HC Deb 31 January 2002 vol 379 cc425-45 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House for the business for next week?

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

I shall be as brief as possible, Mr. Speaker.

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Failure of the Government to Negotiate a Bilateral Agreement on Asylum with France" followed by a debate entitled "Failures of the Government's Pensions Plans". Both debates will arise on a Government motion, or rather an Opposition one—[Laughter.] We might table a Government amendment, it has to be admitted.

TUESDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Progress on remaining stages of the Education Bill.

WEDNESDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Education Bill.

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 provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Land Registration Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 12 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the Employment Bill.

WEDNESDAY 13 FEBRUARY—Remaining stages of the British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 14 FEBRUARY—Debate on Defence Policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 15 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The right hon. Gentleman raised with me last week the future of the St. David's day debate. I am pleased to respond to him and announce that there will be a Welsh debate on 28 February, which is as near as I can get it to St. David's day.

The House will also wish to be reminded that, as the Chancellor has already announced, the Budget will take place on Wednesday 17 April.

On Tuesday 12 February, there will be a debate relating to the fight against fraud in European Standing Committee B, and on Wednesday 13 February, there will be a debate relating to the equal treatment directive in European Standing Committee B.

[Tuesday 12 February 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 9208/01, Protecting the Communities' Financial Interests—the fight against fraud; Commission's Twelfth Annual Report 2000; 9207/01, Protecting the Communities' Financial Interests—the fight against fraud; Action Plan for 2001–2003; Unnumbered Document, Court of Auditors' annual Report 2000. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xii, (2001–02).

Wednesday 13 February:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 14492/01, Commission Opinion on the European Parliament's amendments to the Council's common position regarding the draft Directive amending the 1976 Equal Treatment Directive. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xii (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House, especially for his announcement about the St. David's day debate. At least he had the courtesy to announce it to the House and it was not leaked. Pennies drop at varying rates in this place.

Can I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to early-day motion 226, which he will know has today attracted 292 signatures and counting?

[That this House supports the democratic principle that any revised Second Chamber of Parliament should be wholly or substantially elected.]

The motion was tabled by some of the Leader of the House's hon. Friends but it is now supported by nearly 300 hon. Members. As he knows, this is the final day for replies to the consultation on his White Paper on reform of the upper House. In light of the spectacular support for that early-day motion, can he give us an early statement on the Government's intentions as to where we go from here following the disastrous White Paper? The Government are now totally adrift from opinion in the House of Commons and elsewhere.

The Leader of the House has announced that on Monday there will be an Opposition day debate on asylum. I am told that a White Paper on asylum may be imminent. Whether he can confirm that or not, will he pledge that any White Paper on asylum, or indeed on anything else, will be announced first in the House and there will be no spinning, leaking or anything else ahead of its announcement in the House and the opportunity for hon. Members to question the appropriate Secretary of State?

I gather that Lord Birt, who is, apparently, a crony of the Prime Minister and who has been asked by him to do something rather important—namely, to look at the long-term future of our transport system—has refused to appear before the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions. If that is true, is it not yet another example of the utter contempt in which the Prime Minister and his cronies hold the House, its Committees and the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who chairs the Committee, and her colleagues? Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking now that he will use his undoubted influence and respect for the House of Commons to persuade Lord Birt to do what he should be willing to do anyway—to come before the Select Committee and give an account of himself? I hope that we can get that undertaking from the Leader of the House today.

I remind the Leader of the House that, in relation to the proposed September sittings of the House, he said: I am also advised that there will be roadworks outside the Palace."—[Official Report, 24 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 1010.] In that connection, has he had discussions with his erstwhile friend, that nice Mayor Livingstone, about the Mayor's plans for extensive alterations to Parliament square? I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to be satisfied that any extensive roadworks initiated by the Mayor relating to Parliament square do not have a serious effect on the ability of the House to perform its functions. I hope that he will be able to report back to us at an early stage on the outcome of his discussions with his nice friend.

Mr. Cook

In response to the right hon. Gentleman's initial statement, I am partial to leeks in the pot but we will try to keep them out of the announcements of the business.

The right hon. Gentleman reminded us that this is the final day for consultation on the Government's White Paper on Lords reform. It would be a bit premature to attempt any statement when the final day has only just arrived. In any case I anticipate that people will wish to make submissions for some time afterwards, but there is no great secret. For the past month, I have said to the House, and indeed to anyone else who would listen, that when consultation finishes we will need a period of reflection in order to establish where the centre of gravity lies behind reform. When we have come to the conclusion of that period of reflection, it will be proper to have a statement in the House.

I follow the early-day motion with weekly interest to see how many hon. Members have signed it, and I have had a number of individual and collective representations from those who signed it. I listen to all views in the House. I repeat what I have said: once we have reflected on all this, it is important that those who want reform find a proposal behind which they can gather.

On asylum and immigration, it may help the right hon. Gentleman if I say that I anticipate that there may be a statement to the House next week. We have promised a Bill on asylum and immigration. I anticipate that that will be before the House this Session. We will have ample opportunity to debate those matters.

