HC Deb 16 January 2003 vol 397 cc819-34 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)

It would be a pleasure, Mr. Speaker:

MONDAY 20 JANUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Government's Failure to Tackle the Crisis in Winding up Arrangements for Occupational Pensions", followed by a debate on European directives on traditional herbal remedies and food supplements on an Opposition motion.

TUESDAY 21 JANUARY—Debate on House of Lords Reform on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House will wish to know that there will be a further debate on Tuesday 4 February in which Members will have an opportunity to vote on the seven options recommended by the Joint Committee.

WEDNESDAY 22 JANUARY—Debate on defence in the world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 23 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill.

FRIDAY 24 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will include:

MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

TUESDAY 28 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill, followed by motions relating to the establishment of a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am grateful for that support from Opposition Members.

WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government has replied.

THURSDAY 30 JANUARY—Opposition Day [4th allotted day]. There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

FRIDAY 31 JANUARY—The first debate on Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 29 January, the third meeting of the Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe will take place to consider the fifth and sixth reports of the United Kingdom representatives to the Convention.

Mr. Forth

As ever, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) identified a case of premature expostulation by the Secretary of State for Defence. In column 699 of Hansard, with regard to yesterday's statement by the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend pointed out that by 5.30 pm the previous day, the Press Association was reporting that there would be a statement on the following day in which it said that the Secretary of State would be 'minded to accept the American request to use Fylingdales.'"—[Official Report, 15 January 2003; Vol. 397, c. 699.] You, Mr. Speaker, have deprecated such practices time and time again. What is the Leader of the House going to do to get Ministers to follow your instructions to stop demeaning the House and giving their information to the Press Association or anyone else before that happens here in the House of Commons? Time and again, Ministers have been giving crucial information to the media 24 hours ahead and then coming to the Chamber and boasting that they are bringing the matter to the House. This is just the latest example and the right hon. Gentleman must tell us what he is going to do to deal with the practice effectively and not allow it to continue.

The Leader of the House has often boasted that the series of ghastly measures—so-called modernisation—has resulted in no reduction in the time available for the House to hold the Government to account. Let us consider Thursdays. In the good old days, the House sat from 2.30 pm to 10 pm—seven and a half hours of quality parliamentary time to the hold the Government to account. Matters took a turn for the worse when the ghastly modernisers said, "We'll sit from 11.30 am until 7 pm", and the Leader of the House said, "Don't worry, we'll still have the same amount of time to do our parliamentary business." That was just about bearable, but the modernisation process edged further forward, and the Leader of the House suggested that we should sit from 11.30 am till 6 pm on Thursdays. That is a reduction in parliamentary time by any reckoning.

What business is sufficiently trivial to require less time on a Thursday? Today, the vital fisheries debate has been squeezed into a mere three hours. That is an insult to the subject. Next week, the crucial Regional Assemblies Bill will be considered on a Thursday. Given that business questions are held on Thursdays and that statements occasionally follow, it is obvious that modernisation has reduced the time that is available for the House properly to hold the Government to account. What does the Leader of the House have to say about that?

Next Tuesday, we shall debate the vital matter of Lords reform. On 4 February, as the Leader of the House announced, we will have an opportunity to vote on seven different options for Lords reform. Where do we go from there? When we began the process, we believed that the Government had a policy on Lords reform. We believed that phase I was the virtual elimination of the hereditaries and that phase 2 would be the completion of the project.

That appeared to be the case until the Lord Chancellor said on the "Today" programme on Radio 4 on 7 January: All bets are off in the sense that the White Paper…didn't command acceptance. At least we now know that the Government no longer believe that what was originally meant to happen will take place. The Lord Chancellor helpfully said that many voices are speaking out against what they call the nonsense of a hybrid House"— I believed that that was the preferred option of the Leader of the House. The Lord Chancellor continued even more revealingly: The Government has arrived at no views as yet … some genius is going to have make sense of the votes. He went on, uncharacteristically modestly: I am pleased to say that that genius is the Joint Committee. The Leader of the House should tell us now what will happen after next Tuesday's debate and the votes in February, especially in the likely event of the House and the other place reaching different views on reform of the House of Lords. What remit will the Government give the Joint Committee? What sort of timetable can we expect for the crucial completion of the reform of the upper House? The Joint Committee has identified at least eight pieces of further work that it must do, never mind the remit that the Government will give it after our votes. We need to know; otherwise, we shall conduct our debates on a crucial parliamentary and constitutional matter in a vacuum created by the Government.

