HC Deb 07 March 2002 vol 381 cc417-36 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House give us 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 11 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No.2) Bill.

TUESDAY 12 MARCH—Opposition Day [11th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on "The Quality of Life in London and the South East" arising on an Opposition motion.

I understand that it will be a full day's debate, but the right hon. Gentleman might confirm that shortly.

WEDNESDAY 13 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 14 MARCH—Debate on women and equality on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 15 MARCH—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 18 MARCH—Debate on hunting. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that it has received so much consensus in the House.

TUESDAY 19 MARCH—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 20 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Adoption and Children Bill.

THURSDAY 21 MARCH—There will be a debate on education: 14 to 19-year-olds on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 22 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

The House may wish to be reminded that subject to the progress of business the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Tuesday 26 March and return on Tuesday 9 April.

The House will wish to know that on Monday 18 March 2002 there will be a debate relating to enlargement in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Monday 18 March 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 14117/01 and Addenda 1–13, The European Commission strategy paper on enlargement and reports on progress by applicants; 5745/02, Common Financial Framework 2004–2006 for Accession Negotiations. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xv and HC 152-xx (2001–02).]

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for providing us with the forthcoming business.

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt be aware that at 11 o'clock this morning the Transport Committee produced its latest report, HC 680, on the public-private partnership for the London Underground. Extraordinarily, one of its conclusions is: The decision of the Secretary of State to proceed with the PPP on the back of such a vapid concluding statement from his independent advisers, Ernst & Young, must be questioned. A Select Committee with a Labour majority—all Select Committees have such a majority—has questioned the decision of the Secretary of State for Transport. Local Government and the Regions. Members of the Committee are not the first persons to question his decisions, and they certainly will not be the last. The Committee then adds: It is essential that the Government allows Members a debate and vote in the House of Commons on a substantive motion on the future of the London Underground and the PPP. Given the enormous respect that the Leader of the House has for Select Committees and his stated desire greatly to enhance their role, I am sure that he will be only too eager to confirm that there will not only be an early debate on this very important report, but that it will be on a substantive motion. I hope that he will be able to do that.

One of today's newspapers contains the headline, "Railtrack fiasco has shattered Blair's credibility in the City". It refers to the pronouncement by top fund managers in the City that said that the recent decision on Railtrack has shattered business trust in the Government. The report adds that future private investment in public projects would be more expensive because of the perception of increased risk. The surcharge has been dubbed 'the Byers premium'". Another newspaper quotes the Secretary of State for Transport as undaunted by all that and reports: Mr. Byers claimed that the fund managers had fundamentally misunderstood the situation. Railtrack was a wholly private company". That was not the impression that Labour Back Benchers had last week when they were only too eager to support the beleaguered Secretary of State when he appeared in the House. So will the Leader of the House tell us now or make arrangements to confirm later whether, as the Secretary of State claimed to the City, Railtrack is private or whether the Secretary of State wishes his colleagues to think that it is not private? May we have confirmation one way or another?

Today's edition of the Daily Mail has the headline, "Mittal: it gets worse". May we have a debate entitled, "How many Government Departments can you buy for £125,000"? We know, do we not, that No. 10 Downing street can be bought. We know that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be bought. Now it would appear that the Home Office can also be bought for that same £125,000. Has the Leader of the House been briefed to reply to the question whether this story about the Home Office and Mittal is true? In a friendly gesture, I would just sound a slight health warning for the Leader of the House, reminding him to be careful what he might say about any briefing that he has had. The truth is, is it not—it is now perfectly obvious—that the Government have been bought again? I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to clarify this latest story about the rather ghastly Mr. Mittal.

Yesterday, Richard Balfe, the most senior Labour Member of the European Parliament, joined the Conservative party. It is interesting that—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

You can have him.

Mr. Forth

I hear the hon. Gentleman—

Mr. Skinner

He is in favour of the euro.

Mr. Forth

When giving his reasons for joining the Conservative party, Mr. Balfe accused the Prime Minister of ruling Labour by fear, and then he said, as reported in The Daily Telegraph, that the Tory party under lain Duncan Smith is a tolerant party that accepts differing opinions and encourages debate. It is just as well; otherwise some of us might not survive very long.

I introduce the subject of Mr. Balfe because he obviously feels that there is no scope within the Labour party for any sort of debate or difference of view, and I remind the Leader of the House that recently, at this Dispatch Box, I had to defend his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) from a vicious attack by none other than the Foreign Secretary. Now I find that I must try to defend the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway), who has been viciously attacked by his supposed hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). At column 88WH—I cannot imagine what that stands for—of yesterday's Hansard, the junior Minister said about his alleged hon. Friend that he was an apologist…a mouthpiece, for the Iraqi regime over many years. That then gave rise to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin saying: The Minister is a liar and The Minister told a lie about me."—[Official Report, 6 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 88WH.] Will the Leader of the House take his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary aside and give him some quiet advice on how Ministers should stop abusing Labour Back Benchers to such an extent, otherwise they will all leave his party and join mine?

