HC Deb 13 June 2002 vol 386 cc999-1015 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House to let us have the business for next week, please?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 JUNE—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Enterprise Bill.

TUESDAY 18 JUNE—There will be a debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day-2nd Part]. Until 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the reduction of world poverty through trade, on an Opposition motion. Followed by a motion to concur with their Lordships on the establishment of a Joint Committee on the House of Lords.

THURSDAY 20 JUNE—There will be a debate on Energy: Towards 2050 on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 JUNE—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 24 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Export Control Bill.

TUESDAY 25 JUNE—Opposition Day [15th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE—Consideration Of Lords amendments that may be received to the Tax Credits Bill.

THURSDAY 27 JUNE—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on public-private partnership for London underground followed by a debate on individual learning accounts.

At 7 o'clock the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates in accordance with Standing Order No. 54(5). The list of estimates to be agreed will be advised in due course.

FRIDAY 28 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that on Monday 17 June 2002, there will be a debate relating to reception of asylum applicants in European Standing Committee B.

On Tuesday 18 June, there will be a debate relating to broad economic policy guidelines in European Standing Committee B.

The House will wish to know that I hope to make an announcement regarding the summer recess dates next week.

[Monday 17 June 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 8351/02; Reception of asylum applicants. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xxxi (2000–01);

[Tuesday 18 June 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union Documents: 8389/02; Broad Economic Policy Guidelines. Stability and Convergence Programmes: SN 1107/02; SN 1108/02; SN 1109/02; SN 1111/02; SN 1112/02; SN 1113/02; SN 1319/1/02 REV1; SN 1320/1/02 REV1; SN 1321/02; SN 1322/02; SN 1323/02; SN 1324/1/02 REV1; SN 1325/1/02 REV1; 2002/C 51/06; SN 1361/02; SN 1382/1/02 REV1; SN 1383/1/02 REV1. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xxiii and HC 152-xxxi (2001–02)].

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for letting us have the business. May I ask him when the Government intend to bring forward proposals, or a resolution, to enable the Select Committee structure to reflect the recent changes in the structure of Government Departments? Given the right hon. Gentleman's respect for the Select Committee system and the known desire of the House to maintain and strengthen it, we are all keen that those proposals should be introduced as soon as possible.

Given the excellent ten-minute Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) yesterday, may I ask the Leader of the House when the Government intend to do something about the Data Protection Act 1998? My hon. Friend should be praised for bringing this matter to the attention of the House in such a positive way. I know that it is in the mind of the Leader of the House to do something about this, but a lot of time has now passed and hon. Members are getting anxious about it. We would be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman could tell us when the Government are going to seize the issue and deal with it.

On the debate on energy next Thursday that the Leader of the House has just announced, does it not seem a little odd that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry will be on a fact-finding visit to China next week? The oddity is that the Government should select next week to debate energy, because one of the documents relevant to that debate is the Trade and Industry Committee's report on energy. I would not dream of accusing the Government—or, indeed, the Leader of the House—of sinister motives or any sort of dodgy conduct in this regard, but, given that we now know that the Select Committee will be away, I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to look again, even at this late stage, at the timing of that debate, to give the relevant Committee members an opportunity to participate in this long-awaited debate on a subject for which that Committee has responsibility. I hope that he will agree that that is not an unreasonable request.

On 20 October 1998—I refer to column 1071 of Hansard—the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asked the Deputy Prime Minister to confirm that, in June 1997, he had said: I will have failed if in five years time there are not…far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order but I urge you to hold me to it: In reply—this is set out in Hansard—the Deputy Prime Minister said: The hon. Gentleman quoted both the question and the answer and I agree to keep to that commitment: judge my performance in five years."—[Official Report, 20 October 1998; Vol. 317, c. 1071.] All that I ask the Leader of the House is this: when will he give the Deputy Prime Minister an opportunity to come to the House and be judged, as he invited us to do? That is a very straightforward question. It is straight out of Hansard—there can be no question about it.

In that context, I am sure that the House will welcome the widely quoted words of the Leader of the House yesterday. Among many other excellent statements, he said: we have failed if we allow presentation to become more important than substance. He went on to say that he was always a close admirer of John Smith, whose strength was the blunt honesty of his political style. I am sure that everybody in the House will welcome the right hon. Gentleman's words and that he speaks for all of us in this respect. The trouble is that that seems slightly at odds with what seems to be going on even now inside the Government and in several Departments.