Mr. Cook

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman back and wish him a happy new year.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Government stand firmly against premature expostulation. It was widely known that the Secretary of State for Defence was going to make a statement to the House. From the moment such information is known, all sorts of people begin to speculate about the content—[Interruption.] The phrase that the right hon. Gentleman quoted was not in the statement. It is not only the press who speculate. The shadow Secretary of State for Defence touted himself around television and radio stations, speculating about the statement.

Mr. Forth

He is not the Government.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) may not be the Government, but neither is the right hon. Gentleman. What is sauce for him is sauce for the shadow Defence Secretary. The Opposition cannot complain about media speculation when they want the broadcasting media to interview them about the possible contents of the Defence Secretary's announcement.

On the question of the modernisation measures, we debated these matters very fully on 29 October. It was an excellent debate, which is fully recorded in Hansard. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to re-live it, I invite him to read that edition of Hansard, or to view the videotapes. All of these questions were put to the House on that occasion, and there was a very compelling majority for the conclusion that we should stop at 6 pm on Thursdays.

Before the right hon. Gentleman waxes any more indignant about the outrageousness of stopping at 6 pm, I should point out that last Thursday, the House actually finished before 4 pm because there were no speakers left to continue the business before it. I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I refuse to feel particularly guilty. Perhaps some of the Opposition Members who are so keen that we continue until 6 pm on a Thursday will turn up to make a speech next time, which they did not last Thursday. I understand why the right hon. Gentleman was unable to be with us for last Thursday's business statement. We did deal with the Lord Chancellor then, thanks to the intervention of his deputy, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight). It is impossible to speak at too great length about the Lord Chancellor, and I am happy to do it all over again.

The fact is that five of the seven options that will be before the House when we vote on 4 February will provide for some form of mixed membership. The right hon. Gentleman complains that there is no Government view, but frankly, the strength of the debate for the House is that it will have a free vote and the decision. We set out that strategy clearly last summer, when I made it plain that we believe that reform of the second Chamber is a matter for Parliament and not just for the Government, and that it is therefore right that Parliament take a view. It would be wrong, having set out that strategy, for the Government now to try to lecture Parliament on what that view should be.

As to what happens next, there is no secret about that. A statement was made last summer, and we have discussed the matter on a number of occasions. What happens next is that the votes in both places will go back to the Joint Committee. There is no need for a new remit for the Committee. The remit that we agreed with the Committee last summer—when the Committee was established—sets out clearly that it will first come to us with an interim report on the options, which it has done, and then translate the outcome of those votes into a detailed proposal. That remains the strategy and the timetable, and I hope that we can take it forward in time to legislate during the next Session.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Can the Leader of the House confirm that it is his expectation that the UN inspectors will report back to the Security Council on their initial findings in Iraq on Monday 27 January, and that the following day, President Bush will make his State of the Union address? Does the Leader of the House not recognise that the House of Commons must be given the opportunity not only to debate what may come out of those two events, but to have a definitive vote on the situation, in terms of the deployment of British troops in the Gulf? Does he accept that the answer given to Baroness Williams of Crosby in the other place on Tuesday—at column 126 of the House of Lords Hansard—by Baroness Symons, in which she said that she was very "sympathetic" to such a request, requires confirmation that he, too, is sympathetic on the Government's behalf to the idea that such a debate and Division might take place?

