HC Deb 27 February 2003 vol 400 cc401-23 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The business for next week will he as follows:

MONDAY 3 MARCH —Motion to approve the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Continuance in force of Sections 21 to 23) Order 2003, followed by debate on the Intelligence and Security Committee report on the terrorist bombings in Bali on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

TUESDAY 4 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Communications Bill.

WEDNESDAY 5 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Local Government Bill.

THURSDAY 6 MARCH—Debate to mark international women's day on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I suspect that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) will take an acute interest in that debate.

FRIDAY 7 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 10 MARCH— Conclusion of remaining stages of the Local Government Bill.

TUESDAY 11 MARCH—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee.

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

WEDNESDAY 12 MARCH Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill, followed by debate on Welsh Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 13 MARCH—The day will include a debate on flood and coastal defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House that was delayed from today.

FRIDAY 14 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for March will be:

THURSDAY 6 MARCH —A debate on weekend voting and increasing voter turnout.

THURSDAY 13 MARCH—A debate on the report from the Treasury Committee on the financial regulation of public limited companies.

THURSDAY 20 MARCH—A debate on the convention on the future of Europe.

THURSDAY 27 MARCH—A cross-cutting question session on older people, followed by a debate on the joint report of the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees on strategic export controls.

Mr. Forth

As ever, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the news, as far as it goes. However, why is there still complete silence from the Government on the Budget date? When will we hear the Budget day? One has to ask whether the Chancellor is Exchequer is so ashamed of what will be in his Budget that, in the spirit of Jo Moore, he will have to bury bad news under a war? Is that what is up? If it is not, surely it is time the Government and the Leader of the House came clean about what is going on and what is in the Chancellor's mind. When will we be told the Budget day? Not only do we in the House have to know, but everyone outside who is vitally interested in what is in the Budget should have time to prepare, to make representations to us and to be ready for the announcement. Please may we hear today when the Budget will be?

On 24 February, the Leader of the House was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) whether the Prime Minister would attend the debate on Iraq, which we held yesterday, so that he could listen to Members of Parliament and, not least, to Government Back Benchers. Rather to my astonishment, the Leader of the House said that the Prime Minister may have more important things to do over six hours than simply to sit in this place."—[Official Report, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 25.]

Do we now have a definitive statement about the Prime Minister's attitude to the House of Commons? Do we now, at last, have on the record what we have always suspected—that the Prime Minister does not see it as any part of his role to participate in the debate and to listen to his Back Benchers? I hope that the Leader will tell us that the Prime Minister will have another opportunity to come and listen to his own Back Benchers.

When we debated reform of the House of Lords, the Lord Chancellor told us that the genius that would give us the answers to the problems of Lords reform was the Joint Committee. The Leader said that he hoped that the Joint Committee would take up the matter and provide solutions that this House, sadly, had not been able to provide. I now hear—although I can scarce believe it—that the Joint Committee may be about to commit hara-kiri very shortly, by crashing itself on the rubble of the Government's policies on Lords reform. What will the Leader do, and what will he bring to the House, if the Joint Committee no longer exists by Easter? Given the emphasis that the Government have placed on the work of the Joint Committee, we need to know how its work will continue if it decides that it no longer has anything relevant to offer?

On 24 February, a reply was given to parliamentary question 637, which had been tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). He had asked the Prime Minister which Minister had given final approval for the publication of the dodgy dossier. Well, the question actually calls it the UK dossier on Iraq of September 2002. The answer given to my hon. Friend was: This was a Government document cleared in the normal way."—[Official Report,24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 254W.]

Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you will agree that was not a full or satisfactory answer. My hon. Friend has tabled another question: To ask the Prime Minister, what the procedure was for approving and publishing the dossier entitled Iraq—Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation; and which minister had ultimate responsibility for its contents. If the Leader cannot answer that question today, will he provide an opportunity—urgently—for the House to pursue this matter, so that we may ask, yet again, on whose authority this crucial document, on which the Government place so much emphasis in their policy on Iraq, was published? We are surely entitled to know. Was it the Prime Minister? Was it the Foreign Secretary? Or was it Alastair Campbell? At the very least, we must be told what is going on.

Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary said that we are not seeking a mandate for military action today, because the Government have not yet got to that point. If we do reach that point, we will come back and seek a vote, through a debate in this House, on a substantive motion."—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 270.]

On Radio 4 this morning, I was astonished to hear the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, no less—she had presumably been put up by the Government to speak on their behalf—waffle when asked by John Humphrys the specific question: Will there be an explicit prior vote before military action? She said: We will try to keep in touch with the Commons. She then said: There is no precedent for explicit prior votes. She went on to make references to Churchill and Thatcher, which I found flattering and reassuring. She then said: We must give no prior notice to the enemy, and referred to troops in action and so on.

There is a key question on which we need clarification—and if we cannot get that clarification, we will need a re-run of the debate so that we can find out the answer. What is the Government's view on this matter? We have the Foreign Secretary saying one thing one day and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs saying something quite different the following day. Is there a Government view on this crucial matter? If so, what is it?

Mr. Cook

Let me deal with the last point first, as it a matter of the gravest concern.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Speak up.

Mr. Cook

I am very sorry. I would not wish any hon. Member on the Opposition Benches to miss a word of what I say.

There is no doubt whatsoever about where the Government stand on this question. I have in front of me the transcript of what was said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The right hon. Gentleman did not quote the continuation of what she said, which was: We will continue to consult with the House of Commons. This Government have a good record in coming back to the House repeatedly on questions to do with Iraq or any other security issues. I also have in front of me what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday.

Mr. Forth

I have just quoted from it.