For example, following on from the comments that I have just quoted from the Deputy Prime Minister, why were many newspapers quoting Whitehall sources as having denied what he had said? How does blunt truth and honesty come into that? Or to take a different example, when will we get to the bottom of the case of Mr. Hood, that special adviser from the Ministry of Defence who now has a highly paid and cushy job on the back of having been a special adviser? Apparently, on Monday, the Cabinet Office was saying that it had not been part of the process and that there was no need for it to be so, but that is directly at odds with what the Prime Minister said yesterday in column 858 of Hansard. He said that the process of dealing with Mr. Hood was done in consultation with the Cabinet Office in the normal way. Despite the words of the Leader of the House yesterday, we have examples of how a Department is saying one thing on the one hand, and the Prime Minister is saying something completely different on the other.

To give yet another example, what about the bizarre episode involving the Press Complaints Commission" Without going into the details—I am sure that the House would not want me to do so at this stage—all that I ask is this: who should we believe? Perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us. Should we believe No. 10 Downing street or Black Rod'? It is a pretty simple choice. I do not know which one the right hon. Gentleman believes; perhaps he will tell us. Perhaps we should have an opportunity to debate the matter in some detail, because it touches on some very important issues.

There was another bizarre episode just yesterday. In column 862 of Hansard, the Prime Minister said: I can tell the House that as a result of the new deal, the number of young people who are on the dole today is 4,500. Almost immediately, in column 867—you will recall what was said, Mr. Speaker, as you were in the Chair—my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said: the correct figure is 244,000."—[Official Report, 12 June 2002; Vol. 386. c. 858, 862–867.1 Someone is wrong and someone is right, so all I ask is that the Leader of the House give the Prime Minister the chance to come to the House as a matter of urgency and tell us whether he was right in saying that the figure was 4,500 or whether my hon. Friend the Member for Havant was right in saying that it was 244,000. There is a discrepancy and I think that we are owed the truth.

Leading directly from what the Leader of the House said yesterday—and we want to support him in what he said—all that we are asking is that he give his colleagues opportunities to come to the House to correct the record, tell the truth and put an end to all this spin and deception.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What a load of crap.

Mr. Cook

I am not quite sure how that will he reported in Hansard tomorrow. I was about to begin by welcoming the support of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for what I am trying to do.

Obviously the right hon. Gentleman has missed our weekly exchanges over the past two weeks, because he has given me a real multiple choice question this afternoon. I shall try to address all his points as briskly as I can.

On the changes to Select Committees, it is a cardinal principle of our departmental Select Committee system that the Select Committees should track the Whitehall Departments. It is therefore necessary that we should put the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee on the same footing as those Departments that now exist in Whitehall. I am keen to make sure that when we do, we do so in a way that ensures continuity of scrutiny of those Departments. For instance, the DTLR Select Committee has just commenced the study of the draft local government Bill that was published yesterday, and I would not want to see that work disrupted.

Before we rise for the summer, I intend to bring before the House a motion that will establish new Committees, but I will do so in way that ensures that there can be continuity of scrutiny and no break between one set of Committees ending and new Committees starting.

Mr. Forth

And the Chairmen?

Mr. Cook

It is not for me to decide on the Chairmen. I am very grateful to say that it is for the House to decide on the members of those Committees and for the Committees to decide on their Chairmen, thank heavens.

Moving swiftly on to safer territory, on data protection, I can say to the House that I anticipate that before the summer recess we will bring before the House a statutory instrument, and it would be my intention to address the two big problems affecting Members in their constituency work. The first is the rather bizarre argument that we should not be empowered to pass on to any third party what a constituent says to us in our surgeries. That seems topsy-turvy to me; constituents come to our surgeries in order that we then tell someone about their problem. Secondly, we want to remove from those to whom we write on behalf of the constituent any impediment to their replying frankly and openly about what they may know about that constituent's case. That would be of great assistance to Members on both sides of the House and I hope that we can take that step.

On the debate on energy, the right hon. Gentleman has been here as often as me when I have been lobbied from both sides of the House, but particularly from my right hon. and hon. Friends, on the importance of having such a debate. When I announced that debate three weeks ago, there was a broad welcome from Members in the Chamber that we were to have an opportunity to explore energy-related matters.

Mr. Forth

The Select Committee will he away.

Mr. Skinner

There's always somebody away on a junket.

Mr. Cook

I was going to express it with more dignity and respect for the Select Committee than my hon. Friend, but it is open to members of the Select Committee to be here for the debate rather than elsewhere if they choose to do so, and there will be plenty of Members who will wish to take part.

