HC Deb 11 July 2002 vol 388 cc1035-52 12.30 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 15 JULY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Education Bill. Followed by proceedings on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill [Lords], which is a consolidation measure.

TUESDAY 16 JuLy—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill. Followed by Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day, 2nd Half]. There will be a debate on the peace process in Northern Ireland on an Opposition motion.

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 provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 22 JULY—Second Reading of the Mobile Telephones (Re-programming) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 23 JULY—Debate on public expenditure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 24 JULY—The House may be asked to consider any Lords messages that may be received.

Motion on the summer recess Adjournment.

The House will wish to know that on Tuesday 16 July 2002, there will be a debate relating to 2003 Preliminary draft EC Budget in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 16 July 2002, the first meeting of the Committee on the convention on the future of Europe will take place to consider the First and Second Report of the United Kingdom representatives to the convention.

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

[Wednesday 15 July 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: Unnumbered EM, dated 5 July 2002, submitted by HMT; Preliminary draft budget 2003. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xxxvi (2001–02)].

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. I have no doubt that he will be aware of the publication today of the report by the Select Committee on Education and Skills, HC 445, on post-16 student support. As he always does his homework assiduously, I suspect that he will be aware that the conclusions and recommendations of the report of a Select Committee dominated, as they all are, by Government supporters and Labour Members include the following: It is our view that many of the problems encountered in the present system of student finance originate from a failure by the Government clearly in public to debate the essential elements of the Dearing proposals". It goes on to say in paragraph 17:

We believe that the current system of student support has failed in three important respects…The funding of institutions is a matter of grave concern…We have been disappointed in the Government's dismissal of the Barr and Crawford proposals.

I am sure that the Leader of the House, being a fair man, will want to make sure that the House has an opportunity fully to debate the conclusions of the Labour-dominated Education and Skills Committee. I hope that he will be able to give us an early date for that debate—he would not want to give us any impression that the Government wanted to avoid debating such an important Select Committee report.

On 4 July, the Leader of the House said in reference to the rather cloudy subject of the RMT union and hon. Members: I personally have no objection to putting in the Library exchanges with the RMT. I stress that he referred to exchanges with the RMT. He went on to say, helpfully:

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." —[Official Report, 4 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 397.] I have just checked with the Library and, indeed, the letter from the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) is there, but surprise, surprise, the letter from Mr. Crow has not yet reached the Library.

I wonder why we have only part of this story. There cannot possibly be anything to hide, can there? I believe that you got involved in this issue, Mr. Speaker, and I am sure that you would not want to be in possession of only partial information. The Leader of the House said that "exchanges with the RMT" would be placed in the Library, but I have seen only one exchange, not plural exchanges. I ask him again a very simple question: may we please have in the Library the letter from that nice Mr. Crow, of the RMT, to Labour Members of Parliament? That perfectly simple request is completely in accord with the undertaking that the Leader of the House gave.

I want to refer again to PMPs. In the exchange of 3 July, the Prime Minister said: Care homes have expressed worries about regulations on wheelchair access, room size, lifts and so on. I simply point out that those do not come into force until 2007".—[Official Report, 3 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 220.] On 10 July, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition took issue with that. He asked the Prime Minister:

Of the 246 new rules that the Government are imposing, how many will take effect by 2007? The Prime Minister said:

From memory, I said that provisions for matters such as widening rooms and bathing would take effect in 2007, and that those were the regulations about which people were complaining. My right hon. Friend pressed the Prime Minister on this point. He said that

only four provisions do not come into effect until 2007. Almost all the others—some 240—came into effect on 1 April this year. The Prime Minister replied:

First, I said that the provisions that related to matters about which people were complaining, such as widening rooms, would not take effect until 2007." — [Official Report, 10 July 2002; Vol. 388, c. 879–80.]

Will the Leader of the House tell us who is right: the Prime Minister, or my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition? It seems that, yet again, the Prime Minister changes his stories with great facility, shifts his ground and says the first thing that comes into his mind. May we have an explanation or an apology from the Prime Minister, or will the Leader of the House help to cure him of his apparent addiction to whoppers?

Mr. Cook

In a spirit of amity, I begin by recalling that, last week, the right hon. Gentleman celebrated Independence day with an appropriate tie, which resulted in exchanges in the House. May I take this opportunity to wish him a very happy forthcoming Bastille weekend? I am sure that he will wish to celebrate his enormous contribution to European equality, democracy and fraternity.

