§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
May I ask the Leader of the House for the business for next week, please?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)
The business for next week will be:
MONDAY 22 APRIL—Continuation of the Budget debate, in which the theme for the day will be enterprise and opportunity for all.
TUESDAY 23 APPIL.—Conclusion of the Budget debate, in which the theme for the day will be health.
WEDNESDAY 24 APRIL—My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will propose an Humble Address to celebrate the golden jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad that there is an all-party consensus. Second Reading of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill will follow. That will be followed by consideration of a Lords consequential amendment to the Commonhold and Leasehold Reform Bill [Lords].
THURSDAY 25 APRIL—There will be a debate on international development on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 26 APRIL—There will be a debate on the quality of life in local communities on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
The provisional business for the week after will be:
MONDAY 29 APRIL—Second Reading of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill [Lords].
TUESDAY 30 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
WEDNESDAY l MAY—Second Reading of a Bill making the necessary legislative changes to national insurance following the statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
THURSDAY 2 MAY—There will be a debate on Wales in the world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."' I am grateful for the approbation of the House.
FRIDAY 3 MAY—The House will not be sitting.
I should also like to inform the House that business in Westminster Hall for May will be:
THURSDAY 2 MAY—A debate on women and information technology.
THURSDAY 9 MAY—A debate on the report from the Trade and Industry Committee on the end of life vehicles directive.
THURSDAY 16 MAY—A debate on the report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee on empty homes.
THURSDAY 23 MAY—A debate on the role of the United Nations.
The House will wish to know that on Wednesday 1 May, there will be a debate relating to the promotion of the use of biofuels in road transport in European Standing Committee A.
§ [Wednesday 1 May 2002:
§ European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 15500/01, Promotion of the use of biofuels in road transport; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xix, HC 152-xxii, (2001–02).]
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us that notification of the business. Will he please find Government time in the very near future for a debate on the future of agriculture? It is a very long time since we have had such a debate. Since the very damaging effects of foot and mouth, given that there was nothing in the Budget for agriculture or rural communities, and as it would appear that the countryside is in general revolt, I would have thought it was in the interests of the Government, and certainly of the House as a whole, that we had a full day's debate on the future of agriculture in order that we can sort out those matters.
I was interested in the announcement of consideration on 1 May of a Bill on national insurance. I know that I May used to have a political significance, of which the Government obviously do not want to remind us, but perhaps it is an appropriate day to debate such a Bill. As the Bill obviously has major tax and policy implications, will have an effect on both individuals and businesses and we will surely need a considerable amount of time in order properly to consider it, and in essence, reality and substance it is a taxation Bill, will it or at least its substantial aspects be dealt with on the Floor of the House? Will the Leader of the House guarantee adequate time in Committee, either on the Floor of the House or Upstairs, for all its implications to be considered?
National insurance increases of the kind the Chancellor mentioned yesterday represent a major policy and directional shift by the Government. I hope that we can have an assurance from the right hon. Gentleman that the House will be able properly to consider them in all their aspects.
On the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, the Leader of the House will know that, under consistent pressure, the Government have been forced to notify the Bill to the authorities of the European Union. It was only as late as 28 March that notification was finally made, as is required by a number of EU directives. Member states are obliged to notify Bills that have an impact on the internal market.
The purpose of notification is to provide an opportunity for the Commission and other member states to comment if they consider that the proposed legislation has the potential to create a technical barrier to trade. Given that, and given that it is also a requirement that any resultant substantial changes to legislation must be allowed for, can the Leader of the House tell me whether he believes we can embark on the Bill's Second Reading during the notification period or, more important, on its Committee and Report stages. I know that this is one of the obvious benefits of our membership of the European Union, but it strikes me that there are considerable implications for the procedures of this House and the timing of legislation, not least this Bill. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman can advise us how far he believes the Government can take this Bill during the period of notification, which may indeed be extended beyond the initial three-month period starting from 28 March.
