Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 6:40 pm on 15th October 2001.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal 6:40 pm, 15th October 2001

Mr. Deputy Speaker, with permission I should like to make a short statement about the business for the remainder of this week.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise the importance of a further debate on the current action to tackle international terrorism.

The business for the rest of the week will be:

Tuesday 16 October—Debate on the coalition against international terrorism on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Wednesday 17 OctoberThird Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Thursday 18 October—Third Reading of the European Communities (Finance) Bill.

Motion to approve the Ministerial and Other Salaries Order 2001.

Friday 19 October—Debate on clean fuels on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the debate tomorrow in Government time. I hope that he can confirm that the House will have frequent opportunities to debate the very important matter that we will cover tomorrow, and that a combination of statements and debates will be made available whenever circumstances demand. The one the right hon. Gentleman has announced for tomorrow is very timely.

The Leader of the House will have noticed that the issues that we are dealing with this week were tabled as long ago as July, because that is the way the House works. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that we must try to respond as best we can to rapidly changing circumstances. In the light of that, will he consider, even at this stage, changing the business that he has announced for Friday? Cleaner fuels may be an important issue, but are not necessarily a timely one.

I ask the Leader of the House to consider a debate on the relationship of Ministers' special advisers and civil servants and how the integrity of the civil service can be guaranteed. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman shares my view that our civil service is the envy of the world in terms of its professionalism and integrity. It has now been compromised by the actions of special advisers, and a debate on Friday would indeed be a timely opportunity for the Government to reinforce their commitment to the integrity of the civil service. They might be able to tell us how that will be achieved in future more than it has been in the recent past.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. When I told the House in June that one of the delights of my new role would be that I would see more of the right hon. Gentleman, I had no idea how prescient I was. I think that it would be fair to say that his appointment came as much of a surprise to me as it did to many of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

I am happy to begin on a note of common ground with the right hon. Gentleman and say that we will have repeated debates on the issue of terrorism. The issue will be very much before the nation and before the House. Whenever appropriate, we will return to it in debates.

I would expect many right hon. and hon. Members to welcome the debate on Friday—[Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman. Whoever has the device that is causing the interruption must silence it immediately.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I think that my hon. Friend David Hamilton has underlined the importance of debating new forms of technology on Friday.

It is important that we should ensure that we take every possible step to provide a cleaner environment for our constituents and make our contribution to meeting cuts in greenhouse gases.

The Government stand ready robustly to defend the integrity of the civil service, and to justify the codes that we have produced which provide a clear understanding of how civil servants, special advisers and Ministers should behave. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to turn to the issue on an Opposition day, we shall be delighted to debate it robustly with him.

Photo of Brian Iddon Brian Iddon Labour, Bolton South East

Can my right hon. Friend offer the House an explanation of why the long-announced debate on drugs has been deferred? Can he assure the House that the debate will take place in the near future?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Yes, I can. As my hon. Friend will be aware, and as the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary earlier this afternoon made a full statement on the emergency legislation that he is preparing against terrorism. The Home Office is now responsible for bringing forward possibly three different Bills. These are the emergency measures against terrorism, the possibility of an extradition Bill and the possibility of an asylum Bill. Given that intense work load and the great importance of ensuring the security of the United Kingdom, it is understandable that in these circumstances a debate that requires the presence of the Home Office should be deferred. I hope to see the debate reinstated at an appropriate time when the Home Office can appropriately find priority for it.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Liberal Democrat, North Cornwall

Given what the Leader of the House has just said, I wonder whether he recognises that there is a great danger that the House may suffer a severe bout of legislative indigestion in the coming weeks. May I refer him to a paraphrase of my favourite prayer, which goes as follows: may God grant us the patience to recognise the things that we cannot change for the better by law, the courage to change the things that we can, and the wisdom to know the difference?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept from the reaction of Members on both sides of the House to the Home Secretary's statement and to the Chancellor's statement earlier that we have not been very good in the past at dealing in a knee-jerk fashion with emergency legislation? I am sure that he will recall the dangerous dogs legislation, the legislation that was referred to as the dangerous football yobs Bill and previous terrorist legislation.