Mr. Cook

I merely anticipated that this was a matter most likely to be raised by the right hon. Gentleman and, as always, I was correct. In terms of predicting the points that he will raise, I am happy to tell the House that we usually are correct. What the Foreign Secretary said yesterday was: It is as much in the Government's interest as it is in the paramount interest of the House that we should do that— that is, come to the House with a substantive motion— before the start of any ostilities."—[OfficialReport, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 265.]

That could not be clearer, and I hope that it will give reassurance to the House. It is certainly our intention that we shall come back to the House and that the House will have further opportunities to vote on any second resolution that may emerge from the Security Council or on the need for military action by the Government.

I do not think that it assists the right hon. Gentleman in what I understand to be the support of the Opposition for the Government's strategy constantly to snipe from the sidelines.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

The right hon. Gentleman has to make up his mind. Does his party support the Government's strategy or is it trying to score party political points at every possible opportunity?

On the issue of the Budget, we have just had one hour of questions to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Bercow

Too short.

Mr. Cook

It could quite possibly be too short. We shall look again at whether we can have two hours rather than one. The point remains, however, that in the course of that full hour with the Chancellor not a single Member raised the question of the date of the Budget, from which I draw the conclusion that those Members who are most interested in Treasury matters have a more mature approach to this than the right hon. Gentleman. I also recall that the Opposition undertook to send to the Chancellor their full statement on how they were going to achieve their 20 per cent. cut in public spending. I reminded the right hon. Gentleman of that when he last asked this question. I shall do a deal with him. When the Opposition convince us that they have a credible plan for cutting public spending by 20 per cent., we shall certainly make sure that there is a Budget for them to grouse about.

On the issue of the Prime Minister's attendance at the debates on Iraq, he has made a full statement on the matter and has answered questions for more than an hour in this place. It was absolutely right that he should do so, and he was keen to do so. He also addressed the House at Prime Minister's questions, as is normally the case. In addition, just before the last recess, he took two hours with the Liaison Committee, and their deliberations were predominantly on Iraq. There can be no suggestion whatever that the Prime Minister has in any way ducked his responsibility to brief the House and to face scrutiny in the House on the question of Iraq.

My response on Monday was to the proposal that he should stay here for the full six hours of the debate. Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that, if we are honest about this, neither he nor I sat here for the full six hours. Indeed, I believe that I am right in saying that the Leader of the Opposition did not do so either. We fully understand why the Leader of the Opposition might have been busy in the course of those six hours, and we would very much welcome a full account of just how many of his Back Benchers he had to stroke during that time.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform might be about to commit hara-kiri. The prospect of Lord Howe or the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) committing hara-kiri is too awful to contemplate, and I am therefore happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that he is mistaken on this matter. The Committee will meet again in four weeks' time, and may then consider producing a report. We shall wait and see what the outcome is, and I suggest that it might be premature for the Government to offer a view in anticipation of that.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

There is a widespread view in all parts of the House that we need an urgent debate on the so-called special relationship between Britain and the United States and, specifically, the Bush Administration. That relationship seems to have become a one-way street, by contrast with previous such relationships. We all know that the healthiest relationships are two-way. May I draw to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman, in case he did not note them—and I am sorry that the Prime Minister did not hear them—the powerful concerns expressed yesterday by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe? He said: I am not alone in having heard and met American politicians of great distinction who gave the impression that a change of regime in Iraq was determined upon long ago and that the use of military force in a pre-emptive strike was justified in order to achieve that."—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 294.]

Does the Leader of the House recognise that a preemptive strike in the interests of regime change is a dangerous new doctrine that, if applied elsewhere in the world, would cause complete international chaos? Does he not see an apparent contradiction between the views of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and what the Prime Minister told the House on Tuesday in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy)? He said: The argument about regime change has not changed. I have always said that the purpose of any action has got to be the disarmament of Iraq of weapons of mass destruction."—[Official Report,25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 130.]s Yesterday, in answer to an intervention, the Foreign Secretary made a similar point. He said that: the focus of 1441 is not regime change per se, but the disarmament of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction."—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 2721

I am sure that, as a former Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House read the text of last night's address by President Bush with care. It was all about regime change: it spelled it out in awful detail. It would seem that President Bush is bent on a course that is completely at odds with the proposals put to us, and the reassurances given by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.

I wonder, too, whether the debate I have requested might give us an opportunity to examine carefully the reliability of US intelligence sources. Given the extraordinary mistaken identity case of Mr. Derek Bond, the Leader of the House might care to speculate whether the FBI is now mistaking either the Archbishop of Canterbury or him for Osama bin Laden in disguise.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that I followed that last sentence, but I am sure the whole House will feel for Derek Bond after his ordeal. I understand that he is considering what legal remedies are available to him, but it would not be appropriate for us to comment on that.

The Government's policy on Saddam is absolutely clear. The Government are responsible for their position and not for any other position—their position being that force must be only a last resort, but must be available if a last resort is needed.

I think the question that the hon. Gentleman's party will have to face some day is this: in the event that the inspectors do report that they are not receiving adequate co-operation, and in the event that that is followed by a second Security Council resolution, will the Liberal Democrats remain willing to support the position they appeared to take last autumn when resolution 1441 was passed—that the will and authority of the United Nations must be upheld, even if that requires the use of force as a last resort? That is our position; it is perfectly clear, and we would welcome similar clarity from the hon. Gentleman's party.

I personally found much to welcome in what President Bush said yesterday about the middle east peace process. I hope that after the Iraq crisis is resolved substantial priority will be given to making progress in the middle east, based on the two important requirements mentioned by President Bush yesterday—the creation of a viable and independent Palestinian state, and an end to all settlement construction.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I raise the question of the dossier—dodgy or otherwise, but deemed sufficiently important to be praised by general Colin Powell in his worldwide television broadcast? Yesterday I asked the Foreign Secretary: As a question of fact and before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of documents, did the dossier that owed so much to that Californian student have the authority of Peter Ricketts and the Joint Intelligence Committee? Did the Joint Intelligence Committee authorise that dossier?"—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 266.]