701 Finally, I remind the House of the sensational developments that occurred in this place on 15 April when the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said to Mr. Deputy Speaker at col. 420:Can I ask you to reconsider the procedure for private Bills to prevent this abuse of the House by the Prime Minister?He went on to say in column 421:I believe that the process has been corrupted and tainted by the Prime Minister's intervention.Later in column 421 he referred to communications between the City corporation and the Prime Minister, and asked in column 422 whether we couldtherefore clarify and investigate the relationship between the City corporation and No. 10".The hon. Gentleman finally repeated his belief in column 422 thatthe process has been corrupted as a result of the Prime Minister's intervention".—[Official Report, 15 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 420–22.]In my 19 years in this House I do not think that I have ever heard a Government Back Bencher accuse his Prime Minister of corruption, of abuse and of tainting the procedures of the House. These are very serious allegations. Given that the Prime Minister is the custodian of the ministerial code of conduct, who will implement and police that code of conduct in the context of these very serious allegations? It is a matter for the House, and something to which we are therefore obliged to return. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will allow time urgently and soon for the House to go into these very serious allegations, and possibly for the Prime Minister to appear so that he can answer them.
§ Mr. Cook
Let me seek to respond to the points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised; I will save until the end the serious issue of substance in respect of the forthcoming national insurance Bill.
On agriculture and the countryside, I am well aware of the feeling in a number of quarters in the House that it would be valuable to have a debate on the countryside. I am not resistant to that, but it has to join the many other things that we have to consider. However, I think that the right hon. Gentleman was rather unfair about spending on the countryside as farming and rural businesses have received substantial support in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak.
On the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that an issue is being pursued in Brussels that conforms with the regulations there. It is being pursued in parallel with the legislation here, and I would greatly regret it if the House decided to suspend proceedings on the Bill. It is a very important health measure that will literally save lives, and it has substantial support on both sides of the Chamber. I therefore hope that we can proceed in parallel with the discussions in Brussels. I am confident that my colleagues there will put up a robust case and that those in Brussels will agree with us. The Bill is not a barrier to trade but it is a barrier to cancer and therefore deserves the support of all Members.
§ Mr. Cook
I thought that I had just done so, but in a rather more parliamentary way.
702 I hope that the right hon. Gentleman gave notice to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) that he was going to name him in his question. I note that my hon. Friend is not here. Given the extent to which the right hon. Gentleman quoted him, it would have been fair to give my hon. Friend advance notice. In mitigation, however, I am sure that my hon. Friend will be intensely flattered to have been quoted at such length by the Opposition.
On the issue of substance, I think that the right hon. Gentleman rather overdid the synthetic rage. The City of London (Ward Elections) Bill has come before the House on many occasions and has been debated exhaustively. I thought that it was supported by the Conservatives, but I may have misunderstood the Opposition's relationship with the City of London. I am sure that people in the City will read the right hon. Gentleman's observations with interest.
Technically, of course, any business motion is tabled in the name of the Prime Minister. The motion to dispose of the Bill was a collective decision of Government as, although it is a private Bill, it has been before the House many times. I assumed that the motion would have been welcomed by those Conservative Members who support the Bill. I think that the right hon. Gentleman's indignation is especially synthetic because, whereas the motion was to suspend the 10 o'clock rule, proceedings on the Bill got nowhere near 10 o'clock but had been concluded by 8 o'clock.
The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue of substance in connection with the national insurance Bill. He reminded the House that 1 May is a date of deep significance. It is the anniversary of the historic landslide with which the Labour party pushed the Conservative party into opposition. It is the date from which we were able to address the previous Conservative Government's under-investment in the health service. We are proud that, over the course of two Parliaments since 1 May 1997, we will have doubled the investment in the national health service that we inherited. The national insurance Bill is important in enabling us to do that, and for that reason will be supported by all Labour constituents, and by most Conservative constituents.
§ Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will have been following with interest details in the press of what is happening with ntl and ITV Digital. My hon. Friends the Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) and for Battersea (Martin Linton) and others met my hon. Friend the Minister for E-Commerce and Competitiveness this morning. We discussed the implications for competitiveness, the digital action plan, and for hundreds of jobs in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The hon. Lady is not getting us off to a good start. We do not want statements; we must have questions. A great many hon. Members wish to speak, and I appeal to them to be very concise.
§ Linda Gilroy
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House agree to an early debate on this very important topic, which is at a critical stage?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully understand the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and by many hon. Members about the 703 current crisis in digital TV. It is very important that we take forward our commitment to digital TV, as we intend to do. We must make sure that we absorb the lessons from this matter and see whether we can mitigate its impact. My hon. Friend asks for a debate on the matter. Earlier, I announced a debate on women and information technology, which will take place in Westminster Hall. I am sure that many points relevant to digital TV can be raised in the context of that debate.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Will he be able to find time for a debate on education? That is especially important, given that the Chancellor produced only a minimal amount of money for education in yesterday's Budget statement, and that there will be a national announcement on class sizes next week. My own local authority, Stockport, still receives £830 per child less than neighbouring Manchester. I know that the hon. Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) are in the Chamber and that they share my view about the need for a debate.
Will the Leader of the House also find time for a debate on House of Lords reform? A remarkable silence seems to have fallen on that matter, which has led to rising fears of a split in Government thinking on what is a very important matter.
Will the Leader of the House also arrange for a debate on the state funding of political parties? A wide range of views appears to be emerging from the Cabinet, and some clarification of the Government's approach would be helpful. It might also help to clarify the Conservatives' approach. They have recently sent out an invitation to aGold level briefing…£500 Membership…exclusive Policy Renewal Programme events, attended by…Shadow Cabinet Ministers.Those kind of gimmicks might no longer be needed.
§ Mr. Cook
Perhaps I can suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he might usefully reread the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget statement yesterday. He will find, at column 588 of Hansard, a strong commitment from this Government to investment in education. The Chancellor clearly stated that not only did we increase the share of the national income going into education in the last Parliament, but we fully intend to raise it again in the course of this Parliament. Next to health, education is a priority for this Government's investment in public spending and we are proud of that record.
On Lords reform, the hon. Gentleman made the preposterous suggestion that there was a split within the Government on this question. As he is interested in progress on this matter, however, I advise him and the House that, this morning, I believe, the Lord Chancellor has given an interim response to the Select Committee. Of course, many of the major questions that must be addressed are those that we are considering in the period of reflection following the consultation. I assure the House that, as soon as we have reached a conclusion on this matter, I shall bring it to the House in the expectation of support. I hope that the unity that will then be shown in the House will reflect the harmony and unity within the Government on this question.
704 I am slightly surprised, however, that the hon. Gentleman should express concern about different views within the Government on state funding. We have made it clear, and the Prime Minister has made it clear, that we would welcome a public debate on the matter, and it is very important that members of the Cabinet should be free to take part in that public debate without necessarily first adopting a collective line and then seeking to impose that collective line on the party, on Parliament and on the public. I said the other day, and I am happy to read it into the record, that in 1974 I stood on the commitment of my party to introduce state funding. I believe that it would have been better had we acted on it then. Political parties are an important part of the parliamentary process. One cannot have a parliamentary democracy without healthy political parties. It is very important that we identify the least unacceptable way of making sure that they are healthily funded.
§ Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
Could we have a debate early next week on the future of the London underground before the contract for that is signed? Is the Leader of the House aware of the very considerable concern in the Select Committee that the Chancellor or one of his Ministers is not prepared to come before the Select Committee to justify the policy that he is pushing through, which would be disastrous for the London underground?