On Lord Birt, the Government stand ready to ensure that full evidence is provided by Ministers and senior civil servants. It has not been customary for special advisers to give evidence to Select Committees. I am not aware off hand of a case where an unpaid adviser was summoned to a Select Committee. If that becomes the practice, we may have some difficulty in seeking expert advice from those outside Government ranks.

On Parliament square, I clocked the point made by the right hon. Gentleman last week. We have a right to be considered in this matter. I am often frustrated by the difficulty of getting from Birdcage walk to Parliament square. I hope that we can achieve an outcome that will make things easier, and I will try to resist anything likely to make things more difficult.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend might be surprised to find that many mean-minded employers have no intention of paying their hourly paid workers for the public holiday to be held for the Queen's jubilee. Is it not time for a debate about when workers are entitled to be paid for public holidays, recognising the fact that we have fewer public holidays than almost any other country in Europe? It is always the hourly paid or the lowest-paid workers who lose the most.

Mr. Cook

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we introduced the working time directive which, for the first time, provided a right to paid holidays over Christmas and at times such as Easter for 2 million people who had never had paid holidays at those times. Given that the bank holiday on 4 June is to commemorate Her Majesty's jubilee, we would expect all patriotic employers to ensure that their employees can enjoy that day, and enjoy that day with pay.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can we have an urgent debate to put into context the widespread public and press perception that it is possible, and has been possible for some time, to buy access to and influence over Parliament and Government? In view of the revelations during the past few days from Enron, Arthur Andersen and RMT and now the resignation of Lord Wakeham, which has been announced in the last few minutes, should we not try to achieve a proper sense of direction and perception on these matters? As the Leader of the House will have seen in The Independentthis morning, it is important to review the funding of democracy in this country.

Will the Leader of the House ask for an urgent statement from the Chancellor or the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about the apparent lack of clarity over where the £2.2 billion that the Secretary of State announced on Tuesday in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is to come from? He said that the additional money will not be taken from the roads, buses or local transport budgets."—[Official Report, 29 January 2002; Vol. 379, c. 151.] This morning there was an announcement via a Treasury statement and, to quote The Guardian: Gordon Brown ordered his officials to pull the rug from under Mr. Byers after learning the transport secretary had asserted the deal was secured during a meeting the two men had over the weekend. In a terse statement the Treasury denied any conversation had taken place. It also said the £2.2 billion was not new money but part of an allocation announced last April. Officials suggested the £2.2 billion would almost certainly be taken from the roads budget. Why should we put up with two Cabinet Ministers making directly contradictory statements within hours of each other?

Mr. Cook

We had a long debate on political party funding during the last Session, in which we passed a significant Bill, and we can keep under review whether there is a will in the country or the House to return to the matter. There was a substantial debate only two years ago and I am not sure that there would be an appetite in the House to make it a priority. [Interruption.] I remind the shadow Leader of the House that the chief executive of Enron in Britain went on record this week saying that there had been broadly similar payments to the Conservative party as to the Labour party. The funds given to the Labour party were for the purchase of tables, and were not donations to the party.

I regard with some mystification why it is thought unusual for a Minister with responsibility for energy to meet representatives from what was, at that time, a major energy company, particularly since the outcome of those discussions was a Green Paper that curtailed rather than expanded the opportunities for Enron within the British market. It is for the hon. Gentleman to explain what BSM received in return for its major donation to the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that we would wish to return to that in some detail if we were to have a further debate on this subject.

I welcome the extra £2 billion that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions announced is available for the rail industry. The travelling public will be more interested in extra investment in rail and a response to the current crisis than in arguments about who telephoned whom over the weekend.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

My right hon. Friend will realise that I am touched by the concern of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but the reality is that it is increasingly difficult for Select Committees to perform their task of scrutiny properly when advisers who take major decisions and give serious advice to the Prime Minister are apparently not available for questioning. I ask my right hon. Friend seriously to consider the problem. Select Committees are told that decisions relating to Government policy are being taken elsewhere than in the specific Departments that they monitor. If that is so, Select Committees must have the right to call such advisers before them.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, and I am happy to say that I will continue to consider those matters. I recognise that temerity is required, but if I may I will correct her on one point. Advisers do not take major decisions. Decisions are taken by Ministers, and they are assisted in that task by senior civil servants. It is right and welcome that the Government occasionally ask others outside government to look further ahead, on an unpaid basis, than we are able to do from day to day. Such activities do not constitute taking decisions. The people whom the Select Committee should hold to account are those who are going to take the decisions.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the great demand for a full debate on Zimbabwe? Such debates have taken place in Westminster Hall, but we surely need a full day's debate in Government time. Every day brings new stories of intimidation, torture and murder of opposition politicians. Draconian laws of the former Zimbabwean Parliament stifle freedom of speech, so how can there be free and fair elections? Why will the Government not act? Is it because they are ashamed that their ethical foreign policy is a shambles?

