HC Deb 24 October 2002 vol 391 cc405-16 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 OCTOBER—Opposition Day [20th]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate on implications of the Human Rights Act for UK law followed by a debate entitled "The Expulsion of Sinn Fein/IRA from the Palace of Westminster". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

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—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000 followed by 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 provisional business for the week after will be:

MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Adoption and Children Bill.

TUESDAY 5 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill.

WEDNESDAY 6 NOVEMBER—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Animal Health Bill.

THURSDAY 7 NOVEMBER—The House will consider any Lords amendments which may be received.

The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.

Mr. Forth

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for letting us have the future business. Will he give a firm undertaking that the forthcoming report on foot and mouth will be given a full day's debate in its own right in the House early in the new Session? The Leader of the House knows very well the importance that everybody attaches to the report and the House will have to be given every opportunity to examine it thoroughly and completely. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to give us that assurance so that we can look ahead with confidence to dealing with that matter in the proper way.

The Animal Health Bill, to be considered on 6 November, has been almost completely redrafted in another place. Therefore, it will come to us with a large number of new clauses and schedules. Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the House will be given adequate time to consider the measure? In fact, I would prefer an undertaking that there will be no time limit on its consideration at all. I would undertake that the official Opposition would treat it in a proper and responsible way. We would not want it to be the case— and neither would you, Mr. Speaker—that the large number of changes that have been made quite properly to this important Bill in another place were somehow not considered in this place and were ever to be sent back to another place, voted on in some peremptory way without having been properly considered or debated. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that our role in this House, complementary as it is to the other place, requires that we spend a proper amount of time on that Bill in these circumstances.

The Deputy Prime Minister said on 22 October with regard to the firefighters dispute: The House can be assured that I will, at every opportunity, keep it fully informed.—[Official Report, 22 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 127.] Given the exchange between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister yesterday and the almost complete confusion that seems to be emerging from various sources in the Labour party, the Government and elsewhere, when does the Leader of the House next expect the Deputy Prime Minister to report to the House on such matters as whether picket lines will be crossed, and military personnel or other temporary personnel given access to the most modern equipment in fire stations in the pursuance of fighting fires? Just as important is whether military personnel who are required to act as firefighters during any strike will be properly covered, insured and protected in every way from hazard and from liability claims when we ask them to do this most hazardous and difficult job.

Those are just some of the questions that I hope the Deputy Prime Minister will come to the House early—ideally, before any dispute even starts—to answer, to reassure us and the people of this country that these matters will be dealt with properly and not brushed under the carpet, which is what the Prime Minister tried rather ineptly to do yesterday.

On Monday evening, one of my colleagues found a little note on the Treasury Bench. It looks as though it was written by a Government Whip—their writing is very distinctive, Mr. Speaker, as you know. It says: Hazel, Please speak AT LENGTH."— the "at length" is underlined— We need this debate to run past 7.15. In the spirit of modernisation, I ask whether the Leader of the House believes that that is a proper way for the Government and Ministers to conduct themselves. Does the right hon. Gentleman take any responsibility for that note from one Government Minister to another? Is he prepared to plead guilty on behalf of the Government to wasting the time of the House? I can only assume—perhaps he can confirm this—that the aforesaid Hazel was none other than the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Salford (Ms Blears), who was dealing with the debate at the time and appears in Hansard at some modest length. I hope that we will receive assurances from the Leader of the House that he will get a grip on his Whips and on Ministers and stop wasting the time of the House.

Mr. Cook

May I first say what a delight it is to see the right hon. Gentleman back in his place. It was a source of great disappointment to Labour Members that he was not in his place for Prime Minister's questions yesterday. I want him to understand that a large part of the fun of those questions for us is watching his face while his leader is speaking. I hope that he will not deprive us of that treat on future occasions.

On foot and mouth, we fully understand the importance of that. We set up the inquiry, we want a result, we shall give a response and there will be a statement to the House as soon as the result is available. I understand the interest of the House in wishing to debate that matter and it will be considered for future scheduling. I stress, however, that immediately after the debate on the Queen's Speech we will have a busy period in the House, with Second Readings of the many excellent Bills that will be announced then.

On the Animal Health Bill, I am well aware of the importance of giving adequate consideration to the amendments carried in the other place and we will ensure that there is a full day of debate for consideration of that Bill. I do not think that it will be necessary or desirable to go late into the middle of the night. I have done so on many occasions in my time in the House and, by and large, the House does not do itself sufficient justice in passing important legislation in the middle of the night when sensible people are in bed.

