Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 30th January 2003.

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Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 3 February—Remaining stages of the European Parliament (Representation) Bill.

Tuesday 4 February—Consideration of the First Report Session 2002–03 (HC 171) from the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform.

Wednesday 5 February—Motion on the Police Grant report (England and Wales) 2003/2004.

Motions on the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2003/2004 and the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2001/2002: Amending Report 2003.

Thursday 6 February—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill.

Friday 7 FebruaryPrivate Members Bill.

The provisional business for the week after will be:

Monday 10 FebruarySecond Reading of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 11 FebruarySecond Reading of the National Minimum Wage (Enforcement Notices) Bill [Lords]. Followed by motion to take note of various European documents relating to Agenda 2000 and operation of milk quotas.

Wednesday 12 FebruaryOpposition Day (4th, 2nd Part). There will be a half-day debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced. Followed by proceedings on the Income Tax (Earnings and Pensions) Bill. Followed by motion to approve the Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997 (Amnesty Period) Order 2003.

Thursday 13 February—Second Reading of the Industrial Development (Financial Assistance) Bill.

Friday 14 February—The House will not be sitting.

In the subsequent week, we will take the constituency week.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

I am, as ever, grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us the business.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Treasury Select Committee said in its report of 16 January:

"It would be helpful for the Chancellor to announce the date of the Budget as far in advance as possible (at least two months)"?

That has not happened yet. I rather hope that the Leader of the House may tell us something today about the date of the Budget. What is going wrong? Why have we not been told about the Budget? Is it because the Chancellor is worried that the economy is running into rather choppy waters and is not happy about what he might say? Can the Leader of the House please help us in this matter? If the Treasury Select Committee says that it believes that we should receive proper notice of the Budget, I hope that the Government will pay some attention. Time is already effectively running out.

In the context of the Budget, can the Leader of the House give the Deputy Prime Minister an opportunity to come to the House again to clarify what he said the other day:

"On the cost of the dispute, I told the Select Committee that I thought that it was about £5 million, although there are other estimates. However, it is probably something like £1 million a day, but we have to pay more if we are using troops during the dispute, so it may well be £2 million a day. There are negotiations between different Departments, and various costs are involved, so I hope that the right hon. Gentleman accepts that I cannot be precise. However, I have said that the net cost to the Department is £70 million; if other Departments are included, it is about £100 million, which is a considerable sum"? [Hansard, 28 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 723.]

I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister was trying to be helpful to the House, but it would be even more helpful if he were properly briefed and then returned to the House to tell us what the devil that all meant.

You have just stated yet again, Mr. Speaker, your firmly held views on Ministers allowing information to get out into the public domain before Ministers come to the House. Yet again it has happened today. I heard on my radio this morning in some detail what was going to happen about the aircraft carrier statement this afternoon. I heard talk of 2,000 jobs. I heard talk of 10,000 jobs being saved. I heard specific references to shipyards. I heard that this very important contract would be divided between BAE and Thales.

I suppose that the Leader of the House will tell me that that is all idle speculation, and that somehow it was nothing to do with Ministers. But the sad truth is, Mr. Speaker, that in spite of what you have said repeatedly, this is happening over and over again, and it is the Ministry of Defence that is doing it on nearly every occasion. I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us what on earth he or the Prime Minister, or both of them, will do to the Secretary of State for Defence about his disrespect for the House. He is now a recidivist and a serial offender, and it is time something pretty drastic was done about it.

There is a business motion on the Order Paper today which seeks to limit the debate on 4 February in order to allow the House to start voting at 5 pm. I am not sure that I see the point of that. I do not see why we cannot vote at the end of business at 7 pm. We used to do it after 10 pm, after all, so I am not sure why we cannot have our Divisions after 7 pm. We need additional time even more now to clarify just what is going on on the vital issue of the reform of the House of Lords at the highest level of Government.

Photo of Eric Forth Eric Forth Conservative, Bromley and Chislehurst

On 23 January, at column 441, the Leader of the House said that

"finding common ground with others on where the best compromise can be found with the largest support for the form of the Chamber" is a priority. He went on to say:

"I would be surprised if that compromise did not require some form of mixed membership."

He went on to say:

"It is not my impression that that White Paper was unpopular because it proposed 20 per cent. elected members; the difficulty with public opinion was in relation to the 80 per cent. appointed. I am doubtful about whether we will remove these anxieties on the part of public opinion by going for 100 per cent. appointed."—[Hansard, 23 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 441.]