Mr. Cook

The Conservative party must be more desperate for members than we imagined if the right hon. Gentleman really hopes that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) will defect to it. My hon. Friend is making a personal statement later this afternoon. I shall listen to it with interest, but I do not anticipate that the climax of that will be his joining the tolerant party of the right hon. Gentleman.

As for Mr. Richard Balfe, I am trying to come to terms with his departure with all the equanimity that I can muster, and the right hon. Gentleman will need all the equanimity that he can muster to work with him as a colleague, particularly on the euro.

I will, of course, study with care the Transport Committee's report, but I remind the House and the right hon. Gentleman—this seems to have slipped his mind— that the conclusion of the Ernst and Young study was that the analysis on which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport spoke was robust. I will, of course, consider whether we should hold a further debate on that matter. The House has considered the issue on a number of occasions, and I am sure that it will do so again.

On the City and the funding of public-private partnerships, may I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, despite the alarmism that he seeks to spread further, since last summer there have been 44 new PPPs signed with City firms without any problem about their coming forward and offering the funding. Indeed, the Chiltern line, which will be known to several of his hon. Friends given that, on the whole, it serves areas that managed to survive their debacles at the last two general elections, has just attracted £370 million of private finance without anyone complaining about additional risk premium or the risk of that funding.

Of course, a fundamental question remains, which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are for ever failing to answer. If they had found themselves in the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, are they really saying that they would have paid out the money to Railtrack and left it in the hands not just of a private legal company, but one with private shareholders whom it repeatedly put before the travelling public, who are glad to see the back of it?

The right hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to hear that I can help him on Mr. Mittal and the newspaper story. First, the correspondence began with a request from the Belgian authorities, not with any request from Mr. Mittal. Secondly, Mr. Mittal is not under any investigation by the Belgian authorities; on the contrary, they were seeking evidence from him as a witness against one of his competitors. [HON. MEMBERS: "Corns."] [Laughter.] I honestly do not understand what Opposition Members find in any way amusing about our seeking perfectly properly to assist another European country with a legal investigation that it is carrying out.

I heard the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) say this morning that such things never happened during his time at the Home Office. It may therefore help him if I say that the organisation that handles and processes such correspondence—the UK central authority for mutual legal assistance—was set up in 1990 by the Conservative party. Every year, it deals with some 4,000 items of correspondence from other judicial authorities. When the right hon. and learned Member was Home Secretary it undoubtedly processed many thousands of identical requests. I suppose that we should be grateful to him for having made it clear that he had no idea whatever what was being done by the Home Office while he was Home Secretary. If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would like to debate that further, I would welcome it.

As we are on the topic of Mr. Mittal, I would welcome a debate in which we could explore from where came the £43 million in donations that the Conservative party received in its last year in office. Conservative Members have never come clean as to who they received that money from or what they did for them, but we know one or two of the donors.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Asil Nadir.

Mr. Cook

They received £400,000 from Asil Nadir, as my hon. Friend cries out, on the basis of his fraudulent company in northern Cyprus. They promised that they would return that money, but they never did so. I understand that they have just received several million from Lord Ashcroft, who, when he was appointed as a peer, said that he would like to be known as Lord Ashcroft of Belize. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to explore those matters further in a debate, we would be delighted to do so, and we would like to hear some answers.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the "What the Papers Say" script that we have just heard from the shadow Leader of the House, he was certainly right about one thing: the greater tolerance of the current leader of the Conservative party, who showed himself tolerant enough to appoint the right hon. Gentleman as shadow Leader of the House?

May I thank my right hon. Friend for confirming the debate on hunting in the provisional business for 18 March? Will he confirm to me—as a Labour Member who, when in government, used the Parliament Act to obtain the enactment of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977—that there is no obstacle whatever to using the Parliament Act to enact a new Bill passed by this House in this Parliament? Will he therefore assure me that, if the will of the House makes it very clear that it wishes a complete ban on hunting with hounds, the Government will ensure that such a Bill is passed, using the Parliament Act if necessary?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend will be aware that I said in response to questions last week that we will have a vote on hunting on 18 March and, indeed, so will the other place. Thereafter, the Minister for Rural Affairs will be seeking to find a way forward and will make proposals before the Easter recess. That will involve legislation at some stage, but it is a bit premature to speculate about a point which, on that timetable, is not likely to arise for at least another 18 months.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I assure the Leader of the House that we, too, would support a debate on the failed privatisation of Railtrack and its relevance to the part-privatisation of the tube, if only because we could then establish whether the Conservative party was still in favour of privatisation, having botched it the first time around?

May I ask that we have a debate as early as possible on the private purchase of politicians? The Leader of the House may recall that, a few weeks ago, he gave a dismissive reply to my request for such a debate on its relevance to the future funding of democracy in this country. Today it is reported that his right hon. Friend the chairman of the Labour party has been having secret talks with the chairman of the Conservative party on the subject of state funding for the political parties and the political process. I do not know whether this is a private fight, or whether anyone can join in.

