§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Will the Leader of the House please give the business for next week?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)
The business for next week will be as follows:
MONDAY 21 OCTOBER—Remaining stages of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill [Lords].
TUESDAY 22 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [Unallotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Crisis in Affordable Housing". Followed by a debate entitled "Crisis in Nuclear Power and Development of a Sustainable Energy Market". Both debates arise on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats.
WEDNESDAY 23 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [19th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of the National Lottery".
The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.
THURSDAY 24 OCToBER—Continuation of the debate on local government finance formula grant distribution on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. Followed by a debate on control of asbestos in the workplace on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 25 OCTOBER—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:
MONDAY 28 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day] There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
TUESDAY 29 OCToBER—Debate on motions relating to the Modernisation Committee report on reforming the House of Commons and the Procedure Committee report on parliamentary questions.
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Enterprise Bill.
THURSDAY 31 OCTOBER—Debate on defence in the UK on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 1 NOVEMBER—The House will not be sitting.
The House will wish to know that, subject to the progress of business the House will prorogue on Thursday 7 November and the new Session will begin on Wednesday 13 November.
The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 23 October the second meeting of the Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe will take place to consider the Third and Fourth Report of the United Kingdom representatives to the convention.
§ Mr. Forth
As ever, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business for the next two weeks. As he is all too aware, as a result of the re-imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland, a ministerial team of five is now accountable to this House for what they do in Northern Ireland. In the light of that, is the right hon. 464 Gentleman prepared urgently to look at the allocation of time for parliamentary questions, particularly for Northern Ireland, but also for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, given that that Minister has an enormous range of responsibilities that are of direct interest to hon. Members and their constituents? I hope that the Leader of the House agrees that this is an urgent matter. I am sure that it could be agreed through the usual channels very rapidly, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that it is very important that the House exercise its responsibilities with regard to the ministerial team in Northern Ireland given the regrettable change of circumstances.
While I acknowledge that the Leader of the House has now given further time for the local government finance formula debate—a matter that he, and you, Mr. Speaker, know greatly exercised the House when we saw that debate shrinking—can he give us any guarantees about the length of time now available for that important debate, as there must still be a long list of Members wishing to participate in this important matter? While I do not in any way want to diminish the importance of asbestos as a subject, it might be worth reconsidering whether asbestos really should encroach on the time available to debate the local government finance formula. Is the Leader of the House prepared, even at this stage, to look at the matter again and allow more time for local government even if it is at the expense of an immediate debate on asbestos?
On 29 October, we are to have a debate on the so-called modernisation of the House. Sadly. as the Leader of the House knows, because he chairs the Modernisation Committee, this is not a matter that has been agreed by all parties, as used to be the case in the past. I understand that he is presenting a number of proposals that have not been agreed to. Is it too late, even at this stage, for further discussions? When will we see the wording of proposals arising from very controversial suggestions by the right hon. Gentleman's Committee? Will the right hon. Gentleman at the very least guarantee that when we have a debate there will be not just ample time for it but, equally important, an opportunity for votes to take place on matters that remain controversial?
May I appeal, even now, to the Leader of the House? We are very keen to discuss topical questions here, as their lordships are already able to do in the other place. Indeed, I understand that their opportunities are to be extended even further—opportunities that we have never had.
I should like more agreement to be reached than has been the case hitherto. Is it too late? When will we see the right hon. Gentleman's proposals?
§ Mr. Cook
The right hon. Gentleman did not need to say a word. He played a prominent part nevertheless. There was concern on these Benches about his welfare 465 overnight; we are delighted that he did not wake up to find that his appointment was "not worth the paper on which it was written."
The right hon. Gentleman asked about Northern Ireland. I congratulate my two colleagues who have been appointed to the Northern Ireland team: I am sure they will pursue their task with great diligence. We will of course look at ways of ensuring that the House can be kept fully aware of decisions they make, and that they are held accountable.
The right hon. Gentleman raised two questions about the questions rota, suggesting that more time should be allowed for questions on Northern Ireland and to the Deputy Prime Minister. I have to say that the time is finite. I am happy to look at ways of providing more time, but I need to hear proposals for less time to be allowed to someone else. Allowing more time for some matters means allowing less for others, and I assume that the right hon. Gentleman would not like time to be taken from the time allowed for the Leader of the House to answer questions. We are happy to consider the suggestion, but these are difficult issues and I have to strike a balance between the different Departments whose representatives must give answers to the House.
