HC Deb 23 May 2002 vol 386 cc387-99 12.35 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the Leader of the House tell us the business for next week?

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

I am pleased to announce that we will have a busy week after the Whitsun recess. The business is as follows:

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

TUESDAY 11 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

WEDNESDAY 12 JUNE—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

THURSDAY 13 JUNE—Progress on remaining stages of the Enterprise Bill.

FRIDAY 14 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be: MONDAY 17 JUNE—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Enterprise Bill.

TUESDAY 18 JUNE—There will be a debate on European Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 19 JuNE—I should like to advise the House that subject to receiving a message from the other place, the day will consist of a half-day Opposition debate until 7 o'clock, followed by a motion to concur with their Lordships on the establishment of a Joint Committee on the House of Lords.

THURSDAY 20 JUNE—There will be a debate on Energy: Towards 2050, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 JUNE—Private Member's Bills.

The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 18 June 2002, there will be a debate relating to authorisation of human and veterinary medicines in European Standing Committee C.

Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Tuesday 18 June 2002: European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 13361/01; 14591/01: Authorisation of human and veterinary medicines; 6240/02; Authorisation of traditional herbal medicinal products. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xii and HC 152-xxiii (2000–01)].

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us that statement. Given his legendary ability to read documents at high speed and digest every detail of their content, may I assume that he has thoroughly absorbed document HC 844, issued by the parliamentary ombudsman? Assuming that he has, I will not need to remind him of its contents. However, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to give one quotation from the report—although I could give many. On page 16, paragraph 4.13, the ombudsman says: Throughout this part of my investigation I had received no direct communication from the Cabinet Office… they appeared to be withholding papers, which they readily acknowledged existed, from my investigation. I was deeply concerned at this development. Such a refusal strikes at the very heart of my Office's function. Together with the lack of co-operation from the Home Office it made it impossible for me to corroborate the account contained in Sir Anthony's report with respect to the information sought by Mr. M. Given this attitude, which had effectively made my investigation unsustainable, I found myself in the position of being quite unable to confirm"— and so on.

That goes to the heart of the Government's repeated claims that they are in favour of freedom of information, open government, transparency and clarity. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for an urgent debate to be held on the matter, because what the ombudsman says about the Government is very serious indeed? He is making serious allegations about the attitude of Ministers—and, I am sad to say, the officials under their control—to the whole process of investigation. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the matter merits urgent attention by the House, because it also goes to the heart of the relationship between the House and the Government. I hope that we shall receive his assurances on that subject.

May I remind the Leader of the House of what the Prime Minister said yesterday in reply to a brief exchange? Asked whether he agreed with the former membership secretary in his own constituency that the Labour party has ceased to become a democratic movement and has become a centralised mail order business", the Prime Minister replied, rather typically: I do not believe that he"— that is, the former membership secretary of the Sedgefield constituency— would have said that at all."—[Official Report, 22 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 291–92.] Will the Leader of the House therefore tell us whether a journal called Renewal exists, or whether he is aware of it? If it does exist, can he confirm whether it said—this is allegedly a quote from Renewal—that the Labour party had been replaced by mail order politics, where everything was run from the centre"?

I raise that question because yesterday the Prime Minister stated that he did not believe the person concerned would have said that, but those words are apparently a direct quotation from that individual. In order to protect his Prime Minister, surely the Leader of the House has to make a statement as early as possible to clarify whether the Prime Minister knows about that, whether the individual said those words or whether the Prime Minister, regrettably, was unable to clarify the truth of the matter to the House.

On another matter, Lord Levy is described in a newspaper today as an invaluable one-man money-raising machine. I would call Lord Levy Tony's No. 1 crony—but no matter how one characterises him, is the Leader of the House satisfied that it is credible that a committee of six people, which includes Lord Levy, can vet donations to the Labour party? That is directly connected with Ministers' oft-repeated boasts that the Labour party is clean and above board with regard to donations and financial contributions.