§ Mr. Cook
I have, of course, seen the Select Committee report, and it is on a matter on which we have had exchanges in the House previously. My position remains the same as when we last had an exchange on this point. Treasury Ministers are willing to come before any Select Committee provided that it is on matters within the remit of the Treasury. That is why a Treasury Minister has appeared before the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee to consider matters in relation to the landfill tax, for instance, and has appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on a similar tax and duty issue. It was a very important principle of ministerial accountability that those Ministers with responsibility for transport or local government, for example, should appear before the Select Committee and give evidence and answer questions on those matters. It is very important that we preserve that principle of ministerial accountability because all Select Committees would be undermined if it were broken.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
Will the Leader of the House find time today to look at the case of Paul Drayson, who is the chief executive officer of PowderJect. One moment he gives £50,000 to the Labour party and, lo and behold, the next moment his company gets a £32 million order from the Department of Health for smallpox vaccine. That contract was not put out to open tender. Surely we should consider this matter. Is not a pattern of sleaze emerging in which we are seeing cash for favours? Can we have a debate on this, please?
§ Mr. Cook
First, PowderJect won that contract because it is one of five companies that bid for it, and it put in the best tender. That is why it got the contract; there is no other reason. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to have an honest and open debate on this question, there is one simple way in which the Conservative party can help. 705 We have changed the law so that company donations are recorded and open, and everybody knows what companies have made donations to the Labour party over the past five years. Nobody knows, except the Conservative party, who made donations to the Conservatives in the last five years of the Conservative Government. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to pursue the issue, why does he not take it up with his own party and get it to publish—it has the information—all the data on who gave it donations in the last five years of the Conservative Government?
§ Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)
Events in the middle east have dominated the world headlines in the past few weeks, but another equally serious dispute has been raging in the state of Gujarat. The official figures for the number of dead there are 900, but the real figure is likely to exceed 2,000. As serious allegations have been made against the state government and, indeed, against the national Government, will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to he made in the House so that those hon. Members with many people in their constituencies with relatives and friends in the region can be made aware of the true facts?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises a grave issue that is of deep concern to many communities in Britain because of the strong ties between our country and the sub-continent. I have followed with deep concern the mounting death toll and will look with interest at recent reports. I cannot promise him a statement, but I shall certainly draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and will invite him to write to my hon. Friend.
§ Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)
With reference to the answer that the right hon. Gentleman gave me last week saying that he stands ready to amend the data protection legislation so that Members of Parliament will be able to represent their constituents more adequately, will he tell us the Lord Chancellor's view on the matter?
§ Mr. Cook
I am happy to say that we are in discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department, which has Ministers in this House. There is no division between us about the fact that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Whether it needs to be addressed by legislation or by other means is a matter for exploration, but I am fully seized of the Alice in Wonderland results that some Members have experienced when pursuing constituency cases. The problem needs to be resolved.
§ Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)
I was pleased to hear that a response has been published today to the Select Committee report. However, we have been told that it is merely an interim response, so can we have a statement on how the debate on the future of the reformed second Chamber will be conducted and on when we will have some decisions from the Government?
§ Mr. Cook
I am sure that this issue will be ventilated repeatedly in the Chamber, and I look forward with anticipation and delight to answering my hon. Friend's oral question in 10 days' time. However, I cannot promise a statement until we have carried out our reflection and come to a considered view. In the meantime, we have 706 given what I fully acknowledge is a holding response to the Select Committee. I hope that, in the fulness of time, we will be able to respond more fully to the major points that it raises. I welcome its report. It showed that it is possible to find a centre of gravity around which reformers can unite. I hope that we can find such a point in Parliament.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on the issue of a debate on agriculture. We have just received the most damning report from the Countryside Agency about rural proofing across Departments, an initiative that this Government introduced. However, when I put a question about brown tourism signs to the Minister for Rural Affairs during DEFRA questions, he referred me to another Minister altogether. He suggested that I had asked the wrong person and did not seem to appreciate that DEFRA has the lead on this matter. If Ministers do not realise that, a debate on the Floor of the House may help them along the way.
§ Mr. Cook
I am not sure that that was quite the most convincing case that I have heard for a full day's debate in the House. I do not agree with the hon. Lady's characterisation of the Countryside Agency's report, but it certainly found areas in which further progress needs to be made. It was, of course, a report on the first year of what is a three-year strategy.
