HC Deb 09 May 2002 vol 385 cc306-18 2.21 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

The business of the House for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 13 MAY—Second Reading of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Cook

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that I have the confidence of the House on that point. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will vote for the measure.

TUESDAY 14 MAY—Motion to approve the First Report from the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, on Select Committees.

Motions relating to the Ninth Report from the Standards and Privileges Committee, on a new code of conduct and guide to the rules.

WEDNESDAY 15 MAY—Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Post Office Closures and Royal Mail Delivery Services" followed by a debate on the environment. Exact title to be confirmed. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

THURSDAY 16 MAY—Progress on remaining stages of the Adoption and Children Bill.

FRIDAY 17 MAY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

MONDAY 20 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Adoption and Children Bill.

TUESDAY 21 MAY—Opposition Day [14th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill.

THURSDAY 23 MAY—Remaining stages of the State Pension Credits Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 24 MAY—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The House will wish to know that on Tuesday 14 May 2002, there will be a debate relating to the pet travel scheme in European Standing Committee A.

[Tuesday 14 May 2002: European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 11596/00 and 12488/01; Rabies: restrictions on the non-commercial movement of pet animals. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 23-xxviii (1999–2000); HC 28-iv (2000–01); HC 152-iii; HC 152-xxi; HC 152-xxiv and HC 152-xxvi (2001–02).]

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business details. The right hon. Gentleman is rightly renowned for his respect for the House and for its conventions and proprieties. You will recall, Madam Deputy Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman recently came to the House, willingly and quickly, to apologise after he had been grievously misled by a Government Department. He promptly came to apologise, and the House understood and respected what he did.

Has the Leader of the House recently had a word with the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions? If not, will he be kind enough to take the Secretary of State into a quiet corner and give him a lesson about the proper relationship between Ministers and the House of Commons, and about decency and honesty—in politics and in the House?

I ask that because I want the Leader of the House to tell us when he will allow time for a debate on the censure motion, in the name of Her Majesty's official Opposition and relating to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, that is due to appear on the Order Paper. Today, we heard a performance from the Secretary of State that was completely inadequate and almost contemptuous. It is self-evident that we need an opportunity to have a proper debate so that the matter can be much more thoroughly examined, and resolved. That certainly would be in the interests of the House, and perhaps of the Secretary of State.

I have described the attitude to the House of the Leader of the House, which I respect. When will he provide an early opportunity for the Opposition's censure motion to be debated, dealt with and resolved?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for reminding the House of the statement that I made to the House to correct the record. It may be relevant to consideration of the events about which we have just been hearing, but I should inform the House that the initial statement to the House on the matter about which I was subsequently obliged to correct the record was a line cleared by Mr. Martin Sixsmith. I used precisely the line that had been agreed by him and the Prime Minister's official spokesman. In view of the current unreliability of the line that Mr. Sixsmith approved, I have my own views about his reliability.

I have heard nothing in the past hour to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions did anything other than to put to the House, honestly and fairly, what was put to him by his Department, specifically by his permanent secretary. The words that he used were identical.

I do not doubt the right hon. Gentleman's commitment to the House. He is a genuine parliamentarian—

Mr. Bercow

A great parliamentarian.

Mr. Cook

That is possibly going a little far, but he is a genuine parliamentarian. I have frequently said to the House that, if we want to establish public respect for the House and to get people to participate in elections to the House. we must demonstrate that we are less concerned with party political point scoring than with the real issues in people's lives. I do not think that the last hour will have gone any way to convincing the public of that. I heard absolutely nothing new. If I may say so, I believe that I could have written the speech by the Opposition spokesman on transport matters in five minutes over breakfast. Indeed, I rather suspect that I should have made a better job of it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Liberal Democrat Members share the concern of Conservative Members, and do not consider that we have received straight answers to straight questions this afternoon. We will examine our Opposition day option next week and see whether it will provide an opportunity to give another airing to these matters. In the meantime, will the Leader of the House look again at the statement that he made on Tuesday to the Wicks committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life? He said: I can announce to you one change on an issue which you raise in paragraph 3.42 of your consultation paper. In the light of experience, the Government has resolved that the following addition should be made to the Ministerial Code. 'Ministers must also comply at all times with the requirements which Parliament has itself laid on them as Members, including in particular the codes of conduct for their respective Houses.' I believe this explicit requirement will reinforce the status of the Members' Code of Conduct, and underline the Government's commitment to its observance.