We need to know whether the poachers and gamekeepers are indistinguishable, and whether the Labour party is serious, as it claims, about vetting its donations. Surely the Leader of the House, with his reputation for integrity, wants to clear that up. Can we have a brief statement from the Government about the relationship between donations to the Labour party, the committee that has been set up, and Lord Levy's role in that committee?

Mr. Cook

Yesterday I made a speech in which I suggested that if we want to restore the respect of the public for Parliament, we should try to rise above our tribal instincts. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes it terribly difficult for me rise above my tribal instincts, and I think that today I will fail miserably.

I have had an opportunity to study the ombudsman's report; I took it off the web this morning. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has disdain for anything that smacks of the web or the internet, but I recommend it to him as an easy and convenient way of getting access to public documents. As he has quoted paragraph 4.13, I refer him to paragraph 4.20, where he will find that the ombudsman states that he found very little in the way of documentation"—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

On the contrary, the ombudsman had access to all the documents in the Cabinet Office. I concede that there was a delay, for which the Cabinet Office apologised. However, he did gain access to the documents. He sets out in paragraph 4.19 and 4.18 that he saw all there was to see, and found that very little documentation had been delayed.

The ombudsman's conclusion was precisely the same as the conclusion reached by Sir Anthony Hammond. Indeed, he explicitly said that he reached the same conclusion. I see no point in wasting the time of the House in examining further a matter that has been exhaustively examined by Sir Anthony Hammond, and on which the ombudsman has reached the same conclusion. Had the conclusion been different, there might have been a point to the right hon. Gentleman's question, but as the conclusion is the same, there is no reason why the House should waste its effort and time on that.

As for the other matters raised by the right hon. Gentleman, I regret to say that I have not recently had an opportunity to hold discussions with the former membership secretary of the Prime Minister's constituency party. I am aware of Renewal. As the right hon. Gentleman is also aware of it, he may know that it recently carried a very interesting speech by myself, which it reprinted as an article.

Renewal is one of the many examples of vigorous, open, intellectual and democratic debate in the labour movement. I would have more respect for the right hon. Gentleman's concern about democracy in the Labour party if he did something about democracy in the Conservative party. For instance, perhaps he should respond to the demand of Conservative activists that they should elect officers within their party, as we elect officers in the Labour party.

I have told the House before that I believe that Lord Levy has played a valuable and useful role in British foreign policy. During my time as Foreign Secretary, I found him very valuable in making sure that we had access in the middle east, and that we were able to get our message across. I regret very much the fact that his being engaged in trying to find a way forward in an area of great tension, where there is the potential for a great explosion, is constantly run down by the media and by the Conservative party.

As for the vetting of donations, I think it entirely healthy and proper that we should set up a committee—and be open about the membership of that committee—to consider the implications of any donation that we take. I wish that the Conservative party would now—finally—tell us from whom it took donations when the Conservatives were in office. The Conservatives can do it—I presume that they have not burnt the files, so they are somewhere in central office. The only donations they ever owned up to were those that they were obliged to disclose after we laid a legal requirement on them.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Ask the ombudsman.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion. I may be getting tribal again, but perhaps I should encourage the ombudsman to make an inquiry at central office and see just how long the delay is before the Conservatives finally tell us from what companies and what countries they took money when they were the Government of Great Britain.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I express my thanks to the Leader of the House for giving us a second day on the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill—time that we requested and others agreed was necessary? In the light of recent developments, it is extremely important that we discuss those issues, especially those that were not covered in Committee.

While I am in a grateful mood, may I also thank the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) for giving added publicity to my question to the Prime Minister yesterday? I am very grateful.

I read with great interest and welcome the speech that the Leader of the House made to the Hansard Society last night, but does he agree that the House must find better ways to discuss urgent and topical issues more thoroughly? Let me give two examples. First, there is the funding of democracy and political parties, which has just been mentioned. The Prime Minister goes on television to talk about it, the chairman of the Labour party talks about it, two prominent Conservative MPs were talking about it yesterday—even the CBI is now talking about state funding of political parties. When will the Government give the House time to debate that issue properly?