I repeat to her and to the House that I understand the real interest in the House in countryside issues. I shall certainly keep in mind the possibility of a debate on such matters should the opportunity arise. I will not disguise from the House, however, the fact that, as the Session progresses, we shall have a lot of business to get through.
§ John Cryer (Hornchurch)
Following the question from the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), may I ask my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate on the future funding of political parties? The idea that state funding of political parties could be introduced is something that some of us oppose on principle. I pay my subs to the Labour party, and I do not want to pay them to any other party. The idea that my taxes could go towards funding that lot over there or even to those nice, cuddly Liberal Democrats is anathema and sticks in my craw. Could we have a debate or perhaps at least a statement on the issue?
§ Mr. Cook
I assure my hon. Friend that if he were to contemplate paying subscriptions to any other party, he would have severe difficulty receiving the Labour Whip in the House. Of course I understand his reluctance to subsidise other parties, but I put it to him that it is very important that we find a way in which political parties can be funded—not excessively, but appropriately—and in a way that is accepted as legitimate and proper. My hon. Friend has to ask himself whether he regards the Conservative party's present way of funding as necessarily legitimate and proper and, if not, whether he is prepared to contemplate other ways in which we might go about the possibly distasteful but necessary task of funding the Conservative party.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)
As the Leader of the House was in his place yesterday afternoon, he will 707 clearly recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) asked the Prime Minister whether he thought it right that six Parliamentary Private Secretaries, including his own, had voted against the Government's policy on specialist schools on Tuesday. The Prime Minister replied:No, I believe that the position of the Government was right."—[Official Report, 17 April 2002; Vol. 383, c. 573.]In the light of that and the fact that none of those PPSs have even resigned or been sacked, as would have been the case previously, can we have an urgent debate on the ministerial code and collective ministerial responsibility?
§ Mr. Cook
Of course my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right and the Government's policy is right, and the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to demur on either of those propositions. However, it is fair to recall that the Division on that occasion was on a private Member's motion, about which other private Members decided on their own way to vote. We can possibly get a little too pi, simultaneously demanding that Governments should be open minded and permit open debates and that they should crack down, like Torquemada, on anyone who steps out of line, even on a private Member's motion. If we could restore a sense of proportion, it would help everyone.
§ Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the serious allegations in the media regarding Dungavel immigration detention centre? If he is, will he consider, because of the seriousness of the situation there, whether the Home Secretary should make a statement to the House about those conditions to ensure that people understand that they are not as reported in the press, as that would give some comfort to my constituents who have raised the issue with me?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises that issue from a legitimate and proper perspective. I have seen some of the reports in the Scottish press, as he will be aware, and I am interested to hear that they do not necessarily reflect the correct and full picture, as is so often the case. That matter was raised at business questions last Thursday, since when we have approached the Home Secretary to draw his attention to it. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's remarks are also drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention.
§ Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)
The Leader of the House may be aware of reports emanating from Jenin this morning that survivors are being pulled from the rubble of demolished houses, but will he arrange for an urgent statement on that issue next week and, perhaps in the meantime, consider offering the services of organisations, such as Rapid UK, which are used to going into disaster areas, such as earthquake zones, to assist in bringing out people who have been buried in certain situations?
§ Mr. Cook
The House had a full day's debate on the middle east only this week, and it was absolutely right and proper that we made that day of debate available to the House. We shall, of course, continue to keep the 708 situation under review and, if there is a case for a further statement or allowing the House to discuss that matter, we are open to taking that forward.
