HC Deb 21 November 2002 vol 394 cc785-800 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I please ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week is as follows:

MONDAY 25 NOVEMBER—There will be a debate on the UN Security Council Resolution 1441.

TUESDAY 26 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 27 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Health (Wales) Bill.

THURSDAY 28 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill.

FRIDAY 29 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to be reminded that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his pre-Budget report on Wednesday 27 November.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 2 DECEMBER—Until 7 o'clock there will be an Opposition half day. There will be a debate in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party on a subject to be announced. [HON. MEMBERS: "Guess!"] I would not dream of taking up such an invitation.

That will be followed by a debate on the convention on the future of Europe.

TUESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Communications Bill.

WEDNESDAY 4 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill.

THURSDAY 5 DECEMBER—Estimates [1st allotted Day].

There will be a debate on the Government's drugs policy. Details will be given in the Official Report.

At 7 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 5 December will be a debate on the report from the International Development Committee on global climate change and sustainable development.

Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. We are all aware that the long-awaited and much-anticipated Wicks report reached the public domain this morning. At this stage, may I put down a marker and ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will guarantee that, at an appropriate time and after deliberations in the House, we will have an opportunity fully to debate the report, which has such a huge impact on the House and the way in which it works, and on its Members?

The Leader of the House may or may not be aware—I do not know how assiduously even he follows the proceedings of the European Parliament—that yesterday the European Parliament produced a report on foot and mouth disease, which, in distinction to the rather dismal effort made in this country, was produced on the basis of public hearings. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is prepared to give time—probably early in the new year—for a debate on foot and mouth that will allow us to consider not only the findings of the final version of the European Parliament report but all the other investigations into that important subject, so that we can come to a proper conclusion?

Following the pre-Budget report next Wednesday, I hope that we shall have an opportunity soon thereafter for a full debate on the economy because it would appear from all reports that we are receiving that the gloss has gone off the Chancellor in particular. Following what he tells us in his pre-Budget report, we shall want to consider the state of the economy and of the Government's finances very carefully. Perhaps we shall see the Chancellor in an altogether new light. That would be an uplifting experience, certainly for those on the Conservative Benches, and it should happen in any case.

I want to ask the Leader of the House about the crisis in higher education. Is there such a crisis? The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education has told us that there is, which worries me, as I am sure it does you, Mr. Speaker, because we have all been brought up to believe in the doctrine of Government collective responsibility—a very important part of our constitutional and parliamentary arrangements. This Government, however, do not seem to have any collective responsibility, because the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education are busy flying kites on top-up tuition fees in higher education, while no less a figure than the Secretary of State for International Development has said that they are a bad idea.

Here we have two Cabinet members plus other Ministers all saying completely different things about an important policy area. Will the Leader of the House please arrange a debate on Government collective responsibility so that we can find out once and for all whether the Government have any collective view about anything at all or whether there is a permanent free-for-all in the Cabinet on important areas of responsibility?

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Unite or die!

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Forth

I ask also for an urgent debate entitled "Honesty and Integrity in Government". The key figure in that debate, perhaps to everybody's surprise, would be Admiral Sir Michael Boyce—a man whose honesty and integrity are unimpeachable, a man for whom all of us on the Conservative Benches have the highest possible regard and a man whose word can be accepted without question on our Benches.

It appears, however, that things are rather different on the Government side. Sadly, when the admiral was asked yesterday about the impact on the effectiveness of the armed forces of their preparations for and involvement in the firefighters' strike, he said, "I am extremely concerned". He is reported as going on to say that clearly we cannot perform at the fullest end of our operational capability". That is the Chief of the Defence Staff stating his assessment of the impact of our domestic situation on our armed forces. In the light of that, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported as saying: I didn't actually hear him say 'extreme concern'. Rather than have a debate, perhaps we should offer the Secretary of State an analysis of his hearing capability, because for the two to be at such odds is a serious matter.

It gets worse, because at column 639 of yesterday's Hansard, during PMPs—[Interruption.] Yes, Prime Minister's porkies. The Prime Minister was told that the Chief of the Defence Staff expressed his considerable concerns about what he described in this context as the present military effectiveness of the British armed forces in this respect. The Prime Minister replied: The Chief of the Defence Staff did not say that. The Prime Minister is now challenging the Chief of the Defence Staff on what he said. The Prime Minister went on to say that he said that we would have the full operational capability for any requirement that might be made of us."—[Official Report, 20 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 639.] But the Chief of the Defence Staff had just said that we did not have the full operational capability.

