HC Deb 04 July 2002 vol 388 cc393-409 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give 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 8 JULY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Bill followed by Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day, 1st Half]. There will be a debate entitled "Crisis in the Care Homes Sector" on an Opposition motion.

TUESDAY 9 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Police Reform Bill [Lords]. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

WEDNESDAY 10 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Police Reform Bill [Lords]

THURSDAY 11 JULY—Debate on intelligence agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 12 JULY—Debate on behaviour improvement in schools on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 15 JuLY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Education Bill.

TUESDAY 16 JuLY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 17 JULY—Debate on defence procurement on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 18 JULY—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Proceeds of Crime Bill followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Proceeds of Crime Bill.

FRIDAY 19 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to be informed that the business in Westminster Hall for the remainder of July will be:

THURSDAY 11 JULY—Debate on the report from the Health Committee on the role of the private sector in the NHS.

THURSDAY 18 JULY—Debate on poverty.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 17 July 2002, there will be a debate relating to waste from electrical and electronic equipment in European Standing Committee C.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 17 July 2002:

European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 9923/01; Unnumbered EM, dated 15 March 2002, submitted by DTI: Waste from electrical and electronic equipment. 10143/01; Unnumbered EM, dated 15 March 2002, submitted by DTI: Hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xxxii and HC 152-xxiv (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for letting us have those details. He will be aware that two significant reports on foot and mouth are now imminent. I hope he will be able to guarantee that the House will be given an opportunity to consider these reports, or at least to give preliminary consideration to them, before the House rises for the long summer recess. I am sure he would not want these important reports to go unconsidered by the House—there could be either a statement or a debate—before the recess. He would not want us to get all the way through to October without having a chance to say something about the eagerly awaited results of the reports on foot and mouth, would he? I hope that he can give us that undertaking.

Yesterday, we had questions to the Deputy Prime Minister, who now has responsibility for local government, the regions, housing and planning, matters which affect all the constituents of every right hon. and hon. Member. Yet astonishingly, the right hon. Gentleman had only about 26 or 27 minutes to give account of himself and his responsibilities to the House. I assume that this is an oversight and that we have not quite caught up with the new arrangement. I cannot imagine that the right hon. Gentleman wanted in any way to avoid answering questions. I am sure he takes a lot of pride in what he does and the way in which he does it. Please can the Leader of the House look again at whether the Deputy Prime Minister can have a full Question Time to give account of himself and his Department to the House, as that would be helpful for all right hon. and hon. Members?

When are we going to deal with the Data Protection Acts? The Leader of the House has kindly told us before that he has that in his sights and is aware of Members' anxiety. I hope he can reassure us that the Government will put something before the House before the summer recess so that we can finally resolve the anomalies that have arisen in those Acts. It would be helpful if he could do so.

The parliamentary ombudsman, in his annual report published today, launched an astonishing, blistering attack on the Government. I wonder whether the Leader of the House has had time to look at it, as the ombudsman says on page 8 that in November 2001 the Government rejected, for the first time, a recommendation by the Ombudsman that information should be disclosed under the code"— the code of practice on access to Government. He continues: the Home Secretary refused, for reasons which I found wholly unpersuasive, to disclose purely numerical information regarding the number of times Ministers in his Department had made a declaration of interest to their colleagues under circumstances envisaged in the Ministerial Code of Conduct". The ombudsman went on to say: I cannot disguise my concern at what seems to be a hardening of attitudes in departments. The bad habit of citing exemption for the first time at a very late stage of an investigation has reappeared. Finally, on page 9, the ombudsman says: I am seriously concerned at these developments, which not only undermine the Code but also call into question the authority and standing of my office. I cannot recall when someone as eminent as the parliamentary ombudsman has seen fit to make such comments in an annual report. Is the Leader of the House ashamed, and is he prepared to find time for us urgently to debate what is obviously a serious rift between the parliamentary ombudsman and the Government? I hope that at the very least he will take the opportunity to deal with the ombudsman's extremely serious criticisms.

Finally, in Prime Minister's questions yesterday, at column 218, the Prime Minister was at it again. He said: The Conservative party is holding up the progress of the Proceeds of Crime Bill."—[Official Report, 3 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 218.] Can the Leader of the House explain what on earth the Prime Minister meant and what he was talking about? Does the Prime Minister now think that parliamentary debate on a Bill holds up its progress, or does he now expect a Bill to go straight through the House without touching the sides? If that is not so, the Leader of the House must either explain the Prime Minister's remarkable assertion, which has no basis in fact at all, or provide an early opportunity for the Prime Minister to come to the House and to apologise.