I am pleased that we have found additional time for the debate on the formula for local government. The House will recall that it was raised with me during business questions in July, and that I took the initiative by saying that there must be a debate. I regret the fact that Tuesday's debate shrank, although I do not regret the fact that we heard three very important statements which I think we all agree that we had to hear. We have acted to provide for a further debate on the Floor of the House. We will ensure that the time is protected, and that at least three full hours will be allowed.
§ Mr. Cook
Three hours on top of the hour that has already been provided amounts to a substantial wodge of time.
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we drop the asbestos debate. I would not want him to get into any more trouble than he is in already with his leader, and I should perhaps draw his attention to the fact that the Leader of the Opposition wrote to us requesting a debate on asbestos on the Floor of the House. He may wish to consult with the Leader of the Opposition about the withdrawal of that letter, but I personally advise him to keep quiet about the matter.
It is, of course, never too late for further discussions about modernisation. I immensely enjoy the discussions I currently have during every hour of my working day about the modernisation proposals; but there comes a time when it is necessary to reach a decision. This matter has been before the House for nearly a year, and I think it is time for a decision. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us that when we decide on, in particular, sitting hours, there will be a free vote for the Opposition as well as for us.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
May I suggest that a debate on the funding of democracy would offer the 466 right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) another chance to give us the opportunity of hearing his forthright views? There seems to be a curious amount of amnesia on the Conservative Benches in relation to state funding. It appears to have escaped Conservative Members' notice that the Conservative party has received £20 million from the taxpayer since its defeat in 1997.
If we are to preserve and enhance the reputation of politics, Parliament and Government, is it not extremely important for us to face up to the issue of state funding of democracy? Has the Leader of the House had a chance to see the IPPR report, which I understand the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has already endorsed? Is it not urgent that we look at this? We surely cannot wait for the Electoral Commission to complete its work on this, which I understand may take 12 to 18 months. Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is a widespread perception that politics is being grossly influenced by the way in which large donors of various sorts seek to gain influence and access? In particular, will he look at the report in today's Financial Times, the headline of which isTory donor 'urged Duncan Smith to ditch chairman'",as a clear example of a way in which this can cause great concern and suspicion among the electorate? Can he be sure that no donor will try to ensure the departure of the Conservative spokesman because his performance is always so enjoyable in the House?
§ Mr. Cook
On the funding of political parties, I understand the anxieties to make progress, but it would be valuable for us to have the report of the Electoral Commission. After all, the House appointed the Electoral Commission to advise us on such matters. It will have important weight and authority in its contribution to the debate. I saw the report from IPPR and will study it with care. I also heard the director of IPPR being interviewed on the radio, in which he made the telling observation that the first Prime Minister ever elected with help from state funding was Lady Thatcher who benefited from Short money while in opposition, as indeed the Conservative party rightly and properly does today. That money is there to make sure our parliamentary system works better. Since that party already receives state funding I wish that it would adopt a rather more open approach to the debate on other parties.
I saw the article in the Financial Times. I am in no position to verify it since, sadly, I was not invited to attend the meeting between the Tory donor and the leader of the Tory party. I hope I carry with me all members of the shadow Cabinet when I say that if any Tory donor should suggest to the leader that he sack any of them, the appropriate course is to show him the door.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Does The Leader of the House share my view that undemocratic quangos are capable of undermining Government policy? For example, although North Derbyshire tertiary college was due to be closed or have its name changed, the jobs were to remain according to a tin-pot undemocratic quango called the Derbyshire learning and skills council. That promise has not been kept. As a result 467 negotiations are already under way about sending people down the road on to the dole queue. It is high time that the Minister responsible for further education dealt with this matter to make sure that promises made by that tin-pot quango are kept.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend makes his comments in his characteristic trenchant way and they will be heard vigorously in Derbyshire as they have been heard here. I am not in a position to respond in detail to the particular points that he raised, but I shall make sure that the Minister at the Department for Education and Skills has them drawn to his attention.
§ Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
May I ask the Leader of the House—as someone who is trenchant in his defence of the rights of Members of Parliament vis-à-vis the Executive, and someone with a modernising agenda—to encourage Ministers to respond far more promptly to letters of inquiry from Members of the House of Commons? In early July I wrote to Health Ministers about a most important public health matter in Sutton Coldfield and this morning, more than three months later, I had a response. I hope that the Leader of the House will bear in mind that a three-month delay is far too long and that civil servants and Ministers must ratchet up their agenda the importance of responding promptly to Members of Parliament when they raise important issues with them.
§ Mr. Cook
Of course, as Leader of the House I can only concur with the general sentiment that Members should have a reply to a parliamentary question or letter as quickly as possible. However, I invite the House to bear in mind the real pressures, particularly on the Department of Health. Questions to the Department of Health, and indeed many other Departments, have increased by about 50 per cent. in recent times. I know that the Department of Health is increasing staff resources to deal with the problem. We shall certainly endeavour to make sure we give as early advice as we can, but as mature members of the political community we must recognise the real pressures involved.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
If the matter is not fully cleared up this afternoon by the Defence Secretary, could there be a statement next week on the Congressional Budget Office report, which purports to say that Britain has committed 10,000 troops and £5 billion to a war against Iraq? Specifically, the CBO assumes thattwo-thirds of a British air wing would be part of the Heavy Ground force, as well as British naval contingent of 21 ships, as in Desert Storm.The CBO's estimates of the costsincorporate the assumption that the United States will provide limited logistical support".There ought at least to be comment on that, most properly from the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Cook
I think I can help my hon. Friend to clear up the point now. First, there is no such commitment by the British Government. Secondly, the paper from which he quotes—as he has fairly indicated—is a paper not from the American Government but from the Congressional Budget Office. To be fair to the 468 Congressional Budget Office, it makes it perfectly plain that these are its assumptions and not British Government commitments.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)
May I return to Northern Ireland? Quite rightly, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland used the first possible opportunity to make a statement to the House on Tuesday about the suspension of the devolved institutions. It is clear that, this time, we could be in for a long haul, because previously there have not been two additional Ministers appointed. In the circumstances, may we have a guarantee from the Leader of the House that there will be a full debate on the crisis in Northern Ireland before the House rises?
§ Mr. Cook
May I respond first to the right hon. Gentleman's last point, because I anticipate that he may be the first of a number today to raise it? Time between now and the date of prorogation that I have announced—7 November—is very tight. It is extremely important that we fulfil the commitments that we have, which we willingly accept, to meet the requirements of the Standing Orders for Opposition days, of which there are a number outstanding. We have four Bills, to which there will be Lords amendments, before we rise. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, and to anyone else thinking of asking the question, that there is no time for additional debate between now and prorogation.
On the general point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, we are fully seized of the gravity and importance of this development. I have no doubt that, over a period of time, the House will return to the question of Northern Ireland; whether in debate or in statements remains to be seen. Certainly the House will be right to expect to be fully involved. In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he has done everything possible to keep the House informed.
§ Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)
Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the role and activities of IPPR? In the aftermath of its report proposing a cap on donations to political parties, IPPR makes no comment on its own uncapped donations from the corporate sector.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend makes a robust point and I should be surprised if a letter from the IPPR were not winging its way towards him by tomorrow. I can only say to him that there are aspects of the report that do not immediately commend themselves to the Government or, I suspect, to any other party in this Chamber.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
The discovery of a Republican spy ring at Stormont—in the wake of the raid on Castlereagh police station and the arrest of suspects in Colombia—in addition to the ongoing violence on the streets of Northern Ireland has produced a huge decrease in support for the Belfast agreement. This was confirmed this morning in a BBC report in which a poll indicated that only 56 per cent. of people now support the Belfast agreement, as opposed to over 70 per cent. in 1998. Further to the request of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay), could I appeal to the Leader of the House for an urgent debate in Government time on the circumstances that made 469 untenable the continuance of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Sinn Fein/IRA Ministers within that Assembly?