According to today's Financial Times, it seems that the Government have torn up their expectation of increasing rail ridership by 50 per cent. in a decade. Can the Leader of the House therefore tell us when we will have a debate on the Government's rail strategy, so that we can learn whether they have indeed changed it? Perhaps that would also give the Conservative Opposition the opportunity to apologise, at long last, for the botched rail privatisation that has given rise to this appalling situation on our railways. While having to spend seven hours getting here last week, instead of the usual three and a half, I found myself standing next to a former British Rail manager, who confirmed in absolute terms that it was the previous Conservative Government's failure to invest in the infrastructure, combined with their privatising—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Conservative Members seem unable to listen even to those who travelled on British Rail, let alone to those who ran it.

Finally, may I draw the Leader of the House's attention to motion 4 on today's Order Paper, which I think I am right in saying refers to dioxins, furans and polychlorinated biphenyls. The document mentioned in the motion was before a European Standing Committee just two days ago, but we do not have the Hansard report. We have no idea what is at stake. The motion may be very worthy, but how can we bring a motion to the Floor of the House without having a clue as to what it is all about? Moreover, on looking at the online Hansard for that Committee, I found that it was three years out of date.

Mr. Cook

I am afraid I cannot shed further light on the directive without notice. I think the hon. Gentleman referred to phenyls, but in any event I will ensure that he is positively deluged with correspondence explaining the directive.

Let me repeat what has been said on a number of occasions about the 27 January report. It will of course be the first substantive report from the inspectors to the Security Council, but it will not necessarily be the last. It will probably be a staging post for future reports, and I will not be at all surprised if Hans Blix's main conclusion on 27 January is that he requires further time in which to explore the issue.

The Foreign Secretary has said from this Dispatch Box that the Government have no problem with the idea of a substantive motion on the question of commitment of British troops should we end up there, which is not inevitable; but it must come at the appropriate time, and I would be rather surprised if 27 January provided such an occasion. The Foreign Secretary will go to the United Nations next Monday, and will take part in a ministerial exchange in the Security Council. I am sure that he will want to ensure, as he has repeatedly, that the House is kept fully briefed on the progress of those discussions.

I also noticed that the official Opposition's response to the business statement did not raise the question of rail. I deduce from that that once again it was impossible to find a Conservative Member who is willing to defend the way in which the Conservatives went about the privatisation of the rail industry. I am, however, happy to disabuse the House and the hon. Gentleman in regard to an error in what the hon. Gentleman said. The Government have not abandoned their commitment to a 50 per cent. increase in rail use. We remain committed to that target throughout the 10-year programme of our transport plan, and indeed we are well on target in that we have increased rail use by 25 per cent. since 1997.

David Hamilton (Midlothian)

May I return the Leader of the House to next Tuesday's agenda and House of Lords reform? I read the relevant paper with great interest, and noted the seven proposals for a fully appointed House, a fully elected House, and so forth. The one proposal that is not there, of course, is the proposal for abolition. Will the Leader of the House have another look at the proposals? Has he seen early-day motion 529?

[That this House expresses its concern that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform did not include an option for abolition in its first report; further notes that much of the impetus for House of Lords reform stems from concerns about the effectiveness of the House of Commons; and would support proposals for a unicameral solution coupled with reform of the House of Commons legislative procedures.] In a single day, that motion gathered 63 signatures in favour of abolition. Could such a motion come before the House, so that we could vote on it?

Mr. Cook

I read the early-day motion with interest, and noted that it had attracted signatures from a significant number of Members. We have sought to implement to the letter the recommendations of the Joint Committee. We were keen to establish the Committee, and said that it should present the proposals on which the House should vote; so we will not depart from its recommendations now. It has not recommended abolition as an option, although I note that, of necessity, half its members are from the other place.

