HC Deb 06 March 2003 vol 400 cc957-74 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 will be a pleasure.

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

TUESDAY 11 MARCH—Estimates [2nd Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on the second report from the Foreign Affairs Committee on the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism.

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

WEDNESDAY 12 MARCH—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Bill, followed by debate on Welsh Affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.[Interruption.] I am glad that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) finds satisfaction with the business.

THURSDAY 13 MARCH—Motion to approve a money resolution on the Fireworks Bill, followed by motions to approve money and ways and means resolutions on the Marine Safety Bill, followed by debate on flood and coastal defence policy on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 MARcH—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

MONDAY 17 MARCH—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Bill 2003.

TUESDAY 18 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Extradition Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 MARCH—Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc) Bill.

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

THURSDAY 20 MARCH—Second Reading of the Waste and Emissions Trading Bill[Lords].

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

FRIDAY 21 MARCH—Private Members' Bills.

The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to any Act.

The House may wish to be reminded that the Budget statement will be made on Wednesday 9 April. The House will now sit on Friday 11 April and will, subject to the progress of business, rise for the Easter recess on Monday 14 April and return on Monday 28 April.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to the Leader for that information. Will he now do us the courtesy of telling us just why the Budget date has been so delayed? Why was the Budget date announced so late, and why was it sneaked out rather surreptitiously yesterday in a written ministerial statement? What is going wrong? Is the Chancellor ashamed of his Budget? Is he trying to avoid us in some way? Will the Leader come straight about this? Surely we and the country deserve an explanation rather than a series of late, sneaky and shamefaced announcements.

I should like to return to the dodgy dossier. I think that we need either a statement or a debate on its status and its provenance. I say that because on 10 February the Prime Minister, no less, said in a written answer: It is a Government document".—[Official Report, 10 February 2003; Vol. 399, c. 583W.] On 24 February, the Prime Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin): This was a Government document cleared in the normal way."—[Official Report, 24 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 254W.] On 27 February, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) asked about the dodgy dossier. The Leader of the House said:

I understand that the paper was not issued as a Command Paper and, therefore, the process of ministerial accountability for White Papers would not necessarily apply."—[Official Report, 27 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 412.] Surely if the dossier is a Government document, as the Prime Minister has said, with all the weight and significance that that implies, especially on a subject as important as Iraq, we must now know—I ask the Leader of the House to tell us now or to allow a debate on it—who saw the document, who authorised it, whether it was done at official level or whether a Minister is responsible for it, its contents and what it says. In the name of open government, please tell us who.

Mr. Cook

Over the past 50 years, there have been 22 Budgets in April. There is no particular delay in having another Budget in April; indeed, this Budget will be earlier than last year's Budget.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that there was no delay in the announcement. The Budget date was announced as soon as it was agreed. As Opposition Members appear concerned that there was delay in the announcement, I would have thought that they would welcome the fact that there was no attempt at concealment.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Chancellor's written ministerial statement. The normal practice has been to announce the Budget date in response to a planted question. As he knows, written ministerial statements are more transparent, more obvious and more clear. They replace the written parliamentary question. There is nothing different in the way in which this Budget has been announced from any preceding Budget.

I have nothing to add to what has already been said on the dossier. It was cleared in the normal way.

Mr. Forth

By whom?

Mr. Cook

I do not know, nor would I expect to know, who saw the document in advance—nor do I think that it is an important matter in relation to the debate on the severe and grave matters that concern us in international affairs. It would do Opposition Members more credit if they focused on the central grave questions that we face in international affairs, rather than picking at the edges in a desperate attempt to distance themselves from a policy that we are told they fully agree with.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I express my sincere sympathy to the Leader of the House, who has lost out again in his long-standing battle with the Chancellor? After the announcement, for the first time, of a long-term parliamentary plan to enable hon. Members to plan their work in their constituencies, and after the efforts, with the support of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, to have a proper diary for the business of the House, I hope that the Leader will agree that it is disappointing that the Chancellor seems to be responsible for planning the business of the House—or is it President Bush or Saddam Hussein? What will be the future of the programme that the Leader has announced? After all, many of the matters that he has announced today are not all that urgent. Are we to wait on the Chancellor's whim before we know what the business of the House will be? Is it not time to have some mechanism that will allow the House to take back control over its own business? I understand that the Scottish Parliament, which the Leader visited recently, has such a mechanism.

In discussions that I hope that the Leader will hold with Opposition parties—in which I hope he will allow Back Benchers to influence the business of the House—will he consider in particular the mental health Bill, which was referred to during last week's business questions? There should be consultation on that Bill—not only on its scope, but on its pre-legislative scrutiny and timetable. In that regard, will he look in particular at early-day motion 263, on the victims of schizophrenia?

