HC Deb 23 January 2003 vol 398 cc435-52 12.31 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May I ask the Leader of the House please to give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 27 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Followed by a motion to establish a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department.

TUESDAY 28 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Railways and Transport Safety Bill.

WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY—Motion to take note of the outstanding reports of the Public Accounts Committee to which the Government have replied. Details will be given in the Official Report.

THURSDAY 30 JANUARY—Opposition Day [4th]. There will be a half-day debate on humanitarian contingency for Iraq on an Opposition motion.

FRIDAY 31 JANUARY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

MONDAY 3 FEBRUARY Remaining stages of the European Parliament (Representations) Bill.

TUESDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Consideration of the First Report Session 2002–03 (HC 171) from the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform.

WEDNESDAY 5 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Police Grant report (England and Wales) 2003/2004.

Motions on the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2003/2004 and the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2001/2002: Amending Report 2003.

THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

FRIDAY 7 FEBRUARY—Private Members' Bills.

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

THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY—Debate on Southern Africa food crisis.

THURSDAY 13 FEBRUARY—Debate On legal and advice service tackling social exclusion.

THURSDAY 27 FEBRUARY—Debate on the nineteenth Report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Session 2001–02 on the New Towns; their Problems and Future (HC 603) and the Government Response (CM 461).

On Thursday 16 January, I informed the House that it was planned to hold the next meeting of the Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe on Wednesday 29 January at 2.30 pm to consider the fifth and sixth reports of the United Kingdom representatives to the Convention. To avoid a clash with a pre-arranged meeting of the Praesidium of the Convention, it is now proposed that the Committee on the Convention on the Future of Europe meet instead on Wednesday 12 February at 2.30 pm.

The information is as follows:

PAC Report 2001–02
Report No. Title of Report Publication Date
1st Managing Risk in Government Depts 23 November 2001
2nd Improving Construction Performance 5 December 2001
3rd The Cancellation of the Benefits Payment Card Project 6 December 2001
4th The Renegotiation of the PFI-type Deal for the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds 12 December 2001
5th MOD: Major Projects Report 2000 28 November 2001
6th MOD: Major Projects Report 2000—The Role of the Equipment Capability Customer 28 November 2001
7th Sale of Part of the UK Gold Reserves 19 December 2001
8th OFWAT: Leakage and Water Efficiency 4 January 2002
9th Tackling Obesity in England 16 January 2002
10th The Acquisition of German Parcel 11 January 2002
11th OFGAS: Giving Domestic Consumers a Choice of Electricity Supplier 17 January 2002
12th The Radiocommunications Agency's Joint Venture with CMG 23 January 2002
13th Regulating Housing Associations' Management of Financial Risk 9 January 2002
14th The Millennium Dome 1 February 2002
15th How English Further Education Colleges can Improve Student Performance 7 February 2002
16th Access to the Victoria and Albert Museum 14 February 2002
17th MOD: Maximising the Benefits of Defence Equipment Co-operation 15 February
18th Inland Flood Defence 1 March
19th Ship Surveys and Inspections 15 March
20th Educating and Training the Future Health Professional Workforce for England 8 March
21st Better Value for Money from Professional Services 14 March
22nd The Channel Tunnel Rail Link 21 March
23rd Inland Revenue Appropriation Account 1999–2000 22 March
24th MOD: Risk of Fraud in Property Management 20 March
26th Better Regulation: Making Good Use of Regulatory Impact Assessments 12 April
27th Medical Assessment of Incapacity and Disability Benefits 10 April
28th Better Public Services Through Joint Working 18 April
29th Non-Competitive Procurement in the Ministry of Defence 19 April
30th The Auction of Radio Spectrum for the Third Generation of Mobile Phones 26 April
31st Postcomm: Opening the Post 1 May
Report No. Title of Report Publication Date
32nd The Implementation of the National Probation Service Information Systems Strategy 3 May
33rd Income Tax Self Assessment 9 May
34th Policy Development: Improving Air Quality 24 May
35th Losses to the Revenue from Frauds on Alcohol Duty 17 May
36th Progress on Resource Accounting 19 June
37th Handling Clinical Negligence Claims in England 13 June
38th NIRS2: contact extension 7 August
39th Giving Confidently: The Role of the Charity Commission in Regulating Charities 3 July
40th NHS Direct in England 10 July
41st Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2001 4 July
42nd Managing the relationship to secure a successful partnership} in PFI projects 1 July
43rd The use of funding competitions in PFI projects: The Treasury Building 17 July
44th The misuse and smuggling of Hydrocarbon Oils 18 July
45th Inpatient and Outpatient Waiting in the NHS 18 September
46th Inappropriate adjustments to NHS Waiting Lists 18 September
47th The New Landfill Tax Credit Scheme 25 July
48th Helping to reduce world poverty 31 July
49th Ensuring that policies deliver value for money 31 July
50th Pipes and Wires 8 August
51st Agricultural fraud: the case of Joseph Bowden 22 August
52nd e-Revenue 29 August
53rd Reducing prisoner reoffending 5 September
54th Improving public services through e-services 28 August
55th Fraud and Error in Income Support 11 September
56th Ministry of Defence Combat Identification 21 August
57th The operation and Wind-up of Teesside Development Corporation 14 August
58th Improving Student achievement and widening participation in higher education in England 12 September
59th Delivering the commercialisation of the public sector 15 August
60th Royal Travel by air and rail 4 September
61st The management of surplus property by trusts in the NHS in England 19 September
62nd The New Deal for Young People 9 October
63rd Construction of Portcullis House, the new Parliamentary Building NB Replied to by House of Commons as an HC Paper 24 July