The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to describe me as a fair man, and as such I shall of course wish to consider the Education and Skills Committee's report fully and thoroughly. On the question of debating the report, I should point out that this Government have a good record in providing time for debating Select Committee reports. Of course, in the first instance the matter is one for the Liaison Committee, but there are a number of ways in which such a report can be debated. I am sure that many Members will want that report to be debated, and when it is, Labour Members will want to put it on the record that we are now spending a quarter more on education than did the previous Government. That has contributed to our having one of the highest rates of entry into higher education of any OECD country, and the second highest completion rate among students. A review of student finances is of course under way, and we can certainly consider the Select Committee report as part of it.

On the correspondence with the RMT, I am ashamed to say that it appears that I did not treasure, file and safeguard the letter that I received from the nice Mr. Crow as well as I perhaps should have done. However, I am now in a position to state that tomorrow the letter will be laid in the Library. Frankly, I doubt whether it will provide particular illumination for Members, or that they will wish to treasure it any more than I did, but it will be there for them to read when the Library receives it.

On the other matter that the right hon. Gentleman raises, he will not be surprised to hear me say that the Prime Minister was of course right. Indeed, the Prime Minister made it specifically clear on 3 July that he was referring to room sizes, and the provisions relating to them do not come into force until 2007—the year that he quoted. As the right hon. Gentleman asks, since yesterday I have checked with the authorities and I can confirm that the Prime Minister was also absolutely right to say that some 43,000 more households are now receiving intensive home care compared with when we took power. That is an increase of more than a third and is a tribute to our increased spending on social services.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We all recognise that there is great pressure before the summer recess for many statements to be made to the House, but why have we had no statement whatever on the very damaging announcements by Royal Mail about its reduction in service, especially for smaller businesses? The Leader of the House will have already seen what the Federation of Small Businesses has said, but the changes will also have a dramatic effect on the self-employed and other organisations. Although there was a brief exchange in Trade and Industry questions earlier, the Royal Mail is still a public service—thank goodness—and surely the Secretary of State should have made a statement to the House.

I shall take this opportunity to apologise to Royal Mail. The House may recall that on a previous occasion I drew attention to a letter that we had received addressed to Mr. David Lloyd George. Because the date stamp on it was indistinct, it looked as though it might have been delayed in the post since 1902. We have now had another letter, correctly addressed and with a date stamp for 2002, and I congratulate the Royal Mail on it having arrived at the correct address, despite the fact that the words "freepost" and "second class" have been written on it: there is, of course, no freepost to the House of Commons.

The other issue on which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry should have made a statement is industrial relations and the Government's future relationship with the unions. The right hon. Lady was reported in The Independent this morning as saying that she

will announce a government review of industrial relations legislation today. Where will she make that announcement? It will clearly not be in the House, although she was here earlier. It is extraordinary that she should announce such an important issue in the columns of the press, and not in the House.

In the interview, the Secretary of State also said that the communication from the RMT, which was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) —his support is late, but welcome—placed "unacceptable demands upon MPs". The Leader of the House told me in response to my questions on 27 June that he had declined to sign up to the oath of loyalty, and I congratulate him on that. I am grateful for the assurance that he has given that the letter will be placed in the Library tomorrow, but will he confirm that a full inquiry will be held into what is happening to those Members of Parliament who have apparently accepted the terms of the letter that he and the Deputy Prime Minister found so unacceptable?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman does not know how true it is to say that we will have a large number of statements between now and the rising of the House for the summer recess. The House will already be aware that we have the statement on the comprehensive spending review on Monday and statements thereafter on aspects of that review. In that context, it will unavoidably be the case that we will have to decide what we can bring before the House in an oral statement and what regard we must at the same time have to the very important business of the House, as we have much legislative business to complete before we rise for the recess.

On the specific point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the pilot scheme for charging for early delivery by Royal Mail, I would stress that the schemes are being introduced only after discussion and agreement with Postwatch, the consumer organisation, and the Communication Workers Union. Any individual or business who receives 20 letters a day will be guaranteed early delivery without any additional charge, which should take account of all Members of Parliament. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be relieved to know that his constituency correspondence will arrive early and on time.

The scheme is only a pilot. I understand the concerns that have been expressed by small businesses and the self-employed, who perhaps do not get 20 letters a day. Their concerns and experiences must clearly be part of the overall evaluation of the pilot study before any further decision is taken.

On the question of the RMT, I am happy to repeat the assurance that I have already given the House that the letter from Mr. Crow will be deposited tomorrow. I anticipate that we will have a full textual analysis of it when we meet again next Thursday.