In the light of the exchanges earlier this afternoon, and the very real concern among hon. Members of all parties about the behaviour of Ministers, will the Leader of the House give us an opportunity, in Government time, to discuss the changes to the ministerial code so that we can examine the code in the round?

Mr. Cook

I think that the hon. Gentleman's response to my announcement on Tuesday is a trifle churlish and below his high standards of generosity, as it was he who originally raised the matter at business questions. I had hoped that my response would bring at least half a welcome from the hon. Gentleman, for doing what he had asked of me.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the question of the ministerial code a number of times. I am sure that hon. Members will find opportunities to do so. The hon. Gentleman was right to point to where the opportunity lies in respect of the censure of a member of the Government. In past years, when I was a member of the shadow Cabinet, I spent many happy hours discussing which member of the Conservative Cabinet we would censure that week. The appropriate place for such a debate is in Opposition Supply day time. The hon. Gentleman has the distinction of being the last person to move such a motion in the House, when he moved for the censure of the Minister with responsibility for agriculture in the then Conservative Government. We found opportunities to criticise him on many occasions. However, I commend the hon. Gentleman on his speech on that occasion; it was about substance, policy and issues that affected constituents, not the flim-flam that we have been forced to listen to for the past hour and which, I am bound to say, would be an egregious waste of the House's time if we had to return to it again.

Finally, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned my openness to the Wicks committee, may I take the opportunity of repeating what, for me, was the central point of my observation to the committee? It is worth repeating since, characteristically, very few press reports picked it up the next day. Over the past six years, barely half of 1 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons have been censured for misconduct or misregistration. We were right to censure those Members for failing to meet our high

standards, but we are entitled to point out to the press and the public that they were rare exceptions, not the generality of the conduct of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one way in which the House of Commons can reconnect with the public is to address the questions that concern them very deeply? I refer in particular to the London underground. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the contracts were signed yesterday for a public-private partnership which in my view is seriously flawed.

The real problem is that the Government have said that because we discussed this matter two years ago, we no longer need to discuss it. May I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider that very urgently? It is no use the House of Commons lecturing others on the need for openness if we will not debate matters of importance on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Cook

My recollection of the past two years is rather different from that of my hon. Friend. I recollect our having exchanges on this matter several times. Indeed, it is only three months since there was a full statement to the House, at the time when the contracts were being let. The signing of the contracts is a natural and inevitable consequence of that statement. However, I am sure that the House will find ways of ventilating the issue and raising it again. For myself, I think that no local government contract in modern history has been more ventilated in the House of Commons.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Can the Leader of House organise an early debate on compensation arrangements for civil servants? The normal maximum that an ordinary mortal can receive from an industrial tribunal for unfair dismissal is £50,000, yet we now find out that £200,000 was paid to Mr. Martin Sixsmith. Surely that needs explanation. We, as the custodians of the public purse, should have a chance to probe the Executive on whether the difference between £50,000 and £200,000 was the price of Mr. Sixsmith's silence.

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions dealt with this question perfectly adequately only half an hour ago. The settlement is within the terms of Mr. Sixsmith's terms and conditions. It was carried out by lawyers on both sides, without ministerial intervention.

Finally, so that the hon. Gentleman does not muddy the waters further, Mr. Martin Sixsmith has not, of course, been dismissed, whether fairly or unfairly. He has resigned—fairly, I presume.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire)

Can we have an early debate on motorway compensation so that I can raise the concerns of my constituents who live along the construction route of the M6 toll road and have found that compensation is to be delayed until 2005 or thereabouts? In the meantime, their houses are blighted and there is no compensation available for the disturbance. These issues need to be debated.

