HC Deb 16 May 2002 vol 385 cc907-20 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 20 MAY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Adoption and Children Bill.

TUESDAY 21 MAY—Opposition Day 14th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate on "Truancy and Discipline in Schools" followed by a debate on "Special Educational Needs". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

WEDNESDAY 22 MAY—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the National Health Service Reform and Health Care Professions Bill followed by a motion relating to the House of Commons Members' Fund.

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

FRIDAY 24 MAY—Motion on the Whitsun recess Adjournment.

The provisional business for the first day after Whitsun recess will be:

MONDAY 10 JUNE—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.

I shall announce the business for the remainder of that week next Thursday, depending on progress in Committee.

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

THURSDAY 13 JUNE—Debate on the report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee on passenger rail franchising and the future of railway infrastructure.

THURSDAY 20 JUNE—Debate on equal opportunities in the Armed Forces.

THURSDAY 27 JUNE—Debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on the research assessment exercise.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 12 June 2002, there will be a debate relating to the strategy for a future chemicals policy in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 12 June 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 6671/01; Strategy for a future chemicals policy. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 28-xii (2000ߝ01)].

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. May I remind him that on 7 May, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made a statement on Wembley stadium? In it, she said: I fully recognise the public and parliamentary pressure for an end to the process and the start of the construction of a world-class stadium. I will therefore make a further statement to the House before the Whitsun recess."—[Official Report, 7 May 2002; Vol. 385, c. 22.]

I am sure that the Leader of the House will recall that undertaking. Will he reassure the House, and give us his guarantee, that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will not come to the House on Friday 24 May with that statement? Although I and all other Conservative Members will be in our places here, I suspect that the Government believe that many of their friends and supporters may not be in theirs, as that is the day before the recess. Will the right hon. Gentleman say definitely that the statement on Wembley stadium promised for before the Whitsun recess will be made in Government time, and before Friday 24 May?

On 14 May we had a series of votes on resolutions concerning House matters. One motion stated: That this House considers that there should be no differences in remuneration among Members who are not Ministers of the Crown beyond those already authorised. Some 197 Members voted against it and 175 voted in favour, so the motion was defeated. I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that the House has opined that it is proper that there should be differences in remuneration among Members who bear different responsibilities. I support that proposition. and as I said in interventions during that debate, I will support it going further. Although we voted that Select Committee Chairmen should be paid more, I urge the Leader of the House to consider ways of establishing whether there might not be other categories of Members bearing additional responsibilities—

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The shadow Leader of the House.

Mr. Forth

Modesty forbids me, Mr. Speaker, but if hon. Members were to urge upon me additional pay, I cannot give an undertaking that I would not take it.

The serious point is this: given the view expressed by the House in the two motions of 14 May, will the Leader of the House give some thought as to whether we should look at this in a broader context to see whether it would be proper, reflecting the view of the House, to pay Members who bear additional responsibilities appropriately?

In today's edition of The Independent, that highly respected commentator, Donald Macintyre —a man who is familiar with matters within the Labour party—made a shocking statement. I want to quote it at some length, because I want the Leader of the House to look into the matter and come back to the House following his investigations. Mr. Macintyre said that on Tuesday, the Labour majority on the Treasury Select Committee caved in to government pressure and decided to delay consideration of the five economic tests of British euro entry. No doubt Gordon Brown feels he needs such an examination like a hole in the head. If he pressed the Labour majority, including the committee chairman, John McFall, not to undertake one, he was probably just doing his job.

That is a reference to the Chancellor. The article continues: What is clear, however, is that by acceding to this pressure—on what is after all the biggest issue of this parliament—the Labour members of the committee are very definitely not doing theirs.

Given all the praise that was larded on to Select Committees the other day and the fact that we have said that Select Committee Chairmen should be paid more for discharging their responsibilities, this is a very serious allegation. I ask the Leader of the House to investigate the matter and report to the House on whether the Government put undue pressure on members of the Treasury Select Committee and whether that Committee caved in, to use Mr. Macintyre's words, to that pressure. It is a very serious allegation, and if we are to take our Select Committees seriously, we must be guaranteed that that is wrong and would never happen.