May I suggest that that debate should take place in this House and not behind the scenes between the representatives of the two dinosaur parties? There is genuine public concern about the extent to which successive Governments—the Leader of the House referred to this just now—have been dependent on private donations. We need to establish once and for all what those poor, benighted creatures were doing in making those contributions and whether they got value for money.

May we have a statement before Easter on the subject of Lords reform? The Leader of the House said that he was seeking a centre of gravity. The excellent and unanimous report by the Select Committee on Public Administration offers him an opportunity to create precisely that consensus and centre of gravity. Can I suggest that now the consultation period is long over, and that his White Paper—[Interruption.] Not the Leader of the House's White Paper; the Lord Chancellor's White Paper—I am sorry to have maligned the right hon. Gentleman in that way. Now that the Lord Chancellor's White Paper has been thoroughly discussed, it is time for the House to move on.

Mr. Cook

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his characterisation of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and me as members of the dinosaur parties. In fairness to my colleagues, I am entitled to point out that the party of Gladstone is somewhat older than the party that I represent. The hon. Gentleman might wish to reflect on where the tag of "the oldest party" should be attached.

May I deal with the point about political parties by stepping back and looking at it a little more widely than I am afraid the media do? Our parliamentary democracy cannot function without political parties; that is the nature of democracy. We require political parties to be in good health and to have some source of funding. If it is the case that the media and some hon. Members are moving to the view that private donations are unacceptable, there has to be an acceptance of alternative ways in which political parties are funded. That is why it is entirely legitimate for members of both parties to have discussions and to explore and debate whether there should be state funding. There is no commitment to that on the part of the Government and I think that the chairman of the Conservative party might have some difficulty in carrying all the members of the Conservative Front Bench on this question.

Mr. Forth

indicated assent.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful for that confirmation.

On the issue of House of Lords reform and the hon. Gentleman's point about the Public Administration Committee, I welcome one general point about the report, which is that it proves that it is possible for those who want reform of the second Chamber to reach agreement on what should be the shape of that reform. What has repeatedly worried me—I have expressed this to the House—is that, for decades, we have failed to proceed with root and branch reform of the second Chamber because those who are in favour of reform have been unable to agree on the shape of it. The Select Committee has done us a service by proving unanimously and without division that those in favour of reform are able to reach agreement. I am encouraged by that to continue with the search for a centre of gravity. I am also encouraged to recognise that doing nothing need not be an option.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In yesterday's Hansard, the Prime Minister replied to me: When decisions do have to be taken on Iraq, of course we will come and consult the House properly as we should."—[Official Report, 6 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 297.] Could it be confirmed next week that such consultation will take place before there is a commitment to military action, and not after?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristically helpful question. May I gently point out to him that the Prime Minister said that no decision has been taken, and no one anticipates one being taken in the near or medium future? Indeed, there is no timetable or process by which such a decision could be taken. It would therefore be ludicrously premature for me as Leader of the House to commit myself to what the House may do in the event of a hypothetical outcome that is not expected for many months.

In any event, the Government have demonstrated, with the recent crisis in Afghanistan, a willingness, enthusiasm and keenness to hear from the House. We have had five separate full-day debates on that issue in which, if I remember rightly, my hon. Friend was careful to give his views at length, as I am sure he will do when we debate it again.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

May we have a statement on the Government's relations with industry and trade unions? Yesterday in the House the Prime Minister said that the concerns of City fund managers about the financing of public-private projects were motivated by self-interest. Today we read on the front page of The Times that he is crawling back to them by reneging on pledges on workers' rights that he has made to trade unions. Can the Prime Minister make a clear statement to the House on where he stands? Now that we all know the way in which the Government operate, can we be told how much more money the unions would have to pay the Government to get a change of policy?

Mr. Cook

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman gives me an opportunity to correct the statements in this morning's press. We issued a consultation document last September on the preservation of pension rights. It listed a number of options that have been out for consultation. They are being discussed in the Government and no decision has been made.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the considerable disquiet in companies up and down the country because of the demise of final salary occupational pension schemes? Will he make time for a debate on the Floor of the House on that important issue to reassure the many people who are worried and to see what can be done to support them?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a profound and serious issue for the nation. Many of us are going to live longer than before, so it is all the more important to ensure that there are adequate pension schemes to take people through what will also be a longer period of retirement. I very much regret the decline in the number of final year pension schemes. I note that some of the companies that have started the process of erosion of those schemes have not shown any erosion in the pensions they award to their senior executives. I will convey my hon. Friend's observations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I assure him that the Government will follow the issue closely.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on the general concern about Iraq? Will the right hon. Gentleman try to arrange an early debate on the Floor of the House, led by the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister, on Iraq? Will he consider publishing at an early date a document that sets out and identifies the chief areas of concern in the context of Iraq? In the event of the Government deciding to take or to support action, including military action, outside what goes on in the no-fly zones, will he seek the support of the House on a substantive motion, even if that authority has to be given retrospectively, which is where I slightly depart from the views of the hon. Member for Linlithgow?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has floated an alternative option to that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). The request is ludicrously premature in terms of what may, or may not, be happening. No decision has been taken, and none may ever be taken. The fact that the right hon. and learned Gentleman and my hon. Friend have produced two different approaches shows that we need to consider the matter carefully before we commit ourselves to one or other way of proceeding.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's other point related to the grounds of concern about Iraq. At the present time I do not think that there would be any difficulty for the Government putting in the public domain a response to the areas of concern to which the right hon. and learned Gentleman has alluded, but those issues are well known and unarguable. The fact is that the Iraqi regime has several thousands of unaccounted litres of toxic chemicals that would be appropriate to use in a chemical weapon; it has made considerable investment in developing biological germ agents that could be used in biological weapons; and has proceeded intensively—and appears to be continuing to do so—with medium-range missiles that could deliver such warheads. In addition, of course, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in his attack on an innocent village of Kurds, wiping out 5,000 women, children and elderly men with mustard gas.