You can imagine my surprise when just yesterday, at column 877, the Prime Minister said:

"Do we want an elected House, or do we want an appointed House? I personally think that a hybrid between the two is wrong and will not work."—[Hansard, 29 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 877.]

Hold on a minute—I thought that the Leader of the House said that some form of mixed membership was the most desirable outcome. I am worried about the way in which that matter is progressing—or not. At the highest level of government the Prime Minister is saying one thing—[Interruption.] Before Government Members get too excited about the free vote—I am grateful that we are to have such a vote—I remind them that the Labour manifesto in 2001 said:

"We are committed to completing House of Lords reform . . . to make it more representative and democratic".

I believe that we need more time for next week's debate and that a business motion should not truncate the debate at 5 o'clock because I want to hear the Prime Minister explain how his manifesto commitment to a democratic upper House can be fulfilled by his obvious desire for an appointed upper House—that seems rather difficult to explain. Perhaps the Leader of the House will tell us who is more true to the manifesto—the Prime Minister or him. Finally, to whom should Labour Members now look for guidance on the issue—to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House or their conscience?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I anticipate that the House will be interested in the last passage quoted by the right hon. Gentleman so, if he will forgive me, I will canter quickly through his other points, which were merely the preamble to that point.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman's advice is always welcome but, on this occasion, I shall disregard it.

On the date of the Budget, nothing has gone wrong. It would be unusual if it had been announced in January. Indeed, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that so well has the Chancellor of the Exchequer done in managing a sound economy in Britain that we look forward with anticipation to him having a further opportunity to remind the Opposition that we have the lowest unemployment in Europe, the lowest inflation for 40 years and the highest growth rate of the G7 countries.

On the comments about the cost of the fire dispute, I would not have thought that there would be a dispute between the two Front Benches about the fact that the fire dispute necessarily costs a considerable sum of money. I myself have repeatedly heard the Deputy Prime Minister refer to a sum of about £100 million so far. All Members should bear in mind the fact that that £100 million is coming out of other parts of the Deputy Prime Minister's budget, at the expense of regeneration budgets, expenditure in deprived communities and people who are not well-placed to pay in return for the continuation of the dispute. I therefore hope that the Opposition agree with us that it is best to resolve the matter as quickly as possible and get a solution to the dispute.

On the issue of ministerial statements, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we live in a free country and that this is the real world. In a procurement decision, there will be lots of people, including those in industry, not just in the Department, who know what is going on. There is sometimes humbug from members of the press who complain that they are being leaked to, as they themselves tour Britain, breaking legs if necessary, to get advance notice of an announcement. I fully understand the importance of Ministers making the announcement of policy first in the House. I welcome the fact that in his statement Mr. Speaker has just said that he believes that Ministers should seek to comply with that, and I assure the House that I shall do all that I can to reinforce that message.

On the last matter that the right hon. Gentleman raised—which, I must confess, I had anticipated would come higher in his order of priorities in the questions that he put to me—my understanding is that the Prime Minister will not be able to join us on Tuesday. That is no doubt a matter of great disappointment to the Opposition as it is to me, but as the Prime Minister said yesterday, it is a free vote. As he correctly identified yesterday, there are a range of views on the matter. The right hon. Gentleman is correct: my own view is that what went wrong with the last White Paper was that the figure of 20 per cent. elected did not command public confidence, nor, as far as I could see, would it have commanded a majority in the House of Commons.

It is my personal and very humble opinion that by removing the 20 per cent. elected element and substituting zero, we will not restore the public confidence that was missing the first time round. I fully agree with the Prime Minister that we do not want a second Chamber that is a rival to this place. We want a second Chamber that is a partner to this place in restoring respect for Parliament and making sure that we command the nation's attention when we speak. To have a partner who can assist us in the task of restoring the standing of Parliament, we need a second Chamber that is legitimate, and as our manifesto correctly identified, to be legitimate in the modern era, it needs to be democratic. To be democratic, some, at least, of its Members need to be elected.

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

It's the way he tells 'em. On this serious issue, we look to the Leader of the House to robustly defend the House, parliamentary democracy and the freedom to speak our minds. Will he therefore dissociate himself from the way in which the Lord Chancellor and some of his other noble Friends have been referring with such disdain—even with contempt—to the whole process of election to this place? Since the noble Lord, as far as I am aware, has never been elected to anything, will the Leader of the House indicate that he, at least, respects the democratic process, and believes that a democratic mandate and a mandate at a general election are important?