While my hon. Friend is perfectly entitled to support his proposition as an individual, as are a number of our colleagues, it is not the policy on which we fought the last election. We have a mandate from our manifesto at that election not for the abolition but for the reform of the second place. I very much hope that after 4 February we shall be able to stop arguing about what is the option for reform, and at long last get on to the reform.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

According to my calculations, the Bank of England and therefore the people of Britain have lost more than £700 million as a result of the policy of instructing them to sell their gold and buy three specific currencies. Do the Government not believe that there is a case for an early debate in which they can give their calculation of what money has been lost, and we can have a full review of what has been a disastrous and costly policy that should never have been embarked on?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman has produced a question that is an oldie and, I suppose, a goldie. As we said at the time, Governments around the globe are diversifying the way in which they hold reserves. When we made the decision, Britain held an unusually high proportion of reserves in gold. It was therefore an entirely rational and proper decision, and I fully defend it. I suspect that, had a Conservative Government been in power at the time, they would have made precisely the same decision.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Will my right hon. Friend make time available for an urgent debate on the textile industry? He may be aware that there were 19,000 textile jobs in Leicester in 1984. That total fell to 9,000 in 1997, and is now down to 3,000. If the trend continues, there will be no more manufacturing in the textile industry in Leicester. In 1950, it was said that one out of every five pairs of socks worn in Europe was manufactured in Leicester. Can we have a debate on this urgent matter?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand my hon. Friend's concerns about the impact on his constituency of the decline in jobs that he has described. I am sure that he will readily acknowledge that we should not infer from the reduction in employment over the long period to which he referred that there has necessarily been a parallel reduction in output, as a relevant factor has been the substantial increase in productivity in that sector over the same period. I am pleased to tell the House that the recent employment figures demonstrate that, in the past year alone, there has been an increase in the number of people in work under this Government of 250,000, and that there was a further fall in unemployment of 5,000 in the last month. However, I fully understand that those figures do not remove the anxiety about the decline of traditional industries, especially in local communities such as that represented by my hon. Friend. I cannot offer him any immediate hope of a reversal of that trend in the textile industry, but I can assure him that the sound economy that the Government have created provides other opportunities for people in my hon. Friend's constituency, and elsewhere.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The Leader of the House has confirmed Tuesday's debate on Lords reform, when a number of hon. Members hope to make the case for a predominantly elected second Chamber. There is known to be a wide range of views in the Cabinet, and Ministers are to be allowed a free vote and apparently to express their views in public. Given that collective ministerial responsibility no longer applies, is there any reason why Ministers should not speak in the House from the Back Benches?

Mr. Cook

We are obviously going to have a very interesting debate on Tuesday. I do not hold out much hope that it will be made even more interesting in the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. However, it is important that we approach the matter in a mature way. We have committed ourselves to a free vote. It would be right and proper for the Opposition to complain if there was any suggestion that the Government were not allowing a free vote. Consistent with our commitment to a free vote, it would be wrong for the Government to advance a collective view.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House seen early-day motion 410, on avoidable accidents caused by sleep deprivation?

[That this House recognises that a significant proportion of all road accidents resulting in death or serious injury is caused by sleepiness; notes the human misery caused by fatal road accidents, which cost around one million pounds each; further notes that at least I per cent, of the United Kingdom's adult population has a medical cause for sleepiness; acknowledges the Royal College of Physicians' observation that untreated sleep apnoea sufferers may have driving impairments comparable with other drivers well over the legal alcohol limit; acknowledges that sleep apnoea is readily treatable with a machine costing £300 which lasts, for ten years; notes the research undertaken by the Sleep Centre at Edinburgh university; that shows the cost of treating 500 sleep apnoea patients with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure treatment for five years would be a total of £400,000 in comparison to the estimated cost of accidents caused by untreated patients with sleep apnoea over the same five year period being £5,300,000; and calls on Her Majesty's Government to give serious consideration to increasing the provision of treatment for sleep disorders.]

