HC Deb 31 October 2002 vol 391 cc1001-16 12.32 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 for next week will be as follows:

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 be asked to consider any Lords amendments which may be received and have not been debated on a preceding day of the week.

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

The House will be aware that we will reconvene on Wednesday 13 November to hear the Queen's Speech and the next business statement will be on Thursday 14 November.

I am pleased that following the motion that was carried on Tuesday—

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Only just—seven votes.

Mr. Cook

It was carried to acclamation, may I tell the hon. Gentleman, with a just majority that any of us would settle for. I am now announcing for the first time a Commons calendar for a whole year. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful for support on both sides of the House.

We plan to rise for the Christmas recess on Thursday 19 December and return on Tuesday 7 January. For the half-term week, the House will rise on Thursday 13 February and return on Monday 24 February. I am grateful for the attention of the House; I do not usually encounter such silence when I address it—[Laughter.] For Easter, we will rise on Thursday 10 April, and that will he combined with the constituency week, with the House returning on Monday 28 April. For Whitsun, we will rise on Thursday 22 May and return on Tuesday 3 June. For the summer recess, the House will rise on Thursday 17 July and return on Monday 8 September. Finally, for the conference recess, the House will rise on Thursday 18 September and return on Tuesday 14 October. I must repeat the health warning that while we on this side will use our best endeavours to meet those dates, our success in doing so will depend on the progress of business.

Mr. Forth

We are grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business for next week, and are particularly grateful that he has honoured his undertaking to tell us the dates for the year ahead—we all very much welcome that. In that context, something has just occurred to me. Does he anticipate that each of these Thursdays on which he has announced the House will rise will be normal business Thursdays, and that there will be a business statement? That would help me and the House generally.

While the right hon. Gentleman is in this looking-ahead mode, can he say anything about the pre-Budget report? Last year, we had quite a lot of notice of it. It is an important event that we all anticipate eagerly. If he cannot tell us now when it might be, perhaps he can undertake that we shall be given full and adequate notice of the report so that appropriate dispositions can be made.

Representations have been made to me about an overlap or conflict in business that appears in today's Order Paper. In the Chamber this afternoon, we are debating defence matters. Simultaneously, in Westminster Hall, there is a debate touching on matters related to terrorism and foreign policy. A number of my right hon. and hon. Friends—I suspect that this applies to Members throughout the House—have a great interest in both debates. It is especially unfortunate, therefore, that business of a similar nature has been scheduled in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall which will require many Members to make a difficult choice.

I make this plea to the Leader of the House: will he use his best endeavours to ensure that such overlap or conflict will not arise in future? Whatever our views about Westminster Hall may be—I suppose that even I must accept that it is now a permanent feature of our lives—please let it not become a negative rather than a positive in terms of what Members can do on the same day.

The Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill is in another place and. as the Leader of the House announced, it is about to head in our direction next week. The Bill has been hugely changed. I think that it is fair to say that it is now in a bit of mess. As a result, I gather that one of the measures that has been inserted in it is what we used to call in the trade a Henry VIII provision, although I understand that it goes even further than that. In other words, such a mess has been made of the Bill that the Government had to insert in it something to this effect: "If we discover that it is unworkable in future, we can change it at will without having to return to the House."

Given those factors, will the Leader of the House give me an undertaking that we shall have enough time fully to scrutinise the changes that were made in another place and to deal with the very broad provision that has been inserted in the Bill? I hope that he can, and that we will not, even at this late stage in the Session, be forced to truncate or restrict our scrutiny of the Bill, important as it is in its own right but even more so because of the provisions that have been inserted in another place.

The changes that we voted for the other day will be new to us all, especially the 11.30 am start and the 7 pm finish. I ask the Leader of the House to give a guarantee to the House that we shall always have Secretaries of State in the Chamber for departmental questions and other related business at 11.30 am each day, and that we shall not start in any circumstances to have excuses being made such as, "Well, it was a bit inconvenient" or, "The Secretary of State had to be elsewhere" or, "There was something else happening", particularly if it happened to be in a media studio or something of that kind. I think that I am making a reasonable request to the right hon. Gentleman that he instruct his fellow members of the Cabinet that they will be in the Chamber at 11.30 am every day to answer to the House, with no backsliding.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the annual calendar that we have brought in. I believe that it will enable right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to plan more effectively for the use of their time in their constituencies. In the spirit of amity, I was much distressed to see in today's edition of the Daily Mail that he was described as dressing like a Victorian undertaker out for a day at the races". I thought that grossly unfair to the right hon. Gentleman, who brings colour to our lives. I urge him to pay no attention either to that or any of the other points in the Daily Mail.