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that statement, and particularly for the news about the Praesidium, which I am sure excited us all hugely.

Today being Thursday—[HON. MEMBERS: "Well spotted"]. I see that I have woken up some hon. Members.

Today being Thursday, we have of course had departmental questions from 11.30 am to 12.30 pm, and now we shall have business questions for however long you deem appropriate, Mr. Speaker. Then a statement is to follow.

By my calculations, that means that for the legislative business before us, a very important Bill to which we are supposed to give our full legislative attention as a House of Commons, we shall have about three and a half hours to consider the seven groups of amendments that you have selected, Mr. Speaker. The arithmeticians among us will readily calculate that that is about 30 minutes per group. That is the amount of time the Government have seen fit to allow the House to do its job of scrutinising legislation—30 minutes for each group of amendments to a Bill for the entire House to give its attention, including all speeches and all consideration. That is the result of the so-called modernisation process, whereby to get Members out of this building as quickly as possible on Thursdays, we are now reduced to that sort of business.

If the Leader of the House will not turn back the clock—that is a bit much to expect at this stage—can we have protected time for our legislative duties? That is all I ask, given that we must have statements from Ministers and so on. Surely, it is more important that we do our job as a legislature than that we all go home early on Thursdays. Therefore, I ask the Leader of the House to give this matter his urgent attention, and I hope that he will give us an undertaking about protected time for legislation.

Yesterday, as reported at column 322 of Hansard, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) pointed out that a written ministerial statement by the Deputy Prime Minister has been sneaked out on the very important subject of reduced right-to-buy discounts—something that affects all Members of Parliament and their constituents—yet, to date, we have no opportunity to question the Deputy Prime Minister. We are left with the written ministerial statement and, so far, nothing else. Is that how we shall conduct our business in future? Is the Deputy Prime Minister afraid of the House? Is he ashamed of what he said in his written ministerial statement?

Why is the Deputy Prime Minister allowed to hide behind the written ministerial statement procedure and not come to the House to say what he wants to do and be questioned by Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents? That is the missing piece in all this. I do not want to hear the Leader of the House say, "Oh well, written ministerial statements are better than the old planted questions", which were their predecessors. I want him to tell us when the Deputy Prime Minister will come to the House to answer for his policies, instead of hiding behind that sordid little parliamentary device.

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that during business questions on 16 January, duly recorded at columns 819 and 820 of Hansard, I raised the matter of the Secretary of State for Defence having somehow allowed to get out into the public domain the matter of Fylingdales on which he was going to make a statement the following day.

On 20 January, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight)—who is in his place beside me—returned to this issue and said with regard to the Secretary of State for Defence that the statement on troop deployment was widely trailed in the Sunday newspapers and in today's media. This appears to be a recurring pattern with the current Secretary of State. As reported in the same column of Hansard, one of your Deputies, Mr. Speaker, said: Mr. Speaker is well aware of the matters to which he has referred, and is deeply concerned about them. I understand that he intends to take them up with the Ministers concerned."—[Official Report, 20 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 47.] That was bad enough, but on 22 January—yesterday—my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) was again obliged to raise a point of order with you, Mr. Speaker, in which he said that on the BBC News website, there was a headline saying "University Funding Shake-up Unveiled. So what the Secretary of State for Education and Skills was going to say in the House was widely known in the media before he came here. You, Mr. Speaker, said: I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern about this matter. He has written to me; I shall investigate and report back to the House."—[Official Report, 22 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 320.] The Leader of the House shares with you, Mr. Speaker, a responsibility for guardianship of the role of the House of Commons vis-à-vis Ministers, but we are now witnessing casual, serial disregard of the role of the House by Secretaries of State. I should like to hear from the Leader of the House what is he going to do—along, I hope, with you, Mr. Speaker—to force Secretaries of State to drop that practice, to have proper regard to parliamentary process and to come to the House to allow Members of Parliament to hear matters before the rest of the world hears about them.