[That this House welcomes the National Institute for Clinical Excellence's Technology Appraisal Guidance No. 43 on the use of newer, atypical antipsychotic drugs for the treatment of schizophrenia, issued in June 2002; believes that the guidance is a real step forward in delivering better care for those with schizophrenia; recognises the importance of ensuring that patients have an informed choice about their treatment options; recalls the NHS' statutory obligation to ensure that all NICE recommendations are implemented within three months of issue; notes the concerns raised at the Rethink severe mental illness conference, Only the Best in December 2002, over the slowness of implementation; and urges NHS trusts, health authorities and primary care trusts to ensure that sufficient funding is made available to implement the NICE guidance quickly and effectively to improve the lives of those with schizophrenia.]

Mr. Cook

I found value in my visit to the Scottish Parliament. I believe that there are things that the oldest of Parliaments can learn from the newest of Parliaments. I look forward with confidence, in the light of the success of the Scottish Parliament, to the reelection of the governing coalition. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman would attach himself to that wish for the coalition.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his sympathy, but, among the many things for which I may take responsibility, I have never pretended that I can set the date of the Budget.

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I do not think that I have made an especially contentious statement.

My responsibility is to ensure that the House can fully scrutinise the Government and fully debate the business that the Government put before it. That is why it is important that the House should have a full four days for debate after Budget day, as would normally be the case. I would not have thought that Opposition Members would begrudge one day of the recess to allow the opportunity for full scrutiny of what will be an excellent Budget.[Interruption.] I suggest that hon. Members should not tempt me too far; otherwise, I may suggest that, because of the Government's excellent record in soundly managing the economy, a fifth or sixth day of scrutiny may be well worth while.

I note what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) says about the mental health Bill. In fairness, I think that we have consulted more often than any previous Administration on arrangements for the introduction of Bills. I shall certainly bear in mind what he said about a Bill that has attracted deep and considerable interest not just in the House but among the public outside.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will my right hon. Friend assure us that there will be a debate in the House before Britain casts its vote at the United Nations for or against a war with Iraq? I have heard reports that arrangements are being made for the House to be recalled on Saturday 15 March, two days after hostilities will have begun in Iraq. The House will then be asked to approve what has already taken place. Can he set my mind at rest and assure me that the House will be able to vote on the propriety of a war with Iraq before British troops are committed to it?

Mr. Cook

I shall attempt to put my hon. Friend's mind at rest, but I anticipate that that is a serious undertaking that I have not previously managed to achieve.

I repeat from the Dispatch Box what has been said repeatedly by my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary: it is both our wish and our intention that there should be a vote in the House of Commons on the commitment of any British troops and that we want—the Foreign Secretary carefully explained why this is in the interest of the Government as well as that of the House—that debate and vote to take place before troops are put into action. Plainly, we have got always to reserve as our primary consideration the safety and security of our troops. However, subject to that necessary reservation—with which, I think, all Members would agree—we want that debate and vote to take place before there is any military action.

I am aware that a story about a Saturday debate is currently running in the press, and I have received questions about it. However, I do not recognise the suggestion. I am puzzled about why it would be necessary to have a recall on a Saturday given that the weekend to which my hon. Friend refers is preceded and followed by a sitting week of the House of Commons. I hope that we will be able to debate the matter in good time and at a time that will not inconvenience Members.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many members of the staff, who serve us so well, are obliged to take their holidays during parliamentary recesses? Is he aware that I have been approached, as a member of the Commission, by a number of staff who wonder why the Budget cannot be announced on the Tuesday or, indeed, the Monday of the week beginning 7 April? We could still sit on the Friday and have our four days of Budget debate. The staff, who serve us so well, would not have to cancel—sometimes at great expense—holidays that they have made in accordance with the conditions of service that we impose on them.

Mr. Cook

I am well aware that the Commission is examining the position of those members of staff who may be in the position to which the hon. Gentleman refers. However, I draw the House's attention to the fact that we have not yet passed any motion on the Easter recess. Indeed, the timetable that I produced last October—I was cautious when I announced it to the House—says that "all dates are provisional". There is a value in having provisional dates, but it is important to bear in mind the fact that they are provisional.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

I might as well tear up the dodgy diary.

Mr. Cook

I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman seeks to make.[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot see any reason for hon. Members to shout at the Leader of the House.[Laughter.]

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that you, Mr. Speaker, carried the House with you in that customary consensual intervention.