On the pre-Budget report, I anticipate that it will take place at roughly the same time this year as it has done in previous years. Plainly, it is important that the official Opposition and other parties get good notice of it. If it is not possible for me to do that through the business statement, we will certainly ensure that it is done through other channels.

The debate in Westminster Hall is, strictly speaking, on international terrorism; the debate in the Chamber is on domestic defence. I am conscious, though, of the point that the right hon. Gentleman makes. We are obligated to have the debate in the Chamber today because, under the present agreement, we are obligated to have five days for defence debates in the House each Session, and we must get it in this week if we are to meet that obligation. We will try to avoid such a coincidence in future. I warmly welcome the fact that his observation on Westminster Hall is the kindest that he has yet brought himself to make about it. [Interruption.] I would not wish to hear that the right hon. Gentleman was mellowing. That would be a great disappointment to all of us.

On the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, the House will have a full day to debate those matters next week, and I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about the importance of making sure that the time is available for that. There is a big set of issues before us that day, to which the Government attach the greatest importance. I hope that Opposition Members who have spent the past year demanding vigorous action from the Government on asylum will not undermine their own statements by failing to support the Government in the vigorous action that is contained in the Bill.

Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman invited me to make an instruction to my colleagues in the Cabinet. If he will forgive me, I shall try to find more emollient, less challenging language. Of course, I totally endorse his view that the first call on any Secretary of State must be to be in the House to answer questions here, and I think that that will remain the case. I cannot exclude the possibility that, from time to time, there may be occasions when the House would recognise that there may be other competing calls—for instance, the necessity sometimes to represent Britain's case in European Council meetings. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] Opposition Members would be the first to criticise us if any of my colleagues let the British case go unstated on such important occasions. With those very few limited exceptions, yes, of course the first call on any Secretary of State will be to be in the Chamber for Question Time, and I do not anticipate that the change in time will make any difference to that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

The Leader of the House has given us details of the debates on the Queen's Speech. May I draw his attention to an apparent anomaly? Although we debate at great length the contents of the Queen's Speech, it seems that we are not permitted to be given the Government's views on the status and format of that speech. Will he comment on the report in The Times yesterday headlined "Courtiers move to let the Queen speak her mind"? Is there any intention for future years, if not for this year, to disentangle the Government's declaration of their intentions from the direct statement from the sovereign?

On the modernisation package that was approved by the House on Tuesday evening, will the Leader of the House correct the impression given, perhaps inadvertently, by the Conservative spokesman that business will end at 7 pm? Does he accept that the motion that we passed refers to the moment of interruption, and that it would be possible, for example, to have private Member's business after 7.30 pm or whenever the Adjournment has taken place, or before the Adjournment? There are possibilities there.

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to Hansard's report of the proceedings last night, when the right hon. Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), speaking from the Back Benches, gave a lively performance? I do not know whose hospitality fuelled it, but it was certainly lively. Has the Leader of the House subsequently seen in The Daily Telegraph this morning that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is described by one of his senior colleagues as being "out of control"? Will he deprecate any statement that any right hon. or hon. Member should be under anybody's control, let alone the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, who is famous for his independence of mind, and let alone under the control of his leader?

Mr. Cook

I can well understand why the right hon. Gentleman's leader might wish to bring him back under control. I read in my copy of The Daily Telegraph this morning over breakfast—always the first paper to which I turn—that he has been saying that he has 80 Conservatives ready to sign a motion of no confidence in his leader. If true, that would certainly worry his leader, as I understand that it would take only 90 votes to carry such a motion. However, it is not for me to pry into that interesting and mysterious relationship.