We must have a debate on this matter, Mr. Speaker. It cannot be left hanging in the air, because it goes to the heart not only of integrity and honesty in government, of which there seems to be precious little these days, but of the relationship between this country's top military man and members of the Cabinet. We must have a debate and we must sort this out once and for all.

Mr. Cook

Before I respond to the right hon. Gentleman's questions, may I allude to a question he asked me last week about the number of written statements and the time when they were released? I am pleased to say that today there will again be 10 written statements, nine of which were laid before the business statement. The one exception is the statement on victims and witnesses, which the Home Office understandably wants to release at the same time as the publication of the Criminal Justice Bill at 2.30 this afternoon. I hope that the House will take some comfort from the fact that we are doing all we can to ensure that written statements are provided timeously, and that the House can benefit from a more transparent and open way of making announcements.

I have not yet had a chance to read all of the Wicks report, but I welcome one of its early conclusions: We believe that standards in the House of Commons are generally high. The overwhelming majority of Members seek to, and in practice do, uphold high standards of propriety. I trust that I carry the House with me when I express the hope that tomorrow the press will give adequate coverage to that central conclusion of the Wicks committee.

The right hon. Gentleman is right—the House must have an opportunity to examine the report—but I would have thought that the appropriate time was when we had had an opportunity to reflect and to digest it. I would particularly like to know the views of the Standards and Privileges Committee before the House discusses it.

I think it would be slightly eccentric to debate a European Parliament report on foot and mouth when we already have a number of reports of our own, in Britain, about what happened. I am conscious of the deep interest in the matter, and we are keeping it in mind for a future debate; but, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, from now until the end of the year we shall have a very busy schedule, especially in dealing with Second Readings of the many excellent Bills in the Queen's Speech.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the state of the economy. I was a little perplexed to be pressed for a debate on that, given that, for the first time in my memory, the Opposition chose not to divide on the economy at the end of our debates on the Queen's Speech. That may of course reflect their recognition that they are not on the strongest ground when it comes to a record on the economy that has given us the lowest inflation and interest rates for a generation—since the time of the Beatles, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said in his speech—and a lower unemployment rate than any other major economy in Europe. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the gloss is still fully on the Chancellor, and that he looks forward with confidence to coming here on Wednesday and robustly defending the Government's economic record.

Let me also say this to my— to the right hon. Gentleman. I nearly called him my right hon. Friend, and would not necessarily resile from that but for its parliamentary connotations. I think it took a bit of brass neck for him to lecture the Government on the principle of collective responsibility. Only in the past week have we seen him restored to his place in the Chamber so that we can see his face again. Let me gently suggest that this may be an instance in which those in glass houses might hesitate before throwing stones.

As the House knows, preparation is currently being made for a review of higher education, which will be published in the new year. I am sure that when it is published the House will want to debate it, and explore the options that it presents.

There will of course be a debate on Iraq next week, when the House, if it wishes, will be able to discuss the military preparedness of the armed forces for any conflict that may arise. Of course everyone, whether in the military or not, would like the fire strike threatened for tomorrow not to take place. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been working so hard to find a basis on which talks and negotiations can continue. We strongly urge the parties to the dispute to remain at the negotiating table rather than take strike action, but I am confident that if they take such action the armed forces and other personnel will do all that they can to try to provide the best possible alternative cover, and will rise to the task with no complaints.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Did the Leader of the House notice that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) endorsed the question to the Prime Minister from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday rather than supporting his own leader? Does that not show where the real opposition is?

On the Wicks committee, I wonder whether the Leader of the House would like to comment on the fact that the report on the standards of conduct of the House of Commons—a report that could not be more relevant to Members of Parliament—was presented to the media at 11 am this morning, but was not available to Members until 11.20 because of "a technical hitch". Moreover, the written statement from the Prime Minister was not available in the Library until 11.30. Surely on this occasion at least, Members of the House should be given priority. Will the Leader of the House accept that the intention behind the Modernisation Committee's proposal that we should do away with the farcical charade of question planters was to give the whole House such information at the earliest possible opportunity? Does he accept that simply leaving it to the Standards and Privileges Committee to come back to the House with a review of the Wicks committee report will not be sufficient? After all, that Committee is itself under some attack from the recommendations of the Wicks committee.