Given that history and the present record, it is entirely proper that the world should take action through every available channel, starting with the United Nations, to ensure that Saddam Hussein accepts what the rest of the world accepts: no regime should have access to weapons of mass destruction unless it fully participates in international regimes to control proliferation.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to a report of the European Parliament on relations between the European Parliament and national Parliaments on European integration? It refers to the growing disaffection, disappointment and distrust regarding the development of the Union", and goes on to talk about a fear of helplessness in the face of imposed decisions which cannot be influenced or controlled". In the light of the fact that constitutional convention is considering many of the issues developing in the Union, what arrangements will be made for debates in this House—as the convention proceeds, and not just at the end of it—and what arrangements might be made to help Members promote the debate outside the House, since our colleagues in the European Parliament receive large amounts of money to promote their arguments?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that this House is represented directly by two Members—one from our party, who has been elected to the collective presidency of the convention and is therefore well placed to monitor its proceedings and agenda, and one who represents the Opposition, who no doubt also represents their strong views against Europe and will be making his own strong commitment to it and reporting to us at great length.

I anticipate that, as the convention proceeds, it will be a matter of repeated discussion in the House. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will be frequently before the House giving an account of it. We have had discussions on the process by which Members of the House and of the convention can report to Committees of the House, but I very much share my hon. Friend's concern that the debate should not simply be one within the convention or, indeed, between the convention and national Parliaments. The debate must also embrace the wider population and the civic community of Europe. I very much hope that high on the convention's agenda is the means of ensuring that it carries out exercises in listening to that civic community.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Will the Leader of the House think carefully about the comment of his hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) and bear in mind the tradition of consensus across the House when discussing pension legislation and the future of pensions? Although there is much discussion at the moment in the House on legislation affecting second pensions, pension plus and stakeholder pensions, there has not been an opportunity to discuss the serious, long-term and deep effects on security in retirement. Will he therefore look favourably on the possibility of an Adjournment debate in which we can consider such issues and subject them to the measured and informed discussion that they badly need?

Mr. Cook

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that when dealing with the question of our citizens' income over a prolonged period—that might be two or three decades in retirement—it is important that we provide them with the stability and confidence of a cross-party approach, which is why many of us on the Labour Benches regretted that one of the Conservative Government's first acts after election in 1979 was to scrap the new pension scheme that the Labour Government had introduced. Had that been honoured by the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman's appeal for a cross-party approach might have more resonance. However, I agree that we should try again to build that consensus, and I am sure that there will be opportunities to debate it in the months ahead.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I failed narrowly to get in my question to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers, so may I ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to urge his colleagues in that Department to make a statement in the House on organophosphates? He will know that organophosphate sheep dips were withdrawn from the market a few years, but reintroduced in October 2000. However, this month, a significant research report has been published in The Lancet by Professor Nicola Cherry, who tells us that the results of her research suggest that organophosphates contribute to the reported ill health of people who dip sheep. The issue is a huge one in farming communities, and it is worthy of a Minister coming to the House urgently to tell us what the Government's position is.

Mr. Cook

I can only express my deep regret that my hon. Friend did not have a chance to put that question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rather than to me, but I shall make a point of writing to my right hon. Friend this afternoon so that honour is served.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I press the Leader of the House on the issue of Lords reform? Has he had time to read a perceptive piece by Hugo Young—no relation—in The Guardian today? He says of the Government's proposals: Tranquillity beckons. Relief from a project too few of them really want…Deliverance into comfortable inertia. Will the right hon. Gentleman dispel those allegations by promising an early debate on the Government's forthcoming response to the Public Administration Committee report, in which the Government's proposals will be set out clearly?

Mr. Cook

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I begin every Thursday by reading The Guardian; it ensures that I come to the House in a suitably combative mood.

As the House knows, we are currently considering the responses to our consultation exercise. We received about 1,000 responses, many of a thoughtful and serious character. We shall at some stage publish an analysis of the responses, and respond to the PAC within two months. Obviously, the matter will have to return to the House at some stage, but I think it appropriate that we take time to get it right before it does so.