Mr. Cook

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a full day's debate on that topic in the near future, but there are a number of ways in which he can raise his constituents' concerns. I will happily undertake to ensure that his observations are passed to the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May I express my surprise to the Leader of the House that he should have chosen, on this of all days, to impugn the reliability of Mr. Sixsmith when we have heard this morning that Mr. Sixsmith was telling the truth when he said that he had not resigned and that the Secretary of State was not doing so when he said that he had? May we have a debate in Government time on the use and abuse of privilege in the House? In that way, right hon. and hon. Members will have an opportunity to see what recompense there is for people—whether they be sacked spin doctors or permanent secretaries of Departments who get landed with the blame—when they are impugned under the protection of parliamentary privilege by Secretaries of State who ought to shoulder the responsibility themselves and resign because of misconduct, misdemeanours and misinformation from their Department?

Mr. Cook

I have a little difficulty unravelling from the hon. Gentleman's periphrasis exactly who he is talking about. If he is referring to the permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and looks at the permanent secretary's statement of 25 February, he will see that the permanent secretary uses precisely the same language as was subsequently used by the Secretary of State to the House. As the Secretary of State has said to the House, if we impugn his statement to the House we also, logically, impugn the statement of the permanent secretary. In that case, the hon. Gentleman will then have to accept that he is also attacking the permanent secretary.

Finally, on whether I impugned Mr. Sixsmith, I answered the question that I was asked. I pointed out that the reason why I had to retract my statement on that occasion was that I had acted on the advice of Mr. Sixsmith.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

May we have a further opportunity early next week to discuss the situation in the middle east? Many questions need to be answered: why was a United Kingdom-sponsored resolution to have a commission of inquiry into Jenin thwarted at the United Nations? What went wrong at the UN Security Council? Secondly, and most importantly, what will happen if there is a further Israeli military attack on Gaza? What will the world do if that takes place, and what role will the United Kingdom play to try and bring about a peace in that area?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue of deep concern to many in the House and many of our constituents. I assure her that the British Foreign Office is fully engaged in trying to find ways of defusing the situation and find a way hack to the negotiating table. I congratulate all those who have been involved in finding a solution to the effective house arrest of Chairman Arafat in Ramallah and in the progress that is being made, slow and painful though it is, on relieving the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It is very important that the outside world does all that it can to make sure that we continue to make progress.

I think that everybody in the Chamber will deplore the act of terrorism that took place the other day and will greatly sympathise with the relatives of those who were killed in that bomb attack. I hope that everyone in Israel will also reflect that the event shows that the actions within the west bank are not eliminating suicide bombers. The only way in which we can fight and successfully defeat terrorism is to offer a just and peaceful way forward for all the Palestinian people, which will only be found at the negotiating table.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Could the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement by the Minister responsible for S.I. 843, Animal Health England? I served on the Committee stage of the Animal Health Bill, which currently lies in another place; it has been defeated in another place and is therefore unable to progress. However, this statutory instrument, some 221 pages long, was first made and laid before Parliament during the easter recess, coming into force on 19 April. It seeks to replicate many of the issues on which the Bill was defeated in another place.

I see this as legislation by stealth. The statutory instrument involves giving additional powers to Government to enter property and slaughter owners' animals without their consent. I believe that this is a contempt of the House, and we should have a full explanation of how it came into being.

Mr. Cook

I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised this question because it gives me an opportunity to put right some of the press reports concerning the regulations. The only powers for entry and slaughter contained in the regulations are those which already exist in statute. There is no extension of those powers. The only new matter in the regulations is the power to carry out wider testing to try to establish whether there have been transmissible forms of BSE. That form of testing does not involve the slaughter of live animals but the examination of dead carcases. There is no extension of the power to slaughter in the regulations.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) in calling for an urgent debate on what is happening in the middle east? As we sit here, the Israeli army is massing tanks, troops, helicopter gunships and bulldozers on the borders of Gaza. It is clear that Ariel Sharon is going to inflict bloody revenge on civilians in Gaza, as he did in Jenin. We all condemn the latest suicide bombing—of course we do—but my right hon. Friend must realise that we cannot sit by and watch another Jenin. We should at least hold a debate.

