is why the Secretary of State has written to every Member setting out the steps that she is taking to increase the staff in the correspondence unit and to improve the turnover to MPs. The delay is a result of the increased work load, not of any reorganisation of the Department.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

The Leader of the House has rightly acquired a reputation as someone who is willing to think radically about the reform of the Houses of Parliament in order to make sure that we are relevant to the 21st century, rather than redundant. It is in that context that I ask him to consider an urgent debate on the future of the NHS. The reason is that at the very least there are some discrepancies that need explaining between repeated assurances from Ministers that the NHS will never be transferred out of public hands and into private hands, and this morning's statement by Labour peer Lord Haskins suggesting that the NHS's future is to be found in transferring it lock, stock and barrel into the hands of a private corporation.

Given the number of hon. Members on both sides of the House who have asked questions about the NHS today, will the Leader of the House at least reflect on the urgent need for such a debate, before another of the luminaries in the other House, who increasingly represent the voices of the new corporate aristocracy, suggests that democracy itself would be best served if Parliament were also transferred to a private corporation?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to say that, as Leader of the House, I have no plans to transfer Parliament to a private corporation.

Lord Haskins, who is not a Minister, was speaking at the launch of the report by the King's Fund, which is not a subsidiary of the Government. It has made a number of recommendations about the decentralisation of NHS management, with which we are comfortable, but it is an independent body and it must speak for itself. I cannot speak for it, but I assure my hon. Friend and the House that we will not privatise the NHS, which will remain a public service, accountable through Ministers to the House and based on national values that reflect its importance as a service to meet need, not a service to chase money.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made at the earliest opportunity on the Trident refit complex at Devonport? He may be aware that, with only a few weeks to go, it is reported that the complex is not complete. More important, it has yet to receive its nuclear installations certificate. That is causing my constituents, and, I think, others in the Plymouth area, some concern.

Mr. Cook

The issue is of concern to the hon. Gentleman's constituents but it is of wider concern because it raises larger issues. In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, he has always been vigilant in making statements to the House on procurement or the management of his Department. I welcome the fact that only this week there was a statement from his Department on the treatment of Army pensions. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State, who will no doubt wish to write to him direct.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 714?

[That this House expresses its deep concern at the conduct of KPMG as receiver for UPF-Thomson who are effectively holding Land Rover to ransom and placing over 10,000 manufacturing jobs at risk; believes that this will endanger well established business arrangements that could lead to increased sourcing of components overseas; and calls upon the Government to review all it's department contracts with KPMG in light of their actions.]

KPMG's demand for over £40 million for resupplying Land Rover with chassis is nothing short of blackmail and threatens the whole manufacturer/supplier relationship in Britain. It will put tens of thousands of jobs at risk, many of them in Wales. Will he agree to an early debate on that crucial subject, and will the Government look at what contracts they have with KPMG?

Mr. Cook

I hesitate to be drawn into the commercial character of the argument to which my hon. Friend refers. I welcome the fact that the business statement has given him an opportunity to ventilate the matter in the House, and I have no doubt that he will look for other ways to do so, but it is unlikely that the Government will wish to intervene in what is a commercial dispute.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

When last week I asked the Leader of the House to be kind enough to hold an urgent debate on Sir Donald Curry's report on the future of food and farming, to be published next week, he urged me to curb my enthusiasm until the other two reports on the foot and mouth disease outbreak were published. Now that the Leader of the House will have had a chance to read the report by the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he will realise that those two reports will not see the light of day at least for six months and most likely for 12 months. That is too long a gap for the House not to debate in Government time those important rural matters. I wonder whether he would be kind enough to re-examine the situation.

Mr. Cook

We will always keep the issue under review. If it appears appropriate to hold a debate, I am sure that the Government will wish to respond to any feeling in the House that is consistent with it being the right time for that debate to take place. However, I remind Opposition Members that they were the ones who pressed for a full public inquiry, which would have taken years rather than months to produce a result.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of disgust at the case of the 39-year-old Somerset father of two who apparently committed no offence in enticing two 11-year-old girls to strip naked for his sexual gratification, although he would have committed an offence if he had photographed his child victims? Surely we need an early opportunity to discuss that obvious loophole in the laws designed to protect children from paedophiles?