The right hon. Gentleman was not in his place for Prime Minister's questions yesterday, as I said—[Interruption.] If he was here, he will be aware that my right hon. Friend more than adequately answered all the questions put to him by the Opposition. While I recognise the right hon. Gentleman's anxiety to ensure that he stays on the good side of his leader by repeating the questions that he asked yesterday, the answers are precisely the same. We will not want to inflame the dispute, but at the same time we will not let any doctrinaire ideology stand in the way of doing what is necessary to protect the public. The right hon. Gentleman cannot in one breath ask for consideration for the financial security of the service men by asking them to be clear of liability—of course we will ensure that they have no personal liability—and also that they should have access to the equipment and fire engines, without training in their use. Access without training would seriously endanger our service men and we are not prepared to engage in that sort of irresponsible act.

Lastly, as regards the note that an Opposition Member apparently retrieved, I am interested to know that someone from the Opposition crossed the Floor and wants to join us on the Treasury Bench. If he or she would like to make that application formally, we shall certainly consider it. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Ms Blears) cannot speak at too great length for my pleasure. She always does very well when she comes to the House and is well worth listening to, so I can fully understand why there may be demands from this side for her to speak at even greater length.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On behalf of my colleagues, may I endorse the representations made both about the foot and mouth investigations—there is not just one investigation but a whole series, including one by the European Parliament—and about proper scrutiny of the considerable number of outstanding matters on the Animal Health Bill?

Had the Leader of the House been with us during the whole of the previous hour, he would have been aware that there is considerable concern about the implications for education policy of the resignation of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Members on both sides of the House are concerned that important issues may be at stake, not least the frustration that the right hon. Lady appeared to express in interviews last night at intervention from both No. 10 and No. 11 in education policy. Given that the new Secretary of State was not able to contribute, for understandable reasons, this afternoon, will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be an early opportunity for a full debate on education policy, if not before the Queen's Speech at least on one of the full days of debate on the Speech?

Both you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House have expressed concern in the past about the arrangements for making statements to the House and for choosing which subjects deserve statements. May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a remarkable occurrence earlier this week, when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was apparently prevented from making a proper statement on the outcome of the Johannesburg summit and instead produced an extraordinarily long answer to a planted written question? I refer to column 898W in Monday's Hansard, where the answer runs to three and a half columns. Is that not an abuse of the written answers system, because the House was unable to cross-examine the Secretary of State on what was clearly a statement? It was not really an answer to a written question.

May I also draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that a similar question about Johannesburg, put earlier by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), was not answered by the Secretary of State? There was only a brief answer from the Minister of State. Is that not another abuse of the system? Will the Leader of the House look carefully at those arrangements, and may I have his assurance that the proposals from the Modernisation Committee will address that problem?

Mr. Cook

First, I shall take the hon. Gentleman's question about the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris).

My right hon. Friend is a decent, straight Member of the House and was a decent, straight and committed Minister. She was committed to the improvement of an education system in which she had a lot of professional experience. Many parents and teachers will regret the fact that such a sincere Education Minister was hounded out of office. I think that Members on the Opposition Benches will go quiet about their part in hounding her from office.

There was no reference whatever to No. 10 in my right hon. Friend's resignation letter. On the contrary, in the final paragraph she paid tribute to the support that she had received from the Prime Minister throughout. The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate. I have full confidence that my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) will want to address the House on his stewardship of education at an early date. Indeed, given my confidence in my right hon. Friend, I am sure that I would be unable to keep him from coming to the Dispatch Box to do so even were I so minded. However, I am keen that the House should hear from him fully as soon as possible.

We discussed Johannesburg last Thursday. That issue takes us back to the long absence of the House during the prolonged summer and autumn recess. Had we met in September, as we shall be proposing when the House meets on Tuesday, there would definitely have been an oral statement on Johannesburg. In the event, we met a long time after Johannesburg. There were three very full and urgent statements on our first day back—indeed, there were complaints about the consequences of that for other business on that day. It was simply not feasible to contemplate yet another oral statement on a major matter.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point about the rather odd device answering the planted question. As he is aware, part of the package that we shall be putting to the House next Tuesday is that we do away with the curious requirement that somebody has to ask a question before a statement can be made. After Tuesday, I hope that we will print such written answers in a separate section of Hansard, clearly labelled "Written Statements from Ministers"—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may vote against that if they want to do so, but it would be in the interests of everybody else that we should clearly identify what is a written statement; that we should be open and transparent about it; and that we should not pretend that it was an answer to a question asked by a Member.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that one of Parliament's key roles is to defend the rule of law and ensure that legality is adhered to by the House and the Executive? In that context, will he look again at the Attorney-General's habit—it is not even a convention—of giving advice to Her Majesty's Government and not allowing that advice to be published? I am obviously referring to the advice given on the legality or otherwise of declaring war on Iraq or any other country. Will my right hon. Friend discuss that matter with the Attorney-General and, in this instance, allow that advice to be put on the public record, so that the House can debate the matter in the full knowledge of the legal advice available to the Government?