I put it to Conservative Members that it is perfectly plain that we need to make sure that the Budget is adequately scrutinised. I really would not have thought that they would object to spending one day of their recess considering the Budget debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Staff."] Nor, indeed, do I believe that the staff who serve this place well would wish to see consideration of the Budget skimped so that it is not properly considered.[Interruption.] If hon. Members let me continue, I will remind the House that, when we announced the parliamentary timetable, I made it plain that the first week of the recess would be a constituency week. I would not expect the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to complain at having to be dragged from his constituency to spend a day in this place debating Government business.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley)

Now that the Fire Brigades Union seems to be accepting the idea of modernisation, is it not time for hon. Members to begin to adapt themselves to the modernisation of this place rather than seeking continually to overturn the will of the House in respect of our new hours?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend draws attention to the fact that we are making progress on our discussions with the FBU about modernisation and the pay package. I hope that they are concluded successfully. She is correct to point out that we cannot lecture the rest of Britain on the importance of modernising and changing working practices if we are not willing to do so in a way that makes us more relevant to the world outside and more in touch with the lifestyles that our constituents lead.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney)

Is the Leader of the House aware that yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister used a written ministerial statement to withdraw completely the local authority social housing grant? May we have an urgent proper statement or debate on that? Local authorities in constituencies such as mine have done everything that they were meant to do—pay down their debt and transfer houses to housing associations—to provide low-cost accommodation for local people, but that is now impossible because of the Government's gerrymandering. They are taking money away from local authorities in the south and giving it to their own badly run authorities elsewhere.

Mr. Cook

I shall consider the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but let us not lose sight of the fact that the Government are spending three times more on social housing than the Conservative Government whom he supported. Within recent memory, we have had a statement on the future of housing, in which my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister announced a further £5 billion for social housing. Let there be no doubt about the Government's commitment to social housing. We are providing much larger sums than the Conservatives provided in the past or could ever provide in the future if they persist in their commitment to cut public spending by 20 per cent.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On the question of business, I regularly ask the staff what is on the agenda for next week. Usually, people in the post office and on the door know in advance what is likely to happen. My right hon. Friend said, although not in totality, that the House will not meet on a Saturday, yet when I came in this morning and asked, "Anything on the agenda?", the staff said, "Yes. There's a distinct possibility that we'll be having a vote about Iraq on a Saturday, so you'd better clear your desk." Is my right hon. Friend ruling that out completely, because, if so, it will be the first time that the staff have been wrong?

Mr. Cook

Plainly, I must spend more time in the Members' Post Office. Perhaps we can have next week's business statement there or in the Members' Lobby. I can only repeat that at present we have no plans to meet on a Saturday—[Interruption.] I am not seeking to provide the footnotes to the wriggle room; I genuinely have no plans at present to recall the House on a Saturday. Should such an eventuality arise, I anticipate that my hon. Friend would much rather that we were recalled and debated the matter than we did not debate it at all. At the moment, however, I do not anticipate that necessity.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

The right hon. Gentleman will know that informal consideration was given to holding the Report stage of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill the week after next, but that idea appears to have been dropped. Can he assure the House that, when he announces its Report stage, the Government will not use it to introduce anything that they may have agreed in this week's talks? Any further changes to the policing of Northern Ireland deserve to be in a Bill of their own and given proper consideration in both Houses rather than being sneaked into the Report stage of a Bill that has already been considered fully in another place.

Mr. Cook

As I understand the timetable for discussions in Northern Ireland, the parties to the agreement have gone away to consult their Members and their contacts. They will probably return in April, which is some way in the future. I am not aware of whether that will produce a requirement for fresh legislation or fresh legislative requirements. Should it do so, I anticipate that the House would want to ensure that any step necessary to consolidate an agreement is carried through expeditiously. I cannot anticipate at the moment whether there would be a specific vehicle for that or whether it would affect the Bill. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we attach high importance to the Bill. It is part of our agreements with Northern Ireland and we would wish to make reasonable progress on it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Given the awesome American weaponry lined up surrounding Iraq and the terrifying effects that the strategy—"shock and awe"—will have on the civilian population, it is essential that we have a debate before a week on Saturday, because everybody knows that the countdown to war has begun. We need that debate on a substantive motion so that hon. Members can express their view on whether or not we go to war.

Mr. Cook

I do not think that there is any difference between my hon. Friend and I on that point. Indeed, the Government—I, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary—have repeatedly said from the Dispatch Box that we would wish to bring before the House a substantive motion in the light of any Security Council resolution that may be agreed, and that we would want that to happen, if it was at all possible, in advance of any military conflict. That position stands. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government regard it as important not only to the House, but to themselves and to British troops, that they should have that decision by the House of Commons in the event of any conflict taking place.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Which of the political parties in Scotland does the Leader of the House believe will benefit most from the Budget statement being made in the middle of the Scottish election campaign?