Mr. Cook

Before I respond to the right hon. Gentleman, may I congratulate him on the topicality of his Independence day tie? If I remember rightly, the independence of the United States was partly influenced by the Tory Prime Minister of the time, but we shall overlook that in the circumstances—the time has come to forgive and forget.

On the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman, first, on the ombudsman, I do not feel that there is anything in the Government's record on which we can be impeached. After all, it is we who passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There were many times when I stood at the Opposition Dispatch Box and wished that we had such an Act so that we could find out what the right hon. Gentleman's Government were up to.

On the specific points made by the ombudsman about the Hinduja affair, we accept that the Cabinet Office was wrong not to provide information at the time and we have already apologised for that. I remind the House that the ombudsman came to precisely the same conclusion as the Hammond report. On the Equitable Life affair, which is also raised in the ombudsman's report, since the application for information, we have initiated two separate inquiries, one by the Financial Services Authority and one by ourselves. All matters will be fully investigated and laid before the House and the public.

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we have already taken steps to amend the code of conduct for Ministers so that, rather than one declaration being made at a given time, a comprehensive declaration of financial interests will be made to the permanent secretary; so that particular issue should not arise again. Against the totality of the greater openness brought in by the Government, those particular exceptions need to be kept in proportion.

We look forward to the foot and mouth reports with great interest. Their publication dates are not within our gift because they are independent reports. [Interruption.] There is nothing strange about the fact that those carrying out an independent report are responsible for its publication date. We have drawn it to their attention that it would be for the convenience of the House if the reports were published while the House was still sitting. I am sure there will be exchanges in the House on that matter and that, at an appropriate point, the House will wish to debate it in full.

I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's view that the Deputy Prime Minister could accept a longer period of time before the House, which he would richly deserve and by which the House would be rewarded. I would only gently point out that this is a zero-sum game—more time for the Deputy Prime Minister means less time for someone else, and I am not inundated by demands that there should be less time for any particular Minister to answer questions. However, I shall happily consider the matter and see whether we can do justice to the status and ability of the Deputy Prime Minister and to the interest in his comments. I shall take that point on board.

I do not quite understand why the right hon. Gentleman should wish to run away from the comments made on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. The fact is that his party, both here and, notably, in the other place, has resisted provisions in that Bill, and he really should not come to the Dispatch Box now and pretend otherwise. Opposition Members presumably knew what they were doing and supported what they were doing, otherwise I do not understand why they were doing it; and it is entirely legitimate for the Prime Minister to point out the totally bogus nature of the constant claims about law and order from a Conservative party which always opposes when we try to tighten up on the criminal.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

The stock market has fallen seriously once again and the speculation is that it will fall a lot further before we see an upturn. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that has serious implications for the interests of ordinary people, their savings and pensions, and that we should have a debate on the Floor of the House to ensure that we fully understand that and to decide what we should do about it? Does he further agree that that is another nail in the coffin of neo-liberalism and demonstrates clearly that Governments must play a greater role in managing and regulating economies?

Mr. Cook

On the last point, my hon. Friend is leaping from an innocent to a wide and general assertion, a move in which it would be extremely unwise of me to follow him. I remind my hon. Friend of the Government's excellent record on state pensions, for which we have provided an additional £6 billion over the sums that we inherited when we came to power, more than double the amount necessary simply to meet a link with earnings. We have honoured our commitment and the need to ensure that state pensioners are justifiably and properly treated.

With regard to the private pensions sector, we have taken two major steps which will help to protect people providing for their retirement. First, the introduction of the pension tax credit means that we shall be rewarding those who saved for their retirement and as a result have a little additional income, whereas the Conservative Government penalised those who had anything extra by means-testing them and clawing back benefit from them. Secondly, through the additional employment that we have created, particularly by means of the new deal for the over-50s, an additional 900,000 people over 50 are at work now compared with 1997. That is good for the economy, but it is also good for them because it gives them longer to prepare for their retirement.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House give an explicit answer to the question about data protection to which he did not refer, and will he also give the House an undertaking that if the foot and mouth reports are out in time there will a debate on them in Government time before the recess?

On Wednesday last week, the Leader of the House was frank and robust in giving information to the House in response to my question about the RMT union. At column 872, he referred to an "oath of loyalty". This is an extremely important issue. Can he now tell the House that he is prepared to put all his correspondence with the RMT in the Library, so we can assess its importance?