On the hon. Gentleman's other question, to my knowledge—and I am reasonably certain of this point—no Member who was previously sponsored or had a constituency agreement with the RMT accepted the terms of that letter. The decision to reject the terms of the letter was a unanimous decision by all Members who previously had a connection with the RMT. I cannot speak for what further discussions may have taken place with other Members; I am not yet aware of any decision having been taken by any of them and, as far as I am aware, there is no basis at present to believe that the privileges of the House have been infringed by any offence.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

When, on Monday and Tuesday, my hon. Friends the Members for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and I expressed unease about the circumstances of the sale of spare parts for F-16s, we were advised to wait until Trade and Industry questions on Thursday. Since Question 8 was barely reached, there was no opportunity to raise this issue. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if she will make a statement on Monday?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend pursue the matter of the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill, proposed by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall)? It is an all-party Bill, and many of us stayed behind for it on Fridays. A great deal of work has been done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It has passed all its Commons stages and is now, by late skulduggery, being scuppered in the House of Lords. I have given my right hon. Friend the letter from Lord Williams of Mostyn, and I should be grateful if he could look at it. It is intolerable that this private Member's Bill, which has gone through all its Commons stages, should simply evaporate in the other place.

Mr. Cook

On my hon. Friend's first point, I cannot provide time for a statement on Monday—and I give notice that I will say the same to anybody else who asks for one—because, as the House will know, we will be having a statement on the comprehensive spending review, for which I anticipate Members will want an extensive period of scrutiny. The statement on F-16s was made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs in his written answer, and my hon. Friend may wish to pursue the matter with him.

On my hon. Friend's second point, I was heavily involved in discussions to ensure that the Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill got through its stages in this House. I took a full part in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the Bill's sponsors, and I am pleased that we managed to secure its passage through the House. I fully understand the strong feeling behind it and the wide constituency of support from the country, particularly from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

As Leader of the House, I have no responsibility for the actions of Members of another place. I regret that so many amendments were tabled by the Bill's opponents that it would require two and a half days of debate to clear the other place, and I am afraid that there is no realistic prospect of securing that before our last private Member's Bill day on 19 July. I am very sorry that this should have happened; I believe that it was a worthwhile Bill and regret that there are some in the other House who have chosen to stop it.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that earlier this week the Government produced a massive document, "Local Government Finance Formula Grant Distribution"; that they have given all of three months for consultation; that that period will have elapsed before the House returns in October; and that, as the business stands at present, this House will have no chance to debate a document that affects every English Member? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore alter the business of the House so that we can discuss this most revolutionary change to local government finance and, if not, will he keep us here for an extra day to do so?

Mr. Cook

I am always open to representations to postpone the summer recess, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first of many to find reasons why we should do so. Perhaps I should warn the House that I might be open to receiving some of those representations and accepting them.

On the hon. Gentleman's specific point, the local government finance document is out for consultation for three months—the standard period of consultation. Indeed, our guidelines provide for a minimum of 12 weeks of consultation. Many of those who will be producing results are in local government and will not be taking a three-month recess. However, I have just announced that there will be a debate on the spending review in the last week that the House sits, and it will be entirely appropriate for right hon. and hon. Members to refer to local government finance then.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

My right hon. Friend will know that the Tour de France is on and is being enjoyed by millions, although, sadly, in this country only viewers of ITV2 can watch it. Does he agree that a tour of Britain would be a wonderful opportunity not only to inspire our future cycling stars but to regenerate rural areas that suffered so badly from foot and mouth last year? Will he be able to find time for a debate on the future of cycling as a sport?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right. The Tour de France is followed closely by many residents of Britain. She made an interesting proposal, which I note was received favourably on both sides of the Chamber. For myself, as long as I do not have to take part, I am willing to give a fair wind to her tour of Britain.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Leader of the House will be aware of reports of an increasing incidence of air misses in United Kingdom airspace, as well as flight delays, following the institution of the new air traffic control centre at Swanwick. Our constituents are also worried about press reports of new runways being planned around London and the south-east generally. When will we have a Government statement on civil air transport, and the long-awaited White Paper on the industry?

Mr. Cook

I am very much aware of that last point, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter is very much in Ministers' minds.

The reports that have been around today on near misses are very much exaggerated. Some hon. Members may have had the good fortune, as I did, to hear Mr. Chisholm of NATS on the radio this morning being quite categoric that the reports are false and exaggerated and that safety has not been compromised by Swanwick or any other development.

John Mann (Bassetlaw)

When the United States introduced legislation restricting donations to political parties in 1995–96, money from corporations and wealthy individuals went to think tanks instead. I note, through Hansard, that there has been no debate on the issue in the past 30 years, although there have been plenty of debates on state funding of political parties. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on donations to think tanks such as the IPPR, which seems particularly keen on restricting donations to political parties?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend forcefully makes a very combative point that will not be lost on the IPPR. Political debate is enriched by those who may not necessarily be professional politicians and so perhaps have more leisure than we do to think deeply about such matters and stimulate future debate.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I want to press the Leader of the House on the document that was published earlier this week. It says right at the beginning that local authorities spend 25 per cent. of all Government expenditure. For the past 18 years, I have been reminded many times by him and his colleagues that Derbyshire had a rough deal, supposedly, from the last Conservative Government.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Hear, hear.