Mr. Cook

I understand my hon. Friend's last point. In fairness to the Government, we are very aware of the concern in the House, as we have shown in the past by giving the House opportunities to hear statements and to explore these matters. Foreign Office Question Time will take place next Tuesday, but I shall continue to keep the situation under review, as, I am sure, will my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

I fully share my hon. Friend's concern that any massive military retaliation for the terrorist action of the other day is not likely to produce a lasting peace or a cessation of terrorist activity. We shall secure that only by returning to the peace table and by ensuring that we find a path forward that is based on security for the people of Israel and justice for the people of the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I welcome the announcement that there will be a debate next week on the new code of conduct and guide to the rules for Members of Parliament. However, does the Leader of the House agree that neither the current code of conduct nor the proposed new code would deal with any Member who is associated with an organisation involved in terrorism in this country or who assists such activity in another country? If Sinn Fein-IRA is proven to have been involved in the break-in at Castlereagh police station, in assisting FARC guerrillas in Colombia or in carrying out a recent murder in County Tyrone, what action does the Leader of the House propose or recommend should be taken against the four Members of the House who represent that organisation?

Mr. Cook

It is important to keep a clear distinction between the code of conduct, which governs our behaviour as Members of Parliament in the fulfilment of our parliamentary duties, and other matters where there is the same duty on Members of Parliament as on any citizen to obey the criminal law. There is nothing in the parliamentary code of conduct that seeks to subvert or replace the criminal code. If a Member of Parliament were to have criminal knowledge of a specific criminal or terrorist activity, they should be visited with the full majesty of the law. I support that. Next week, we shall be debating those measures that do not involve criminal activity but on which it is important to establish high standards for our conduct as Members of Parliament, to ensure that we have the clearest possible professional ethics.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate to celebrate women in sport? Yesterday evening, many of us had the opportunity of meeting the England women's rugby union team who are off to their world cup on Saturday. When another world cup is in the news, is it not important that we recognise the tremendous contribution that women make to sport, and that we wish the England women's rugby union team all the best in their world cup in Barcelona?

Mr. Cook

I am sure that my hon. Friend passed a very enjoyable evening and I am happy to join him in his congratulations to the team, and to wish them well. On behalf of all of us, I wish them success.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have a debate entitled "new Labour, new standards in the House of Commons", when we can learn that questions of integrity and honesty are mere "flim-flam", as the Leader of the House just said, and that Ministers can come to the Dispatch Box and claim that misleading the House by saying something that is an untruth is allowed if it is taken in the round?

Mr. Cook

On the many occasions when I advise the House to rise above party political point scoring, I never imagine that the hon. Gentleman will pay any attention.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the large sums of public money spent by

both national and local government on maintaining bus services in rural areas and small towns. Nevertheless, the devil is this: private bus operators frequently withdraw a service only for it to be replaced by a subsidised service and, as a consequence, such bus operators run only profitable services and we—the public authorities—run only loss-making services. As a result, costs rise and services often diminish. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on that important subject?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter of which I have personal knowledge from my own constituency. The real problem is the difficulty of securing public transport and bus services in places where they may not be commercially profitable or, indeed, at times of the day when many of the vulnerable people in our community want to travel but when, because they are not peak times, services are not available. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the dilemma in which that leaves local authorities, and I shall certainly bear in mind his suggestion that there should be a debate on the subject. I am sure that an opportunity will arise for us to discuss these matters generally, although I cannot predict the date at present.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

As we are not to have a debate on the middle east, will the Leader of the House at least ensure that the Foreign Secretary or the International Development Secretary comes to the House to explain why European Union funds go to finance members of the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat at a time when it would seem that terrorism is being prosecuted by that very organisation? At the very least, should not the European Union stop such funding until violence stops, or is the United Kingdom powerless to prevent British taxpayers' money going to such purposes?

