HC Deb 21 March 2002 vol 382 cc433-45 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House give the business for next week?

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

The business of the House for next week is as follows:

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

TUESDAY 26 MARCH—Motion to approve the Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges on the registration of interests 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 business for the week after Easter will be:

TUESDAY 9 APRIL—Second Reading of the Enterprise Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 APRIL—Second Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 11 APRIL—Debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 12 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to be reminded that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 17 April.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for April will be:

THURSDAY 11 APRIL—Debate on UK—Japanese relations.

THURSDAY 18 APRIL—Debate on the report from the Social Security Committee on the Social Fund.

THURSDAY 25 APRIL—Debate on the report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on British—US relations.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the business.

A Second Reading debate on the Enterprise Bill on 9 April has been announced. I am led to believe that that Bill has not yet been published, but it is rumoured that it may contain more than 250 clauses and in excess of 20 schedules. The Leader of the House is putting us in a position whereby a major Bill containing enormously complex material, which, I gather, has had no pre-legislative scrutiny, will not be published until next week when the House goes into recess for two weeks. Immediately on the House's return, it will be asked to conduct its Second Reading debate. Surely that flies completely in the face not only of all parliamentary convention but of the Leader of the House's principles—which he likes to set out frequently—which include a belief in the value of pre-legislative scrutiny and in the necessity for the House to have a proper opportunity not only to debate and to scrutinise but to consult legitimate outside interests before doing so. I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider the matter.

Given that we are not exactly under enormous pressure of time, will the Leader of the House consider delaying, even at this late stage, the Second Reading of the Enterprise Bill? We would thus have more time properly to consider it and properly to consult outside the House before we debate it.

There is an item in a newspaper today headed: "Labour peer quits in job row". Apparently, the peer in question is a nice man called Lord Warner, who is a Labour peer. I gather that, at one time, he was a special adviser to no less a man than the Foreign Secretary. Lord Warner lists law and order as his special interests in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion", so he is obviously a good chap. I am really inviting the Leader of the House to tell me that the story is completely wrong. It is reported that this nice man was going to be offered the job of head of the Audit Commission, and that that was endorsed by No. 10, no less. However, it is alleged that another nice man, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions—to whom the House has had to get used, as he comes here so often to grovel—for some reason vetoed the appointment of the nice Lord Warner.

We really must get to the bottom of this. If that Secretary of State is messing things up again, defying No. 10 and disappointing one of his colleagues so much that a Labour peer has resigned from his party and joined the Cross Benches, we need to know more about it. Moreover, if that nice man has seen fit to resign, what has happened to the Labour Chief Whip in the Lords? Some very serious allegations were made last week—

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Another very nice man.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) says that the Labour Chief Whip in the Lords is a nice man, but that is not how he came across on Sky Television last weekend, when he made some very serious allegations. Why has he not stepped aside until his name is cleared—if it is going to cleared? Why is he still in his job, when Lord Warner has left the Labour party? I think that we need to know.

I genuinely regret to say this, but the Prime Minister's contempt for Parliament is becoming more and more obvious. We must not forget that, according to the House of Commons Library, the Prime Minister has a voting record of 3 per cent. That means that he bothers to turn up to this House to vote on only 3 per cent. of occasions. What the people of Sedgefield think about that I do not know as, apart from anything else, the right hon. Gentleman is supposed to represent them in the House of Commons.

However, the problem is even worse. The Prime Minister was not present for the debate on our military involvement in Afghanistan, even though the Secretary of State for Defence has said that our military personnel may be putting their lives on the line. The Prime Minister was not here to support the Secretary of State, or our young men and women in uniform. I have heard, although I can scarce believe it, that, at the material time, the Prime Minister was talking to Labour MPs about foxes. I hope that the Leader of the House can confirm or deny that.

If the Prime Minister seriously believes that foxes are more important than the lives of our young men and women in uniform, he should be ashamed of himself. He should come to the House to make an apology. I hope that the Leader of the House will urge him to do so.

Mr. Cook

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for drawing our attention to the Enterprise Bill. It is a very important Bill—

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook

It is indeed an important Bill, and we understood that the principle on which it is based was supported by the Conservative party, just as it is extensively supported throughout industry and business. I am happy to confirm that the Bill will be published next week. By my reckoning, that will allow a clear two weeks before the Second Reading debate. The hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) is one of the more able and intellectual of Opposition Front-Bench Members, and I am sure that it is within his wit to prepare a 25-minute speech over the two-week period of the recess.

