HC Deb 28 November 2002 vol 395 cc461-73 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

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

MONDAY 2 DECEMBER—Until 7 o'clock there will be an Opposition half day [unallotted] on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist party relating to policing in Northern Ireland.

A debate on the convention on the future of Europe.

TUESDAY 3 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Communications Bill, followed by a motion relating to estimates.

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.

The House will also wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions will deliver a statement on the local government settlement on Thursday 5 December.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 9 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Extradition Bill. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill. Followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill.

TUESDAY 10 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the European Parliament (Representation) Bill.

WEDNESDAY 11 DECEMBER—Motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House.

Followed by a debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 12 DECEMBER—Debate on DEFRA issues on a substantive motion covering agriculture and the environment.

FRIDAY 13 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for Thursday 12 December will be a debate on the "Powering Future Vehicles" strategy.

Hon Members


Mr. Forth

I thank the Leader of the House, especially for that last item, which excited the House hugely.

Recently, we in the House of Commons have been through a so-called modernisation process. Our shift patterns have been changed, and we have a new single control centre—the Government Whips office. We have reduced the opportunities for second jobs and we are also about to reduce our head count, as there will be fewer Scottish MPs. In light of all that, when will Labour Members get a pay rise of 16 per cent?

Just the other day in the other place, Baroness Symons said that the Foreign Secretary continues to have overall responsibility for Government policy on the European Union, including the convention. The Secretary of State is the Government's representative to the convention, and will therefore report to Parliament on his role in the convention."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 November 2002; Vol. 642, c. 635.] A number of matters arise from that to which the Leader of the House would do well to give some thought. First, two Secretaries of State are responsible for one thing—the convention. Secondly, we have a Minister of State who answers oral and written questions on the convention in this House. Next Monday, however, one of the two Secretaries of State to whom I referred, the Secretary of State for Wales, will lead the debate on the convention. However, the real question is this: how can two Secretaries of State be responsible for exactly the same thing? More importantly, how will we have an opportunity in this House regularly to question and hold to account the Secretary of State for Wales on his role in the convention? The Foreign Office may well answer questions routinely at Question Time, but we want to get at the main man—we want the Secretary of State for Wales to be here, regularly, to answer questions. How will the Leader of the House arrange for that to happen?

On 26 November, the Deputy Prime Minister said: We have campaigned long and hard for Members of Parliament to have only one job in the House, and that is what I have done for the past 30 years since I have been a Member."—[Official Report, 26 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 183.] Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister's rather astonishing statement represents the Government's policy on this important matter? Can he clarify whether the recent modernisation moves are a sinister hidden agenda to ensure that Members can and should have no interests outside this House?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for inciting bids for a 16 per cent. pay rise. I have consulted the representative of the control centre with me on the Front Bench, and he wishes to discourage any such anticipation on the part of my colleagues.

Like many other Members, I have been offended to see claims that Members of Parliament have had a 40 per cent. pay increase. That may have come as something of a surprise to them. For the record, and for the avoidance of doubt, since the 1997 election, the first four years showed an average increase in MPs' pay of 3 per cent. In 2001 and again in 2002 we have had increases of around 5 per cent., which were, of course, the product of precisely the kind of independent review that is being resisted by the Fire Brigades Union. I hope that that will restore some balance to some of the imbalanced reports that we have seen.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me this opportunity to explain to him the principle of collective responsibility, which is the basis on which the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs work in total harmony. It is a principle that may have escaped the right hon. Gentleman, since I believe that he holds the record in the previous Parliament for rebelling on the Tory Benches against the Tory Whip. We, however, have a situation of total harmony and unity between those two Secretaries of State, both of whom speak for the Government. The right hon. Gentleman asks how Members can question the Secretary of State for Wales. My right hon. Friend will be here to take part in the debate on the convention of the future of Europe. If I may say so, that debate is the result of a request at business questions that we should have a debate on the Floor of the House on the future of the convention of Europe. For that reason, I hoped that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome it.

I am frightfully sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman's third point has slipped my mind.