No doubt some will take notice of the fact that the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor are attempting to muzzle Labour MPs and peers, but does the Leader of the House accept that it is wrong, as is suggested in a report today, that they also wish to direct what will happen after the vote next week, as regards the work of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform? Whatever the vote on an indicative Division next week in both Houses, is it his intention to ensure that the Joint Committee will continue its work and will be given an opportunity to fulfil the instructions that it has previously had from the House and from the other place? Surely he must be prepared to defend us against those, be they every so mighty, who wish to undermine the work of Joint Committees?

Finally, has the right hon. Gentleman noticed that this morning, the former leader of his party, Mr. Neil Kinnock, has come out in favour of compulsory voting, in a desperate attempt to increase turnout? Will he take time, please, today to read the report of the debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, when the matter was discussed. A number of Members, including some notable and distinguished members of his own party, stated that the only way to increase turnout is to ensure that people's votes count and have an impact on the result. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore take note of the fact that fairer voting means a better turnout in elections?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trailing his coat in the last question, but right now, if he will forgive me, I have enough battles to fight.

May I clarify the position in relation to the Joint Committee, as there seems to be some confusion about that? We have passed a resolution setting up the Joint Committee. That resolution sets out a remit and a mandate for the Joint Committee to prepare detailed proposals for the House on a second Chamber. As a staging post in that process, we invited the Joint Committee to give us options for the possible composition, and it is on those options that we will vote next week. But the Joint Committee has not fulfilled its remit or its mandate. It needs no fresh remit or mandate to meet again to consider the votes in the House and how those might guide its future work. Indeed, to prevent it from doing so would require a fresh motion of this place, so I see no interruption to the work of the Joint Committee from the votes next Tuesday, and I hope that it will meet rapidly afterwards and assess the way forward.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the Lord Chancellor is not elected. That may be so, but I have never been in any doubt of his confidence that, if he submitted himself to an election, he would be returned. I would disagree with the hon. Gentleman on his observation that the debate in the House of Lords showed contempt for those who are elected. From reading the speeches, I felt that the emotion was rather more one of fear than contempt. I was very struck by the number of Members of the other place who said that they must not let in any elected representatives because even a few would swell in number until they took over the whole place. That seems to be recognition of the greater legitimacy and authority that comes from elections, and is not a case for resisting the principle.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

In relation to freedom of speech, will the Leader of the House arrange a statement on arrangements for the national anti-war rally in London on 15 February? At the moment, it appears that there are to be no speakers allowed and no rally in Hyde park. That would be as outrageous and unacceptable as it would be incomprehensible to those who believe in freedom of speech, and would provoke acts of civil disobedience which all of us would deeply regret. In order to prevent any further Talibanisation of our democracy, will my right hon. Friend assure us that that rally will go ahead and that members of the public who oppose war in Iraq have the right to say so?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point; I fully understand his concern. I know of his deep concern for the environment, and therefore put to him that the concern that has been expressed by Royal Parks police and others relates entirely to the fact that they do not allow rallies in the royal parks during the winter months when the ground is soft. We have had record rainfall over the past few months. If 400,000 people were admitted to Hyde park, that would have a significant impact.

Indeed, several other bodies, including the Countryside Alliance—this shows the impartiality of the Royal Parks constabulary on this matter—have been refused permission for rallies in the park during the winter months. There is no problem whatever with such an organisation having a rally in the park when the ground is firmer following the spring. In the meantime, I encourage those who wish to make their point to do so by finding a place where there is firmer ground under their feet than that in Hyde park.

Photo of George Osborne George Osborne Conservative, Tatton

The conviction of my former constituent Sally Clark for the murder of her two children must rank as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent times. Will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be an urgent inquiry into how the Crown Prosecution Service handled that case, and into the behaviour of the Home Office pathologist? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there needs to be a broader look at the way in which the criminal justice system handles the cases of mothers who are accused of murdering their very young children, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding medical evidence of the death of infants? May we have a parliamentary opportunity to discuss such matters?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concern on behalf of his constituent. I should think that the whole House would share his concern over what must have been an appalling ordeal for both her and her family. Plainly, lessons will need to be learned and absorbed by a number of different agencies—obviously the Crown Prosecution Service for one, as well as the police and the forensic service. It would be unhelpful for the Government to seek to respond in the 24 hours immediately after the decision, but I am aware that several bodies have said that they will be following up the case and examining it closely. Plainly, this matter cannot rest with yesterday's decision. It must be followed through so that we can ensure that there can never again be such a peradventure of justice.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