Mr. Cook

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming the business for next week. I shall try and respond to the points that came after that point of unity between us.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is well aware of the statement that she made to the House, and the matter is under active consideration. I note the right hon. Gentleman's proposal that there should be no statement on Friday 24 May; I am sure that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will be here, of course, busily pursuing their duties. I have no doubt that many Opposition Members will be here too, and I look forward to a full report from my colleagues on the number of Opposition Members who attend.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. He will be aware that the matter concerns talks not only inside but outside Government and that others necessarily have to come to agreement before we can make a statement. However, I infer from what he said that he would find it more convenient if the statement were made on Tuesday 22 May, which is the Opposition Supply day.

I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about other people in the House who might merit enhanced pay. I find it slightly mysterious that one of the few people outside the Government who receives enhanced pay is the Opposition pairing Whip. I certainly concur with the right hon. Gentleman that, given the fact that the Opposition pairing Whip receives a supplement, and that he must have at least as much to do as the Opposition pairing Whip, the entitlement to enhanced pay might also be due to my shadow—

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)


Mr. Cook

I seemed to be carrying my audience with me when I held out a helping hand to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but I do not detect the same sympathy from the House for going beyond that.

The effect of the decision that we took on Tuesday is that the matter of pay for Chairs of Select Committees will be referred to the Review Body on Senior Salaries—the SSRB. Giving evidence or making a submission to the SSRB is of course open to any Member of the House—

David Winnick

Or the shadow Cabinet?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend really must not pinch all my punch lines. I was about to say that I look forward to the shadow Cabinet coming to a collective view on the matter so that we can know precisely where its members stand and so that the SSRB can take that into account. I warn them that it is often the practice of the SSRB to print the submissions that it receives and we look forward to reading that one.

Mr. Don Macintyre is a journalist of distinction, with a well-crafted and well-pointed pen. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst quoted from a graphic and colourful interpretation of an event, but that event involved a majority on the Treasury Committee deciding that they did not wish to pursue a particular line of inquiry. I must point out that only two weeks ago the right hon. Gentleman stood at the Dispatch Box and praised the Select Committee for what it did. He cannot have it both ways—one week welcoming what the Committee says while in the next week deploring the views reached in that Committee by a majority of independent Members of the House.

Mr. Tyler

Will the Leader of the House consider the mechanism whereby Parliament learns of important new Government developments? There are, of course, statements and written answers, but will he consider topical questions? As an illustration, I understand that yesterday a consultation document on combined heat and power was released on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website, but it appeared nowhere in the House. Will he consider that?

Reverting to the report in The Independent by Don Macintyre, does the Leader of the House acknowledge that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have consistently supported the Modernisation Committee's proposals to give Select Committees greater independence, integrity and authority, but that, according to my reckoning, eight Ministers, 28 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, nine Government Whips and 12 ex-Government Whips in effect joined the Conservatives in the Lobby on Tuesday night?

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the fact that the Prime Minister has to go on television to talk about the euro and Lord Heseltine has to use the pages of the Daily Express to talk to his Conservative colleagues to advance the case for it, but that our Select Committee, which reports to this Chamber, has no such opportunity to consider the advantages and disadvantages of entry? Is he aware that the Treasury Committee seems to have been nobbled by the Treasury itself? Indeed, is he aware that the Treasury seems to have access to the private discussions of the Select Committee?

I pray in aid material collected by my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) under the data protection legislation. When I put on my specs I shall read what the Treasury has been saying about my hon. Friend. Not only did the Treasury refer to his questions as "whiskery", which seems a curious description, but, back in January, it identified him as "the prime mover" in the Select Committee behind the request for the "Five Tests inquiry". The Treasury could have known that only if it was receiving leaks from the Committee. What does the Leader of the House have to say about that?