Mr. Forth

The Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Cook

The Deputy Prime Minister speaks, as always, with great wisdom on these matters. I do not resile at all from what he said on that point. Indeed, if hon. Members consult Hansard about our debate on the change of hours, I made the very point that those who choose to spend their morning working on other matters should not dictate the hours for those in the House who are full-time professional Members of Parliament. The balance of the House has changed during my membership of it. The majority of Members are full-time Members of Parliament who are here on the precincts in the morning, and that certainly includes those on the Labour Benches. Of course we have no proposal to ban those who carry out other work. It is a matter for them and also for their constituents, who will no doubt bear it in mind.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Leader of the House has, on many occasions since he took up his present post, emphasised the need for better scrutiny of the Government's legislation and has said that better scrutiny makes for better government. Can I draw his attention to the fact that the Criminal Justice Bill, which was published a week ago, with 293 pages, 273 clauses and 26 schedules, still has no explanatory notes? Members of Parliament who seek to get to grips with this controversial and complicated Bill are receiving no help whatever. Since it is not apparently to be the subject of any pre-legislative scrutiny, does the right hon. Gentleman think that this is a good example of what he has been promoting? Does he not think that Ministers should be told firmly that they are not to publish Bills until the explanatory notes are available?

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the fact that, despite the useful change to ensure that written ministerial statements are listed properly instead of being hidden in the charade of planted questions, of the 22 listed in today's Order Paper only 18 were available in the Library immediately preceding business questions. I know that he understands that the purpose of the change—as the Modernisation Committee pointed out—was to ensure that all Members of the House, not just those who planted questions, were made aware of what was intended in the written statements. Will he please examine the matter again?

I understand that yesterday there was a written statement on wind power policy, which was accompanied by a useful briefing document. However, sufficient supplies of that document were not available yesterday for all Members to be able to read it. That completely undermines the proposals made by the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee, so will he look into that?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman's references to power confirm what a high-powered Government we are.

I am aware of the difficulties in providing an explanatory memorandum for the Criminal Justice Bill and I have expressed my concern that it should be made available to Members at the earliest stage. I am advised that the text will be supplied today to the Clerk of Legislation in the Public Bill Office who is responsible for ordering it to be printed and laid before the House, and it will be available from tomorrow. However, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It should have been made available sooner.

I felt that the hon. Gentleman slightly forced his point when he said that only 18 of the 22 statements were available. To put it the other way around, it means that when he inquired—the situation may have changed since then—only four of the 22 were not available. The House should keep a sense of perspective. As I have said before, we aim to get all the written statements in by 12.30, but in the old days of planted questions, the planted answers would have been available only from 12.30 and many of them would not have been produced until long after that. We should not regard the change as a step backwards; on the contrary, it is very much a step forward in terms of transparency and ease of access and identification in Hansard—witness the way in which Members are now able to tease me on the point.

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that Candy Domestic Appliances Ltd., based in my constituency, recently announced the closure of its plant in Bromborough. He may also be aware that the company has made major investment in the site and that the unions and the work force have been exemplary in reaching productivity agreements to maintain and improve competitiveness. Despite all their efforts, however, the competitive disadvantage of the pound-euro exchange rate has proved an insurmountable barrier, and as a result about 200 dedicated and hard-working people may find that their jobs are at risk. Will my right hon. Friend try to arrange for an early debate on the pound-euro exchange rate, as Candy is not alone in facing that often insurmountable barrier to competition?

Mr. Cook

On my hon. Friend's specific question, he will have heard the pre-Budget report yesterday, when the Chancellor said that the Government would complete their economic assessment in June. Whatever the outcome of that assessment may be, I am sure that the House will want to hold a number of debates on the issue.

On the issue that affects my hon. Friend's constituency, may I record our concern and regret that after such sterling efforts by both work force and management it has not been possible for the plant to continue? I know that my hon. Friend has worked hard to try to secure a future for the company in his constituency and that he will do all that he can to ensure that every possible provision is made for those men and women who may be facing redundancy. I can assure him that he will receive full support from Departments in those efforts.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman), the Leader of the House will know that during the many years that he has been a Member, it has been our custom to debate, in the autumn, in Government time, either the Chancellor's pre-Budget statement or the autumn statement. The Leader of the House is denying us that opportunity this year. Will the House thus not conclude that, given the changing fortunes of the economy, as set out yesterday, the Government no longer wish to be held to account on that subject?