Mr. McLoughlin

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's endorsement.

Can the Leader of the House explain why Derbyshire will lose between £5 million and £2 million under the Government's proposals?

Mr. Cook

I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman thinks that one can reach a conclusion about the amount going to any individual local authority on the basis of a range of different options proposed in a consultation paper. The Government have been explicit: we do not favour any one of the options. [Laughter.]The position is quite explicit: only when we have listened to local government and heard the responses to the consultation process will we put before the House the option that we have selected. Until then, no local authority can possibly pretend to know what the consequences will be for its finances.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Government's proposals on changing the law on double jeopardy? I ask that on behalf of my constituent, Caroline Maddick, whose husband, Eddie Maddick, was murdered last year. Barry Whittle, a man clearly deeply implicated in the events surrounding the murder, was tried but, to general astonishment, acquitted, and the police are not pursuing any further inquiries. Mrs. Maddick is raising funds to pursue a civil case against Mr. Whittle, but is in a difficult position that could be eased if the Government implemented changes on double jeopardy.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that this matter has been under consideration by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for some time, and there may shortly be a further development. My hon. Friend makes a powerful case as to why it is necessary for us to re-examine this rule. I hope that when we introduce any changes to the rule, they will get support from both sides of the House, especially from the party that poses as the party of law and order.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

May I inform the Leader of the House of an historic event that took place this morning on College Green? The event in question was the all-party egg-and-spoon race for Sport Relief, which was won by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas). Out of the five Members who took part in the race, two were from minority parties. If anything, we were over-represented in that race. Is it easier for minority parties to have access to charity sports events than it is for them to get representation on Select Committees?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the success of his political family. However, I offer him some avuncular advice: I would be careful how often I boasted about that success.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the almost daily press reports averring that the American Government have taken the decision to make, and are preparing for, a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. In addition to a statement on the Government's sale of spare parts for Israeli aircraft, may we have a full-scale debate on precisely what the British Government's approach is to any such pre-emptive strike in Iraq and to the worsening situation in the middle east?

Mr. Cook

I read with close attention the reports that have appeared in the press in the past few days. I have not seen any reports that a decision has been taken, although I have seen articles purporting that plans have been made by some in the US Administration. As I have said to the House repeatedly, and I say again, no decision has been taken by the British Government on this matter. No decision may ever be taken, but should we arrive at that point I am clear that the House will want to debate it thoroughly. In fairness, we have had several debates on our intervention in Afghanistan, and the Government's record on that is good.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Is the Leader of the House able to give a definite date for the amendment to the data protection legislation, so that MPs can go about their business properly?


As the House will know from previous exchanges, I attach great importance to the ability of Members to fulfil their representational functions without being defeated by the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998. I repeat that I am confident that, before the House rises, we will lay before Parliament a statutory instrument to exempt elected representatives—councillors, MPs, MEPs and Members of devolved Administrations—from the requirements of the 1998 Act when they are pursuing cases of constituents who have sought their assistance. I regret that it may not be possible for us to debate and approve it until we return from the summer recess, but the process is well under way.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that in the past few days the American Government have failed to meet their own deadline for announcing all the exemptions from the steel tariffs. That has made an already worrying situation much worse, not least because I now understand that no deadline is being given for when the work will be carried out. In the short time we have left between now and the beginning of the summer recess, will there be an opportunity to debate this issue or have a statement, so that we can find out what the British Government are doing about telling the Americans to get their finger out?

Mr. Cook

I do not see the opportunity for a debate or a further statement, but I assure my hon. Friend and the House that the Government continue vigorously to follow this matter and to work in close co-operation with our allies and partners in the European Union to ensure that we take every possible opportunity, bilaterally in Washington and multilaterally through the World Trade Organisation, to get that decision changed, because it is damaging to our industry. We should not lose sight of the fact that it is also damaging to American consumers of steel.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

The Leader of the House is very much aware of the widespread interest across the House in the future of British policy on Gibraltar. May we have an undertaking that there will be a statement on the Government's policy on Gibraltar before the House rises for the summer recess, and that it will not be smuggled in on a Friday when many of us will be in our constituencies, but will be made on another day of the week when the House is sitting?