A most extraordinary statement was made this week—I think that it came from No. 10 Downing street—about ministerial responsibility for the police. It dealt with the most odd idea that, somehow or other, a London Education Minister can now "oversee" street crime initiatives in South Yorkshire and that an Arts Minister in the Lords can do the same thing for Avon and Somerset. How exactly are they going to report back to this House? What is their ministerial responsibility, and will they answer questions on the matter?

On 25 June, at column 769 of Hansard, the Secretary of State for Health gave an undertaking that the draft mental health Bill could be considered by a Special Standing Committee. Has the Leader of the House been able to make progress on that?

Finally, a consultation is apparently going on at present about arrangements for visitors from our constituencies touring the House along the so-called line of route. Consultants have been appointed, but it is not at all clear whom they are consulting. I challenge any hon. Member to say whether they have been consulted on this matter, which is extremely important to us. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and I took a prominent part in a debate on this subject, but we have not been asked anything about the consultation. Have the House staff been consulted, and when will there be a debate on these very important proposals?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman asks me six questions, which is entirely legitimate. I shall try to answer all of them, but he will forgive me if I am necessarily brief in trying to deal with each one.

First, I am justly rebuked for not responding to the point about data protection. I am happy to say to the House that it remains our objective to try to lay a statutory instrument on the matter before the House rises. I am not sure whether it will be possible to debate it before that but it will be laid, which will clearly show that we are taking very seriously the important issue of ensuring that Members can discharge their representative functions.

On the foot and mouth reports, I cannot give an undertaking to have a debate before the House rises. Indeed, we have only two and a half weeks left and there is a lot of business to be done in that time, but I am quite sure that the House will wish to return to the matter at an appropriate time. It may find it better to do so once it has had time to digest and consider the reports in full.

I personally have no objection to putting in the Library exchanges with the RMT. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should perhaps say that we as a group acted collectively in responding to the letter from Mr. Crow, the general secretary of the RMT. The collective response was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who is with me on the Front Bench and has given me permission to say that his letter may indeed be placed in the Library. I hope that we can address that point, but there is no mystery and nothing sinister is involved. The correspondence will merely confirm what has been said on the record.

On the role of Ministers in relation to a number of police constabularies around the country, the arrangement has been welcomed by the police themselves. Indeed, it stemmed from the recent meeting at No. 10, which one of the police constables in attendance described as the most successful and important meeting that they have had. It is very welcome that each of the major constabularies should have a direct link with Government. Of course, accountability in respect of the police force properly remains with the Home Office, which is well represented both in this House and the other place.

I am not aware of a proposal to put the draft mental health Bill before a Special Standing Committee. Standing Committees usually consider official Bills rather than draft ones, but we are of course very keen to ensure that pre-legislative scrutiny is carried out in respect of draft Bills and we will certainly be willing to consider ways in which that can be secured.

Lastly, on the feasibility investigation into a visitor centre, since the hon. Gentleman asked the question, I should say to the House that I have been consulted by those who are carrying out the feasibility study. I hope that, as Leader of the House, I spoke for many, if not all, in the House in the answers that I gave. The process is being taken forward on a very quick time scale, because we are keen to make progress. The report will, of course, come before the House of Commons Commission, on which all the parties here are represented. Plainly, before any major development could take place, the House would have to be consulted in some shape or form.

I end by asserting what I think many hon. Members already know: my strong view is that this place requires a proper interpretive visitor centre that places stress not on the extraordinary history or wonderful architecture of the building, but on our functioning as the heart of British democracy. Every distillery in Scotland now has a visitor centre; it is high time the House of Commons got one.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

My right hon. Friend will have seen the reports in the broadsheets saying that the Chancellor is to announce in his forthcoming statement the national roll-out of educational maintenance allowances. Coming from a region that has always had a relatively low staying-on rate beyond the age of 16, I know that such a measure would be widely welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend give us a debate on this in advance of the Chancellor's statement, so that we can show the Chancellor and the Government how widely welcome that policy would be?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his endorsement of that policy and of the commitment that we are making. Indeed, there is already evidence that, where there is financial support for children over 16, there is a higher continuation rate after the school-leaving age. That is entirely welcome, not just for the individuals concerned but for the strength of our future work force and economy. It would be indelicate of me to offer a debate on the matter before the Chancellor makes his statement, but I am sure that he, too, will welcome the support that my right hon. Friend has promised once he has made that statement.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Is the Leader of the House now able to answer the question that I put to him two weeks ago, and to give the House the date of the Chancellor's statement on spending? The right hon. Gentleman will know that the date of the Budget is announced many weeks in advance, and this statement will arguably be even more important than that, because it covers three years. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that, when the Chancellor makes that statement, he will be open with the House about all public expenditure, including contingent liabilities, and that he will not resort to some of the dubious accounting techniques used by the private sector which have caused such turmoil on the world markets?