That is a very serious subject. From the answers that I have received from the Department of Health, it is clear that many primary care trusts and hospital trusts do not take the matter seriously. They do not offer a cost-effective treatment that could save many lives on our roads, as the majority of accidents are caused by people who suffer from sleep apnoea. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on what is a very serious matter?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend raises a matter about which she has expressed concern on the Order Paper. She makes some important statistical points about the importance of the disorder. I am sure that Ministers at the Department of Health will want to make sure that the NHS responds to the problem properly. I shall ensure that they write to her setting out the strategy for dealing with this disorder.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Committee stage of the European Parliament (Representation) Bill was successfully completed today, and that that measure gives the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in European elections. Do the Government intend to introduce a similar Bill that will give the people of Gibraltar and all British overseas territories the right to democratic representation in the British Parliament, which has responsibility for them also?

Mr. Cook

No is the short answer to that. The Government deserve credit for introducing, as no previous Government have done, a measure that will make sure that the people will be represented in the European Parliament. However, it is in the nature of the overseas territories that they have their independent form of government. As someone who was Foreign Secretary for a time, I know full well how jealously those territories guard their right to govern themselves and to ensure that their administrations are accountable to their indigenous populations. It would be wholly inconsistent with that to make them part of this Parliament, which would necessarily mean that they were subject to rule from Westminster.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House inquire as to when records relating to links between King Edward VIII and the Nazis will be released? I am told by the Lord Chancellor's Department that an investigation into this matter has been completed, but there seems to be great reluctance to release the findings.

Mr. Cook

I am advised that the papers relating to the abdication of King Edward VIII will be released to the Public Record Office on 30 January. That will enable those who wish to examine the matter to see the discussion that took place at the time and the anxieties that may then have existed. It is right that that should be put in the public domain. Hon. Members and other members of the public can then come to their own conclusions.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is supposed to meet at least four times a year, and that there is a possibility that it will meet six times. Next week, three months will have elapsed since we last met. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that the Grand Committee will meet within the month and that, in keeping with commitments that have already been made, it will do so in Northern Ireland? That would allow some Northern Ireland Members who find it difficult to attend meetings at Westminster to attend the sitting. If there is a question about where to meet, I understand that the old Senate Chamber is available.

Mr. Cook

I am in discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the precise powers and role of the Grand Committee in circumstances when we do not have the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are fully seized of the additional importance of the Grand Committee in those circumstances. The hon. Gentleman can take it that there will be a meeting of the Grand Committee in the foreseeable future. Where it should meet is normally a matter for consultation between all parties, and it has not always been possible in the past to get agreement on what is the most convenient location for everybody. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be willing to undertake those consultations.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House early-day motion 436, on missile defence.

[That this House notes the request by the United States Government to upgrade facilities at RAF Fylingdales as part of their National Missile Defence programme; recognises that there are huge moral, economic, technological and legal issues raised by NMD; welcomes the Government's commitment to a wide ranging public debate on these issues; and believes that the United States request should not even be considered until the British public has been able to have this debate and decide whether the "Son of Star Wars" proposals offer any real security for Britain or the international community.]

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a full debate, in Government time, on national missile defence? Although the subject can be raised in next week's defence debate, the House needs to examine many issues to do with star wars. They include whether the technology works, what risk local populations face, and the destabilising effect of what many regimes in the world, including China, will regard as missile proliferation. Also, the House needs to discuss whether the Government have been entirely transparent in saying that the decision that they are about to take to update Fylingdales does not mean that Britain is signing up for the star wars project.

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, when he answered questions both here and in the Select Committee yesterday, made it clear that the decision that he was minded to take had to do with the current application, and that any future decision would be a matter for a future debate. On the question of discussing the matter in the House, I fully understand the interest that my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members have in it. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence came to the House and made a very full statement and took questions for a full hour yesterday. He then went to the Select Committee and answered questions for a further hour. There will be a debate on defence in the world next week. It is one of a number of debates on defence of a general character that are held in the course of the year. It would be entirely relevant for any hon. Member who wishes to ventilate some of these issues to do so in that debate.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Is the Secretary of State for Defence prepared to come to the House this afternoon to put right the statement that he made about the future of BAE Systems? Many hon. Members on all sides who have a workforce involved with BAE were shocked by his comments. This is the second time the Secretary of State has effectively damaged the company. In the next few weeks a decision will be made about the purchase of two carriers for the Royal Navy. Quite rightly, there should be an open competition, but the Secretary of State by his comments has seriously damaged the financial future of a major British company. Would the right hon. Gentleman please make a statement on this?