Mr. Cook

We are well aware of the interest in the issue of Gibraltar, and we are conscious of the importance of keeping the House informed. If I recall rightly, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already given an undertaking that he will report to the House before the recess. Without committing myself to an announcement of a specific date, which is not something that we do during business questions—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Friday is a working day.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. From time to time the House sits on a Friday, and I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will be in his place and will not let anything get passed that he believes should be challenged. I commend his diligence and assiduity to his hon. Friends on the Back Benches.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Next Tuesday will be a big day for the House because the Prime Minister will submit himself to parliamentary scrutiny by appearing before the Liaison Committee for three hours. My right hon. Friend will have read my early-day motion 1505, signed by a small but influential group of Members.

[That this House enthusiastically welcomes the Prime Minister's decision to appear before the Liaison Committee in July and thereafter on a regular basis as one way of enhancing the accountability of his Office to Parliament; believes that the Committee with 34 members is far too large and unwieldy to perform the scrutiny function effectively in a three hour session; further believes that the chairmen of all domestic committees should be excluded from sessions involving the Prime Minister, hopes that the remaining members agree to divide into three groups, each one in turn quizzing the Prime Minister at length and in detail over the forthcoming three sessions; and further believes that no serious purpose would be served if the Liaison Committee is unable to put the Prime Minister under sustained and rigorous questioning, testing to the limit his views and the Government's policies.]

I wonder what will happen on Tuesday if every single one of the 34 Members insists on firing a question at the Prime Minister. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will tell the House what the arrangements are.

Mr. Cook

I commend my hon. Friend for his initiative in tabling the early-day motion. I see that it was signed by 18 Members, which may be small, although I cannot comment with confidence on the degree of influence as the names are not listed yet—

Mr. Prentice

There are 26.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes the sum even bigger—36 is a significant number of Members.

The point raised by my hon. Friend is well understood in the Liaison Committee and I know that its members have held a number of discussions to ensure that they make a success of that first hearing. The matter is primarily for members of the Committee, not for me as Leader of the House; they have taken it on board and they understand that next Tuesday they will be as much on show as the Prime Minister. In the meantime, I remind the House that this is a substantial new step in the scrutiny of Government by Parliament. No previous Prime Minister has ever come before an investigative Select Committee for questioning, and it is to the credit of the Prime Minister that he is willing to do so.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

A few weeks ago, the Leader of the House asserted that in his view there had been too much spinning by the Government. Against that background, may we have an assurance that on Monday we shall hear the outcome of the comprehensive spending review from the lips of the Chancellor and that we shall not read about it in the weekend press?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly assure the House and the right hon. Gentleman that it will be my right hon. Friend the Chancellor who makes the statement on Monday, and I can also assure the House that my right hon. Friend will of course want to be the first to break the news to anybody. Let us be realistic, however: our friends in the Gallery will spend the whole weekend trying to break a story, and will break legs to get it. In the meantime, I can only suggest to Members that they do not necessarily believe everything that they read in the papers between now and Monday afternoon.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

May I ask for an early statement on the steps the Government are taking to co-operate with the Irish Government in the wake of the publication this week of their report into the Ansbacher offshore banking scandal? The report named a significant number of British nationals who were clearly using that bank to avoid paying tax. Are we co-operating closely, and may we have a statement?

Mr. Cook

I assure my hon. Friend that the British regulatory authorities co-operate very closely with their counterparts in other countries, especially in the European Union, where some special arrangements apply. It is very much in our interests to do so, because we depend on that co-operation being reciprocated when we pursue issues of concern in our country. If the Irish Government want to take further follow-up action, we stand ready to help them.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Is the Leader of the House aware that after last week's Hillsborough talks, when the Prime Minister promised to introduce moves to sustain the peace process and to report to the House by 24 July, it was widely reported and believed that that would actually give an amnesty for paramilitaries on the run, which would be unacceptable to many people on both sides of the House? May I have a categoric assurance from the Leader of the House that there will be a full statement from the Dispatch Box if that does occur and that such an amnesty will not be announced after we go into recess, as is so often the practice of the Government?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that there have been a number of exchanges on that subject and that the Government's position on it has not changed. I fully understand the point that he makes—that if any such steps are taken, the House should be kept fully informed—and I know that it will be shared by Members from Northern Ireland. We are well aware of the undertaking that we would try to seek a way forward on the wider question by 24 July.