On the Queen's Speech, I also read the article to which the hon. Gentleman referred and I was, frankly, rather mystified by it. We have no plans to change the nature of the Queen's Speech and I am not aware of any proposal from the palace that it be changed. The speech will continue within the broad parameters that it has, by convention, followed for a long time.

The hon. Gentleman was right in his observations about what happens at 7 pm. I tried to draw attention to the issue in my winding-up speech on Tuesday night. We have moved forward by three hours the start and close of the proceedings of the House. I deprecate newspaper reports suggesting that we have cut our hours. We have not done so; the hours of debate remain constant. What we have moved forward is the time at which the main business comes to a close, when there is a moment of interruption before any other business may begin. During this Session, we have become accustomed to not taking other business after the moment of interruption, but as I said on Tuesday, I cannot guarantee that that will always happen. However, I am conscious that the House voted on Tuesday for an earlier start and finish and I caution hon. Members against already starting to unpick that only two days later.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

On the decisions that we made on Tuesday, will the Leader of the House commit to having the widest possible consultation with hon. Members about the practical mechanisms for implementing them? People are not clear and they have views. The widest possible discussion will enable those new arrangements to work well.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but before I deal with her point, may I return to an issue raised by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), which I regret having overlooked? It would be my intention to have business statements on the Thursdays to which he referred. If that should change for any reason, we will ensure that he is informed. The reason why we will have no business statement next Thursday is not that the House is adjourning, but that it is the last day of the Session, so technically, I have no other business to announce for the Session. However, since the dates that I announced will all fall in the same Session, I anticipate that a business statement would normally be made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) made an important point. I intend to write to all hon. Members setting out the implications of Tuesday's decisions, how we will proceed with them and when they will come into effect. Of course, I am happy to consult Members and staff to ensure that their introduction is as smooth as possible and also as consensual as possible, consistent with the fact that the House reached a decision. I hope that, over the next year, we can arrive at a situation in which all Members believe that they voted for the changes, even if they did not do so.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the air travel trust fund operated by the Civil Aviation Authority is £9 million in debt, and that, in reply to a question that I asked about the issue, one of his right hon. Friends offered to find space in parliamentary time for the introduction of primary legislation enabling the application of a levy to the industry to make good the debt? Is he further aware that no such time has been made available? If a major charter company went bankrupt, there would be severe difficulties in returning affected passengers to this country. Will he therefore enlighten the House as to whether there will be space in the Queen's Speech and time in the next legislative Session for that primary legislation to be put before the House?

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Lady knows, we are about to reconvene for the Queen's Speech and hear a full list of the primary legislation that may be introduced. I can assure the House that we are in for a very full and busy Session. On the specific point that she raises, I would be happy to draw her comments to the attention of the colleague to whom she referred and ensure that it is discussed directly with her.

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

Is the Leader of the House aware that I am deeply disturbed—[Laughter.] Is he aware that I am deeply concerned about the reports to which he referred, in today 's Daily Mail and in The Daily Telegraph, about a right hon. Member who looks like a Victorian undertaker? In view of that concern, will he consider arranging a debate, preferably next week, which he and his shadow would lead, on the importance to parliamentary democracy of effective opposition?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend is being mischievous, albeit very entertainingly so. Of course, it is for the Opposition to decide on proceedings in the days for debate on the Queen's Speech—we will have six days' full debate—and it would be immensely welcome if they were to have the courage to initiate a debate along the lines that he suggests.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Is it by design that the Government have announced that on 17 February next year, when congestion charging is introduced in London, Members of Parliament will not be here to experience the suffering?

Will the Leader of the House deal with the serious anxieties of those who have fleet vehicles and are subject to the fourth EU insurance directive? Regulations under that directive have to come into effect on 20 January next year, which has enormous implications. I understand that they have not yet been drafted. When will they be laid before the House? Will there be an opportunity for proper debate and consultation with the people affected before 20 January?