Mr. Cook

No, I will not. It is very important that the Government's Law Officers should be free to give frank, open advice without weighing every sentence against the consequences of that advice entering the public domain. It is very important that the Government should be able to function with frank, open advice from our Law Officers, and I would not wish to do anything to inhibit that. However, I find it inconceivable that a democratic British Government would go to war in any circumstances if their Law Officers advised them that they would be acting illegally.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Further to the right hon. Gentleman's wish to bring more certainty to the parliamentary calendar, will he tell us when the Chancellor will make his pre-Budget statement? Will he also tell us what statements Ministers are planning now for next week?

Mr. Cook

On the question of the pre-Budget report, no date has been finalised, but I would broadly expect this year's statement to be made at a similar time of year to last year's statement. At present, I do not have a final list of statements for next week, but I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be helpful to the House if statements, where planned, could be announced in advance. Of course, there will always be statements that necessarily respond to events and, therefore, are not planned.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

The Government have announced their intention to publish an energy White Paper early in the new year, but they did so before the recent crisis at British Energy, which has enormous implications for future energy policy. Notwithstanding the fact that the Liberal Democrats chose British energy as the topic for their Opposition day debate earlier this week, does my right hon. Friend accept that, as we are considering energy policy over the next 50 years, it is essential that there is the widest possible discussion in the House about all aspects of energy policy before the publication of the White Paper?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand that there is great interest in the House in energy matters. The issue has been raised several times at business questions during the past year. Indeed, we arranged for a debate on energy precisely because it might inform the preparation of the White Paper. I would be reluctant, therefore, to agree to a further debate before the White Paper is published, but intense discussions on the White Paper continue apace, and I am sure that the House will wish to consider it fully and that my hon. Friend will wish to support it entirely.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Will the Leader of the House provide time next week for a statement by the Fisheries Minister? As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the advisory committee to the European Commission is proposing the closure of the North sea, west of Scotland and the Irish sea to the total white fishery. Such a move would cost thousands of jobs in Scotland and dismantle the fabric of entire communities. As the Fisheries Minister knows a great deal about the subject, I am confident that he would think that such an approach—closing an entire fishery in pursuit of saving a single species, however important—was lunacy. Will the Leader of the House give him the opportunity to spell out the Government's policy next week?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the importance of that issue to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and to many other fishing communities around the country. I am sure that he will accept that we respect the scientific community's advice about the very dangerous level of stocks, particularly cod, in those areas. Nothing is more important to the long-term health of the fishing industry than that we conserve the fishing stocks so that they are there in the long term. The present position is that we are waiting for a Commission decision in response to that scientific advice, and I am sure that my colleague, in whom I have much confidence even more confidence—than the hon. Gentleman—will wish to keep the House fully informed of our response.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)

In the aftermath of the Opposition day debate on sustainable energy, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing time for a specific debate on wind power? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like to establish whether there is a single wind power project in the United Kingdom that is not opposed by the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

I will sit out this particular contest. The Government are thoroughly committed to developing renewable energy as a component of our energy strategy and that will feature largely in the forthcoming White Paper, which I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome and support. We will certainly look to the response of the Liberal Democrats and other parties to see whether they back the commitment in general that they so often oppose in the particular.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the firefighters' strike goes ahead —we all hope that it will not—it is important that this House has the opportunity to debate it? Would he, therefore, be prepared to consider rearranging the business set down for next Thursday or even arranging for the House to sit next Friday so that a debate can take place?

Mr. Cook

No; I have only just announced the business for next week. Next Thursday's business is the fifth day that we usually give to a debate on defence and the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, it is warmly welcomed by many of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues. Therefore, I would not propose to disturb the arrangements that I have announced. The Government are fully seized of the gravity and importance of the situation with the firefighters dispute. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will wish to keep the House informed of our response and of developments in relation to it.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to the recent 20-plus earthquakes in the city of Manchester? While I do not ask him to take direct responsibility for them, there is one issue that I wish to raise with him. I wanted advice and spent considerable time ringing round Ministries, only to be told by each one that it did not consider the matter to have anything to do with it. It may well be that the advice from individual Departments was accurate—that others are better placed to give advice. Indeed, the best advice came from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, which said that there was little to worry about. Should there not be a one-stop access point for Members of Parliament and the public so that good quality advice on natural disasters can be available without having to chase round the whole system of Government?