David Hamilton (Midlothian)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the Daily Record campaign, which started—rather belatedly—on Monday, on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of miners with chronic bronchitis? I belong to an ex-mining area. As I have been attempting to resolve the problem and speed up the process, I am well aware that the Department of Trade and Industry has done everything that it can. However, in thousands of cases it is possible, simply by looking at the medical evidence and without forcing the miner to come in for a medical, to see clearly that their circumstances are such that they would be entitled to an award. If that is the case, there is a regulation or a legal issue that must be overcome. If it was overcome, the process would be speeded up so much that it would help all those people, many of whom are dying before their award is made.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that the Daily Record is delivered daily to my office, and I have indeed noticed the very extensive and forceful publicity that the newspaper has been giving to the issue in the course of this week. I also know my hon. Friend's constituency and know that there will be many former miners there who suffer from respiratory diseases, which are only too common in mining communities.

I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Minister for Energy and Construction, who, as he knows, has been very active in pursuing justice for miners and in dialogue with representatives of the mining communities. In so far as it is possible for us to respond to these concerns, I am sure that he will be willing to look sympathetically at how to do so.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

May I again draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the question of CAP reform? We now have the Fischler proposals, which were published earlier in the week. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot arrange a debate in Government time before the recess or next week, will he arrange for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), to appear before European Standing Committee A or B to set out the Government's reaction to these important proposals, in an attempt to allay some of the uncertainties that they have occasioned in the farming community throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Cook

I am certainly well aware of the importance of the proposals and I also fully understand the controversy that surrounds them. There is a limit to what I can offer the House in the remaining eight sitting days before we rise, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this will be a high priority for the Government and that I am under no illusions that the House will not wish to discuss this before any final decision is taken, which is some time away.

In conclusion, I add, as I have on previous occasions, that we cannot have it both ways. We cannot constantly demand reform of the common agricultural policy and then complain about the specific proposals that are put to us. If we want reform, we have to face up to some very difficult and painful choices.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

May I also request that we have an opportunity to consider the F-16s? Helping to supply arms to increase the spiralling bloodshed in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories, does not seem a very ethical dimension to our foreign policy. Surely there must be political principles and moral values that we are not prepared to sacrifice to ingratiate an increasingly right-wing, hawkish and unilateralist United States Administration.

Mr. Cook

I entirely understand the concern of many hon. Members and the genuine deep worry, particularly given the very recent use of the F-16s in the occupied territories. These are matters that both the British and United States Governments have raised with the Israeli Government, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be very interested in any point that my hon. Friend wishes to put to him.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread anger and disgust in my constituency at the Government announcement that they are going to muck about with local government finance? Is he aware that that is seen as a blatant attempt to channel money from the south-east and into Labour heartlands? Furthermore, is he aware that the leader of East Sussex county council, the poorest county council in England, has calculated that if this plan goes ahead, council tax will have to rise by between 25 and 33 per cent.? Which would he prefer—that council tax goes up that much, or that the council slashes public services to the vulnerable?

Mr. Cook

I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been for the last two general elections but, as it happens, we now have Labour heartlands in every region of Britain and it is simply not possible for us to be politically biased against any one region. I repeat what I have said before: the consultation document contains a series of different options—options for which we have expressed no preferences. It is therefore totally meaningless for any chief executive to try to pretend that he can produce a financial consequence for his local authority until the end of that consultation period. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman and his local authority's chief executive might recognise that there is merit in a local government grant distribution system that reflects changes in population, changes in the number of school pupils and degrees of deprivation.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

I welcome all that my right hon. Friend has just said, as well as the consultation on local government finance, but may I point out to him that for 10 of the 12 weeks of the consultation period the House will be in recess and that for six of the 12 weeks schools, which are crucially affected by the proposals to change education funding, will be closed for their holidays? May I also impress on him that literally hundreds of right hon. and hon. Members who represent English constituencies have a very keen interest in how that debate will unfold? So may I make a plea that, as soon as we return in October, there will be time to debate that subject before the Government start to settle the provisional settlement for next year? May I make a helpful suggestion that, if there is no time in the Chamber for that debate, a full debate in Westminster Hall might be sufficient?

Mr. Cook

May I remind the House that we have put out for consultation the draft local government finance Bill, which is currently being considered by the appropriate Select Committee, and that this Government's record in trying to seek consultation on such drafts and proposals for change is very good. The House may well be in recess for the next 10 weeks; I personally think that is at the root of the problem. I have made proposals that we should return in September and should not have such long periods of absence from the British political scene. I very much hope that those proposals will be approved by the House. If they are, it will meet my hon. Friend's and other hon. Members' concern by ensuring that we are not absent for such a long period.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I pick up the request made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in respect of the Government's consultation document on the resourcing of local government, not least because my own county, Cheshire, has been short-changed under successive Governments, so I do not seek to score a political point? That has a huge impact on education and social service provision, not least on the ability of social services to fund care homes, which are currently in crisis. The Leader of the House, who is a most reasonable man, has said that he wishes to introduce reforms, which many hon. Members support. Will he say whether the consultation period on that proposal, which I agree contains options, can be extended to enable hon. Members to express a view before the Government put any firm proposals to the House?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes his point very diplomatically and temptingly, and I will certainly discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions how best we can ensure that the House has an opportunity fully to express its view. The hon. Gentleman was quite frank and blunt in expressing his concerns on behalf of his local authority when he sat on the Government Benches, so, given the honourable role that he played, I exempt him from any criticism, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, of course, the Government have very substantially increased spending on education, social services and all the other aspects of local government spending. As a result, all the local authorities that have been mentioned are doing substantially better than they ever did under the previous Conservative Government.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

