HC Deb 14 March 2002 vol 381 cc1046-59 2.20 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The business of the House up to the Easter recess will be as follows:

MONDAY 18 MARCH—Debate on hunting.

TUESDAY 19 MARCH—Opposition Day [12th Allotted Day]. Until seven o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Crisis in Education and Skills Training" followed by a debate entitled "The Chinook Helicopter Crash".

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

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

FRIDAY 22 MARCH—The House will not be sitting.

MONDAY 25 MARCH—Second Reading of the State Pension Credit Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 26 MARCH—Hon. Members will wish to know that it is proposed that the House will meet from 11.30 am until 7 pm. The business of the day will be a motion to approve the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the registration of interest by Members who have not taken their seat.

Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Football (Disorder) (Amendment) Bill.

Motion on the Easter Recess Adjournment.

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

[Monday 18 March 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 15014/01 and 5119/02; Aircraft Noise. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report HC 152-xx (2001-02).]

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement.

On Friday 8 March the Adjournment debate in this Chamber was replied to not by the Minister responsible for the subject of the debate, but by a Government Whip. I raised the matter at the time, as you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you were in the Chair. Was that a one-off occurrence or is it to be routine that Ministers will not be here to listen and respond to debates on their ministerial responsibilities, but leave it to Government Whips? The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), who initiated the debate, said, touchingly naively, that he wanted the Government Whip to assure me that he"— the Whip— will ensure that a Minister with specific responsibility for this matter will be made aware of my concerns, and will respond to the calls that I have made."—[Official Report, 8 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 614.] So the hon. Gentleman whose debate it was had to make a heart-felt plea that its subject matter would be passed on to the absent Minister, who by that time, like Elvis, had left the building.

That raises an issue of huge importance. Will the Leader of the House assure me, very firmly, that that occurrence will not be repeated and that the Government have not walked away from their responsibilities to such an extent that Ministers are no longer prepared to come to the House to respond to debates and be held to account?

The Leader of the House will be aware of the dreadful and appalling case of corruption that recently arose in Doncaster, where several Labour councillors were convicted of fraud. He should also be aware—if not, I am about to make him so—that yesterday in the House the Deputy Prime Minister said, in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), that a Conservative councillor was before the court at the same time."—[Official Report, 13 March 2002; Vol. 381, c. 873.] The Deputy Prime Minister was obviously trying to implicate or smear a Conservative councillor to put him in the same disgusting category as the large number of Labour councillors who were convicted.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Conservative councillor was acquitted of all charges, but the Labour councillors were convicted? I will understand if he is reticent about the issue. It must be difficult for Labour leaders who were involved with Ecclestone, Hinduja, Mittal and all the others to condemn their colleagues in local government. However, as the right hon. Gentleman was involved in none of those matters, I am sure that he will have no such inhibitions.

Will the Leader of the House turn his mind to the chaotic and increasingly disordered way in which statements are made in the House? Texts of statements are given to official Opposition spokesmen much later than has traditionally been the case. Whether that is cock-up or conspiracy, I can only guess. Will he find some way of giving the House more notice of statements? Today offers a good example. A very important statement such as that made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer could well have been made after the close of the markets yesterday evening. Attendance in the House is inevitably thin today because we do not have any votes. Consequently, many right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in the matter and would have been here had they known that the statement was to be made are, regrettably, absent. Will the Leader of the House get a grip on his colleagues? In most cases it is known at least 48 hours in advance when statements are due to be made, so will Ministers please give the House proper notice so that we can deal with them properly?

Lord Browne, who was one of the Prime Minister's much-vaunted people's peers, earned—I am happy for him—several million pounds over the past year. I know that hairdressers were disqualified from being people's peers, but can the Leader of the House tell us whether there is any limit on the earnings that those peers can enjoy?

Mr. Cook

I did not anticipate that the Conservative party would propose a reverse means test for Members of the second Chamber, but we look forward to that provision featuring in its submission on the reform of that Chamber. I am happy to say that I have no responsibility whatsoever for pay awards made to Sir John Browne. [HON. MEMBERS: "Lord Browne."] I certainly have a responsibility not to demote him; I am happy to call him Lord Browne. Having disclaimed the criticism of his pay award, I think that honour is satisfied between us.