I looked at the possibility of delaying the debate but, as the House will see, the subsequent week is crowded. If I were to delay the debate, I would need to delay it for some time. That would not be welcomed by the majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends who want to proceed with this important debate.

On the question of the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will have seen the terms of the reshuffle and he will know that the Deputy Prime Minister has assumed a responsibility which will, I am sure, involve him in more exchanges in the House. If hon. Members wish to question him on any matter, they will have the opportunity to do so. However, I have to say that the key reason why we have seen increased mobility within Britain and the increase in the number of journeys is because of the remarkable success of the Government in running a sound economy with fast growth, for which we make no apology.

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's support for the speech that I made yesterday to the Press Gallery. I shall try to make sure that, on future occasions, he is in the audience in order that he may vocally support and applaud me in the course of what I say. I remind him that one of the passages that he might have found more difficult to applaud had he been there was that in which I expressed pride in the record of the Government, particularly in the way in which we have secured a sharp drop in poverty among children and, at the other end of the age spectrum, produced a sharp rise in the income of the poorest pensioners.

It is perfectly true that I offered the Press Gallery a deal, and the right hon. Gentleman accurately quoted part of it; it was that the Government should cut out the spin and cut down the packaging and that the media should concentrate more on reporting content and substance, rather than the Westminster village gossip. I very much hope that since the right hon. Gentleman is persuaded by one half of the deal, he might buy the package as a whole. Our people out there want to hear about how politics are affecting their lives, not about the lives of spin doctors and press officers.

On Andrew Hood, I should declare an interest—Andrew Hood worked for me for some eight years as a special adviser, in opposition and at the Foreign Office. I would not wish any Member to be mistaken about the interest that I have in his welfare, his future and the success of his career. The approval of his appointment to a private sector firm was indeed handled in the normal way. The Cabinet Office was consulted about the procedure—

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook

It was consulted. I am not saying that it approved the outcome, but it was consulted about, and approved, the procedure. The decision was taken not by Ministers but by officials, in full agreement with the permanent secretary. It should be stated that Mr. Hood had no dealings of a commercial character with commercial firms, and he was not closely involved with suppliers to the Ministry of Defence. Nor does his appointment at Brunswick involve his working with clients. Having said that, as somebody who wishes Mr. Hood well and who has a very high regard for him, I am not at all surprised at his securing a position of high status in the private sector. However, I am always mildly ambivalent about seeing a good man go into public relations. [Laughter.]

On the numbers involved in the new deal, what the Prime Minister said yesterday reflects entirely accurately the number of long-term young unemployed who have been unemployed for more than 12 months. Whatever definition the right hon. Gentleman chooses to apply—6 months or 12 months, new deal or otherwise—any figures that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister produces for long-term young unemployed people will be lower than those recorded when the right hon. Gentleman's party were in office. That improvement is another thing of which I am proud.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I suggest to the Leader of the House that we could all have been in his audience if the speech that he made to the Press Gallery had been made in the House? Why did he choose to talk to the media about their role in sleaze, spin and funding of democracy? Surely such a speech should be made only here. Why has he denied on several occasions on Thursday afternoons that the Government have any new proposals on the state funding of democracy? As recently as 23 May, he told me at business questions that there was no such proposal, but he seems now to be saying that there is a new proposal. Can we have an urgent statement and a debate in the House on the funding of democracy?

I also remind the Leader of the House that, on 23 May, he promised me that he would examine the outcome of the war pensions appeal tribunal's decision in the case of Shaun Rusling. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, according to a tribunal report, the Ministry of Defence changed the terms of the submission to avoid any responsibility for Gulf war syndrome. May I ask him to expedite a statement from the Secretary of State?

The Leader of the House will be aware that, next Tuesday and Wednesday, the US congressional sub-committee on national security, veteran affairs and international relations will hold unprecedented hearings in Parliament—in Portcullis House—on Gulf war veterans and Gulf war syndrome. I ask that we have the Secretary of State's statement on the Rusling case before those hearings take place, given that they are material to it.

In view of the squalid little conspiracy between Conservative and Labour Whips on 16 May, which defeated the right hon. Gentleman's own proposals for more transparent and open appointments to Select Committees, has he received appropriate assurances that appointments to the new Transport Select Committee will not be interfered with in that way, and that the appointment of the Chairman will not be subject to such interference?

Mr. Cook

The simple and straightforward answer to the question of why I spoke to members of the Press Gallery is that they invited me to do so. Indeed, I should tell the House that there may well be future occasions when I accept invitations to speak outside this House. I stand entirely by what I said to the hon. Gentleman in our previous exchanges: there are no Government proposals for state funding of political parties, nor did I pretend yesterday that there were. However, as I have said, there is a debate as to whether there should be such funding.