My right hon. Friend replied that Peter Ricketts had not been there for two years, but the Library supplied me with a document that confirmed that he was certainly there in September 2002—and confirmed, before I mentioned it, that he was still responsible for the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Be that as it may, let me now ask a direct question. Was this document authorised by John Scarlett and other members of the Joint Intelligence Committee? Did it have their imprimatur?

Mr. Bercow

Yes or no? Now!

Mr. Cook

It is terribly kind of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) to back up my hon. Friend, but I am not a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee. I no longer see its papers, nor would I expect to do so. I have the highest personal regard for both John Scarlett and Peter Ricketts, with whom I have worked in the past and who are men of integrity and intelligence. I am not in a position to say one way or the other whether the document was cleared by the committee, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and invite him, if he can, to add to what he said in the House yesterday.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Secretary of State for Transport this morning unveiled a consultation paper on aviation and airport development. It is based on the discredited "predict and provide" approach to planning and, incidentally, threatens massive and unsustainable environmental damage to my constituency and to the area surrounding Gatwick airport. Will the Leader of the House promise an early opportunity for the House to debate this important consultation paper, so that all opinions can be aired?

Mr. Cook

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the initial consultation document did not include Gatwick and the surrounding area because an undertaking was given to the residents of Gatwick some time ago that we would not return to the expansion of Gatwick. The courts ruled against the Government on that question, which is why we have been obliged to reissue the consultation document with the inclusion of Gatwick. However, I do not anticipate that the final policy judgments will be made by the courts that gave that ruling; they will be made within the Government, and will be subject to all the various considerations, including previous commitments given to the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and to those living around Gatwick.

It is very important that we look at this issue in the round, and that we achieve a strategic perspective on where future aviation provision should be. I fully endorse what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said this morning on the radio. The one thing that must unite all the communities affected by the consultation is that we need to reach a decision—as quickly as we reasonably can, and consistent with that consultation—and remove the blight that may otherwise affect many of those areas.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)

Bearing in mind the fact that some £80 million of European Union money and a further £10 million of British Government money has gone into Palestine and the occupied territories in the past 12 months to help humanitarian projects, is it not time that we considered an urgent statement in the House on whether some of that money has effectively been destroyed by military incursions by the Israeli military, and whether, as a result, we need to approach the Israeli Government to get compensation for the European Union and the British Government?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that compensation would offer a fruitful avenue of dialogue. However, we certainly have maintained considerable dialogue with the Israeli Government, through the European Union and bilaterally, on the importance of responding to the humanitarian position in the Palestinian territories, and of assisting the Palestinian Authority in the economic development of its people. All Members of the House must be acutely concerned at the very serious and mounting evidence of the humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territories. It cannot assist the peace process if the people of Palestine find that their own lives are becoming increasingly difficult in economic terms, and if there is increasing evidence of malnutrition among their children. We are more likely to achieve progress towards peace if the local people themselves can see that progress is being made on the ground in terms of their quality of life.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I should remind the House that questions to the Leader of the House should relate to the business that has been announced for the next fortnight. Some of the questions are straying much wider than that, so I offer that reminder on this occasion.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

I wonder whether, despite the very busy schedule that the Leader of the House has announced, he can find a little time for a debate entitled "Government websites and their role in the democratic process". In 2000, the Prime Minister came to my constituency and announced that the Government would resurface the A30 between Honiton and Exeter—an issue that I have raised in three separate parliamentary debates, exchanged correspondence on and tabled written questions about. I recently received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson). He informed me that I must scan the Highways Agency website, apparently at random, in order to find out as and when the Government decide to answer this question. That is unacceptable, and I have told him so. I hope that the Leader of the House is as concerned as I am that the random scanning of Government websites is now part of our democratic process.

Mr. Cook

May I first thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your ruling to the House, which, if observed, would indeed be a procedural innovation on Thursdays? I should like, if I may, to look at the detail of what the hon. Lady says, but I would plainly want Members of the House to have a full and helpful reply. Sometimes Government websites can themselves be a source of great information and assistance—

Mr. Forth

No, never!

Mr. Cook

I am not quite sure with what authority and personal experience of websites the right hon. Gentleman expresses his view, but I shall certainly try to ensure that the hon. Lady receives as full a reply as possible.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Did not yesterday's debate again demonstrate that all those who say that the House of Commons is no longer important are talking nonsense and have been proved wrong? Is it not important that, during future debates on the same subject, we avoid giving the wrong signals to the bloody tyrant in Baghdad about our determination, as part of the international community, that disarmament must take place or he must face the consequences?

Mr. Cook

It is very important that Saddam Hussein fully understand that all who took part in yesterday's debate, however they may have voted at the end of it, want him to comply with his obligations under the United Nations Security Council; indeed, there would be a very substantial body of support in the House for making sure that the authority of the United Nations is upheld.

I agree with my hon. Friend about yesterday's debate demonstrating to the world outside the importance of Parliament as the crucible in which the major issues of the nation, and the major challenges of international affairs, are fought out. Although not every article that appeared in this morning's papers would necessarily have been written by the Government Information and Communications Service, it is worth noting that those acres of comment and editorial were possible only because we moved the vote forward to seven o'clock in the evening.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I ask the Leader of the House to have a look at column 257 of yesterday'sHansard, where the Prime Minister says: What is more, people should go to university based on their merit, whatever their class or background."—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 257.] The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) said a few days ago: I approve of the actions of Bristol university and others who are trying to attract students who have potential to learn. He appears to be completely out of control: he is a bull in a china shop, and is still fighting the class war. Will the Leader of the House have a word with him and ensure that he talks to the Prime Minister, so that the Government have a coherent policy on this very important issue?