Mr. Cook

I think that I can begin by agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman that this is Thursday—everything else is rather more conditional than that.

First, we rise at 6 o'clock on Thursdays because the House voted for that, and I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it did so by the largest majority for any of the propositions on which the House voted on that day. I would totally deprecate any suggestion that Thursday therefore becomes some kind of second-class day; it is a full day of parliamentary time. It is very important to demonstrate to the world that we are taking business on Thursdays in the same way as we do on any other sitting day at Westminster.

On the statement on the right to buy, I cannot but rise to the right hon. Gentleman's claim that this is a sordid device. It is vastly more transparent and open than the system of planted questions that it replaced and which was used extensively by the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the 18 years when they were in office. It has always been the case that at times Government statements will be made in written form in Hansard rather than orally from the Dispatch Box. As for yesterday, when the written statement was made, there was a full, major oral statement on higher education in the House. It is simply not possible for me to arrange for every Government statement to be done orally from the Dispatch Box. If it were, I would have the right hon. Gentleman complaining that we did not have enough time to scrutinise legislation properly. I am pleased to inform the right hon. Gentleman that the Deputy Prime Minister answers questions in the House next Wednesday and will be happy to answer questions on the right to buy or any other issue. As a result of the changes and modernisation, which the right hon. Gentleman constantly deprecates, it is now possible for Members, having seen that written statement, to table an oral question on that subject in time for the exchanges next week.

On the issue of press speculation before oral statements in the House, the reports in the press that preceded the statement on troop deployments did not in any way reflect the full nature of the statement. Many were quite wrong. None was accurate about my right hon. Friend's statement. The statement on the BBC website about the forthcoming higher education statement was wildly wrong. I cannot stop the BBC and newspapers speculating about what might be said in Parliament. We live in a free country with a free press. I was gratified when I tuned in to the "Today" programme on the day of the higher education statement to hear it lament that it had been unable to get a Minister to come and comment on the forthcoming statement. I welcome that. It shows that Ministers fully understand the importance of speaking to this House before the media.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I support the request for a debate on the forced sale of rented accommodation at a substantial discount in areas such as the south-west? It has caused untold misery to those seeking affordable housing. It is a proper request and I am delighted that the Conservatives would wish to expose their absurdity in that particular matter.

Will the Leader of the House take the opportunity now or at least before the debate announced for 4 February to reiterate the Government's position on the reform of the House of Lords? I do not know whether in his busy morning he had an opportunity of to read the speech—I suppose it was a speech, but it was actually an extraordinarily bloodcurdling diatribe—from the Lord Chancellor. Yesterday in the other place the Lord Chancellor referred to an imaginary centre of gravity. It is the centre of gravity which the Leader of the House is constantly urging us to reach. On a number of occasions during that extraordinary speech the Lord Chancellor made peculiar references to the issue of hybridity. For example, he referred to my mission in this debate to save us from the parliamentary disaster of hybridity."—[Official Report, 22 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. 831W.] He then made some other references to that. Does the Leader of the House accept that in making this extraordinary statement the Lord Chancellor has not only ignored the mandate of the Labour Party at two successive general elections, but torn up the White Paper to which he put his own name and which advocated hybridity and mixed membership, and ignored the advice of the royal commission set up by the Government, the Public Administration Select Committee of this House and the report of the Joint Committee of both Houses which, in theory at least, his House was debating yesterday as we did on Tuesday? Can the Leader of the House now give us an absolute guarantee that the Members of the other place, who after all have a lot of self-interest in this matter, will not be allowed a veto—that the turkeys will not be allowed to vote against Christmas?

Mr. Cook

First, I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support for the measures that we are taking to curb abuse of the right to buy—[Interruption.] Abuse is the correct word. Private speculative companies are going round putting up money on an agreement with tenants that they will purchase the houses from them three years subsequently. That is happening, and I would be sorry if any Member of the House, even among the Conservative party, did not recognise that that is an abuse, and one that we are right to try to curb. The hon. Gentleman said that in some areas of acute housing demand, a real crisis of social housing is being created. That is why, in a limited number of target areas, the Deputy Prime Minister has acted. Some of his proposals will require primary legislation, full debate and examination in this House, in the course of which the hon. Gentleman will have other opportunities to make those excellent points, with which we fully agree.