Mr. Cook

I assure hon. Members that congestion charges were not uppermost in our minds when we chose the dates for the recess. Hon. Members will, of course, return afterwards when they are in place. I shall take up the on the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised with the relevant Department and ensure that we try to get the text deposited with the House as soon as possible. We have always tried to make sure that we have the text of European documents and legislation as early as possible Sometimes the reason for the delay does not lie on this side of the channel, but I will pursue the matter so that hon. Members can consider the directive as soon as possible.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will the Leader of the House get the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on national health service consultants' rejection this morning of the wicked Government's terrible offer? It would have required them to work a 40-hour week and sometimes to work at weekends. It would have stuffed their mouths with gold by expecting them to accept a 20 per cent. increase in their pay. Is not that shocking treatment of NHS workers? What other group of workers would be expected to accept such an offer? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Secretary of State comes to the House today to defend his treatment of NHS consultants?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to remind hon. Members that consultants in Scotland voted for the contract. I share my hon. Friend's regret that consultants in Wales did not. He is right that the offer constituted an increase of 15 per cent. over consultants' careers. They have rejected a fair deal, which offered more time for NHS patients in return for more money. It had been negotiated with consultants' representatives and was recommended to them by the consultants' committee that negotiated the agreement. I regret that the profession has rejected it. The Government will look to work with consultants who want to work with us to improve patient care.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear, there can be no renegotiation of the package, there will be no more resources beyond the 15 per cent. already on the table, and we must not allow any veto on NHS reform in the interests of patients.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

When will a statement be made on the crisis in the fishing industry, given the overwhelming interest in the coastal communities and the thousands of jobs that are at stake? Perhaps the Leader of the House knows that the Scottish Minister in the Scots Parliament made a statement yesterday. As we speak, an SNP debate is taking place in the Scots Parliament.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall signing a document in 1998 that provided that the Scots Minister should lead UK delegations to Europe and the Council of Ministers when appropriate? When could that be more appropriate than when 80 per cent. of the jobs at stake are in Scotland? Yet we are met with obvious indifference; the UK Government will not even make a statement.

Mr. Cook

I acquit the Government of indifference about the matter. The concordat to which the hon. Gentleman referred has worked well—

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman asked me a question; he must bear with the answer even if he does not agree with it. The Scottish Executive would make no complaint of their involvement in work in Brussels. Their representatives work closely with the British embassy there.

I understand the importance of the issue to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and other fishing communities in Scotland. However, we must take account of scientific reality. In 30 years, cod landing has reduced from 741 tonnes to 41 tonnes a year. The scientific community tells us that we are in danger of the cod stocks disappearing. The issue is not whether we have some restraint or no restraint, but whether we have it now, when we can save the cod, or total restraint when we have finished off the cod for ever.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 14 million people in southern Africa face an acute food shortage. Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement to update the House on what action she is taking to assist those people? Will he also arrange for the House to be told what preparations are in hand in relation to Eritrea and Ethiopia, where I am told that a similar crisis is looming?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to remind my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be answering questions on Wednesday, and I am sure that we shall have an opportunity to discuss those points, among others, then. I remind the House that the Government have an excellent record on providing aid and assistance to Africa. Over the lifetime of this Government, we are increasing that aid by 50 per cent. That is a substantial help to many rural communities there, and is well ahead of the performance of any other major donor nation.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Can the Leader of the House say anything about the likely business when the House returns? Given that there is to be no business statement next week and that we have just voted for more certainty in our affairs, is it not perverse that, when we return, we shall not know the business for the second week back? Will he also confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not exempt from this new regime for certainty, and that there will be an early announcement of the date of the pre-Budget statement?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to remove any doubt that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues may have about the week after the Queen's Speech. That week will be dominated by the Queen's Speech. I have just referred to the fact that there will be six days of full debate on that matter, which takes us up to and includes the Wednesday of the next week. The topics for those debates are a matter on which he can address his Front-Bench colleagues, because the topics will be their call.

I have said already that I anticipate that the pre-Budget report will be given at broadly the same time this year as last year. Should it require any approach other than by me, I am sure that that will be made. We would not want such an important statement of the Government's success in having a sound economy to take place without adequate warning to the House.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

The Leader of the Opposition should be left alone. He has a very difficult job.