Mr. Cook

I share my hon. Friend's puzzlement about the case. Many hon. Members will find it difficult to comprehend that no offence existed under which a charge could be brought in the case. As I told the House last week, we are carrying out a review of sexual offences, with a view to producing legislation at some point in the future. We want to make sure that the range of offences is Modernised so that it meets the current realities and has no substantial loopholes. I am sure that those carrying out the review will reflect on the case to which my hon. Friend refers.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to set out at the Dispatch Box the parliamentary timetable for legislation to impose a levy to recoup the costs of the air travel transport fund? The fund, which is operated by the Civil Aviation Authority, was set up 20 years ago to reimburse operators and bring back stranded tourists if a major travel company went broke. However, it has run out of money, and the CAA has emphasised the seriousness of the consequences should a major travel operator, package holiday company or charter airline go bust as a result of the very serious security threats in the wake of 11 September. We need appropriate legislation in place before the summer.

Mr. Cook

I remind the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will be answering questions next Tuesday. This is clearly a matter on which he can be interrogated by the House. The hon. Lady raises a serious issue, and I shall certainly draw her remarks to the attention of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions so that appropriate steps might be considered. However, given where we are in the parliamentary year and the pressure of legislation, I cannot necessarily commit the Government to further legislation this Session.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

Will the Leader of the House make available some time before Budget day for a debate on the climate change levy? The levy has been in place for nearly a year, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make his own statement about it on Budget day. However, it is a very important issue, affecting the steel and chemical industries in the north-east and Teesside, and the people who work in them. Before my right hon. Friend the Chancellor makes his decision, we should have a debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his ministerial team are well aware of the views that have been expressed on the matter. However, a balance has to be struck. We have to make sure that we do not place our industries at a competitive disadvantage vis-à-vis the industries of other countries in the world, but we also have to make sure that Britain plays its full part in stabilising the climate. Although it will remain important, the health of our industry will be relatively less significant than the very sharp changes in lifestyle and health, among other problems, that will follow if we do not manage to get a grip on the problem and secure a stable climate.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Will the Leader of the House say whether it will be possible for the Deputy Prime Minister to come to the House for a debate in the near future? He has become almost invisible recently. I have not seen him in the House or on television, and as far as I am aware he has not punched a member of the public recently. Is the right hon. Gentleman still a Minister? If so, will the Government try to make better use of him?

Mr. Cook

I would urge the hon. Gentleman to attend Prime Minister's Questions. Had he done so yesterday, he would have seen my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in his place. I can tell the House that I saw my right hon. Friend only an hour ago, and he was taking part vigorously in our debates on public policy.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of yesterday's excellent debate in Westminster Hall on the coal industry? It lasted an hour and a half and the Members present were all of the opinion that we need a full debate in Government time on the Floor of the House because of the many problems surrounding the coal industry. The debate dealt essentially with the future of the coal industry, but there are other matters to do with the impact of the industry on areas where pits have been closed.

I have raised matters in previous weeks that require a debate on the Floor of the House. To that list of items I have added vibration white finger, for which the Benefits Agency has a very peculiar test. People who get compensation for vibration white finger under the compensation scheme miss out on benefit provision. Along with the list of items that I have been pressing in recent weeks and those dealt with in Westminster Hall, that calls for a full debate on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is one of our most regular attendees at business questions. No one raises constituency issues more assiduously than he does. He frequently reminds us of the many problems facing those who formerly worked in the coal industry and the communities that sustained it.

I will reflect on what my hon. Friend says. He argues his case with his customary logic and a well-researched brief. I have said to the House before that it may be appropriate at the right moment to have a debate on the present energy review. Perhaps my hon. Friend could raise some of these questions then.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government's generally admirable Adoption and Children Bill will shortly come back to the House for its Report stage. He will also be aware of a cross-party amendment, to which I have added my name, which calls for unmarried couples to be considered for adoption. That would help deal with the concern about the tens of thousands of children requiring placement who are in care homes. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that would be an admirable change for the Government to make? In view of the confusion and press comment that there has been this week, will he confirm that the Government, along with Liberal Democrat Members, will support such an important measure, or at least allow Labour Members a free vote on it?

Mr. Cook

First, I should like to pocket the hon. Gentleman's praise for the admirable Bill. I am glad that it has his support. On the amendment that he proposes to make to the Bill, that is a matter to be argued on Report. I will make sure that the Report stage is held in good time for the hon. Gentleman and others to debate these matters.