Mr. Cook

I am immensely relieved that my hon. Friend does not lay ministerial responsibility for earthquakes at my door—[Interruption.] It is very kind of the House, but if hon. Members will forgive me I shall side-step that responsibility. In the first instance. the response to earthquakes rests with the local authority. I understand what has led my hon. Friend to ring round Whitehall and I concede that in the light of recent events we are faced with a development that we have not had to contemplate for many decades. It may be appropriate for the Government machine to consider whether there is any way that it can usefully meet the point that he raises. I will certainly consult my colleagues on it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early debate or statement on the position of the alleged terrorists held by the United States Government in Cuba, especially United Kingdom citizens, of whom there are a number? The House needs to know by what authority they are held, what their legal rights are and to what extent they have been afforded those rights, and what steps the Government have taken to ensure that UK citizens will either be charged soon or rapidly released.

Mr. Cook

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the British embassy in Washington has maintained consular interest in this matter and closely followed the case of British subjects at Guatanamo bay. Those who want to see progress will presumably welcome what has been decided in the past 24 hours in relation to the release of some of those there—[Interruption.] They happen not to be British citizens, but it is to miss the point not to recognise that there is movement, which should be welcome to all those concerned about the welfare of any of those in Guatanamo bay. Our position throughout has been and continues to be that if there are valid grounds on which those detained should be charged, they should be charged and brought to trial; if not, we expect them to be released.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that a very important debate is taking place this afternoon in Westminster Hall on the United Nations charter on the rights of the child. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that six children from Wales will be coming to the debate and will be meeting Welsh MPs to discuss their views on the charter. Does he agree that it is very important that Parliament is as accessible and as relevant to young people as possible? Will he undertake to do all that he can, as part of modernisation progress, to make sure that young people understand and freely come to Parliament?

Mr. Cook

I am very interested to hear of the events taking place in the precincts to which my hon. Friend refers. In the report of the Modernisation Committee, we deliberately put at the front of it our commitment to making Parliament more accessible to the public. In particular, we need to get across the message that this is not simply an interesting, historic building, but the functioning heart of British democracy. It is particularly important that we carry that message to young people at the present time, given the opportunity that is presented to us by citizenship education in schools, and given our need as Members of Parliament to make sure that turnout among young people improves at the next general election.

Andrew George (St. Ives)

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Government's proposals for devolution of power to the regions? A written answer to me last week from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which appeared at column 875W of Hansard, clearly demonstrated that there were many more responses to the Government's White Paper in favour of a Cornish regional assembly than there were for the whole of the rest of the country. I am sure that the Leader of the House will understand from his distinguished involvement in devolution issues that it would be wrong for the Government to feel that they can devolve to synthetic places created for bureaucratic convenience rather than to do so with the identity of the people of such regions clearly in mind.

Mr. Cook

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not step into the minefield of where we draw the boundaries on the map. The whole point of the regional White Paper was to leave it to regions to decide voluntarily whether they wish to proceed down the road of regional government. It sounds from what the hon. Gentleman says as though many of his constituents would wish to respond enthusiastically to the offers that we are making to them, from which they can develop regional government for their area. I am confident—I hope that this pleases him—that there will be opportunities in the next Session to debate this matter at some length.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, since 11 September, one of the consequences of that terrible day has been a sharp increase in insurance premiums across the world. Recently, I have been made aware by several construction firms in my constituency that their insurance premiums—especially for personal injury insurance—have gone through the roof. In the case of one personal injury policy for which a firm applied, the premium per annum increased from £19,000 to more than £100,000. The events of 11 September have been given as an excuse but, to me, this sounds like profiteering by the insurance industry. Can we have a debate on the matter or, failing that, a statement from a Treasury Minister, so that we can examine what the insurance industry is up to and what measures can be taken to make sure that firms are not put out of business by such actions?