I shall deal with the matters for which I have responsibility. On last Friday's Adjournment debate, I assure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that, unlike Elvis, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), is alive and kicking. Indeed, he has shown no difficulty whatsoever about coming before the House. He has responded to 34 Adjournment debates since the last general election—by far the most achieved in a single Session by any Minister in the Government, or, I think, any in the previous Government. That is overwhelmingly because of the innovation of debates in Westminster Hall—which I welcome and support, unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) for many years, including the period when he led the Labour group on Edinburgh district council. His colleagues there and in the House would be surprised by his being described as "touchingly naive". I take it that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to flatter my hon. Friend; I warn him that it will not work. Since the Adjournment debate, the Whip who replied to the debate has fully discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

Indeed; I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of the ministerial level of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions at which the matter was raised. The Whip also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to draw his attention to those matters that fell within the remit of the Home Office.

I can assure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that such practice will not be routine. In Westminster Hall, the Government rightly provided a facility that has greatly increased hon. Members' opportunities to raise matters concerning their constituencies. In those circumstances, it is not improper for the Government and the House to look at ways in which we can ensure that Adjournment debates are fully serviced and replied to, without putting on Ministers a burden that interferes with other matters with which they have to deal, such as responding to hon. Members' correspondence. [Interruption.] I assure hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does respond to correspondence.

On the Doncaster councillors, it is important for both parties to ensure that we apply the highest standards of propriety within our parties and make sure that legal requirements are fully observed. It would therefore greatly assist the House if the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst could tell us that he will use his influence with Lady Porter to encourage her to return to Britain to face the court proceedings against her relating to when she was leader of a Conservative council.

Finally, on the issue of the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I have listened week after week to the right hon. Gentleman complaining that we do not have enough statements. Whenever we produce a statement, a complaint is made about it, and that happened again today. Let me remind him that this is the first time that a statement has been made to the House to announce the outcome of a Competition Commission—previously the Monopolies and Mergers Commission—inquiry. In their entire 18 years in office, a Conservative Minister never once came to the House to make a statement on the outcome of a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, and I genuinely believe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor deserves to be congratulated on coming to the House. not criticised for it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

My right hon. Friend is a master of procedure, so may I ask him for advice? On Monday, we shall vote on a series of motions on hunting with dogs. If the motion to ban hunting with dogs is carried by the Commons, as I believe it will be, is there any way in which we in this Chamber—or perhaps Labour Members in another forum—can express a view on whether the Hunting Bill, which was carried by the Commons in the last Session, can be brought back and dealt with in this Session before November as an alternative to a new Bill being introduced and the business of hunting with dogs hanging round our necks for the next two and a half years?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend characteristically flatters me; I would describe myself only as a humble student of procedure, and I am constantly surprised at how much more there is to learn.

I remind my hon. Friend that the Minister for Rural Affairs has given a commitment that before we rise for the Easter recess he will respond to Monday's votes and outline how the Government intend to proceed in the light of them. I suggest that my hon. Friend save his question until that opportunity, which I understand may come next week.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House give some thought as to how best we can deal with the important issue of public disengagement with Parliament and politics? I think that he will accept that it is not just a matter of scepticism and cynicism about corruption, to which early-day motion 1003 relates, and to which reference has already been made.

[That this House condemns the behaviour of the former Doncaster councillor jailed on 12th March for accepting a bribe to change planning rules; congratulates former Doncaster councillor Ron Rose and the Yorkshire Post for their persistence in bringing the worst local government corruption case since the 1970s to light; congratulates South Yorkshire Police on its successful Operation Danum which has brought 21 councillors to justice; regrets the culture of institutionalised corruption which was allowed to develop unchecked by the national Labour Party; calls on the Government to introduce proposals for proportional representation to end one-party states in local government; and further calls on all parties to promote the highest standards of probity and public service in local government.]

Rather, there are longer-term concerns.

