Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 25th April 2002.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The business for next week will be:

Monday 29 AprilSecond Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill [Lords]. [Hon. Members: "Hurrah."] I hope that sentiment continues.

Tuesday 30 AprilSecond Reading of the Finance Bill.

Wednesday 1 May—Consideration of a Resolution on National Insurance Contributions.

Thursday 2 May—There will be a debate on Wales in the world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 3 MayThe House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

Monday 6 May—The House will not be sitting, as it is a bank holiday.

Tuesday 7 May—Second Reading of the Police Reform Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 8 May—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 9 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.

Friday 10 May—Private Members' Bills.

The House will wish to know that subject to the progress of business, it is envisaged that the House will rise for the Whitsun recess on Friday 24 May and return on Monday 10 June. [Interruption.] I am sure that Members will be keen to return to business sooner than they had anticipated.

The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 8 May, there will be a debate relating to railways in European Standing Committee A, and on Thursday 9 May, there will be a debate relating to the execution of orders freezing assets or evidence in European Standing Committee B.

[Wednesday 8 May 2002:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union documents: 5721/02, 5744/02, 5723/02, 5724/02, 5726/02 and 5727/02; Railways. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xxii, (2001–02).

[Thursday 9 May 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 6980/02; The execution of orders freezing assets or evidence. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xxiii (2001–02).]

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. Can he clear up a bit of a mystery? Last Thursday, he told us, at column 699, that on 1 May there would be the Second Reading of a Bill to give effect to the swingeing increases in national insurance proposed by the Chancellor. Today, he said rather mysteriously that next Wednesday there will be a resolution on national insurance increases. We must get to the bottom of this. Presumably, it is yet another Government cock-up, but we would like to know the nature of the error. Who made it? Why is he having to carry the can? Can we please now be told the exact relationship between the previous Bill, the present resolution and the implied time delay? Whose fault is it? When will we be told the full story? The national insurance increases are of enormous importance to businesses, individuals and everyone else. To start to deal with the matter in this way is depressing and disappointing to say the least.

There is something called the European Convention going on at the moment, which has the potential, regrettably, to have a profound impact on the nature of the European Union and our role in it. There are three Members of the House taking part in that convention, not the least of whom is the Minister for Europe, Peter Hain. When will the Minister for Europe give the House an opportunity to ask him what he is doing on our behalf, what commitments he is making, what the convention is up to and where it is heading? I am told that two of our representatives at the convention will appear before the House of Lords some time next week. It seems that the House of Lords can quiz members of the convention, while that opportunity has been denied to this House. When will we have a chance to find out what is taking place on our behalf in the European Convention so that we can have a say and give our marching orders to our representatives?

Will the Leader of the House confirm whether he spoke to The Sun yesterday? The Sun claims that he did—I have the newspaper in front of me. It says that something is going to be done to protect the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time. We know that he needs protection, and that he is incapable of dealing with what we call the open question as successive Prime Ministers have done for decades. It appears that the Prime Minister's plight is so desperate that he needs the Leader of the House's help to shut down the open question and to make sure that all questions are planted and scripted. We know that many of them are already, but it looks as if that will become routine. Why does The Sun quote the Leader of the House as saying of Prime Minister's questions:

"The public love it as theatre, but it would be in everyone's interests if people could set specific questions"?

Did he say that to The Sun? If not, where did it get the story? Can he assure me categorically that the Prime Minister will not be provided with extraordinary protection from the rigours of Prime Minister's questions, and that we can continue to put the Prime Minister through his inadequate paces every Wednesday?

During Question Time yesterday, the Prime Minister made the following remarkable assertion on the subject of rising street crime:

"As a result of the additional measures being taken, we are confident that by the end of September we will have brought that problem under control".—[Hansard, 24 April 2002; Vol. 384, c. 326.]

The Leader of the House will accept that we cannot allow that assertion to hang in the air unchallenged and unquestioned. Can we have an early opportunity for the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary, when he is not using robust language, to come to the House and tell us what has changed that means that street crime, instead of rising—as it is, sadly and dramatically—will fall dramatically over the next five months? What is the reason? Is it legislation, more police officers or more effective measures, and, if so, of what kind? Alternatively will the Prime Minister be out and about personally feeling the collar of muggers and making sure that they do not commit the crimes that they have been committing? We need an opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary about what they have in mind.