Mr. Cook

I understand the concern of the businesses in my hon. Friend's constituency. The Government have always placed great stress on the importance of making sure that there is free and transparent competition as a means of keeping down prices and avoiding excessive profiteering. I am sure that my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry will be very interested in discussing with him the experience in his constituency to consider whether, in this case, the market is operating in a way that protects the consumer.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

When the Leader of the House arranges future business, will he bear in mind the fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer functioning, and endeavour to arrange more sittings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee than we have had in the past year, perhaps including a session of questions before the main debate, and allowing provision for an Adjournment debate at the end? I hope, too, that he will arrange at least one sitting in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to commit myself on how we might arrange the internal business of the Grand Committee, but I accept fully the hon. Gentleman's point that the cessation of the Northern Ireland Assembly means that we will be required to make sure that adequate opportunity is provided for Northern Ireland Office Ministers to be held to account for the exercise of the functions and duties that we have imposed on them. We will, of course, keep that under review. I very much hope that we will be able to restore the peace process and ensure that the current situation is a temporary interlude and not a new permanent arrangement.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the person charged with running the 2001 census should be able to count and that, to that end, Mr. Len Cook has failed miserably to get his sums his right? To take just one example, there are more people in Manchester who are registered to vote and who are registered to pay council tax and council rents than Mr. Cook counted when he carried out the census. That has profound implications for the planning of public services beyond those that will be considered in the next debate. Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate this important matter?

Mr. Cook

I am always distressed to hear that any namesake of mine has not satisfactorily mastered his arithmetic and mathematics. My hon. Friend has made his point, but I understand that the figures to which he referred relate to an interim stage of the process. I am quite sure that, before the final version comes out, both the points that he has made and others will he fully taken on board.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the situation in Zimbabwe is catastrophic and getting worse. We heard yesterday the tragic news that Learnmore Jongwe, a sitting Member of Parliament and spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, died in custody at the age of 28. More than 200 MDC officials, including a number of MPs, are still in custody. We heard today that, in order to appease the Mugabe regime, the EU has been bullied into moving a meeting with the Southern African Development Community from Copenhagen to Mozambique. Do the Government care about the tragic situation in Zimbabwe? If so, surely we should have a statement very soon.

Mr. Cook

Of course, the Government are fully seized of the deep gravity of the situation in Zimbabwe, about which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have, on many occasions, addressed the House. We have imposed all the sanctions that we readily can without deepening the suffering of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe. Indeed, only last Tuesday, I presided over a meeting of the Privy Council in which we added another 57 names to those from Zimbabwe on the banned travel list. I am not familiar with the EU meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I do not see anything particularly sinister in a development meeting being held in a region where development is discussed.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Does my right hon. Friend consider that the House should debate the growing anti-semitism coming from official Arab publications, some of which are available in this country? I refer to issues such as holocaust denial, the repetition of blood libels and the comparison of recent difficulties in Bethlehem with the crucifixion. Does he consider that this poses great dangers to civil liberties and has implications for our foreign policy?

Mr. Cook

I fully agree with my hon. Friend that we must condemn anti-semitism wherever it occurs and, wherever it occurs within British jurisdiction, we must make sure that the law is upheld and that no group has to witness statements that could inflame racial hatred or that might be an incitement to racial violence. I entirely concur that no such statement—whether it is against the Jewish or any other community—should be tolerated.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

In view of the suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland, how do the Government see Northern Ireland legislation being dealt with in the House? Such legislation would previously have gone through the Northern Ireland Assembly, so will he undertake that proper time will be given for due and adequate scrutiny and debate of such legislation? On Question Time, will he undertake that the amount of time allowed for questions to the Northern Ireland Office will be reconsidered so that we have more time to call Ministers in that Department to account?

Mr. Cook

If domestic legislation for Northern Ireland of the kind that previously went through the Assembly is required, we must make sure that it is fully scrutinised in accordance with the procedures and customs of the House. However, the House cannot pretend that it can fully replicate the length and depth of scrutiny that is available through the Assembly. Therefore, the sooner we get back on track and get the Assembly back into being, the better for all.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the widely trailed suggestion that the Government are proposing to abolish the higher rate tax relief on pensions, which is over and above the annual £4 billion to £5 billion raid on pensions that has been under way for several years? We have heard much in recent days about the way in which the Government have failed young people—school students—at the start of their careers. Perhaps we need to hear more about what they are doing to pensioners at the end of their careers.

Mr. Cook

It is always good to end on the last question asked by the Opposition by trying to make an hon. Member happy, and I think I can relieve the hon. Gentleman of his anxieties. Treasury Ministers have made no decision on, and are not even considering, such a proposal. The hon. Gentleman should not believe all he reads in the Conservative newspapers.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, its Members are being paid £29,000 for not going to work? Does he think that the firefighters should get the money instead?

Mr. Cook

There are serious issues relating to the firefighters' dispute, which is why we have urged them to go to a review that will consider pay and conditions together. As for those who are suspended and being paid, the same rule applies to Assembly Members as to firefighters: we are anxious to get back on track and end the dispute. The Government would not wish to take any action that we would inflame either situation.