Mr. Cook

I am confident that the Labour party will benefit most from the Scottish campaign in any event. I am slightly puzzled by the anxiety of the Scottish National party about the timing of the Budget statement. That anxiety makes sense only if the SNP assumes that a display of the sound economy of Britain, the strength of the economy under the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a positive Budget that is popular and well received in Britain and particularly in Scotland will jeopardise whatever small chances it has of taking control in Scotland. I welcome the hon. Gentleman's confidence in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and his confidence that it will be a positive Budget and a popular one in Scotland.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the number of UN personnel administering the oil-for-food programme in the north of Iraq has been reduced from 500 to 200, and that U K-based NGOs such as Christian Aid and Save the Children were advised last week by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to withdraw their personnel not only from Iraq but from Israel and Palestine? Will he urgently communicate this question to his right hon. Friends and discuss with them the potential humanitarian consequences for the 60 per cent. of people in Iraq who are dependent on that aid?

Mr. Cook

I am not aware of the figures that my hon. Friend quotes, but I will pass on her concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government attach high importance to the oil-for-food programme in northern Iraq, and I am confident that it would be able to continue even with a reduction in staff, provided that the resources continue to get through. It is striking that, under the UN's direct administration of the oil-for-food programme in northern Iraq, child mortality has gone down, the health of the population has improved and education levels have improved, in stark contrast to the way in which all those measures have gone in the opposite direction in the rest of Iraq, where it is Saddam, not the UN, who administers the programme.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Reverting to the wholly unsatisfactory arrangements for the Budget, does the Leader of the House recall saying on 29 October: I have been in the House for almost 30 years without ever being able to plan from one recess to the next when I can count on being away from Westminster. The motion will enable Members to make sensible arrangements more than two months ahead."—[Official Report, 29 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 697.] What does he now say to Members and Members' staff who took his advice and made sensible arrangements?

Mr. Cook

If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should not have that fourth day of debate on the Budget, I will be only too happy to consider it. I suspect that some of my hon. Friends will welcome that proposal. However, I think it is important that the House should fully scrutinise the Budget, and the job of scrutiny by hon. Members must take priority over the travel arrangements that we or our staff may have made. When I announced that diary in October, I made it plain that we were combining the constituency week with the Easter recess. For an important piece of Government business such as the Budget, it is not unreasonable that hon. Members should be in the House rather than in their constituency for only one day of that week. Even without that day, the Easter recess will be longer than most Easter recesses of the past four decades.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

May we have an early statement from Health Ministers on the funding of longterm care for the elderly? My right hon. Friend will be aware that the health service ombudsman recently completed an investigation and found that in four cases—probably out of hundreds, and perhaps thousands—very elderly people had to pay for their own long-term care, when the NHS should properly have paid. The matter concerns all Members. Many of their constituents are affected, and the Secretary of State for Health ought to be able to assure the House that health authorities and trusts are not misinterpreting the guidance sent out by the Department of Health.

Mr. Cook

It would indeed be a serious matter if local authorities were not properly applying the Department of Health's guidance. I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health would be happy to pursue the matter if my hon. Friend has specific cases in mind and can provide us with that data. On the broad issue, I assure him that the Government have increased the funding for social services throughout England and Wales by 6 per cent. per annum, compared with a serious restriction on the funds for those local authorities under the previous Government. The increase has enabled local authorities throughout England to carry through an increase in the fees that they pay for long-term residential care, in many cases up to 10 per cent. I regret that in some cases that has left nursing homes charging above the local authority contribution, but we are increasing the funds, the local authority is increasing the fees, and between us we will do all we can to meet the problem.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I can well appreciate that the Chancellor may have wanted to delay the date of the Budget until the end of the tax year to see just how bad the tax revenue situation is, but, given that he will have drawn those conclusions by 5 April, can the Leader of the House explain why we cannot have the Budget on the Monday of the week in question, so that instead of devoting just four days to scrutinising the Chancellor's bad stewardship of the economy we could devote five?