Mr. Cook

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has in no way damaged the prospects of any company obtaining any contract from the Ministry of Defence. It would be rather odd if anything that he said damaged his ability to award a contract to that company.

Perhaps I may remind the hon. Gentleman of the background. Last year BAE Systems itself asked the Government to remove the requirement that 50 per cent. of the shareholders had to be British. The Government responded to that initiative and request from the company by removing the requirement. As I understand it, at present 54 per cent. of the shareholders are of foreign rather than British origin. But that is not a consideration in the award of any contract by the Ministry of Defence. Certainly the Ministry quite rightly and properly attaches importance to the economic benefit that would come from a contract being awarded. That economic benefit remains constant so long as BAE's installations are in Britain, and is not dependent on where its foreign shareholders may be based.

Mr. Ivan Henderson (Harwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the article in The Times on 13 January regarding the new post office card accounts initially being available to only 10,000 claimants? Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a Minister to make a statement as to whether the article is correct? Does he agree that if it is correct the existing methods of payments to benefit claimants at post offices should continue until the cards are available to those who want them?

Mr. Cook

I believe that I am on sound ground in telling my hon. Friend that the answer to his last question is "Yes", that those who wish to retain the present post office card may do so, and that we shall try to make sure that the system can ensure that they are paid in the normal way. Only a small number in the initial period will be transferred to any other form of payment. We are very sensitive to the need to make sure that we fully provide choice to the customers of the post office.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the following matter? Five and a half years after the election of a Labour Government it was announced last year that trains would run from Matlock to Birmingham straight through. It has been announced today that, within two months of that service being operated, instead of 10 trains running there will now be two. Does the Leader of the House think that that will encourage people to use public transport?

Mr. Cook

In the way in which he puts his question the hon. Gentleman draws attention to the fact that last October there was a substantial increase in cross-country services. Indeed, the Virgin cross-country services doubled in October. It has not proved possible for Virgin to maintain that service without substantial congestion in the network. Therefore, most of the reductions announced today relate to the Virgin cross-country services. However, I understand that there will still be substantially more cross-country services after the reductions than there were before last October. The hon. Gentleman was on the Conservative Benches when the present structure of privatisation was created. I, and I think his constituents, would take his complaint rather more seriously if he could point to a single instance in the course of those debates where he expressed that reservation.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

Now that the Department of Trade and Industry's consultation on the World Trade Organisation's current round of General Agreement on Trade in Services negotiations has just been completed, may the House have a full debate on the liberalisation of trade in services? Many people, including the Local Government Association and even this morning hon. Members, have expressed great concern about the future of public services under those arrangements. May we have a full debate so that it will be possible to answer the point that some of the negotiations were carried out in secret to avoid public scrutiny?

Mr. Cook

To be fair to the present Government, I would tell my hon. Friend that we have sought wherever possible to make more open and more transparent the discussions within the World Trade Organisation and will continue to look for new ways in which accountability can be secured in its deliberations.

On the generality of my hon. Friend's point, he raises a profoundly important and serious issue. I sometimes feel that in our political exchanges we do not necessarily reflect the most profound and most strategic changes, but those that are currently the issues of greatest current publicity. I shall consider what appropriate mechanism there may be for this matter to be ventilated. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully determined to make sure that we achieve a liberalisation of trade and that we secure an opportunity to export for the growing service sector within the United Kingdom. At the same time, we are sensitive to the need to make sure that it happens in a way that promotes rather than hinders the development of those countries that are yet to develop.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Until now members of the public have accepted that there is a genuine need to provide asylum to those who fear for their lives. In the light of the tragic death of the police officer in Manchester and the apprehension of persons from north Africa, some will look at asylum now as the Trojan horse for terrorism. Will the Home Secretary make a statement on the subject of our current asylum procedures, so that the House may have an opportunity to probe the thoroughness, preparedness and resources at our disposal to deal with the mounting terrorism threat?