Mr. Forth

indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook

Apparently, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) does not have faith in the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford, or believe that he can prepare a 25-minute speech in that time. It is very important that the Government respond to the strong wish in industry, commerce and business to improve the competition regulations. We must make sure that those regulations promote competition and break up cartels, and that they are more independent of political control. I totally support the Bill. I hope that the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford will be able to say the same when he returns after the recess, when he will have had plenty of leisure to consider these matters in full.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his observation that Lord Warner is a very nice man. He used another term to describe Lord Warner that is not one normally used by Labour Members, but I am happy to accept his word that he is also "a good chap"—I hope that I have got the phrase right. I shall not dispute either of those points with the right hon. Gentleman, and no Labour Member would suggest that Lord Warner was not a nice man or a good chap.

However, I have been sitting here wondering what the right hon. Gentleman would have said if Lord Warner had been appointed to chair the Audit Commission. I know exactly what he would have said. He would have said, "Another of Steve's cronies gets an appointment … a Labour special adviser to Labour Ministers … it is disgraceful that such a man should have a very important position of independence." The right hon. Gentleman should spare us the humbug. He hits us over the left ear and, when we react in a different way, he tries to hit us over the right ear.

Lord Carter has issued a full statement through his lawyers fully rebutting the allegations mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. It was available to Sky Television before it went ahead with the programme. I very much regret that the current standards of journalism are such that Sky proceeded with the piece, paying no attention to the rebuttal and making no mention of the denial. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to show a greater sense of integrity and honesty than Sky by studying the rebuttal with great care.

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman, as he appears worried about it, that the electors of Sedgefield have full confidence in their Member of Parliament. I would be prepared to bet, fairly confidently, that they will demonstrate that again at the next general election. As for where the Prime Minister was, I was at the meeting that he is alleged to have attended. The Prime Minister left the meeting before the discussion about foxhunting, in order to attend a meeting with the Prime Minister of Australia. I consider that to be an entirely legitimate activity for the Prime Minister of Britain, and personally I am rather glad that Britain has a Prime Minister who has the respect of other Heads of Government around the globe.

The right hon. Gentleman alluded to a general matter that has been raised in the press. I had understood—perhaps I was wrong, and perhaps Conservative Members will correct me—that the Opposition had tabled their emergency motion to demonstrate their support for our action in rounding up al-Qaeda terrorists and standing shoulder to shoulder with our United States allies. We are, of course, grateful for that support. I am sorry if Opposition Members feel hurt by the fact that we did not turn up in sufficient numbers to convince them of our gratitude for their loyal support, but if they really want to show support of a bipartisan character for our action in Afghanistan and the work of our troops there, they ought to say so clearly and unequivocally, and stop scoring cheap party political points.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 1041, which concerns military action against Iraq?

[That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure that there is a debate and substantive motion in the House before any further British forces are deployed in any military action beyond present commitments against Iraq by land, sea or air, and if necessary to recall Parliament during any recess for that purpose.]

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us a specific undertaking that there will be no deployment of any British troops on any exercise involving Iraq until there has been a debate in the House?

Also, will the right hon. Gentleman again consider the need for clarity and an early statement on the Government's intentions in relation to House of Lords reform? As he will recall, on Tuesday, in answer to our questions, he himself said: I also welcome the Public Administration Committee's thoughtful contribution to the debate, which has proved that it is possible to find a centre of gravity on the composition of reform".—[Official Report, 19 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 163.] It would seem that the Prime Minister had not read the right hon. Gentleman's words when he said yesterday, on the very same subject: There are many different voices."—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 304.] I am a great admirer of the dexterity and ingenuity of the Leader of the House, but how can he possibly reconcile those two entirely different statements?

Mr. Cook

As I have said on two previous Thursdays and am happy to say on a third, no decision has been taken on Iraq, and no decision may be taken. As for a debate in the House, I think that Ministers can refer with credit and with honour to what we did in relation to the action in Afghanistan. There were five full debates on the subject, at least two of which preceded any military action. I am confident that should any decision be made—I am not prejudging whether it ever will—there will be a full debate in the House before any such action.