Mr. Cook

It is worth recalling, and I am sure the Chancellor will recall it when we meet on 9 April, that Britain has one of the lowest unemployment rates of any country in Europe, and the lowest that we have had for a generation; it has one of the lowest inflation rates anywhere in the industrialised world; and it has the fastest growth rate of any of the G7 countries. That is a splendid record, which was praised by the International Monetary Fund report earlier this week as an enviable record, and it is envied by the other industrialised nations. I am sure that when he speaks to the Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make sure that the House and the rest of the country fully understand the strength of the British economy as a result of his sound management.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is it not odd that whereas the large majority of our constituents will simply have Good Friday and Easter Monday off, there are complaints when we are to have a recess of two weeks, as my right hon. Friend mentioned? Why do Tory MPs complain time and again that the recess is too long—too short.[Laughter.] Many of us take the view that it would do no harm if the Easter recess were just one week.

Mr. Cook

I would not wish to put that last proposition to a vote. My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. Before we rise for the Easter recess, there will be a debate on the Easter Adjournment, to which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will reply, and there will follow three or four hours during which hon. Members will argue that we should not rise for the recess because there is an important and pressing issue to debate. When that event comes round this year, I expect that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will remind them that they have consistently and repeatedly objected to coming back for only one day to debate the Budget.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

You will notice, Mr. Speaker, that the House will be able to don the shamrock on 17 March. Will the Leader of the House make sure that a Foreign Office Minister replies to the debate on terrorism on Tuesday and tells us what steps have been taken to deal with the international weaponry that has been stored in the Republic of Ireland and used in terrorism, and the more recent developments that have told us throughout Ireland that there are international terrorist cells in various parts?

Mr. Cook

Of course, international terrorism will be considered in the debate on the report by the Foreign Affairs Committee. To the extent that the situation in Northern Ireland is relevant, it obviously can be considered both in the debate and in the response to it but, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be the first to agree, internal terrorism in Northern Ireland is not an international matter but is firmly one for the United Kingdom Government to pursue as a domestic issue. Plainly, there are international links, of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware, and I would be surprised if a Unionist Member did not contribute to the debate to highlight them.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Regardless of arrangements that may have been made for a debate on possible military action in Iraq, does my right hon. Friend agree that tomorrow's reports by Dr. Blix to the Security Council will be of crucial significance in determining people's attitudes to military action? In the light of that, is he of the clear opinion that next Wednesday it is more important to debate Welsh affairs than Dr. Blix's report?

Mr. Cook

The debate on Wales has already been deferred precisely so that we could debate Iraq—it was a casualty of our debate on Iraq the other week. It is important that my Welsh colleagues and Members who represent our voters in Wales should have an opportunity to explore Welsh issues.

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend about the importance of Hans Blix's report tomorrow. It is important that the world should hear from him at first hand what progress, or lack of it, he is making on the mandate that he was given by the Security Council. One of the reasons why we in Britain should take particular interest in what he says is that Britain, more than any other nation, was successful in taking the Iraq crisis on to the UN track, from which we secured the return of the weapons inspectors to Iraq. We shall therefore play close attention to what Hans Blix says tomorrow.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Can we have an early statement from the Foreign Secretary on whether the language of Security Council resolution 1441 and the draft resolution that was recently tabled in fact provide proper authority for war? In that context, the Leader of the House will have seen the letter today inThe Times from Professor Black, a distinguished jurist, saying that the language of 1441 does not provide a proper warrant for war and, furthermore, that the draft resolution, which we put before the Security Council, does not do so either. Surely we must probe that so that there is no misunderstanding about the legal basis for what the Government have in mind.

Mr. Cook

It is of course the right and duty of the House to probe the Government, and I do not doubt that in future debates on Iraq the right hon. and learned Gentleman may wish to make those points. However, I repeat to the House what has been said on a number of occasions, including most recently by the Prime Minister yesterday—there is no question of the Government taking any action that they believe to be contrary to international law. Should they take any action, they would only do so in the conviction that it is consistent with international law.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Could we have a debate next week on the report by the Office of Fair Trading about the pharmacy market that was published on 17 January? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the widespread concern in my constituency and elsewhere about the effects of that report? It is competition gone mad, and will mean the closure of many high street pharmacies and the domination of that market by Tesco and Asda. Could we have an urgent debate before the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who is sitting on the Front Bench, has to make a decision?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to tell to my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the House's deep concern about that matter, which has been raised in three successive sets of business questions—a useful barometer of opinion and concern in the House. After last week's exchanges, when it was raised by no fewer than four Members, we communicated to the Department for Trade and Industry the House's interest in the matter.

