HC Deb 13 March 2003 vol 401 cc429-43 12.30 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

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

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

The House will be aware that Iraq remains before the Security Council. At present, we do not know when a decision will be reached. When we know the final outcome of discussions in the Security Council, we will arrange for a debate and vote on Iraq as soon as possible. In the meantime, the business for next week will be as follows:

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 may 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 provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 24 MARCH—Second Reading of the Licensing Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 25 MARCH—Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion—title to be confirmed.

WEDNESDAY 26 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 27 MARCH—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 28 MARCH—Private Members' Bills

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

THURSDAY 3 APRIL—Debate on the report from the Science and Technology Committee on science education from 14 to 19.

THURSDAY 10 APRIL—A cross—cutting question session on urban renewaltitled "Liveability—Creating Decent Places", followed by a debate on the report from the Health Committee on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.

Mr. Forth

I am sure that the House will be most grateful to the Leader of the House for giving a commitment to hold a debate on Iraq. I understand that 24 hours' notice is required in the United Nations before the laying of a resolution, and reports are telling us this morning that President Bush intends to give notice to the inspectors and the agency folk in Iraq, giving them a reasonable time to leave. Given those time scales, will the Leader of the House tell us whether he might expect to make a business statement to the House tomorrow, when a lot more will be known than today about how things stand at the UN and elsewhere, to give the House maximum notice of that debate on Iraq? But, in any case, we all welcome the undertaking that has been given that such a debate will be held as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General has a written parliamentary question to the Prime Minister for reply tomorrow concerning the advice that the Attorney—General has given to the Prime Minister on the legality of military action in Iraq. Given that there is an increasing belief that the Attorney-General's advice may well be against military action by this country, certainly if that takes place without any United Nations cover, may we please have a statement in the House by the Solicitor-General acting on behalf of the Attorney-General who, as we know, is in another place, and ahead of any debate on Iraq, as to the position with regard to the advice being given to the Prime Minister and the Government by the Attorney-General on the legality of military action in Iraq?

I do not, please, want the Leader of the House to hide behind the argument, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, that the matter is utterly confidential and cannot possibly be in the public domain. My advice is that although such advice may well normally be confidential, "Erskine May" states that it is always at the discretion of the Minister if he, or in this case she, considers it expedient, to share that advice with the House and with the public. My plea is that in this case it may overridingly be not just expedient but proper that that advice be put into the public domain. In any case, something must be said ahead of the debate so that our debate on Iraq is properly informed on a matter of such gravity.

The Leader will be aware of the report of the International Development Committee HC 444–1 on the consequences of possible military action against Iraq, which was published recently and which states in paragraph 41: Although Clare Short told us that humanitarian considerations must be paramount, there are still concerns that this will not be the case. In fairness to the Secretary of State for International Development, I note that she lodged in the Library at 11.30 this morning a written ministerial statement covering the issue of humanitarian aid to Iraq. That is good only as far as it goes. Will the Leader please arrange for an urgent statement, or preferably debate, on the matter, if possible ahead of the debate on Iraq, but certainly to take place at around the same time, in order that the House can give due attention to this crucial aspect of possible military action in Iraq? I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that this is the only way to do justice to the issue and to the Select Committee report.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the sombre way in which he approached the grave and serious situation that we are dealing with. I am grateful to him for his welcome for what I said about our willingness—indeed, our keenness—to come to the House as soon as we are able to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether I would make a business statement tomorrow. That is not ruled out. I will be in the precincts tomorrow, should it be required. We should, of course, bear in mind the time difference between London and New York. In effect, if there is anything for us to know, we will know it by the time we wake up tomorrow. There are unlikely to be any developments in New York in the time that we are sitting tomorrow, but if necessary and if it is appropriate, I shall make a business statement tomorrow.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Attorney-General's advice. He accurately summarised the situation. The Attorney-General's advice is, as a general rule, confidential—indeed, that is set out in the ministerial code—but there is provision in exceptional circumstances, by agreement, for his advice to surface. I will reflect on what the right hon. Gentleman said and make sure that my colleagues are aware of what he said. These issues will, I am sure, be fully debated and explored in any debate that we have on Iraq.