Mr. Cook

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that nothing would ever be further from the mind of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor than a dubious accounting technique. On the date, the right hon. Gentleman quite properly said that he asked this question two weeks ago. I was asked it again last week, and I am happy to say that my answer is consistent: the statement will be made in July. It will not be made next week, but I anticipate that next week the right hon. Gentleman will be made a happy man by hearing the date announced.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The Leader of the House will be aware that tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary of the closure of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International by the previous Conservative Government. As well as many private investors, organisations such as Channel 4 and councils such as that of the Western Isles lost a considerable amount of money as a result of that closure. Will my right hon. Friend give us a debate on the way in which the Insolvency Service deals with liquidations? A liquidation that has lasted 11 years and cost millions of dollars—possibly $1 billion—in fees is a very long liquidation. Will he also welcome the positive steps being taken by the employees and the liquidators to ensure that this liquidation is brought to a speedy conclusion?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has followed this case with great diligence and activity since it first—

Mr. Forth

We did not close it; it collapsed.

Mr. Cook

With the greatest respect, my hon. Friend was not in government at the time. The Government of the time are now, happily, sitting on the Benches opposite us. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the effort that he has put into trying to achieve justice for those who were left as creditors of the bank. It collapsed amid great complexity, which explains, to some extent, the length of time that this has taken. I understand that 60 per cent. of the outstanding debt to creditors has now been met, and that there will be further dividends in the course of the next 12 months. I believe that there has also been progress on the agreement between the former employees and the bank, and I think we would all agree that the former employees should always be at the front of the queue when there is a need to meet the outstanding debts from the collapse. It is a matter of great regret that the process has taken this long, but my hon. Friend knows better than anyone else in the House the complexity of the issues involved.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

In the light of the similarities, and also the differences, between the Prime Minister on the one hand and President Bush and Colin Powell on the other, can we have a debate before the end of the year on the enduring relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States? On this, the first 4 July since the tragic events of 11 September, will the Leader of the House join me in wishing all Americans—both here in the United Kingdom and in the United States—a safe and happy Independence day?

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in wishing all our United States friends a happy and safe Independence day. I fully share his view that there is a strong, strategic partnership between the two countries, based on two fundamental realities: we are each other's biggest trade partner, and each other's closest ally. Those long-term strategic relationships will continue. The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that today is Independence day in the United States—independence, of course, from us—and in those circumstances we should also recognise that we are two sovereign, independent countries, and we should not be unduly disturbed if, from time to time, we pursue different policies around the world, while in no way undermining the powerful partnership that is so important to both of us.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

Given that the Government have recently published their regional government White Paper, which I warmly welcome, and given that there is a consultation attached to that White Paper, which will finish at the end of August, may I urge my right hon. Friend to give the House an opportunity to debate the issue so that it receives a public airing during this important consultation period?

Mr. Cook

For one moment, I was concerned that my right hon. Friend was going to invite me to recall the House at the end of August for that debate. I cannot promise a debate before the House rises, because there is a very crowded schedule, but we produced the draft local government Bill precisely because we wanted a wide consultation, not just with Members but with the local government movement. That will inform any Bill that is brought before the House, which would, of course, be debatable here. In the meantime, the Local Government and the Regions Committee is carrying out its pre-legislative scrutiny, and I am sure that it would welcome the views of colleagues.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

In taking the Leader of the House back to the question of medical confidentiality and data protection, may I draw his attention to my membership of the British Medical Association medical ethics committee?

In the light of the comments of the BMA this week, which draw attention to the fact that confidential medical information is released by Members on both sides of the House—on the case of Rose Addis, for example, without it being clear that her explicit consent, and not just that of her family, was granted for that release—will the Leader of the House give further consideration to the question of guidance for Members to ensure that we stay on the side of not breaching medical confidentiality?

On data protection, does the Leader of the House accept that there will still be duties of medical confidentiality on bodies to which the Data Protection Act 1998 applies and that a very strong case would have to be made for

exemptions for MPs from the need to get explicit, informed written consent from individuals before such information is handed over?

Mr. Cook

I would not presume to give hon. Members guidance on how they pursue their individual constituency cases. That will always be a matter for the judgment of Members, and it would be wrong to try to impose any other standard on them. The key lesson of the Rose Addis case is that, in the first place, there should be discussions with those who provide the medical treatment in the hospital, because it is those who provided the medical treatment in that case who were outraged by how it was misrepresented in the Chamber.