As an accountant, I welcomed yesterday's announcement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry on a tougher regulatory regime of independence, objectivity and integrity. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether the Secretary of State has asked for parliamentary time next week to explain whether that tougher new approach will extend to those accountancy firms that are stitching up the taxpayer by sitting on advisory bodies on private finance initiatives, advising bidders, selecting tenders and writing apparently independent reports on what a good thing PFI is? Should we not have a widespread, independent review of that expensive farce, particularly in the light of reports such as yesterday's on the Lord Chancellor's expensive mistake with Libra?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I think that it would be unwise to comment on that last point. To respond to my hon. Friend's general comments, I fully share his welcome for the statement made from the Dispatch Box by my right hon. Friend on the improved standards of accountancy and independence of audit. In the wake of the Enron scandal, all of us would agree that it is important that we should do everything possible in the United Kingdom to ensure that audit is independent and accountancy is of a high standard of integrity. I note what my hon. Friend says about potential conflicts of interest, and I shall certainly draw them to my right hon. Friend's attention. It is important that we ensure not only that there is no conflict of interest but that there can be no suspicion or accusation of it.

Photo of Martin Smyth Martin Smyth UUP, Belfast South

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement on Stormontgate before the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill is debated in the House? We have been waiting for that statement for some time. We understand that it has been available, and we expected it to be made much earlier.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I cannot commit myself to a statement before that debate. I fully understand the interests of the hon. Gentleman and his constituents on this issue, and I am well aware of how important it is in Northern Ireland. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be conscious of that interest when he addresses the House next week.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for next Tuesday's vote on the House of Lords to be truly comprehensive and reflect all views, the early-day motion calling for the abolition of the House of Lords that has been signed by well over 100 of us should be put to the House, perhaps at the beginning of the debate, to see whether we can get a majority to ensure that the democratic processes are carried out totally and in full?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I hear what my hon. Friend says. I want to ensure that the House has the best possible opportunity to express the range of views in it. I have two difficulties that I invite my hon. Friend to understand and share. The first is that both he and I fought the election on a manifesto that committed us to reforming the second Chamber, not to abolishing it. Indeed, I might be making some animadversion to that in Tuesday's debate. Precisely because I do not wish to take away any part of the force of any phrase in the manifesto, it would not be helpful for me at this stage to commit myself to abolishing the second Chamber.

Secondly, we set up the Joint Committee in order that it might make proposals to the House on the options, and I shall be putting those seven options to the House on Tuesday. It would be improper of me to interfere with the options that it has put to the House. All I would say to those Members who favour abolition is that they should be careful when they consider which option to vote for on Tuesday that they are not misled into voting for one that was sold to them on a basis other than abolition. Anybody who votes on Tuesday for an all-appointed House may wake up on Wednesday and find that that is what they will get.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

May I reinforce the point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Forth when he asked the Leader of the House to extend the time for debate on Tuesday to 7 o'clock? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that many of us wish to express our support for a wholly elected House of Lords? Does he understand that we want to express our deep disappointment at the Prime Minister's betrayal of his manifesto commitment? Does the Leader of the House also understand that we want to support him in his dispute with the Lord Chancellor on democracy? We wish to make the point that the Lord Chancellor has never been elected to any political office and that he owes his present position in Parliament to his close friendship with the Prime Minister.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am of course always grateful for support, but sometimes one should accept it with a degree of caution and self-preservation. On the question of the length of the debate, I remind the House that we have had a full day's debate on the matter in the recent past and many days of debate on it over the past few years. It is not my impression that anybody's mind will be changed by another two hours of debate on Tuesday.

Photo of Dr Jim Marshall Dr Jim Marshall Labour, Leicester South

May I say to my right hon. Friend as a friend of long standing that I shall start to fear for his future unless he begins to control his sense of irony and does not play to the Opposition gallery too readily, as he appears to be doing?

On a more substantive point, is my right hon. Friend aware that the implementation of section 55 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 is causing a great many problems? Will he look into the problem, particularly in relation to single people arriving in the United Kingdom who fail to claim asylum immediately? Will he arrange for an urgent debate, or failing that, will he urge the Home Secretary to come to the House and make a statement on the issue, so that we can question him about it more closely than we have been able to do hitherto?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern. He and I were elected on the same day and are among the few hon. Members left who were elected on that occasion. My observations on the House of Lords are based on views that are well known to the House and are of long standing. In the context of a free vote and having a range of views, I shall continue to stand by that position.