Mr. Cook

I am not denying the House anything. I have always sought very hard to accommodate the wishes of the House to debate matters of common interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. As I have just said, we have a full programme of Second Reading debates, which reflects the Government's activism and the crowded legislative programme that we have announced, but I am well aware of the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. I will discuss it with my colleagues, and we will, of course, consider what opportunities we can find to remind the House of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's excellent record in maintaining a sound economy, with the lowest inflation for a generation, the lowest unemployment that any of us can remember and the fastest growth of any of the big economies in the world.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that yesterday the Chancellor announced a review of employers' liability insurance. Will he arrange for an early statement to the House to spell out exactly what that review's remit will be? For example, will it address not only the huge escalation in premiums, but the way that they are set? Will it also address the fact that many companies in my constituency are experiencing grave difficulty achieving renewals and that, even when their policies are renewed, they are fearful of making claims unless they face non-renewal in future? In the interests of joined-up government, will the Government consider the wider range of essential insurance policies that businesses need, for which they also face huge escalations in cost?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend helpfully underlines the importance of the review and why it is necessary. I am well aware of the concern among a number of hon. Members about the increase in premiums. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) raised this issue only the other week. My hon. Friend requests a statement; we will not be short of statements to the House in the weeks ahead, but I certainly think that this may be an occasion when, at an appropriate time, the Treasury may wish to consider using the new innovation of written statements, which we have provided.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May I invite the Leader of the House to spend an evening with me in Lichfield? We could perhaps go to one of its elegant restaurants—perhaps the Eastern Eye—and then to Lichfield cathedral to hear one of the many concerts that are put on there. Perhaps then he might like to speak to his right hon. and hon. Friends about the contents of the Licensing Bill, which, if passed, will mean no more concerts in Lichfield cathedral and no more Lichfield festival; nor will there be any concerts in Worcester or Hereford cathedrals, or many others in the United Kingdom. When will the Licensing Bill appear for its Second Reading in the House?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his invitation to dinner, which I shall communicate to my diary secretary, with my secret marking to put it at the bottom of the pile.

On the issue of substance that he raises, I reassure his constituents that the proposed provision on licensing public events in places of worship does not embrace any religious act of worship, for which no licence will be required, and that it will permit churches to hold five events a year, on each of three days, making a total of 15 days without licence. Of course the premises may be regularly used not for acts of worship, but for secular entertainment, however worthy and excellent.

Michael Fabricant

It is very worthy.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that it is extremely worthy and extremely excellent, so the hon. Gentleman owes it to his constituents to ensure that they can hear it with the peace of mind of knowing that those premises are safe and that they can leave them in the event of an emergency. For that reason, any responsible Government must ensure adequate provision for places of public entertainment. If there were to be—God forbid—any disaster in Lichfield cathedral, the hon. Gentleman would be the first to criticise the Government for not safeguarding it.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 96, on the child rescue alert scheme that has been piloted in Sussex?

[That this House welcomes the launch of Child Rescue Alert which will interrupt radio and television transmissions with urgent appeals if a child is in real danger of harm or death; feels that the system which is being pioneered in Sussex will save many lives; believes that the scheme will assist in the capture of the abductors of children before they can cause any harm; and furthermore hopes that this scheme will be used throughout the United Kingdom as soon as possible.]

Given that we live in a world of paedophiles and perverts who put children at risk, will he make time to debate the scheme when the report comes from Sussex so that we can implement it throughout the United Kingdom?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has just made a statement on sexual offences and unveiled a White Paper, which will in turn, of course, result in legislation. His proposals have been widely welcomed. Of course that will provide the House with an opportunity to debate such matters further, and initiatives of the kind that my hon. Friend describes should certainly be considered carefully and assessed to discover whether they can have wider application.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the cost of living indices? I ask that because it is about time that we had an updated view of what people spend their income on week by week. He has just announced that we will hear about the local government settlement next Thursday, but it is becoming ever more difficult to explain to pensioners why, on one index, the state pension is increased, but by an amount that does not even cover the increase in their council tax bill. Whether council tax, the purchase of a car or mortgage interest should be included in the various formulae should be debated, and those formulae brought up to date.