Mr. Cook

Of course, it is very important that the Government have a coherent policy, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that all members of the Government are united in our determination to ensure that we widen access to university for people of all social classes. There is an issue that does need to be addressed. On entry to the top universities in Britain, it is interesting to note that 7 per cent. of entrants came from the state school population, and 39 per cent. came from independent schools. I do not believe that the relative balance between entry from independent schools and from state schools actually matches—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I do not believe that the small proportion of the population who go to independent schools actually account for 40 to 50 per cent. of the merit of our young population. That is why we have said that it is very important that we widen access and ensure that people are admitted on merit, but admitted fairly on merit.

I should also point out to the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) that this Government have widened access to universities for all social classes. Whether in terms of independent schools or state schools, access has increased under this Government. It is not this Government but his party that is proposing that entry to university be capped for everybody.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

I express to my right hon. Friend my regret that today's business was not adjusted to allow for an oral statement on the runway capacity consultation paper that was published today. Can we adjust the business of the House over the next fortnight accordingly? The House was given an undertaking that the new document would contain information on Gatwick, which it does. However, we were also told that it would be updated to include, for example, information from the royal commission on environmental pollution—the Government's own commission—which identified the air pollution risk to my constituents and others. We also believed that the new material would take into account the terrorist threat of surface-to-air missile attacks on aircraft, particularly on those landing and taking off at Heathrow, which would have an impact on the entire capital. However, today's document takes neither of those issues into account. May I ask for a statement in the House within the next fortnight, or, failing that, a commitment to a statement in June, at the end of the consultation period?

Mr. Cook

I know the enormous importance of the issue to my hon. Friend's constituents and I fully understand the close interest that he therefore takes in the matter. That will not be the last word from the Government on the subject. We will publish further papers and documents in which some of those matters can be covered. As I said earlier, it is important for those in all the areas affected by the consultation process that we should move to a decision—consistent with the consultation process that we have extended—and for that reason it would not have been welcome in those communities if we had delayed the White Paper for further work of the kind to which my hon. Friend referred.

I wish to clarify the figures that I mentioned earlier. Some 7 per cent. of the school population attend independent schools, but those pupils make up 39 per cent. of entry to the top universities. I am all in favour of ensuring that entry to university is based on merit, but I am not sure that the vast difference between those two percentages reflects merit and no other consideration.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

I would like to bring to the attention of the Leader of the House early day motion 561.

[That this House notes that community pharmacists offer their local communities convenient access to NHS services; recognises their role in reducing the burden on local general practitioners; notes the recommendations of the Office of Fair Trading that pharmaceutical dispensing should be made open to free market competition; is concerned that supermarkets would use their market power to undermine and eliminate small local pharmacies and thereby effect a net loss of NHS provision; and urges Her Majesty's Government not to accept this recommendation of the OFT.]

The motion urges the Government not to accept the recommendation from the Office of Fair Trading that pharmaceutical dispensing should be made open to free-market competition. Deregulation would be disadvantageous to those who are already disadvantaged in our society. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the report to be debated in the House before the Government act on it?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will understand that the report from the director general of the OFT is not a Government report. It is now with us and we are considering it. The Department of Trade and Industry will make its response in the fullness of time. I would just point out that all Members, including Ministers, fully value the importance of the pharmaceutical industry and the service that it provides to local communities. We must ensure that that is fully reflected in any judgment that we reach on the report.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

My right hon. Friend will recall that a few weeks ago I raised with him the consequences of the implementation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. He will also recall that some days ago the High Court decided that section 55 infringed the human rights of asylum seekers. My understanding is that the Home Office is likely to appeal against that decision, and that the appeal will probably be heard the week after next. In view of that timetable, will my right hon. Friend arrange an urgent debate on section 55 specifically so that the House may give its view on its operation and advise the Home Secretary whether to pursue the appeal procedure?

Mr. Cook

I am not able to offer a debate within the next two weeks in view of the business that I have already announced. I can see difficulties ahead if I changed that business, given that it has already been announced and covers areas of considerable interest to many right hon. and hon. Members. However, it would also be difficult for the House to have a debate on a matter that is very much before the courts, in this case the Appeal Court. In the event that the Appeal Court upholds the existing ruling, consultation will have to take place on the Government's intentions, but in the meantime the matter is before the courts. As soon as judgment has been reached, I am sure that the Home Secretary will wish to make the Government's position clear to the House.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Uncharacteristically, the Leader of the House did not answer all the questions posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). I ask the Leader of the House again just which Minister or official cleared the dodgy dossier. As this now looks like a cover-up, can he ensure that a statement is made next week by the Minister concerned?

Mr. Cook

I understand that the paper was not issued as a Command Paper and, therefore, the process of ministerial accountability for White Papers would not necessarily apply. The right hon. Gentleman heard me respond to the shadow Leader of the House and my central point remains true—if the Opposition wish to support the Government strategy and to be identified with the firm position being taken by the Prime Minister, they must resist the opportunity to try to score political points at every twist and turn.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the question of the changed hours? They are causing many problems, and not only for Members of Parliament. Many staff are anxious about the future of their employment and I understand that it is difficult to find Members to serve on Committees. As a northern MP, I now have only Monday mornings free for school parties. I have encouraged schools to visit to watch debates and to look round. It is part of our democracy to visit the House, but the present arrangements are causing difficulties because they mean that Northern MPs have to give up visits in their constituencies on Monday mornings. May we have an urgent debate on the hours and how they are working, or not working? After all, we should not be trying to accommodate newspaper editors. This House is more important than they are.