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read the interesting article in today's edition of The Daily Telegraph by Sir John Nott, a distinguished former Cornish Member of the House and a former Minister of the Crown? The headline is "Thatcher obsessed with spin", which shows that some things are never new. Has he looked at the report which the Minister without Portfolio, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), apparently launched yesterday on democracy, citizenship and political engagement? Does he accept that this is a matter of concern not just to the Government but to all parties in the House? What steps can be taken in the near future to identify, one would hope, the causes for the trend of cynicism and scepticism about the democratic parliamentary process?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this is not just a matter of low turnout at elections, which is perhaps a symptom of the disease, but that there are basic diseases behind that symptom? Low turnout is bad enough on average, but it is even worse in cases of safe seats when electors feel that they have no impact on the eventual result. This issue should concern every single Member of both Houses of Parliament, and should not simply be left to a Labour party document and the Labour party chairman.

Mr. Cook

I have not yet read the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly savour it. I always enjoy reading articles by Margaret Thatcher's former Ministers criticising her; it is difficult to keep up with the scale of those articles.

The issue of substance raised by the hon. Gentleman presents a profound challenge for all of us. This is not a party political point; it should exercise hon. Members in all corners of the House. There is clear evidence of a decline in esteem for this place. That is why it is so important that we modernise this place so that we appear relevant and part of the same century as our electors. However, there are much wider and deeper problems of disengagement from the democratic process, particularly among young people. That troubles me because if young people continue to be disengaged we shall face declining turnouts as that cohort of the population grows older. This is a matter to which we should all address our minds.

I am particularly concerned that, too often, publicity about the House centres on the high point of party political contests and the mud wrestling that goes with it. We are not portrayed often enough as a place of serious business carrying out a serious job of work, and until we achieve that image of ourselves, we shall continue to have a problem in gaining respect.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 927?

[That this House is aware of the deep unease among honourable Members on all sides of the House at the prospect that Her Majesty's Government might support United States military action against Iraq; agrees with Kofi Annan that a further military attack on Iraq would be unwise at this time; believes that such a course of action would disrupt support for the anti-terrorism coalition among the Arab states; and instead urges the Prime Minister to use Britain's influence with Iraq to gain agreement that United Nations weapons inspections will resume.]

It expresses the deep concern of 107 hon. Members at the United States proposals to take military action against Iraq.

So far, the Government have failed miserably to make a case for supporting the unilateral action proposed by President Bush. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Prime Minister will not announce support for that action, either in this country or on a ranch in Texas, before the House has had time fully to debate the issues based on facts, not belief? May we have a debate on that subject before the Easter recess?

Mr. Cook

I cannot promise a debate on that issue before the recess, as I have just announced business for every day before the recess. [Interruption.1 As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst does not appear entirely persuaded of that, he might like to consider pulling the Opposition day to make room for such a debate.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

There we are—my hon. Friend has struck a colleague in the shape of the right hon. Gentleman.

If such action were to proceed, of course it should be debated in the House. In fairness to the Government, we demonstrated a willingness to listen to the House and gave the House an opportunity to debate the issues before and during the military action in Afghanistan, when we had five full debates on the threat of international terrorism. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that, should there be any proposal for action, the matter would of course have to be debated in the House. However, I remind her that, as the Prime Minister keeps saying, no decision has been taken and, as I said last Thursday, no decision may ever be taken.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's earlier reply, will he reflect for a moment on what his reaction would have been when he was a leading light on the Opposition Benches had he been told that the then hon. Member for Peterborough, as a Under-Secretary or a Minister, was too busy—or too important—to respond to a debate in the Chamber? The right hon. Gentleman said that that will not be a routine occurrence. May I tempt him to go a little further and say that it will not happen again?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman is always tempting, but on this occasion I find it possible to resist. I welcome the fact that there are now more opportunities than there were in his time for hon. Members to vent constituency issues. That is why Westminster Hall was created, and it is fulfilling that role adequately and properly. It is right that, in response to that additional opportunity for Members, we should consider the acceptable convention in respect to replying to debates, particularly in the case of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, who has now responded to 34 Adjournment debates.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the apocryphal saying, the first will be last and the last will be first. I am normally last when it comes to oral Question Time, with the exception of two weeks ago when fortunately I was drawn first. That exceptional opportunity for me was quickly reversed when I discovered that my oral parliamentary question had been referred to another Department. I would not have objected to that one jot had not the Department—the Cabinet Office—answered a written parliamentary question on exactly the same subject only the week before. Seven other people had their questions transferred from the Cabinet Office to a range of other Departments that day, and I suspect I join them in feeling extremely miffed. Will my right hon. Friend bring his influence to bear on the various Ministers heading up our Departments, and tell them that it would be useful for Members seeking to question them about responsibilities if we knew precisely what they did? It would appear that certain activities are the responsibility of people in the Cabinet Office one day and of someone else the next day. That also applies to their colleagues at the Table Office.