I have not, as yet, studied fully the Lord Chancellor's speech so I cannot therefore say whether it is a bloodcurdling diatribe. On the whole, however, bloodcurdling diatribes are better studied in the hours of darkness than in the morning. On the question of the centre of gravity, I stress to the House that it is important that all of us—this is not just a matter for me, the Lord Chancellor or the Government—try to identify our centre of gravity on 4 February. That will require Members to show some flexibility, not necessarily insisting on their first and best priority, but finding common ground with others on where the best compromise can be found with the largest support for reform of the second Chamber. I would be surprised if that compromise did not require some form of mixed membership. A year ago, the Government committed themselves to mixed membership of the upper House when we proposed 20 per cent. elected and 80 per cent. appointed. It is not my impression that that White Paper was unpopular because it proposed 20 per cent. elected members; the difficulty with public opinion was in relation to the 80 per cent. appointed. I am doubtful about whether we will remove those anxieties on the part of public opinion by going for 100 per cent. appointed.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate on the reopening of the custody suite at Chorley? It seems absurd that a population of 100,000—a constituency of 80 square miles—does not have lock-up facilities for the police, and that prisoners must be taken to Skelmersdale, which is way outside the constituency. That takes much-needed police off the streets: two policemen are required when someone is arrested.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the anxiety of my hon. Friend, which he expresses forcefully, on behalf of his constituents. In the first instance, as he will appreciate, this is a matter for the local police authorities, not for me, and it would be wrong for the Government to insist on the precise location of police cells. I am sure that his request will be well reported in his locality and will be heard.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

Inevitably, the Foreign Secretary's mind is on the fight against terrorism and the situation in Iraq. Can I urge, however, that he does not take his eye off Zimbabwe? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a Foreign Office Minister to come to the Dispatch Box next week? First, can the House be assured that we will veto Mugabe's visit to Paris, apparently on President Chirac's extremely unwise invitation? Secondly, can we have a fuller response than the one that we received in Westminster Hall, when Ministers said that they were sympathetic to tougher and tighter smart sanctions against the regime, including against business men who are funding that regime?

Mr. Cook

First, I say to the hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Right hon. Gentleman."] I stand corrected. May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I fully share his view on the importance of upholding the ban on travel by Mugabe and his associates? Currently, 79 of them are named in the EU ban, and it is important that that ban is upheld and observed by all 15 countries that voted for it, including France. In Monday's meeting of the General Affairs Council, I understand that there will be a debate on taking forward the extension of that ban, which will expire next month unless such a decision is taken. Britain will of course seek to make sure that that ban is extended, and I want that ban to be upheld fully by all member states of the European Union. We will continue to review what sanctions we can take against Zimbabwe that will bring home to the regime our total condemnation of the way in which it is behaving and our particular abhorrence of the way in which it is interfering, with political motivation, in the distribution of food. No civilised person could possibly uphold the idea that food should be denied to people because of the way in which they had voted in the past. We are, of course, also very sensitive to the fact that any decision that we take must not increase the hardship and suffering of the people of Zimbabwe. We want to show that Britain is on their side. Our enemy is not the people of Zimbabwe; our concern is the regime in Zimbabwe.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and all those involved in the decision on the fact that, today and for the first time, there will be a cross-departmental question time in Westminster Hall on youth policy? When he considers the future business for Westminster Hall, may I urge him to learn from this example and to consider whether we can hold many more of this type of question time?

Mr. Cook

I am very glad that we are holding the innovative cross-cutting question session. That is one of the products of the modernisation agenda that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) keeps condemning. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his part in pressing for this. I very much hope that hon. Members will take part in the session in the spirit in which it is offered. It will provide an opportunity for an informal, reflective exchange of views that can take place not necessarily with the party-political heat that is associated with this Chamber. I am conscious of the fact that the debate will be watched by much of the youth press and by many young people to see how seriously Parliament takes political issues and the political views of young people. If it is a success, as I hope that it will be, we will certainly look for opportunities to repeat this experiment in Westminster Hall.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

To return to the debate that the Leader of the House has announced for 4 February—the second leg of the two-day debate on House of Lords reform—he will recall that, in his important contribution to the debate on Tuesday, he repeatedly referred to the Labour manifesto that committed the party to a more democratic upper House. Against that background, can he give the House an unequivocal assurance that there can be no question of the Prime Minister voting for a wholly appointed second Chamber?

Mr. Cook

I would not seek to give an assurance on behalf of any Member of the House. Seven options will be before the House and any Member is open to vote for any of those seven options. I have made my position clear from the Dispatch Box, and I will do so again on 4 February. There is no collective Government view on the matter, and I would deprecate any attempts to read into the expression of view of any one member of the Government a collective view on behalf of everybody else.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East)

After yesterday's statement on higher education, will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on student funding? Many Labour Members seek reassurance from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills that his proposals to allow vice-chancellors to charge differing fees will not mean that kids from the poorest backgrounds will be priced out of going to the best universities.