Secondly, I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the adjudication by the pensions appeal tribunal yesterday in the case of a gentleman who served this country well in the Gulf and now suffers from Gulf war syndrome. The right hon. Gentleman will know of my interest as a long-time member of the Royal British Legion, which is concerned about the matter. Does he realise that the report in today's Daily Express, which I assume is now required Government reading, given that it is clearly their favourite newspaper, not only refers to the pay-out announced for Mr. Shaun Rusting, but states that his claim was adjusted—I think that is the best way to put it—by the Ministry of Defence so that it would not refer specifically to Gulf war syndrome and so open the door for other applicants? May we have an urgent statement from the MOD, not only about that adjudication, but about the way in which the MOD appears to have fiddled it?

Mr. Cook

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about the arrangements for the Report stage the week after the Whitsun recess. In the light of the representations that were made, it was right to ensure that there was adequate time for the remaining stages of that Bill. On a number of occasions since the general election the Government have listened to representations about remaining stages and provided the House with adequate time to explore important issues. We regard the Bill as a very important one, which deals with a serious issue.

I also appreciate the hon. Gentleman's comments about my speech yesterday. I fully agree with him about the importance of making sure that our proceedings are topical and deal with the public interest. I look forward to the forthcoming report from the Select Committee on Procedure, which I hope will enable us to shorten the period of notice for oral questions and thereby ensure greater topicality in those that come before the House.

I cannot promise a debate on party funding because, as the hon. Gentleman will have observed, we have a crowded schedule at this time of year. My impression is that there is a lively debate going on about party funding, and the hon. Gentleman will be aware that no step can be taken in respect of party funding without a decision of the House, and therefore a debate in the House.

I am aware of the pensions appeal tribunal's judgment with regard to Gulf war syndrome. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a very recent judgment, and it is right for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to consider it carefully and respond to it in due course. However, the hon. Gentleman can take it as read that we take what has been said by the tribunal extremely seriously.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

My right hon. Friend will know that the Prime Minister is making an important speech today about science and research. He will know also that the spin-off from science and research in universities in the north-east will be crucial to the future prosperity of the north-east. Can we have a debate on this issue soon—although preferably not next week—so that we can explore the best ways of improving job creation by our universities?

Mr. Cook

I think that my right hon. Friend carried the House with him when he suggested that any debate that we may have should not take place next week. I very much welcome the Prime Minister's decision to give a major speech on science, research and technology. Sometimes, because of the press pressures on us and the agenda on the front pages, we overlook what are the fundamentally important and strategically significant issues in our nation, and I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has chosen to highlight one of those strategic questions. My right hon. Friend may be aware that there is a forthcoming debate in Westminster Hall on the report by the Committee on Science and Technology, when I am sure many of these points can be aired.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I hope that the Procedure Committee will not disappoint the Leader of the House when it produces its report on parliamentary questions, but my question to him is somewhat different. Although I strongly regret the decision of the House 10 days ago to reject the Modernisation Committee's proposals for a Committee of Nomination for appointments to Select Committees, I believe that the House could well return to the matter at a later date, no doubt on the initiative of the Liaison Committee. However, the debate 10 days ago also concerned proposals for increased facilities and resources for Select Committees. Is the Leader of the House in a position yet to indicate when he may make a statement about those additional facilities and resources to enable Select Committees to do the vital job that they perform for the House of Commons?

Mr. Cook

I share the hon. Gentleman's regret. I must say that I was intrigued by the fact that 90 Conservative Members voted against the proposal, thereby reinforcing the existing powers of the Government Whips. No doubt they have their own reasons for having supported the Government Whips—and some day we may be able to fathom them. In the meantime, I repeat that although I regret the outcome, as Leader of the House I have to respect it. The House reached a conclusion. I am not going to concede that I was wrong—I still believe that I was right—but I do concede that the House has made a decision, and it would therefore take a very compelling argument for us to revisit the issue.