Hon. Members

Send her a written answer!

Mr. Cook

I think I can handle this one myself, thank you very much.

If my hon. Friend advises me next time she is drawn first, I shall certainly intervene with the relevant Department and make sure that her question is treated with the dignity and seriousness that it requires. To respond to the issue of substance, I am well aware of the deep frustration to Members of finding that their questions have been transferred. Indeed, if my hon. Friend consults the submission that I have made on behalf of the Government to the Procedure Committee's inquiry into questions, she will find that one of the points that I highlight is the need to try to reduce the number of times when questions are transferred. I hope that we can work with the Table Office to ensure that questions are tabled to the appropriate Department in the first place. In the meantime, I shall certainly draw her remarks to the attention of the Cabinet Office.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Minister from the Lord Chancellor's Department to come to the House next week to make a statement about the selection of city status? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in the light of this morning's announcement, there is a growing view that the Government are engaged in a cynical political fix? Is he aware that, since 1997, six towns on the United Kingdom mainland have received city status, and that three of them did so six months before the last general election? Cynics might expect that those cities would all be Labour-held seats.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

They are.

Mr. Burns

They are; the hon. Lady is right. Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that the Government have decided—rather cruelly, because the next election is not expected for at least three years—to fix it yet again today? The cities created on the UK mainland all have Labour MPs, and there is a growing fear that if a town that does not have a Labour MP, it will never become a city. That is demeaning to the honour of the process.

Mr. Cook

Of the six towns that have been declared cities today, two are in Northern Ireland and therefore do not have Labour MPs. Of course, I understand that, given the very large number of towns that now have Labour representation in this place, it is increasingly difficult to find other towns that might meet the criteria. I commiserate with the hon. Gentleman for having missed out on this occasion, but I ask him to consider carefully, before making any further remarks, whether what he has just said would be supported by the Conservative parties of Preston, Newport and Exeter, and I congratulate those new cities on their success.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was a debate yesterday in Westminster Hall on the Government's energy review? It was a very good debate, but one and a half hours was not long enough, given the number of Members who wished to speak and the number of interests involved. Can we have a full debate on the matter in this Chamber? Energy is an important subject that affects every aspect of life in this country. While I am on my feet, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the way in which he responded to the opening points made by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst on the way in which he presented his points. These exchanges are now becoming the highlight of the week in the Chamber, given the inept performance of the Leader of the Opposition at Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Cook

I am so glad that my hon. Friend got that last line in, as it explains the preceding passage.

Mr. Forth

You wrote it.

Mr. Cook

No, I could not have risen to such wit. It was entirely a product of my hon. Friend's contribution.

On the question of energy, I am conscious of the wide interest in the matter, which has been raised on a number of occasions at business questions. I will certainly reflect on what my hon. Friend has said as we consider future business, depending on the availability of time.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Last week, I put it to the Leader of the House that it would be quite wrong for the Government to announce an amnesty for terrorists on the run during our Easter recess. Uncharacteristically, he dodged the question, and did not state categorically that no such announcement would be made during the recess. It would be quite wrong to make such an announcement, and the feeling exists on both sides of the House that to give an amnesty to such people would wreck the Belfast agreement. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can now give us an undertaking on that, bearing in mind that the Prime Minister said—in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) yesterday at Question Time—that there would be no such announcement during the recess.