My hon. Friend raises an issue that has been explored in the House in the past, especially in the context of the recent Bill. I understand the difficulty arising from individual cases that are brought to the attention of hon. Members in a constituency capacity. It is difficult for us to write Acts of Parliament that necessarily apply universally, but cater for all the different circumstances and individual cases that will come to us as constituency Members. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Home Office. Although I do not wish to hold out the prospect of an immediate statement, I am sure that we will return to the issue on a number of occasions in this Session.

Photo of Robert Key Robert Key Conservative, Salisbury

Please can we have an early debate on the role of the Lord Chancellor in the setting of rules of evidence in criminal cases? The release of Sally Clark caused great rejoicing in Salisbury, where she grew up as a child, but it comes as no surprise. Our hearts go out to her wonderful family and her father, who is still a constituent of mine. However, my constituent Angela Cannings is still in prison having been convicted in very similar circumstances, and five similar cases are ongoing. The Leader of the House says that he hopes that the same thing will never happen again, but it will do so as long as we allow juries to convict on the basis not of evidence, but of the controversial opinions and theories of so-called medical experts. That is against natural justice.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman will understand why it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any other individual cases in the present circumstances, but I understand what he says about the evidence given by forensic experts. I am sure that, in the light of the recent decision on Sally Clark, there will necessarily be a review to ensure high standards of integrity, openness and transparency in forensic evidence.

I should like to add one caution: I think that it would be a mistake to encourage the view that there are widespread or general miscarriages of justice in the British courts. Undoubtedly, there are individual circumstances in which things go wrong, and we should vigorously pursue such problems, put them right when we find them and seek to learn any lessons. However, that should not be taken as calling into question the great mass of decisions that are reached in our courts.

Photo of Mrs Alice Mahon Mrs Alice Mahon Labour, Halifax

May I bring the Leader of the House back to the rally that is due to be held on 15 February? He will be well aware that it is part of a worldwide protest against George Bush's war for oil in Iraq and that people do not understand why the Government are suggesting at this late stage that preventing the spoiling of grass in Hyde park is a more worthwhile cause than saving the lives of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

This is not a Government decision; we have expressed no view on the matter and sought to exert no influence. It is entirely a matter for the Royal Parks. Nor is it a new decision by the Royal Parks, which have a long-standing policy not to permit major rallies in the winter months when the ground will not be firm. I fully understand the importance of members of the public having the opportunity to express their views and I would be the last person to stand in the way of their doing so. I urge my hon. Friend and those organising the rally to find other opportunities.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Conservative, South Staffordshire

If the Leader of the House is truly concerned about the reputation of this place and having an effective Parliament, will he allow us an early opportunity to vote again on these ridiculous new hours, which are undermining the work of Parliament? Is he aware that there are hon. Members in all parts of the House, including some who voted for the changes, who share that view?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The House voted on those matters, as the hon. Gentleman says. It did so on the basis of free will and a free vote, and it came to a considered view. Only three weeks have passed since the arrangements took effect and I think that it is far too soon to reach any mature judgment. However, it is not my impression that the decision would be reversed if we were to put it to a vote again.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett Labour, Denton and Reddish

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the answer that he gave my hon. Friend Mr. Skinner? There seemed in his reply to be a slight tension between reminding Labour Members of our manifesto commitment and emphasising the idea of a free vote. We had no opportunity to vote last week and we will not have an opportunity to vote for abolition in the coming week. If he could find a way of allowing us to have a vote on abolition and to express our views, he might then find that one or two of us are prepared to accept as a second best one of the many proposals that are due to be considered next week, even though they are pretty feeble.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Of course, I often reflect on many of the answers that I have given in respect of the business statement, and I am happy to reflect on the one to which he refers. However, it would be false of me to suggest to the House that, at this late stage of proceedings, I see much prospect of adding any more options to the seven that will be put before the House. We set up the Joint Committee on the basis of a decision taken by this House. Indeed, my impression at the time was that it was warmly welcomed. To be honest, I am not aware of any submission made to the Joint Committee suggesting that it should consider abolition, and nor was such a proposal within the remit that the House approved. The seven options before us necessarily flow from that process. At this stage, I do not see much prospect of my succeeding in the task on which he invites me to embark.