I repeat to the House what has been said at the Dispatch Box by a number of my colleagues: there can be no question of a British Government going to war if it were not sound of its legal basis and if it was not confident that it was acting within international law, nor would the British Prime Minister under any circumstances take that action if he believed he was acting outside international law.

On the international humanitarian relief that may be required should there be action in Iraq, and which is required now, even without any military action in Iraq, we welcomed the report from the Committee. It is important that all possible focus be given to the humanitarian need to respond to what may happen in the course of action, and to the very real humanitarian need of the people of Iraq, 60 per cent. of whom even now are fully dependent on food aid. It is for that very reason that the Department for International Development has already made available £7million simply for planning and preparation. It will continue to do so intensely and will seek any appropriate opportunity to keep the House informed.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We, too, welcome the commitment given to us by the Leader of the House about a prior debate and decision in this House regarding any hostilities undertaken by British troops. May I also welcome the support that we are now receiving from the Conservative Front Bench with regard to the request that we made to the Prime Minister, through my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday at Question Time, that the advice of the Law Officers be given to the House? Is there not a very important constitutional principle here? I accept what he said about "exceptional circumstances", but is it not right to say that the Law Officers are answerable and accountable to Parliament, not to the Government of the day? Surelyit must be an exceptional circumstance when very important issues of international law are being challenged in the way implied in the statement of the Secretary-General of the United Nations? Should there not be a second Security Council resolution, is it not absolutely essential that the Law Officers make a statement prior to any debate in this House?

I wonder whether the Leader of the House heard or read the transcript of the very important interview given by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr.Clarke), now de facto leader of the Conservative Opposition, on the "Today" programme yesterday when he made it absolutely clear that there are precedents, mechanisms and means by which the Law Officers have to give an answer to the House on an issue of such importance. [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman achieves consensus in the House with his observations, but I did, indeed, hear the interview to which he referred and I can understand why the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) may remember the previous precedent, as it was the Maastricht debates, which I am sure are written on the heart of everybody who was a member of the Cabinet at the time when those debates took place within the Government.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He mentioned that advice had been challenged by lawyers. We must recognise that in the present developing state of international law, there will always be room for more than one view, if not 25 different views. Whatever may be said on behalf of the Government about the advice that has been received, I would not wish to commit myself to the proposition that it will not be open to challenge. It is in the nature of these things that lawyers will challenge any proposition.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Leader of the House accept that many people outside the House will find it simply incomprehensible that there is to-ing and fro-ing in the UN about not getting support for a second resolution, a determination by the United States to go to war and an apparent decision by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to go to war without any resolution or legal basis whatever, and yet this House, which is representative of the ordinary people of this country, is denied the right to a debate and vote in advance of British troops being sent in? Is there any reason why there cannot be a debate today, tomorrow or even over the weekend so that the British people can see what their MPs are saying and voting on in advance of the start of a war?

Mr. Cook

Of course, I fully understand the passion to which this issue gives rise and the very strong feelings held by my hon. Friend and many others both in this House and in the country. I can only say to him that, as a member of the Cabinet, I am not aware of any decision of the sort to which he refers. I would also say that we have been quite clear that we will come to the House whenever there is any decision in New York in order either that the House can endorse any second resolution or that it may debate and vote upon a motion in the event that there is no decision on the second resolution. I genuinely believe that the right time for the House to consider and reach a decision on this matter is when the process in the United Nations has come to a close. In the meantime, I hope that all hon. Members will join me in expressing the best possible support for the British Government's efforts to get unity in the United Nations.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider allowing time for a debate next week on the growing practice among Ministers of delaying indefinitely replies to questions for a named day by saying that they will reply "as soon as possible"? In that connection, will he consider an issue that I raised with you, Mr. Speaker, on Tuesday, regarding detailed questions about the biological warfare material provided by the United States to Iraq and to the Iraq atomic weapons commission on which information is required urgently by the House, but on which Ministers are simply failing to give any knowledge or information, although they have it available to them?

Mr. Cook

Of course, the point with which the hon. Gentleman concludes is a very important issue of substance. Having had some experience of answering questions in the Foreign Office, I say to him that if he tables a question about material that may have been transferred back in the 1980s by another power, while that information may be available, it is not entirely surprising that it cannot adequately be pinned down within the five days required by a named-day question. If he wishes to pursue what I fully accept is an important issue, although it goes back some years and involves another power, he may have to be prepared to show a little more patience than is allowed for by a named-day question.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that there was an especially well-attended debate in Westminster Hall yesterday on community pharmacies. The debate was opened by the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) responded to it. However, for my constituents, health is a devolved matter and the perspective of the Department of Trade and Industry is equally important. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on that important issue over the next while?

Mr. Cook

I am aware that the matter was debated in Westminster Hall yesterday and I am fully aware of the substance of the issue, which has been raised in business questions for the past four weeks. I fully understand the widespread concern in the House about the security and stability of the local pharmacy service, which is so important to our constituents. I have spoken to the Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry and for Health to alert them to the concerns that have been expressed in the House during business questions, and they are both fully cognisant of the great importance of the matter to the public. I assure my hon. Friend that the Department of Trade and Industry will be fully involved in any future decision. We will seek to ensure that we take on board the importance of having regard to competition principles, but also try to ensure that they operate in a way that is consistent with the Government's health policy and our commitment to a health plan to ensure that pharmacies are available to all members of the public.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The Leader of the House will be aware that members of the International Development Committee, after hearing all the evidence, unanimously concluded that there is not a viable humanitarian plan for Iraq. The House has heard numerous statements from the Secretary of State for Defence in which he has kept us posted on preparations for the military campaign in Iraq. We have yet to hear a single statement to the House from the Secretary of State for International Development on the humanitarian plan for Iraq. I am sure the Leader of the House would feel that it must be in everyone'sinterest—not least the Government's—for there to be a clear statement from the Secretary of State for International Development on the humanitarian plan for Iraq. Otherwise, the impression will be given that the humanitarian plan will be very much an afterthought to the military campaign, which I am sure is not the impression the Government wish to give.

Mr. Cook

And I am sure it is not the impression that the hon. Gentleman would wish to convey either. He knows perfectly well that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has worked very hard to ensure that we develop humanitarian plans and she has, indeed, produced a statement. In fairness to her, I should say that she made a speech to the House on the matter only recently.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Is it not the case that because Iraq contains the second largest oil reserves in the world, any debate on the conflict in Iraq is inseparable from a debate on the diversity, security and sustainability of our energy supplies? Does my right hon. Friend recall saying last year, in answer to my request for a debate on the Energy Green Paper, that the best time for such a debate would be after the publication of the White Paper? Given thatwe have had the White Paper and we are in the midst of a conflict with Iraq, will he find time for a debate on the future of our energy policy and, particularly, the balance of fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables and energy efficiency, as that goestoward meeting our Kyoto targets?

Mr. Cook

I am not necessarily persuaded thatthe best approach to having a strategic, long-term debate on the balance between renewables and fossil fuels would be in the context of the potential crisis in Iraq. Having said that, I acknowledge that I am aware of the deep interest in the House on energy policy. I recall giving such a commitment to my hon. Friend and I assure him that despite the difficult problem of balancing business—it continues to increase and there is pressure on our available timetable—we shall look for an opportunity to discharge that commitment.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Leader of the House said that as a member of the Cabinet, he was not aware of any shift of the Government's position on the second resolution. But if we extract the anti-French bile, that seems to be what the Foreign Secretary was saying this morning. Indeed, it seems to be what the Prime Minister divulged to the Leader of the Opposition—remarkably enough—this morning. For the avoidance of any doubt and with the benefit of the Cabinet discussion, will the Leader of the House tell us whether the parameters for military action set out by the Prime Minister on 6 February—as he described it, the only circumstances in which force would be committed—still pertain?

Mr. Cook

May I say to the hon. Gentleman that the position is, as has repeatedly been said in the House over the last few days, that we are working extremely hard to try to secure agreement within the Security Council? We are looking for a second resolution. No decision has been taken beyond that, for the very simple reason that we are entirely focused on securing agreement to a second resolution and will continue to be so. I think that that is the best outcome for Britain, for the House and, indeed, for the international community.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

The Leader of the House has been very fair and consistent over recent weeks in promising that, where possible, there would be a debate and a vote before military action. With the uncertainty in the United Nations, however, we now face a situation in which theremay not be a Security Council resolution, the Americans might move very rapidly to military action and events might overtake the ability of the House of Commons to have such a debate. I hope that the Leader of the House agrees that it is vitally important that there should be an opportunity for the House to vote, to give comfort to the Government or otherwise. How will he respond if it becomes apparent that no resolution will go through the Security Council by the end of tomorrow and that military action is imminent? The House would then have the capacity to sit on Saturday. How would the House be recalled in that eventuality?

Mr. Cook

I have already said that we will arrange for the House to debate and vote on Iraq as soon as possible when we know the outcome of the proceedings in New York. Should that require the House to be recalled over the weekend, that is not ruled out. I do not wish people to assume from that that it will necessarily happen, but it is an option that is not ruled out and we shall have to watch matters carefully on a day-to-day basis, depending on the progress of the talks in New York. On the general issue of principle that my hon. Friend raises, may I remind the House that, at the start of the present crisis, I said that it was inconceivable that any Government could commit their troops to action without the support of Parliament? That remains my position and the position of the Government. Of course, any Government must reserve the right to act immediately if the safety of troops is at risk, and I do not think that any hon. Member would object to that reasonable qualification. Subject to that one obvious reservation, however, I attach the highest importance to the House having the opportunity to debate and vote on the matter before conflict.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Notwithstanding assurances given to the House by Defence Ministers, Members of Parliament with constituents in the Gulf continue to receive letters from worried relatives about the level of supplies. All hon. Members understand that in any major mobilisation there are likely to be local difficulties. However, given the number of complaints that are now coming forward concerning the lack of goggles and desert boots, will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Defence to come to the House and make a clear statement about how these issues are being addressed?

Mr. Cook

In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, I do not think that any single member of the Cabinet has made more statements to the House than he has over recent months. I am sure that he and his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence will continue to respond to these concerns at every opportunity. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have ordered a very large quantity of desert boots, which are currently being provided. I was pleased to note that, when the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Defence spokesman visited the troops, they found them in good morale and, indeed, reported afterwards that food was in good supply.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Since the last motion on Iraq on 26 February endorsed the United Nations process and not military action, as was explicitly stated by the Foreign Secretary at the start of the debate, is it not vital—particularly if there is no further United Nations resolution—that the Government should seek the endorsement of the House before committing British forces to the terrible and possibly illegal precedent of pre-emptive war?

Mr. Cook

I agree with my hon. Friend that the vote last time was not a vote on a commitment to military action, and that the Foreign Secretary said that specifically at the start of the debate. I said it myself in the business statement that preceded the debate on the Monday of that week. My hon. Friend is, therefore, within his rights to say that it is important that the House should meet and vote specifically on that question. In fairness, I would remind him that I have only just said that I attach the highest importance to the House having the opportunity to do that before conflict, subject to the obvious reservation—to which I do not think anyone objects—that we must always safeguard the safety of our troops. With that one reservation, however, we will do all that we can to ensure that that debate takes place before any action. As the Foreign Secretary has said, it is as important to the Government as it is to the House that that debate should take place in good time.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Referring to the UN Security Council resolution again, may I ask whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer will come down to the House in the eventuality of a French veto of a second resolution or the frustration of such a resolution by France, Germany or any other EU country on the Security Council, and say that the United Kingdom is abandoning the studies into the adoption of the euro that the Treasury is undertaking? If there is such a divergence of fundamental political views, what is the point of wasting taxpayers' money on such a stupid enterprise?

Mr. Cook

I must congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the magnificence of his obsession. I would only say that our efforts to secure unity within the Security Council are unlikely to be enhanced by introducing the euro to the debate.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will the Leader of the House give us some indication of when we will be able to consider and vote on the Report stage of the Hunting Bill? May I respectfully suggest that, should we be dragged into a war in Iraq, it would hardly be appropriate for the House to be turning its attention to such matters?

Mr. Cook

I am not in a position at the moment to offer a date on which the House might consider the Report stage of the Hunting Bill, although I am aware that it has concluded its proceedings in Committee. I note what my hon. Friend says. As someone who served on the Committee and who has certainly taken a close interest in the matter, his words must carry weight.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

As there has been much damaging press speculation on the nature of the Attorney-General's advice to the Prime Minister, and as it is clear from "Erskine May" that the Prime Minister may, at his discretion, reveal the legal advice that he has received, is it not very important indeed that the Prime Minister should let us see this legal advice, ahead of the debate next week? It is to be hoped that that would set our minds at rest and add to his case.

Mr. Cook

For better or worse, we are probably all very grateful that the Government are not responsible for the speculation in the press. The existence of that speculation does not necessarily mean that it is well founded. Plainly, this matter is a factor in the debate, and I am quite sure that my right hon. Friends will consider how best they can respond to it in any future debate. However, I repeat, and it is important that the House and the country fully understand this, that there is no question of any Government—certainly not this one—proceeding to military action in circumstances in which they believe that they do not have international authority for it.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I want to return to the issue of advice from the Attorney-General. If we invade another country without international law on our side, it is indeed a matter of the utmost gravity, as the shadow Leader of the House said. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Government that there are precedents for making such advice public? In these circumstances—these exceptional circumstances—it is absolutely vital that we get that advice.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right to say that these are very grave circumstances, and in this grave situation we have to conduct ourselves in such a way as to ensure that we build the broadest possible consensus for any action that may be necessary. She is correct in saying that there are precedents for such legal advice becoming known; the Maastricht debate was the previous such precedent. Such occasions are rare and infrequent, as the distance from that precedent confirms, and the Government would have to weigh very carefully whether it would be appropriate to do this. I would say to the House—this is consistent with what I have already said repeatedly—that we would only act within the context of international law. I do not myself imagine that, were such advice to be made public, it would have any dramatic or sensational impact.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)

May I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider his last answer and to bear in mind the fact that, as someone who supports what the Government and the Prime Minister are trying to do in this matter, he should bring into the public domain the advice that has been given by the Attorney-General? May I also urge him to disregard the wholly fallacious and inaccurate point made by the Liberal spokesman? The Leader of the House will be aware that my hon. Friend the shadow Attorney-General has consistently asked for this advice to be brought into the public domain.

Mr. Cook

I already have sufficient difficulty with the conflict between us and Saddam Hussein without intruding into the conflict between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. I hear the points that have been made about the wish to be fully apprised of what the advice would be. I say again that I am not aware of the Government having any reason to hide or conceal that advice in the sense of having something that they want to suppress. We have repeatedly said that we will act only in a way that is consistent with international law. I do not believe that the Government would act in any other way.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that 14 B-52s are currently parked at RAF Fairford. That is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), but it has a major impact on all local Members. Will my right hon. Friend liaise with the Secretary of State for Defence on the arrangement with the United States air force under which those B-52s will be used? Will he also talk to the Home Secretary about whether it is right to use the Terrorism Act 2000 to try to prevent those who protest under our democratic rights in this country? Will he question whether that is the appropriate legislation to use?

Mr. Cook

I am not aware that the local police force or any other body has invoked that Act. If my hon. Friend wants to take up that complaint with the Home Office, I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends will willingly follow up the issue for him.

On the wider question of the role that may be given to the B-52s, my hon. Friend will be well aware of the long-standing agreement between us and the United States by which any action from British bases is fully cleared with the British Government. I am sure that that close co-operation will continue in the context of the B-52s and anything else.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe)

The Leader of the House will be aware that there is widespread concern in the Muslim community in Britain about the consistent application of United Nations resolutions, especially on Kashmir. Resolutions addressing the need of the Kashmiri people to determine their own future have been outstanding for roughly 50 years. I know that he appreciates the importance of these matters. Will we be able to discuss those issues in an early debate?

Mr. Cook

I cannot point the hon. Gentleman in the direction of a forthcoming debate on Kashmir in the House, but I am fully aware of the considerable interest in the issue among the many ethnic communities in Britain that have strong community ties with Kashmir and the two countries of the Indian subcontinent. It is a difficult issue, as I know well from previous experience, and I would not recommend any Member to tread lightly into that contested territory. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that those of us who wish the peoples of Pakistan and India well should do all that we can to enable them to find a way to resolve this long-standing sore.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I fully support the policy on Iraq, as I did the liberation of Kuwait 12 years ago. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, when we have a debate, it will be an opportunity for some us to point out to President Bush that it would certainly help the allied cause if the US Defence Secretary were found a different job as far away as possible from the international scene? That would please many of us, and probably irritate France and Baghdad.

Mr. Cook

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I shall content myself with saying that I am pleased for him that he has got his comments on the record. He will appreciate that no member of the Government has ministerial responsibility for reshuffles in Washington.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

There is an obvious risk that the debate on Iraq will take place after hostilities have commenced. In those circumstances, I hope that the debate would be on a substantive motion. If hostilities have commenced, many of us would wish to table an amendment to the effect that we pledge our total support for the British forces engaged, but none the less do not think that the case for war has been made. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we can do that only if we have a substantive motion to amend—hence the importance of debating Iraq on a substantive motion?

Mr. Cook

I fully understand the genuine concerns of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, which he has expressed in measured tones on a number of occasions. I, for one, would not for one moment suggest that people who express those legitimate doubts are lacking in support for British troops. That would be an unfair issue to bring into the argument. On timing, I attach great importance to our having such a debate before hostilities commence, but whether it is before or afterwards, I would prefer a debate to proceed on a substantive motion.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

Given the major disagreement between the British and Dutch management of Corus over the sale of its aluminium works and the precarious position in which that leaves British steel production, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate or statement on the urgent need to protect steel production in theUnited Kingdom?

Mr. Cook

I entirely understand the enormous importance of this matter to the general state of British manufacturing industry and to the local economies of the three areas most immediately affected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is fully seized of the matter, and has spoken to her opposite number in the Dutch Government. I assure my hon.Friend that we will continue to do what we reasonably can to achieve the best possible outcome. Should that outcome tragically involve a closure, the Government will do all they can to assist the local community and local people to deal with the consequences.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

Can the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on the workings of the National Care Standards Commission, with particular regard to the management of the closure of care homes? I ask this particularly in view of the closure of the Gatehouse care home in my constituency, whose residents were given only five days' notice to leave the home. All the research shows that such stress will cause illness and may even lead to premature death.

Mr. Cook

I am sure that all hon. Members share the hon. Gentleman's concern about such a deplorably short period of notice. It is certainly not consistent with the Government's view as to the reasonable notice period that should be required for people to be transferred from a nursing home that is closing. In this particular case, the home is privately owned, so we have no power to intervene regarding the period of notice, but it is not satisfactory. I hope that all responsible care home owners will follow the public sector in ensuring that any period of notice, if it has to be applied, is adequate and enables residents, their relatives and the local authority to respond adequately.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is it not imperative that we have a statement about the advice given by the Attorney-General? Members of Parliament who vote for an aggressive war launched by America and its collaborators may be culpable and may be committing an offence if the Attorney-General's advice were that Britain was going against international law. We would individually be responsible. Incidentally, should war start, would any time be allocated next week for ministerial resignation statements?

Mr. Cook

I shall certainly consider the latter point in my timetabling of business for the week. On the former matter, there is not much that I can add to the many answers that I have given already. I rather suspect that, if the advice were published, it would show that the Government'sactions are wholly consistent with international law. Under those circumstances, I would not expect my hon. Friend necessarily to change his view of the action.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster)

Will the Leader of the House ask a Minister to come to the House and make a statement on early-day motion 851, which relates to a grossly misleading report in The Sun about a visit from the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Redden Court school in my constituency?

[That this House condemns the grossly misleading report in the Sun Newspaper on Friday 7th March on the visit of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh to Redden Court School in Upminster, which attempted to cast a slur on a highly successful and memorable occasion.]

Mr. Cook

I have seen the early-day motion, and I have first-hand experience of the extent to which Her Majesty's often excellent and much appreciated work is not fairly reported in the press. It is a mystery and an affront to local people when they participate in an event that they regard as successful and which they remember with a sense of gratitude to read a travesty of it in the local press. I urge those who write such pieces to try accurately to reflect the overall balance of opinion of people in the local community, who appreciate the visit and what the royal family has done for them.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

Although my private Member's Bill is due to be debated tomorrow, I would welcome any statement my right hon. Friend could make to the House then. Does he agree that yesterday's withdrawal of virtually all the international UN staff who administer the oil-for-food programme is the clearest possible indication that war is imminent, and that the House urgently needs to know how food supplies will be resumed in the event of a protracted conflict?

Mr. Cook

The fact that, understandably, responsible employers—in this case the United Nations—must necessarily make contingency plans need not mean that there will be a conflict; but in the present circumstances I well understand why the UN might decide to err on the side of caution. I will not pretend that it would be possible to maintain the programme at its present level of efficiency and volume without UN staff, but the UN has taken steps to ensure that local residents will be trained and equipped so that it can continue in their absence. I hope very much that that proves satisfactory.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

If we are, as it seems, on the point of war, is it not essential for the British Government to continue to make the case for the need to go to war to the British people? The Leader of the House said this morning, in very profound terms, that the Prime Minister would not go to war unless he believed that he had proper legal cover. In the event, either there will be legal cover or there will not—in which case it is surely absolutely essential for the Solicitor-General to come to the House and make the legal advice public before we have a proper debate.

Mr. Cook

It follows logically from what I said that the Prime Minister is satisfied that he has adequate legal authority in international law for any action that may be taken. Whether it is necessary for any other Law Officers to say that, given that both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will undoubtedly participate in any exchanges in the House, is a matter of judgment; but I repeat that the Prime Minister will take no action that he believes to be inconsistent with international law.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Could we have a debate on the implementation of the Ottawa agreement, which was intended to ban the manufacture, stockpiling and use of anti-personnel landmines? That might allow us to discuss the inclusion of cluster bombs, and also to discuss the possibility of Ministers using their best endeavours to persuade their American counterparts to refrain from using those hideous weapons in any military action in Iraq.

Mr. Cook

I know of my hon. Friend's long-standing interest in this. She will recall that I was Foreign Secretary when we secured the Ottawa treaty, which I regard as an important step towards ensuring that we act to minimise the danger and risk that landmines pose to civilians. I am sorry that we could not persuade our United States colleagues to be a party to the treaty, and I hope that at some time in the future we shall be able to persuade them to reconsider.

Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Clifton-Brown.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

You have already called me, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I apologise. It is the early morning start. I call Dr. Lewis.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I am afraid I am a poor substitute for my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

When the debate on Iraq takes place, will the rule on collective Cabinet responsibility be relaxed for Ministers other than the Secretary of State for International Development? Would that not give Cabinet Ministers such as the Leader of the House an opportunity to explain to the House why they opposed the first Gulf war in 1991, when Saddam had invaded one of his neighbours, but apparently support the forthcoming second Gulf war when Saddam has not yet invaded any of his neighbours?

Mr. Cook

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his interest in my views—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

He has a detailed record.

Mr. Cook

I have never doubted it. Fortunately, so have I. At that time, the point on which I expressed concern was whether a bombing campaign lasting so many weeks was really required.

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is yes, I think Cabinet responsibility will apply. It will apply to all who are in the Cabinet at the time of the debate.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

The Home Office recently published statistics on police authorities, revealing that West Yorkshire, where 39 of every 1,000 burglaries take place, is the worst-performing authority. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on policing? I might then be able to express my constituents' admiration for rank-and-file police officers in the area. I could also ask serious questions about the management of the West Yorkshire force, and insist that the chief constable begin replying to letters from Members such as me. In my letters I have asked for enhanced policing, on behalf of residents of Girnhill lane in Featherstone, and have asked searching questions about the recently reported statement of a senior police officer that West Yorkshire has stopped investigating burglaries.

Mr. Cook

I appreciate what my hon. Friend says about the progress that has been made, and I echo his commendation of his local police force. I am sure we all appreciate the fact that we can make more progress in fighting crime now that Britain has a record number of policemen.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must now take points of order.