Mr. Cook

I fully understand that there is great interest in the House in yesterday's statement. I am sure that we will have a number of other opportunities to reflect on and explore its proposals. I invite my hon. Friend to give credit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for those elements of the proposals that will particularly assist children who come from the socio-economic groups that are under-represented at university. First, pressure will be applied to make sure that all universities take seriously their obligations to ensure that they offer fair access and seek to open their doors to people who may not have traditionally gone to them. Secondly, the abolition of upfront fees will be a material consideration to students from poorer backgrounds. Perhaps most important of all, the reintroduction of maintenance grants will apply to the students that my hon. Friend mentioned. That means that 30 per cent. of all students will receive a maintenance grant of £1,000. At present, they do not get it, and it will make quite a difference to a number of students who are considering whether they can afford full-time education at university.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

May we add our congratulations to the Leader of the House on the decision to hold a cross-cutting debate on youth policy? I am sure that it will be a success. What other subjects is he considering for future debates? Will it be possible to hold questions on vocational education? I ask that, because he might not be aware that agricultural courses are being cut across the country. In my constituency, we have the proposed closure of Seale Hayne college, and it would be helpful if Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and from the Department for Education and Skills could come along to discuss access to agricultural education.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes his constituency point elegantly. I am not sure that it quite adds up to a case for a cross-cutting question session in Westminster Hall. However, I am sure that he will find other opportunities to pursue the matter.

On the hon. Gentleman's question about process, I welcome his support for the innovation that is taking place in Westminster Hall. We will look for other subjects of a broad cross-cutting character that might provide a parallel to the current experiment on youth questions. We will, of course, have to discuss the matter with the Chairman of Ways and Means and seek his agreement. We will carry forward the dialogue in the light of today's question session.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is almost a feeding frenzy in the City over the sale of Safeway. That has important ramifications for employment in west London where up to 1,300 jobs are at risk, with 2,000 to 3,000 jobs being at risk around the country. That could result in a near monopoly situation in the retail sector. Can we have an urgent debate on this matter in the coming week, so that we can examine the powers that the Government have to intervene in this matter?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to the many bids that are in for Safeway. I fully understand his constituents' apprehension about what that might mean in terms of employment in his region. We have well-developed mechanisms to maintain competition policy, and the Government have acted to make sure that we streamline and strengthen the requirements of competition policy. Any bid will have to be assessed through those mechanisms in the normal way. I certainly assure him that Ministers will be conscious of the consequences for employment of any such bid. Should there be significant consequences, we will want to look to how we can help any affected area in the way that we have repeatedly done wherever there have been employment consequences before.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

The week after next, we are due to debate the local authority grant settlement. Can the Leader of the House tell us when the final settlement will be announced? At the moment, representations are being made about how unfair the provisional grant is to Dorset in particular, and I would be interested to know when we will hear whether the Government have taken into account the representations that have been made. When will the people of Christchurch, who have been singled out in the whole west country by being effectively deprived of their right to buy, have the chance through their elected representative to make representations to the Government on this important issue?

Mr. Cook

The debate on the local government settlement takes place not next week, but the week after. I fully understand the importance of all hon. Members seeing the final settlement well in advance of the debate, and I will make sure that that point is conveyed to the Department.

On the other point that the hon. Gentleman raises, the written statement made it clear that some of the issues will be taken forward by order and that others will have to wait for primary legislation. Either way will give hon. Members the chance to make what representations they wish. In the event that Conservative Members wish to make representations against the steps that we are taking and to do so on behalf of those who are speculating unreasonably and abusing the system and to maintain the situation in which there is excessive pressure on social housing in their constituencies, I am sure that not only we will wish to hear that. Many of their constituents will wish to hear it, too.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

May we have an early debate on the role of political parties in helping the vulnerable? In particular, can my right hon. Friend arrange that all Members of Parliament from the borough of Redbridge are able to take part in such a debate? We would then be able to discuss the closure of the mental health day care centre in my constituency by the Conservative council in the London borough of Redbridge where the Leader of the Opposition is, of course, a Member of Parliament.