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are half way through the 90-day period for a Government response. The Government are consulting appropriate representative bodies on their response, and will consult again on any draft proposals that we make in response to the OFT report. I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully aware of the concern that the matter is causing in Members' constituencies, and want to take action consistent with our NHS plan to make sure that there is a successful and diverse range of pharmacies in every community in Britain.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the Leader of the House find time for the House as a whole to discuss the European Convention and its emerging proposals before they are cast in Giscardian tablets of stone and foisted on us as a putative constitution? Can the Government take into account the alarming divergent diplomatic postures of leading EU members, namely France and Germany, on the Iraqi crisis; and does that not call into question the principles of ever closer union, as enunciated in the Maastricht treaty, on which the Convention is based?

Mr. Cook

Of course we are well aware of the considerable interest in the House on the development of the Convention on the Future of Europe. After all, as a House, we are unusual in having two representatives who serve on the Convention independent of our Government representatives. We therefore set up a unique Committee for Back Benchers to which those House representatives can report and where debates can be held. That Committee has met at least twice, and a further debate is coming up in Westminster Hall. However, the issue is important, and cannot be debated too often. I shall certainly bear in mind when it may be appropriate for the House to consider it.

In the meantime, the nature of such bodies and international negotiations means that proposals change as they proceed, so one should not necessarily take what is on the table now as what will be there at the end of the day.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Is the Leader of the House aware that in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), on the Government's attempts to obtain a second UN resolution authorising war against Iraq even before the weapons inspectors had completed their second report, the Prime Minister said that in relation to the resolution, we are confident of securing the votes for that resolution and we will carry on working to that end."—[Official Report, 5 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 817.] Today, however, we read in the newspapers that the Government's confidence is remarkably misplaced and they are attempting to cobble together a compromise resolution. That is the third time this week that the Government's action or policy on Iraq has been reported first in the press—B-52 bombers are to be allowed to use our islands as a terrestrial aircraft carrier, and there is the particular incident to which I have previously referred. Can we have a debate, if not on Iraq itself, then on the Government's failure to inform the House of such changes before they inform the press? The issue is of overwhelming national concern, and the House has consistently been kept in the dark.

Mr. Cook

I cannot think of a single issue in the past three months on which we have had more statements in the House than Iraq. I am confident that there will be future occasions when Ministers will report to Parliament, and Parliament will be able to debate the matter.

The Government have a clear commitment to seek a Security Council resolution. We are in the lead in trying to secure such a resolution, and shall continue to work for it. When we secure such a resolution, we shall bring it to the House for a debate and approval on a substantive motion. That remains our strategy, and we are committed to it.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North)

With reference to the legislation that the Government intend to introduce Monday week on elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, can the Leader of the House give a commitment that there will be no further interference with the democratic process and the right of electors in Northern Ireland other than that which has already been announced, postponing elections from 1 May to 29 May? Furthermore, can he ask his colleagues to come to the House and give details of the paper, so far denied to representatives of the people of Northern Ireland who were not invited to the talks, on the deal that is currently under consideration, which consists of 29 pages and five annexes? Surely, the people of Northern Ireland have a right to know what has been discussed regarding the future of the Province. Can the Leader of the House give an assurance that he will publish that document and that it will be placed in the Library of the House so that the people of Northern Ireland can judge the merits or otherwise of the Government proposals?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly assure the House that when negotiations are concluded one way or another the Government will wish to make sure that the House is fully informed. I anticipate that at that moment there will probably be a statement to the House. At present, negotiations are proceeding among, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well, those who are party to the agreement. It is hardly surprising that those parties that have chosen not to be party to the agreement have been excluded from those talks and the documents, which are necessarily work in progress. When that work is concluded, the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House will share in the results.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the debate on the reform of the House of Lords has moved from unthinking muddle to profound confusion? Will he undertake to draft a motion, which the House might consider in an Adjournment debate, that would give us a chance to reflect thoughtfully on what has happened so far, and to see whether we can find a way forward that fulfils our commitment to democratise the second Chamber?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend has an unerring capacity to find the helpful question. May I remind hon. Members that this matter was put to the House last month, and in that debate I sought to give the House an opportunity to find a consensual way forward? I fear that we failed on that occasion to find any clear, commanding, compelling agreement on a particular form of reform.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

It is all the Prime Minister's fault.

Mr. Cook

No, it was the fault of every hon. Member who took part in the debate, in which we failed to find a majority for any single way forward on reform. As I have said since then, there will be no reform of the second Chamber until there is a majority in this Chamber for a particular way of reform. We shall certainly continue to look for that, but until we see the makings of such a majority, I think that it would be premature to bring the matter back to the House.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)

The Leader of the House will remember saying to me last week that the Prime Minister—unlike his predecessors—had better things to do than to spend time sitting in important House of Commons debates. That statement was followed 24 hours later by the biggest parliamentary rebellion since the 1800s. Does the Leader of the House think that there is a connection between those two events? Will he tell us whether the Prime Minister will join us in the House for the conclusion of the Budget debate in the first week of the recess?