Mr. Cook

A number of issues need to be discussed and examined, and I have no doubt that the matter will be discussed inside and outside the House, particularly in relation to whether the general retail prices index adequately reflects the spending of a pensioner household. Having said that, I would make two points. First, whatever measure we have of RPI, inflation is lower than it has been for three decades, which is an achievement that we intend to maintain. Secondly, under this Government, substantial funds have been made available to local government in a way that was not experienced under the previous Conservative Government. Local authorities must live within their means, and must consider carefully decisions on taxation within their remit, but there is no local authority in Britain that has not done much better over the past five years than it could have dreamt of doing in the previous five years of the Conservative Government.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

Could the House have an opportunity to debate the document "Agenda for Change" that appears to have been launched in today's press. It would seem to offer a public sector pay settlement that is based on double-digit pay increases for the lowest-paid public sector workers, increased investment to raise the standards of public services, a modernisation agenda written by the unions themselves, and, crucially, no job losses. In the space that exists in the current firefighters' dispute, will the Prime Minister invite the Fire Brigades Union to No. 10 Downing street to discuss its agenda for change and to help get us out of the hole into which we appear to have been digging ourselves?

Mr. Cook

On my hon. Friend's latter point, we have repeatedly invited the Fire Brigades Union to return to the negotiating table and to discuss proposals for modernisation. Those modernisation proposals must not simply be the agenda of the Fire Brigades Union—which it is welcome to put on the table—but must embrace the interesting proposals in the Bain review on where real efficiency and productivity gains can be made. For instance, there could be an end to the current practice by which full-time firefighters decline to get on the same fire engine as part-time firefighters—

Alan Simpson

Not true.

Mr. Cook

I am afraid that that is the case.

On my hon. Friend's other point, I presume from what he says that he welcomes the conclusion of the "Agenda for Change" outcome. I certainly think that there is much to commend it to the House and to the public, particularly in the way that it will address some of those who are lowest paid in the public service. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it in himself wholeheartedly to welcome and support that, without necessarily using it as a ramp for other settlements.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that in a knowledge-based age our best assets are well-trained young people. Could we therefore have a statement from the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland on why, when some young people are told that no discretionary awards are available, education boards are not able to award all the money that has been allocated for discretionary awards? Is there a case to be made for lowering the standard of assessment so that those awards can be effectively used?

Mr. Cook

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland is active in trying to make sure that we build on the success that has been secured in the Northern Ireland education system. I shall happily draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to her attention, and I am sure that she will want to communicate directly with him.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I recognise the pressures of the Government's legislative programme, but could consideration sometimes be given to allowing two days for debates on vital issues such as Iraq? Last Monday, despite a stringent time limit on speeches, which tended to restrict interventions, many Members were still waiting to speak at the end of the debate, while others had given up. Surely such momentous matters merit thorough consideration.

Mr. Cook

I do not disagree that the matter requires thorough consideration and I know that there is substantial interest in it throughout the House. There is significant pressure on the available time in the Chamber for business of the House and, in present circumstances, I cannot hold out the promise of a two-day debate on Iraq or any other subject. However, I am mindful of the interest in such matters and will obviously bear in mind how much time we can provide in future.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on procedures for the listing of buildings? It is possible for a building to be listed without the knowledge of the owner and without disclosure of the identity of the applicant. That has happened to a church in my constituency, Cranham All Saints, which wanted to knock down and rebuild a Victorian church hall that had gone beyond the point of easy maintenance and repair. It has caused enormous complications in the planning process and there seem to be injustices in the listing procedures.