Following the decision taken on Tuesday, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the House of Commons section of the Palace of Westminster will remain open in the late evenings for meetings? It would be totally unacceptable if those facilities, which are used by many outside organisations—some in the Labour movement, obviously, and many outside it—were closed when the House is no longer sitting. I hope that all those facilities for meetings will remain open as they do at present.

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, I have stressed throughout that facilities in the House will continue to remain open even though the House may not be sitting. That includes the Library, refreshment facilities and, certainly, rooms for meetings. Indeed, if we adjust our hours in the way for which we voted on Tuesday, there may be even greater convenience and ease for meetings to take place on the premises when we do not require them ourselves.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

Will the Leader of the House arrange either a ministerial statement or a debate on the loss of power that many households in my constituency and many others—such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—have suffered following the gales at the weekend? Almost a thousand households in my constituency still had no power yesterday, and some were still being reconnected this morning. I understand that the power companies are saying that they should not pay compensation because this is an act beyond their means. Many homes in my constituency have also been without water for three or four days because there has been no power supply for the generators. The water companies are saying that they should not pay compensation because it was not their fault, but the fault of the electricity companies. Can we debate this matter at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Get rid of privatisation.

Mr. Cook

I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that not even he could blame the recent gales on privatisation. While I share his robust defence of our philosophy, we cannot on this occasion blame these circumstances on capitalism.

I fully sympathise with the distress and difficulty caused to the constituents of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) who have been deprived of their electrical supply. He underlines the extent to which, in modern society, so much of what we rely on depends on power being available. When that power supply is shut down, the effect is much more dramatic than it might have been in previous decades. If he will forgive me, I will not be drawn on the difficult legal question as to who is liable and who might be sued. That is a matter for lawyers, not politicians. I can assure him, however, that we are in close contact with the power authorities seeking to get restoration, and the information that I received this morning is that they anticipate that most of those who were still disconnected yesterday will be reconnected during the course of today.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart)

On Monday, my right hon. Friend and I took part in a debate on alleged abuses of the House of Commons by those Members who have not yet taken their seats. The charge was led by the shadow Leader of the House. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at media reports this morning that abuses of House facilities—namely, the Members' Tea Room have indeed been taking place this week, involving none other than the shadow Leader of the House, for nefarious party political purposes?

Mr. Cook

I am shocked to hear that the Tea Room is used for party political purposes. This is a very serious allegation, which I shall of course immediately discuss with the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider whether we should pursue it.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

Is the Leader of the House aware of the growing problems affecting the Government's consultation on airport policy? Of the documents involved, six remain unavailable to Members and those that have been published contain serious factual errors. On Saturday, a new exhibition will take place in my constituency, because of previous mistakes, and I understand that some of my constituents are seeking a judicial review of the consultation process. Given that, will he look carefully at early-day motion 1792?

[That this House notes with concern the consultation period of four months and that this equates to just seven parliamentary weeks; and calls upon the Government to extend,the period of consultation to the end of February 2003 to give more people a chance to respond.]

It seeks a short extension and is supported by Members on both sides of the House.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House early next week to explain what has gone wrong with the process and whether the Government will extend the consultation? I must tell the Leader of the House that this is a matter of rising concern among Members across the House, and I hope that he deals with it appropriately.

Mr. Cook

I understand the importance of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I shall certainly communicate with the Department for Transport on the importance of making available any documents that remain unavailable to the House. The consultation lasts four months, which, of course, exceeds the normal 12 weeks. The points that he raises underline the importance of consulting widely before moving to a decision, but whether there is room for any further delay would depend on how quickly we needed to reach that decision, and I suggest that it might not necessarily help all the communities affected if uncertainty were prolonged unnecessarily.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

The first Adjournment debate that I was ever granted in the House by Speaker Weatherill was about an underground fire in my constituency. Appropriately, it was granted on 5 November. May we have a debate, perhaps on that date, on the misuse of fireworks? Although we have had a debate in Westminster Hall, the matter is very serious and the arrangements for the manufacture, sale, distribution and use of fireworks have got seriously out of hand. Can the debate be broad enough to allow us to discuss fireworks advertisements, such as one which states: Start off your display with a 'noisy firework'. This could be a rocket or perhaps an air bomb battery."? It ends: Make sure that the finale is a spectacular setting of 2–3 of the loudest fireworks at once. Considerable misuse is taking place and it needs to be squeezed out.