On data protection, I shall study carefully what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am not sure that I agree with it. If a constituent comes to us to raise a complaint about the local NHS trust, it is entirely proper for the Member to assume that the constituent wants the Member to do something about it. There is clearly an implied consent there.

The statutory instrument will put those NHS trusts and other parts of the public sector back in their pre-Data Protection Act position, so that Act will not be a barrier to them answering honestly and fairly the Member of Parliament's complaint. However, it will not remove any existing considerations on patient confidentiality and it will certainly not give us any licence to pry into matters that have not been raised with us by our constituents.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on relations with our colleagues in the European Parliament? He will be aware that another investigation into foot and mouth is going on, held by the European Parliament. Bizarrely, Members of the House are being contacted through the individual offices of MEPs and the investigation has been accompanied by various Conservative party press releases, which do not give us a lot of faith in its being independent. The witness sessions also seem to leave a lot to be desired.

Is it not about time that we understood that if an investigation is being held by another Parliament but in this country, there are certain rules by which it should abide so that we have genuine independence rather than the charade that seems to be taking place?

Mr. Cook

I can only say that I find it challenging enough to remain on top of the rules and conduct of this House, without attempting to master the rules and conduct of the European Parliament.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread public concern following the Quintin Hann case this week about the conduct of rape trials and consequent publicity in the newspapers and elsewhere? Would it not be appropriate for a Minister to come here next week and give an initial view on whether we can amend the law to ensure that defendants remain anonymous until their cases are over and they are found guilty?

Mr. Cook

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and the concern about the case that he mentioned. I know that a number of newspapers have highlighted similar anxieties on behalf of the defendant I do not think anyone would want the balance to be redressed by a removal of victims' anonymity, which is an important consideration. Whether all the press would welcome an extension of that anonymity to defendants is a matter of judgment, but I imagine some newspapers would express concern.

The matter should of course be kept under review. We shall be examining the law on sexual offences and sexual offenders in the coming days, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to pursue it in that context.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

I accept that this may have to take place after the recess, but could we have a debate on selective education? My right hon. Friend may know from press reports that I had to commission a study on the performance and structure of secondary education in Kent, which is a purely selective county, when the county refused to do so. It shows some incredibly worrying trends. For instance a far higher proportion of grammar schools are exhibiting falling standards than we thought, and there is a polarisation of education in the county that is clearly detrimental to pupils. When will we have an opportunity to make clear in the House the fact that selection is a Victorian strategy for education which has no part in the current century?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his energy and initiative. I understand that the study showed good results in some state schools which are not necessarily being matched in the selective system.

This is a matter to be pursued at local level, and I commend my hon. Friend on the way in which he has stimulated the process. I remain proud that I taught in a comprehensive and that my children went to one, and I believe they have served our nation very well.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

As the Leader of the House will know, the world summit on sustainable development will take place in under two months, in August and September. During debates, we have regularly asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House and make a statement, especially following the negotiations in Bali that constituted the final preparatory committee meeting. Those negotiations seem to have ended in failure, particularly in relation to agricultural subsidies. Will the Leader of the House make every effort to persuade his right hon. Friend to make a statement before the end of the Session?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the hon. Lady's concern about the forthcoming summit, and the great importance attached to it. Let me say in fairness to the Government that we have made it clear that we want it to be a success, and have taken a number of initiatives with the aim of ensuring that it addresses real issues and has a real outcome.

Since Bali we have had a further discussion in Brazil attended by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who has had discussions with both South Africa, the forthcoming host, and Brazil, which hosted the last summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago. I understand from my right hon. Friend that the talks made good progress, and I hope we are now on course for a successful summit and outcome. We will keep the House posted.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the strategy the Government adopted two years ago, "Revitalising Health and Safety", which was rightly adopted because of the worrying increase in the number of injuries and accidents in the workplace? He will know that Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, is conducting a consultation exercise to determine where the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive will be in the system of government. May I suggest that the exercise should be conducted very rapidly? It is important for the HSE to have certainty. I think it should end up in the Department of Work and Pensions, although others may disagree. The most important thing, however, is strong ministerial commitment to the strategy and the HSE, so that we can reduce the £19 billion cost of injuries and accidents in the workplace and, of course, the number of human tragedies that result.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having raised that issue. It has always been a mystery to me that, although accidents in the transport industry are tragic and very grave for those involved and make mega-headlines, our press and political system do not give the same attention to the steady and, over the year, much higher toll of accidents at work. The Health and Safety Executive is an important bulwark against that trend getting worse.