As for reform of the House of Lords, I am tempted to say that no decision has yet been taken, although I am confident in this instance that one will be taken. I am distressed that the hon. Gentleman should imagine that the Prime Minister does not read my words and those of every other Member who speaks in the Chamber, and I do not see the gulf that the hon. Gentleman sees. There are a multitude of views on this matter—indeed, we have received more than 1,000 responses to the consultation—but as the Public Administration Committee has shown, it is not impossible to find a centre of gravity among the voices in favour of reform. I hope that we will continue to search for it, and will succeed in that search.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My right hon. Friend will know that eight weeks ago there was a breach of security at Heathrow airport and that more than £3 million was stolen. The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Home Secretary then announced a review of security at Heathrow. Two days ago, there was another breach of security and £2 million was stolen. Will the respective Secretaries of State make statements in the House on the progress of the review? The issue is important, as money has been stolen and lives could be put at risk. We need to reassure the travelling public and restore their confidence in security at our airports.

Mr. Cook

I understand the importance of this issue to my hon. Friend and his constituents; indeed, it is also of acute interest to Members of this House who, like me, regularly pass through Heathrow and want to have confidence in security there. The particular incident to which he refers is being pursued by the police, who are questioning those involved. Of course, it must also be a factor in the review on security at Heathrow, which is already under way. I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to write to my hon. Friend advising him when we expect the review to be concluded.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

Although today's statement on Zimbabwe is obviously welcome, does the Leader of the House agree that, in the light of the atrocious way in which Mugabe stole the election and the appalling recriminations against that country's Opposition, the time is right to have a full day's debate—in Government time—on this important issue? Surely it would have been better to debate that rather than hunting, for example, last Monday. Does he agree that more targeted sanctions are needed, such as banning all flights by Zimbabwean airlines?

Mr. Cook

We have already adopted a battery of measures against Zimbabwe. First, we established an arms freeze; secondly, we have ensured that we provide no economic aid to its Government; thirdly, action is being taken, through European Union measures, to prevent President Mugabe and his cronies from flying to this country, and against any assets that they hold.

We have taken great care to ensure that we do not adopt measures that would hit the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, who already suffer enough as a result of President Mugabe, without our adding to it. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless be aware that there are some 40,000 British passport holders in Zimbabwe, who want to visit Britain regularly. We would want to reflect very carefully before adopting a measure that might hit them harder than anybody else.

David Wright (Telford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that hospital trust mergers need to be considered carefully? Several of my constituents are concerned that the proposed merger of Telford's Princess Royal hospital and the Royal Shrewsbury hospital will prove disadvantageous. Can we have a debate in the House on hospital trust mergers?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the enormous local sensitivity to hospital mergers and the great affection that communities have for their local hospital, which underlines their faith in the national health service. I fully understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise this issue and put it on the record, and I shall invite my colleagues at the Department of Health to write to him. Obviously, I cannot promise a debate on the topic to which he refers, but I can assure him that these matters are followed closely at ministerial level.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

We hear weekly of the Government's intention to change the drugs laws, most notably through the reclassification of certain soft drugs, but no legislation or statutory instruments to that effect have so far been proposed. How will the process be pursued? Will a Bill be introduced, and will hon. Members be given the opportunity to debate the Government's proposals? Most important, given that we are talking about the most fundamental change to drugs laws since the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, will we be allowed to vote on the Government's proposals?

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have already made a number of statements on this issue, and some local initiatives are under way. I am sure that the entire House followed with close interest the results of the policing experiment in south London, which has actually increased the number of arrests of those who peddle hard drugs. That is particularly welcome.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, no decision has been announced by the Home Secretary, so it would be premature for me to say how we would implement such a decision. However, the House has not been short of opportunities to debate the matter; indeed, a full debate took place only two or three months ago, if I recall rightly. I am sure that we will return to the matter again.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today marks the end of car manufacturing in Luton? After almost 100 years, Vauxhall is closing, resulting in the loss of 5,000 jobs in the region. He will doubtless want to join me in thanking the workers, unions and local authority members who tried so hard to retain car manufacturing in!my constituency. Will he agree to an early debate on how to ensure that companies such as General Motors undertake to consult employees and the Government on an ongoing basis before such major decisions are taken, and that they take full responsibility in ensuring that compensation and assistance is provided to regenerate local economies, which are devastated by such decisions?

Mr. Cook

The whole House will sympathise with my hon. Friend on the loss of employment in Luton and wish to raise its concern about the loss of employment for several thousand people across Europe within Vauxhall production. I agree with my hon. Friend that if a work force and local community have given their loyalty and contribution to a company in the way that her constituents have done for Vauxhall, they are entitled to look to the company to help them to adjust to the process of change. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Government are assisting in all the ways that they can to ensure that those who were employed by Vauxhall have the opportunity of fresh work and Luton has the opportunity of a fresh start for its economy.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

When the House returns after the Easter recess, may we have a debate—this time in Government time—on the progress of action in Afghanistan?