Mr. Cook

I understand the sensitivity of this issue. I am not aware of what plans there may be for any statement—or, indeed, whether a statement is to be made—but I shall certainly convey the right hon. Gentleman's points to the Northern Ireland Office.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I welcome the Government's decision to offer a million euros towards the World Health Organisation's research into the relationship between deep-vein thrombosis and air travel. Is my right hon. Friend aware of the news today that that research programme is in disarray because of a massive funding shortage and the failure of leading nations such as Australia and America to support it? In the light of that, will he bring the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health as soon as possible, and reconsider the ability of this Government to carry out their own inquiry into the connection between deep-vein thrombosis and air travel, to stop any more British citizens dying unnecessarily?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the indefatigable way in which he has pursued this issue, and raised it on many occasions at business questions. It is, indeed, an issue of great gravity, and one that I have personally confronted lately through the experience of one of my European colleagues. I will pass on his observations to the Department of Health, but we need to recognise that, in terms of the statistical incidence of deep-vein thrombosis, the matter needs to be looked at on a global, rather than a purely national, basis. That is why a better way forward may be at international rather than domestic level. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, however, and I shall ensure that it is conveyed to the Minister.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

May I add my weight to the call by the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) for a full debate in the Chamber in Government time following the publication of the energy review, particularly in relation to the infrastructure decisions that will have to be made to further the development of alternative energy generation?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for expressing his view. I remind the House that, at the moment, we have a report from the performance and innovation unit on energy, but we have yet to see the Government's considered response to it. A number of hon. Members have made the case for an extended debate on energy, however, and I am reflecting on that.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

My constituency has also lost out on its bid for city status, so I can assure the House that it is not only Conservative Members who have been disappointed. Will the Leader of the House consider holding a debate soon on the future of National Air Traffic Services, given its recent financial difficulties and the continuing delay over the new Scottish centre in my constituency?

Mr. Cook

On that last point, my hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has made financial arrangements to ensure that the service can continue, and we shall obviously follow this matter with great care.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming that there is no party political bias in the allocation of city status. I think that Chelmsford has left—this is becoming like a Shakespeare history play—so I shall omit any reference to that place. I encourage my hon. Friend to try again for that status, and I wish her well when she does so. I want to make a correction to my earlier list. I am told that Exeter has been given not city status, but lord mayoralty status. Stirling is, of course, the other town that has been given city status. I omitted it from the list in case Conservatives may have been upset by the observations of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), because it is so hard these days to find the Conservative party in Scotland.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Given that the appointment of the chairman of the governors of the BBC has now become a new Labour sinecure, at least for the moment—and working on the naive assumption that the present appointee, Mr. Gavyn Davies, still has the confidence of the Government, in spite of his remarks at the Westminster media forum yesterday—will the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the main Chamber in Government time on the future funding, responsibilities and duties of the BBC, prior to the publication of the eagerly awaited communications Bill?

Mr. Cook

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I know that he takes a close interest in these matters. I will happily add his request to the long list of such requests that is before me, but I remind him that we shall soon have an opportunity to examine the draft communications Bill. He and others will have plenty of chances to make their points about the future of BBC funding then.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Preston, which receives city status today? In this jubilee year, that is a great honour for 100,000 proud Prestonians—100,000 people displaying ethnic and religious diversity—and for a town with world-beating industries and a world-beating university that is now the eighth largest in the country. Preston has never been prouder than it is today.

Mr. Cook

I am delighted that today's announcement pleased at least one Member, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Preston. Three criteria were required for success in the bid for city status; Preston fully met the third, which was a forward-looking attitude.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Many of my constituents find it weird that at a time when the national health service is in crisis and many of them wait 16 weeks for cancer treatment, when the police service is in turmoil, and when transport is in chaos and deteriorating, the Leader of the House has cleared the decks in order to focus on foxhunting.

Leaving aside that perverse priority, however, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why the House is to debate foxhunting on Monday, a day that had long been reserved for a reception given by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham palace to celebrate her golden jubilee, to which I believe all Members had been invited? Why could the debate not have taken place today, on Wednesday, or on any other day? Was this a cock-up? Was it typical of the incompetence that we have come to expect of this Government? Or was it contempt for Her Majesty the Queen—contempt that the Government routinely show for the Chamber?