Mr. Cook

I am not in favour of accommodating newspaper editors in any way, but I am in favour of accommodating our constituents, who have every right to be informed about what happens in this place. As a result of the vote yesterday taking place at 7 o'clock, they had a much fuller account of what happened here than they would have had if we had divided at 10 o'clock. Although I can well understand why that argument might not necessarily appeal to all my colleagues on the Front Bench, I had hoped that it would appeal to my hon. Friend.

On the question of access for schools, I am fully seized of the importance of reaching out and making contact with schools. For that very reason, the Modernisation Committee is considering how we may improve access to the House and ensure that we strengthen our education service and reach out to schools around Britain. However, it is a matter of fact that the overwhelming preponderance of schools that visit this place have a relative geographic proximity to it, and there are other ways in which we can provide a parliamentary link to schools at some distance, which would be of great value to all regions of Britain.

Mr. Bercow

May we please have an urgent debate, in Government time, on the Government's plans for a massive increase in house building across the south of England? Given that the Milton Keynes south Midlands study envisages a further 59,000 houses in the Aylesbury vale area between now and 2031 and that there is an estimated associated cost for infrastructure of £8.5 billion—there seems little prospect that we shall meet that cost—does the Leader of the House understand that my constituents are concerned about air pollution, traffic congestion, pressure on school places and access to medical facilities, and that they need to have their concerns urgently addressed and allayed?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is quite correct that any house building must be accompanied by an appropriate level of public service and physical infrastructure to ensure that the quality of life marches in step with the increase in housing volume. I fully understand the importance of that. It is also important that we minimise the pressure on greenfield sites, which is why I am proud that the Government have achieved their target of 60 per cent. development of residential accommodation on brownfield sites. Having said that, we face acute demand for additional housing in the south-east and that is one reason why we face a substantial rise in house prices in the area, which I am sure will be of concern to many of the hon. Gentleman's constituents who are looking for a new home for the first time. We cannot hope to address that concern if we do not provide substantial numbers of additional homes for those who want to live in the south-east.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to read the report of the Commission for Health Improvement on the Government's private finance initiative flagship, the Cumberland infirmary, which is a document as critical and coruscating as I have ever seen? Has he noted that it reports raw sewage bubbling out of scrub sinks, doors hanging off, and more leaks than Cardiff city centre on St. David's day? Will he find time in the next 14 days for a Government statement on the future of the PFI policy, which is seriously and fundamentally flawed? It damages patients' and public confidence in the NHS. Finally, will he recall—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is sufficient. There is too much embellishment of questions.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is correct that the picture painted in the report is very serious and I understand that the chief executive of the health trust has departed its service, partly as a result of the report. It focused on the way in which the PFI was managed. Before my hon. Friend erects a general case of principle based on this matter, I note that the same body has also produced reports on the PFI projects at Durham and Dartford, which were very positive in their conclusions and stated that those projects worked well. That should be set against the report on the Cumberland project.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

During the recess, a resident from my area was shot dead by terrorists in Saudi Arabia. Two years ago, another constituent was maimed in a similar outrage. British subjects are currently languishing in Saudi jails, having been tortured and deprived of sleep. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Foreign Secretary makes a statement on the Floor of the House about the security of British citizens in Saudi Arabia and the threat of terrorism there?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that our advice about travel to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere is constantly updated and kept under review. I am familiar with the background to a number of cases involving British citizens detained in Saudi Arabia because, sadly, they go back for more than two years. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government—through local embassies, and through Ministers—repeatedly express concern about UK citizens involved in such cases, and that we seek to achieve a proper system to ensure that those people can be brought to trial or released.

Mr. Tony Colman (Putney)

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to early-day motion 667 on the demise of wide-based share option schemes in the UK as a result of the new accounting regulations to be agreed shortly?

[That this House notes the great benefits to employees and employers of broad-based employee shares schemes which have been promoted by this and previous Governments and from which millions of UK employees have benefited to the extent of over £35 billion; registers its grave concerns over the impact on such schemes of the International Accounting Standards Board and the Accounting Standards Board proposals on accounting for share-based payments; notes the calls by the TUC, Pro Share and others that broad-based schemes should be excluded from this new accounting charge; calls on the Government to add its voice to the calls for such an exclusion; and further calls upon the International Accounting Standards Board and the Accounting Standards Board to draft wording which, while abiding by the general principle of the proposed standard, would exclude broad-based schemes from an accounting charge.]

That change would adversely affect millions of constituents, and is also worrying the TUC, the Confederation of British Industry and National Association of Pension Funds. Does he agree that an early debate is needed so that the House can express its own concerns before the accounting standards come into force later in March?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his detailed early-day motion, although I have not yet had time to read it fully and to the end. The Government fully understand the benefits of employee share schemes. We would not want to do anything that made it impossible to maintain those benefits or schemes. I am sure that the matter that my hon. Friend has raised will be explored fully by the Treasury, with an understanding of the points that he has made.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

The Leader of the House will know that the US is holding a number of UK citizens at Guantanamo bay. It is suggested that they are terrorists. I know nothing about the truth or otherwise of that, but may we have an early statement or debate so that the Government can say what is being done to get the status and future of the people defined properly? Surely they should have the full protection of the law. Surely they should be either charged or released. They have been held for 18 months or so. That cannot be right.