Mr. Cook

I shall keep all those issues under review. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that I have just announced the business for the first week after the recess and that will include a day's debate on armed forces personnel, when I am sure that many references to Afghanistan will be made. I am also sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will wish to speak further about those of our personnel in action in Afghanistan.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Could we have a debate on small businesses so that the House could congratulate my constituent, Mr. Shelim Hussein, who was named the young Asian business man of the year? In a short time, he has gone from being a waiter in a restaurant to the owner of a business with a turnover of £50 million, under the benign influence of an enterprise-friendly Labour Government. Could we also congratulate Mr. Hussein on his statement that however big his business grows he will still have it firmly located in the brand new city of Newport?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to say that my hon. Friend has relieved me of the obligation to have a debate in order that he may congratulate his constituent, as he has just done so eloquently and convincingly. I welcome the fact that he has mentioned the success of the young Asian business man of the year, because it underlines the theme that I have often mentioned to the House of the enormous asset to this country of those who have come here and made their home here and the strength to Britain of being a multicultural, multiracial society.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I draw to the attention of the House early-day motion 910?

[That this House calls upon the Parliamentary Ombudsman to initiate an immediate independent inquiry into the Equitable Life affair and the gross dereliction of duty of the regulators appointed by the Government to monitor Equitable Life policies.]

The motion has now attracted 147 signatures from Members on both sides of the House. Will the Leader of the House use his influence to persuade the parliamentary ombudsman to address the issue, to give us an independent inquiry and to achieve a satisfactory conclusion for more than 1 million policy holders, past and present, who believe that they have been disadvantaged?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having pursued an issue of immense and real concern to thousands of United Kingdom citizens. It is an important principle that the ombudsman is independent of Government and not subject to pressure from Ministers, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the ombudsman has the matter before him. He has, sensibly, concluded that it would not be proper for him to take action pending the outcome of the inquiry by Penrose, which has already been appointed by the Government, but I am sure that he will return to the matter and consider what action he can take once we have received the report.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the ongoing crisis in the railway industry—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I do not know why Opposition Members laugh, because they are the cause of it. That crisis covers not only Railtrack but the train operating companies, two of which have recently had subventions from Government to dig them out of financial difficulties. It is alleged that another four are in serious financial difficulties. Maintenance is an ongoing problem and train delays are getting worse. More than half of the delays are due to train operating companies, not Railtrack. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only a Labour Government can sort out the mess in the rail industry and that it is time for a full debate in which all the options can be considered, including wholesale renationalisation of the rail industry?

Mr. Cook

I fully share my hon. Friend's sentiment, but I could have drafted his question slightly differently.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Tell him about your philosophy.

Mr. Cook

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful idea. I might take refuge in it if my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) presses me too far.

I and my colleagues believe that we were right to take action and end the competition for Railtrack's resources between the travelling public and the private shareholder. That is why I hope that what results from administration will be a company that can devote itself single-mindedly to serving the travelling public without having to serve the master of private shareholders. We shall continue to ensure that investment goes into the rail industry. Those who travel on the continent are well aware of the distances involved and of the enormous gulf between the performance of our railways and that of the better continental railways, resulting from the long period of neglect under the previous Administration.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May we have an early debate on the operation of the Data Protection Act 1998, particularly in the light of concerns raised by hospital chaplains against whom the Act is being used to stop them receiving information about the religious affiliation of patients in hospitals? My constituent, Rev. Graham Skinner, wrote that his chaplaincy team had found the new legislation to be a millstone for their ministry. That was not intended when the legislation was enacted. It is now affecting many vulnerable people. May we have a debate so that those concerns can be brought out into the open?

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of some hon. Members' concerns about how the Data Protection Act is impinging on their constituency work. I am actively pursuing that matter and hope to bring any findings before the House. The Data Protection Act was plainly correct in principle and in its objective—to protect the rights of our citizens and constituents—but it must be applied with common sense. It should not become a means of denying our citizens and constituents their rights.