We should not lose sight of the fact that last week the House approved all the many other items from the Modernisation Committee report, and as the hon. Gentleman says, those included increased resources and staff for Select Committees. I am pleased to say to the House that, having got the approval of the House last week, we are making all progress on that, and I anticipate that those resources will be put in place over the next Session.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Leader of the House will be aware that at the moment President Bush is in Europe and, among other things, is seeking support for possible military action against Iraq. As President Bush has already consulted the Prime Minister on this matter, when will Parliament debate any possible action? When will the Government publish the dossier proving that Iraq has acquired weapons of mass destruction? Will we, as the Foreign Secretary said recently on the Frost programme, first seek a new mandate from the United Nations before we even consider President Bush's request?

Mr. Cook

As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, no decision on that matter has been taken, and a decision may never be taken. Plainly, should a decision be taken, the House would have to be consulted and there would have to be a full debate. With respect, I think that we have proved ourselves very willing to consult the House and debate these matters in the House, as witness the six full days of debate which we gave to the use of military force in Afghanistan. As for the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, it is clear that one of our strengths in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan was the international coalition of support. Plainly, any action in Iraq must also look for similar international support, and the UN is a good place to build such support.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Will the Leader of the House give a progress report on his deliberations with the Lord Chancellor about amending the Data Protection Act 1998 so that Members of Parliament can once again represent their constituents' interests properly?

Mr. Cook

As the House will understand, I share Members' concern that when they are approached by constituents, they cannot take action on their behalf because it might breach the Data Protection Act. Plainly, that is not a suitable way in which to work; when our constituents approach us they expect us to do something—that is why they come to us. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are making progress on the proposal to introduce a statutory instrument to cater for the position of Members of Parliament and other elected people in public life; I hope that next month we will be able to clear the matter up.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the Government's intention to fund the nursing care of residents in care homes, so that they benefit financially. Is he also aware, however, that a significant number of care homes, including Highfield Holdings in my constituency, have raised their residential fees by the amount paid for nursing care? Highfield Holdings has raised fees by about £69 a week, which means that residents are paying exactly the same as they were before, and are not getting the financial benefit that the Government intended. That is unacceptable and morally reprehensible. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for that to be debated in the House so that Members can express their views on that disgraceful action?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises an issue of concern to many Members who have been approached by constituents, and I fully understand and share his concern. The problem is known to the Department of Health, which has written to a number of homes that are raising their prices. Ultimately, they are private commercial institutions, and pricing is under their control, but the measure was introduced as public policy to relieve pressure on residents in those homes and their families. I very much hope that the people who run those homes will recognise that residents and their relatives should benefit most from that public money.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Can we have an early debate on the state of the food processing industry, with particular reference to the Albert Fisher group, which went into receivership today, jeopardising 3,000 jobs across the country? As the Leader of the House knows, Fisher Foods is the largest private sector employer in my constituency, with 700 jobs in its Fraserburgh and Peterhead factories, and this is an extremely anxious time for the workers and their families. What role does the Leader of the House envisage for Departments in securing the customer base of those profitable operations and finding an alternative buyer so that we can retain those vital factories in the north-east of Scotland?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the impact of that development on his constituents. As I understand it, the operations will be run as a going commercial concern by the receiver for another six weeks; I hope that that will provide an interval in which an alternative buyer and operator can be found. The plants in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have received substantial investment in the past decade, and I understand that they are profitable and have a number of high-value prestigious clients, such as Marks and Spencer and Safeway, which is a testimony to their products. In those circumstances, of course we want another buyer to come forward. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government and the Scottish Executive will do anything that they can to help, but ultimately this is a commercial matter.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend that we will have a debate on energy on 20 June, and I thank him for his good offices in helping to bring that about. Does he agree that Members will have an opportunity to take part in an important debate on the nation's long-term requirements, and will have the chance to talk about things like the new generation clean-coal technology?