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully understand the importance of the developments to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Indeed, in his statement on Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland stressed the fact that events at Castlereagh and in Colombia had contributed to the decline in confidence in the peace process and the structures for Government in Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend said in his statement, the time has come when those who are participating in the peace process must decide whether they are committing themselves wholly to that track. If the peace process is to succeed, paramilitaries on both sides must recognise that the case for violence and for trying to resolve these issues through violence is over, and that now is the time for all to commit themselves to the peace process, and solely to the peace process.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday a cross-party group of Members of Parliament presented a petition at Downing street calling for tougher regulation on fireworks? We understand that the Government have made announcements this week on bringing in new regulations, which we welcome. Would it be possible, however, given the sheer volume of people who signed the petition, for a Minister to come to the House to detail the new measures that the Government wish to introduce to deal with antisocial behaviour connected with fireworks?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises a serious issue that is about to become very topical. There can be no Member of the House who has not, at some time or other, seen a constituent who has suffered injury from fireworks. My hon. Friend is correct that the Government have made proposals for controlling fireworks that are most prone to abuse or to cause injury. Those measures will, I believe, take effect from next year, and there will be opportunities for the House to consider them as the Government bring forward measures to implement them. In the mean time, I am sure that all hon. Members will use the press in their constituencies to consider how to provide the publicity to ensure that those handling fireworks recognise that they are potentially very dangerous explosives that must be handled with care, responsibility and judgment.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the courtesy of the House being informed if a Secretary of State cannot be here to answer questions is observed in the future, as it was not observed today? Will the Leader of the House also please reconsider the Modernisation Committee debate on 29 October? It is not essential that that issue be debated on that day; it is essential that Northern Ireland be debated very soon.
§ Mr. Cook
We have to make our own judgments as to what is the best allocation of time, and I think that the House will want to address a number of modernisation issues. As a matter of fact, it is essential that we have a debate on modernisation before proroguing, otherwise the House will be sitting until 10 o'clock on Thursdays in the next Session, because that order is sessional and must be addressed. There are reasons of necessity why we have to have a debate before the House rises.
On the hon. Gentleman's other point, I am advised that those on the Opposition Front Bench were informed that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs would be absent. In fairness to my right hon. Friend, she is attending the Environment Council in Europe, which has very important business relating to this country. If she were absent from that meeting, I suspect that she would be criticised by the House for coming here rather than going to Brussels.
§ Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)
The Leader of the House is aware that this week the Irish people will be voting in a referendum on the Nice treaty. Although not wishing to interfere in that process, many of us hope that they will vote yes. Bearing in mind the interest of the Leader of the House in the enlargement process in his work as Foreign Secretary and its importance to the rest of Europe, could time be set aside for a debate next week, or at least before the House rises, so that we can debate how to champion the cause even further?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend tosses me what I think is a firework that I must handle with care and responsibility. As he rightly says, the Irish public would quite properly resent any outside interference in their process. On enlargement, however, I have no difficulty in saying to my hon. Friend that the Government wholeheartedly support the enlargement process and have been one of the champions arguing for enlargement and the access of the countries in central and eastern Europe.
I think that we in the European Union are inclined to underrate the extent to which the possibility of membership of the European Union has helped those countries transform their economy and alleviated some of the longstanding ethnic tensions that they have realised they have to put behind them as a condition of membership. These are welcome developments. Given the painful decisions that those countries have taken, it remains incumbent on us to ensure that those decisions are rewarded with membership.
§ Mr. David Cameron (Witney)
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence and, in particular, the delays in providing guidance? Is he aware that there is a problem with the rationing of photodynamic therapy for patients suffering from wet age-related macular degeneration, or AMD? My constituent, Jack Tolley, of Bladon, is going progressively blind. His general practitioner has recommended him for treatment, but the Oxford eye hospital says that it cannot carry it out because the funding from his own primary care trust is not there. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that is particularly iniquitous because patients in Reading are funded for that treatment at the Oxford eye hospital. He may like to know that the North East Oxfordshire NHS PCT has said that because 471resources per capita … are the lowest or next to lowest in the country. For this reason we need to make invidious decisions about treatment priorities which are due to inadequate resources.Could we have an urgent debate and early guidance from NICE so that people who are going progressively blind do not have to wait for their treatment?