We have a stark choice that we must face up to. If we want a legitimate second Chamber to work as a partner with us, it must have a democratic mandate and the authority that goes with it. If we are not prepared to accept that, I do not resile from the proposal that my hon. Friend puts to me: if we are not prepared to do it, we should perhaps be honest and recognise that the consequence is not to have a second Chamber.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Scottish National Party, Banff and Buchan

Does the Leader of the House accept that it is totally wrong to deal with a matter as important as assistance to fishing communities by means of a written statement, when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs knew full well that no fishing question had emerged high in the ballot today? The questions that fishing constituents want answered are clear: why was there no access to European funding, which means that that money is now available to build up other European industries while ours is being run down, and why was there no new Treasury money, which means that the Department's existing budgets are heavily constrained? Why can the Government find so much to prepare for war in the Gulf, but so little to help our fishing communities in a time of crisis?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have debated fisheries policy on several occasions, including, I think, as recently as last week. I am advised that there are no other available EU grants for fishing, and we are certainly not aware of any potential source to which we are not applying. On the question of fresh money, I point out to him that, on top of the £85 million already allocated for the fishing industry for the next three years, an additional £60 million has been forthcoming. Those are not inconsiderable sums and there are other hon. Members with industries of their own in trouble who would have welcomed that support.

Photo of Mr Iain Luke Mr Iain Luke Labour, Dundee East

Once my right hon. Friend gets a chance to read the Strategic Rail Authority's updated strategic plan for the next 10 years, I am sure that he will view it with concern, given that, like me, he represents a constituency distant from the House. The scaling down of targets and emphasis on the west coast line mean that the hope for improvements up and down the east coast main line will be pushed back. As I serve the distant community of Dundee, I am very concerned, like many others from the north-east, because improvements are not even a distant prospect. Will he hold an emergency debate on the proposals, so that hon. Members can discuss issues relating to investment in the east coast main line?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I fully understand the interest of many hon. Members in the impact of the strategic rail plan on their constituencies and towns. The important point on which we can all agree is that investment in the railway industry is at its highest ever and that we must ensure that that is sustained throughout the entire period covered by the 10-year plan. I understand that my hon. Friend is perfectly reasonably concerned about the east coast main line. Indeed, I share that interest as a Member representing a Lothian constituency. However, it is important to us all that we get the west coast main line right and that the SRA succeeds in the objective that it has set itself of ensuring that the rail industry brings costs under control.

Photo of David Cameron David Cameron Conservative, Witney

As a keen follower of the turf, will the Leader of the House join me in condemning the Government's wholly ludicrous plans for compulsory passports for every horse, donkey and pony in the country? Does he agree that that has nothing to do with animal welfare and everything to do with bureaucracy originally imposed in Brussels? Can he find any purpose in it, or any mischief that it is trying to overcome, apart from the fact that the French like eating horses and do not want drugs to enter the food chain? Can we have an urgent debate in the House about the Government's plans so that those of us who want to maintain the status quo—I hope that he will join me in that—can try to convince the Government of our case?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I must declare an interest as a trustee of the British Horse Society, which has an excellent scheme to assist its members in providing appropriate horse passports in response to the directive. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the many people in Britain who purchase horses and ponies find it valuable to be able to have confidence in what they are buying and to know the history of the horse.

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

Knowing that my right hon. Friend is a passionate opponent of ageism—a passion that seems to increase as the years go by—will he soon allow a debate on the so-called National Institute for Clinical Excellence, specifically on early-day motion 316, which deals with age-related macular degeneration and the possibility that some people will be allowed to go blind simply because they are regarded as being too old?

[That this House believes that people suffering with wet age-related macular degeneration are entitled to full access to treatment that could prevent them from losing their sight; is aware that the National Institute for Clinical Excellence has recently issued provisional recommendations that photodynamic therapy be withheld from many people with age-related macular degeneration; notes that, if accepted, these recommendations will lead to approximately 5,000 people each year suffering from predominantly classic wet age-related macular degeneration having treatment withheld; and calls upon the Government not to agree to these views, but instead to support wider access to photodynamic therapy for all age-related macular degeneration sufferers.]