On the substantive issue, I am sure that the House will share the hon. Gentleman's concern at the evidence that is emerging of the humanitarian crisis in Jenin. It is vital that the Israeli Government facilitate the access of humanitarian and aid organisations to help those, especially the civilians, who appear to have been involved in the suffering during the military incursion into Jenin. I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman at present on whether Britain could offer more specific aid or help, but I will draw his observations to the relevant Secretary of State's attention.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can find time to debate the working of the NHS Appointments Commission—in particular, the singular, apparent reluctance of the commission to appoint people from our more health-deprived areas to sit on health bodies? When I discussed the appointments to the Warrington primary care trust with the north-west appointments commissioner recently, he was able to tell me that only the best people are appointed, but not why the best people apparently come from a very small geographical area of Warrington. Does my right hon. Friend think that there is something in the water; or is there something wrong with the commission's appointment procedures? Can we have an opportunity to debate that issue?
§ Mr. Cook
I can assure my hon. Friend that since we came to office, we have made sure that all appointments follow a clear standard procedure—[Interruption.] Indeed, as all the evidence shows, people have been appointed on merit. That is quite different from many of the appointments made under the Conservative Government. I recall that the chairman of the Conservative Association in my constituency became the chairman of my health trust. Against that background, I cannot comment on the particular local case to which my hon. Friend referred, but I shall obviously make sure that her concern and comments are brought to the attention of the Department of Health.
Since we introduced the new system, trusts and primary care trusts have on their boards people who are much more broadly representative of their communities than was the case in the system that we inherited. That is important because the NHS belongs to the people, and local NHS trusts must belong to the people as well.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)
As has been widely reported in the Channel Islands press and some parts of the British press, the Treasury is planning economic sanctions against Jersey if it does not sign the European code of conduct. Bearing in mind that a Treasury Minister told the Treasury Select Committee that the code was voluntary; that the only impact will be that money leaves the Channel Islands where it is well regulated to go to other places where it is not; and that the Channel Islands have no representative in the House of Commons, will the Government at least have a debate on the matter or issue a ministerial statement of 709 some sort? The Government have said nothing at all, despite the repeated stories, which are damaging to the Channel Islands.
§ Mr. Cook
I am not sure that I concur with the hon. Gentleman that the islands have no representative in the House; they appear to have a good affinity with Southend-on-Sea. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having time to represent people other than his own constituents. On the specific point at issue, it is important for the hon. Gentleman's constituents in Southend-on-Sea that the Government of the United Kingdom are able to negotiate, debate and commit themselves in debates in Europe that make sure that we deliver on the commitments we make.
The withholding tax, which is at the root of the hon. Gentleman's argument, was a success of British diplomacy and saw off what might otherwise have been a new European tax. We made sure that such a tax was not introduced, and dealt with the problem by providing information. It is important that all territories for which the United Kingdom speaks in foreign affairs are committed to the agreements that we make, and that embraces the Channel Islands as well.
§ Jim Knight (South Dorset)
During business questions on 7 March, I asked my right hon. Friend for a debate on the membership of Select Committees, because I was concerned about the continued inclusion in departmental Select Committees of Opposition Front Benchers. My right hon. Friend referred me to a Liaison Committee meeting that had taken place that morning. I dug out the Report of Session of that meeting, point 35 of which states:At present some official Opposition spokesmen or Whips are serving on committees. We are strongly opposed to this in principle.Given that that situation has been ignored by the Opposition, who are abusing the independence of Select Committees, I repeat my request to my right hon. Friend for a debate on this important issue.
§ Mr. Cook
Indeed, but the Liaison Committee did not object to that; its comments referred specifically to the official Opposition. Whatever my sins, I am not a member of the official Opposition. I think that the right hon. Member will confirm that.
On the specific point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), I urge him to try to be a little more understanding of the problems of the Opposition; they are the smallest official Opposition for 30 years and, frankly, I doubt whether they could fill those posts without occasionally raiding their Front Bench. The Liaison Committee has expressed a bona fide concern, and I can tell my hon. Friend that there will be a debate on Select Committees and their membership next month, when we introduce the Standing Orders arising from the recent report of the Modernisation Committee. It will be relevant and in order for my hon. Friend to make his points in that debate.
§ Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
As the Leader of the House is in such a helpful and jovial mood 710 today, will he consider holding an urgent debate on the arrogant disdain of Ministers for Back Benchers, in view of the fact that it has taken almost six months—five months and five days—for the Health Minister to respond to a letter that I wrote to him? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether that is a record, and would he advise us to set up yet another waiting list for replies from Health Ministers to our letters?
§ Mr. Cook
I always try to be helpful to the House, and perhaps I am in a particularly jovial mood today after such an excellent Budget statement from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I regret it if the hon. Gentleman has been kept waiting for correspondence and I will ensure that his comments are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. We try to make sure that we achieve replies to hon. Members, both in written correspondence and in parliamentary questions, as quickly as possible. Some Departments are under particular pressure and some questions raise particularly difficult issues that require some time to resolve. I shall certainly make sure that the Secretary of State for Health is aware of the hon. Gentleman's concerns.
§ Mrs. Jackie Lawrence (Preseli Pembrokeshire)
May I reinforce calls for an early and specific debate on the future of digital broadcasting in the UK? The difficulties faced by ntl and ITV show that there appear to be problems with two out of the three platforms for digital TV. That raises serious competition issues and has implications for the Government's plans to switch off the analogue signal. In addition, 900 jobs are threatened in my constituency and the neighbouring constituency in west Wales.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. It is important that we should reflect that the recent collapse of digital TV from the ITV stable has implications going well beyond the well-publicised concerns about the football teams. My hon. Friend is aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will be opening the Budget debate on Monday, so she may wish to contribute to the debate to make sure that the issue that she raises is fully ventilated. I can assure her that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Trade and Industry are following the matter closely.
§ Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)
The Leader of the House will be aware of the crisis in the automotive industry. We have seen the closure of the Ford car assembly plant at Dagenham and the closure of Vauxhall at Luton. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that not only has there been a problem because of blockages in the channel tunnel, but that the new tax on jobs—the employers' contribution of 1 per cent.,—will cause an even greater crisis in labour-intensive industries such as the automotive industry? Can we have an urgent debate on the future of the automotive industry, in the west midlands in particular and the UK in general, and the veracity and honesty of the Government in putting a tax on jobs instead of a tax on national insurance or, rather, a tax on income tax?
§ Mr. Cook
If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make a speech on enterprise and manufacturing industry, he has an early opportunity to do so on Monday. I cannot do 711 better than refer him to Monday's forthcoming debate. If he takes part in that debate, I hope that he will answer the question to which we will be seeking an answer from every Conservative Member: given that we are increasing the national insurance contribution to make sure that we can double the spending on the national health service, will the Conservatives tell us whether they will match that increase and sustain it? If they are not in favour of the measures necessary to achieve that increase for the health service, are they telling us that they want more charges for the health service or less spending on the health service?
§ Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
As these business questions have shown, there is an urgent need for a debate on state funding to demonstrate that the Labour party is the only party in the House that does not enjoy any part of the £20 million of state funding that will be paid in Short money in this Parliament. Is it not right that if there is to be transparency in all donations to political parties, it should stretch back over the past 25 years, so that we can demonstrate the contrast between the fantasies about sleaze in the present Government invented by the piffle artists on the Opposition Benches, and the real corruption that existed in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was said that some Conservative Members had their noses so deeply in the trough that all that was visible of them were the soles of their Gucci shoes?
§ Pete Wishart (North Tayside)
While I am delighted that my Welsh colleagues have managed to secure yet another full day's debate on the Floor of the House to discuss Welsh issues, may I ask what we in Scotland have done to offend or upset the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends? When can we expect a full day's debate on the Floor of the House on Scottish issues? Perhaps I can belatedly remind him that there will also be no local elections in Scotland on 2 May.
§ Mr. Cook
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that Scotland has done nothing to offend me. Were it to do so, I am sure that he would be the first hon. Member to draw it to the attention of the House. I think that he is being slightly curmudgeonly. As he said, we welcome our Welsh colleagues' opportunity for a full day's debate. I remind him that we took action, in which I took a particular interest as Leader of the House, to ensure that the nationalist parties had an Opposition Supply day. If I remember rightly, his party had half of that day.
§ Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)
Events this week in Italy have served to highlight once again serious divisions on the economic philosophy of the European Union. On one side, there are those who want privatisation, extreme liberalisation, an attack on workers' rights and a weakening of welfare states, while on the other there are people such as our own Chancellor—he made this clear yesterday—who want to improve social protection, and those in our trade union movement who want to improve workers rights. Will my right hon. Friend make a day available for a further debate on the future economic direction of Europe?
§ Mr. Cook
I have just got into trouble for not having a day's debate on Scottish politics, so I would hesitate to 712 offer a day's debate on Italian politics, although like my hon. Friend I noticed the massive number of people who took to the streets to express their commitment to ensuring a secure future for themselves at work. Of course, we have taken very powerful measures to ensure that the prospects of people at work are improved. In particular, we have taken measures ensuring that many more people are at work than when we came to office—1.5 million in total—and that we have the lowest unemployment that either his or my constituents can remember in a generation.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Will the right hon. Gentleman now kindly agree to a debate in Government time next week on the vexed question of rail freight passing through the channel tunnel? The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions gave evidence to the Transport Select Committee last week and said that the French would put up a fence to prevent asylum seekers from storming the tunnel, as they have again done this week. However, the trains' failure to materialise is affecting constituency companies such as Potters of Melmerby as well as English, Welsh and Scottish Railways, and is costing £500,000 a day. Can we now please have an urgent debate?
§ Mr. Cook
I congratulate the hon. Lady on the assiduity with which she has raised this issue. I have raised her concerns with my colleagues at the appropriate Departments. We have obtained commitments from both the French authorities and SNCF that security would improve, and efforts have been made in that regard. We are not there yet, but we will continue to try.
I remind the hon. Lady that we have so far made good progress on tackling the arrival of those who are the source of the insecurity. The number of clandestines and people without proper documentation who are arriving has dropped sharply. We will continue to do all we can on our side, and to press the French authorities to do all they can on their side.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
I welcome the fact that the Government have today sent their interim response to the Select Committee on Public Administration on its report on the House of Lords. Will he give an assurance that there will be an opportunity for a debate once the Committee has had a chance to consider the Government's interim response and make its comments?
§ Mr. Cook
I am very happy to say to my hon. Friend that I am under no illusion that this issue will go away. There will be many opportunities for the House to return to it in future, including in two weeks' time when I answer oral questions. The Government will continue to make progress on the issue, so as to ensure that we will be in a position to examine it at some length at a future stage in this Session.
§ Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
The Leader of the House will know that the Government will face probable defeat in another place today on the Export Control Bill, when my noble Friend Baroness Miller of Hendon moves with cross-party support an amendment that seeks to defend academic freedom. If the Government are to persist in their policy of trying to constrain 713 academic freedom, can we have an early statement from the Department for Education and Skills about the likely effect on Britain's universities, how they will continue to attract international students, and the effect on our research base?
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman creates a worry and a risk on stilts in relation to a modest aspect of the Export Control Bill. I am proud that we are introducing such a Bill; it is much needed and is based on a commitment that we made and are now carrying through. I am pleased to tell him that we are seeking to introduce amendments that will take care of concerns about academic freedom that we think are rather exaggerated, although we know that they are widely held.
§ Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
May I press the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer), who is no longer in his place? If there is to be a debate on the state funding of political parties, as the Leader of the House says, surely that should include a debate in this Chamber. Given that he says that there is no collective Government position on the matter, will members of the Cabinet be able to speak in the debate, so that the Home Secretary can tell us why he thinks that it is inevitable, the Transport Secretary can explain how he is examining other countries' systems and the Leader of the House can take us on a trip down memory lane about his various political views?
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman asks for a free debate. I should be tempted to have such a debate—having first reached agreement with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—if the many right hon. and hon. Members who were Conservative Cabinet members in the past would take part and tell us exactly where they got funding from and which companies gave them donations.