Mr. Cook

I have not previously been charged with being personally responsible for the biggest rebellion in the past 100 years of parliamentary history, and I will reflect gravely on the charge that the hon. Gentleman makes. I would remind hon. Members that the Prime Minister has not only come to the House to make a full statement and to answer questions on Iraq, and dealt with the matter repeatedly in the course of Prime Minister's questions, but has taken a very close personal interest in how the House debates it. For that reason, he uniquely spent two hours in front of the Liaison Committee answering questions from senior Members of the House. That is something that no previous Prime Minister, whether Labour or Conservative, has ever done. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister will of course continue to take a very close interest in the Budget and in the debate that follows it.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

What impact is the rebellion of 122 MPs over the Iraq issue having on the business of the House? Is the Leader of the House aware that, for many of those MPs, it was the first time that they had voted against the Whips? He must know that, once someone loses their political virginity, it is much easier for political promiscuity to take over. If whipping arrangements in the House were to collapse, what would happen to life as we know it?

Mr. Cook

I would be well advised to avoid any discussion about promiscuity and whipping. Of course I fully understand the strength of feeling in the House and in the country, and the vote last week revealed the very deep concern and worry in the country about the present situation in relation to Iraq. For me, that is why it is so important that we should stick with our strategy of making sure that this crisis is resolved through the United Nations, and that we secure that second resolution within the United Nations.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent debate on an important matter which affects the health of all our constituents in the face of a possible terrorist threat? Last Monday, in a debate in the House in which I also took part as shadow Minister for national security, the Home Secretary said in an unguarded moment to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin): I do not believe that there is a problem with people approaching their general practitioner for the smallpox vaccination."—[Official Report, 3 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 596.] My right hon. Friend pointed out to the Home Secretary that that was factually inaccurate. We understand that there was then consternation approaching panic in the Department of Health and, as a result, the following morning the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), considerably watered down what the Home Secretary had said, when he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) in a debate in Westminster Hall. The Minister said that people should go to general practitioners if they want advice".—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 4 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 204WH.] It was clear by then that people could not approach their GPs for the vaccine. We believe that vaccines should be available now for any of our citizens who wish to be vaccinated. Will the Leader of the House urgently talk to the Home Office and the Department of Health, and can we have a debate on this crucial matter?

Mr. Cook

I am very happy to ensure that both those Departments receive the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made. In the meantime, so that the public outside can, to some extent, have their concerns allayed, I am happy to repeat what we have often sought to make clear, which is that we are not aware of any specific threat of the use of smallpox in the case of Britain.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence on preparations to avoid friendly fire—and, indeed, civilian casualties—in any joint military operations with US forces in Iraq? Is the Leader of the House aware that, in an answer to my named day written question for 10 February which was finally answered on 5 March, in which I had asked the Secretary of State for Defence about any representations that he had made on the use of amphetamines by US air force pilots, the Secretary of State said that that was a matter for the US authorities? Should not the British Government be making representations to the US authorities about the issue of amphetamines to US air force pilots, not least because they were cited in the case of the friendly-fire deaths of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year, and because they are banned in our own armed forces for precisely the reason that we should be making representations to the US?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend tempts me into an area that is very much within the province of my right hon. and hon. colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. I shall certainly draw his remarks to their attention, and they can consider what appropriate representations might be necessary. Of course, every possible effort is made to ensure that the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom can operate in a way in which any risk of casualties from friendly fire is diminished as far as is humanly possible.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Has the Leader of the House had the opportunity to read the excellent Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Goodhart, which is due to be given a Second Reading tomorrow, entitled the Ministerial and other Salaries (Amendment) Bill, and which seeks to reduce the salary of the Lord Chancellor to that of a common-or-garden Cabinet Minister? When that Bill is passed in the other House, as I expect it to be, probably by acclamation, will the right hon. Gentleman provide an early opportunity for this House to debate it? If not, can we at least have a debate on the role of the Lord Chancellor and the conduct of his Department?

Mr. Cook

I am delighted to say that one of the initiatives that we have taken is to create a Select Committee on the Lord Chancellor's Department. This is the first time in the history of the House of Commons that there has been such a Select Committee, and we therefore now have a new vehicle to ensure adequate debate on and scrutiny of the actions and responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. On the question of his salary, it is important that we should pay adequate attention to equity and equality, and I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern that there should be equality within the Cabinet. Of course, it is also an important principle of new Labour that merit should be adequately rewarded.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight)

Given that the credibility of Government spokesmen is of paramount importance in international affairs, will the Leader of the House explain why those spokesmen denied the existence of a document which recorded that Mr. Kamal Hussein had stated that the Iraqi Government had not, in fact, acted as he had earlier described in relation to the creation of weapons of mass destruction? Why was the existence of that document denied by Government spokesmen, and how did it subsequently come into the possession ofNewsweek?