Mr. Cook

I am tempted to respond to my hon. Friend's proposal so that all of us can hear more fully of the difficulties of living with a Conservative council and about the priorities of those councils, which are not necessarily helpful to the vulnerable in the community. I recall that, last year, the Leader of the Opposition urged all Conservative Members to spend a week with the vulnerable in their constituencies. It is a matter of regret that, my opposite number, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, has not yet reported to us on his week with the vulnerable in Bromley. We might invite him to reflect on that and to report more adequately next Thursday when we meet again.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Will my right hon. Friend give more consideration to persuading Ministers to allow more notice to be given of the Committees considering statutory instruments and delegated legislation? At present, we have minimal notice and people are put on the Committees even though they do not want to serve and know nothing about the subject. However, there are also Statutory Instruments Committees for which we would like to volunteer because we are interested in the subject. It is not beyond the capacity of man to organise a system that provides a longer running time for such Committees. That would help to make the Committees meaningful rather than the charade that they are. That is particularly true for Northern Ireland matters where whole Acts of Parliament are considered in Statutory Instrument Committees. Finally, the Northern Ireland Grand Committee is due to meet. What will be its business?

Mr. Cook

On the period of notice, I am advised by the Deputy Chief Whip that that has been doubled from the traditional one week to two weeks for Statutory Instrument Committees. That should help hon. Members. Indeed, it is unusual for us to have more than two weeks' notice of forthcoming business.

On Northern Ireland Orders, we are conscious of the problem for the House, and the particular problem for those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies, of trying to replicate the system of consideration that was available when the Northern Ireland Assembly was in being. We are frank about the fact that we cannot do that in full, but we are considering ways in which the Northern Ireland Grand Committee could be strengthened and whether there are other ways to handle the problem.

Andrew Mackinlay

What business is planned for the Northern Ireland Grand Committee?

Mr. Cook

When I have the details, I will ensure that my hon. Friend is advised of them.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Leader of the House is concerned about whether this country, together with the United States, enters into a conflict in Iraq. He knows that all hon. Members are also increasingly concerned about it and interested in it, as are the people of this country. Despite the Government's right to use the royal prerogative, is not it possible for the House to have the opportunity to debate Iraq and whether we should enter into a conflict with it on a substantive motion so that our people, especially the forces that will be committed, know that our troops have the full support of the House and the people of this country in the event of war?

Mr. Cook

As I have said a number of times, it is inconceivable that any Government would commit British forces to action without the full support of the House of Commons. No Government would commit forces to military action in the event of any doubt about that support.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have repeatedly said that we have no problem with a vote on a substantive motion on the commitment of forces. We would welcome that and would arrange it. However, we have a responsibility to the military forces on the precise timing of that. If it can be done in advance, then good and well, but there are obvious inhibitions on introducing a motion that commits British forces to a secret attack at 2 am next Thursday. We must have some flexibility on when the vote may take place. There is no doubt in our minds, and there can be none in the mind of any hon. Member, that action involving military forces must be taken with the support of the House.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I bring to the attention of the Leader of the House early-day motion 558?

[That this House remembers with deep sadness the Omagh bombing of 15th August 1998 in which 31 people, including seven children and two unborn babies, were murdered by the Real IRA; commends the courage of the families of the victims of this bombing in launching an unprecedented civil legal case against five named individuals, suspected of planting the bomb, and the Real IRA; urges the public to continue to contribute to the Omagh Victims' Legal Trust which still requires money to fund the case, expected to be heard in Belfast High Court later this year; and condemns the decision to grant legal aid to two of the suspects, Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell, who are both known to be very wealthy men as a result of their lifelong involvement in terrorist activity.]

According to the Daily Mail, two suspects for the Omagh bombing, Michael McKevitt and Liam Campbell, believed to be prominent leaders of the Real IRA and who have become wealthy men through terrorist crime, are to be granted legal aid paid for by British taxpayers. The early-day motion condemns that. It is outrageous that legal aid should be provided for those suspected of being responsible for the murder of 29 people and two unborn children when private finance has to be raised to support the victims of that crime who can get justice only through an unprecedented civil action. Can time be made available to consider whether the legal aid regulations require amendment so that suspects and victims are treated equally under the law?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern and I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of his question. I think all hon. Members will agree that, as a matter of principle, anyone who is brought before our courts and charged with a serious offence, such as murder, should be defended. That is an important principle of our criminal justice system. In the event that they cannot afford the defence themselves, it is right also that that should be made available to them at the expense of the state.

The hon. Gentleman says that the two accused people are wealthy. If the Daily Mail or anyone else has evidence that they may not have made a full declaration of their assets to the Legal Aid Board, I urge them to share that with the police and the Legal Aid Board. A false declaration not only cheats the legal aid system, but is a criminal offence.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

On Tuesday, I mistakenly criticized your office, Mr. Speaker. I also made another error at column 258 when I wrongly claimed that Lord Lipsey had changed his view on the composition of the House of Lords, for which I apologise. I have also written to him to apologise. Will the Leader of the House allow me an apportunity to set the record straight by confirming that the noble Lord has not changed his unfortunately mistaken views following his elevation to another place?