As I observed to the Press Gallery yesterday, its members have put beyond all doubt the fact that business donations are open to innocent misconstruction, and that has certainly been the role of the press in this matter in the past six months. Donations by, and funding from, the electorate as a whole are not open to such misconstruction. It is my personal view—I do not claim to speak for the Government collectively—that the credibility of Parliament is being undermined by the current argument over funding of political parties. We cannot have parliamentary democracy without political parties, and we cannot have political parties unless they are funded. I believe that the best, most secure and most transparent way to fund political parties that is least open to misconstruction is from the public purse. I have no doubt that, in future, we will return to the issue on several occasions in the Chamber.

As I recall, when the hon. Gentleman asked me about the tribunal ruling and Gulf war syndrome before the recess, I said that the Ministry of Defence will want to consider carefully the judgment and respond in due course. I shall certainly draw Ministers' attention to the hon. Gentleman's view that due course has now arrived and that it is time that the MOD expressed its view on the tribunal ruling and gave its response.

Little new can be said about the vote in May. I am pleased that a majority of Labour MPs voted for reform, and I regret that I did not have a majority of the Labour Whips voting with me for reform. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip was a paragon of virtue on that occasion. As for any future appointment to a Select Committee that will arise from the orders that I shall put before the House, I remind the House that the Labour party has already changed its procedures and the decisions will be made by the party, not by just the Whips.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

Within the context of five years of outstanding management of the economy, when will the Government tackle the problem of the two-speed economy, which discriminates against areas such as the north-east that are strong in manufacturing, to the extent that despite continuous growth we have fallen further behind the nation as a whole? May we have a debate on that issue?

Mr. Cook

I would stress to my right hon. Friend that the Government have placed strong emphasis on regional policy. That is why we have introduced the regional development agencies and recently published a White Paper on the potential for regional government for those regions that wish it. On economic policy, it is a remarkable and substantial achievement of this Government that unemployment in every region of the UK is now lower than the EU average. I share my right hon. Friend's concern about manufacturing and he will be aware that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made a specific statement on her strategy for manufacturing. The issue is at the front of her concerns and we will continue to do all that we can to ensure that manufacturing shares in the remarkable growth and success of the British economy.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can the Leader of the House tell us how the Chancellor is getting on with his comprehensive spending review? Can he give a date when the Chancellor will make a statement to the House? Against the background of what the Leader of the House has just said, can he assure us, first, that the outcome of the CSR will not be trailed, leaked or spun to the press and that the House will hear it first and, secondly, that we will have an adequate opportunity to debate it?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that the spending review will be of great importance to Government, Parliament and the nation and, therefore, must be adequately considered in the House. I have no doubt that that will take place. However, I would be in grave difficulty with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and many other members of the Cabinet if I were to reveal now what will happen in the spending review. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his invitation, but I will resist temptation. As for the date, I anticipate that it will be before we rise for the summer recess, but I cannot go further than that now.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

On Wednesday night, we will be presented with a list of names for the new Joint Committee that will consider the reform of the House of Lords, but no one has asked me if I want to join the Committee. I feel that I have something to contribute, and I think that my hon. Friends would agree with me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I would like this to be taken as a formal application to join the Committee and I look forward to hearing the response from the Leader of the House.

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to respond by saying that I take note of my hon. Friend's application, although I hope that it will not be a precedent for the remainder of the business statement to be turned into applications for membership of the Joint Committee. I anticipate that the names will be tabled on Monday night and will appear on the Order Paper on Tuesday, so that we may have a full debate on Wednesday.

Mr. Forth

It has all been decided. It is long done.

Mr. Cook

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that nothing has been decided and will not be decided until Monday when we table the motion. However, I draw the House's attention to the fact that we have provided—by agreement with the Opposition, for which I am grateful—for a three-hour debate on the motion on Wednesday. That is right, given the importance of that Committee and the Government's innovation in proposing a Joint Committee and asking Parliament to decide that important policy question. The House should welcome the opportunity to express a view.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

I thank the shadow Leader of the House for his kind remarks and I welcome the announcement by the Leader of the House that he will introduce a statutory instrument to solve some of the problems with data protection by the summer recess. As the Member who moved a ten-minute Bill on the subject yesterday, I am grateful to hear that. In the right hon. Gentleman's negotiations—presumably with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Information Commissioner—will he concentrate on the question of so-called sensitive personal data, as defined in the Data Protection Act 1998, as that appears to be the principal sticking point, in particular in correspondence with social services departments and national health service trusts?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers and I thank him for having ventilated it in the Chamber in a way that received support from both sides. The sensitive information is the nub of the problem. In truth, we cannot serve our constituents when they come to see us about matters to do with the health service, for example, if we cannot have a free and frank exchange with the relevant authorities about such sensitive data. That is why we will be introducing a statutory instrument that will enable us to carry out a representational function that none of us thought would be impeded when we passed the 1998 Act.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Following last Monday's welcome statement, may we have further opportunities to consider India and Pakistan? May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 633?