Mr. Cook

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has paid any attention whatever to what has been happening in the Palestinian territories during the past month or, indeed, during the past five years. Income in those territories has gone down by a third over the past five years. During the past month, large parts of the infrastructure have been smashed, with total damage from that destruction amounting to well over £200 million. People in the Palestinian territories are desperate. I do not believe that it would assist the peace process at all if the European Union were to stop providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid for those people. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman should be careful not to spread false allegations that European funds support terrorism. The European Union has made it plain that it has carefully audited the trail of money and that, to its knowledge, none of it has ever been used for terrorist activities.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to VARDA—the Victims of Air Related DVT Association—and the Aviation Health Institute for raising public awareness of the problem of deep-vein thrombosis in air travel? Is he aware that, this afternoon, in the precincts of the Palace, they are launching a report which shows that 43 per cent. of the people who have died from deep-vein thrombosis were aged between 20 and 40, which almost certainly shows that the problem is directly related to the unique conditions of flying? Given that the Government lead the world in calling for and supporting international research into the problem, does my right hon. Friend share my sheer disbelief that the Australian Government refuse to fund the World Health Organisation research? They are placing that research at risk, yet they stand to benefit most from it. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to try to persuade them to change their mind?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to congratulate those organisations on their work on drawing attention to the matter, although I do not think that anyone has done more than my hon. Friend to draw attention to the problem of deep-vein thrombosis. I fully agree about the importance of our carrying out research to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to minimise the risk of deep-vein thrombosis.

I do not want to get into the business of criticising a foreign Government about their attitude to that or many other matters. I am proud of the fact that Britain has taken the issue seriously and is providing leadership. I hope that, in time, other countries will follow that lead.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

On 16 January, I put a question to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the number of claimants for incapacity benefit in York and North Yorkshire. I received the figures in a written answer on 6 March. However, this week, I received a letter from a Minister in the Department stating that the figures were incorrect and that he had published revised figures. Will the Leader of the House confirm that, in such circumstances, it is customary for the Minister in question to apologise and explain why the figures were incorrect, whether they were higher or lower than the original figures, and why the revised version was necessary.

Mr. Cook

I did not hear anything in what the hon. Lady said that seemed in any way improper or in breach of ministerial duty. If the Minister discovered that the figures provided to him were in error, he was right to correct the record. There is a duty on him to do so. I am confident that the previous figures were provided in good faith. Given the many thousands of questions that have to be answered—some of which are highly statistical—it will occasionally be necessary to correct figures. I gently suggest that such situations were not unknown when the hon. Lady's party was in government.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Clearly, the whole House deplores the suicide bombings that took place a couple of days ago in Israel and Pakistan, but the stark contrast is surely between the expected responses. It is inconceivable that France would engage in reprisal killings or the wanton destruction of poor people's homes. May I endorse other hon. Members' requests that we should have an early debate on the middle east and its wider implications? If Sharon continues to exercise a licence to kill and to block the Jenin inquiry, that could surely undermine the United Nations in the way that the failure to act effectively over Japan/Manchuria and Italy/Abyssinia undermined the League of Nations in the last century, leading eventually to war.