David Hamilton (Midlothian)

In December last year, the Minister for Industry and Energy made a welcome statement that, after 17 years, he was to right a wrong done to sacked miners throughout the country, several hundred of whom were sacked during the miners' strike. To date, nothing further has been said. Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ensure that a statement is made in the near future?

Mr. Cook

I know that strong feelings attach to that issue and that it is important to a large number of people in my hon. Friend's constituency. I shall make sure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry as soon as possible.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House may have picked up vibrations in the press about the Government's undoubted generosity in granting accommodation to Members who are absent from the House and their staff when sitting Members who attend regularly still do not have adequate accommodation. Is he in a position to offer guidance on the steps that would be taken to discipline a party that is not yet prepared to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and whose defeated candidate in the Belfast, South constituency at the last election—a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly—joined others to intimidate people by putting up posters urging them not to join the police service, while at the same time encouraging their own form of restorative justice, a do-it-yourself kangaroo court?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that the whole House joins the hon. Gentleman in deprecating such activity, but the House has no mechanism to discipline its Members for activities undertaken outside the Chamber or the House—nor should it. Many hon. Members motivated by perfectly bona fide commitments and beliefs of their own carry out activities that the House would neither endorse nor be drawn to condemn.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that when we debated the matter before Christmas considerable concern was expressed that Members are required to register only on taking the Oath, rather than on being elected. I am pleased that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges has made a recommendation to the effect that registration should be required of all Members on the point of election or within three months of election. I hope to introduce a motion giving effect to that recommendation before Easter.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the all-party group on children in Wales agreed last week to support in principle the aims of 'Sdim Curo Plant!—the Welsh campaign to ban the physical punishment of children and to give children the same protection as adults under the law of assault? I am sure that he is aware that the Scottish Executive propose to ban the physical punishment of all children under three. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this important subject so that we can consider how it affects children in England and Wales and raise the important issues associated with it?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a subject of considerable debate. She is aware that strong and different views are held on both sides of the fence, which is why the Government have sought to make sure that they find the right balance between the protection of the child and the rights and responsibilities of the parent. As a Scottish MP, I fully support and welcome what is being done in the Scottish Parliament, but the principle of devolution is the right of each side to take whatever action it regards as appropriate for its side of the border.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

When the right hon. Gentleman was replying to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader on concerns about PPP, he pointed out that there have been a number of successful PPPs in the recent past. He will, however, have heard a succession of leaders of the financial community on the "Today" programme this morning and elsewhere saying that a risk premium would undoubtedly be imposed for future PPPs as a result of the actions of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. That is a matter for real concern, as the Government's credibility is in considerable danger. Will the right hon. Gentleman set in place methods to monitor the future rates of return from PPP submissions, if indeed he can get anybody to do it at all, so that we can see whether those fears are justified? Can those figures be published, unlike the unpublished figures relating to London Transport, and if there is cause for concern, can we have a debate on the matter?

Mr. Cook

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that every PPP is subject to tests of value for money, which require an analysis of what the future costs will be and how that compares with public sector traditional funding. No PPP will proceed unless it passes that value for money test. As I told the House, more than 40 such schemes have passed that test since it became clear that Railtrack could no longer continue. What would the hon. Gentleman and all his hon. Friends who raise the issue have done in the circumstances in which my right hon. Friend found himself last autumn? Are they saying that they would have volunteered £5 billion, the sum that would have been required to keep Railtrack afloat, in the full knowledge that the company had given hundreds of millions to its shareholders while skimping on investment for the travelling public?

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the closure of Smurfit Corrugated in my constituency, with the loss of 94 jobs? Does he agree that a company which fails properly to consult its workers, which fails to give adequate reasons for choosing the Warrington plant for closure and which, it is suspected, will take the savings from that closure to invest abroad, should be held to account on the Floor of the House? Should we not have the opportunity to debate not just that closure, but the chances of providing better protection for British workers caught up in such situations?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend rightly and properly raises a matter of anxiety for her constituents and an issue that must be of serious concern in her constituency. There are ways in which she can ventilate that through the House. It is important that we make sure that we get the right balance of rights in the workplace, and the Government have taken action to ensure that there are fair rights at the workplace. We must get the right balance between the provision of skilled flexible labour that will attract investment, and the decent protection of that labour from unemployment.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

As the Leader of the House was present in the Chamber yesterday to hear Northern Ireland's First Minister tell the Prime Minister clearly how much it would undermine him and others who supported the Belfast agreement if the Government went ahead with an amnesty for terrorists on the run, can he give us an assurance today that no such amnesty will be granted? I see the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. As he clearly does not intend to give us such an assurance, will he at the very least say that the suggestions in the press that the amnesty will occur over Easter are quite wrong, and that the House should be allowed to debate the matter before a decision is taken?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would be rather startled if I were to rule out or rule in what he must do. I have always made it perfectly plain that we want to ensure that the peace process succeeds. If time is required in the House to ensure that that happens, I shall, as Leader of the House, ensure that it is made available.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the membership of Select Committees? In particular, does he share my concern about the continued inclusion on the Defence Committee of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who remains a member of that Committee despite his recent appointment to the Opposition Front Bench as a defence spokesman? He is indeed a very honourable man; I get on with him well and I congratulate him on his appointment. However, I feel that his membership dilutes the independence of the Committee and threatens its ability to achieve cross-party consensus.