§ Mr. Cook
I am aware of the controversy to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Plainly, the sooner it is resolved the better, from everyone's point of view. I have two general observations. First, we set up NICE precisely because it is surely right that it should be the scientific and the medical experts, with some independent assessment, who come to a judgment. These are not matters that we are qualified to judge and they are not suitable to be resolved on the Floor of the House. Secondly, I hear the hon. Gentleman's complaints about poor funding. Of course, it is the Government's understanding that we have to make further progress in raising funding within the national health service. We have carried through a massive increase in funding since we inherited the record of the previous Conservative Government. At the Conservative party conference, the Conservative leadership said that it was not committed to matching our increases in health spending. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can support his leadership in refusing to match our spending and at the same time complain that we are not spending enough.
§ Andy Burnham (Leigh)
Will the Leader of the House consider timetabling at the earliest opportunity a debate on the future of United Kingdom manufacturing? He may feel a sense of déjà-vu, but there have been profound changes within our industrial base, and Parliament is in danger of failing to respond to those changes. In the past year, there have been forced large-scale redundancies in Leigh and 1,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost, the latest due to the closure of the Bentwood textiles factory, which has led to the loss of more than 300 skilled jobs. That raises real issues about the future of the UK textile industry and whether the European Union tax regime is working in our national interests. There is real concern out there about both the ease with which companies can seemingly relocate away from the UK and the quality of the redundancy packages offered to people when such relocations occur. I urge my right hon. Friend to give hon. Members the opportunity to air those concerns on the Floor of the House at the earliest opportunity.
§ Mr. Cook
I am distressed to hear of the experience that my hon. Friend describes in his constituency and I fully understand that the matters that he has raised must be of grave concern to his constituents. I am aware of the interest on both sides of the House in a discussion of manufacturing. It is a matter that has been aired before. I draw attention to the fact that we are rapidly approaching six full days' debate on the Queen's Speech, which traditionally provides an opportunity to discuss industry and the economy. My hon. Friend and other hon. Members may wish to consider whether these are matters that could be pursued in that context.
§ Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)
Would the Leader of the House make a statement prior to the 472 modernisation debate on the possible impact of the modernisation on the working hours and income of the staff of the House and the police? He may be aware that it is feared that those staff may well end up worse off after that modernisation process.
§ Mr. Cook
If there are concerns on income, that is a matter that can be pursued through the usual negotiating channels, which are well developed within the House of Commons. I am sure that the House of Commons Commission will be willing to consider any bona fide and genuine concerns that there might be—I say that as a member of the Commission. However, I am not immediately aware that there would be a significant impact on the hours of the staff. If he is referring to the Modernisation Committee's report, it is true that we make a vigorous case for thinking that the House would be wise to start earlier in the day than at present and that that would have a consequence for when we conclude our business at the end of the day. We do not go so far as the Opposition, who suggested that we should sit from 9 am and stop at 5 pm, but we are suggesting 11.30 am until 7 pm.
We also recommended that, because a number of hon. Members will wish to continue working on the premises, catering and other facilities such as the Library should remain open. so I would not apprehend any immediate and sharp reduction in hours.
§ Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)
I return to the issue raised by the Father of the House during business questions. My point relates to the article by Oonagh Blackman in today's edition of The Mirror. We might want to take issue with the basis on which the US Congressional Budget Office speculated on the costs of a war against Iraq. The following statement from its report ought to cause this House real concern:Only the British have thus far indicated their intention to contribute troops.We have had a succession of statements, from the Prime Minister and other Ministers, saying that the UK has not made any such commitment. Either the US Congress is being misled, or information is being withheld from this House. May we ask the Prime Minister to make it clear to this House whether there is any grounds at all for the certainty with which this commitment of UK troops is referred to in the report to the US Congress?
§ Mr. Cook
There is no commitment made, and can be no commitment made, because no decision has yet been reached. As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said to the House—I fully support him in this policy objective—it is the objective of British foreign policy to make sure that it is progressed through the United Nations. At the moment, there are discussions within the United Nations on what resolution might be approved, and I think it may well be possible that those discussions will result in a resolution. At the moment, no decision is required of us, and no commitment has been made by us. Military action is not imminent; nor is it inevitable. I very much hope that, at the end of the day, we will succeed through the United Nations process of satisfactorily disarming Saddam Hussein and removing his ambition for weapons of mass destruction. However, 473 we also need him to heed the UN obligations that he has previously had put upon him, and any fresh UN resolution that is adopted.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
Will the Leader of the House keep an open mind as to the allocation of time for debating local government funding, given the concerns expressed by Members, the interests of their constituents, the scale of the proposed changes to funding, the effect on local services, and the interests of those such as the chairman of the Hertfordshire police authority, who wrote to Ministers and MPs saying that, in due course, changes in funding will result in the loss of 300 police officers in Hertfordshire? These are very big changes. Can we find sufficient time, so that all these anxieties can be heard?