The law on this was first changed in 1976, when some moves were made to allow greater liberality. Whether there is a case for a further move is for the hon. Gentleman to argue. However, the Government's position—and, to be fair, that of the previous Government—is that the interests and welfare of the child must always come first.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the appalling proposal to privatise the RAF's fire and rescue services. It is causing a great deal of concern inside the RAF and outside, particularly among trade unions such as the Transport and General Workers Union and the Fire Brigades Union. I have had representations from constituents, as my constituency has a long-standing relationship with the RAF. RAF Hornchurch was part of the ring of steel in 1940 in the fight against fascism. Could we at least have a statement or a debate on this?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct, in that there is a project in the Ministry of Defence to assess the most viable and cost-effective solution for the provision of airfield support within the Ministry. If any proposal is made to meet those needs with a privatised service, it will be tested against a public sector comparator to make sure that it represents value for money. It must also be tested against other policy requirements, including, of course, the security of the armed forces and Ministry of Defence airfields. Should a decision be reached, I am sure that it will be announced to the House and that my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to offer his views both in advance and afterwards.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Will the Leader of the House make time available for an urgent statement on the policing of Greater Manchester, particularly in the light of the Commonwealth games to be held this summer? Greater Manchester police are facing a shortfall of £22 million in their budget, exacerbated by the fact that the Government have not yet agreed to fund the £7.5 million cost of policing the games. The chief constable of Greater Manchester police has said: We are in a desperate situation and if we don't get funding for the games, it will have a massive impact on policing in Greater Manchester. It is vital to all the people of Greater Manchester that we have a proper debate so that there is an opportunity for a statement and we can extract that promise from the Government.

Mr. Cook

I remind the hon. Gentleman that Manchester sought to hold the Commonwealth games and, indeed, fought hard for that. I congratulate it on its success. Naturally, there are consequences of Manchester's success in securing the Commonwealth games. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman gives a full, rounded picture of the position on Manchester police funding. Recently they received a special grant which has made theirs the first police force in the country to have digital radio for their services.

Mr. Brady

A cut.

Mr. Cook

Hardly. That puts them ahead of all the other police forces in the country and it will continue to ensure that they provide an excellent service.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will my right hon. Friend make time to introduce legislation on the continuing scandal of short measures of pints of beer in our pubs? Is he aware of the recent research conducted by the Campaign for Real Ale which shows that nine out of 10 pints being served in England and Wales are short measures, and that things are getting worse? Over the past three years the number of short measures being served has increased by 10 per cent. [Interruption.] I am glad to hear the inheritors of the men who watered down the workers' beer supporting this. I invite my right hon. Friend when he visits Cardiff for Labour's spring conference to partake of a pint of Brain's, the finest beer in Britain. If he finds time to introduce legislation, he will be the toast of Cardiff and, indeed, of Britain—because everyone who pays for a full pint, should get one.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter of great concern to the public and to many Members of this House. Any short measure is a clear public scandal and I assure my hon. Friend that we will seek to bear down as hard as we can. I would be in trouble with many hon. Members if I tried to express a preference for one particular regional beer over another.

Mr. Tyler

indicated assent.

Mr. Cook

I see that I carry the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in my caution on this point. I will be coming to Cardiff soon and I shall sample Brain's beer and consider whether it possibly reaches equivalence with the excellent McEwans beer that is brewed in my native country.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Many of us will remember with nostalgia and affection the silver jubilee celebrations in the days of our youth. Will the Government make a statement on how the new generation can similarly enjoy the golden jubilee celebrations of Her Majesty the Queen's reign this year, by lifting the absurd threat of administration charges for traffic orders, risk assessments and health and safety inspections, which have been quoted as £800 for a street party; and similarly, by ending the demands for absurd levels of third party insurance? Would it not be nice to read a headline that says, "Cook calls for common sense. Bring out the bunting!"?

Mr. Cook

I regret that I cannot write these headlines, but the hon. Gentleman makes an attractive suggestion which I enjoin on all newspaper editors. We hope that the golden jubilee will be a success. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are working hard to do all we can to support it. There is no requirement for third party insurance for street parties. We hope that local authorities will apply common sense with regard to the other charges that he mentioned and will want to work with local people to make a success of local celebrations. That is why we welcome the decision of some local authorities to reduce or remove these charges.

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