[That this House urges the Governments of India and Pakistan to seek to resolve their differences peacefully and to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict.]

That motion has already attracted the support of 417 Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum, including prominent supporters of each of those countries. It reflects the extent to which Parliament shares the Government's grave concern that, notwithstanding recent progress, there remains a high risk that confrontation could turn into war, which could go nuclear, bringing terrible suffering and death to many millions of people in southern and even central Asia.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that that remains a matter of concern and that too much tension remains within the subcontinent. I very much welcome the steps that have been taken recently on both sides to reduce that tension. I hope that we can accelerate those steps so that it is clear that both sides have backed away from any attempt at a military solution to a problem that can be resolved only through diplomatic progress and a greater rapprochement between the two countries, both of which we regard as our friends. Obviously, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be considering developments carefully. Should there he a requirement for a further statement, I am sure that he will wish to make one to the House.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Leader of the House will be aware that on Tuesday, Mr. Speaker kindly allowed me to raise, under Standing Order No. 24, the redundancies at Fisher Foods, where 400 people have already been made redundant and there may be another 1,000 job losses in the community. He has also kindly allowed me an Adjournment debate on the subject next Thursday. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Government Departments are involved, namely, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? What mechanism exists to try to co-ordinate the approach of those Departments and what advice would the right hon. Gentleman give me?

Mr. Cook

If I remember correctly, the company to which the hon. Gentleman refers is the same company that was involved in the closures at Peterhead, with which we dealt in a business statement just before the recess. As I said then, Government Departments are very willing to assist in any way that is valuable or relevant to find alternative buyers and an alternative future for the employees. I fully understand his concern and that of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) that the plants that are at risk—and the work force who face redundancy—are highly profitable, successful and have made a large amount of investment. It is important that we do all that we can to ensure that they can continue in production if at all possible. In the first instance, that is a matter for the private sector, but we stand ready to help in any way we can to find alternative management so that production can continue and to assist the work force should they face redundancy and loss of employment. There is a well worn and well trod path of co-operation through which those Departments will put in a joint task force to assist the work force and the local economy. Since the hon. Gentleman invited my advice, I suggest that he discusses that with the DTI and the DWP.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I am sure that the Leader of the House is aware that today the United States formally withdraws from the anti-ballistic missile treaty so that it can develop its national missile defence system. I draw his attention to early-day motion 1279, in which hon. Members express their concern about the matter.

[That this House notes the death of the ABM treaty in mid-June owing to USA withdrawal and recognises that the United States Government is now free to request use of Menwith Hill and Fylingdales as part of its proposed missile defence system; further notes that any use of these bases for a missile defence system will directly affect the people of the United Kingdom and that as yet their representatives have had no chance to express their views on the proposals in parliament; and urges the United Kingdom Government to call an urgent debate in the House before any such system is considered.]

Given the awful effects that the development of that system could have on world peace and the threat to this country in particular if the facilities at Fylingdales and Menwith Hill are used, will he assure the House that those facilities will not be made available and that time is allowed for an urgent debate on the matter, which surely affects all of us?

Mr. Cook

We have had no request for the use of those facilities for any such new purpose. Should such a request be made and should the Government reach a view on it, I am sure that the matter will be debated and explored in the House. In the meantime, surely we must all welcome the recent historic agreement between the United States and Russia to achieve historic cuts in their nuclear arsenals, taking us to levels that we had never hoped to secure. I very much welcome the agreement that has been reached between those two countries, which are of course the only signatories to the anti-ballistic missile treaty.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

As we Ulster Scots would say, "There's mair than yin moose loose aboot this Hoose". I have seen a mouse in the Terrace cafeteria, in the Members' Tea Room and, indeed, in the House of Lords. Is the Leader of the House taking seriously early-day motion 1393?