Mr. Cook

I have great sympathy with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's general point. I assure him that our consuls in the US have paid a number of visits to those British citizens, and that the issue has been raised repeatedly with the US Administration. Plainly, we will continue to take a close interest in the welfare and legal rights of British citizens there.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Now that France has threatened to use its veto on a second UN resolution on Iraq, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a debate in the next fortnight to consider France's business interests in Iraq? Those interests go back to the 1975 French-Iraqi nuclear co-operation treaty signed by Jacques Chirac, when he was Prime Minister, and Saddam Hussein. The treaty marked the beginning of the supply of French equipment to Iraq to build up a nuclear arsenal in exchange for extensive support for French business commitments.

Mr. Cook

The Government's position is that there should be a second resolution. We are actively seeking to promote a second resolution, with support from close European partners such as Spain. I am not entirely confident that pursuing the argument outlined by my hon. Friend would assist in the process of building consensus around the resolution. However, I assure her that we will do all we can to achieve common ground with France in a way that enables the resolution to proceed.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Leader of the House announced that, next week, a day each will be spent on the respective Report stages of the Local Government Bill and the Communications Bill. That means that the Report stages of those Bills will have been examined on the Floor of the House for two days each, at least. I was not a member of the Standing Committees examining those Bills, but I was a member of the Committee scrutinising the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. Is the right hon. Gentleman concerned that only a small proportion of that Bill's clauses and schedules were examined in Committee? Will he assure the House that at least two days will be spent on the Report stages of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill?

Mr. Cook

We will, of course, carefully consider the volume of amendments tabled on Report, and the progress made in Committee. However, the hon. Gentleman is correct; there will have been two days for the Report stages of both the Local Government Bill and the Communications Bill. With respect, I suggest that that demonstrates that the Government are committed to ensuring that legislation gets adequate time for scrutiny on the Floor of the House.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

The long-awaited Energy White Paper was published on Monday. Will my right hon. Friend provide an opportunity in the coming weeks to debate the issues raised in the White Paper, and the implications for constituencies such as mine?

Mr. Cook

I am very aware of the House's strong interests in energy matters. The White Paper to which my hon. Friend refers is very important. It sets out a perspective for reducing carbon gases, meeting our commitment to halt and reverse global warming, and making sure that we tackle other issues such as fuel poverty, which is a matter of concern in all constituencies. I am sure that it will be important for the House to consider these matters at some stage. I shall certainly bear the matter in mind for the future.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

The Prime Minister is having discussions today with the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic. More discussions are scheduled to take place between them and parties in Northern Ireland on Monday next. Will the Leader of the House ensure that there is an early statement from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on those discussions? Current negotiations with IRA-Sinn Fein on a list of concessions in return for things that the IRA should have done years ago should also be covered. Those concessions are causing great concern for people in Northern Ireland. May we have an early debate on those matters, so that the views of those people can be heard by the Government?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that intensive discussions are under way to see how we can restore momentum to the Northern Ireland peace process. I hope that that will command the support of all hon. Members. It is very important that we try to keep that process going. In that context, I do not know how helpful it is to describe any proposal on the table as a concession to one side or the other. There has to be compromise on all sides, especially by the paramilitaries, whether loyalist or republican. There must be real acts of completion if we are to restore the necessary momentum to the peace process. Plainly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make sure that the House is informed. The House will accept that my right hon. Friend has taken a close interest in the peace process, and that he has honourably sought to keep the House informed about its progress. If progress is made, I am sure that the House will be the first to be informed.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Has my right hon. Friend followed the increasingly vitriolic campaign waged by extreme right-wing newspapers against some of our leading universities that are trying to improve their admissions procedures by basing entry on merit? Has my right hon. Friend seen this week's statement from the group Universities UK, criticising some schools in the Headmasters Conference for applying exceptional pressure on universities—and especially on Bristol and Edinburgh universities—and will he find time for a debate in the next two weeks on the subject. The issues need to be considered on the basis of fact and evidence, and not of myth and hysteria.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and articulates a real concern expressed by a number of universities. It is to Bristol university's credit that it has responsibly made sure that it is the academic staff and tutors who make admission decisions, based on merit. The university has made genuine attempts to make sure that the population basis of Britain is more fairly reflected, and that admission is open and accessible to all schools.

Apparently, one factor in admissions is whether people from state schools are applying to certain universities. Some universities seem to be rather poor at attracting applications from state schools. That matter is in their hands, and they could remedy it. Also, some universities seem to have a bias in the acceptance that follows applications. It is interesting that some figures show that even among pupils with comparable A-level results there is a higher success rate for those from independent schools than for those from state schools. Those do not in any way trench on the importance of admitting students on the basis of merit, but they reflect issues that universities could put right. Those universities that have tackled them and put them right deserve to be praised not pressurised.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

While we are rightly focusing on Iraq, may I nevertheless ask for a further debate on Zimbabwe? That would enable me to raise the case of the family of my constituent Hilary Parsons, whose son and daughter-in-law have been forced off their farm at Karoi, whose daughter-in-law and grandchildren were attacked by a mob of 30 so-called war veterans when they returned to see if the remaining animals were all right, who were told that an official of the Zimbabwe Football Association, one Temba Mliswa, now owns the farm—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not give the contents of the speech that he would make if such a debate were to be granted. I think that the Leader of the House may have got the point.

Mr. Cook

I welcome the fact that regularly on a Thursday hon. Members raise their concerns about Zimbabwe, because it is very important that the Government of Zimbabwe should be under no illusion about the depth and breadth of feeling on the issue in this House. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that the appalling things taking place in Zimbabwe are wholly deplored on both sides of the House, in particular the forcible land settlement of people who have contacts with the regime at the expense of people who previously owned and farmed that land. That is not only wholly unacceptable, but partly contributes to the appalling malnutrition and food shortages in Zimbabwe.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the welcome boost given to the British shipbuilding industry by the recent announcement on the building of aircraft carriers. It is to be hoped that other independent yards such as Fergusons in Port Glasgow will also benefit from that. May I ask him to make time for an important debate about industries such as electronics that have a major impact on local economies but where thousands of people are losing their jobs not through their own fault but because employers are choosing to take advantage of the low wage economies in eastern Europe?