Mr. Cook

No doubt there are opportunities for ensuring that the process works better and more transparently, and there will be a chance to examine such issues in the forthcoming planning Bill. As a matter of principle, the consent of the owner of a building should not be a condition of the listing of a building. There will be times when the opinion of a building's owners is at variance with that of the general community on the value of the building, its importance to the community and townscape, and the importance of preserving it.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will know that there have been two recent debates on local government finance. Both were curtailed and many hon. Members did not have the chance to put the case for their boroughs or districts. Most importantly, I have not been able to put the case for the London borough of Havering, which has traditionally been caned by the standard spending assessment, although we have done marginally better in the past five years. Will it be possible to debate the statement when it is made on 5 December?

Mr. Cook

It would be wrong to have a debate on 5 December because the figures will have only just been shared with the House. We announced that statement today because we know of the considerable interest among Members, such as my hon. Friend, in what will be allocated to their local authority, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Local Government and the Regions was keen that there should be advance notice of that. I look forward to a well attended statement next Thursday.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the pressing issue of shortages of general practitioners around the United Kingdom, not least in my constituency of Rayleigh, which has the fourth highest ratio of patients to GPs? The debate would allow us to press the Government on their proposals for increasing the supply of domestically trained GPs instead of relying, as they increasingly do, on the sticking-plaster solution of desperately trying to recruit doctors from abroad to plug the gaps.

Mr. Cook

I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that more GPs are in Britain now than ever before and more people are in training to become GPs than ever before. There are certainly more than there were when the Government he supported were in office. That is a substantial step forward.

Of course we recognise that things are not satisfactory in every part of Britain and we shall continue to address the problem. That is why we have considered a number of solutions, especially providing financial incentives for people to become GPs and to stay GPs. We are looking at where it might be possible to find people with the appropriate training and standards to come to Britain to help us to achieve our objective of ensuring that we serve the British public. We will consider all solutions, not just one. Let us not lose sight of the fact that more people are working as GPs than was ever the case under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Has my right hon. Friend seen this week's report by Lord Carlile, who was appointed by the Government to oversee the workings of the Terrorism Act 2000? It described the network of small ports and small airstrips in this country as a "soft underbelly" that could be exploited by terrorists trying to smuggle in deadly materials. As someone who represents a small port, Lowestoft, which I know my right hon. Friend has visited, may I ask him whether a Minister could come to the House to make a statement about the report, to reassure people and to explain what can be done to minimise the risk identified?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend does his constituency an injustice: Lowestoft is not that small a port, but one of considerable significance. I am aware of Lord Carlile's report, which is the product of the new system that we have put in place. We welcome the general tenor of the report. It makes a number of detailed suggestions, and we will want to consider carefully how we respond to them. I can assure my hon. Friend that the matter is being taken very seriously in government, and we will certainly want to respond positively where we can.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

As a patriotic Scot, the Leader of the House will know that on Saturday we celebrate St. Andrew's day, so I wonder whether he is open to the suggestion that in future we hold a general debate on Scottish issues on or around St. Andrew's day, similar to that afforded to our Welsh colleagues on St. David's day.

Hon. Members

What about St. George's day?

Mr. Cook

Of course I am well aware that Saturday is St. Andrew's day; indeed, I intend to spend it celebrating in my constituency at a St. Andrew's day dinner in the excellent club of the very successful Livingston football team. I hear the bid for St. George's day too, and I say to hon. Members that not a week goes by in Parliament without our debating issues of considerable interest to Scotland and to England. I will take the hon. Gentleman's suggestion on board. St. Andrew's day will not come round for another full year and we will have to weigh the matter then against the pressure of business. I am confident, however, that it will fall on the same date as it has this year.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that at Prime Minister's questions yesterday the Prime Minister answered a question on hoax calls by saying that 7 per cent. of calls are hoaxes. That figure applies only to the present situation with the fire service; the total proportion, as BT intimated to me today, is 50 per cent., which means that there are about 12.5 million hoax calls a year. Will my right hon. Friend secure a statement or a debate about that practice, which puts people's lives at risk?