§ Mr. Cook
Yes, although I am aware that my right hon. Friend has repeatedly stressed to the House that no local authority will be worse off. Of course, there is room for debate as to who is best off in terms of the increased amounts. Having said that, I admit to the House that I see no realistic possibility that I can provide satisfactory time on the Floor for every Member who wishes to make a contribution, through a speech, to this issue. It is simply not possible to reconcile that with the finite character of time. I have twice tried to provide generous time for this debate. On Tuesday, that opportunity was waylaid by the need for statements; it will not be so waylaid next Thursday, when a second opportunity will arise. I believe that, in all fairness, we have tried hard to provide adequate opportunity for the House to ventilate this subject.
§ Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that—despite the impression given by the shadow Leader of the House—the Modernisation Committee has done everything possible in the past year to try to reach a consensus? Is it not true that some of his friends on the Labour Benches wanted to go much further in respect of matters such as the modest overspill proposal? People such as me believe that we should have a five-year Parliament, with all legislation being introduced in a sensible, phased way over that period. That would ensure a better programme, better scrutiny and better legislation.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend has played a distinguished part in the Select Committee. He is absolutely right—we have sought whenever we can to achieve consensus. All members of the Committee will accept that I have made real efforts to get as many members on board as possible. There are one or two areas on which we disagree—that is not surprising—but we have achieved substantial consensus on the way forward.
On the issue of carry-over to which my hon. Friend refers, I stress that I do not see it as related in any way to increasing the volume of legislation before the House; I see it as necessary to make sure that the House can do a proper job of scrutiny. The real problem in scrutinising Government legislation is finding enough time in which to do it. If we want more time to do it, we must have a 474 longer time-horizon. That is the value of carry-over to the House, and it is for the House's sake that we should adopt it when we meet on 29 October.
§ Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
The Leader of the House will know that about six of his ministerial colleague, including the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, attended the world summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg at the end of August. He will further know that that international conference debated and discussed some of the most vital issues affecting the future of our globe. Surely the House should have an opportunity to discuss these important matters. Bearing in mind the fair point that he made about the pressure on business between now and Prorogation, will he assure us that the matter will be debated on the Floor of the House, if not before then immediately after the beginning of the new Session?
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman is realistic in understanding that we cannot debate the matter before prorogation, but I assure him that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keen for the House to have an opportunity to question her and discuss the matter, and that the issue of a statement was contemplated. The House will always be faced with the problem of catching up after three months in which it has not been sitting. Indeed, we saw that on Monday when we had three statements—[HON. MEMBERS: "Tuesday."] Sorry, Tuesday. Those statements could not be moved and necessarily took precedence over any other statement. I would argue that that is a very strong case for the House coming back in September instead of the system whereby we do not meet for three months. Had we come back in September, I am absolutely sure that there would have been a statement on Johannesburg.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
Would the Leader of the House, in his mission for modernisation, consider investigating the modernisation of the television facilities available in the House to allow hon. Members to receive digital television channels, especially those such as BBC2 Wales or BBC Scotland, which will allow us to monitor the media in our nations and regions? Would that not have the additional merit of allowing people—such as those hon. Members who were lucky enough to be in the Wales Office last night—to watch some top-quality international football?
§ Pete Wishart (North Tayside)
First, will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a Government statement on the Government's response to the Anderson inquiry on 5 November, as leaked today to Plaid Cymru? Secondly, he is no doubt aware of a little local difficulty concerning the proposed change of membership of the Committee of Selection. He is aware that this is due to the increasing frustration felt in the minority parties about lack of access to Committees and 475 institutions of the House. Must we continue to oppose that as private business, or will we be given an early opportunity to debate our grievances about the treatment of minority parties at the hands of the House?
§ Mr. Cook
I am very much aware of the grievance of the minority parties on the question of appointments to Committees. The hon. Gentleman and I have corresponded on the matter on several occasions, and I will continue to look for a solution to it. There will be plenty of procedural opportunities for him to make his point.