Mr. Cook

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his sound bite, but I cannot congratulate him on his responsibility. It is a cheap and irresponsible form of politics to try to label all asylum-seekers as if they may be terrorists. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Hon. Members should let the Leader of the House answer in the way that he pleases.

Mr. Cook

I would have more respect for the perspective being argued from the Opposition Benches if it were not the same party that only last year tried to prevent us from having a new rule which would enable us to deport asylum-seekers guilty of a serious offence. The right hon. Gentleman should look at the record of his own party before trying to turn this to political advantage.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

I apologise for the brief blast of Beethoven from my phone.

May I reiterate the request to my right hon. Friend for a specific debate on the general principle of British involvement in missile defence, which was requested yesterday by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benches? We know from my own early day motion that there is concern amongst over half the Parliamentary Labour party, the vast majority of Labour Back Benchers. The public believes that this is an important decision, which in a democracy should be properly discussed in this Chamber. It is wholly inadequate to reduce it to passing references during a debate on defence in the world, in which inevitably issues such as Iraq will correctly predominate.

Mr. Cook

I understand the strength of feeling on this issue and also fully understand the complexity of the arguments on both sides of the question. But, on the narrow question of process, five days are set aside each Session for defence, and we meet those mandatory requirements in each Session. Moreover, there are many additional days on issues of topicality, such as Iraq, which I am sure we will debate again. What my hon. Friend said about the Opposition having demanded such an opportunity was an interesting observation. I find it strange that instead they have chosen to debate herbal medicines next week.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

The Leader of the House may or may not be aware that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution on a paper of mine calling for a convention against clandestine migration. In view of the serious security implications of this matter, and notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's intemperate response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), whose comments were entirely apposite, could not the Home Secretary tell the House that the Government will be following the recommendations of the convention, because surely the general public deserve it?

Mr. Cook

The United Kingdom plays a distinguished part in both the Assembly of the Council of Europe and its meetings at ministerial level, and will continue to do so. Of course, we shall take very seriously any recommendation by the Assembly for such a convention. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made a statement to the House yesterday, quite rightly and quite properly, in the immediate aftermath of the appalling murder, and of course he will continue to keep the House fully briefed. But, in fairness to those many people who seek legitimate asylum from illegitimate persecution in the countries from which they flee, we should not now start to tar them all with the terrorist brush.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent)

Last week, I requested a debate on the sell-off of part of the defence evaluation quango, QinetiQ, to the Carlyle Group. I argued that such a debate was necessary because of the secretive way that the procedures have been adopted by placing minutes in the Library before the recess in July and December last year. The Leader of the House refused to hold the debate as he was of the opinion that the procedure had been open and had been done through a statutory instrument. However, the statutory instrument referred to March 2001, whereas I was referring to minutes being placed in the Library in July and December 2002. I am pleased that the Speaker has informed me that Parliament was notified by item 12 in appendix I of the Votes and Proceedings of 17 December last year. That is hardly essential breakfast reading. Because of money involved—underwriting about £100 million—will the Leader of the House rethink and perhaps agree to hold a debate on such an important matter?

Mr. Cook

It is perfectly correct to say that I did not apprehend at the time that a minute had been deposited in the Library and, as my hon. Friend will see if he consults the report of what he said at the time, that may partly reflect the fact that he did not make it clear in his question either.