Has the Leader of the House had time to consider Mr. Speaker's statement of yesterday, in response to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) about the obligation of Ministers and their Departments to give full, honest and accurate answers to parliamentary questions? Has the Leader of the House considered the particular point made by Mr. Speaker that he hoped that steps would be taken to ensure that that does not happen again."—[Official Report, 20 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 645.]? Will the Leader of the House examine, across the whole of Government, examples that my colleagues and I have discovered of the way in which the parliamentary question has been debased by some Departments?

Finally, I ask the Leader of the House whether there could be pre-legislative scrutiny of the civil service legislation that we still hope to see in this Session—even if only in draft form—given that the Wicks committee's work on the politicisation of civil servants is intensely relevant to the reputation of this Government and this Parliament.

Mr. Cook

The decision on the release of the Wicks committee report was in the first instance a matter for that committee—it was in its hands to decide when it chose to publish it. I regret that the report was not simultaneously available in the Vote Office, and we did take steps to make sure that it was made available as quickly as possible. I regret the delay, and I must be frank with the House and say that, at the time of coming to the Chamber, I was unable to get to the bottom of the reason for that delay. I shall pursue the matter when I leave the Chamber, but the report is now available in the Vote Office, and is available to hon. Members.

I should say that I did not imply that a report from the Standards and Privileges Committee would itself be sufficient, but I do think it desirable. I would hope that, before we have what will necessarily be a wide-ranging discussion in the House, involving Members who are not necessarily members of that Committee, the Committee and its Chairman should advise us on how we should proceed, and on how we should assess the recommendations.

I vigorously rebut the idea that the parliamentary answer has been in any way debased. Indeed, only in the past month or two, I made a submission to the Procedure Committee, robustly defending the parliamentary answers provided by Government. There are of course occasions when they are not adequate, and for that reason an apology was given this week to Mr. Speaker, and to the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). We shall seek to do all that we can to prevent any further administrative mix-up that results in the wrong information being provided to a Member. However, I ask the House to bear in mind that the volume of parliamentary answers has almost doubled in the course of this Parliament since the last election. We are seeking to cope with the very welcome interest of Members in the work of government and the excellent work that we are doing, but sometimes that is challenging.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about bringing forward civil service legislation in draft form. I understand why he proposes that—there would be considerable interest in such legislation. Whether we will have such legislation in this Session I am currently not in a position to say, but I shall bear in mind the view that, should such legislation be brought forward, it might be helpful, if circumstances allow, for it to be seen in draft.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the sale of the Herald Newspaper Group by the Scottish Media Group, and of the deep concern of many that one of the bidders is the Barclay brothers, owners of The Scotsman. May I ask my right hon. Friend to provide time in the House to discuss the future of newspaper media in Scotland, and in particular to discuss the developing monopoly situation and how competition policy can seek to broaden the range of the available newspaper media in Scotland?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter of considerable interest in Scotland. I am sure that it will be a considerable talking point at next week's dinner organised by The Herald, at which many hon. Members will be present.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I do not think that our independence of judgment on this question will be suborned, but we will wish to seek views, and it is possible that we will even express views in the course of that dinner. My hon. Friend is right that one of the objectives that we should try to achieve in the media is to ensure that there is competition and an alternative point of view. Anyone who knows of the long-standing rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow will be aware of the importance of those two cities having distinct daily newspapers to cover their populations. My hon. Friend has alluded to the fact that there exist well known and well worn systems by which we can ensure that any merger in the media industry is subject to adequate competition checks.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

I agree with the Leader of the House about the Wicks report, and I understand that neither he nor anyone else has had a chance to reflect fully on its recommendations. However, I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to paragraph 15 of the report, which states: We have recommended…that no party should have an overall majority on the Committee on Standards and Privileges. To many hon. Members, that seems a good idea. May I urge the Leader of the House to consider it most carefully?

Mr. Cook

I have the highest regard for all those who serve on the Standards and Privileges Committee. They are not on it to follow any party line, and no party line is ever given to them. They serve as hon. Members with independent minds, and often show robust independence. That is to be welcomed. I would hesitate to introduce a party quota system in that Committee, and to place on the official Opposition the burden of providing even more members of Committees, when they plainly have so much difficulty in finding enough Back Benchers to staff present requirements.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

In relation to the question from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), I believe that all reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee have been unanimous.