I shall happily look further into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised. He may have encountered an over-official interpretation of the Act. I am not aware of a parallel case, but it is important that a law that was intended to protect our people benefits them rather than detracts from their quality of life.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the state of the transport network in Kent Thameside? I ask because it is an area with massive inward investment and is of huge strategic importance to the whole nation. Several outstanding transport issues remain, particularly the state of the railway network, the channel tunnel rail link, Ebbsfleet station and now the possibility of an airport at Cliffe in north Kent. Those strategic issues impact on the whole nation, so will my right hon. Friend find time for a full debate on the subject?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises some strategic and profound issues affecting the region that he represents. It is right for him to put his constituents' concerns before the House. I encourage him to examine further ways to ventilate them, perhaps in Westminster Hall. In the meantime, he will share our pleasure that section one of the channel tunnel link is on schedule and should be completed thisyear.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Can the Leader of the House inform us how many additional cannabis users and dealers have been attracted to the streets of Lambeth from other areas during the recent experiment?

Mr. Cook

I cannot answer the hon. Lady's question and I might be regarded with some suspicion if I could. I advise her to examine the results of the experiment carefully. I would personally applaud the police in that area if, as a result of the experiment, they were bringing to book more of those who peddle hard drugs—the ones that we should focus on.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the public interest report drawn up by external auditors KPMG, who have investigated serious allegations of political and financial mismanagement by Lincolnshire county councillors? The report is not yet in the public domain. Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on improving the public availability of public interest reports, which is vital to restoring my constituents' confidence in local democracy?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has just put some of the material of that report in the public domain, and I congratulate her on her vigilance. As I said last week when the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised a similar issue, I fully deprecate any failure of probity, integrity or financial honesty in public life, whether it is in the House or local authorities. The best weapon against such corruption is transparency. The best remedy that we have is letting in daylight and making sure that the constituents themselves know what is going on.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Will the Leader of the House, who is always so reasonable and affable on these occasions, consider arranging for a debate ahead of the Chancellor's statement on his Budget on public spending, as we now learn that since the Government were elected in 1997, taxation receipts have increased by about 50 per cent? As the Leader of the House will know, in the west midlands the transport infrastructure is close to collapse, hospital waiting lists are rising, beds are blocked through lack of resources and crime on our streets is almost completely out of control. We need an urgent debate on when we will get value for money for all that extra taxation.

Mr. Cook

I take it that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to be flattering in describing me as affable and I will not take offence at the description. In order to preserve that mood of affability in these exchanges, may I try to encourage him to take a more cheerful perspective on the public services that he has described? In the west midlands, as elsewhere, there are more doctors, more nurses and now more hospital beds than ever before. He will no doubt wish to congratulate the Government on the fact that we are on target to achieve by the end of this month the 20 per cent. reduction in bed blocking that we promised.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the ongoing crisis in the Scottish rail industry following the 24-hour strike last Tuesday.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

That was not a proper strike; it was only one day.

John Barrett

The Leader of the House will also be aware that a further two strikes planned by ASLEF have been cancelled, but there are reports in today's paper that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has actively blocked a resolution of the Scottish rail dispute. Can the Leader of the House find time for the Secretary of State to come to the House to explain exactly what has been going on between the Minister for Transport and Planning in Scotland and the Secretary of State's Department? He should be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Mr. Skinner

No sooner started than it finished.

Mr. Cook

I think that my hon. Friend has said quite enough.

I am very sceptical about the allegation to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) refers, and I advise him not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers; indeed, he would possibly be wise not to believe most of the things he reads in the newspapers. We are clear that these are primarily matters for the train operators themselves to resolve. They are not primarily in the first instance a matter for Government. We have always encouraged both sides to seek independent conciliation and arbitration to find a resolution, and we continue to do so.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Sadly, James Tobin died last week. He was best known for the tax that bore his name, an international tax on currency speculation to be used for developments in the third world, yet he had no sympathy for anti-globalisation rebels who took up the tax. Would he not have been pleased to see early-day motion 885?

[That this House notes that international currency transactions total more than $1 trillion a day and that the vast majority of this is unrelated to the real economy of tangible trade goods and services; believes that such enormous speculative flows have contributed to serious economic damage to countries and regions such as Mexico (1994), Southeast Asia (1997), Russia (1998), Brazil (1999) and Argentina (2001); further believes that a small levy on such currency speculation, the Tobin tax, named after the Nobel Laureate who originated the concept, could both dampen down the scale and scope of speculation and raise substantial revenues, potentially in excess of $50 billion each year, for projects targeted towards ending global poverty; is pleased that this initiative now enjoys the backing of a number of governments and parliaments across the world, including France? whose parliament recently passed a law authorising its implementation; is heartened by the words of the Chancellor that innovative ways need to be urgently found, including currency taxes, to finance development; wishes the Chancellor a successful mission to the UN 'Financing for development' conference in Monterrey, Mexico; urges him to take steps towards the introduction of a internationally co-ordinated currency transactions tax, with the proceeds ring fenced for international substantial development objectives; and further urges the Chancellor to ensure that these proceeds do not replace either existing international aid disbursements or agreed commitments to increase international aid.]