Finally, I want to raise the question of planning gain tariff, on which I have no doubt that the Leader of the House is an expert, as he is on so many things. A Green Paper on huge and dramatic increases in the planning system has been published. I am told that the Government have received about 15,000 responses, which indicates a high level of interest and alarm. It would appear that framework legislation will be introduced in the next Session, within which will be provision for statutory instruments to be used to vary the suggested planning gain tariffs. Will the Leader of the House give us a commitment that, if that happens, this new stealth tax and the enormous effect that it may have on every constituency will not be hidden away Upstairs in a statutory instrument Committee but debated on the Floor so that all right hon. and hon. Members have an opportunity to explore fully its potential impact on their constituencies and their way of life? It is a simple commitment to make. I accept that I am looking a little ahead, but I know that, with his legendary commitment to the parliamentary process, he will be only too happy to give such an undertaking.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

First, on the business relating to the national insurance contributions, the right hon. Gentleman asks who will carry the can. I will carry the can if anything is wrong because that is my role as Leader of the House. I am happy to assent to that proposition, but I do not see that there is any can to be carried. It is certainly not for the inconvenience of the House that we will debate national insurance contributions on that date, which I announced a week ago. A Bill will certainly be introduced. In the event that the House carries the resolution, the Bill will be published the next day. The House authorities have informed us that it is necessary to have a founding Ways and Means resolution. It was not possible for us to consult the House authorities in advance of the Budget.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I think that hon. Members would be miffed if we discussed with the House authorities the contents of the Budget before we shared them with the House.

I agree about the importance of the measure. It is enormously important to the national health service because it will enable us to continue our programme of record investment in the health service so that it becomes a world-class service.

As for the European Convention, there are two separate issues of accountability. The first is the accountability of the Minister for Europe, who sits on the convention as a member of the Government. He is, of course, regularly held to account by the House. Indeed, he answered Foreign Office questions only recently.

The second and separate matter of accountability relates to the two people who are there not as representatives of the Government, but as representatives of Parliament. That is a novel situation. I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's sentiment that they should report to the House and be held to account by hon. Members. I am exploring with one of those Members how we can best go about that and what mechanisms we could provide. The convention is important, and I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's view that there should be novel mechanisms for those two representatives of the House to report on what they do in our name.

I am not aware of having spoken to The Sun. I detect from the extract that the right hon. Gentleman quoted faint echoes of what I said to the Procedure Committee yesterday. I am happy to say that that is on the record and he can check the full report. My impression from memory, without having the opportunity to check the record, is that The Sun has conflated two separate paragraphs. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stands in no need of protection. Indeed, were I to offer friendly advice to the right hon. Gentleman, it would be that it is on the Conservative side of the Dispatch Box that protection is required.

I have frequently said both in and outside the House that we do not help ourselves when we appear to be interested in scoring party political points rather than in pursuing the public interest. Although it is the case that the public admire the theatre and high drama of party confrontations, it is important to convey that we are carrying out serious business. I have always taken the view that it is much better for Members who ask a question to be open and honest about the subject on which it is based.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of street crime. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to put it on the record that the chance of being a victim of crime in Britain is at its lowest for 20 years. That reflects the fact that when he and his colleagues were in office, crime doubled in Britain. The commitment that the Prime Minister referred to yesterday was first given in February this year, although the right hon. Gentleman appears not to have noticed it at the time.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Indeed. Too much time spent reading The Sun may distract one from noticing what is being said by the Government.

The commitment given in February was that we will stabilise street crime in London within a six-month period, by September, and will thereafter proceed to reverse the increase. [Interruption.] That is precisely what was said in the February commitment. If we are to be successful in getting on top of crime, stabilising it, reversing street crime and achieving the same cuts in street crime that we have achieved in other offences, we need to ensure both that we continue the record increase in police numbers which the Government have achieved, and that we support police numbers with the community safety officers that we have introduced.

It is bogus of the Opposition to express concern about street crime when only the other day in the House of Lords their Conservative colleagues defeated the proposed detention powers for community safety officers, who have been given a real role to play.

The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot pretend to affront on behalf of victim and at the same time stop the measures that are necessary to catch those carrying out street crime and street violence.

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that if any tax is introduced on the back of planning gain, that would require legislation, and the matter would have to come before the House.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour/Co-operative, Edinburgh North and Leith

As a new Member who has not yet been conditioned by too many years of planet Westminster, it is patently clear to me and most members of the public that the present system of Prime Minister's questions does nothing to improve Government accountability or allow scrutiny of what a Prime Minister is doing.

May I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—if he needs any urging—to ignore the advice of the shadow Leader of the House on Prime Minister's questions, and to talk to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about ways of improving how Prime Minister's Question Time operates? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider ways of improving Prime Minister's Question Time to achieve genuine accountability and scrutiny of what the Government are doing?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not raised any proposal with me or, as far as I am aware, with anybody else for any change to the procedure at Prime Minister's Question Time. It is for the House to consider how we proceed.

I am impressed by the seriousness and thoroughness with which the Procedure Committee is addressing the matter. The Committee has adequate representatives from the official Opposition and from the other party that is represented in the Chamber this afternoon. I hope that they will consider seriously ways in which we can improve the way that Prime Minister's Question Time contributes to our task of scrutiny.

For me, as I set out in my memorandum on modernisation, a key task must be to reduce the ridiculously long period of notice for oral questions.

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

I am full of admiration for the adroit way in which the Leader of the House juggles business. However, will he look again at the provisional business for Tuesday 7 May, because it would seem that Second Reading of the Police Reform Bill will clash with consideration in Committee of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill? The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that these are both extremely important Bills that require most careful and diligent scrutiny by Members on both sides of the House. It seems that probably the same Ministers will be involved.

Will the Leader of the House give urgent attention to the possibility of a debate as soon as possible after the local council elections on the encouragement of participation in the political process to reduce current apathy and disconnection—a phrase that he uses?

May I ask him especially to read an article in the Financial Times of 24 April? It is headlined "An electronic electorate". The article states:

"Ministers want to modernise polling. But it may take more to revive voters' flagging interest."

This well-researched article concludes:

"This will not bring turnout above 50 per cent. The answer is making voting attractive by making votes count."

I think that that phrase will be familiar to the right hon. Gentleman.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that no gimmicks—not even new technology—will give equal weight and value to equal votes, and that we need to look again at a voting system that gives fair representation to all views? Does he note that Le Pen has had his success in France without a proportional system but with a first-past-the-post system, albeit with two stages? Has he seen early-day motion 1184, and the amendment?

[That this House expresses its concern at the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen securing a place in the final stages of the French presidential election; rejects the racism, intolerance and isolationism for which he stands; believes that apathy and declining turnout rather than a significant increase in the National Front vote share enabled Monsieur Le Pen to win second place; and calls on all democrats across Europe to stand together and resist these extreme influences on the political process, by offering imaginative policies based on the values of solidarity, compassion and enterprise which inspire and engage the public, and consign Monsieur Le Pen and his ilk to the margins of European politics.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that what has happened in France is precisely the result of an inadequate voting system, which the Opposition want to impose upon both Houses of this Parliament?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, I do not accept that we cannot proceed with the Second Reading of a Bill from one Department while that Department has another Bill Upstairs in Committee. It is one sign of the health, energy and commitment of the Home Office that it has many Bills before the House, and we cannot confine ourselves to proceeding with only one Home Office Bill at any one time.

On the local elections, I wholly share the hon. Gentleman's sentiment that we should make sure that we do everything possible to encourage the electorate to turn out and to take part, whatever way the electorate may choose to vote on the day. There are too many people in France who regret that they missed that opportunity when they had a chance to take it, and who now complain about it.

If we are to have a fair electoral system and a fair result, it is important that we should be honest with the electorate. As the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the local elections, may I say that I was disappointed to read in this morning's papers the report of the Liberal Democrat campaign literature, which invites Liberal Democrat candidates to

"be wicked and act shamelessly"?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

What is new is that we have it in writing. The advice continues:

"Don't be afraid to exaggerate. For example, responses to surveys . . . are always 'massive'. . . Oppose all service cuts . . . why court the unpopularity that goes with . . . responsibility".

[Hon. Members: "More!"] The House has other business to proceed to. The document is entitled "Effective Opposition". I say to Mr. Tyler that so long as his party follows that advice, it will remain in opposition, without responsibility.

Photo of Terry Rooney Terry Rooney Labour, Bradford North

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on ITV Digital? The focus has rightly been on the situation of Football League clubs, but of much greater importance is the position of dozens if not hundreds of companies that have been left high and dry, with debts owed by ITV Digital, after contracts were signed on the understanding that Carlton and Granada would guarantee that company. My constituency faces the loss of 600 jobs because of the activities of ITV Digital, and the matter should be debated on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I fully understand the severity of the situation to which my hon. Friend refers and the extent to which it has a direct impact on many constituency interests of hon. Members. I assure him and the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is following the issue closely. I touched base with her this morning in the margins of Cabinet, and she will certainly want to keep the House informed of the progress of discussions. The only caveat that I would enter is that we cannot proceed on the basis of the public purse accepting responsibility for the rather exaggerated expectations of ITV Digital. Consistent with that caution, though, we will do anything that we can to be helpful.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

Although I have no quarrel with the right hon. Gentleman for deleting a day from the Whitsun recess, am I right in assuming that he had to do that because of the mess that he has made over the national insurance Bill? If I am wrong, could we instead have a debate on 10 June on Liberal election tactics, which he could perhaps open?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I would not want to rule out a debate on that topic, and I shall bear it in mind, among the competing pressures. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that he is wrong on that point. We took the decision on the recess in advance of the latest announcement. The Whitsun recess will be two full weeks. It is a generous recess; indeed, it is much longer than usual, and I do not think that hon. Members have any ground for complaint.

Photo of Claire Curtis-Thomas Claire Curtis-Thomas Labour, Crosby

I have just learned of the result of the Damilola Taylor case, and like many people in this country will, I regard it as yet another judicial farce that has let down many people. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the role that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service played in that farce, and give hon. Members an opportunity to comment on it?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Like my hon. Friend, I learned of the announcement from the teletext just before I left my office. It would therefore be foolish of me to express any view on it, and it would also be improper to do so. We have a clear segregation between politicians and Government, and the courts. Whatever we may think privately, it is important that in the House we respect the judgment of the courts.

Photo of George Young George Young Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee, Chair, Standards and Privileges Committee

Last week, the Government published their response to the Select Committee on Public Administration's report on the House of Lords, entitled "The Second Chamber—Continuing the Reform". There is a suspicion on both sides of the House that continuing the reform is not actually the Government's policy at all. To allay those fears, can the Leader of the House promise that we will have a debate before the summer recess on the Government's response, so that their policy on the second Chamber can be fully tested?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am dismayed to hear that there are such fears, so I am glad to take the opportunity that the right hon. Gentleman offers me to repeat our commitment that we wish to take this forward before the summer recess, and I hope to be able to speak to the House on that matter before then.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick Labour, Walsall North

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the first question to the Prime Minister on 8 May is, in fact, a closed question from one of our hon. Friends? However, does the Leader of the House accept that without open questions it would not have been possible for the events in France to be raised yesterday? That is as good an illustration as any that a contemporary issue can be raised without notice being given. It is farcical that we have to give a fortnight's notice. The sooner that ends, the better. However, even if we give less notice, it would be a retrogressive step if we took away from Members the opportunity to raise a contemporary issue without having given notice beforehand. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that matter carefully.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I have great sympathy with all the points that my hon. Friend made. I do not recall saying yesterday that open questions would be suppressed in any way, although I did plead for a better balance with Members who wish to raise a specific issue being open and clear about what they wish to raise.

I totally endorse what my hon. Friend says about the importance of topicality. I was struck by the fact that not a single question on the middle east was taken at the recent Foreign Office questions. Of course Members found another opportunity to raise their concerns about the crisis in the middle east, but there is something wrong with a tabling system by which Members of the House of Commons, in holding the Foreign Secretary to scrutiny, cannot raise the biggest single foreign policy issue.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Conservative, Faversham and Mid Kent

A number of my constituents are deeply concerned about the activities of gypsy families on the eastern end of the weald. A key to resolving the problem is the efficient operation of the planning system. At a recent meeting with the local borough council—I should add that it is not Conservative—it was alleged that a change in the Government's approach to the planning inspectorate has directly caused the problem. A letter that the head of planning has written to me this morning states:

"I can only presume that advice which the Inspectorate is now receiving from Government is leading to the very lenient approach . . . local residents are being severely disadvantaged".

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the House to explain why that approach is now being adopted?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman's local authority did not copy the letter that he received this morning to me, so I obviously cannot comment on it. I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, but my willingness to do so does not imply agreement with the view that has been expressed to him. I remain a little sceptical on the basis of the facts as stated.

Photo of Mr Bill Tynan Mr Bill Tynan Labour, Hamilton South

The House and my right hon. Friend will be aware of the growing incidence of hepatitis C. The Department of Health set up a working group—chaired by Howard Thomas—which reported back before Christmas. I understand that the report is lying on a civil servant's desk at present. Will my right hon. Friend investigate when that report will come before the House and will he make time to debate it?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I fully share my hon. Friend's concern about the incidence of hepatitis C—a very serious condition, which is of concern to health workers as well as patients. It is very important that we take the issue seriously. I cannot say when it is anticipated that the report to which he refers may be published, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Photo of Andrew MacKay Andrew MacKay Conservative, Bracknell

Turning to the Prime Minister's pledge to stabilise street crime in London by the end of September and bearing it in mind that his past delivery on public services has not always been very successful, will the Leader of the House give us an absolute assurance today that the House will be recalled if street crime in London has not been stabilised at the end of September, so that the Prime Minister can come to the Dispatch Box to explain again why he has failed to deliver?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am always open to invitations to recall Parliament during the Tory party conference, and we shall reflect on that request as the conference coincides with the turn of the month. [Interruption.] I see that some Opposition Members may support me in that endeavour.

The hon. Gentleman is particularly unfair to the Government with his claim that we have failed to deliver on our commitments, given that in recent months we have spectacularly delivered on our commitments to reduce both waiting lists and waiting times, and we shall continue to make progress on that.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 17 per cent. of British workers still receive no bank holiday pay? Will he arrange for a debate on employment law and employment rights, in which we can highlight some of those bad practices?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend raises an issue of real concern to a number of our constituents. I have always been proud that this Government implemented the working time directive, which for the first time gave 2 million working people the right to paid holidays. We shall always consider the best way to advance working conditions, consistent with our commitment to an enterprise and successfully competitive economy. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend has said and draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Could the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary or the Northern Ireland Secretary come before the House in the near future to clarify the situation that is developing in the battle against international terrorism? The homespun element is very much active. We have heard comments clarifying only from the IRA's point of view what has happened in Washington. Yet it is significant that, since 1998, senior members of the IRA, after signing the Belfast agreement, have been involved in international terrorism and continue to murder Roman Catholics in Tyrone and to target and threaten people in this House.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman's last point is a weighty and important one: more members of the Catholic community have perished at the hands of nationalist terrorism than by any other means. We fully share his concern about the activity of the IRA in Colombia and elsewhere, and we are concerned about the findings in the report of the committee in Washington. However, that does not have a direct bearing on the present process towards peace within Northern Ireland or the existence of a ceasefire within Northern Ireland and on the mainland, which is warmly supported by the great majority of residents in both places.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of his discussions on the memorandums which he recently published, in particular the roll-over of Bills from one parliamentary Session to another and the rescheduling of business to start earlier in the day?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I think that my hon. Friend's question is less about when we might finish at the end of the day than when we might start. It is well known that my view is that if the House wishes to restore itself as the place in which the agenda of public debate for the day is set, we must meet earlier in the day.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The right hon. Gentleman asks why. It is self-evident that if we do not start until the early afternoon and do not carry out our main business until the late afternoon, we have missed the morning opportunity to set the agenda for the day. It is in the interests of all Members of Parliament, whatever side we sit on, that Parliament should be seen as the place where the agenda for public debate is set, not simply a place of response. On the timetable, we are carrying out good and, I am happy to say, consensual progress in our discussions in the Modernisation Committee and I hope that we shall be in a position to report before the House rises for the summer recess.

Photo of Charles Hendry Charles Hendry Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate in Government time on the Budget's specific implications for local government? I am advised that the national insurance contributions will cost East Sussex county council £1.8 million—£1.1 million for education alone—and Wealden district council £100,000. Those both equate to a 1 per cent. increase in council tax, so people are hit not only once by the national insurance changes, but a second time by a hike in council tax.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The Government are happy to debate at any time their record on support for local authority expenditure and draw attention to the 20 per cent. increase that we have maintained for five years compared with the almost nil increase of the last five years of the Conservative Government. We are also very happy indeed to discuss relative council tax rates, because the average council tax by area per dwelling for next year will be £738 for Labour authorities, £824 for Liberal Democrat authorities and a whopping £833 for Conservative authorities. In those circumstances, a period of silence from the Opposition would be welcome.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

My right hon. Friend mentioned the middle east earlier. He will be aware that the European Parliament recently agreed a resolution calling for an arms embargo on Israel and Palestine and the suspension of the EU-Israel euro-Mediterranean agreement if Israel continues to refuse to comply with recent United Nations resolutions. Will my right hon. Friend introduce a substantive motion in the House to enable hon. Members to express a view on those and other important matters raised in the European Parliament's comprehensive resolution?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Any decision on an embargo of the EU-Israel Association Council falls to the European Union's General Affairs Council, not the European Parliament. In fairness to the Government and the House, I remind my hon. Friend that only the other day we provided a full day for debate on the middle east crisis, which is an issue of the gravest concern to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary continues to be in close contact with people in the region and the international community to make sure that we do all that we can to secure an end to the violence and a return to the negotiating table and, in addition, to ensure that the international community, particularly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has an opportunity to examine the accusations of a breach of human rights during the occupation.

Photo of John Barrett John Barrett Liberal Democrat, Edinburgh West

With more than 240 people, including 30 or 40 possible terrorists, still trapped in the Church of the Nativity, will the Leader of the House say whether the House can do anything to show that we are not sitting back while that horrific tragedy continues to unfold?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The Government and the EU are already doing all that they can to find a resolution to that appalling crisis and the severe conditions that now exist in an important church that is valued by everyone in the Christian community around the world. Javier Solana, the EU High Representative, has been engaged in the area trying to find a way forward and a basis on which the siege can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is fully engaged in those efforts and gives what support he can through diplomatic contact. At the end of the day, we cannot make progress unless the Israeli Government themselves are willing to enter into a spirit of trying to find a way forward and a solution that enables us to relieve the appalling suffering now being experienced by people who represent the Christian community and are in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity.

Photo of Marsha Singh Marsha Singh Labour, Bradford West

Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the continuing communal violence in Gujarat? While we feel for anybody caught in that violence, whether Hindu or Muslim, we must ask why Indian security forces stood back and allowed Muslims to be massacred. There is a question mark over India's treatment of its minorities, so would my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am aware of the serious concern throughout communities in Britain, including the community represented by my hon. Friend, about events in Gujarat. We share that concern and have expressed it to the Indian Government. I hesitate, however, to follow my hon. Friend in his generalisation; the Muslim community in India is one of the largest in the world, and on the whole India has maintained an honourable tradition of equal rights within an open democracy. It is important that it can continue to do so, which means in part that it must co-operate fully in making sure that we learn the lessons of what may have happened in Gujarat.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

The right hon. Gentleman appeared before the Procedure Committee yesterday as part of its inquiry into parliamentary questions and gave valuable and excellent evidence. I suspect that it could well be as a result of that evidence that some publicity has appeared in The Sun newspaper today. Indeed, the comment was made that Prime Minister's questions created theatre, but the overall impression was very negative. The Leader of the House will appreciate that his memorandum on modernisation has an impact on Committees, Select and Standing, that are part of this House. Would he therefore be prepared to meet the Liaison Committee to discuss its concerns about the impact of his proposals on changing sitting times of the House? He can then be fully apprised of the concerns that are currently felt.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that I was speaking to a Committee of the House and not to The Sun newspaper yesterday. On the modernisation paper, I would be very happy to meet the Liaison Committee if I am invited to do so to discuss this or any other matter. Indeed, I can see merit in our having such a discussion before we debate the forthcoming proposals on Select Committees.

Photo of Gwyn Prosser Gwyn Prosser Labour, Dover

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the restructuring plans that the ferry companies announced this week, which could undermine the Government's integrated transport policy? Will he consider finding time for a debate on P&O's announcements, which could threaten seafarers' jobs, slow down the movement of freight off the roads and on to rail, and cause all sorts of traffic congestion in Dover?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I totally understand the importance of that issue to my hon. Friend's constituency and constituents. I would not wish to comment on the proposals of a commercial organisation that is making its own judgment, but I am happy to take this opportunity to restate the Government's political priority, which is to ensure that we provide maximum opportunity for freight to travel by rail rather than road. Of course, we want to work with the private sector to secure that objective.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport)

On that very point, will the Leader of the House now invite the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the House to debate the lack of freight movement through the channel tunnel, as the 72 trains a week that he promised would be passing through the tunnel by 15 April are not yet doing so? Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that, as of yesterday, illegal immigrants are jumping off moving trains, which puts their own lives at risk and makes it impossible for the police to apprehend them in this country? Will he take the opportunity to debate that issue with regard to reinstating the bilateral agreement with France and getting a commitment from the French Government to improve security in France, as well as a commitment from the British Government that they will take the French Government to court for breach of free movement provisions under the treaty of Rome?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

In the event of a legal move of the sort to which the hon. Lady refers, it would in the first instance be a matter for the Commission rather than necessarily for ourselves, although we remain in discussion with it on the issue. In terms of clandestine entry into Britain, we have made good progress in reducing the number of people who arrive clandestinely and, indeed, of those who arrive without proper paperwork. Those matters are in our control, but provision for freight movement on the other side of the channel is not. We have considerable and continuing dialogue on the matter with the French authorities. We have a joint commission that will meet again shortly and we continue to put every possible pressure on the French authorities to ensure that security is improved to enable freight movements to achieve the capacity of the tunnel. After all, that is in the interests of the French economy and the British economy. Those matters are not, however, within our direct responsibility.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Hornchurch

In common with many Members of Parliament from London and the south-east, I represent a borough that has a severe housing shortage. The obvious consequence is the fuelling of house price inflation, coupled with the fact that many council properties—especially houses—have been sold off as a result of the right-to-buy scheme. Like many hon. Members, I see the consequences in my advice surgery week after week. I have also been extensively lobbied by public sector workers, as have many MPs from Greater London. Can we have a debate or at least a statement on housing policy?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I understand the problems to which my hon. Friend refers. In particular, we all fully understand their importance to the provision of decent public services throughout the south-east, which requires housing whose cost is within the income of people working in the public service. I assure him that the matter is very actively under consideration in the Government. I am sure that my colleagues will report to Parliament whenever it is appropriate to do so.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

Will the Leader of the House have a word with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about an error that the Prime Minister appeared to make at Prime Minister's questions yesterday, when he told the House that police numbers were now at record levels? He neglected to say anything about special constables, who are also police officers, and who are leaving in alarming numbers. In the Essex force, for instance, there were more than 1,000 specials when this Government came to power; sadly, there are now only about 400. They play a vital role in reinforcing the regular police, particularly at weekends, and we cannot afford to do without them. Would not one way to improve Prime Minister's questions be to ensure that the Prime Minister gets his figures right?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Let me say to the House that the Prime Minister got his figures absolutely right when he said yesterday that the police establishment was at record numbers. That is true, and the number of those in training is also at a record level. Had the Conservatives paid the same attention to increasing the police establishment when they were in office, instead of presiding over a decline in the number of police officers, we might not have the problems that we now have on our streets.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sunderland association football club gives a great deal of assistance to charity? It is not just that it keeps giving points away to other teams; its manager, Peter Reid, is involved with a charity event run by Emmanuel college, Gateshead, which raises money to send mercy ships to Africa. The team's striker, Niall Quinn, is involved in a testimonial game on 14 May, the proceeds of which will go to charities in the north-east of England and in Dublin. Might it not be a good idea for us to have an easy load that day, to allow those of us with tickets to go to the game and to encourage people to buy non-attendance tickets, which are available for this charitable purpose?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I shall, of course, take careful note of my hon. Friend's request when I plan the business for 14 May, although I shall have other factors to consider when I make those decisions. In the meantime, I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Sunderland club and its members on the work that they do for charity. I recognise that many local football clubs provide an important focus for community identity and community pride.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Conservative, Upminster

Will the Leader of the House assure us that, after the local elections next week, there will be a thorough assessment of the security and confidentiality of the experimental postal voting system that is to be used in the London borough of Havering and elsewhere? Will he arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House to allow my colleagues and me to raise the real concerns of our constituents on this matter? Those concerns are deterring them from voting, which is the opposite of the intention of that experiment.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I would certainly welcome a longer opportunity for the hon. Lady to explain why her constituents are being deterred from voting by the wider use of postal voting, which is the basis of the pilot scheme in her borough. I can assure her that the Government will be looking very closely at the results of those experiments. The pilots and experiments have been set up precisely so that we can consider the lessons to be learned from them and evaluate what happens on those occasions. As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on e-democracy, I hope to spend polling day in the London borough of Newham, studying the borough's use of the internet to see whether it has facilitated voting and contributed to more people voting than might otherwise have been the case. I very much welcome the innovative way in which it is taking the facility, in advance of polling day, to old folk's homes and hospitals, to enable people there to vote using the internet in a way that they would not have been able to do on polling day.

Photo of David Chaytor David Chaytor Labour, Bury North

May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 1171?

[That this House congratulates the staff of further education and sixth form colleges on their outstanding service to over four million students; welcomes the increased capital and revenue funding now available to the sector; notes, however, that colleges' core funding remains at 90 per cent. of 1995–96 levels and that the funding gap between schools and sixth form colleges for the same three A-level package remains at £1,000 per pupil; further notes the current recruitment crisis caused by low pay throughout the sector; welcomes the campaign led by the Association of Colleges, NATFHE and NUS, and supported by all the sector's recognised trade unions including UNISON, TGWU, GMB, ATL and ACM, for increased financial support for further education students, an improvement in the core funding allocated to colleges and a recognition of the recruitment crisis caused by growing salary differentials between schools and colleges; and calls on the Government to provide a fair allocation to the further education sector in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.]

It deals with the funding of the further education sector—an issue that attracted considerable attention at education questions earlier this morning—and focuses on the differentials between funding for colleges and sixth forms in schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unique in the public services to have such a large differential in salaries and per capita funding between two areas doing essentially the same job? Will he find time for an early debate on the subject? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which is, I detect, supported by a number of others in the Chamber. He is aware that the Government are committed to trying to ensure not only that there is adequate funding for further and higher education, but that we make progress towards greater equality within that funding. I shall certainly draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to his early-day motion, and I am sure that he will find opportunities to press his concern through one of the many ways open to him in the House.

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Conservative, Bexhill and Battle

The Leader of the House is aware that I have previously raised in this place the plight of cancer sufferers in my constituency, particularly women with breast cancer who face an unprecedented wait for radiotherapy following surgery. The most recent case is that of a lady in Battle. She was operated on after Christmas, but has been told that she must wait until June to begin radiotherapy treatment.

Unfortunately, that is by no means an isolated case. This morning, I met the president of the Royal College of Radiotherapists, who told me that, despite the crisis prevailing right across the country,

"there is no long term plan for the provision of radiotherapy treatment which clearly anticipates the level of radiographers and radiotherapy equipment, relative to forecast demand."

May we have a debate that clearly addresses the issue, so that the Government have an opportunity to reply and tackle the crisis head on?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

My impression is that the House has not been short of opportunities to explore health issues and health provision, and I am sure that that will continue to be the case. The hon. Gentleman raises a precise issue, but I plainly cannot comment on his constituent's case. However, I am happy to communicate the particulars to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and to secure a reply.

On the general issue, I remind the House that the Government have increased cancer treatment funding and the number of cancer specialists. We shall continue to do so, and the results that we are securing show increased cancer survival rates. We want to build on that. That does not mean that every single case has improved, but it does mean that we must ensure that support services such as radiography are properly funded and properly developed. I would not want the hon. Gentleman's one case to obscure the general picture, which is more investment and more results for the cancer service.

Photo of Mr Tony McWalter Mr Tony McWalter Labour/Co-operative, Hemel Hempstead

Although I had wanted to thank Mr. Speaker while he was in the Chair for providing lunch for my daughter as part of "bring your daughter to work" day, I am pleased that he has gone to meet the girls. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will convey my thanks to Mr. Speaker for hosting that event.

Young people will benefit eventually from the knowledge-based economy, which is at the heart of the Government's programme, but does the Leader of the House share my distress at today's Science and Technology Committee report, which points out that research and development in many science subjects will fall substantially next year because of the research assessment exercise? Will he bring the Minister responsible for science to the House soon for a long-overdue debate on science policy, so that we can redress deficiencies such as the 22 per cent. decrease in nursing research over the next year?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I very much hope that my hon. Friend's daughter does not fall into the error of thinking that going to work means being taken to lunch. That may result in sad disappointment in later life.

My hon. Friend raises a question relating to the Select Committee. I heard the Chairman on the radio this morning, and he made some interesting points. We shall, of course, reply to the Select Committee in the usual way and I am sure that the Science Minister will be crafting a robust response. I can only say to my hon. Friend that it is important that we get the balance right between the research output of our higher education centres and their commitment to ensuring that they give proper attention and proper energy to the education of the next generation of students.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the strategic, environmental and commercial issues surrounding the proposal to site a new airport in the Thames estuary, which is particularly important to my constituents? Although such an airport would impact on a number of communities, it would impact particularly on 40,000 of my constituents who live on Canvey island. They would be delighted if we debated the proposal's impact on the environment and local infrastructure networks, as that would ensure that their interests are covered.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I understand that there is not such a proposal, but the issue is under consideration. I cannot believe that we would make any strategic decision about aviation or airports in the south-east or elsewhere without full discussion and exploration by the House. Any decision must be a balance between the need of the nation to ensure that we have proper aviation facilities and services, and the important environmental and social considerations to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

The Leader of the House will recall that last week I raised the question of the £32 million contract for smallpox vaccine awarded to PowderJect and the large donation to the Labour party by Paul Drayson, its chief executive officer. We have now heard that PowderJect will subcontract that work to a Danish company, Bavarian Nordic. PowderJect is only acting as the middleman, so the Government could have gone straight to that Danish company and saved the taxpayer a lot of money. Can we have a debate, so that the Government can answer the allegation that they are for sale to the highest bidder? When the right hon. Gentleman replies, will he not go on about the Tories, because people are not interested in what the last Tory Government did in the previous century?

Hon. Members:

The hon. Gentleman is right about that.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

My hon. Friends have stolen my punchline. I fully concur with the hon. Gentleman that the public are not interested in the Conservative party.

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what I said to him last week. PowderJect submitted the best, most cost-effective and most attractive of five tenders. It has long been the practice in the public sector that the company that secures the offer of work can then consider the best way to provide it. It may be that on this occasion, as on others, it has involved other companies and other plants in the production. The Danish company to which he referred did not get the contract because, as far as I am aware, it did not bid for it.