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the older I get, the more passionate I become about ageism. We have gone well out of our way to ensure that we have a national health service that treats all patients equally and thus treats it elderly patients fairly. I would deprecate the view that because one is older one should get a lesser standard of care, although we have to be realistic in recognising that, as people get older, there is sometimes less that medical science can usefully do to intervene. However, I assure him that the broad principle that nobody should be discriminated against on the ground of age is correct.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

May I refer to the business for next Wednesday, namely the allocation of resources to the police and to local government? Is the Leader of the House aware that that is important to every Member of this House? Although the top figure for the additional resources appears encouraging, most Conservative areas are being very badly dealt with, my borough of Macclesfield in particular. Had not a floor been put in the figures, Macclesfield would be getting below what the Government believe they should be getting. The time allocated next Wednesday is inadequate for all Members to express a view, so will the Leader of the House provide a longer debate? If he cannot, will he ensure that no statement takes place on that day?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman accepts that our proposed figures are encouraging. Indeed, police numbers are at a record level. I assure him and his constituents that there is nothing in the formula, and nothing in the Government's approach, that provides for political discrimination against areas because of their political affiliation. We have provided three hours for the debate on that day. I always weigh very carefully an application for a statement against the House's need to proceed with its business. In fact, I am often pressed in business questions to provide for more, not fewer, statements.

Photo of Parmjit Dhanda Parmjit Dhanda Labour, Gloucester

Will my right hon. Friend consider finding time for a debate on the conditions in which young offenders are kept in adult prisons? Following the suicide in April 2001 of my constituent Daniel Curnock, who was 17 years old, a decision was made not to allow young offenders to be kept in Gloucester prison. That decision was subsequently reversed owing to capacity problems affecting surrounding prisons. Many issues relating to young offenders in adult prisons need to be tackled, and that could be done in such a debate.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I hear with interest what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that the whole House would wish to express its concern and shares his anxieties about young people who are detained and feel driven to suicide for whatever cause. I regret that it has been necessary to put young offenders in a prison that he describes as having been considered inappropriate. As he will be aware, we face substantial demand and pressure in relation to the prison population, which necessarily results in decisions that we would otherwise not wish to have made. I shall draw his observations to the attention of the Home Secretary, and I am sure that they will be taken into account in any future allocations to prisons.

Photo of Paul Burstow Paul Burstow Shadow Spokesperson (Health)

May I draw the Leader of the House's attention to early-day motion 431, which addresses the serious issue of reducing child deaths from abuse and neglect.

[That this House believes that the numbers of children in this country who die through abuse and neglect is unacceptable and that public policy has failed to reduce the level of child deaths over the last 30 years; is concerned that the Chief Inspector of Social Services records in her eleventh annual report that three per cent, of children on the child protection register and five per cent, of looked-after children are not allocated a social worker, up to 4,000 children without a safety net; is further concerned that there is no systematic follow-up for child deaths or co-ordinated strategy to reduce child deaths in this country; calls on the Government to place area child protection committees on a statutory footing by placing a duty on all the agencies involved in child protection to participate in the work of the committee and support the local authority in discharging its child protection role; and further calls on the Government to establish an independent Children's Commissioner to promote and protect the rights of all children.]

Given Tuesday's statement on Lord Laming's report into the terrible torture of Victoria Climbié that led to her death, can the Leader of the House find time for a full debate on the findings and 108 recommendations contained in that report, so that Members on both sides of the House can express their opinions, and especially, for many of us, our support for a children's commissioner for England?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious and troubling issue. I am pleased that we have already committed ourselves to implementing 82 of the 108 recommendations in the Laming report, which is not a bad scorecard. We have also committed ourselves to a Green Paper on child protection, which will explore some of the report's more strategic and longer-term recommendations. I fully understand that hon. Members will want other opportunities to discuss the matter and to examine Ministers on it, but I suggest that the best time to do that is when we have the Green Paper.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Labour, Hampstead and Highgate

When will the House be afforded the opportunity to make true the Prime Minister's reply yesterday that decisions on committing British troops

"are taken by our Government, our House of Commons, and our country"—[Hansard, 29 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 872.]

by having a full day's debate, in Government time, with a substantive motion, on the issue of what seems increasingly to be an illegal and immoral war in Iraq? Will the Leader of the House further ensure that such a debate is not eroded by the introduction of ministerial statements, as in the past three debates on Iraq, which reduces the time that Back Benchers have to raise their constituents' justifiable concerns?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am well aware of the interest in Iraq on both sides of the House. I am also very conscious that it is important for the Government, in responding to that, to provide adequate time for the House to debate the issue. In fairness to the Government, we have provided opportunities to examine the issue, and, indeed, a substantive motion for the House to vote upon. On that occasion, the House voted by a very large majority to support the strategy that the Government are pursuing through the United Nations. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall return to the House at all future stages, and I imagine that there will be other occasions on which the House will have an opportunity to vote on the matter.