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the need—I think that it was represented by Members on both sides of the House earlier when the statements were made—that we should allocate appropriate time for the scrutiny of the proposed business? Does he understand that it may result in other business having to be deferred, perhaps for a long period? Will he set in motion discussions with other parties in the House to ensure that we deal with the proposed legislation effectively and scrutinise it in full?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his prayers. I am sure that I will benefit from them during the Session.

As for the forthcoming Bill, I fully accept his point that it is important that there should be adequate time for its scrutiny. I have said repeatedly that our maxim is that good scrutiny makes for good government. At the same time, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that our constituents beyond the House will be expecting a rapid and expeditious response from the House to ensure that we plug any gaps in our provision against terrorism. I hope that with the agreement of Members on both sides of the House we can provide time for adequate scrutiny and at the same time make decent progress. I rather like the phrase used by the shadow Home Secretary, who said that we should seek to produce good law and fast law.

Several hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I remind the House that supplementary questions must relate to the statement that has been made by the Leader of the House on this week's business.

Photo of Ian Gibson Ian Gibson Labour, Norwich North

Will my right hon. Friend indicate when he will set up the Science and Technology Committee? Given the contradictory statements on chemical and biological warfare, there seems to be an issue here that demands deep scrutiny.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

That has nothing to do with the business statement.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, Cotswold

To inform tomorrow's debate, will the Leader of the House give some idea of the timetable for the three pieces of emergency legislation? When is the House likely to see them? As they are emergency pieces of legislation, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether they will be timetabled? Given that he must have thought about the time that they will take to pass through the House, will he say something about other legislation that will have to be deferred to make time for the emergency legislation?

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman heard my ruling, which was that questions must relate to this week's business. There will be a further opportunity on Thursday to question the Leader of the House on wider matters.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion

I welcome the debate tomorrow on the Adjournment of the House, but it is noticeable that all the recent debates have been on Adjournments of the House and not on substantive motions. Will the Leader of the House be looking to have a debate on a substantive motion very soon, possibly even on Friday?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

It is the custom of the House to debate issues relating to such a crisis on the Adjournment of the House so that Members may make any contribution that they wish that is relevant to the crisis. That has been a longstanding practice. There have been exceptions to it, however. There was an exception during the Suez crisis when the then Opposition vigorously opposed the line that was being taken by the then Government. I do not think that there is any serious dissent within the House over the measures that are being taken by the Government. There are many ways to sense the will of the House, and those of us who sat through much of the recent three days of debate understand that at least 90 per cent. of Members are behind the action that the Government are taking. A substantive motion will not alter that clear fact.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons)

In relation to the question of my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth, the shadow Leader of the House, about the proposed topic for business on Friday, will the Leader of the House reconsider his suggestion? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that if truth be told there are as many—if not more—Labour Members as Conservative Members who are deeply upset, concerned and appalled by the behaviour of a special ministerial adviser in seeking to bury unpopular news under the blanket of a terrible terrorist outrage? Under those circumstances, how can the Leader of the House defend the suggestion that it should be for the Opposition to propose a debate on the matter on an Opposition day rather than for the Government to table a debate on Friday, when it could usefully be discussed?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The Government have repeatedly made it clear—I have done so, my colleagues have done so—that the statement by Jo Moore on that day was a serious error of judgment. She herself has expressed regret; I am quite sure that she will not make such a mistake again. The issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is whether someone should be dismissed for making one mistake in the course of his or her career. The judgment of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is that that would be unfair to the career of that special adviser, who has herself admitted that she was wrong. I hope, but it may be a vain hope, that the House is big enough to accept that she has said sorry and will not do it again. She should be given a second chance to get on with her job and we should get on with ours.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Shadow Minister (Education)

Will tomorrow's debate on terrorism be preceded by a statement by the Prime Minister, as has been the case with previous statements? If not, when will the House be brought up to date by the Prime Minister?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The House will have a full opportunity to be brought up to date during the course of tomorrow's debate, but the present thinking is that it will not be preceded by a statement by the Prime Minister. The hon. Gentleman is right that the Prime Minister has made three successive statements to the House, the most recent of which was at the end of last week. He will, of course, be available to answer questions in the House on Wednesday.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

Will the Leader of the House find time this week to have a debate on the decision of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on local councillors' expenses? As we know from his own political adviser, it is bad news which the Government obviously do not want to discuss. Should that not be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

As a former councillor, I believe that it is important that councillors should receive the expenses necessary to provide good-quality, democratic local government.