Mr. Cook

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks about the stimulus to the shipbuilding industry that has resulted from Government decisions. I understand his concerns about the electronics industry. Representing as I do a constituency where many thousands of people work in the electronics industry, I am well aware of the pressures that it faces and the troubled times for those who work in it.

I understand my hon. Friend's point about transfers to lower-wage economies, but the only way in which we can be confident that we can beat that trend and ensure that we have secure employment in our own country is to continue to improve the skills of our people and to invest in education so that we can provide higher added value than any cheaper-wage economy. The signs are, from the overall employment figures, that we are succeeding in that, and I am pleased to say that there are now almost 1.5 million more people at work than there were in 1997 when we took office.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the question that my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House asked about the delay in the announcement of the Budget, in reply to which all we got was a lot of party political knockabout? May I ask in a very straightforward manner what is really the reason for that delay?

Mr. Cook

I thought that I responded to the question in the terms in which it was put to me. I have never got the impression that the right hon. Gentleman would complain about party political knockabout. On the Budget, it is still February, which is early days as far as the Budget is concerned. [HON. MEMBERS: "What?"] Well, I think that I am correct in saying that it is still February. I am always acutely aware of when February ends, because 28 February is my birthday. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah!"] It is a matter of great regret to me that we are having this exchange on 27 February, not 28 February. I can only assure the hon. Gentleman that the Budget normally takes place in the spring, and I have no reason to believe that it will be different this year.

Hugh Bayley (City of York)

I wish my right hon. Friend many happy returns for tomorrow and thank him for so promptly reinstating the debate about flooding that we were to have had today.

It is now more than two years since the devastating floods hit York. The Environment Agency has been carrying out a major study of the Ouse catchment, the larger of the two rivers that flow through York, to enable it to predict more accurately the risk of flooding in future. Hundreds of householders in York whose houses were flooded two years ago are waiting for that study, because on it hangs the cost-effectiveness of improving flood defences that would protect them from further floods. Does the Leader of the House know whether the Environment Agency intends to publish that report before we have our debate on flooding in two weeks' time?

Mr. Cook

It was with regret that we had to postpone the debate on flood defences, but all hon. Members will understand that we had an important House matter to resolve today. I am very pleased that we have restored the debate to take place within the next two weeks. My hon. Friend's comments demonstrate that it will feature speeches of quality. I cannot say whether the report will be published by then, but I shall draw the Environment Agency's attention to my hon. Friend's request that it should be.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I make a particular appeal for brevity so that I can try to accommodate all hon. Members who are rising?

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

May I take the Leader of the House back to the point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) on the pharmacy report? May we have an urgent debate on that report to Government? It not only threatens to undermine small town and rural pharmacies, but endangers moves by Scottish community pharmacies to create new services, especially in relation to chronic pain management. It is important that the matter is dealt with urgently to end the uncertainty.

Mr. Cook

I understand the great interest in that matter on the part of the industry and of the customers and communities that it serves. I am not sure whether it would necessarily be in the interests of a favourable outcome to have an urgent debate, but I shall certainly make sure that the Department of Trade and Industry is aware of the interest that has been expressed during today's and previous business questions. It is evident that there is considerable constituency interest in the matter. I am sure that when the Government have reached their view the House will wish to hear it and, if appropriate, to consider it further.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

Yesterday, in reply to a question on Iraq by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), the Prime Minister stated that the House will have the opportunity to vote on this issue many times".—[Official Report, 26 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 258.]

I am reassured by my right hon. Friend's response to the shadow Leader of the House, but can I ask him to give serious consideration to a further debate on Iraq on the day after the UN Security Council votes on the second resolution, even if it means debating the matter on a non-sitting day?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that we will keep the matter under close review and that we will want to give the earliest practical opportunity to the House to debate the outcome of any second resolution. I am not at present clear whether that will necessarily require the kind of emergency procedure that my hon. Friend suggests, but it is perfectly plain from the statements of the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and myself that the Government want the House to have the opportunity to endorse a future second resolution in the Security Council as soon as possible. As the Foreign Secretary said, it is as much in the interests of the Government as of the House that that should be done before any military action.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time in the next two weeks for the introduction of a Government Bill to amend the Human Tissue Act 1961? The Leader of the House may be aware that Alder Hey has expressed its profound apologies to the families, but I know from talking to the family support group at Addenbrookes hospital in my constituency that their distress would be at least partly mitigated by the knowledge that the Government are acting speedily to amend the 1961 Act, as the chief medical officer recommended in his report on Alder Hey two years ago.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the enormous distress and anxiety that has been caused to constituents of the hon. Gentleman by the events to which he refers. He will be aware that the Government have committed themselves to ensuring that we carry through all the recommendations that have been put to us and which we have accepted. Where that requires legislation, we will provide it. My expectation is that he will see that legislation in the course of this Session.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Do not yesterday's proceedings prove the urgent need for a day's debate on the desirability of a British war powers Act? Yesterday showed that we are the crucible of the nation for debate but emphasised that we have no powers to decide whether to go to war. Such a decision is made by only two people: the Prime Minister and the Head of State, who lacks democratic accountability.