[That this House is concerned at the large number of mice which currently reside in the Palace of Westminster including the dining rooms; believes that it would be fiscally prudent for the Sergeant at Arm's Department to invest in a House of Commons cat to try to tackle this problem; and calls upon the House of Commons Administration Committee to investigate this matter.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman address the problem? As a cat lover and with some experience, I know that, as the mice do not discriminate between the Lords and the Commons, the problem will have to be addressed in similar ways. Will the right hon. Gentleman accept my advice that the females of the species are much better hunters than tom cats?

Mr. Cook

I understand the concern that prompts the hon. Gentleman's question. The Chairman of the Catering Committee, with his characteristic vision and foresight, suggested some years ago that we might employ a cat in the House. I have some sympathy with the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that if there was a House of Commons cat it would rapidly become spoilt and overfed and would compete with us for the use of the sofas in the Library. As the proud owner of two Scottish terriers, I might move the modest amendment that we should try a Scottish terrier.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

The Leader of the House will be aware of concerns that terrorist groups can obtain materials to produce nuclear weapons. He will also be aware that Governments of different political philosophies already have such weapons and that if they are used they would be just as catastrophic as if they had been deployed by terrorist groups. Because of the consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, can time be set aside for a debate on weapons of mass destruction?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I can promise the House the opportunity for a specific debate on weapons of mass destruction, although the issue frequently arises when we debate other matters—notably, for instance, in relation to our anxiety to ensure that Saddam Hussein does not succeed in his ambition to acquire such weapons. I am sure that my hon. Friend would back the Government fully in our efforts to ensure that that does not happen.

I wholly share my hon. Friend's view as to the importance of ensuring that we guarantee that the non-proliferation regimes are as healthy and strong as possible. I also share the view that, as we have managed to secure an end to the cold war and a reduction of tension in the northern hemisphere, we may be becoming complacent about the degree of risk from nuclear weapons elsewhere. It is in the interest of us all to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used in any circumstances, whether by Governments or non-governmental bodies.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Prime Minister or, even better, a debate on early-day motion 1412?

[That this House is concerned to see the name of the honourable Member for Swindon North still listed on the official 10 Downing Street website as one of eight former Government ministers who had resigned; notes that the honourable Member was reported by the media as long ago as 2nd June to have been appointed Minister for Information Technology and Criminal Justice at the Home Office, but that this appointment had still not been listed on the Home Office Ministerial Team page of the official Home Office website by 10th June; and calls upon the Prime Minister to consult with other relevant Cabinet ministers to clarify the position.]

The early-day motion concerns the status of the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills). The Leader of the House may be aware that on 29 May the Government reshuffle announced that the Queen had accepted the resignations of eight Ministers, including the hon. Gentleman. On 2 June, however, the press reported that the hon. Gentleman had been appointed a junior Home Office Minister, yet for a full fortnight after the first announcement the official No. 10 website recorded that the hon. Gentleman had indeed resigned and that the Queen had accepted that resignation. Only yesterday, after the tabling of the early-day motion by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), was the official website altered. It now states that the hon. Member for North Swindon has indeed been appointed an Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department and that he is driving forward the reform to business processes and working practices … to deliver a modern and joined up Criminal Justice System". It does not sound very joined up to me. Even today, when one enters the words "Michael" and "Wills" on the search engine of the Home Office website, why can one find no trace of him?

Mr. Cook

I have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that I have not had the leisure to peruse the websites as frequently and with such diligence as he has, and I am sure that the House is grateful to him for his explanation of his experience of surfing the Home Office website. My hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills) is indeed now at the Home Office, and I understand that he will be in action next week when he presents a Home Office statutory instrument.

If I may allude to an earlier exchange in the House, I have found my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon extremely helpful in the matter of data protection. If we are successful in carrying that statutory instrument, I would want my hon. Friend's role to be properly recognised.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

Greenpeace has responded to the Prime Minister's speech on science by suggesting that the application of science in the future should become some sort of popularity contest, ignoring completely the fact that, unless scientists are allowed to get on with their research, we will not have any technology to apply in the first place. When will we debate science? When will we debate the Prime Minister's speech? When will we get an opportunity also to put ideas such as creationism firmly in the file marked "crackpot"?

Mr. Cook

I am very firmly of the view that those who teach science in our schools should stick very closely to established and agreed scientific fact and that we should not confuse that process by offering our school children an alternative perspective that has no sound scientific basis. I am not sure that one can readily argue that it is good teaching if children are offered as equally valid a scientific and a non-scientific explanation, and my hon. Friends at the Department for Education and Skills have to reflect on that matter with great care.