Mr. Cook

Given the number of times that my hon. Friend has raised that matter with me over the weeks, I would have been severely disappointed if he, at least, had not thanked me for arranging that debate. Its title implies that we will be looking at energy until 2050, which is a long perspective but a necessary one. Looking at the future of our energy needs and their impact on the environment, the issues to which my hon. Friend referred are plainly relevant and are important to our investment in an efficient, effective and reliable energy supply in Britain.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House please find time for an early debate on the way Ministers handle their correspondence? I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health on 11 April. It may seem to some people—not to me—reasonable to wait six weeks for an answer to a letter, but that letter was dated 11 April 2001. I have written time and again to ask for an answer and nothing seems to have happened. What has become of the ministerial targets for dealing with correspondence?

Mr. Cook


Hon. Members

Write to him.

Mr. Cook

I am advised to write to the right hon. Gentleman. I am not aware that there is any letter from April 2001 outstanding with me. I obviously cannot respond to the right hon. Gentleman on the detail of his case, but I will happily take it up with the Department of Health. Plainly, I would like hon. Members to receive replies on time, and by and large Government Departments provide replies timeously. There will be the occasional bad case and I will certainly pursue it.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time today to bask in the congratulations of hon. Members in many, if not all, parts of the House on his pioneering work on pre-legislative scrutiny? That started online this morning on the Joint Committee on the draft Communications Bill. Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people throughout the UK have taken the chance to look at the website and make contributions'? The website is at www.parliamentlive.tv and the e-mail address is edemocracy@lse.ac.uk. Many dozens of people have already contributed to the evidence-taking, and many hon. Members have made contributions to the debate this morning. As that has been such a success, will my right hon. Friend ensure that all future Bills go through pre-legislative scrutiny, so that not only Members of the House but every member of our electoral community can participate in our debates?

Mr. Cook

This seems a good opportunity for mutual appreciation and congratulations, so may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the indefatigable way in which he has pursued the case for online scrutiny of legislation? The system started today in respect of the draft Communications Bill, and I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend that it is proving popular and receiving much public interest. The point of pre-legislative scrutiny is to allow the public and lobby groups to join in, so that legislation is not simply a matter for debate within Westminster. As to the future, as I have said before, my ambition is to secure an outcome in which pre-legislative scrutiny will become the norm, not the exception. Because of the capacity constraints, including in relation to the parliamentary draftsmen, it will take us some years to get there, but I am convinced that that is the right way to go. If Parliament seriously wants to shape the future of Government Bills, it must see them early and in draft.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

Will the Leader of the House make time available for an early statement by the relevant Minister from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the figures for deaths at sea published recently by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? The right hon. Gentleman should know that the number of deaths at sea in Scotland last year rose to 84, as opposed to 54 the previous year. He will also be aware that that is a matter of great concern in my constituency, as last year saw the closure of Pentland coastguard station in my constituency and the Oban coastguard station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). There may or may not be a link between those facts, but may we have a statement so that the issue is given a proper airing?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that, which I understand must be a matter of deep concern to his constituents and to other constituencies that have sea-going fleets and constituents. I believe that I am right in saying that the closure to which he refers took place following a public inquiry, and that a tug has been deployed full-time within the area. However, the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are disturbing and we will look closely at the recent report to see whether there is any contribution that we can make to ensure that we bring down those figures in future years.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree)

My right hon. Friend may have read the report in Monday's Daily Mirror concerning the condition of the railway line from London to Colchester. That line runs through the heart of my constituency, and thousands, if not tens of thousands of people use it to commute into London every day. In the light of the serious allegations that have been raised, and the concerns that there will obviously be in the public mind, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate or statement on the condition of the nation's rail way tracks?

Mr. Cook

I am aware of the report to which my hon. Friend refers, and I think that I am right in saying that the information was taken unofficially over a 10-mile stretch of rail. The DTLR and Railtrack are seeking to obtain more details on what the filming involved and what it shows, and they will study it with great care. In the meantime, I shall ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions writes to him giving the Department's views on the study and the extent to which it may be valid.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham)

This morning, yet another story emerged about the technical problems at the air traffic control centre in Swanwick in my constituency. The story follows reports that the Civil Aviation Authority has rejected the increase in fees proposed by National Air Traffic Services. Will the Leader of the House ensure that when the House returns from recess next month, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions comes to the Chamber to make a statement on the technical reliability and financial position of NATS?