It has been signed by 115 hon. Members, a wide range of respectable people from different parties. Would not James Tobin also have been pleased to see the ten-minute Bill that was introduced last week by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan)? Can we not, therefore, now have a debate in Government time on what is seen increasingly internationally as a very important issue?

Mr. Cook

I am glad that my hon. Friend has had the opportunity to pay tribute to James Tobin, whose work has provided an important contribution to the debate on international financial movements. I am sure that James Tobin would have been gratified to see the support that my hon. Friend and his colleagues have secured for their early-day motion.

The Tobin tax is a perfect, wonderful and impressive construct but it requires everyone in the world to participate in it in order for it to work. If just one held out against the tax, it would be very difficult to make it succeed in practice. It is essential that we find ways of increasing the resources that go into third world development; James Tobin had intended his tax to provide the funds. There will very shortly be just such a conference in Monterrey, where the British delegation will be promoting the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has just made to continue the improvements that we are making in the British overseas aid budget, and to continue to ensure that we make steady progress towards the agreed international targets.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread disquiet in the House and outside about President Bush's remarks about an axis of evil, which suggest that we want to go to war on many fronts? There is also disquiet at the Government's rather quiescent attitude to those remarks. I was going to ask my right hon. Friend whether he would bring the Foreign Secretary to the House to make a statement on the matter, but I see that he is here already. Perhaps the Leader of the House would give him a nudge and ask him to disavow George Bush's remarks.

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to have delivered on my hon. Friend's request even before he made it. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has addressed the House on the issue on several occasions.

The action that we took in Afghanistan was absolutely correct and plainly in defence of our national interest. It was not in the service of United States interests alone. We, too, lost citizens in the attack on the twin towers and are exposed to the complex, sophisticated and expensive terrorism mounted by al-Qaeda. It is important that we act whenever necessary to ensure that our people can live and travel the world in safety. We must continue to consider carefully the British national interest and act on it.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)

The Leader of the House may be aware that the TV Licensing recently changed its procedures. People who do not have a television set and give the authority that information are being visited by officials, who request admission to their home. That is causing enormous stress to several of my elderly constituents who have no television and feel harassed. Following the first visit, they are liable to receive more visits every couple of years thereafter. That is a gross intrusion into the privacy of people who do not receive BBC services. The change of policy is a result not of a debate in the House but Executive action. Might we have a debate, followed by a vote, to assess hon. Members' views?

Mr. Cook

I shall happily look into whether there has been a change of policy, but in my long constituency experience it has been the practice of inspectors to call on people who do not have a licence to investigate whether they have a television. There is nothing new in that: it is, after all, the role for which they have been appointed. If the hon. Gentleman wants to challenge that role, it is open to him to draft a Bill or table a motion in the House, but we need a system to ensure that people who have a television have paid for a licence and are not having a free ride on the back of the millions of law-abiding people in Britain who have done so.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) about the Enterprise Bill. I raise the matter as a House point, not a party political one. The timetable that the Leader of the House announced is indecent, unjust and unreasonable, and I hope that he will reflect on his answer. I understand that if the Opposition want to table a reasoned amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill, they will need to do so by next Tuesday. That means that we shall have only a few hours in which to draft and table such an amendment.

The Leader of the House often claims to be a champion of proper parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. The timetable that he announced today makes those words ring rather hollow. If he is not prepared to announce a change of business, in future we shall have to judge him on his actions, not his words. I hope that he will be prepared to think again.

Mr. Cook

I am suitably intimidated by the right hon. Gentleman's closing remarks. I shall reflect on his comments and consider whether an adjustment would be appropriate. On preparation for the debate, it is not unreasonable to announce a debate that is a clear two and a half weeks away and will still be two weeks away when the Bill is published. That seems an entirely reasonable time for those taking part in the debate—

Mr. Knight

The House will not be sitting.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman does not want to suggest that hon. Members do not work when the House is not sitting. Whenever there is a recess, someone, somewhere, is preparing for the first debate to be held on the day that we return. I do not take seriously the idea that Opposition Members are unwilling to work at any time during the fortnight's recess.

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