Mr. Cook

I will consider the point that the hon. Gentleman made about the combined heat and power announcement. Websites are available in this building, however—although I should never accuse the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst of having such a thing anywhere in his office.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I was confident of that. However, websites are widely available in the House, and sometimes putting something on a website is a sensible way of ensuring that it can be put before the House. Not everything that a Department does necessarily merits a statement, or even a planted question. It will always be a matter of judgment as to which is the most appropriate way of making an announcement. No one can claim that that was a secret or concealed statement.

Don Macintyre will be intensely flattered by this morning's exchange in that he has been quoted so often. I would not wish in any way to detract from the praise given to him by all three of us who have taken part in those exchanges, all three of whom hope that we will be mentioned in a future column by Mr. Macintyre in suitable terms.

I was glad that, on Tuesday night, we had a Labour majority for the reform that I proposed on the Committee of Nomination, and I regret the fact that the very large Conservative majority against it succeeded in tilting the balance the other way.

Mr. Tyler

Both sorts of conservatives were involved.

Mr. Cook

Indeed, but there was a much larger Conservative balance. An alliance between the Conservative party and old Labour would be formidable. It would, of course, be a matter for wider political comment; Mr. Donald Macintyre might wish to reflect on it in a future column.

If there has been any impropriety in the Treasury Committee, the House has the remedy available through its own Select Committee system. That is not a matter for me in the first instance. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) complained about the Treasury's describing one of his colleagues as "whiskery", but I can only say that, after 40 years of sporting a beard, I think that "whiskery" is one of the highest forms of praise.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I acknowledge that my right hon. Friend is an ardent supporter of proportional representation, but some of us are against it to the point that we do not like what is happening in Scotland, where power has been handed over to the Tories, and in Wales —

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Tories?

Mr. Skinner

Yes. The Tories got seats in the Scottish Parliament as a result of PR—they could not have got them any other way.

The new-fangled Select Committee system would have handed over power to the political enemy—the Tories—who were going to sit on a joint committee to select Labour Members of Parliament. They are the same Tories who closed every pit in my constituency. Does not my right hon. Friend understand that some of us do not need official Whips to tell us what to do? As for that tinpot Liberal there, the hon. Gentleman should ensure that he gets his information right. Yes, there were people on the door arguing for old-fashioned socialists to stop the drift to giving power to the political enemy. I was one of them. Unlike the Tories who want money for their shadow Cabinet—that is why they voted for the money—I am an unofficial Whip who declares, "I don't want none; I'll do it for nowt."

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is in fine voice today. I have known him for almost 30 years in the House, and it never once crossed my mind that any improper influence could be brought to bear on how he voted on Tuesday, or any other night in his long, distinguished career in the House. I only remind him—sotto voce, because I see no point in replaying all the arguments of last Tuesday—that I was in the House on 17 July, when it responded to the lists put before it for the nominations to Select Committees, and I do not think that there was a preponderant feeling in the House that night that the existing system was a strong, old-fashioned socialist one. I regret that the House passed up the opportunity for reform when it had the chance on Tuesday.

Of course my hon. Friend is right that I support PR. I make no bones about that. I understand entirely that I have some way still to climb on this side of the House to make progress with that—and an awful long way to climb on the other side of the House. As he mentioned the Scottish Parliament, I should like him to reflect on how the PR system and the fact that the Scottish Parliament represents the whole of Scottish public opinion has helped to build a consensus, which will ensure that no one will ever dare try to abolish the Scottish Parliament.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate early next week on today's alarming news that the Bank of England's reserves are more than $450 million—£300 million, or £26 for every family in Britain—lower than they otherwise would be because of the Chancellor's decision to instruct the Bank to sell its gold and put 40 per cent. of the money into euros? Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that this is a serious issue and that, if we do not have a debate, it will give the impression that the Government want to hold debates on things that are going well, but are not prepared to face up to the issues when a horrible mistake that costs the taxpayer a fortune is made?