Mr. Cook

On 5 November, the House is committed to debating the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, on which I anticipate there may be some harmless pyrotechnics in the Chamber. My hon. Friend raises a serious issue, however, and hon. Members in many constituencies will have seen its damaging effects on constituents when things go wrong. That is why the Government have launched a major publicity campaign to try to reduce tyhe mischievous and irresponsible use of fireworks, and why we have already committed ourselves to taking the necessary powers next year to ensure that the most harmful fireworks and those that are most misused are not available on general sale. He makes an important point, which I am sure will continue to be at the forefront of the House's deliberations, not just this year, but in future years.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), the airports policy consultation document offers a pro forma reply at the end, but does not Parliament need to be consulted on matters of such crucial significance to our constituents' welfare? As the right hon. Gentleman has rightly announced the outline of the parliamentary year ahead, can he give us any commitment to a full debate on airports policy before the end of the consultation on 29 November?

Mr. Cook

I do not think I can commit myself to a debate on any subject by 29 November. That would be within a week of the Queen's Speech, and as I said, we have a busy year ahead of us. I fully appreciate, however, that airports policy is a major issue, especially for constituencies that are directly affected. It is inconceivable that we could proceed without giving Parliament a full opportunity to question the relevant Minister and express its views.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

Like many other constituencies, South Derbyshire is troubled by the problem of illegal camping on public and private property, and the nuisance and dumping of waste that it often causes. In July the Government announced that they were considering measures to strengthen controls on this antisocial activity. Apparently the matter has been passed to the Home Office. Could my right hon. Friend persuade a Home Office Minister to come here and tell us what progress the Department has made?

Mr. Cook

I realise the enormous distress that is caused to many communities by illegal camping As my hon. Friend will know, the Government recognise that what often concerns our constituents most is low-level antisocial behaviour which, while it may not necessarily grab the headlines, can have a serious impact on local communities' quality of life. I will draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office, and ensure that they contact him about the progress they have made since the announcement.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

According to the published results of a Department of Education household consultation in Northern Ireland, only in the 50 most deprived of a total of 566 wards was there agreement that academic selection should end. Will the Leader of the House make time for the Northern Ireland Minister responsible for education to come and explain why, in a written answer given to me this week, she said the predominant view was that academic selection should be done away with? Surely that was misleading the House, and an apology should be made.

Mr. Cook

I confess that I am not familiar with the details, but I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of the relevant Minister and invite him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Knowing that my right hon. Friend would welcome a question about top-up fees, I thought I might give him one. Does he agree that the universities in the most financial difficulty are those with a high proportion of science and engineering students? It appears that the resources allocated to those courses are insufficient. My local university, the university of Hertfordshire, is about to close its physics department, having already closed its chemistry and civil engineering departments. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the matter is urgent, and that the House should have an opportunity to debate it fully as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook

I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his suggested reply, and look forward to an occasion when an education Minister may be able to respond to his question.

The Government are proud of having provided an extra £1,700 million for higher education. That represents a remarkable change from the policy of retention pursued by the last Government. We want to ensure that we have the best—world-class—higher education, with universities that can hold their own in the face of what is increasingly global competition. The purpose of the review that will be published shortly is to examine how we can ensure that universities have the necessary resources while also ensuring that even the poorest citizen can go to university.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Will the Leader of the House consider organising a statement by the Deputy Prime Minister early next week on urban policy, following the meeting that he is holding today? I am particularly concerned about the knock-on effects of urban policy on greenbelt issues. We in Sutton Coldfield have been very suspicious of the Deputy Prime Minister's views on the green belt since his outrageous overturning of an independent inspector's report on Peddimore in my constituency, which would have protected the green belt.

Mr. Cook

I do not want to pursue the hon. Gentleman down an individual planning decision. I fear that I would quickly end up in difficulty on what is proper and on what may be appropriate for the local community to comment on, but on the generality of the principle that he raises I remind him that this Government have increased the green belt rather than reduced it and that the thrust of the policy of the Deputy Prime Minister is to ensure that as much building as possible takes place on brownfield land, not on green land. We will continue to pursue that policy.