Mr. Cook

In my other role as President of the Council, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would show no contempt for Her Majesty. I have the greatest respect for the enormous job she does for the country, which I had an opportunity to admire at first hand when I was Foreign Secretary. As for the question of Monday's debate, a reception at the palace had indeed been organised. The decision not to proceed with it was made by the palace, but I understand that the palace intends to rearrange it on another date.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgently needed debate on channel tunnel security? As he will know, the storm-trooping activities of traffickers and illegal immigrants are causing havoc in Frethun, and bringing English Welsh and Scottish Railway freight services to a standstill. The destruction is threatening lives, jobs and trade.

Mr. Cook

I am aware of the seriousness of the situation. We have repeatedly pressed the French authorities to ensure that there is adequate security at Sangatte and at the rail freight terminal. The measures we have taken on this side of the channel have been quite successful in reducing the number of illegal entries, which has fallen by a quarter in the past year, and the number of people arriving in Britain with improper paperwork, which has fallen by three quarters. Despite that progress, however, I share my hon. Friend's concern about the interruption to the service—which I use frequently myself—and we will continue to press the French authorities to produce an outcome that will allow the service to recommence.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

In Westminster Hall on Tuesday, we had an excellent debate about the future of Consignia. Nine Back Benchers were able to contribute, although had time permitted—it was only a 90-minute debate—at least as many again could have done so. May I ask again whether a subject of such importance could be given some time on the Floor of the House, where it properly belongs? Does not fairness demand that Conservative Members, especially the large number with rural constituencies, should be allowed to place on record why they do not oppose measures that will have a dire impact on rural communities?

Mr. Cook

It is not for me to speak to Conservative Members, but no doubt they heard what the hon. Gentleman said and will seek to rectify the omission before the hour is up. As for the question of our offering them, and the hon. Gentleman, the opportunity of a full debate on Consignia, I fully understand the strength of feeling in the House. Indeed, it was made clear in business questions immediately after the Postcomm statement. Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is present. I am sure we will both reflect on what he said, and consider when it might be appropriate to bring the matter to the House.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read early-day motion 877, on debt and credit lending? It states

[That this House is concerned that whilst consumer debt reaches record levels (£6.8 billion new debt in December according to the Bank of England), around three and a half million adults do not have access to any sort of bank account and seven million have no current account; expresses deep concern that over three million people are reliant on loans at high cost from licensed moneylenders; and urges the Government to act to tackle this injustice as part of a wider anti-debt strategy, within the context of the Government's antipoverty strategy.]

The motion deals with financial exclusion. As it says, 3.5 million people have no bank account and 7 million have no current account. For many of those people, the only option is paying very high interest rates on loans. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate so we can discuss how best to deal with the problem of extortionate lending within the wider framework of the Government's anti-poverty strategy?

Mr. Cook

That is a subject of deep concern in many inner-city areas, and many of the most deprived parts of the country. I know from my experience in Scotland how high interest rates can be for vulnerable people. It is one of the great ironies that the poorest people often end up paying the highest rates.

I commend my hon. Friend on his early-day motion, and particularly on his recognition of the role that can be played by the Post Office, which is universally available and will soon be able to provide a universal banking service. We will continue to seek imaginative ways of addressing the problem he has raised.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I believe the right hon. Gentleman underestimates the damage caused to the whole United Kingdom by the closure of the channel tunnel to rail freight. Is he aware of the Government's target of 80 per cent. for freight travelling by rail, and is he aware that that target now cannot be met within the 10-year transport plan? Is he aware that half a million pounds is being lost each day by companies such as EWS and Potters of Melmerby in the Vale of York? Will he invite the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to make a statement here on precisely what the Government are doing? There is now no freight transport through the channel tunnel, which means that all freight is travelling by road. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Cook

If I appeared not to grasp the gravity of the situation I am justly rebuked by the hon. Lady, but I told my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) that I fully understood the severity of the situation and its impact not just on Dover but on the country generally. I remind the hon. Lady that the issue at the heart of the problem is security at the freight terminal on the Calais side of the tunnel. We have no direct responsibility and no direct ability to intervene, but we will continue to press the French authorities which are responsible to provide adequate security so that the service can recommence.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the massive and disastrous rise in council tax throughout the country? It is just another Labour stealth tax, and one that hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Perhaps such a debate would allow us to explore the reasons why Labour-controlled Castle Point borough council has increased council tax on a band D house to more than £1,000, while the neighbouring Conservative-controlled Southend unitary authority charges £300 a year less.