Photo of Bob Spink Bob Spink Conservative, Castle Point

Being remarkably well informed, the Leader of the House will know that tomorrow evening is the 50th anniversary of the 1953 floods that devastated many communities across the south-east and caused 59 residents of Canvey Island to lose their lives. Will he join me in paying respects to those victims of the flood and to those who showed so much courage on that night in rescuing people and animals? Can he find time for a debate on ensuring that flood defences are substantial enough to prevent any further devastation, bearing in mind rising sea levels?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

Of course, we are fully aware of the importance of flood defences. The hon. Gentleman, who is a fair-minded Member, will acknowledge that we have put substantial additional investment into that. We were pleased that, during the recent floods, the numbers who were inundated were fewer than on the previous occasion. Having said that, I fully understand the importance in his constituency of remembering what happened 50 years ago, and am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing to his constituents, through him, our concern and dismay at what happened and our understanding of the emotions that it must give rise to.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Does the Leader of the House recollect that, in the 25 years when he was not a Minister, he skilfully tabled thousands of named day questions? Is not it paradoxical that, now he is Leader of the House, we are being restricted to five named day questions a day? That removes an item from the Back-Bench Members' toolbox. Can we review that decision?

Secondly, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking on the Government's behalf that, when Departments ignore questions that do not have a named day, they at least provide a holding reply after 10 days rather than the abuse that we get, especially from the Northern Ireland Office? Some Departments simply ignore questions and hope that the issue will go away. Such questions are neglected not for weeks but for months.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I shall take up my hon. Friend's last point with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend gives me more credit than I deserve. The generation of those who were elected in the 1970s did not ask anything remotely approaching the number of questions that is now normal in any week in the House of Commons.

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

That is a fair question, which I shall attempt to answer in my memoirs. I shall confine myself today to the present. Since the previous general election, we have faced a sharp increase in the number of questions, even compared with the record number in the previous Parliament. It is striking that half the questions that are tabled are regarded as urgent questions for reply on a named day. The Procedure Committee endorsed that in its interesting recent report on the subject. We have accepted the Committee's proposal, which places no restriction on the number of questions that hon. Members may ask, but suggests that it is difficult to believe that any hon. Member would require five urgent questions in a day.

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

Reverting to Tuesday's debate on the House of Lords, did not the Prime Minister do something far more serious yesterday than potentially undermine the legitimacy of the second Chamber? By seeking a clear mandate for a more democratic House of Lords and trying to renege on his contract with the electorate, has not he undermined democracy in the primary Chamber of Parliament?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I do not believe that there could be a more democratic process than giving the House of Commons, which represents the nation, a free vote on what it considers the right option. As I have often done, and will do again on Tuesday, I urge hon. Members to seize the opportunity to ensure that we find a centre of gravity that can create momentum for reform.

I agree with the Prime Minister that we should seek a constitutional settlement that will last for a long time, not only one Parliament or a short time. I doubt whether any reform that is not a democratic solution will have the legitimacy to stand the test of time.

Photo of Mr Llew Smith Mr Llew Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

The Leader of the House knows that I raised QinetiQ in business questions on 9 and 16 January and in early-day motion 531.

[That this House disapproves of the proposals set out in the Ministry of Defence departmental minute, dated 17th December 2002, to retain in the public sector liabilities amounting to almost £100 million as part of the deal done with the Carlyle Group to sell-off the defence evaluation organisation QinetiQ; believes it is wrong to encumber taxpayers with liabilities while selling off public assets to the private sector; further believes that the method of informing hon. Members by a departmental minute deposited in the parliamentary libraries just two days before the Christmas recess is an insufficiently transparent way of keeping parliament appraised of the sell-off strategy and detailed provision; and calls upon the Secretary of State for Defence to postpone any further action in respect of the QinetiQ sell-off until parliament has had a proper chance to debate the implications.]

Does my right hon. Friend know that the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence recently described the process of the sell-off as "deeply repugnant"? As it is likely to cost the taxpayer more than £100 million, is it too much to expect the House to debate the matter?

Photo of Robin Cook Robin Cook Lord Privy Seal

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the Select Committee's report, which I shall consider with interest and care. However, as I understand it, the £100 million is not a cost but the potential liability, to which few imagine that the Government will be exposed. I pursued the question of process, which my hon. Friend raised on previous occasions, and it is well understood that in future we must ensure that memoranda are placed in the Library at a time that permits 14 sitting days to follow, not when the House is about to go into recess.

Several hon. Members:

rose—