Mr. Cook

First, with regard to this morning's claims about NATS operators misreading heights of planes and being unable to read their new displays, NATS completely rejects those allegations. It remains put out that the integrity and competence of its staff have been questioned in such a manner and it is confident that nothing has happened to put the safety of passengers at risk.

On the new displays, when a new system is installed, it is plainly right to monitor it closely to ensure that it can be improved. That is happening at the present time.

The financial integrity of NATS was fully considered by the regulator when deciding whether prices and charges should be increased; he concluded that the increase was not justified in full knowledge of the financial background.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to the situation between India and Pakistan? I hope that he agrees that it threatens not only our nationals, as the Foreign Secretary's correct decision to downgrade staffing at our posts in Pakistan shows, but huge numbers of dual nationals. Does he agree that if any situation in the world is genuinely globally threatening it is that between India and Pakistan, which are both now nuclear powers? One of them at least has made no commitment on no first use of the weapons. The possibility of war on an horrendous scale between the two countries is a global tragedy, and the prospect of such conflict being a nuclear war can hardly be contemplated. What facilities exist in this moment of near crisis to allow Parliament to be kept in touch and to give us the opportunity to monitor the situation and have an input as it unwinds?

Mr. Cook

I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this issue, which is of grave concern. It must be of especially acute concern to hon. Members whose constituencies contain large communities that have community and family ties with the Indian subcontinent. The Government deeply regret that we have had to curtail some of our diplomatic operations and services in Pakistan. The reason for that is the growing terrorist threat in Pakistan; the decision was taken solely in the light of the safety and future of our nationals who are working for the British Government inside the country. That must quite properly be one of our first concerns. We have, however, maintained our consular provision, so we can still maintain, although possibly on a reduced basis, contact with British nationals and citizens in Pakistan.

On the wider issue that my hon. Friend raises, I am sure that the whole House will share his apprehension about the possibility of armed conflict between the two countries, which cannot be in the interests of either of them. In the event of any such conflict, there would be no winner: both would be losers. That is why all of us who are friends of both Pakistan and India and wish them well must do all we can to try to avoid such an outcome, and why the Foreign Secretary will visit the region next week to try to achieve the understanding that the world outside and the international community want on the avoidance of armed conflict.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Can I take the Leader of the House back to the obstruction of the parliamentary ombudsman by the Cabinet Office to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred? Will he ensure that there is an early debate on the relationship between this Government and the ombudsman? I refer him to the ombudsman's fourth report of November last year, in which he said: This is the first occasion on which a Government Department has refused to accept the conclusions of the Ombudsman on a question of disclosure of information. Is it not time, some seven months later, for the Government to give a response to that report and not continue to ignore it?

Mr. Cook

I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government fully accept the conclusions of the ombudsman in today's report, which are entirely consistent with what we have said in the past. It is indeed regrettable that over a period of three months the ombudsman's request for access to files was not granted, and the Cabinet Office secretariat has apologised for that delay. I see no policy issue here, and I certainly see no reason to turn the matter into a party political dispute.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

Several churches in my constituency have written to me about Malawi. My right hon. Friend will have heard Malawi mentioned in the House yesterday, and the subject is raised again today in early-day motion 1375: [That this House notes the current plight of Malawi which faces its worst food crisis in nearly 20 years; acknowledges that the country is facing an immediate shortfall of thousands of tonnes of food; recognises that warnings of this crisis appeared three months ago; and calls on the international community to act with speed and generosity to avert disaster.]