On the central point that my hon. Friend makes, I totally agree with him on the importance of our pursuing and providing every opportunity for scientific research. None of us, sometimes including those who are involved in the research, knows what may come of it at the end of the day, and we should not prejudge it before we start.

I entirely share my hon. Friend's wish for science to be debated properly. I particularly welcome the bid for the House to debate the Prime Minister's speech; I am always happy to consider such bids favourably. Given the crowded schedule of legislation that we have to clear before the summer recess, I cannot promise that that will be possible on that timetable, but we shall certainly consider my hon. Friend's wish, which the Prime Minister will share, to consider carefully his very good speech on science policy and its importance to our nation.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

I am not certain whether the Leader of the House has been able to read the excellent report, published this week by the European Scrutiny Committee, entitled "European Scrutiny in the Commons", among the conclusions of which was the concern of members of that Committee, including myself, that not all information about EU discussions relevant to the devolved administrations and legislatures has been forwarded to them by UK Departments. The Committee has received some documentation from various Departments in which they confirmed that they had not been forwarding key documents about Council of Ministers' meetings. That contradicts parliamentary answers, stating that information is shared, to written questions that I have tabled, as well as assurances by the United Kingdom Government and Ministries that agendas would be distributed, and it breaches the spirit of the concordats signed with the devolved Administrations.

Since the publication of that report, the European Scrutiny Committee has received information from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about who will receive the agendas for this week's Council of Ministers' meeting on fisheries, but it does not mention the Scottish Executive, nor the Administrations of Wales or Northern Ireland. That is of great concern to members of the European Scrutiny Committee and hon. Members from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Will the Leader of the House find the time for us to debate that matter?

Mr. Cook

I have read the Committee's recommendations. I regret to say that I have not yet had time this week to read the full argument leading up to those recommendations, but I thought that that would be a satisfying way in which to pass part of this weekend.

On the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raises, as Foreign Secretary I oversaw the agreement of the concordats between ourselves and the devolved bodies. I am very keen that we ensure that we honour not only the letter but the spirit of those agreements. By and large, relations between central Government and the devolved bodies over presentation in Brussels have worked well, and it has been a good partnership, but we shall certainly look carefully at whether there is any way of improving the distribution of documents as part of that process.

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)

Will my right hon. Friend allocate time for an early debate on the actions of e-SURE, the internet insurer, which has announced that it will be considering withdrawing the option of cover for up to 10 per cent. of its customers because of where they live? Does he agree that that breaks the moratorium that has been agreed with the rest of the industry? Will he consider how the industry designates a flood area? Sealand in my constituency has not flooded to any serious extent for more than 200 years, yet it is considered at high risk.

Mr. Cook

I am not an expert on the areas to which my hon. Friend refers, but 200 years seems to be a fairly solid basis on which to make an insurance judgment for the future.

The matter came up yesterday during Prime Minister's questions, and I remind the House that the Government are investing several hundred million pounds in trying to ensure that we improve flood defences in order that no substantive population should have to experience the difficulty to which my hon. Friend refers.

As we work hard to try to ensure that we secure the future of properties and communities, and that no household is disadvantaged by its location and the flooding that we have come to expect over recent years, I hope that the private sector will consider how it can assist, and that the insurance industry in particular will reflect on whether it is wise to act at the very time that we are trying to ensure less flooding rather than more.

Mr. Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness)

Will the Leader of the House please find time for a full and urgent debate on the crisis in national health service dentistry? In my constituency, particularly in Boston, 2,000 people have recently been deregistered from an NHS dental practice, others are having to wait more than three years to be allocated an NHS dentist, and both adults and children are not able to access dental care—either routine or urgent. In a low-wage area such as my constituency, the crisis is causing great hurt to those who are hardest hit.

Mr. Cook

We are seeking to put more money into NHS dentistry, as we are into all parts of the NHS, and we are trying to ensure that members of the public have access to NHS services. The hon. Gentleman is sadly mistaken if he imagines that the problem has arisen only recently. I do not know what he was saying to his own Government when they were in power for 18 years, but during that period, particularly latterly, they dramatically increased charges for NHS dentistry. It was perfectly clear to those of us in opposition at the time that there was a clear strategy to make NHS dentistry so expensive that more and more dentists and patients would be driven into the private sector. We saw the problem coming for the public; it is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge it until it was happening.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Could time be found for a debate on the appalling behaviour of some loan sharks—in fact, all loan sharks? I refer to that because one has had a particularly terrible impact on one of my constituents, Doris Armstrong, who has successfully seen him off through the courts. He was an appalling example of the sleazy end of the financial services industry. If it were not for the courage of Doris in taking him through the courts, she would now be homeless due to a loan for £2,000 that she took out 10 years ago and has repaid—I think—three times over.