Mr. Cook


Andrew Mackinlay

Say, "I agree. I concur with my hon. Friend."

Mr. Cook

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his prompt. He will forgive me if I do instandly reach out for it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) has had the opportunity to put right the record on Lord Lipsey's views. I am sure that he will be appropriately grateful to her for that. I doubt whether her exchange with him has changed either his views or her own. Going through the debate of the past two days, however, I was encouraged to note that about one in three of those who spoke in the other place expressed some support for an elected element within the second Chamber. That is substantial progress on the position a year ago. Although Lord Lipsey may not have changed his views, I am encouraged that there is a certain tide—or at any rate a gentle breeze—in the second place which we must try to encourage.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on job losses, because it would give me an opportunity to highlight the unfortunate decision announced by Powergen this week to make 210 of my constituents redundant at the facility in London road, Rayleigh? I am sure that he will appreciate that I am extremely concerned about that decision and am keen to do what I can to protect my constituents' interests, including by raising the matter in the House.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to express the concerns of his constituency and community at that loss of jobs. I assure him that, as always, Departments will be willing to consider what might be appropriate by way of assistance to his community to cope with the consequences of a localised redundancy of that order. We are well aware of the difficulty that individuals and communities face as a result of job losses, but we take some pride in the fact that since we have been in office, 1.5 million more people are in work than there were at the time of the 1997 general election, 250,000 of whom came into work in the past year alone.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

I thank my right hon. Friend for making time for a debate on defence yesterday, when many of my hon. Friends and colleagues made a series of excellent speeches against a war with Iraq.

The hon. Member for Congleton—

Sir Nicholas Winterton


Ms Abbott

I apologise.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir N. Winterton) said that it is important to have a vote in the House on a substantive motion. It is also important that that should take place before British troops are dispatched to war. The House is aware that there is no precedent for that in recent times, but it is highly unlikely that the tens of thousands of American and British troops massed on Iraq's borders will attack in secret, as my right hon. Friend suggested. The country does not understand why it is possible to dispatch British troops in such a major deployment without a vote in the House on a substantive motion before it happens.

Mr. Cook

First, my hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that the House had an interesting debate yesterday in which the issues were again fully ventilated. That was one of a number of debates in the House on the subject, including one before Christmas when the Government put a substantive motion before it. At that time, the House massively endorsed our approach to ensure that we conduct the management of the crisis in Iraq through the United Nations, to which it also gave its full support.

I have no doubt that the House will discuss the issue on a number of other occasions. Indeed, this Administration was punctilious in ensuring that it had many opportunities to discuss issues that affected the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan and Kosovo. We will certainly do the same in relation to Iraq. Whether the vote on the commitment of military troops will take place before or after they are put into action will be judged at the time, but there can be no question whatsoever of the British Government committing British troops if there is any doubt about us securing support for that within the House of Commons.

It is important that we remember also that the matter may not necessarily end with the commitment of military troops. The strategy for which we voted involved ensuring that we uphold the UN resolution. If we can secure the compliance and co-operation of Saddam, there will be no need for the UN to authorise military action to uphold that resolution. The key to making progress and avoiding war rests not in this Chamber, but with Saddam Hussein in complying with his obligations under the resolution.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we please have an urgent debate in Government time on the effect of prison overcrowding on rehabilitation programmes for persistent offenders? Given that the prison population is projected to rise from approximately 72,000 now to 109,000 by 2009, that purposeful activity in prisons has consistently declined since this Government took office in 1997. and that 84 per cent. of 14 to 17-year-old thrice-convicted offenders are reconvicted within two years of their release from custody, is not it important that this House has the opportunity to debate the centrality to public policy of rehabilitation programmes if we are to create a peaceful society and the law and order for which all democratically elected legislators rightly pray?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about overcrowding in prisons; it is shared on both sides of the House. I also absolutely agree with him that arranging creative and constructive activities to assist rehabilitation in prisons is more difficult when wardens are stretched and there is stress as a result of overcrowding. We are certainly considering ways to ease that overcrowding. Indeed, 3,000 new prison places will come on stream over the next year.

Having said that, I must say to the hon. Gentleman, who often takes a courageous and bold idiosyncratic stance—

Mr. Forth

And wrong.