My question concerns the launch by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on 23 July of a long consultation on the future of British aviation. The consultation period ends in nine days, on 30 November. Many of my constituents have had great difficulty in obtaining the appropriate documentation for the submission of their views. The Department of Transport has resolutely refused to extend the consultation period. Has my right hon. Friend had any intimation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that there will be time for a debate between 30 November and the rising of the House four weeks today? Such a debate would allow us to look at some of the issues associated with this very flawed consultation period.

Mr. Cook

I must disabuse the House of the idea that there will be many free days in the period to which my hon. Friend refers. However, I fully understand the enormous importance of this issue to many constituents and to many hon. Members. The consultation period has gone on for four months already, which is significantly longer than the standard period. I can understand why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport should feel that the time may have come to draw that consultation to a close, but that will not and cannot be the end of the debate. I am very much aware that hon. Members will want to continue to contribute to the debate on the options that may be selected, and that from time to time it will be necessary for views to be aired in the Chamber.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Will the Education Secretary come to the House to say why, with our EU partners, he has signed up to five very important targets for our education system up to 2010? Those targets will limit our right to fashion education policy in this House. Will he also ask the Transport Secretary to come to the House to comment on rumours that our open skies agreement with the US is now deemed illegal and will have to be denounced by the Government?

Mr. Cook

I welcome any opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to come to the House and remind hon. Members of the Government's success in attaining the targets for education in the UK that the Government set. For example, we inherited a situation where many infant school classes had more than 30 children, and we have resolved that problem. We have also achieved the best ever literacy and numeracy levels in primary schools, and the best ever GCSE results. In addition, we have the largest ever number of students going into higher education. All those targets were made in Britain and delivered in Britain by this Government.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on competition policy following the decision by Tesco to merge with T and S stores, which will have a serious effect on local convenience stores in my constituency and in those of other right hon. and hon. Members? This is a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, which has extended the time to consider a referral for a competition inquiry, but surely the House can debate these matters in the meantime.

Mr. Cook

It is of course entirely open to hon. Members to express their views and my hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of putting his view on the record. He is correct that the matter is before the director general of fair trading, who will consider whether to make a report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In the meantime, it would be inappropriate for any Minister to go further than that or for the House to debate it. However, I fully understand the importance to our constituents of convenience stores as well as supermarkets, as my hon. Friend reminds us.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised with the Leader of the House the press conference yesterday in which the Chief of the Defence Staff effectively contradicted the Secretary of State for Defence about the readiness of the armed forces. This is not a light matter. In the past there have been disagreements between senior military officers and the Government in power and sometimes those have leaked out, but this matter is of fundamental constitutional importance. I should like to know whether the Leader of the House has had any indication that the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House and say that he is wrong, in which case I suppose that he would have to resign, or that he has no confidence in the Chief of the Defence Staff, in which case he would have to resign.

Mr. Cook

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not working for one of the tabloids because he has managed to over-polarise and over-sensationalise yesterday's exchange. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Of course he has. The Chief of the Defence Staff has certainly not expressed any lack of confidence in the Secretary of State, nor argued with him. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious—which the press always find particularly sensational—that if 19,000 troops are engaged in firefighting duties, they are not available for other purposes. Nobody would seek to deny that. I very much hope that we are successful in averting a firefighters' dispute so that those 19,000 troops are free for their military duties. However, I have not heard any reluctance from anybody in the military on the part of those 19,000 troops and their officers to undertake what they are tasked with by the Government in making sure that they provide for public safety. I am sure that many will willingly do it, perhaps with rather greater commitment than the hon. Gentleman has shown.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May we have an early statement on the unfolding environmental catastrophe off the coast of Galicia in Spain? Is my right hon. Friend aware that since 1997 more than 80 oil tankers have gone to the bottom, polluting the seas, and that single-hull tankers such as the Prestige will not be banned until 2015? Given that the UK is a leading maritime nation, why can we not join President Chirac in calling for an immediate ban on single-hull tankers?

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to misrepresent the position of President Chirac, but I was Foreign Secretary at the time—I am prompted on this by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who was the shipping Minister at the time—and in fact President Chirac agreed to the joint effort of the UK and the Netherlands in achieving agreement within the International Maritime Organisation. If I may put the record right, we will not have to wait until 2015 to ban ships such as the Prestige —they will be banned from 2007 under the agreement that was taken with the IMO and reflected in European Union directives.