May we have a debate on the volume of parliamentary questions?

Mr. Forth

Nice tie.

Kevin Brennan

The Leader of the House will be aware from a parliamentary answer that he gave yesterday to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has now officially become the half-million-pound man, having asked 4,382 questions at a cost of £565,278 in this Session alone. Although in no way do I wish to fetter the right of hon. Members to hold the Government properly to account, is not there a difference between proper parliamentary scrutiny and the obsessive compulsive exegesis of the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Cook

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tie, and particularly on its admirable politically correct tone? On the point that he raises, it is not for the Leader of the House to discourage Members who believe that they have a bona fide concern from pursuing it through the Order Paper and parliamentary questions. I have answered many questions from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)—I think that I have answered more questions from him than from the rest of the House added together—and I am relaxed about the fact that he chooses to table so many. It is perhaps time, however, that he reflected on whether the product, in terms of what he can do with those answers, has justified all the effort that he has put in. Perhaps the time has come for a redirection of his admirable energy into a more productive channel.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the Foreign Secretary on United Kingdom-Iran relations? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to know what recent representation has been made to the Iranian Government about the continuing abuse of human rights by that regime of repressive, fundamentalist Islamic mullahs, which brutalises its people and uses torture and execution to terrorise its political opponents.

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the respect for human rights—or the absence of it—in Iran is a matter of high priority in the Foreign Office, on which representations are frequently made. It is also fair to note, however, that there have been movements in the politics of Iran that have resulted in a return to a democratic parliament, and the great majority of the public of Iran have voted for people who want to take Iran forward into the modern era and put behind them the rule of the mullahs to which he referred, which was the product of the revolution. It is in all our interests that we handle our relations with Iran so that we strengthen the role of, and support for, those who want to take Iran forward and enter into a responsible relationship with the rest of the world, and that we marginalise those who would rather take Iran back into the middle ages.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull)

Can we have a debate on town and country planning, and particularly on the Government's planning policy guidance, which is elegantly known as PPG3? In my constituency, the planning department is under siege as developers put in application after application—followed by appeal after appeal—in respect of the same site, which causes considerable distress to long-suffering neighbours of the site who are objectors to the proposals. Is there an end in sight to these repeated, excessive and sequential planning applications and appeals?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that changes to planning law and guidelines are very much at the forefront of the Government's mind at present, and I am sure that, in the forthcoming Session, there will be opportunities to explore some of those issues. As I have mentioned to him, I am familiar with his vicinity, which has some admirable country that is well worth preserving, and it is very important that we make sure that our planning laws strike the right balance between ensuring that development can proceed, and, at the same time, protecting the rich heritage of our countryside. I am proud that, under this Government, the green belt has been expanded by a substantial volume of territory, and we do not want that put at risk.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Can the Leader of the House find time for a statement or debate on the future of the Millennium Commission, and on the way in which it has dealt with the 24 Landmark projects around the country? In particular, the debate should include discussion of the fiasco relating to the millennium tower in Portsmouth.

Mr. Cook

I sense that this is an important constituency issue, on which I regret that I am not briefed. The hon. Gentleman has made his point, and I am sure that he will find other ways to pursue it in the House.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Is the Leader of the House aware that my constituent, Tony Martin, is back in the news again because he is being sued by one of the burglars who broke into his house? Does he agree that we ought to have a new legal principle whereby criminals who break and enter into properties leave their civil rights outside? Would he also agree that it is monstrous that someone should get legal aid in a case in which their solicitor has already agreed to act on a contingency—no win, no fee—basis? I am trying to table an early-day motion on this matter, but I am told that it may be sub judice because the case may be brought in the future. How would the right hon. Gentleman advise me to bring this protest forward?