Mr. Cook

I understand that this matter was raised in the Liaison Committee this morning, and I shall be very happy to discuss it with the Chairman of that Committee so that I can understand and reflect the collective views of the Select Committee Chairmen. It would be generally held to be desirable for Select Committees, which carry out scrutiny and seek to find cross-party agreements on their reports wherever possible, not to include Front Benchers from either side of the Chamber. However, I say to my hon. Friend that we must also be understanding of the fact that the official Opposition are so small they might need Front Benchers to be included.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Will the Leader of the House find an opportunity to debate in Government time the latest privatisation in the Ministry of Defence? The privatisation of fleet support services affects 4,000 jobs in Rosyth, Portsmouth, Devonport and Faslane. Will he give the House a proper chance to scrutinise the way in which the process has operated? We need to give some confidence to the work force that the 1,000-odd projected redundancies will be considered properly, and the House needs to be satisfied that the MOD has properly gone through all the processes for considering the bids for the work. There is currently widespread dissatisfaction about the way in which the matter has been handled and a resistance on the part of the MOD to come to the House to justify the position that it has taken.

Mr. Cook

This sounds like exactly the sort of issue that the Defence Select Committee could pursue if it were minded to do so. None the less, I shall certainly convey the hon. Gentleman's observations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and invite my right hon. Friend to write to him.

Andy Burnham (Leigh)

I support the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) for a debate on the manufacturing industry and employee protection. Problems in the industry are hitting towns such as Leigh especially hard. Leigh has lost thousands of jobs in recent years in coal mining and textiles, and we now face the injustice of 220 people being made redundant from Volex on terms that are by far inferior to those applying to counterparts in the Republic of Ireland who work for the same company. Will my right hon. Friend find time soon for a debate on the process of redundancy, how it is hurting families and how we might do more to protect employees who are being made redundant?

Mr. Cook

In recent weeks, a number of colleagues have requested a debate on manufacturing industry. I am acutely aware of those demands and keep them very much in mind. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will open a debate in the House next week in pursuit of one of her other responsibilities, but I am conscious of the wish on both sides of the House for a debate on this matter. I shall see whether we can accommodate some way of ventilating these issues if time is available.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

In calling for urgent clarification from the Leader of the House, I seek to draw to the House's attention a matter that will concern Opposition, Government and minor party Members. On 30 January, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister about worsening waiting times in accident and emergency departments. The Prime Minister replied—I refer to column 281 of Hansard —that the method of measuring such things had changed. Indeed, he said that it had changed under this Government. Given that ministerial replies from both this Government and the previous one make it absolutely clear that these figures are collated and collected centrally only by the Audit Commission, I was surprised to receive a note from the Library saying: The Audit Commission has used the same indicators since 1996". The note also said: If Mr. Blair's response suggests that measurement methods have changed and that therefore the figures quoted by Mr. Duncan Smith are incomparable, it appears to be misplaced. That is a serious matter. Given the Prime Minister's scrupulous regard for straightforwardness and accuracy—if only Hansard could measure irony—he will want to make an urgent statement to the House about the source of his information and the basis on which he made the claim. If it is inaccurate, he will want to apologise to hon. Members, for it is inconceivable that he would deliberately mislead the House.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman raises an important, highly detailed and technical point. He will forgive me if I say that I do not believe that it would assist me or hon. Members if I attempted to answer it without either notice or considering the facts. However, I shall ensure that the Secretary of State for Health responds to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the issue.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

The Leader of the House may be aware of early-day motion 943, which looks forward to the celebrations for Europe day on 9 May, the anniversary of the date on which Robert Schuman presented his proposals for creating a European Community.

[That this House looks forward to the opportunity for the United Kingdom to celebrate Europe Day on 9th May; recognises that 9th May marks the day in 1950 that Robert Schuman presented his proposal for the creation of the European Union; notes that the European Union has been central to the maintenance of peaceful relations and coexistence on this continent ever since; welcomes the opportunity for the UK to join in this annual celebration of the diversity of cultures that exist within Europe; and celebrates the UK's membership of the European Union.]

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a debate on Thursday 9 May to mark Britain's continued, positive involvement in Europe?

Mr. Cook

I am tempted to agree to such a debate if only to enable Mr. Richard Balfe to tell us his views on Conservative European policy.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate or statement from the Secretary of State for Health on the disposal of surplus national health service accommodation? A group of people in Wirksworth in my constituency would like the NHS care centre that was closed recently to be converted into accommodation for elderly people. That service is desperately needed in the town. A similar arrangement to that in Buxton, whereby the property was sold at a lower cost to local residents, could solve the problem.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman has been able to raise an issue of concern to his constituency. However, I am not sure that the best way to proceed is through centrally imposed guidelines or requirements. Obviously, when appropriate and effective alternative uses that meet other social care or health needs can be found for NHS premises, the local health authority should provide for that. However, there is an alternative. In the case of large, commercially profitable sites—there is an example in my constituency—ploughing the money back into other parts of the health service is frankly best for the community. However, decisions should be made case by case, not centrally.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

In view of the Chancellor's actions to eradicate child poverty and the new Child Poverty Action Group report, will the Leader of the House arrange a debate on the subject in the Chamber? Britain has a population of 55 million, but the report states that Glasgow, with a small population of 600,000, has four of the 10 most deprived areas. It has suffered high infant mortality, horrendous housing problems and unemployment. I would like the Government to eradicate the poverty that the previous Government left behind them, especially in Glasgow.

Mr. Cook

We will hold the Budget debate next month. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will refer to child poverty and the action that we are taking to tackle and, over a period of time, to eradicate it. Like my hon. Friend, I heard the Chancellor speak on the matter yesterday, and I was impressed by the progress that we are making. We inherited a legacy of rapidly rising child poverty from the Conservative Government and we are taking action to decrease it rapidly. That is the right priority for the nation and the Government.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

On Tuesday, we spent three hours debating whether final planning consent for new nuclear power stations lay with the House or the Scottish Parliament. Although we did not get an answer to a clear question, we got the strong impression that final consent lay with the House. Meanwhile, the Minister for Energy and Industry, who should have responded to the debate, made a speech in Scotland that strongly suggested that the decision lay with the Scottish Parliament. What can the Leader of the House do to protect hon. Members from Ministers' contradictory statements? When can we have an early statement to clarify the issue?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman has just had a three-hour debate on the topic of his choice. He cannot really expect that to be followed by a statement in the House. It is rich for the Scottish National party to complain when Ministers go to Scotland. I should have thought that they would welcome every possible visit to Scotland by the appropriate Ministers. As I said last week, this matter has to be dealt with in partnership, whatever the legal niceties, and that is the way in which we shall proceed with the Administration in Edinburgh. [Interruption.] I should like to know whether the Conservative party—if it ever got into power—could offer the same kind of partnership with the Scottish Executive that we can.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on mobile telecommunications masts, an issue that probably affects every constituency in the country? There has been a recent proposal in my constituency for a mast between, and very close to, two primary schools, which flies in the face of the recommendation in the Stewart report—a Government report—that masts should not be located near such schools. The problem is that although PPG8 has been strengthened—for which I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government—it did not go far enough in incorporating some of the Stewart report's recommendations, particularly the recommendation that such masts should be kept well away from primary schools. May we have a debate, or at least a statement, on that issue?

Mr. Cook

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the conclusion of the Stewart report, based on the available scientific evidence, was that there is no general health risk from mobile telecommunications masts. However, I fully understand why parents are particularly anxious when they see such masts being located near schools—and, sometimes, on schools—having had experience of this in my constituency. I shall certainly convey to the Department my hon. Friend's concern that that recommendation in the Stewart report should be acted on.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Bearing in mind the interest of the Leader of the House in strengthening the role of Select Committees as part of the modernisation of the House, does he agree that the announcement on the declassification of cannabis by the Home Secretary at a meeting of the Home Affairs Committee just two weeks before the Committee commenced an investigation into drugs policy, and the announcement in the media today by the drugs Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth)—on how to make it easier and safer for people to take dance drugs in night clubs, undermine the role of the Select Committee?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I follow the hon. Lady's concern that the Home Secretary's making a statement to the Select Committee somehow undermines it. Personally, I welcome that innovation, and I am sure that many of my right hon. Friends will consider making further such use of Select Committees. If we want Select Committees to carry out their functions properly, and to have a proper status in this place, it is entirely right that they should occasionally receive new announcements from the appropriate Secretary of State.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the good work carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) on asbestosis in respect of the Chester Street insurance company. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the companies that agreed to pay compensation to asbestosis sufferers—and any future sufferers—are now reneging on the deal? They will not pay out any money, even to those who have received letters stating that their compensation has been granted, which means that the compensation has been printed out on paper but is not worth the paper that it is printed on. Will he arrange a debate on this serious issue, so that we can name and shame those companies?

Mr. Cook

I fully share my hon. Friend's deep regret at behaviour that appears to be deplorable. I am sure that many hon. Members will share the sense of outrage that his constituents no doubt feel. On the facts as stated, I would be surprised if there were no legal remedy available to those who are most affected, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will continue to pursue the matter and make full use of the facilities of the House to do so.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

On the day on which the Office of Public Services Reform at the Cabinet Office is issuing no fewer than 10,000 pamphlets to the public services, and on which Mr. Ian Jones, the head of news at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, remains suspended without charge, may I ask for a debate in Government time on the operation and management of the civil and public services, the criteria for the maintenance of standards, and the accountability and responsibility of Her Majesty's Ministers?

Mr. Cook

I have no intention of saying anything on the question of the civil servant who has been suspended pending an investigation. It is a matter for the permanent secretary to announce the conclusion of that investigation and it would not help either the individual concerned or the permanent secretary for the rest of us to get drawn into a political debate on it in the meantime.

On the publication today of the pamphlet that has been delivered to up to 10,000 senior officials in the public service, it is proper and right that the Government should try to ensure that those who work in the public service understand the extent to which their contribution is valued and the broad strategy to which they are working. It would be the act of a bad employer and an inefficient manager not to ensure that that message is understood throughout the service. I notice that the Conservative party is calling for the decentralisation of the health service, which it highly centralised, so the hon. Gentleman should be pleased to hear that one of the four main themes of the pamphlet is flexibility through the decentralisation of power and resources to those in the front line.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Can we destroy at birth the self-serving fantasy promulgated by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) that there has been a political consensus on pension policy in recent years? There was no consensus in 1980 for the cut in the link with earnings, or for the salami cuts over the following 17 years. There was no consensus in 1985 on the partial destruction of the state earnings-related pension scheme, which has done great damage. There was certainly no consensus on the policy in the late 1980s, when many people were tempted by the then Government to leave their good-value occupational schemes and go into atrocious-value personal pensions. We should have a good debate on this issue, but we must ensure that the blame is laid firmly where it belongs, which is not with the Government, because we opposed every one of those dangerous changes that have seriously impoverished today's pensioners and will impoverish tomorrow's pensioners.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend and I were members of the same team in opposition on social security and pensions, and he was an excellent shadow spokesman on pensions.

Mr. Forth

Those were the days.

Mr. Cook

I prefer these days, and I suspect that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) also preferred it when he was on the Government side. My hon. Friend has had slightly longer to work on it, but he has given a much better reply than I did, and I commend him on it.

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

Can the Leader of the House help with a serious question that I asked the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on behalf of the small business community? I asked her to give a response to the Competition Commission's report on banking that was presented in October last year, and she said that she would publish the report as soon as practicable. That is an extraordinary, off-hand and cavalier response to a question that relates back to the Cruickshank report on banking, which was published two years ago this month. Can the Leader of the House help us to obtain a response to the report?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman said that he asked my right hon. Friend to publish the report, but I think that he meant publish the Government's response to it.

Brian Cotter


Mr. Cook

It is important for the Government to ensure that the response is well thought through and consulted on, because it is not a matter of one Department reaching a view. It is important that time is taken to get it right, rather than rushing it. The time frame that the hon. Gentleman referred to is not unusual, but I am sure that the Department will be well aware of his anxiety to see the response.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Following a week in which a Manchester United footballer signed a contract to earn £90.000 a week with the prospect of others being paid even more, in which ITV Digital announced that it was forced to renegotiate its contract with the Football League because it could not afford to pay the original price for television rights, and in which Bury football club in my constituency became the latest club in the lower divisions to go into receivership, does my right hon. Friend agree that the globalisation of football is having serious consequences for small clubs in the lower divisions, which many thousands of people support? Does he agree that those clubs have a vital role to play in their communities, as well as contributing to our national sporting life? May we have an early debate on the future of small professional football clubs?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct about the importance of football clubs to local communities and local identity, which is why I am delighted that Livingston football club is currently beaten in the Scottish league only by Rangers and Celtic. That has done wonders for identity and pride in the city for the people of Livingston and the residents of West Lothian. That shows the success that can be achieved by a small club that only six years ago was in the third division. I recognise that it is important that we have a proper range of football clubs in the various communities of Britain, and that we do not end up with only mega-clubs.

These are choppy waters. I think that I have managed to build consensus in the House by avoiding controversy, but this matter is of such deep controversy outside it that although I shall report my hon. Friend's observations to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Sport, I am not inclined to go further at the present time.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House be good enough to inquire now about the availability of Ministers to respond to urgent matters raised during the Easter Adjournment debate? I have used—and will continue to use—every opportunity to raise the urgent matter of the proposed demolition of important world war two buildings at the Dunkeswell airfield in my constituency. If I raise the matter in the Adjournment debate, it will be because I understand that Defence Estates has set a deadline of 1 April for the demolition of buildings that Defence Ministers previously have helped to preserve and that English Heritage has commended. If I do not get a positive response, I may end up spending my Easter recess chained to the control tower. I therefore hope that the Leader of the House will come to my rescue, and to the rescue of a very important world war two memorial site.

Mr. Cook

I feel under a very strong compulsion to try to find a way to avert that fate for the hon. Lady, and to prevent her from spending her Easter recess in that way. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be grateful for the advance notice of what the hon. Lady will raise in the Easter Adjournment debate, and I think that he is open to hearing other advance bids. I hope that the hon. Lady secures an outcome that is satisfactory for her constituents, but I am sure that we all look forward to hearing what she has to say in the debate.

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