Having said that, I fully share my hon. Friend's sense of gravity about the environmental disaster that has occurred to a coastline that I know well, which is renowned for its fishing industry and the excellence of its fish diet. This is a grave tragedy, and I hope that the investigation will provide clear pointers as to who is responsible for the disaster.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Is the Leader of the House yet in a position to tell us when he will publish new legislation on policing for Northern Ireland? Given the recent suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the discovery of a republican spy ring at Stormont, does he agree that such a Bill should not include further concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA as that would further damage the morale of the police in Northern Ireland, which is already at an all-time low?

Mr. Cook

I am not able to respond at present to the hon. Gentleman's question as to when such a Bill might be published, but I take note of what he says and I fully understand that whenever such a measure is brought before the House the debate will inevitably be coloured by recent events in Northern Ireland.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

My right hon. Friend will know that since 1997 the Government have given unrivalled support to public transport and that subsidy for bus services, especially in rural areas, is available as never before. However, does he know that in urban constituencies such as mine there is high car use and traffic congestion, and that no bus service is available to the people of Caversham in my constituency in the evenings or on Sundays? Will he find time for a debate on this issue, which is urgent for all of us, especially in the south-east of England?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct to point out that substantial additional resources are going into public transport in the rural areas—from memory, I think that the extra amount of such support is more than £200 million. The system is working extremely well but we are not, of course, the bus operator. In many places, as a result of the actions of the previous Administration, companies are overwhelmingly in private hands. I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern about the impact on her constituents and I assure her that we shall continue to do all that we can to ensure that the quality of life in rural areas is maintained.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I believe that it is the objective of the Leader of the House that the activities of Parliament, especially the House of Commons, should be more relevant and transparent to those whom we represent. Bearing in mind the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has announced debates for the next fortnight on referendums, which affect local government, on the future of Europe and on Iraq, does he not believe that the House should spend more time debating rather than legislating? Would it be possible for two days to be allocated for some of the bigger and more important debates, as has been historically the case, so that more Members can express their view and the Government can be made aware of the views of the people we represent about the critical issues that will be before the House?

Mr. Cook

I take the hon. Gentleman's point: we have to get the right balance between legislation and debates, between scrutiny and issues of general concern to our constituents. At this stage of the Session it is important for the House that the scrutiny of legislation announced in the Queen's Speech is under way. Indeed, it is in the interests of every Member that adequate time is available for the scrutiny of Bills, which is why it is important to get the process started. From now until Christmas there will be a high proportion of Second Reading debates, but the more of them we can get out of the way at an early date, the more room there will be for general debates after Christmas.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East)

Is the Leader of the House aware of an early-day motion that I tabled late in the previous Session, commemorating the election, 80 years ago last Friday, of the only prohibitionist Member to serve in the House, Mr. Edwin Scrymgeour? Given the proposals in the Queen's Speech to extend licensing hours in England, will my right hon. Friend agree to hold a debate on the financial and social costs for the UK taxpayer of alcohol abuse?

Sir Nicholas Winterton

After Christmas.

Mr. Cook

Possibly it would be timely for Christmas.

The fact that only one prohibitionist has been elected to the House in 80 years may say something about the general views of our constituents, to whom I think the new licensing laws will be broadly welcome. However, there are other social factors to which my hon. Friend referred and we must vigorously continue to tackle them, as we are doing through the provisions of the national health service. The House will have an opportunity to debate the issues when the Bill is introduced, which will, I anticipate, be in good time.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Within the past two hours, some further sad and worrying news has come from Spain—the crash of a pre-production prototype of the Eurofighter. Thankfully, the crew baled out without loss of life and I understand that there were no civilian casualties. However, as the Leader of the House will appreciate, there will be uncertainties and important questions for the tens of thousands of aerospace workers in the north-west of England whose jobs are dependent on the future success of the project. Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Defence makes a statement on the matter at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Cook

Eurofighter is an immense project, which is of great importance to the British aviation industry, as well as for Europe's defence strategy. I very much hope that any necessary questions will be pursued to find out what may have gone wrong on this occasion. One incident, however serious and life threatening, does not itself call the project into question, so I counsel the right hon. Gentleman not to demand answers more quickly than it is possible for any sensible investigation to find them.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

I too should like to ask the Leader of the House about the vexed question of top-up fees in universities, not in the context of Cabinet collective responsibility but in relation to when Parliament will have an opportunity to express a view on the matter, rather than being sidelined while we take part in what appears at the moment to be something of a spectator sport. Bearing in mind the fact that more than 100 hon. Members have now signed early-day motion 2, is it not high time that a debate was granted on top-up fees for universities so that the views of our constituents can be properly aired?