The arrangement worked well in the past because almost every time that we have gone to war, it has been with the wholehearted consent of the majority of the people of this nation. We have debated the subject many times, but on this occasion the more knowledge that people have about our plans to go to war, the greater their opposition.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend understates the crucial role of the House of Commons in the matter. I said many months ago that it was inconceivable that a British Government would commit British troops to military action without the support of the House of Commons. That must remain the case. Ministers may make the decision, but they, including the Prime Minister, are accountable to this place. To be fair to the Prime Minister, we have made it plain throughout that we want to be accountable to this place and to carry it with us, and that the House of Commons will have an opportunity to vote on a substantive motion when the time comes.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Will the Leader of House ensure that a statement is made next week to tackle the criticisms in the Public Administration Committee report on ombudsmen? It relates largely to a finding by the ombudsman in response to a criticism by me that, for the first time, the Government had not accepted the ombudsman's advice on access to official information. Perhaps a statement would help us to understand why the Government say so much about freedom of information but are secretive and hypocritical when it comes to the provision of information.

Mr. Cook

For the record, the Government introduced and are implementing the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The Conservative Government refused to introduce such a measure.

Mr. lain Luke (Dundee, East)

My right hon. Friend may not know about the unhappiness of hon. Members of all parties about the restrictions on the debate about the Scottish economy in the previous Scottish Grand Committee meeting, which was held on 18 February. The debate was restricted because of an inability to award extra time and the Divisions in the House. As Chair of the Modernisation Committee, will my right hon. Friend undertake to place on the agenda of its next meeting in the next two weeks a review of the workings of the Scottish Grand Committee and other Grand Committees to make them more relevant to the work of the House? Perhaps we could have a system along the lines of the cross-border institutions in Ireland, whereby Members of Parliament, Ministers, MSPs and Assembly Members could come together to discuss issues that straddle the devolved divide.

Mr. Cook

I am aware from the comments of members of the Scottish Grand Committee of the frustration caused by the loss of time through Divisions in the House. We can deal with that through Standing Orders, and with the power of the Chair to extend the length of Scottish Grand Committee's sittings to compensate for time lost in Divisions. I am willing to do that without necessarily going through the Modernisation Committee.

My hon. Friend raised a large question when he suggested full meetings in Committee of Members of this places and Members of other places such as the Scottish Parliament. I do not necessarily oppose such a proposal but not every Member for a Scottish constituency would wholeheartedly endorse it. I would want to know that there was consensus before proceeding further.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Government have been constructive in presenting to the House information and intelligence to allow hon. Members to evaluate the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to world peace. The police and our intelligence services provide that information.

In the next seven to 14 days, the leadership of the Ulster Unionist party must decide whether to go back into an Executive with Sinn Fein. Will the Leader of the House ask the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State of Northern Ireland to give the House an evaluation of Colombia, Castlereagh, Stormontgate and the threat posed by republican terrorists? We cannot make a judgment without that intelligence information.

Mr. Cook

Any process that the Government undertake to restore momentum to the peace process must take account of our knowledge of the activities of those who are party to it. That is important, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are clear that if the peace process is to progress we need a definite commitment to acts of completion by paramilitary organisations on both sides. I am not sure whether it would be sensible to disclose in public intelligence information that may not be relevant to future criminal activities.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

May we have a statement next week on the administrative difficulties that may arise if the Budget is not presented next month or, as matters currently appear, it disappears completely?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no risk of the Budget disappearing. The Government would never miss giving the House an opportunity to celebrate the fact that we have lower unemployment and lower inflation than ever existed under the Conservative Government, and a sounder economy and lower interest rates than they achieved.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

Again, the business statement did not mention the mental health Bill, which is eagerly anticipated by Conservative Members and the individuals and organisations throughout the country that provided more than 2,000 consultation responses to the draft measure. When can we expect the Bill? Will the final measure remove the obnoxious coercion provisions in the draft Bill? If the Bill will not be introduced soon, will the Leader of the House allow time for a debate on mental health? In the past, we have given time in Supply days to debate the state of mental health provision or its lack in many parts of the country. There are gaps in adolescent mental health provision and increasing waiting times for services.

Mr. Cook

Work on the mental health Bill continues carefully and with due process precisely because of the large volume of responses to the consultation process. As hon. Members know, I strongly argued that we should consult on draft legislation, try to find ways in which the public can comment on it and enter into debate with the most interested lobby and professional groups. That happened with the mental health Bill. It is right and proper to ensure adequate time to reflect on the responses and, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, try to accommodate them in a future text.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

In a recent written answer, the Ministry of Defence disclosed that up to 10,400 of our service men and women who are currently deploying to the Gulf face cuts in their local overseas allowance of between 20 per cent. and 35 per cent. Early-day motion 779 deals with the matter.

[That this House recognises that 10,400 members of the armed forces deployed to the Gulf are in receipt of local overseas allowance; deplores the Ministry of Defence's decision to remove 20 per cent. of that allowance for single and married unaccompanied personnel after the first 17 days of any deployment and 35 per cent. of that allowance for married accompanied personnel if their spouse leaves their permanent duty station for more than 17 days; and urges the Ministry of Defence to ensure that no member of the armed forces loses out financially through service in the Gulf.]

Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Defence makes an urgent statement in the House on the entire welfare package? That will be of interest to hon. Members of all parties. Does he agree that no member of our armed forces should lose out financially through service in the Gulf?

Mr. Cook

My hon. and right hon. Friends who are Defence Ministers are fully aware of the importance of maintaining morale and motivation in the forces. Welfare is an important part of that and my ministerial colleagues will give careful consideration to ensuring that the welfare of all members of the armed forces and their families is fully taken care of.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

When the Leader of the House considers the request for an early debate on the future of our pharmacies, which the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir) mentioned earlier, will he bear it in mind that the Government gave a commitment to respond within 90 days of the publication of the Office of Fair Trading report and that we are already 40 days into that period?

Mr. Cook

Certainly, I will do so, but according to the hon. Gentleman's arithmetic, there are almost 50 days to go. I have no reason to believe that the Government will not meet the deadline.