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), after the storms at the weekend a number of my constituents experienced power cuts. When they tried to contact the power supply companies, they were treated to a series of electronic voices followed by silence. I was under the impression that after the Tories pushed through privatisation attention to customer problems would be the top priority—in the marvellous new world of liberalisation, all that would be attended to. When will the Minister for Energy and Construction come to the House to tell us when the power industry will be renationalised and taken back into public hands—without compensation—or failing that, can we have a debate on the problems experienced in the supply of power to constituents such as mine?

Mr. Cook

I do not anticipate such a statement next week.

Of course, it is important that customers experiencing severe disruption to their supply should be able to get guidance, satisfaction and reassurance from the power authorities. I know that the Minister for Energy and Construction has been pursuing the power authorities to ensure that they respond well. Possibly after this week, when power has been restored to all consumers, it will be important that we sit down and learn the lessons of how the system operated this time.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland)

May I ask the Leader of the House to make time available soon for a debate on the recent spate of job losses in the offshore oil and gas industry? In my constituency there have already been job losses at Sullom Voe oil terminal, and more are threatened. Those losses are all part of a process that started with the tax changes that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in the Budget, without any warning to the industry. It is surely right and proper that he should come to the House to explain away the fruits of his labours.

Mr. Cook

To be fair, the Chancellor answers questions in the House regularly and there will be an opportunity for extended questioning to him on the pre-Budget report. Indeed, I anticipate that some of those issues will be relevant to whatever topics are nominated by the Opposition for debate following the Queen's, Speech. There will be a number of opportunities for the hon. Gentleman to pursue those matters.

I deeply sympathise with the distress that will be caused to the constituents of any hon. Member who face redundancy and change. However, we must view that in the context of the fact that, in Britain, 1.5 million more people are at work than when we came to office.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May I ask for an early statement or debate on the increasing problems of violence in cities? If the Leader of the House saw last week's television programme about violence in Nottingham, he will have been as struck as I was by the incidence of violent crime that is alcohol related and the incredible problems that both licensing justices and local authorities now have in managing social movements of people around watering hole establishments; it is on a scale and density that they no longer have the power to refuse. Can the House and the Government take the opportunity to look again at the powers that we need to restore to local authorities and licensing justices just to be able to say no to some of these developments?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises the issue of the link between violence and alcohol which is clear and borne out by the evidence and statistics. The House will have the opportunity to explore those matters in the event of legislation on alcohol licensing in the next Session. The important considerations that my hon. Friend has outlined need to be heard in those debates.

My own local authority has made substantial progress in reducing violence from alcohol, not so much by controlling the licences of outlets of alcohol but by ensuring that the fast food outlets shut at the same time as the pubs, a move which has dramatically reduced the number of fights in the fast food outlets.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the role and terms of reference of what is now known as the British Board of Film Classification? I would then have the opportunity to question her about an important article by the veteran film commentator and analyst, Christopher Tookey, in the Daly Mail on 24 October, when he pointed out that the Board's director of communications, Sue Clark, has announced that the BBFC is reluctant to censor any other films in the future. Its role, she said, is one of classification, not censorship. This change of role appears to mean that no violence or violent pornography, no matter how extreme, can ever be stopped or censored, but merely graded and classified. I should say, by way of declaring an interest, that when Chris Tookey, as he then was, was president of the Oxford Union some 30 years ago, he gave me my first paper speech to that assembly, so he could hardly be accused of being afraid to inflict gruesome and traumatic experiences on an unwary audience.

Mr. Cook

The mind boggles at what the hon. Gentleman hints at and I fear that anything I say will be an understatement. I will of course report his remarks to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and arrange to have a clarification of the point he raised sent to him.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

You will correct me if I am wrong, Mr. Speaker, but I believe that Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday was the first occasion since I was elected to the House last June when you did not call an elected Member from Northern Ireland. That follows—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will not discuss what I do or do not do at Prime Minister's Question Time.