Mr. Cook

As I understand it, the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers is a statement by Rolf Ekeus, the former weapons inspector in Iraq, who gave his verdict on interviews with Kamal Hussein. I personally am not familiar with the idea of any Government spokesman having denied the existence of that document, nor would it be within our power to confirm or deny what is in the United Nations weapons inspectors' records. If the hon. Gentleman would like to clarify precisely to what he is referring, I shall certainly make the necessary inquiries.

Bob Spink (Castle Point)

Further to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the Government gave advice to the public on Monday that they should go to their family doctor to ask for a smallpox vaccination if they wanted one. Is the Leader of the House aware that the British Medical Association and the GPs giving evidence yesterday to the Science and Technology Committee said that they had not been consulted in any way on this matter, that the advice was downright dangerous, that the GPs would not be able to respond to it and that the Government should withdraw it immediately? Will he ensure that the Home Secretary comes to the House, clarifies the matter to the public and apologises?

Mr. Cook

I can certainly confirm that the Department of Health has repeatedly provided advice on that matter. Of course, the hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point in saying that the smallpox vaccination carries a risk of side effects, so it is important that it be used only in circumstances in which the risk of infection is greater than that of side effects. That is why the plans of the Department of Health and the Government for dealing with any smallpox outbreak involve vaccination of those who would be most at risk, rather than general vaccination. It is very important that we keep the matter in proportion and do not unnecessarily alarm our constituents, so I repeat that we are not aware at present of any specific threat of a smallpox attack on Britain.

Mr. Bercow

Can we have an early debate on the Floor of the House on the iniquitous impact of the Government's so-called fairer charging policy for the receipt of home care services? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that such a debate would enable us to show how the Chancellor of the Exchequer has broken a seven and a half year old pledge to end the means test for our elderly people, how the policy reflects the appalling financial mistreatment of the shire counties, and how the cumulative impact of those errors of judgment and that malice on the part of the Government will cause some of my constituents to pay 200, 300 and 400 per cent. more than they currently do for services on which they critically depend?

Mr. Cook

It has of course been a longstanding practice of many local authorities to provide some form of charging for home care services, and it is often means tested. One of the great dilemmas for a Government—the hon. Gentleman will have to wrestle with it in any unlikely future event of his finding himself on the Treasury Bench—is to what extent we try to achieve harmony in the practice of local authorities. There has been some resentment throughout the country about the extent to which there has been wide variation. The Government's current proposal is intended to achieve a degree of common standards and a common approach among local authorities. While some might lose out—I hear what he says about his constituency—there will be other cases in which residents and constituents will benefit from the scheme and in which the application of a fair and consistent national minimum standard will benefit those most in need of care.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

May we have a debate in due course on the compulsory funding of the BBC as a public service broadcaster, given that such a debate would enable us to explore the mentality of the official BBC spokesman? That spokesman said that the BBC's new series on Cambridge spies was the first time that they can be seen to be heroic because it's post-Cold War and made this statement: In 'Cambridge Spies', we see and understand why it was that these young men were so implacably opposed to fascism and how communism was the only legitimate response". What possible relationship can there be between the concept of compulsory levies, public service broadcasting and such an utter perversion of liberal values and the historical record?

Mr. Cook

One of the commendable ingenuities of the hon. Gentleman is that he always manages to find a way of making his point without my having to arrange a debate. He has just done so again. I fully concur with him in the sentiment behind his point—there is nothing heroic in being a traitor. I think that the whole House would agree.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

In reply to questions asked by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman said that the dodgy dossier did not matter. I can tell him a reason why it does matter. Hundreds of aircrew and ground crew personnel are being deployed from RAF Marham in west Norfolk to the Gulf. Surely they need to trust the Government and believe them when they are making their case for the war. Will he now answer my right hon. Friend's question?

Mr. Cook

I would be very surprised if a single airman or serviceman who is preparing for what may be military conflict in the Gulf is currently sitting over his cocoa debating which Minister cleared the Government dossier. If the hon. Gentleman would like to find me a single person who has written to him expressing concern about that point, I would be interested to hear about it. Of course, what servicemen want to know is where the Opposition stand on the major question as to whether military conflict would be correct.

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