Mr. Cook

Of course I hear the very strong feelings among a number of Members who have taken part in the exchanges on the situation in the middle east, and they are absolutely right to be deeply concerned about what may be the wider implications not only for the region—the current situation in the middle east is a major threat to stability of the wider region—but for the standing and status of the United Nations, which, initially in response to an Israeli view, offered an inquiry into Jenin only to have that inquiry refused by the Israeli Government. I hope that a way forward will be found to ensure that the UN can play a constructive and real role. I assure my hon. Friend that the British Government are doing everything that an outside power can possibly do to try to bring both sides to the negotiating table.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The Leader of the House will be aware that today is Europe day and that the future of Europe is currently being considered in the convention chaired by the former President of France, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Twice in recent weeks, the Minister for Europe has made the Government's position on the future of Europe clear to members of that convention. Will the Leader of the House tell us when hon. Members will have an opportunity to debate the Government's proposals for the post-enlargement period from 2004? Will he also tell us what arrangements will be made to allow the parliamentary representatives from the House—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory)—to report on their contributions to that convention?

Mr. Cook

I have told the House before that we are examining how we may provide an appropriate forum for the House's representatives to the convention—as well as the Minister for Europe, who represents the Government—to report to hon. Members. I hope soon to be able to announce those proposals.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), my right hon. Friend may be aware that London bus workers lobbied Parliament yesterday. London is different from the rest of the country because an element of regulation was maintained after privatisation, but a route-based franchising system is used. That is a direct threat to the standard of services across Greater London because the system operates to bear down on costs, which screws down wages, pension rights, terms and conditions and even, in some cases, the condition of the buses that operate on those routes.

My constituency is more or less on the border between the regulated part of the bus network and the unregulated part which exists in Essex. I have been involved in several campaigns to save various bus services. So when we have a debate on bus services in Britain, could it extend to the regulated part in London, not just to the part outside that area?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will of course be aware that pay for bus drivers and other staff is a matter for the companies and unions concerned, but the companies negotiating those wage settlements with their staff are, in part, subsidised by Transport for London. The Government's grant for Transport for London has rocketed in recent years. Indeed, it recently went up by 100 per cent. My hon. Friend may wish to ask Transport for London what has become of all the increased investment that we have made and why it has resulted in such a difficult situation for some of the staff who provide the service.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The Leader of the House will have read reports to the effect that political advisers are being asked to amend, or tamper with, Ministers' answers to parliamentary questions. I am sure that he will agree—as will you, Madam Deputy Speaker—that parliamentary questions are one of the crucial ways in which Members from both sides of the House can hold the Executive to account and gain information on behalf of their constituents. If there is no truth in those reports, I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to let the House know, and we will all be entirely happy and very satisfied. If there is any truth in those reports, perhaps he will arrange for a statement to be made to explain the full detail of that further imposition on the rights of parliamentarians by the Executive.

Mr. Cook

The right of Parliament is to receive full and accurate answers, which is set out in the ministerial code, and Ministers are accountable for those answers. I am all in favour of Parliament's being rigorous and vigorous in ensuring that Ministers are held to account for the answers that they give. In those circumstances, it is not unreasonable for Ministers to seek advice from those in their own offices.

Gillian Merron (Lincoln)

May I tell my right hon. Friend that, last Thursday, Councillor Jim Speechley, the Tory leader of Lincolnshire county council, was in court facing eight criminal charges and that the very next day, he was found guilty in an independent public interest report of intimidation and being behind illegal payments totalling some £750,000? I am sure that my right hon. Friend will share my immense concern that, last night, the same councillor was re-elected as Tory leader of Lincolnshire county council. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate standards in local government so that I can have the opportunity to raise the very real and pertinent concerns of my constituents, who, after all, rely on the political management of the authority to deliver essential services to them?

Mr. Cook

I heard what my hon. Friend said with interest. I am very pleased that the business statement has given her the opportunity to complete the intervention that she attempted earlier this afternoon. I certainly take a dim view of the conduct in local government that she describes, and I very much hope that the electors of Lincolnshire will find a happier and better outcome in future. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) wants to help to raise standards in local government, the best way for the Conservatives to do so would be to encourage Dame Shirley Porter to return to answer the very grave and serious charges that are still outstanding from the period when she was a senior Conservative leader in London and a close friend of the then Conservative Prime Minister.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the concerns that have been raised about the operation of removal centres for asylum seekers, such as Dungavel, but he may not be aware that a cross-party

delegation is to visit Dungavel a week tomorrow. If concerns arise further to that visit, will he try to find time to ensure that those matters can be debated in the House?