[That this House notes with concern that a number of elite universities are making contingency plans for top up fees, which would create a two tier university system; and urges the Government to adhere to its policy of ruling out such extra charges in this and successive future parliaments.]

Mr. Cook

As I have already told the House, the Government will publish a review in the new year.

From the exchanges today and other occasions, I am certainly well aware of the enormous interest in the matter in the House and the wish that the House will undoubtedly have to debate it, but it seems more appropriate that the House should debate the issue when it has before it a review and a statement of options, rather than in the abstract and in the absence of such a focus for debate. The review will not propose hard-cut single options; it will provide a variety of options, and it will be for the House to express its view on them and it will be fully involved.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his comments about holding a debate on Iraq next Monday. Clearly, that is a deeply important subject, but the public conflict between the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence is equally important and deserves not to be subsumed in another debate. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House to explain the anomalies of view between those two individuals?

Mr. Cook

Of course the Secretary of State for Defence will be here on Monday. The debate will most certainly involve those who handle our affairs, and it will be perfectly plain that we will want to ensure that there is full preparation if the military are required in Iraq, but I would advise the House that we require a certain maturity. There is no suggestion in anything said by the Chief of the Defence Staff that he is opposed to any involvement in Iraq if that is required, no suggestion that the services are not ready for that and no suggestion that they are not willing to undertake the duties that are required to stand in for the firemen if the latter go into dispute. The obvious solution to all those problems is that we avert the dispute, but if we cannot do so I do not believe that the Chief of the Defence Staff is seriously saying that he cannot undertake the necessary duties.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda)

Unscrupulous commercial landlords can buy houses in my constituency for about £8,000, put tenants in them without making those houses decently habitable and then not concern themselves at all about the antisocial behaviour of those tenants. My constituents hope that that major issue will be dealt with in the draft housing Bill, which was proposed in the Queen's Speech. I wonder whether the Leader of the House can give us an idea of when that Bill might be published and when we might therefore be able to start its pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern. The issue that he raises is a repeated concern in many of my hon. Friends' constituencies. Of course what makes it particularly serious is that communities that are already on a knife-edge as to whether they can survive are often destabilised by the actions of such unscrupulous landlords. That is why we propose to provide local authorities with the necessary powers in the forthcoming housing Bill. I anticipate that my hon. Friend will have sight of that draft some time in the new year and with good time for pre-legislative scrutiny to take place in this Session.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon)

We look forward to the Second Reading of the local government Bill in due course, but I would be grateful to the Leader of the House if he clarified whether it is the Government's policy to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, as I was unable to get a clear answer on that yesterday. Will he also clarify why the Government have asked Back Benchers to propose such amendments usually on Report, rather than putting the provision in the Bill itself so that it can be debated fully in Committee?

Mr. Cook

I recall that the Labour party has a manifesto commitment on section 28, but on the proceedings in relation to the Bill, it is perfectly valid to table amendments on Report. Indeed, that is a good way for the full temper and view of the House to be heard in a way that cannot be done in Committee, which necessarily consist of only 16 hon. Members. I would robustly resist any suggestion that an amendment tabled on Report is in any way a lesser amendment, and in view of the debates that may take place in the other place, I would suggest that it is not in the hon. Gentleman's interest to press that view either.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House when it will have an opportunity to debate the Government's proposed tax on plastic carrier bags, the environmental benefits of which are not as clear-cut as some of its supporters might assume? I ask that because a company called Simpac in my constituency may have to consider laying off up to 40 people if the tax is introduced in its current form. I will have an opportunity to debate the matter next week in Westminster Hall, but all Members would welcome knowing when we will have an opportunity to consider the proposed legislation.

Mr. Cook

Any such legislation is a long way away. All we are considering at present is what may be in a performance and innovation unit report that will come out next week. I have read reports in the press that I suspect may be slightly coloured versions of what may be in that review. I invite my hon. Friend to study it with care when it comes out next week, and to vigorously express any view that he feels is appropriate before any legislation is on the horizon.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

The Leader of the House will surely recall that the Scottish electorate, prior to their referendum for new strata of government, were promised that the cost of their Parliament would not exceed £40 million. With that price now escalating towards £400 million, and with the prospect of the Scottish Parliament having to meet in a public house from September next year, what opportunities will there be for us to make clear to the English regions the poor experience in Scotland of regional government, and to do what we can to explore the issue with every possible means?

Mr. Cook

It is for the English regions to consider those factors that they think are relevant when they come to judge whether they wish to vote in a referendum for a regional assembly for themselves. They will no doubt consider many factors, including some of the extremely popular, distinctive polices that have been pursued by the Scottish Executive, and the fact that we have been successful in passing 10 times as many Scottish Acts in the Scottish Parliament as we ever would have passed at Westminster. The hon. Gentleman should be honest with the Chamber and with his constituents, too. If he is really proposing that his party would abolish the Scottish Parliament and end devolution, he should say so. If he is not saying that, he should stop carping from the sidelines.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I wonder whether you noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how untypical it was of the Leader of the House to fail to look in the eye my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) or my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) when they raised their points about the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff's extreme concern about the state of the armed forces under this Government. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence about whether he still has confidence—as he should have—in the Chief of the Defence Staff, even though the Chief of the Defence Staff evidently has no confidence in him?

Mr. Cook

This story is now spiralling out into the stratosphere. At no point did the Chief of the Defence Staff say that he had no confidence in the Secretary of State for Defence. If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman has no right to misrepresent the Chief of the Defence Staff, whose words should be treated with greater respect than he is showing for them. Nor did the Chief of the Defence Staff say anything about this Administration's neglect of the armed forces, probably because, as he also served under the previous Conservative Government, he is aware that this Government is the first for 20 years to start to increase defence spending, unlike the massive cuts that he witnessed under the Conservative Administration.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

May I take the Leader of the House back to the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), my Leicestershire neighbour, about the questionnaire in the consultation on the future development of air transport in the midlands? May we have a statement specifically on the questionnaire from the Secretary of State for Transport? Not only have my constituents found that they have had to wait months to get a copy of the questionnaire, but it is so hopelessly flawed that it includes the following question: Would you like a greater number of flights from the Midlands to London, or is the current number adequate? There are no flights from the midlands to London.

The questionnaire has cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. On the basis of this questionnaire, there is a proposal to ruin all the ground between Coventry and Rugby. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on this questionnaire?

Mr. Cook

I am aware that there have been a number of complaints about the consultation process, and they will obviously have to be taken into account by those assimilating the response to it. However, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that there are more airports in the midlands than East Midlands airport. I am not entirely sure that they necessarily agree with him.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

What assurance can the Leader of the House give us that Monday's debate on Iraq will give us the opportunity to consider a proposition that would compel the Government to seek a United Nations mandate before any military is taken in Iraq? Given that so little separates those on the Government and Opposition Front Benches on this issue, we are unlikely to have an amendment from them. Will he therefore use his considerable influence to ensure that we can consider such a proposition, that it is properly debated and that, if necessary, we can divide the House on the future role of the UN?

Mr. Cook

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the motion for next Monday says. The final part states that, if Iraq fails to comply fully, the Security Council should meet to consider the situation and the need for full compliance. I cannot imagine any responsible Member of the House who is committed to the UN as the authority for peace and security in the world objecting in any way to any part of that phrase.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

On Monday, the House will debate the very serious prospect of going to war with Iraq. However, yesterday, there was an official Ministry of Defence press conference at which the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff were publicly at variance about the degree of strain placed on the armed forces by having both to prepare for that conflict and to cover for the firemen's strike. Who does the Leader of the House believe is right—the Secretary of State for Defence or the principal military adviser to the Cabinet?

Mr. Cook

I have to say that there is nothing original left to say on the topic, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman has found it. Let me put a question to Conservative Members. If they are really saying that they believe that the conclusion of the Chief of the Defence Staff is that he cannot sustain a military action in Iraq and also handle the fire dispute if that disputes proceeds—is that what they are claiming he said?—will they tell the House which of the two they would jettison and not carry out?

Dr. Julian Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Leader of the House to ask

Opposition Members to respond to a question when they have no opportunity to do so under the procedures of the House? It is clear that the response that we would be able to give is perfectly capable of coping with his question, because we would point out that the extreme concern expressed by the Chief of the Defence Staff is about a matter of overstretch, which the Government have consistently and wrongly denied is taking place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

That matter has probably been aired sufficiently. No doubt it can be aired again if that is the wish of hon. Members.

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