Mr. Cook

Brushing aside for a second the hon. Gentleman's concluding remark, I agree that it is important that this House sends a clear and united message. The situation in Zimbabwe is alarming and deplorable, and the attacks on opposition politicians are outrageous. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that, even if we start now, it will be difficult to ensure that an election held four weeks from now is free and fair. Having said that, we have worked hard through the European Union and the Commonwealth to ensure that external observers are present to try to curb the worst of the intimidation—an approach that the opposition forces in Zimbabwe have warmly welcomed.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has worked hard to be robust on this issue. He attended yesterday's meeting to seek Zimbabwe's expulsion from the Commonwealth, and secured the support of half of those in attendance. However, we have some way to go before we can achieve the unanimous supported needed to secure expulsion.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

I should like to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to early-day motion 690 on asthma and schools.

[That this House recognises that one in seven children has asthma and many children are not getting the support they need at school; believes that children should be able to have immediate access to their inhalers and have a school environment free from dangerous triggers such as tobacco fumes, with members of staff with knowledge to help those in the event of a serious asthma attack; and hopes that more local education authorities will respond to the National Asthma Campaign and implement an asthma policy.]

The National Asthma Campaign is holding a national asthma day in February. It would be nice to debate the matter in the House, because we seem not to have a policy on asthma with regard to schools.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for ventilating an issue that is of considerable concern in many areas—particularly the one that he represents. One matter that puzzled me during the years in which I followed health policy—it is now a pressing issue—was the reason for the significant increase in asthma-related cases, especially among our young people. I shall draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who will doubtless want to respond to them.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

In a week in which beleaguered rail passengers in my constituency have again suffered at the hands of the RMT and its irresponsible industrial action, will the Leader of the House explain why Lord Birt has not appeared before the Select Committee? Is it not true that, according to Standing Orders, a Select Committee can demand that someone appear before it? In an earlier answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Leader of the House said that there was no need for such a person to appear if he was not paid, or if he was just an adviser, but can that be right? Lord Birt is a Member of the other place—a parliamentarian—so surely he can be called upon to appear before the Select Committee.

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman undermines rather than reinforces the case for Lord Birt coming before the Select Committee. Lord Birt has nothing to do with the RMT, South West Trains, or the present strikes. The right hon. Gentleman merely illustrates the danger into which Lord Birt would be sucked if he came before the Select Committee.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the announcements that have postdated this week's debate on the postal services? First, there was a leaked and possibly erroneous rumour that 3,000 of the 9,000 urban sub-post offices were to close. Secondly, the Post Office watchdog made some remarks today about the privatisation of parts of the postal service. Such rumours and remarks are bound to cause massive concern to the public, who want a universal and nationwide postal service. Can we have an early statement on the matter? Does he accept that, when management is not up to scratch, as on the Titanic, the answer is not to scuttle the boat but to get rid of the captain?

Mr. Cook

First, what Postcomm published today were proposals for consultation about competition. Most certainly, we will he following the competition proposals and the consultation on them with the closest interest. We fully understand their great significance to the public and to those who use the Post Office. The one imperative in any judgment that we reach is that we must preserve the universal service provided by the Post Office.

Secondly, there has been no proposal of the sort that has been leaked to the press. If such a proposal were to be made, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would wish to keep the House informed.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the imminent arrival of the Boundary Commission proposals for Scotland. I know that the subject is especially close to his heart. Does he agree that the continued stability of this House depends on fair and equitable representation for all parts of the United Kingdom? I know that the right hon. Gentleman moves in lofty circles, so will he play his part in ensuring that the proposals are implemented in time for the next general election? Will he put behind him the electoral interests of the Labour party, and his own search for a seat?

Mr. Cook

I am reassured to learn that I move in lofty circles. The Government have complied fully with a commitment that we made when we brought in the Scotland Act 1998. We are now carrying that commitment forward, and I understand that the Boundary Commission may make its first report shortly. It is then a matter for the commission to make progress on the subsequent representation and appeals process, which is set out in statute. If we receive the commission's report in good time, I see no reason why it should not be implemented in time for the next general election. That is our current plan.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will no doubt recall that, earlier this week, the House decided who would be its two representatives to the convention on the future of Europe. I should declare an interest, in that I have the honour to be one. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought as to how those representatives will be supported by the House? They will be representatives of the House and not of the Government, so the House will need to be informed of progress, and to have the opportunity to take part in the debate and shape the convention's decisions. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will give full support to the delegates? Has he had some preliminary thoughts about the shape that that support might take?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises the important point of principle that those appointed by this House and the other place to represent Parliament in the convention are representatives of Parliament, and not of the Government. It is therefore important that they receive support from Parliament. I am pleased to say that the Parliament office that we have established in Brussels, in the office of our representative to the European Union, will be happy to support and assist my hon. Friend and her colleague. I know that the Clerks of the House have also invited her to come and see them to discuss how they can make sure that proper resources are available to assist the representatives, in terms of travel arrangements, research and policy briefing. We will be very happy to help in any way that we can.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

Will the Leader of the House assure me that, when the Government publish their response to the consultation exercise on the code of practice for dealing with the remains of the deceased in hospitals, the House will have an opportunity to consider the matter? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the unhelpful and sad case at Queen Mary's hospital in Sidcup that involved the disposal of the body of James Fernandez. That baby's death was a tragedy for his parents in the first place, but the subsequent handling of his remains obviously caused them additional sadness. I am sure that the House will extend its sympathy to the family.