We are indeed carrying out a review of the machinery of Government in order to ascertain what is the best ministerial home for the HSE. In particular, we are keen to ensure that there is close collaboration between it and the Department for Work and Pensions, to secure the best possible help for the victims of injuries at work. I assure my hon. Friend that the outcome will guarantee very real ministerial commitment on what is an extremely important issue.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Yesterday, the Prime Minister called for an early debate on the euro. When will the Leader of the House accede to that wise and excellent request, and when will the Government tell the House their preferred entry rate of the pound against the euro?

Mr. Cook

Even as I rise, I can see television screens all over the City of London switching on to our exchanges. The right hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that we never comment on currency movements. When the Prime Minister requests a debate, I shall be happy to arrange it.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is disappointing that the Modernisation Committee will not be able to report in time to obviate the problems faced by all hon. Members because of the 82-day recess, which means that many of the issues that we want to raise on behalf of constituents who approach us when we are working in our constituencies during September will not be dealt with on the Floor of the House? Will he seriously consider whether it is sensible to have such an enormously long time during which we are unable to bring to the attention of the House matters of serious concern?

Mr. Cook

I have already expressed my concern about the length of the recess and I fully share my hon. Friend's anxiety—I worry about how I am to fill in all that time in those 82 days without the House to debate matters with. I have proposed that we should change the long recess in future years so that we return in September and do not have the three-month absence. I anticipate that the House will have the opportunity to vote on that some time soon after the recess. It is a matter for the House, but I think that it would be wise to agree to shorten the long recess.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I welcome the decision of the Leader of the House to include a debate on the intelligence agencies in next week's business. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland came to the House in March, four months ago, to answer a private notice question on the break-in at Castlereagh police station. At that time, it was rumoured that one or more of the intelligence agencies had played a part in it, but since then suspicion has shifted to the Provisional IRA. Will the Leader of the House make time available for the Secretary of State to come back to the House before the summer recess and tell us whether it was indeed the Provisional IRA that was behind the break-in, and if so, what action he intends to take against its political representatives in the Northern Ireland Executive?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be answering questions next Wednesday, and I am sure that that matter will arise then. Obviously, a police and security service investigation has to be dealt with with care and confidentiality, so I cannot advise on the extent to which he will be able to answer the question.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In view of the publication today of the White Paper on the Liabilities Management Authority, with the expected increase in cost of the management of our radioactive waste and the prospect that it opens up of the French state-owned nuclear company taking over the management of our nuclear liabilities, will my right hon. Friend find time in the very near future for a debate on the subject, in Government time, on the Floor of the House, so that all the implications of this crucial issue can be discussed?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a very important issue. He will be aware that the Minister for Energy and Construction has nuclear liability very much at the front of his work programme, and I anticipate that he will make an announcement in the near future. As to when the House can debate these matters again, I cannot give a commitment before its rising for the summer recess. However, there are many ways in which my hon. Friend can pursue his well-founded and genuine concerns in the House.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a debate in Government time on early-day motion 1490?

[That this House notes the comments of the Right honourable Member for Greenwich and Woolwich, the Minister responsible for electoral law, that "Any provisions on European Parliament elections laid down by the Council (including amendments to the 1976 Act) need to be ratified with an Act of Parliament in the UK"; further notes that the UK is, therefore, free to adopt any electoral system of its choosing for future elections to the European Parliament; believes that, by removing the vital link between each elected representative and their constituents and consequently encouraging voter apathy, proportional representation has not served the UK well; also notes with concern that proportional voting systems in other parts of Europe have allowed far-right parties to gain a foothold; and further believes that the UK's next elections to the European Parliament could, and should, be held under the First Past the Post electoral system.]

I ask for the debate in Government time because 49 of the 53 hon. Members who have so far signed the early-day motion happen to be Labour Members. However, if such a debate is too embarrassing for the Government, I suggest an alternative one on the more innocuous subject of squatters' rights. In such a debate, the Deputy Prime Minister could explain whether he intends to stay in his RMT-owned flat, now that he has correctly resigned from that union on a point of principle.

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend has the security of a long-standing tenant, and the hon. Gentleman would not be helping himself and his constituency by suggesting that all secure tenancies involve squatters and squatters' rights.

On the early-day motion to which the hon. Gentleman refers, I fear that there are another 1,500 among which I have to choose. If I were to find a day for debating early-day motions, I might just be tempted to include a half-day on the hon. Gentleman's suggestion—if he will agree that the other half-day can be spent debating an early-day motion drawing attention to the fact that the Conservative website has no entry under "policy".