On the process on that occasion, the Ministry of Defence has followed the standard procedure where a Government liability is being created in excess of £100,000, which is to place the minutes in the Library. The fact that that was done on the day before the recess has, of course, no bearing on the fact that the period for objection is 14 sitting days, not 14 calendar days, and therefore it is of no procedural significance whether it was done before or after the recess. I can only suggest that, if my hon. Friend wishes to force such a debate, he and his friends need to ensure that there are sufficient objections, and we will consider the issue in the light of that at the end of the 14 sitting days.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Does the Leader of the House not find it incredible that the only group of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom who will have the opportunity to consider and vote on a substantive motion in advance of military action in Iraq are Members of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, on the back of a Scottish National party motion? Will he endorse the view of his colleague, the First Minister of Scotland, who says that Labour Members who vote against Government policy do not deserve to be in the Labour party?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to disagree with the hon. Gentleman on all the points that he makes. First, it is not the case that only Members of the Scottish Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on a substantive motion. For the record, I should say that we had a substantive motion in the House before Christmas. Indeed, there was a vote on that substantive motion and, by a very large majority, the House endorsed the Government's strategy in ensuring that we fully support the United Nations process and UN resolution 1441.

The Foreign Secretary has already made it clear, as I mentioned earlier, that the Government have no difficulty at all with the idea that there should be a further substantive motion and, if hon. Members wish to divide the House, a vote on the commitment of troops at the appropriate time. Of course the Scottish Parliament will have views, and those who have a view to express and have formed intelligent opinions about the policy on Iraq will have an opportunity to debate them. However, I am pleased to reassure the House that Britain's foreign policy will be settled in this Chamber, not in the Scottish Parliament.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the dispute that has apparently arisen between the World Health Organisation researchers at Leiden university in Amsterdam and the International Air Transport Association about whether airline companies are helping or hindering vital research into deep-vein thrombosis and air travel? Given that the British taxpayer is funding that research, will he bring the issue to the attention of his right hon. Friends, with a view to reporting back to the House?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend takes a deep interest in this matter and has alerted the House to it on several occasions during business questions. As he will know, the Government share his apprehension and concerns, which is why we have been one of the countries willing to fund the international research, and we will continue to give that support. We should not prematurely judge the outcome of that research until it is available to us. I can assure my hon. Friend that nothing said in the meantime will deflect the Government from our commitment to ensuring that we have full, thorough international research, partly funded by the United Kingdom.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

Although many hon. Members—at least those on the Conservative Benches—strongly support the Prime Minister's policies on the promotion of international law and order, are they not a terrible contrast with the Government's complete and lamentable failure on domestic law and order policies? Will the Leader of the House arrange for an urgent debate on the Government's crime and law and order policies to be held as soon as possible? Will he ensure that, during that debate, we hear from the as yet unnamed but widely quoted senior Labour Minister who described the Lord Chancellor—I think that I quote him exactly—as a muddled and confused old codger?

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Own up.

Mr. Cook

I am happy to respond by saying, no, it was not me. I am very pleased to tell the House that, among my many responsibilities, I do not number the obligation of disclosing the sources of the press, which is probably as well for the press because, in my experience, quite a lot of what we read in the press is made up in the bar.

On the Government's record on crime, I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that, according to the British crime survey, crime has declined by 27 per cent. in the past five years. That is a stark contrast to the way in which crime doubled during the years when the Conservatives were in office.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Following the question about asylum asked by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), would my right hon. Friend accept that there are many innocent victims of the culture that he was right to decry? Would not a debate on asylum give us an opportunity not only to consider the obligation that the Government and the country have to maintain civil liberties, but address the needs of people, such as my constituent, Erald Angoni, who is a 10-year-old Kosovan who cannot visit his dying grandfather because of the current clampdowns? Would my right hon. Friend accept that a debate on that matter could have benefits for those who are concerned about that part of the argument?

Mr. Cook

Of course I cannot comment on the individual constituency case to which my hon. Friend refers, but there are other ways in which he can seek to ventilate and remedy that problem. On the wider question, there is probably no other single issue that the House has discussed more in the past Session than asylum, and I would be very surprised if we did not continue that debate during this Session. My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right: it is important that we get the balance right between carrying out our international obligations to provide refuge for those who are fleeing persecution and safeguarding the civil liberties of the people of Britain, who also, of course, have perfectly reasonable grounds to expect that the Government will ensure that people do not abuse the asylum system by entering it for reasons other than to seek protection.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker