I do not want to detain the House for longer than is necessary because we want to get to the substance of the amendments.
The timetable was negotiated through the usual channels and there is a good reason for dealing with the most contentious items at the beginning of our debate, not least because that will cause the relevant Minister, who should be present, the least inconvenience. The relevant Minister is, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister himself, but he is not in the Chamber and has no plans to come here to discuss these matters. That raises the question whether the timetable is relevant.
The Deputy Prime Minister's absences have become something of a regular occurrence. He ducked our debates on the fuel crisis and, on Monday, on the London Underground public-private partnership. As I predicted then, he is now ducking this debate. On Monday, I drew attention to the Deputy Prime Minister's remarks made a fortnight ago:
I am constantly available to discuss such matters either in statements or other debates…There are many matters that I am prepared to debate, and I commonly come to the House.—[Official Report, 24 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 150.]
In fact, the right hon. Gentleman was in the House a few moments ago during Prime Minister's questions, but he is not here now. His private office does not even try to offer an excuse for his absences. I thought that the Government were against truancy, but he is playing truant. The situation is getting beyond a joke.
On Monday, we welcomed the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), to the Dispatch Box. He at least has responsibility for London and railways. I like dealing with him but, as I said on Monday, he is not the organ grinder of his Department.
I understand that we shall later enjoy debating with the Minister for Housing and Planning, but, with regard to transport responsibilities, he is not even the monkey—he comes from a different zoo. I have a document issued by the Cabinet Office, entitled "List of Ministerial Responsibilities", which states that the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich is
Minister of State (Minister for Housing and Planning).
His responsibilities, which are clearly highlighted with bullet points, are for "Housing and planning" and "Construction". By no stretch of the imagination could he be held responsible for the policies that we are likely to debate when we consider the most contentious amendments that were introduced in the other place and which relate to National Air Traffic Services.
The document states that the Deputy Prime Minister has
Responsibility for the overall direction of the Department and its agencies
but he is not here. We cannot cross-examine the Minister for Transport, who is responsible for integrated transport policy and strategic responsibility for all transport matters, because he is a Member of the other place. The Minister for Housing and Planning serves, to put it not too kindly, as the ventriloquist's dummy. I leave it to the House to decide whether the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Transport or the Treasury is pulling the strings on this occasion.