The hospital has committed medical and management teams, and the staff are deeply distressed by the exercise. The Leader of the House will understand why, in the fullness of time, we should have the opportunity to debate the resources, assistance and procedures available to the hospital to ensure that such a eventuality does not occur again.

Mr. Cook

The House will wish to echo the hon. Gentleman's deep sympathy and condolences to the parents for what must have been an appalling experience. We all share those views. I also echo the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the staff at the hospital. I have been impressed by the speed and thoroughness with which the hospital management—the trust board—has responded to this appalling event. It has put in place systems to ensure that it cannot happen again. That has to be the right way to respond, but it cannot alleviate the distress caused to the parents.

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

Will my right hon. Friend use his powers to bring the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry here to make a statement on the Post Office? Since the debate on Tuesday, we have heard that 8,000 post offices face closure as a result of the new benefit changes. Today's announcement by the regulator that within eight weeks one third of the Post Office's businesses will be privatised is a disgrace.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is quoted today in the press as saying that it is not a matter for her but for the regulator. Does the Leader of the House agree that when half the post offices in this country face closure, a process that will accelerate next year, and the regulator announces a change that will push the redundancies in the post offices beyond the 30,000 already announced, that is very much a matter for the Secretary of State? It is certainly a matter of great interest to Labour Members.

Mr. Cook

It is, of course, a matter of clear and close interest to the Secretary of State. The regulator is entitled to publish what it wishes to publish, but it could not secure the proposals in the consultation paper without primary legislation. That is very much a matter for the House and for the Government, who will be following that consultation closely.

On the figures quoted by my hon. Friend for the closure of post offices, I repeat that Ministers have received no such proposals. The House should be careful in interpreting the figures that have appeared in the press so far and will no doubt appear again in the weeks ahead.

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that today is the first anniversary of the initial announcement of the loss of 3,000 jobs from Corus in south Wales. He will understand, therefore, how shocked we were to read in the Welsh newspapers that at the same time as Corns workers were battling to save their jobs, the Labour party was lining its pockets with a donation of £125,000 from one of Corus's main competitors. It was not for tables or for drinks—it was hard cash from the chairman of Ispat International.

In the wake of Enron and Andersen, the fear is that the Government's decision not to back the employee buyout was due in part to knowing that a hefty cheque was on its way. We need an urgent statement from the Prime Minister on this. He needs to come clean and not plead the fifth amendment yet again.

Mr. Cook

I am not aware of any donation of the kind that the hon. Gentleman describes. I will investigate the matter and make sure that one of my colleagues responds to the hon. Gentleman. However, I find it unlikely that contemplation of any donation from a competitor of Corns would have any bearing on Government decisions on Corus.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Given the announcement that cattle markets are about to be reopened, when can we debate early-day motion 750?

[That this House welcomes the reduction in animal suffering and costs caused by the sale of farm animals through video links, the Internet and direct sales during the enforced closure of animals markets; and calls on the Government to encourage non-market sales in order to reduce risk of infections and to avoid the stress for animals in avoidable journeys and cramped conditions in stock markets.]

We should congratulate farmers on their ingenuity in finding alternatives to cattle markets by selling their animals via direct farm-to-farm sales, video links and the internet? These methods have been a great improvement in reducing animal suffering and costs. Should we not recall that the main way in which foot and mouth was spread was via animal markets and encourage the use of non-market sales to reduce animal suffering and infections?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend rightly identifies one of the major vectors of foot and mouth in the recent outbreak as the enormous—surprisingly high—distances travelled by sheep and cows to market. If one of the consequences has been to promote more local slaughter and sales, I would regard that as welcome. That step would be helpful in ensuring that we can contain any future outbreak, and I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

This morning, we heard difficult news about the A400M transport aircraft from the BBC. It was suggested that the Germans were about to renege on their obligations to the project and, more disturbingly, that the British Government were looking for alternatives. In light of the problems faced by the aerospace industry, in particular in the north-west of England, may we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Defence to establish the facts of the matter and what this Government are doing to ensure that the German Government honour their obligations?

Mr. Cock

I fully understand the problems that the aerospace industry is facing and we have discussed them a number of times in business questions. The right hon. Gentleman asked what we were doing to make the German Government take a particular course of action. We cannot do anything. They are a sovereign Government and will reach their own decision. Of course, we are making strong representations to them and will continue to do so; and we will consider any statement that they make later today.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

If there is a debate on the Post Office in the near future, will my right hon. Friend pass on the message that some of us want to know the process and the procedures for sacking regulators? This fellow Corbett, or whatever his name is, has gone too far already. He is going to become an embarrassment to this Government, just like Woodhead before him—we all know what happened to him: he finished up working for The Daily Telegraph and the Tory party. Let us get Corbett out before he causes more damage.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure whether The Daily Telegraph is in the market for more columnists, but I am sure it will note what my hon. Friend has said. I fully understand his point. The more cherry-picking of the large commercial contracts by other parts of the market, the more challenging it becomes for the Royal Mail to maintain its universal service. Obviously, that is a matter that must weigh with us when we consider any outcome of the consultation process. In the meantime, I shall ensure that someone furnishes my hon. Friend with a full description of the process of sacking a Postcomm regulator.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

The Leader of the House will be aware that a growing number of issues are seriously affecting the ability of Members of the Parliament to carry out their job in this house and elsewhere—data protection matters, tax allowances, expenditure on parliamentary trips abroad and so forth. Some of those matters may require legislative changes. Will he allow an early opportunity for this Chamber to debate some of those issues in detail?