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

Constituents, bus drivers and local police tell me of their serious concern about the increasing number of dangerous incidents involving airguns and replica guns. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on this issue? If we want to make communities safer, we must take further action to get these dangerous guns out of circulation.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the concerns expressed about incidents involving airguns. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) has raised very real concerns, based on what happened to a constituent of his.

Mr. Forth

The Government killed the private Member's Bill.

Mr. Cook

We have a long way to go before we rival the right hon. Gentleman's record on killing private Member's Bills.

I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to my hon. Friend's comments. Should the Home Office wish to introduce a measure, I would be happy to ensure that we provide time for it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I refer the Leader of the House to a point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. Will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider the issue of questions to the Deputy Prime Minister? Since the reshuffle, the responsibilities of the Deputy Prime Minister and the number of questions put to him have increased massively—at least I hope they have, given that his departmental and ministerial team has increased massively, from three to five. According to the ordered questions available this morning from the Vote Office, there will be only 50 minutes available for questioning the Deputy Prime Minister between now and Christmas. Is that really acceptable for such an important Department?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will be gratified at the excitement shown in the House about the importance of questioning him for longer, and I have already taken on board the point that was made. I shall happily look at the question rota, but before making a move I need to know that I will not be inundated at a subsequent Thursday business statement with complaints about where such time has been taken from.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Is there not an important tradition of liberal adult education—advanced especially by organisations such as the Workers Educational Association and university extramural departments—that was influential in, for example, getting people into higher education before the days of excessive modules, tests and certification? That is exemplified by the life of Royden Harrison, whose obituary appeared in The Guardian this week. It was written by my former colleagues at Sheffield university, Michael Barratt-Brown and John Halstead, and should be read by all hon. Members. May we have a debate on how to build on, further and nurture the tradition that Royden exemplified?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Royden Harrison, who brought to his work an enormous conviction and a commitment to teaching as a vocation. That commitment and sense of vocation are important if we are to have a successful education system.

For four years, I was employed by the Workers Educational Association, so I am very susceptible to the suggestion that we should have a debate on its work and on the important contribution made by adult education. That contribution is especially notable in regard to people with ability who may not have succeeded first time around during their education in school. As a responsible Leader of the House, I fear I cannot indulge my wish for such a debate, but I fully endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) said about the importance of education.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the Leader of the House consider making time available to discuss the matter of enforcement in respect of the Child Support Agency? This is a serious issue for many hon. Members, and it is a matter of great concern that many mothers are unable to ensure payment from the fathers of their children. I know that the Select Committee on Work and Pensions is very concerned about that, and I believe that the matter should have an airing on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will know that one of the first acts of this Government on taking office in 1997 was to reform the Child Support Act 1995, and ensure that we provided improvements. In my work in my constituency, I have noted a substantial decline in the number of people coming to me expressing concern—by contrast with what happened in the period immediately after the previous Conservative Government introduced the legislation, when surgery time doubled because of complaints about the CSA. However, no one would deny that problems remain, and we are keen to make sure that we keep the matter under review. Where sensible improvements can be made, we will certainly want to make them.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

There are still frequent reports that the US Government are considering military intervention in Iraq, with a view to replacing the Government there. My right hon. Friend will be aware that that development would be very controversial in this House. There is a possibility that it might happen during the summer recess. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the matter, so that hon. Members can give their views before the House rises?

Mr. Cook

Well, I cannot promise such a debate before the House rises. I said earlier that we already face a very congested period, and I think that I have clocked up enough bids for debate in the past 45 minutes to keep us here well into September. However, if any such action were to be taken during the recess, I should be very surprised if hon. Members did not demand that the House reconvene to consider it. At present, I do not anticipate that any such action will be taken. As I have said repeatedly to the House, no decision has been taken, and none may ever be taken.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Leader of the House make time available for a parliamentary first—a statement from the Advocate-General for Scotland? The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that Lord Nimmo Smith in the Court of Session yesterday ruled against the Advocate-General on the question of whether she should be involved in a case being brought in connection with the legislation outlawing fox hunting in Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman will know too that Lord Hardie ruled against the Advocate-General on the same point a few months ago.

Several hon. Members have never been clear about what the Advocate-General's job involves and, if Lord Nimmo Smith and Lord Hardie are correct, it now appears that the Advocate-General is among that number. Can we have a statement to clarify just what she is here for?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman speaks as a lawyer. I defer to his interest in the case. I am not sure that I would wish to encourage any of those of my hon. Friends who share the Government with me to come to the Dispatch Box to discuss an individual court case. I think that that would be ill advised, but I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend will note what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we have a debate on early-day motion 1538 about Hoopers Employment Law Publicity?