Mr. Cook

I can say only that the hon. Gentleman has again lived up to his reputation by raising an issue that is three years old. Of course, the sale of the gold had nothing to do with the overall level of the reserve and everything to do with the rebalancing between liquidity and gold. As he raises the issue, let me say that I am delighted, because I feel much more secure and sleep much better in my bed in the full knowledge that a much lower debt hangs over the Bank of England and the Government. Indeed, he gives me the opportunity to remind the House that the Government that he supported, and, from time to time, aspired to be a member of—indeed, that he supported that Government from time to time is also probably a fair rider—doubled the national debt. This Government have halved the national debt. If he is looking for prudence, it lies in our record and not his.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the enlargement of the European Union? He will know that Commissioner Verheugen has published a report indicating that the applicant countries may be in the EU by 2004. Clearly, although hon. Members want to debate the euro and the five economic tests, other European issues can be discussed. Enlargement is an important issue.

Mr. Cook

I fully agree with my hon. Friend on his observation about the importance of the enlargement of the European Union. It depresses me that there is not more press, media and public interest in what is an enormous historic and strategic change in the European Union. The British Government have sought to be a champion of enlargement, which will be reinforced next week when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meets the new Prime Minister of Hungary. We will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that we achieve the targets, for which we argued and secured agreement, that candidates who are ready should be admitted in time for the next European parliamentary elections in 2005. I assure my hon. Friend that everything possible is being done to achieve that, and we would welcome an opportunity, should it arise, of reporting on that to the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

The Leader of the House's legendary powers of persuasion persuaded me to vote with him on Tuesday in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Forth

So my hon. Friend was one of them?

Mr. Osborne

Indeed I was. I ignored the advice of the shadow Leader of the House. Has the Leader of the House had the chance to reflect in the last couple of days on why those legendary powers of persuasion failed to persuade a single member of the Cabinet, apart from the Chief Whip. to join him in the Division Lobby?

Mr. Cook

I was about to thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, but I shall put that on hold in the light of his final line. As to the Cabinet, I must admit that, when I was Foreign Secretary, I was rarely present in the House on the occasion of an open vote. I regret that, as one of the things that I enjoy enormously about my current job is the opportunity to be present in the House for all the time that I want. We must be realistic: Cabinet Ministers have a lot of other things to do. Although I was pleased to have the hon. Gentleman's support, I was, if anything, even more pleased to have the support of the majority of the Labour Members who voted that night.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of early-day motion 826, which calls for a committee of Members of Parliament to be set up to provide prior scrutiny of certain contentious arms export licences. [That this House believes that specified defence export licence applications should be subject to prior scrutiny by a committee comprising honourable Members of Parliament.]

The subject of arms licences has caused considerable dissent at various times in the House. Four Select Committees of the House decided unanimously to support a committee providing prior scrutiny, and both the United States and Sweden have such a committee. Next week, in the other place, there is an opportunity on Third Reading to support an amendment calling for prior scrutiny. The early-day motion has been signed by 304 Members of the House, and my right hon. Friend will agree that that is a strong expression of opinion supporting the setting up of such a committee.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that I have spent much time debating this matter with her and other members of the Quadripartite Committee. I welcome the interest that has been shown by the Quadripartite Committee in arms exports decisions, and I am modestly pleased that there was only one occasion when there was a substantive difference of opinion between the Quadripartite Committee and the Government on the decision taken by Government.

Prior scrutiny would raise many separate constitutional questions, because the traditional way in which the Government are accountable to this place and to its Committees is to take a decision and to be held to account for it. Involving the House in the decision-making process, particularly in the case of individual decisions and applications by commercial companies, would be a new venture. However, I am proud of the fact that this Government have provided both the Quadripartite Committee and everyone in the House with more opportunity to hold us to account for decisions on arms exports by providing the most transparent, comprehensive and detailed reports on our decisions on such exports of any European country.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the results of the Dutch elections yesterday? It now looks likely that the third Government in Europe with an extreme right-wing element will be set up, joining the crypto-fascists in Austria and Italy. While I accept that our Government have to have a working relationship with Governments of that political colour, surely it should not be a special relationship such as that advocated by the Prime Minister with Italy. May we have an opportunity to debate in Government time their relationship with emerging right-wing Governments in Europe, so that we can examine how we can work with those Governments and the people of the countries concerned to persuade the European political consciousness to reject that right-wing ideology?

Mr. Cook

My concern about the elections in the Netherlands yesterday is, if anything, even greater than the hon. Gentleman's, since I have a number of good friends and political colleagues who lost their seats, which I deeply regret.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

While I do not expect any sympathy—indeed, I anticipated that reaction —I do not anticipate that the right hon. Gentleman would have supported the election of List Pim Fortuyn, which is what contributed so much to that defeat.

I hear what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is saying. He properly recognises that we will have to have a working relationship with whatever Governments are elected by other European Union member states, but that does not mean to say that we share any of the values or policy objectives of those who were elected from the extreme right. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister never said anything about the special relationship with Italy. If I remember rightly, that language was used by the Prime Minister of Italy, not the Prime Minister of Britain. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will have correct relations with the Netherlands, but he is right that we will want to work with our colleagues throughout Europe to ensure that the poisonous doctrine of the far right is defeated.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Leader of the House has worked seriously to improve and increase the powers of the House of Commons and to modernise them. Is it not a matter of considerable regret, however, that on Tuesday when the House was presented with the opportunity of a truly free vote on giving power back to Back-Bench Members to decide the membership of Select Committees, the Whips Office—the Government Whips Office — made a concerted effort to encourage Members of Parliament into the Aye Lobby. Will he consider that interesting definition of the words "free vote"? We seem to have lost an interpretation of the words that could be clearly understood.

Mr. Cook

Of course, I regret the fact that the motion that I put before the House did not command a majority. If I may put in a good word for the Whips, I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) joined me in the Lobby on Tuesday. That confirms my judgment that he is a man of discretion, wisdom and vision—if only I had had more such Members in the House on Tuesday night I would have been very content. The House has spoken and I have taken careful note of what was said by those who voted against. The next time that they are unhappy about the membership of a Select Committee, I shall remind them of what they said on Tuesday.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Further to that reply, does the Leader of the House have any plans to revisit the business that the House debated on Tuesday? Does he agree that, whereas last July the House took the view that the Whips had too much patronage, somewhat perversely on Tuesday night the House voted to give them even more? Will he consider with the Modernisation Committee the specific proposition that the House rejected on Tuesday to see whether it might be amended to reflect the concern of the House? Will he then bring a fresh proposition back to the House, so that we can move away from the present position, which is unsatisfactory? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

I should warn the right hon. Gentleman that he is being heckled vigorously by those on his Front Bench. I thought I should put that on the record in case he failed to observe it.

The proposition that I moved on Tuesday was not plucked out of thin air over a few hours; it was the product of several weeks of painful negotiation and compromise with the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means, and discussion with others in the House. During the debate, I offered to rebalance it further to take account of the concerns of newer Members. It was therefore the product of pretty intensive effort. I have to be honest: I do not think it will be possible to come up with a proposal that will command wider acceptance. The House was given an opportunity on Tuesday to vote for a different system or to stick with the present one; it voted to stick with the present system. It will be some time before I feel able to revisit it and will only do so if I am given more encouragement than I am getting from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Two days ago the Government announced a consultation on energy policy. In an accompanying press release, the Prime Minister said: I hope that this report will launch a thorough debate. The Minister for Industry and Energy said: I am determined to make the consultation process as open and inclusive as possible. I have asked the Leader of the House this before, and I ask him again: will he organise a full day's debate on energy policy, either in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall, so that Members can participate fully in the consultation process?

Mr. Cook

I hear what my hon. Friend says and am well aware of the wide interest in the House in the future of energy policy, which has been raised a number of times in business questions. At present, as is common at this phase in the parliamentary Session, we have a great deal of legislative business to take on the Floor of the House in order to maintain the legislative programme. I am aware of the interest in debating energy policy, and I take note of my hon. Friend's comments.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

In the spirit of joined-up government, will the Leader of the House find time next week to debate listed buildings, in particular the fact that one Department granted listed building consent as recently as March to buildings at Bishopsgate goods yard, while another Department is planning in the next week or two to sanction sending in the bulldozers? Not only will we lose some of our major national heritage, but many jobs will be lost. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the relevant Minister to find time to come to the House and explain why joined-up government is not working in respect of our listed buildings?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having found a subject on which the entire resources of Whitehall had not thought to offer a brief in advance. In the circumstances, I shall refer his comments to the two relevant Departments and invite them to respond.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Government's plans to have a single equality commission that will encompass the Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equality Opportunities Commission, and which will also consider age, sexual orientation and religion? The Government's plans are probably the most practical way to proceed, hut there is understandable concern among the different groups involved that their particular interests will be lost. Will my right hon. Friend find time to debate that important proposal?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we can be proud of the Government's record post-1997 and, indeed, of the record of previous Labour Governments, of taking through all the legislation on the statute book which opposes race discrimination and promotes equality of opportunity for women. We want to build on that fine record of achievement in opposing inequality and discrimination.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the idea of a merger has been floated. At the moment, it is no more than that. It will require considerable debate and I have not the slightest doubt that views will be expressed by people on both sides of the argument, including those who are worried about maintaining the focus of those bodies.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I should like to follow up on that subject. The Leader of the House will be aware that my Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Bill is listed for Second Reading on Friday 21 June—alas, it is No. 6 and will not be reached. However, an identical Bill was introduced in the Lords on 13 March. when it had its Second Reading. It has completed its Committee stage and will complete Report and Third Reading next week. It received the support of all those on the Front Benches in that House and there are indications of support from Cabinet Office Ministers here. Can the Leader of the House give an idea of how much time he thinks that Bill will require to be passed in this House, and when he is likely to make an announcement on that?

Mr. Cook

I am sympathetic to the substance of the hon. Gentleman's Bill. As he knows, some of my colleagues in government have already expressed their sympathy with the purposes of the measure.

As Leader of the House, I have to say that the hon. Gentleman must be realistic about the prospects of progress for a Bill that is slated as No. 6 on the last day for private Members' business in this Session. I wish him much luck; I will be happy if he succeeds. However, it is not for me to intervene to provide the opportunity for that to happen. If I were to do so. those with an interest would wish Bills Nos. I to 5 and 7 to 19 to feature in next week's business statement.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 1206? [That this House commemorates Workers' Memorial Day on 28th April and recognises its value in helping trade unions and work place safety and health campaigners in over 100 countries to draw attention to the one million three hundred thousand people who die annually due to poor working conditions often forgotten and publicly unremembered; and welcomes this year's UK theme of improving public health through stronger safety and health measures, access to effective occupational health services and empowering safety representatives to do an even better job in the work place.]

The motion stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). It draws attention to the fact that 1.3 million people die because of poor health and safety conditions every year throughout the world.

The British building industry has always been notoriously dangerous. At present, two construction workers die each week because of poor health and safety conditions. Some construction workers who have suffered under these conditions, and who will suffer in future, live in my constituency, which provides many construction workers for east London and the rest of the south-east. Will it be possible to have a debate, perhaps in Government time, on health and safety conditions on building sites?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an important and serious issue. I share his view that the legal process, the political process and Parliament should pay more attention to and put more effort into considering serious loss of life at work, including on building sites. It is important that we all back the Health and Safety Executive in its measures to ensure that we provide, as best we can, the safest possible working environment for those who undertake tasks that often turn out to be more dangerous than was anticipated when they were designed. I wish my hon. Friend every success with his campaign. I am sure that he will find other opportunities in Parliament to raise it.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Foreign Office Minister next week to correct the record of the House at column 332 on 9 December 1998?

The House, including the right hon. Gentleman, will recall the murder of four hostages —British Telecom workers—in Chechnya in 1998. One of those people, Mr. Rudolph Petschi, was one of my constituents, and on behalf of his widow I pursued information through debates and questions. After two years I gave up because I felt that the responses I received were inadequate. I referred the case to the parliamentary ombudsman, who has now reported.