Mr. Cook

I do not think that by referring to the figure of 7 per cent. the Prime Minister was in any way trying to minimise the scale of the diversion and danger caused by hoax calls. Even 1 per cent. is far too many. I am sure that all hon. Members would join me in deploring those who frivolously and wilfully divert important resources, with what could be life-threatening results. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government and the forces of law and order take a severe view of that practice, but I hope that the community will exert pressure to make sure that people realise that it is in their own interests to behave responsibly and not to wantonly misuse the rare resources available to deal with emergencies.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am sure that the whole House is pleased to see his Parliamentary Private Secretary in his place, further dispelling press reports that he was a rebel on Iraq?

Secondly, on a much more serious note, the Leader of the House will be aware that the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates daily. Surely, as we have responsibilities in that country, it is important that Ministers come to the Dispatch Box to make statements and to lead debates in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Cook

First, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that of course I always rise with greater ease of mind knowing that my back is being safely guarded. He also gives me an opportunity to put right the error in the Hansard of the other night: if he consults the Division list he will find that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) allegedly appeared in both Divisions. I am authorised by my hon. Friend to state that he voted only once, and it was with the Government.

On the serious issue of Zimbabwe, I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's concern. The situation continues to deteriorate. Familiar though I am with the behaviour of the Mugabe regime, even I have great difficulty comprehending a regime that will deny food aid to starving people on the basis of political preference, and I am sure that everyone in the House would condemn that activity. We will continue to do all that we can to exert international pressure for a more responsible attitude on the part of that regime.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Can I return to the subject of employers and public liability insurance? Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate? For some months I have been trying without success to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject. In my constituency, not unlike others, businesses are going out of business simply because of the exorbitant premiums that they are being asked to pay or because they cannot get insurance which they are required by law to have. The opaque reference yesterday from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a review by the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that that should be informed by the experiences of hon. Members, who I am sure have useful information to impart to the Government.

Mr. Cook

I am relieved to tell the House that I have no influence on the allocation of Adjournment debates and do not seek any, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will persist in the hope of greater success in future. On the issue of substance, he raised a matter that has now been raised in business questions in the past two weeks by a number of Members. Plainly, it is a serious constituency issue in many quarters. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will note what has been said. Plainly, the Department for Work and Pensions will wish to consider an appropriate follow-up to the Chancellor's remarks to provide fuller information on the intended review.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House consider approaching the Minister for Sport for a statement or preferably a debate on the growing feeling that it is time to consider introducing safe standing areas at Premiership football grounds? That debate has been called for by The Southern Daily Echo, which serves Southampton and the New Forest. Experienced people such as former Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy, who was present at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, told the Echo's campaign: There is enough evidence now to prove that standing areas should be allowed and would not cause any problems if they were in areas behind the seated portions of the ground. This is an occasion where a past tragedy should not be allowed to obscure the advances in technology that enable safe seating to be considered in future.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the reasoned way in which he made his point. My own experience of attending Livingston football matches is in a modern all-seater stadium—[Interruption.] No, there is a large attendance, and we have sought to foster a family atmosphere, which is important and provides for the future of football audiences. There are divided views on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. I have long realised that if I wish to maintain a position as a consensual Leader of the House I should avoid expressing too strong an opinion about football, but I will convey his point to the Minister for Sport.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Can we please have a debate on small businesses? The annual staging of such a debate was once an established and welcome feature of the affairs of the House. Given that more than 99 per cent. of companies in the United Kingdom employ fewer than 100 people; that they account for approximately 50 per cent. of the private sector work force; and that they generate roughly two fifths of our national output, does the right hon. Gentleman concede that we need urgently to consider the sea of regulation facing them, as it is deeper and more hazardous than any with which they have previously had to contend?

Mr. Cook

On the last point, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that for a period I spoke for the Opposition on trade and industry at the Dispatch Box. During that time, I witnessed a flood of regulation from the Conservative Government.

Mr. Bercow

That was not my fault.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to accept that the hon. Gentleman is not responsible for anything done by the previous Government, but we yearn for the day when an Opposition Member stands up and says, "It was my responsibility."

On the issue of a debate on small businesses, I am happy to take that on board and consider it against other competing priorities. Yes, we would very much welcome an opportunity to debate initiatives that we have taken on small business, particularly the introduction of the zero tax rate for small businesses, which only yesterday was extended to many more small businesses and has been widely welcomed in today's press.

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