David Burnside


Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. [Interruption.] It is not for the Leader of the House to decide whom I call at Prime Minister's Question Time.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

Tomorrow the consultation process on the future of air transport enters its final month. For the consultation to be meaningful, there has to be a large number of responses. Many consultation documents have gone out, but very few have been returned. Will the Leader of the House raise the issue with the Secretary of State for Transport to encourage as much response as possible in the final month of the consultation?

Mr. Cook

I will certainly raise with my right hon. Friend the interest that has been expressed in the consultation on airports policy. On the hon. Gentleman's point about the number of responses, I am not in a position to confirm or deny what he says but it is a frequent experience during consultation periods that many responses are received as the rush of the deadline approaches.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

The Leader of the House may be aware that tonight is Halloween. If he has any doubt, and if he looks through the papers today, he will see the witches looking into their cauldron and predicting the death of a Duncan. Will he ask the Home Secretary to make a statement next week, reviewing any extra police activity tonight, particularly to do with trick or treating? An extra police burden is created by children who terrorise older people by ringing their doorbells and throwing eggs. There is also a risk to young children who wander round the streets knocking on the doors of strangers. Will the Home Secretary look at Government policy on that? What advice is given to the police and to schools?

Hon. Members


Mr. Cook

I must confess that it had slipped my mind that tonight was Halloween, or I would have worked it into a reply earlier on. Halloween is an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of children up and down the country to indulge in innocent and friendly behaviour—[Interruption.] Perhaps even more innocent than the Whips. I would very much deprecate the action of a small number of children who, by behaving in an irresponsible and intimidating way, bring everybody under suspicion and make a wonderful occasion for children to enjoy into one of suspicion and anxiety in future years. I would appeal to all those going out tonight to enjoy themselves in such a way that those on whose doors they knock can enjoy the experience too.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have a debate entitled "The Enemy Within" and address it to political parties? Does the Leader of the House agree with early-day motion 1835?

[That this House notes with concern the recent publication by Britain in Europe which equates opposition to the euro with opposition to Labour; notes that Britain in Europe is itself a multi-party organisation which contains opponents of a Labour Government; further notes that the use of the term 'enemies' to describe opponents of either Labour or the euro is extreme, likely to discourage reasonable debate and is a reversion to the tribalism so often condemned by the Prime Minister; further notes, with pleasure, the establishment of Labour Against the Euro as a growing group of Labour parliamentarians who are opposed to Britain seeking to join the euro before the General Election, recognises that LATE represents the views of the majority of Labour voters and a growing number of Party members and trade unionists; further notes, with concern, that this Britain in Europe publication was circulated to all Labour Party members by the Labour Party itself, believes that allowing an outside organisation which contains known and prominent opponents to attack members of the Labour Party in a Labour Party mailing is a novel method of encouraging internal discussion; and further believes that if the House is to have a debate on the euro then it should have argument, passion and humour but no distortion, personal abuse or dubious pamphlets from Britain in Europe.]

Will he join his right hon. and hon. Friends who signed early-day motion 1835, pointing out the schisms in the Labour party?

Mr. Cook

In the light of this morning's press about the Conservative party, the hon. Gentleman has made a bold attempt to find schisms within the Labour party. May I assure him that there will be no need for us to have a specific debate on the enemy within? I hope that every week we will be able to discuss and debate the activities of the right hon. Gentleman who leads for the Opposition on these occasions.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute)

Earlier, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) referred to the report of the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas, which recommends the banning of trawling in the North and Irish seas, and off the west coast of Scotland. In his answer, the Leader of the House appeared to accept the report's accuracy. However, there is scientific opinion that contradicts the report and believes that the complete ban on trawling is unnecessary. In view of that divergence of views, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on the Floor of the House as soon as possible so that we can discuss the report and decide how best to convince the council that its ban on trawling, which would put 20,000 people out of work, is unnecessary?

Mr. Cook

It is a fact of any scientific proposal that someone in the scientific community will always have an alternative view. However, there is not much room for any doubt about the central proposition, which is that cod stocks are dwindling and that without action to retain them, the hon. Gentleman's constituents will, at some future time, face an outcome in which neither they nor their children will ever be able to resume fishing. If he really wants to look after the long-term interests of his constituents, I urge him to accept the need to ensure the conservation of fishing stocks.