As a result of that investigation, I have received a letter telling me that Foreign Office practice in London and in our embassies will be changed in respect of how communications are dealt with at weekends. In addition, on 21 March I received a letter of apology from the permanent secretary, Mr. Michael Jay. He apologised to Mrs. Petschi and me for the confusion in the way Ministers answered my questions. I have sent a copy of the letter to you, Mr. Speaker.

I wrote to the Foreign Secretary on 22 April but have received no response to that letter, let alone an apology. The need for an apology is twofold. First, I obviously accept the permanent secretary's apology, but I do not think that it is correct for Ministers to allow civil servants to apologise on their behalf for what happens in the Chamber. In addition, the very nature—

Mr. Speaker


Mrs. Browning

I will be brief, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I understand that the hon. Lady is raising a sensitive matter, but I must stop her. This is business questions. I call the Leader of the House to reply.

Mr. Cook

I shall read the ombudsman's report and the correspondence to which the hon. Lady has referred. She will be well aware of my interest in it at the time. I have not seen the papers, and therefore would not wish to give the House an off-the-cuff response. The matter deserves to be considered fully and in detail. Having said that, I remind the hon. Lady and the House that, from my recollection of events, even if procedure that weekend had been different, there is no evidence that it would have had the slightest bearing on the tragic outcome for those four people.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Given that we are a Government of strong family values, why the haste in introducing the Adoption and Children Bill? We have not had any consultation with any Churches or any of the children's committees. What kind of psychological effect will the Bill have? Will it erode the civil liberties of children who have been adopted by homosexual partners? Is it right for a Labour Government to introduce such a Bill? Because there has been very little consultation, as I have said, will the Leader of the House postpone it?

Mr. Cook

I will not do that. The Adoption and Children Bill, which we shall consider today and next week, is the only Bill this Session that we have dealt with in Special Standing Committee, which enabled everybody with an interest to give evidence to Committee members. Moreover, the proposal before the House to provide for unmarried couples to adopt children is supported, I believe, by every children's charity. If we are serious about providing a home for those children and making sure that we tap those who are willing to work with them and the charities to provide a secure environment in which they can be brought up, we have to move with the times and recognise that a growing number of couples out there are not married, but are living together in a stable, albeit unmarried, relationship. It may not be right for the House to tell them that, for that reason, they cannot adopt a child and at the same time tell the children that we cannot find them a home because we will not work with those people.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden)

The Leader of the House, with his characteristic respect for Parliament, won plaudits from both sides of the House when he recently apologised to the House for giving incorrect information, albeit inadvertently. We read in today's papers that the Home Secretary won respect from police officers when he apologised yesterday for the way in which he has treated them in recent months; we look forward to his making a similar apology in the House shortly. Now that we know that the Transport Secretary is on his way out, will the Leader of the House and the Home Secretary take him to one side, preferably in a remote, darkened and sound-proof room, and explain that the only way for him to gain respect in the House is to follow their lead and apologise for his errors and the way in which he has treated the House?

Mr. Cook

I think that I went seven minutes on that question with John Humphrys last Friday, which was as testing as anything that I have encountered during business questions. There is no dispute whatsoever about the fact that at that meeting in February Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary discussed resignation; there is a dispute between the permanent secretary and Martin Sixsmith about how far they got in settling the question of resignation. It is the case that I came to the House and apologised; I did so because I had been given misleading information, and the person who provided that information was Martin Sixsmith.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Although recently there has been a welcome trend for Ministers to admit mistakes, it is nevertheless unusual for the Prime Minister to admit that his policy does not work, as he did this week with drugs policy. Will the Leader of the House allow us to have an early debate before the summer recess on drugs policy and what it should consist of, as the Prime Minister has clearly admitted that the policy we have been employing is not working?

Mr. Cook

If I may say so, no one in the Government is more vigilant in guarding against complacency than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. When we find that a policy is not producing the results that any of us would wish, it is right to look at it again and consider alternative ways of developing it. That is the responsible way to do it, but I must tell my hon. Friend and the House that anyone who pretends that there is an easy, simple and guaranteed answer on drugs has not considered the problem and the reality with which we deal in many of our inner-city communities.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We must move on.

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