On the Anderson report, the Government will, of course, respond to it, and that response will be shared with the House. It is unusual, however, for the Government to respond as soon as the leak is out and before the report has been published.
§ Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)
May I return to the story in the The Mirror about the war bill? Although I welcome the Leader of the House's positive comments on the United Nations route, I must point out the importance of this issue to the House. If the document concerned says that President Bush has been guaranteed that Britain will send troops to fight a United States-led war and makes other explicit statements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) referred—in addition, the Congressional Budget Office report estimates that the cost to this country might be £5 billion—it is imperative that the House has the opportunity to question a Minister or the Prime Minister on the matter. We have been told time and again that no decisions have been taken, but the Americans appear to think that they have been. Five billion pounds is a lot of money, and we have outstanding public sector pay claims, such as those from the firefighters and the nurses, and I am sure that that money would cover much of their claims.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises an issue that has been of deep concern to a number of my hon. Friends. I can only repeat that the Congressional Budget Office is, of course, entitled to come to what assumptions it wishes, but those are its assumptions. They do not reflect any commitment that has been given by Her Majesty's Government, nor could we make any commitment until we take a decision, and no decision has been taken on action. I very much hope that it will be possible for us to succeed in getting the UN to pressurise Iraq successfully to accept its obligations to the UN. Every sane Member would accept that that is the best way forward, but it depends on co-operation from Iraq.
As to opportunities to debate the issue further, I draw the House's attention to the fact that there will be a debate on defence today and that there will be another in two weeks' time. There are plenty of opportunities for Members who wish to do so to press the Ministers responsible for defence for clarity on this matter. However, I think that those Ministers will confirm what I have said to the House.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the private finance initiative so that the House can have the benefit of the lively debate that we saw at the Labour party conference? Perhaps the Government could explain the 476 motion that was so enthusiastically adopted by that conference. If he finds time for that debate, will he arrange for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to open it, so that we can hear the Government's argument at its best and hear a repeat of the bravura performance at Blackpool?
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman's point was rather laboured. I am always happy to listen to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or, indeed, to any member of the Treasury team. They will also be interested to hear from the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues if they wish to nominate which hospital or school projects in their constituencies they would like to have halted because they do not approve of the PFI process.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
I welcome the modernisation proposals that my right hon. Friend published over the summer, but will he tell the House what progress has been made with respect to the use of Westminster Hall for debates on issues that cut across Government Departments and that a range of Ministers could attend? Would not a good start be a debate on youth policy to which many Ministers could be brought together to answer questions on that important topic?
§ Mr. Cook
I aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the subject. Indeed, he wrote to me some time ago, and I am pleased that we have been able to respond to the demand from Members—and from Ministers responsible for this issue—by proposing that there should be an opportunity for cross-cutting questions on youth policy, embracing the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. As more work is done in Whitehall on a cross-departmental basis, it is right that the House should adapt its procedures so that we can also maintain cross-cutting scrutiny. I believe that our proposal for change in Westminster Hall will be helpful. We will work with the Chairman of Ways and Means to try to find an early opportunity in the new Session when we can put into effect that proposal for questions on youth policy in Westminster Hall.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
Is it not unsatisfactory that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry have yet been to the House to explain or justify their decision to put more than £600 million of public funds at risk in the form of emergency loans and guarantees to the virtually bankrupt private nuclear energy company, British Energy? Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have such a statement as soon as possible?
§ Mr. Cook
As I understand it, we will have a full opportunity to explore these issues next week. Once again I say that, if we had regular September sittings, such questions would not arise, because I am sure that we would have had a statement at the time. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises will be debated next week, but it surely could not be responsible of any Government to allow a major nuclear energy installation to face the possibility of insolvency, with all the consequences that would have for the safety and 477 security of our constituents. In those circumstances, it surely was right for the Government to act to make sure that nuclear safety is maintained.
§ Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)
Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on compensation for the victims—the soldiers and now the families—of the atomic tests in the Pacific in 1950? I am sure that he is aware that the Prime Minister supported a private Member's Bill in 1990 demanding compensation for the victims of those tests. As we are now in government, I am sure that the Government will be eager to ensure that justice is done for those victims.