Mr. Cook

I have had exchanges about a number of those issues with the hon. Gentleman and I am grateful to him for keeping me posted on the views of Opposition Back Benchers. I fully share his concern about some of those matters, in particular the way in which the Electoral Commission has pursued the matter of the passes provided to all hon. Members by BAA plc, which is plainly not a political donation in any meaningful sense of the word.

On data protection, I hope that my last letter to the hon. Gentleman will have been of some assistance. We stand ready to consider whether legislation requires amendment. I hope that we can find a solution to those questions short of primary legislation, but it is important that hon. Members should be able to go about their business and be free to make representations on behalf of their constituents without facing undue legal obstacles.

David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the plight of asbestos sufferers who are still awaiting compensation, including some of my constituents? Despite the great efforts of the Secretary of State for Scotland, among others, it appears that every time that we take one step forward in this matter we take two backwards. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an urgent statement or debate that would allow all hon. Members the opportunity to get to the bottom, once and for all, of why it is taking so long for much needed and deserved compensation to get into the hands of those who are afflicted by that terrible disease?

Mr. Cook

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House an issue that is important to him and which he has had diligently pursued for some time. I welcome the fact that that issue has been ventilated in debates in Westminster Hall, which underlines the importance of that Chamber in enabling hon. Members to raise issues of concern to them and their constituents. I will draw my hon. Friend's observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a further letter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am sure that the Leader of the House understands and knows of my deep interest in Zimbabwe, and that he is aware of the affection and respect in which I hold its people. Although I respect the robust position adopted by our Foreign Secretary at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held yesterday, will the Leader of the House please understand that unless a substantial number of observers and monitors are sent to Zimbabwe now, there is not the slightest chance of a free, transparent and fair election? Inevitably, Zimbabwe would thus be breaching the fundamental principles of membership of the Commonwealth. Will the right hon. Gentleman please arrange for a statement to be made to the House as to the precise attitude and position of the Government, and hopefully of the Commonwealth, in respect of Zimbabwe, so that the opposition parties fighting the election can believe that they have some support overseas?

Mr. Cook

I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about his longstanding interest in this matter. Indeed, I remember him asking questions during my previous incarnation at this Dispatch Box. It is tragic that, in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe portrays Britain as the enemy when in fact there are so many people both in the House and throughout Britain who regard themselves as friends of Zimbabwe and want to see the country prosper.

The hon. Gentleman asks about our position in respect of electoral observers. Let me again make it clear: we robustly and vigorously insist on the right of the international community to observe those elections and on the right of the ordinary public in Zimbabwe to have that international presence in order to curb some of the intimidation and thuggery to which they are subject, and we shall continue to do all that we can to try to deliver that.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

I have a registered interest in my question, as patron of the Society of Registration Officers. Last week, through the Economic Secretary, the Government published a White Paper entitled "Civil Registration: Vital Change". It certainly will be vital change. I have heard that the changes may be made by delegated legislation. If that is so, there should be a debate on what will be one of the biggest reforms of the registration service in probably a century. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for such a debate in this place?

Mr. Cook

I cannot commit myself on whether the matter will be dealt with by delegated or primary legislation—I am not sighted on that point, although I see no immediate prospect of primary legislation on that important step forward. If it should proceed by delegated legislation, there is provision for the House to debate delegated legislation of importance and substance. My hon. Friend rightly identifies this matter as one of substance and I shall consider his point carefully.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

The Leader of the House will have seen the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluding that taxes will have to rise by £7 billion if the Government are to meet their spending commitments, and that the Chancellor is in danger of breaching his so-called golden rule—that he will borrow only in order to invest. As we have not held a debate on the economy since the election and as the Budget is still 11 whole weeks away, does the Leader of the House understand why we feel that the House needs a full opportunity to debate the economy? In the light of the IFS report, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need an emergency mini-Budget in the time-honoured tradition of Labour Governments?

Mr. Cook

As Leader of the House, I counsel the House not to press for a mini-Budget as well as the real Budget on 17 April—I am not sure that would be an efficient use of the House's time. As for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in my recollection, it has been predicting that taxes would rise for the past four years and has always been wrong.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on the Geneva convention? There has been much comment and debate in the House during the past few weeks on the subject of the al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba. There has been much confusion over who is actually a prisoner and who should be subject to criminal trial. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that could put British armed forces personnel in danger, and that a debate would help to inform our future discussions about the prisoners in Cuba?

Mr. Cook

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend makes about the legal complexities. However, as I have told the House previously, the nub of the matter is not whether the Geneva convention applies: it is that the prisoners should be treated according to the humanitarian standards that we all recognise and uphold whether or not the convention applies. I am therefore pleased that the Red Cross has now secured a permanent presence at Guantanamo bay and has been able to confirm that the conditions observed there are consistent with the convention.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

I urge the Leader of the House to listen to his own Back Benchers a little more carefully than I fear he has done hitherto today, and to allow an early opportunity for a debate in the House on the future of postal services. In particular, I refer to the proposals announced this morning by Postcomm to deregulate postal services, the first tranche of which deregulation will take place in the next eight weeks. The Leader of the House may be aware that my constituency includes some of the few communities not covered by the universal service obligation. Frankly, we view with alarm the prospect of a deregulated service, which will not be able to serve the more remote island communities that I represent.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that, if there is to be a decision to deregulate postal services and to end the universal service obligation, it will be made here in the Chamber? We must not be bounced into such a decision by a body such as Postcomm proposing, as it did this morning, a meaningless decision to take the first step within eight weeks.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the importance of the universal service obligation to the hon. Gentleman's constituency and many others in Scotland—and, indeed, to quite a number of people in the more landward areas in my own constituency. That is why the Government have always made it plain that there is no question of removing the universal service obligation from the Post Office. Postcomm does not make Government policy; nor do we write its documents. Any attempt to undermine the universal service obligation would have to come back to the House and, on the basis of what I have heard this morning—which does not surprise me—I do not anticipate that the House would countenance such a proposal.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not rather strange that the regulator's report should come out just two days after our debate on the Post Office? I was among the Labour MPs who strenuously opposed and voted against the Tories' proposals to privatise the Post Office, and I have not changed my mind in the slightest. I hope that Ministers will seriously reconsider a scheme that would be totally unacceptable to many of us on these Benches.

Mr. Cook

Of course I remember my hon. Friend's opposition to the privatisation of the Post Office, particularly as—if I recall correctly—I occupied the Opposition Dispatch Box in those debates. There has been no proposal from the Government on the privatisation of the Post Office. It is only a year or two since we gave the Post Office the commercial freedom that it wanted, so that it could operate in the public sector—with commercial freedom of the kind that it would enjoy in the private sector—and meet the competition. I have listened with interest and care to the points that hon. Members have raised, and I shall certainly draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the deep concern felt in the House.

David Winnick

On this side.

Mr. Cook

Well, on both sides, in fairness to my hon. Friend. I always try to build consensus, even if it sometimes eludes me. I repeat that this morning's statement was not made by Government, and it is not Government policy. We had no control over its timing, and I recognise the concern to which it has given rise.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Last week, I raised with the Leader of the House an issue relating to correspondence with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Today, I have received the following letter from the Department: You will be aware that the Rt Hon Margaret, Secretary of State at DEFRA, will be in your Constituency on Tuesday 5 February, on a Regional visit to Cumbria. She will open Hartington Hall Youth Hostel. Will the Leader of the House inform the Secretary of State that Hartington is in Derbyshire, that her constituency abuts my constituency, and that if she is opening Hartington Hall youth hostel in Cumbria, she is going to be in the wrong place again?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be very grateful for that advice, which I will draw to her attention. We will also make sure that the correspondence unit at DEFRA has an adequate map of the British isles.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that children as young as nine are being issued with firearms certificates in this country? Does he share my concern that some shooting bodies, in an effort to boost recruitment, feature children as young as three in magazines and on websites, posing with guns and dead animals, and sometimes smeared with blood? Is it not time that we introduced an age restriction and tougher guidance on children's access to firearms? Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on this matter?

Mr. Cook

The whole House will share my surprise that there is access to licensed weapons at the age to which my hon. Friend refers. Weapons are dangerous enough in the hands of some adults, without letting them into the hands of children. I shall certainly draw the important point raised by my hon. Friend to the attention of the Home Office.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

It is all very well for the Leader of the House to agree with the remarks about Zimbabwe by my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), but he shows no sign of urging the Government to grant a debate in Government time or make a statement on the terrible situation there. The Government have done too little, too late to protest about Zimbabwe, and the failure of the Commonwealth to take any action can only lead people to conclude that the Commonwealth, the United Nations and the British Government, taken together, have taken less effective action against Robert Mugabe than did the gay campaigner Peter Tatchell. Will the Leader of the House now promise us a debate or a statement on the terrible situation in Zimbabwe?

Mr. Cook

I wholly repudiate what the hon. Gentleman says about our record on Zimbabwe. We have taken every possible step to bring home to the Government of President Mugabe our deep concern and alarm at the state of affairs within the country. We have wound up all economic assistance to that Government, while maintaining humanitarian aid, and we have withdrawn our military team from the country. We have acted against Zimbabwe in the European Union, where we have now secured a consensus in favour of economic sanctions if we do not secure free and fair elections, and we have started a debate in the Commonwealth, in which yesterday we got the support of 50 per cent. of those present. We are vigorously taking action and leading international opinion on this matter. Frankly, the hon. Gentleman does not help his cause or those on whose behalf he claims to be speaking by trying to undermine the degree of the concern felt by the Government and the people.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange a statement or an early debate on young people's participation in politics? He will know that the UK Youth Parliament had a meeting here yesterday. Surely one of the most important issues facing us all must be the apparent lack of interest in this place shown by our young people. It is one of the most important debates in which we in this Chamber could engage.

Mr. Cook

I shall certainly reflect on how we can take forward that discussion among ourselves. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of drawing young people into participation in politics. All of us, whatever view we take of the result and whatever side of the House we sit on, must be concerned about the substantial reduction, at the last election, in the number of young people who voted. We must all find ways in which we can engage their interest and participation to ensure that, next time, there is a higher turnout by young people.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I join, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, the voices in the House calling for further debate on the Post Office.

I remind the Leader of the House that Scottish Members have in the past complained about too many English Members asking questions at Scottish questions. In fact, on one occasion, a Member said, "I spy strangers." May I press the right hon. Gentleman to consider that, for some time, now, Northern Ireland Members who have tabled questions for answer at Northern Ireland questions have not been coming up in the first five and thus do not get their question answered in the House? I thank the Speaker, who has been very helpful in trying to give Northern Ireland Members an opportunity to speak at Northern Ireland questions. This is an important issue, especially when it appears that some questions have been franchised, and are not those that Northern Ireland Members would want to ask.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the important principle that this is a United Kingdom Parliament in which all Members are equal. I understand the frustration to which he refers, but I am not sure that it is within the gift of myself, the Speaker or indeed the Clerks to achieve a different outcome. The placing of questions on the Order Paper results from a random ballot, and if we tamper with that ballot, it is not only Northern Ireland questions that I will find myself receiving questions about.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Further to the question that I asked my right hon. Friend on 8 November about Zephyr Cams—a company that is now in receivership—does he agree that it is a scandal that, while the 65 people who have lost their jobs are still owed wages and have not received any redundancy money, with the possibility that the taxpayer may have to pick up the bill, the owner of the company, Mr. Kenny Joseph of Wells Industries, New Jersey, remains unscathed, enjoying the luxury of his multi-million pound apartment in New York and his even more expensive house in The Hamptons? Can we have a debate on insolvency law, especially as that individual did the same sort of thing with two other companies in Weston-super-Mare a few years ago?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has raised that distressing case before, and I am glad that he has had the opportunity to ventilate it again in the House; he draws attention to what must be a local scandal in his constituency. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is currently examining insolvency and bankruptcy law, and I will draw her attention to the observations that my hon. Friend has made about that case.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

When can we have a debate to discuss the Government's total indifference to the plight of small firms being put out of business by Government regulation? Is the Leader of the House aware of the plight of firms involved in the British embalming industry and the impact on that industry of the biocide products directive? Is he aware that, in the opinion of the British Institute of Embalmers, the regulation will, in the case of funeral businesses, turn the clock back at least 100 years to the bad old days of rotting corpses being commonplace at the funeral"? Does it not show absolute contempt for that industry that I wrote to the Secretary of State seven weeks ago and he has not even had the courtesy to reply to the concerns that I expressed on behalf of that industry and an individual embalmer in my constituency?

Mr. Cook

I must confess that I am not up to speed on the present position in relation to the British embalming industry, but I shall try to rectify that as quickly as I can after this exchange. I will certainly speak to the appropriate Secretary of State to ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets his reply. I can assure the House that the Government do not intend, as he put it, to return to the days of rotting corpses at the time of the funeral. We will certainly ensure that that does not happen.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Given that the 400th anniversary of the gunpowder plot will occur in 2005, will my right hon. Friend consider commemorating that anniversary by restricting the sale of explosives in the form of fireworks to the general public, as has been eloquently articulated in early-day motions 346, 419 and 682, which have been signed by many hon. Members from both sides of the House. The first of them reads:

[That this House notes the increasing nuisance caused by reckless and dangerous use of fireworks, and that the sale of fireworks is taking place for many weeks before 5th November; further notes that the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot will occur in 2005; and believes that before that date the Government should bring forward legislation better to regulate and restrict the sale of fireworks.]

Mr. Cook

I am fully aware of the deep concern in the House about the sale of fireworks and the importance of ensuring that they are properly regulated and that there is proper safety for our constituents. We all know of local cases where things have gone tragically wrong. I will convey my hon. Friend's remarks to the appropriate Secretary of State to ensure that we consider all that can done. I am not entirely sure that it would be wise to start to plan now for a big event to celebrate the gunpowder plot in 2005; some people could probably think of ways to celebrate it that the House would not wish to encourage.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

Will the Leader of the House consider holding an urgent debate on illegal hare coursing—an issue of great concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House? Gangs of thugs currently roam the countryside, intimidating residents and torching the yards of farmers who try to stop them rampaging across fields full of crops. That is completely unacceptable, and I would be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman if he could arrange an urgent debate, because the police fully support a change in the anachronistic laws that currently cover those crimes.

Shona McIsaac

What about hunting?

Mr. Cook

May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) that—whatever view we may take of hunting, which is legal—hon. Members on both sides of the House can agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no basis on which any of us should countenance illegal hunting of the kind that he describes. I will certainly ensure that we reflect on the point that he makes, to find out whether we can ensure that it is covered at an appropriate time in future.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the treatment of cancer patients in the national health service? Such a debate would provide the House with an opportunity to debate the Government's proposals to run down cancer services at Southend hospital, thus forcing many patients, many of whom are elderly, to travel possibly as far as Suffolk for their treatment. That is a matter of great concern to all residents in south-east Essex, so I wonder whether time can be found for such an important debate.

Mr. Cook

I am not aware that the House is short of opportunities to debate the health service, and I am confident that it will continue to remain high on our agenda. On cancer services, I remind the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he is aware of this but it may have slipped his mind—that there is a substantial programme for the expansion of oncology services, and specifically for the expansion of oncology specialist consultants. We shall continue to press ahead with that. I cannot comment on the decision taken by his local health authority on local services, but the national picture is one of improvement.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

As the Leader of the House is no doubt aware, Arthur Andersen is involved in 37 of the Government's private finance initiative projects, and Ministers have referred to the Andersen report on 44 occasions in support of the private finance initiative. Could we therefore have an early statement about the status of the Government's PFI, given the extremely serious allegations of corporate malpractice by Arthur Andersen?

Mr. Cook

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his arithmetic in counting up references by Ministers to Arthur Andersen. I remind him that Arthur Andersen receives a smaller number of Government contracts than many other major accountancy firms, and that the PFI has been examined not only by Arthur Andersen but, as the Prime Minister reminded the House, by PricewaterhouseCoopers and by the National Audit Office, which is a public sector body that invigilates Government decisions. They have all reached the same conclusion—that the PFI provides value for money.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for granting several debates in recent weeks in Westminster Hall in relation to London infrastructure issues—in particular, the congestion charge, the London underground and the funding of the Metropolitan police. However, will the Leader of the House ensure, as a matter of urgency, that the House has a full debate on the entirety of London infrastructure, because the issue causes great concern not only to London's 13 Conservative Members but to Liberal Democrat Members and Labour Members?

Mr. Cook

I announced earlier that, according to tradition, we would have a debate on Wales on St. David's day. I am aware that other parts of the United Kingdom may also want a debate to examine their regional issues, and I shall bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

This week has seen not only the state of the union address in the United States, which has implications for the fight against terrorism, but the visit of Mr. Hamid Karzai to London and the continued participation of our forces in operations in southern Afghanistan and with the security force there. The Leader of the House said that there would be an Adjournment debate on defence. However, can time be found to debate the war against terrorism and, especially, Afghanistan—we have not done so for some time—not least so that our service men involved in those operations know that they are at the forefront of our thoughts?

Mr. Cook

I am confident that next week's debate will make it clear that British servicemen, especially those who are on service abroad, are at the forefront of the thoughts of the Government and the House. I was present when Hamid Karzai addressed the Cabinet this morning. His speech was impressive. There is a strong commitment to making sure that we rebuild his country so that it does not again become a threat to other nations, whether through terrorism or through the export of drugs.

I can report to the House that Mr. Karzai expressed warm appreciation of the role that Britain has played in securing that success in Afghanistan. I am tempted to have a further debate on international terrorism so as to explore the relation between that and the speech that I understand that the Leader of the Opposition is giving today, which offers a narrow definition of the national interest in terms of defence. Such a definition would not have made it possible for us to do what we have done in Afghanistan.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford. West and Abingdon)

At last week's business questions, I asked, in the context of the Adoption and Children Bill which will shortly come back to the House, whether the Government will support moves to enable unmarried couples to apply for joint adoption of children. The Leader of the House said that the Government's position … is that the interests and welfare of the child must always come first."— [Official Report, 24 January 2002; Vol. 378, c. 1023.] The vast majority of the constituent members of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering believe that it can be in the best interests of the welfare of the child if unmarried couples are allowed to apply for adoption and if the merits of their case are considered by the courts and adoption agencies.

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore clarify that the Government will support an amendment to allow such couples to apply for adoption, or at least provide a free vote in the light of the cross-party amendment that was tabled in my name? Given that the amendment has received the support of Labour Members and Conservative Members, it should be allowed to be considered without a Whip being applied, at least on Government Members.

Mr. Cook

I would not want the remark that I made last week to be read as ruling out adoption by unmarried couples. Indeed, on the contrary, I thought that I was saying that we should judge each case on its merits and ensure that at the end of the day the best solution is found for the child. I am sure that any discussion during the remaining stages of the Adoption and Children Bill will reflect that.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

In Fareham, there is one NHS dental practice and one dental access centre to cope with the dentistry needs of nearly 100,000 people. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the crisis in NHS dentistry, which affects many constituencies and not just mine?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the problems in the dentistry service. They of course reflect more than anything else the way in which the previous Administration ratcheted up charges for NHS dentistry to the point where, for many patients, it was not worth while going on the NHS, and many were then forced to go private, as were many of the dentists. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should address some remarks to the team in office during that period.