Mr. Cook

I am advised that that delegation will be the third cross-party delegation to visit Dungavel in recent times, which shows the commitment of the authorities to transparency. I understand that there are deep concerns. Indeed, as a Scottish Member, I have seen them expressed in the Scottish press. Opportunities are open to the hon. Lady and her colleagues to raise that matter in the House if they wish to do so—it would seem to be an appropriate issue to pursue in Westminster Hall.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

The Leader of the House has been very patient with my frequent questions about the future of the reform of the second Chamber. I am concerned that there are still not very clear smoke signals about where the process is going. I wonder whether we might have a discussion shortly so that we can see the future shape of the Government's proposals and so that hon. Members can discuss them.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I can promise smoke signals. I do not really think that they would help us to shed light on the topic. My hon. Friend congratulates me on my patience. She must be patient for a little longer: her patience may not be exhausted.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The Leader of the House may recall that I raised the issue of Powderject and the smallpox vaccine last week. Is he aware that there have been some new developments? First, it has been announced that the chief executive officer of Powderject, Paul Drayson, has given another £50,000 to the Labour party.

Secondly, we know that, having paid £32 million by Her Majesty's Government for the contract, Powderject subcontracted the work to Bavarian Nordic for the sum of 17.5 million euros—a profit of £22 million. Bavarian Nordic, however, went on to subcontract the work, as we now know, to IDT, the German company, for less than 10 million euros. In other words, there could have been a saving to the taxpayer of £28 million.

The Leader of the House said last week that it did not matter what Powderject did with the contract having won it. Surely, if we had had an open, competitive tender, we could have gone straight to the east German company and saved £28 million. The Labour party has gained £100,000 out of this and the taxpayer has lost £28 million.

Mr. Cook

Business questions would not be complete without the hon. Gentleman raising a question about Powderject. I anticipated that he might ask about it again today, and I am in danger of becoming a walking expert on the Powderject contract. First, it was known from the start that Bavarian Nordic would be the company that would receive the work and provide the vaccine. Indeed, right from the start, Bavarian Nordic made it plain that Powderject would be its chosen supplier through the United Kingdom. There is no evidence that the contract would have cost any less had we dealt directly with Bavarian Nordic, had Bavarian Nordic been willing to deal with us.

Secondly, I remind the House that five companies bid for this tender. Of the five, only the Powderject/Bavarian Nordic tender could provide us with the vaccine that we needed in time—by the end of the year. It was on that basis, and solely on that basis, that it won the contract.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

On Select Committee modernisation, which my right hon. Friend mentioned in his statement, will he join me, as a member of the now ubiquitous Public Administration Committee, in welcoming the Prime Minister's historic decision to appear before the Liaison Committee? Does he agree that the House, as much as the Prime Minister, will be under the spotlight when that happens? Does he agree that the Prime Minister appearing in front of a Committee of 34 members does not necessarily show the House in its most modernised light?

Mr. Cook

I appeared, at length, before the Liaison Committee yesterday, and we had a consensual and friendly exchange of views. One of my proposals had been to reduce marginally the size of the Liaison Committee, which I discovered was not welcome with the Liaison Committee, which then produced a report that said that the number of members should stay the same. Yesterday, I accepted its view that it should stay at the same number, and was much entertained that some members of the Liaison Committee immediately expressed disappointment that I had not rejected their recommendations.

This matter is in the hands of the Liaison Committee, and it must address it. I know from exchanges yesterday that it is also conscious that this will be a very high-profile occasion, and that it will also be under the spotlight. It is important that that exchange—which will be significant in improving the accountability of the Government to the House—should go forward with dignity, and there should be a robust but, nevertheless, civilised exchange on the policy issues, of which many Chairs of Select Committees and the Liaison Committee have a detailed knowledge and which they will want to explore in detail.