Malawi is facing a desperate situation—probably the worst for 20 years—as regards food shortages. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to give the House some time to discuss how we can help Malawi?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is right to draw hon. Members' attention to the grave situation in Malawi, which is life-threatening to many of its residents. That is why in the course of this year we have provided additional support for humanitarian aid and for food assistance in Malawi. Indeed, only last month we announced another £1 million for that purpose. We are keen to work with the Government of Malawi to resolve this, and we hope that they will be able to work with us on acceptable terms of transparency to ensure that our assistance is getting through to the people whom we want to assist. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully aware of the crisis in Malawi, understand the British public's compassion and concern about it, and will do all that we can to be of assistance.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The greatest disappointment arising from last week's Divisions on the Select Committee motions was the House's failure to back a call to increase representation on Select Committees for the smaller minority parties such as the Ulster Unionist party. All right hon. and hon. Members have to respect decisions of the House, but can the Leader of the House assure me and my colleagues in the minority parties that this most important of issues will not simply be forgotten about?

Mr. Cook

I know most of those who voted, although I do not have the list entirely off by heart.

Mr. Forth

I bet you do.

Mr. Cook

Yes, and I have a long memory, too.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it was a pity that the vote on the size of Committees fell owing to a technicality, because it referred to the Committee of Nomination after that proposal had been defeated in an earlier Division. If it is the will of the House, I am not averse to considering ways in which the House can have an opportunity to reach a decision on the matter, although I see no point in revisiting the prior decision.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I support the call for a debate in the House on the importance of science policy, not least because a document that has come into my hands, apparently produced by officials in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at the behest of the biotech industry, would severely restrict the rights of scrutiny of genetically modified crop approvals. As the Leader of the House probably knows, it is currently possible to present in hearings scientific evidence about damage to soil ecology, the wider environmental impact, genetic contamination and the impact on the feed and food chain. Under the proposals circulating in DEFRA, all those grounds of scientific objection would be removed from the scrutiny process.

I am sure that hon. Members understand that the gap between sound science and soundbite science is filled by scrutiny and liability, and it would be disastrous if Government policy were seen to become a cash crop for private gain. Will the Leader of the House assure me that we can have a full debate in which the House can assert the principle that the shaping of Government science policy will be driven by the precautionary, not the contributory, principle?

Mr. Cook

We apply the precautionary principle to all environmental issues. I am not familiar with the document that my hon. Friend cites, and I would like an opportunity of studying it before I comment on it. I am sure that he will welcome the fact that we are undertaking a rigorous farm-scale evaluation of the trial of GM crops. The conclusions will appear in the next six to nine months, if I remember rightly. They will form part of an informed debate on the way forward for GM crops.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

We have just passed the first anniversary of the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Curry commission on the future of food and farming has reported; the European Union is formulating its proposals for a mid-term review of the common agricultural policy; throughout the countryside, there is increasing anxiety about bovine TB, and as we have heard, further concern about GM crops. Despite all that, there has been no debate on agriculture and food-related matters in Government time in the past 12 months. Will the Leader of the House review the matter and ascertain whether we can hold such a debate before the House rises for the summer recess?

Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman makes a splendid case for DEFRA, which was created to bring together all the issues that affect not only agriculture but the wider economy in the countryside, other rural issues and the environment. I am pleased to say that DEFRA has worked hard and successfully on that in its first year.

I am aware of the request for a debate on agriculture and wider countryside affairs, and I appreciate hon. Members' interest in the subject. I cannot promise a debate before the Whit recess, but I shall tuck the matter away for future reference.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the World Health Organisation's statement that it is worried about the childhood asthma epidemic in Britain? There is an obstacle in the form of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 because although it covers children's medical needs, it does not allow for people who look after children in schools to minister to those needs.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware of the alarming increase in respiratory diseases, of which asthma is one. That is one of the reasons why the Government have placed greater emphasis on and given greater priority to public health issues. We must focus on prevention as well as the much greater resources that we have provided for more nurses, doctors and beds and the treatment of diseases. I was not aware of my hon. Friend's specific point, but I shall draw it to the attention of the Department of Health.