Mr. Cook

I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to congratulate the Government on the massive rise in Government grants to local authorities. Since 1997 the amount has increased by 20 per cent., whereas during the previous five years under the Conservatives it rose by only 1 per cent. Given the enormous difference between the way in which the two Governments have funded local authorities, I think a period of silence from the hon. Gentleman would be welcome.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

Can the Leader of the House look closely at the timetable set for the Government's proposals on regional government? The White Paper has not been published and only today we learn that the CBI in the north-west is withdrawing from participation in the north-west regional assembly because it believes that it is wasting its time. Is not the initiative in danger of floundering and should not the Government be giving some clear direction?

Mr. Cook

The Government have given clear direction and our commitment to produce a White Paper will be fulfilled. I strongly urge all those involved in discussions about regional assemblies and regional government to remain committed to them so that their regions benefit when the White Paper spells out the way forward.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

The implication of today's comments by the Leader of the House is that the Government will arrange for Whips to reply to Adjournment debates and that a limit could be set on the number of debates to which Ministers reply. Given that, can he explain how we can expect the House to be held in greater esteem when Ministers themselves do not hold it in sufficient esteem to come here to reply to debates? How can we expect members of the public to hold MPs in greater esteem when MPs have been deprived of the opportunity of putting their points across to Ministers in Adjournment debates? That is a significant and bad development. Can the Leader of the House put his hand on his heart and say that if our roles were reversed, he would accept without demur a Whip replying to an Adjournment debate which he had initiated?

Mr. Cook

I would point out that the hon. Member who obtained and spoke in the debate, who is one of my colleagues, has made no complaint. The only complaints have come from the Conservatives. I did not suggest that the practice should be a general rule or generally applied; nor do I think that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, can be fairly accused of not taking his role in the House seriously. He has probably responded to more than double the number of debates than any other Minister bar one. Westminster Hall has allowed us to provide hon. Members with a much greater opportunity to raise issues. In those circumstances, we should recognise that occasionally—not as a general rule—it may be appropriate for a Whip, who is a member of the Government, to answer on behalf of a Minister.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Will the Leader of the House tell the House which candidates for city status have been successful in Northern Ireland?

In addition, according to the Order Paper, my ten-minute Bill—Trespassers on Land (Liability for Damage and Eviction) Bill—will be introduced on Tuesday 26 March. It is an important measure that will address the problem of damage caused by travellers who arrive in communities and cause damage to their neighbours' property, which is a cause for concern in Surrey. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that I will still have an opportunity to introduce that Bill even though the business for that day has changed slightly?

Mr. Cook

I do not anticipate a problem with the ten-minute Bill proceeding on Tuesday 26 March. We will have Question Time as normal. I guarantee that the normal procedures for that day will stand, if only because it is Health Question Time and I will insist that we have it then.

On Northern Ireland, the two towns that have been successful in applying for city status are Lisburn and Newry.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

May I remind the Leader of the House of his Government's manifesto commitment of 1997 to ban tobacco advertising? Smoking costs at least 120,000 lives, and a ban on advertising would save thousands of those. Is he aware that the private Member's Bill promoted by my colleague, Lord Clement-Jones, is likely to receive its Third Reading and clear the House of Lords tomorrow? If that is the case, and given that an almost identical Government Bill went through this House before running out of time in the Lords in the previous Parliament, will the Government give the Bill time? Have they any excuse not to give such an important measure Government time to finish its passage and provide the public health initiative that the country so desperately needs?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware that the Bill has its final stage tomorrow. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are following the debate with close interest and will reflect on our position in the light of that.

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