Mr. Cook

As Leader of the House, I must strongly defend our convention on sub judice, however frustrating it may be from time to time. On the particular point that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would plainly be proper for the courts to take into account the way in which the event took place, and the fact that the people in question had broken into property, in making any judgment about whether they were entitled to compensation. The Government have no control over the Legal Aid Board, to which, quite properly, we have devolved decision making. As a constituency Member, I frequently find its decisions baffling.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The Leader of the House is aware that many hon. Members in all parts of the House represent constituencies where agriculture is a sizeable contributor to the local economy or shapes the pace of rural life and the environment. It is increasingly difficult to ask questions on particular aspects of farming in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, so will he make time available in the next Session for a proper debate on the future of farming?

Mr. Cook

I am conscious of the demand from both sides of the House for a proper discussion on the countryside, perhaps going wider than the agricultural economy. That is a matter that we will bear in mind. The matter of DEFRA questions was raised at the start of the Session, when DEFRA brought together the previously separate Question Times on farming and the environment. We considered the request from some hon. Members to separate out the time, but, on balance, we took a decision that the point of DEFRA was to ensure that we had a seamless approach to the countryside that embraced all other aspects of the countryside economy, and therefore that it was important to retain a single DEFRA Question Time, rather than suggesting that farming could be subdivided from it.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

Since the Minister for Pensions told the House:

Older people will have the choice of doing their business through pension centres…or receiving home visits"—[Official Report, 20 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 4.], and since his account was directly contradicted in public evidence given to the Select Committee on Work and Pensions by a senior civil servant in his Department, Ms Alexis Cleveland, who said: We are not building a model which is actually showing that anyone can just choose to have a home visit", will the Leader of the House, notwithstanding what the Minister told the House yesterday, arrange for the Minister to come to the House and correct a serious error?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions informs me that he dealt with the matter at points of order yesterday, that he was absolutely correct and that the hon. Gentleman is in error. I shall happily discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman and write to him. I have the fullest confidence in my right hon. Friend, and if I am obliged on the spur of the moment to choose which advice to accept, I shall certainly take the advice of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

On Wednesday and Thursday next week, the gentleman described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) as "the nice Mr. Crow"—most other people think that he is pretty nasty—is turning his bully-boy tactics against 3 million Londoners and is determined to disrupt the underground services. Does the Leader of the House accept that that is a political strike and, in that sense, an unusual strike, because the supposed justification for it—safety—has been removed by the approval of the safety case? Does he further accept that, because of its significance as a political strike and the disruption that it will cause, it would reasonable for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House early next week and explain what he intends to do to prevent similar strikes, and how he will alleviate the suffering that Londoners will otherwise undergo?

Mr. Cook

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the safety case relating to the public-private partnership project for the tube has been thoroughly examined. We have given clear assurances on that, and we have made it plain that the Health and Safety Executive will have the final lock on whether the proposals are safe. There is therefore no valid ground of safety for an industrial dispute or for any other form of concern. I do not see any merit in the industrial action to which he refers, and I very much hope that those who work on the London underground will reflect on whether they are really assisting their own cause by taking part in it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

On an entirely non-partisan point, as the proposer of a ten-minute Bill seeking to amend the Data Protection Act 1998 to remove the impediments to hon. Members going about their duties on behalf of their constituents, I welcome the confirmation by the Leader of the House this afternoon that he intends to produce, by the Summer recess, a draft statutory instrument to resolve the problem. I and other hon. Members look forward to reading the detail of that statutory instrument and, hopefully, returning after the summer recess to vote it into law to solve the problem once and for all.

Mr. Cook

It would be less than gracious of me to do other than accept what the hon. Gentleman said and I am grateful for his support. I should clarify that it is not I who will lay the statutory instrument but my colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, I shall make a point this afternoon of telephoning them as soon as I leave the Chamber to draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to their attention.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) and other hon. Members, can the Leader of the House understand the frustration felt by teachers, head teachers and parents in Staffordshire when the formula grant distribution document offers four alternative options for the funding of schools in England that would leave Staffordshire worse off? One would leave us marginally better off but still with a greater distance than now between the richest and poorest counties. To put that in context, Staffordshire receives the lowest funding per pupil bar one other English county, and that is just not fair. Can we have a debate on the issue? In 1997, the Government promised to put the matter to rights. In this document, all four options make Staffordshire worse off, not better off.

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Gentleman fairly said—I congratulate him on his candidness—there are a number of different options in the consultative document. It is open to his local authority and to others to object to any or all of those four options if they believe that they do not make the correct division. That is why we had a consultation period. I hope that when he corresponds with his local authority and his teachers, he will point out that spending on education is now one quarter higher than it was when the Conservative party was in office and, under the forthcoming spending review, there will be a further increase. There is no local authority in England that does not now have substantially more to spend on its schools and teachers than was the case before 1997. If he would care to admit that publicly, I shall listen sympathetically to what he says about distribution.