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend's constituent on her courage and determination and her success in the courts. At the bottom end of the financial services market, unscrupulous people are charging wholly intolerable interest rates that would never be contemplated by those who had sufficient income to pick and choose from whom they were taking money and the borrowing undertaken. It is right that those unscrupulous people should be exposed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on having raised a very important issue in the Chamber.

We have just reorganised financial services regulation and I hope that will result in proper and proportionate attention being paid to those at the bottom of the market who exploit the poverty of the most desperate.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Will the Leader the House find time soon for a discussion on the availability of advanced drugs in the national health service? To give two examples, visudyne can prevent blindness in cases of macular degeneration and glivec halts the progress of myeloid leukaemia in seven out of 10 cases. Both drugs are readily available in most European countries but are not readily available in the United Kingdom. That must be wrong. As one consultant has said: When we have one of the hest drugs that was ever invented nobody will let us use it. It is bonkers. This policy is costing lives Could be therefore have a debate on the terms of reference of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence?

Mr. Cook

It was a decision of the Government that we should make sure that decisions as to whether drugs can be prescribed on the NHS should be taken not by politicians, but by medical and scientific experts. That is why we set up NICE. Not all NICE's recommendations have met with universal political and public approval and some have resulted in controversy. However, I still believe that the principle is sound and right. As a member of the Cabinet, I have not the least scientific qualification by which I can judge a prescription or a drug. It is right that we should have an independent body to advise us, and we should be very careful before we depart from the advice that it offers us after careful consideration.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May I repeat the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) for a debate on the implications for the United Kingdom of today's American withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty? My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House legitimately says that we have currently received no requests from the American Administration for the use of Menwith Hill or Fylingdales for their national missile defence programme. However, when asked the same question, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence points out that, although there are existing budget lines in the American budget for upgrading work at both establishments for the new star wars programme, the Ministry of Defence says that it is a matter for the United States Administration and not for the United Kingdom. Surely, it is important that the House debates the wisdom or folly of any UK involvement in the nuclearisation of space and the consequences—catastrophic as they may be—for our involvement in that process.

Mr. Cook

I do not deny the importance of us having a debate on an important issue for our country that has wider repercussions for the state of arms control on the globe. However, when we have that debate, it must be founded not on something that may be proposed by the United States in its budget but on a request that it makes to the Government. When we receive a request, I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will respond and I am sure that any response will be a matter for debate and exchanges in the House.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

I should like to ask the Leader of the House a question about the use of the Parliament Act, a tool that is used to ensure that the will of the elected House is not in the end blocked by the House of Lords. Is it his and the Government's view that the procedure should be used to ensure that votes on large majorities in this House can find their way into legislation even when they are delivered in a free vote? Or is the tool to be used only to defend Government-backed policy and Government Bills? In other words, can the Government be trusted to use the Parliament Act to defend the will of the House as expressed in a free vote or is it used to defend just Government Bills and Government policy?

Mr. Cook

I will need to do some research in my weekend reading. However, as I recall it, the Parliament Act does not make any distinction between a vote in the House on a party basis and a free vote. It would therefore apply equally to both.

The hon. Gentleman's question is slightly elliptic, but the Government are seeking a consensus on a way forward on—if I can use a word he avoided—hunting. Whether we shall be able to secure that consensus remains to be seen, but we have promised a free vote in the House. Thereafter, the legislation will take its course.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

May I also welcome the Prime Minister's speech to the Royal Society on 23 May in support of science and the remarks by the Chancellor echoing that speech at the Amicus conference in Blackpool? However, not everything is rosy in the arena of science. The Roberts report brought some of the problems to the notice of the House. There are also problems with science teaching in schools, and science departments in universities continue to close. Salford university had the largest chemistry department, in which I used to work, in Britain in the 1970s. Last week, it announced its closure with a terrible loss of resources, including staff and library facilities. May I underline the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) that we have a debate on science? I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will allow that to happen as soon as possible in the autumn.

Mr. Cook

I shall certainly put down the interest in a debate on science as something for us to consider when the opportunity arises. I welcome what my hon. Friend says in praise of the speeches by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I always welcome the opportunity to support and agree with as many speeches as possible by my Cabinet colleagues.

As my hon. Friend underlines, there is a commitment to science at a high level in the Government. We certainly want to ensure that we maintain the strong, excellent and necessary infrastructure that we have in science teaching and research in this country.

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