Mr. Cook

One can see the amount of courage the hon. Gentleman requires by the support he gets from his Front Benchers. I shall try to give him more support than he gets from his right hon. and hon. Friends. It would help us to minimise the threat of overcrowding in prisons if we were not urged so often by Conservative Members to lock up even more people, and criticised by them when we do not do so.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the job losses announced by BAE Systems earlier this week: 265 on the Clyde and 700 in Barrow. Despite the work of the unions, Scottish Enterprise, Glasgow city council, the Scottish Parliament and the elected representatives of the area, and an agreement struck last year to secure the present employment level, here we are again. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a debate on the losses and the company's conduct towards its employees?

Mr. Cook

As a fellow Scottish MP, I fully understand the enormous impact that that will have on my hon. Friend's community and on the wider region. I entirely share his concern. It is indeed a matter of deep regret that a commitment made last year has not been kept by the company. He will be well aware that we will be working with the Scottish Executive to consider whether there is any way in which we can be of assistance to the local community and to those most intimately affected.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Will the Leader of the House arrange either for a Home Office statement or for a substantive written explanation to be put in the House of Commons Library concerning the Prime Minister's answer yesterday to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who asked about drug crime in areas outside inner cities—the suburbs and the wider country? The Prime Minister said: we are ensuring that people who need drug treatment are given it".—[Official Report, 22 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 296.] I must inform the Leader of the House that the police recently told me that the waiting list for such treatment in Devon is more than 52 weeks. It would therefore enlighten the House to hear in more detail exactly what the Prime Minister meant in making that pledge yesterday.

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to assure the House and clarify that this Government have greatly increased the amount of funds going into the kind of drug treatment to which the hon. Lady referred. Indeed, recalling from memory, I believe that we are increasing the total volume by 50 per cent. There is of course pressure on the provision of residential treatment in particular. We are looking at how we can widen treatment, possibly by the use of alternatives to residential treatment. However, we have provided substantial additional resources and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so.

I was asked earlier about the business of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. I am delighted to be able to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay).

Andrew Mackinlay

I have some clout!

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend should never underestimate his clout, which is quite considerable and taken very seriously on these Benches.

I am advised that yesterday a decision was reached to have two sittings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. On 4 February, it will sit at 2.30 pm to discuss the Strategic Investment and Regeneration of Sites (Northern Ireland) Order 2003, and on 6 February it will meet to discuss the Budget (Northern Ireland) Order 2003.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Can we have an early and urgent statement by the Foreign Secretary, so that he can explain to the Scottish fishing community why his Department blocked any prospect of European Union compensation, seemingly to ensure that the British EU rebate would be secured? In that statement, would he describe the benefit to Scotland of being represented by a United Kingdom delegation, which has sold out not only the Scottish fishing industry but any prospect of EU compensation?

Mr. Cook

I rise wearily for the umpteenth time to try to explain to the hon. Gentleman, who represents the Scottish National party, the reality of the fishing industry: there will be no fishing industry if there are no fish.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East)

What a surprise.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is surprised by that, but I find that I am repeatedly obliged to make that point from this Dispatch Box.

It is as a result of that UK delegation that the degree of reduction was brought down from 80 per cent. to 45 per cent. Although, of course, I fully understand that the fishing community would have liked a further cut in the reduction, that would have been inconsistent with ensuring that cod stocks survive. I do not believe that that cut would have been secured by a delegation that did not have the clout of the combined United Kingdom behind it.

On the issue of compensation, the hon. Gentleman should not deceive his own people. He knows perfectly well that the British Government and the Scottish Executive are considering ways in which they can increase support for the fishing communities. Several millions of pounds have already gone their way over the past few years in order to compensate for the pressure on the fishing industry. There will be more coming. It is important, though, that we ensure that maximum added value is provided and that we do not end up with a formula by which that added value is then reduced by the rebate.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Given that the Royal College of Surgeons has suggested that there should be one accident and emergency unit for every 500,000 people; that that is regarded as having considerable weight by strategic health authorities all over the country; that that threatens A and E facilities from Northern Ireland to the Isle of Wight, including—particularly as far as I am concerned—hospitals in Hertfordshire; and given that the Government have things called diagnostic and treatment centres, which seem to be a booby prize when one's A and E is shut, will my right hon. Friend agree to have an early debate on such units in our health service?

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that a debate is required, as my hon. Friend has amply and fully made his point. There is a familiar and well-known dilemma in A and E provision—specialists in the field are clearly of the view and have some weight and evidence behind them—that the more specialised the centre, the better the chance of successful intervention. The more specialised centres will of course tend to be found in areas that have the largest populations to serve. At the same time, we must balance that with ensuring fair access to A and E facilities, which is not always consistent with locating them near very large populations. Any judgment on those two aspects is a difficult one to make. It is probably not best made at the centre but by each local health board. I very much hope that both issues will be weighed carefully in order to reach the right outcome.