[That this House believes that the service offered by Hoopers Employment Law Publicity Ltd to redundant workers in the City of Newport is of little or no value; further believes that the publicity promised by the company for tribunal cases is vastly overpriced at £587.50 per worker and cannot be guaranteed; commends the splendid guidance and representation of 40 of those workers by the Newport Citizens Advice Bureau at no cost and urges other redundant people to seek advice and assistance from reputable groups such as the CABx.]

The firm wrote to recently redundant constituents of mine demanding £578 for a service which is likely to be of little or no value. Is not this particularly mean and despicable scam likely to impoverish people who are redundant and have already suffered severe financial losses, and who are in any case getting splendid advice from the Newport citizens advice bureau? Should we not advise any others who are redundant to avoid this particular company and seek advice from reputable organisations?

Mr. Cook

I am not aware of the company, so I cannot express a view on its merits or otherwise, but I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's tribute citizens advice bureaux, whether in Newport or anywhere else. My hon. Friend asks for another debate on the subject. I remind the House that one of the great beauties of having a recess is that we have a half-day debate on the date of the recess when many of these matters can be pursued vigorously. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be delighted to give a full reply on that occasion.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that it remains Government policy that the next elections to the Scottish Parliament will be held on 1 May 2003? Can he take this opportunity to deny persistent rumours circulating in Scotland that that is a potential date for a euro referendum and would give the Presiding Officer the opportunity to vary the date of the next elections? Surely the Scottish people have every ability to pass decisive judgment on both the euro and the Scottish Executive on the same day.

Mr. Cook

The date for the Scottish parliamentary elections is not simply a matter of Government policy; it is a matter for legislation. I suspect it would require primary legislation to change the date and I know of no suggestions that it should be changed.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

I refer the House to last week's business questions. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where's the tie?"] Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on early-day motion 1524 in my name, on the abdication of King Edward VIII?

[That this House believes in open government and the timely release of public documents of historical interest; notes recent allegations in the Press about the Nazi associations of Wallis Simpson from public archives in the United States of America-deplores the fact that people in Britain have to rely on overseas sources for information about their own history; and therefore calls for the immediate release of all currently closed United Kingdom public records relating to the abdication of King Edward VIII.]

Is my my right hon. Friend aware of the recent American press reports about the alleged Nazi links of Wallis Simpson? Despite the very appropriate sartorial tribute today from the shadow Leader of the House to our American friends, is it not a disgrace that we must rely on a foreign Government for information on our own history?

Mr. Forth

At least I'm wearing a tie.

Mr. Cook

I can fully understand why some of my hon. Friends feel that they cannot compete with the right hon. Gentleman's ties, so may have given up on the effort. My hon. Friend raises a matter of history of which I am woefully ignorant and into which I would not wish to be drawn. I can think of more important, more urgent and more strategically significant things that I would wish to know about in history than the matter to which he draws attention.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

The Leader of the House is no doubt aware that in the Easter recess the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that she intended to remove the beer orders. The DTI has since had a consultation which finishes on 5 July. I understand that there is now a draft statutory instrument on the subject. Considering the concerns of the independent brewers and of the Campaign for Real Ale that this will seriously damage the small, independent, brewing industry, will the Leader of the House ensure that there is a debate in this Chamber and that the SI is not just pushed through in Committee?

Mr. Cook

I shall happily draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Personally I would be keen to make sure that we stay on side with those who support real ale and the many independent breweries. I am delighted that real ales are now more freely available in off-licences around the country. I would wish to see that continue rather than dwindle.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

When will the Government respond to the parliamentary ombudsman's grave criticisms of the Government today? The report on which the criticisms are based was brought out last autumn, yet there has been no response. This Parliament set up the parliamentary ombudsman and expects the Government to respond, but the Government will not make their response. It is all very well talking about freedom of information Acts, but should not the Government show them some real credence and deliver some access to information?

Mr. Cook

First of all, as the hon. Gentleman accurately and properly says, the report was laid today; it is therefore hardly surprising that at 1.24 pm we have not responded to it.

Mr. Robathan

When will you?

Mr. Cook

Not by 1.30 pm, I have to say. Of course we will respond to the ombudsman's report, as we always do. It is not a matter of my, or any other Minister's, having to stand here talking about the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We passed that Act. We have provided the greatest transparency and openness that this country has ever seen, and we have been far more transparent and open than the Conservative Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported.