HC Deb 20 June 2002 vol 387 cc422-35 1.21 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 24 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Export Control Bill.

Motion to take note of European documents relating to single European sky.

TUESDAY 25 JUNE—Opposition Day [15th Allotted Day]. Until 7 o'clock there will be a debate entitled "Crisis in the Care Homes Sector", followed by a debate entitled "Crisis in Zimbabwe". Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.

WEDNESDAY 26 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments that may be received to the Tax Credits Bill.

THURSDAY 27 JUNE—Estimates [3rd Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on public-private partnership for London Underground followed by a debate on individual learning accounts.

At 7 o'clock, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

FRIDAY 28 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be: MONDAY 1 JULY—Second Reading of the Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill [Lords].

Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. TUESDAY 2 JULY—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 3 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

THURSDAY 4 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

FRIDAY 5 JULY—Debate on modernising Britain's gambling laws on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall on Thursday 4 July will be a debate on the reports from the Education and Skills Committee on the work of Ofsted. On Monday 1 July, there will be a debate relating to third-country nationals in European Standing Committee B.

The House will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise on 24 July and return on 15 October. That will, however, depend on the progress of business in the other place.

[Monday 1 July 2002:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 8237/01: Status of third-country nationals who are long-term residents; 11803/01: Entry and residence of third-country nationals for the purpose of paid employment and self-employed activities. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-i, HC 152-ix and HC 152-xv (2001—02)]

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I thank the Leader of the House for letting us know of the business for next week and for notifying us of the date of the summer recess.

The House will know that the Prime Minister has just concluded his groundbreaking press conference, in which he apparently gave members of the press about an hour of his time, in contrast to the mere 30 minutes that we get for PMPs each week. I am curious to know whether there are any plans to extend the time that the Prime Minister submits himself to questions by right hon. and hon. Members in PMPs, given the hour that he gave to journalists. I know that it is all supposed to be in the cause of transparency, but it seems that we are being given a pretty shabby deal by the Prime Minister. I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to put that right.

Talking of transparency, I happen to have in my possession the proceedings of the parliamentary Labour party meeting that was held on Wednesday 12 June 2002 at 11.30 am in Committee Room 14. Sadly, Mr. Speaker, you are no longer able to attend PLP meetings. That being so, I am sure that you would like to know what went on at the meeting. This little item reads: The Party Chair referred to his article in The Times that morning and stressed the need for colleagues to go on the offensive regarding the merits of politics and politicians. He then said: We also had to expose the deep hypocrisy of the media and the journalists who printed uncorroborated and unfounded stories on a daily basis. I wonder whether the party chair had anything to do with the reference to the Press Complaints Commission that was mysteriously withdrawn. There is something rather at odds between what the party chair was saying to the PLP and what Mr. Alastair Campbell was doing at No. 10.

The party chair concluded by saying that the current climate of seeking to undermine politicians was completely unacceptable in a democracy". We should have a debate on this, not in the PLP but in this place. I should like to know how it is that the chair of the Labour party believes that the press seeking to undermine politicians is unacceptable in a democracy. It is a sinister allegation, is it not? Will there be proposals from the chair of the Labour party somehow to muzzle the press, if he believes that it is being unfair to the delicacies of the PLP? We must know more. I hope that the Leader of the House will give us an opportunity to debate the matter.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the stock market is massively up on where it was five years ago. My information is that shares are now 2 per cent. lower in value than they were five years ago, when the great pensions tax was first imposed. We need clarification. Perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us—I know how well briefed he is on these occasions—from where the Prime Minister obtained his information. It seems yet again that the Prime Minister has either been misinformed or has rather carelessly let slip something that may not quite be true.

In the same column, the Prime Minister went on to say, we are putting £6 billion more into pensions every year."—[Official Report, 19 June 2002; Vol. 387, c. 272.] I will leave right hon. and hon. Members to conclude whether that is true. However, the Prime Minister seemed to forget to say—I am sure that he would have done so in the interests of fairness and transparency—that, at the same time, the Government are taking £5 billion a year out of pensions as a result of the great pensions tax that was imposed so surreptitiously about five years ago. In the interest of fairness, I am sure that the Leader of the House will want to correct the imbalance in what the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Today, a report has been issued by the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that makes some rather sensational claims and statements. I shall give the House a few of them. I hope that this will form the basis of an urgent debate on the report. Surely we cannot fail to debate it when it says such sensational things as we find it extraordinary that the Minister was unaware that there was a potential problem until July 2001, and that his officials had sought clarification of the Regulation on nine occasions without referring the matter to him. Paragraph 43 reads: Mr. Meacher told the House in January 2002 that the Government had been 'badly let down' by the Commission. In light of the clear evidence we have received that phrase was ill-judged. Mr. Meacher himself told us on 26 March 2002 that 'I would not say it again in cold blood, no'. I suppose that that is as near as we will ever get to an apology from a Minister.

The report continues by stating that the overwhelming responsibility for mishandling the implementation of Regulation 2037/2000 lies with the Government…This debacle will cost the UK around £40 million, a cost which would not otherwise have been incurred. It adds: We find it deeply disturbing that the Government signed up to the Regulation whilst still suffering from 'knowledge gaps' about its full impact. Those are extraordinarily serious allegations about the Labour Government from a Committee that is dominated by Labour Members of Parliament. I know that the Leader of the House sets great store by the work of Select Committees, and by their reports and conclusions, and I hope that he can assure us that we will have an urgent debate before the summer recess, so that Members of the House other than those on the Select Committee can give their views on the matters referred to in the report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) asked the Prime Minister yesterday whether we could expect a statement on Gibraltar before the summer recess. The Prime Minister replied: The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that there will be a statement when negotiations and discussions are concluded."—[Official Report, 19 June 2002; Vol. 387, c. 275] I suspect that that response did not satisfy my hon. Friend, and I am sure it did not satisfy a lot of other Members.

I remind the Leader of the House that, before he was promoted to his present position, he said on 4 February 1998 in a speech to the Dependent Territories Association, in his then capacity as Foreign Secretary, "Gibraltar is unique." He then went on say that he wished to restate publicly Britain's commitment to the people of Gibraltar—Our commitment to them and to all the peoples of the Overseas Territories remains as strong as ever. I am sure, therefore, that he will now want to go further than the Prime Minister seemed able to go yesterday, and assure the House that the people of Gibraltar are going to be put out of their misery sooner rather than later, that they need not expect to be kept hanging on in suspense, miserable and unhappy, and that he will keep faith with what he told them way back in 1998 rather more than the Prime Minister seems able to do. I hope that he can do that.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for asking a number of additional questions. I should warn him and the House that one of the recommendations of the forthcoming Modernisation Committee report is that we should both seek to be briefer at the Dispatch Box. He might wish to reflect on that when he has an opportunity to study our report.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his diligent research into my previous speeches. I was not aware that many hon. Members or members of the public had been carefully studying my speech to the Dependent Territories Association three years ago, but I am gratified that it is still current, and I stand by every word that I said on that occasion. I have heard my right hon. Friend the present Foreign Secretary give a clear undertaking that, in the event of the people of Gibraltar rejecting any agreement, that will he the end of that agreement. We cannot, of course, put an agreement either to the House or to the people of Gibraltar until such an agreement is reached. The matter is continuously under negotiation, and, as soon as any agreement is reached, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that he and the House will be among the very first to know.

On the Prime Minister's press conference, I felt that the right hon. Gentleman fell short of his usual standards of generosity. Surely it is right that the Prime Minister should introduce such an unprecedented regular system of openness and transparency, and make himself available for questioning not only by those who happen to be among the privileged few with a pass to the Press Gallery but by journalists who are specialists in a particular topic. Nor is that in any way at the expense of his appearance in the House, where, by the way, he has cancelled fewer appearances at Prime Minister's Question Time than either of his Conservative predecessors, and where he has only recently announced that he will be appearing before the Liaison Committee.

The first of those appearances will take place before the House rises for the summer recess, and I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister will be before the Committee for a whole two hours, not just one hour like today's press conference. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman might have found it in him to acknowledge that no previous Prime Minister has ever done this, and that it is a tribute to my right hon. Friend's commitment to the House that he has introduced this innovation.

I am glad to see that the minutes of the PLP are being fully studied and absorbed. I was slightly taken aback when the right hon. Gentleman began that passage, because—if I heard him aright—he said he had the minutes of the meeting of 24 June. That cast a little bit of doubt over what he then quoted. Given the robust views of my right hon. Friend the party chairman, and given my total support for him, I shall try to ensure that the shadow Leader of the House is put on the mailing list for the minutes, in the hope that he will read to us more often such excellent, strong views, which meet with full consensual support on this side of the House.

I repeat what I said to the House last week: this is a serious issue for Parliament and for the press. It is important that we get back to political reporting, which is about politics as it affects the people of Britain. We need less reporting of the gossip of the Westminster village, which we lap up, and more of the policies that affect the real lives of our people, such as the remarkable way in which the Government have increased the number of people in work by 1.5 million and reduced the number of unemployed by 500,000.

As for the fridge mountain, I am pleased to give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that we have now completed four new sites at which we can dispose of fridges; we expect another three to be completed next month and a further three before the end of the year. We expect the fridge mountain to begin to melt—if that is the right term—in October.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to our attempts to get clarification from the Commission. We approached the Commission on many occasions more than two years before it gave us the fresh clarification that gave rise to the difference. Throughout those two years, the Commission's interpretation of the directive was identical to that followed by the British Government.

Lastly, I regret to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not have the incentive to follow the stock market as closely as would be required to answer his question about percentages. I rather suspect that he follows the stock market more closely than I do, but I am happy to confirm that the Prime Minister was absolutely correct in saying that we are spending £6 billion a year more on pensioners—more than double what would be required to uprate pensions in line with earnings.

By next April, the average pensioner will receive £22 a week more than in 1997, and the 2 million poorest pensioners receive a lot more as a result of the minimum income guarantee. Those are big advances on the Conservative Government's record on pensions. What we would all like to know, especially the pensioners who have benefited under Labour, is how much the Tories would cut spending on pensions, given their commitment to cut overall public spending. They cannot say to the nation that they will cut spending, and at the same time say to pensioners that they will maintain the pension.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I warmly welcome the Home Secretary's ignominious retreat over regulation and investigatory powers? I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that no fewer than six motions relating to that are still on the Order Paper. When will those motions be withdrawn to give effect to the Home Secretary's retreat?

Now that the Government have taken over the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), will its further stages be debated in Government time and not take up precious private Members' time?

I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that on Monday 1 July he has allocated considerable time to the Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill, which took only an hour to make progress in the other place. Surely that is an excessive use of time. Does not he recognise that that is a classic example of when a more manageable system of business discussion between the parties of what should take precedence in this House would make more economic use of our precious time?

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was particularly concerned about the quantity of the exchanges between the Prime Minister and the media, which we have all been watching with great interest. I think that the Prime Minister spent an hour and a half talking to the media. I was able to sign letters to my constituents and still listen to him, and it was an interesting occasion. Does the Leader of the House recognise that it is the quality of the exchanges that really matters? What progress is he making in the Modernisation Committee to try to improve the quality of the real answers that we get at Question Time and the extent to which they are topical? I refer not just to the Prime Minister, but to other Ministers. How will we make Question Time exchanges informative and topical? I have no problem with the Prime Minister speaking to the media, and I think that speaking to the Liaison Committee is a great step forward, but when will the Chamber have the same advantages as the Liaison Committee and the media in getting real answers to real questions on topical issues?

Mr. Cook

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's welcome for the decision to go out to consultation on the order that would otherwise have been debated next week. However, may I gently chide him for describing that as an "ignominious retreat"? If the Government are asked to think again, and if Members of the House invite them to consider their proposals carefully. as a result of which the Government announce that they have taken on board those representations and will reflect and consult, it does not give Ministers an incentive to do the same again if they are told that they are being ignominious.

We have made a sensible decision, in the circumstances, to consult on the matter. It will therefore not come before the House before the consultation is concluded, which will certainly not be before the far side of the recess. In the meantime, I shall consider what to do with the motions on the Order Paper.

On the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), it is for him and the Government to discuss whether there is an acceptable way forward for both parties. The matters are complex and are taking some time to resolve. The Bill is my right hon. Friend's and I have detected on his part no wish to give it up. It was prompted by his constituency concerns and I am sure that he would wish to be identified with the final result.

On the topicality of questions in the House, I share the belief of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that it is important to ensure that our proceedings are relevant to debates outside the House and deal with issues of the moment. That is why, as he knows, the Modernisation Committee has been looking sympathetically at whether we can reduce the period of notice for oral questions and take other steps to ensure that topical issues of the moment are discussed at Question Time. I understand that the Procedure Committee will make similar recommendations when it reports in the near future. I hope that that will ensure that proceedings at Question Time are relevant and topical. Unless we make ourselves topical and relevant to the outside world, it will not pay us the same attention.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Did the Leader of the House hear the Secretary of State for Defence assure my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and the Opposition defence spokesman that no decision had been made to join the United States and take military action against Iraq? However, on the "Today" programme this morning, General Wesley Clark suggested that decisions had been made to go for states rather than terrorist networks, which presumably includes Iraq. Could we have a debate next week to clarify General Clark's remarks and discuss the implications for world peace should the United States go ahead and attack those states, which are presumably those named in the axis of evil?

Mr. Cook

Having just announced the business for next week, I see no prospect of debate on those matters then. Naturally, I do not wish to commit myself to the general principle that it would be a useful use of the House's valuable time to debate speculation on the "Today" programme, as we may then find that we make slow progress on legislation.

Mr. Forth

Oh good.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) has an ally on the Conservative Benches.

I heard the interview myself. I am not sure that my recollection—of course we can both consider the transcript—is quite the same as that of my hon. Friend. General Wesley Clark certainly suggested that pressure was best brought to bear on states rather than on what he described as shadowy terrorist groups. Indeed, Afghanistan demonstrates that we have made very good progress, not just on behalf of the international community, but of the people of Afghanistan, particularly the women, who now have a prospect of a better and more decent life than if we had not done so.

The short answer to my hon. Friend's opening comment is that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is right—we have taken no such decision. No such decision has been asked of us; should one be made, naturally the House will be consulted and we will have a full debate.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Surely, in the light of the highly critical report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the fridge crisis, the Leader of the House ought to reflect on what he said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). He should persuade the Minister for the Environment to come to the Dispatch Box and make a statement. Is he aware that, up and down the country, and particularly in my constituency, people want action and explanations? Bracknell Forest borough council faces a financial and logistical nightmare, because it has to deal with 1,000 fridges a month without any help or support from the Minister for the Environment, despite promises. The Minister therefore needs to come to the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Cook

I have already told the House about the vigorous action which will result in 10 new sites for the treatment and disposal of fridges by the end of the year. We will then see the mountain come down. If the right hon. Gentleman wants action he really cannot object if the action that we proposed is well under way.

On responding to the Select Committee report, of course the Government respond to every Select Committee report—we are obliged to do so. When our response is available, it is entirely open to the Liaison Committee and others to pursue a debate on the matter. The Government have acted to provide far more opportunities for debate on Select Committee reports than were ever available under the Government to whom the right hon. Gentleman belonged. Indeed, that opportunity is available to Members who serve on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and the Liaison Committee should they wish to pursue it. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment is willing to take part in that debate and looks forward to it with enthusiasm.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Can we give urgent consideration to the outrageous behaviour of Argos? It is ruthlessly exploiting a loophole in the law whereby shop workers in Scotland are not given the protection that is enjoyed throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and sacking staff who between them have given years of loyal service to the company, if they will not accept compulsory Sunday working, thus discriminating in particular against those who have family commitments or religious objections, and in general against employees in Scotland.

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing to the House's attention a very serious issue of principle that is of immediate concern to his constituents. I know that he has tried to resolve the matter through discussions with Argos. I regret that those discussions have not produced a better result.

We have acted in this Chamber to provide the flexibility whereby companies can open their stores on a Sunday if they wish to do so, but we have also provided protection: staff should not be compelled in England to work on a Sunday if they object in principle to doing so. Although that is not the law in Scotland, as far as I am aware, every other trading company in Scotland has, rightly, observed that issue of principle. I deeply regret that Argos is failing to act in the way in which its competitors do.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

It is customary to debate the advisability of publishing opinion polls during election campaigns but may we have a statement from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the advisability of publishing opinion polls between election campaigns? Recently, opinion polls have been showing support for the Labour Government going down, support for the Conservative Opposition going up and support for the Liberal Democrats doing neither one thing nor the other. This morning, an opinion poll suggests that 56 per cent. of the population find the Prime Minister untrustworthy and unreliable. Surely the Government should be very worried about that indeed.

Mr. Cook

For some years now, Conservative party spokesmen, when asked about opinion polls, have been saying that they do not believe them. That seems a judicious, sensible and mature approach. I suggest that the Conservative party do not immediately abandon it the one time that it gets an opinion poll that it might find encouraging. The only poll that really matters is the poll on polling day and, broadly speaking, we are quite satisfied with the past two results.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that June is national child care month. Since before Christmas, the Government have been engaged in a cross-departmental review of the national child care strategy, in terms both of the spending review and of where we see child care in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, I have not been able to secure an Adjournment debate so far. May I press my right hon. Friend to allow a debate in the House, either before the spending review is announced this summer—this was mentioned in answer to a question that I had tabled—or at least when the spending review is announced, on this important part of Government policy?

Mr. Cook

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an issue that is a high priority for the Government. She will be aware of the substantial additional investment that the Government are making in child care, which has provided increased child care to thousands of women and contributed to enabling many more women to enter the work force and take up full-time employment. I will certainly bear in mind what she has said about the wish to expose that further in a debate in the House, but possibly Madam Deputy Speaker might report to the Speaker the difficulty that my hon. Friend has encountered in obtaining an Adjournment debate. There may be a more efficacious and speedy response in that direction.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

May I draw to the attention of Leader of the House the fact that, on 12 March this year. I led an all-party delegation to meet the Minister for Industry and Energy to discuss some serious concerns that we all have about the future of the supply chain in the aerospace industry? I draw it to the Leader of the House's attention because a number of questions were raised that the Minister promised to answer. Those questions were reinforced by me in a letter on 18 March to the Minister's office. As the weeks and months passed, the Minister's office was continually reminded of that outstanding obligation. Such was our frustration in the all-party group that I eventually tabled a written question to the Minister, which was answered on 18 June—precisely three months since I wrote to him. The answer was that the Minister would reply as soon as possible.

When the Leader of the House next meets his Cabinet colleagues, I ask him to draw to their attention the fact that such behaviour can only lead hon. Members to believe that this Government treat us with contempt.

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman makes his point with clarity and force. He will be aware of the deep concern in the Department of Trade and Industry and throughout the Government about the impact of 11 September on the aviation industry, and the knock-on effect on the aerospace industry. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's attention to his remarks, and try to ensure that he receives a speedy response.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Did I understand correctly the final sentences of the Leader of the House's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon)? Did he say that, if any decision on military action was taken, a statement would of course then be made and a debate held in the House? Should not such debate take place before, not after, any final decision? Perhaps Afghanistan is not the most wonderful example from the Government's point of view. I thought that the object of bombing Afghanistan was not so much to remove the burqa from women as to find Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Cook

The objective of the military action in Afghanistan was to prevent al-Qaeda from being able, with the assistance of the host Government—the Taliban—to carry out further acts of atrocity such as those committed on 11 September. I hope that I am not tempting providence by observing that we seem to have been successful in securing that objective, and that al-Qaeda has as yet been unable to mount another operation. Of course, we will continue to be vigilant and active in ensuring that it is unable to mount an operation such as that carried out on 11 September.

I gently point out to my hon. Friend that every hon. Member will surely welcome an outcome that has disabled al-Qaeda, and removed the safe haven from which it could reach out and strike at hundreds of totally innocent individuals across many countries, the relatives of whom are still having to deal with enormous disruption and distress, and the loss of association with their loved ones. That was surely worth doing, and we were right to take action in Afghanistan to achieve that aim.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

In his answer to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman asserted that the current Prime Minister has cancelled fewer Prime Minister's Question Time appearances than did the previous two Conservative Prime Ministers. However, did he take into account the fact that the current Prime Minister has halved the number of occasions on which he can appear? The statistic is probably not a fair comparison, therefore, and I would be grateful for clarification.

Today's statement by the Secretary of State for Defence was restricted, appropriately, to operations in Afghanistan. However, I draw the House's attention to widely circulating rumours—I have become aware of them through my participation in the excellent armed forces parliamentary scheme—that the armoured corps will be reduced. May we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Defence to allay our deep concerns?

Mr. Cook

Having made a statement, my right hon. Friend has only just left the Chamber, so I am loth to summon him back to make another. I say with respect that my right hon. Friend is one of the most diligent of Ministers in making statements to the House. He has an excellent record, and if a matter needs to be shared with the House, he will doubtless volunteer it.

On the hon. Gentleman's other point, perhaps my arithmetic was not sufficiently clear. I shall go through it carefully, so that he understands what we are saying. It is true that the Prime Minister attends this Chamber on Wednesdays, rather than Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, it may not have escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that the Prime Minister attends for twice as long on Wednesdays as either of his Conservative predecessors did on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In pointing out that they cancelled more appearances, the fact therefore remains that, at the end of any five-year period, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appeared at this Dispatch Box for a longer time in total than either of his predecessors.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate on National Asylum Support Service supervision of private-sector contracts relating to the provision of services for asylum seekers, with particular reference to the Landmark company in Liverpool? Is he aware that following years of reports of poor accommodation, poor management, and harassment and intimidation of asylum seekers in two Liverpool tower blocks owned by Landmark, NASS agreed to stop using those properties a few weeks ago? Asylum seekers who had been housed there, however, found that having left they were required to go to other properties owned by the same company, many of which had not been inspected by NASS.

Mr. Cook

I am interested by what my hon. Friend has said. I recall that concern has been expressed about Landmark properties following other business statements, and I am rather surprised at the outcome that she has described. I will certainly draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Has the Leader of the House received a briefing yet on yesterday's excellent presentations in the House of Lords by three United States Congressmen, and by Mr. Perot and Dr. Haley, on progress made in the US in identifying the causes of Gulf war illnesses? Will the right hon. Gentleman allow time in the autumn for the Secretary of State for Health to tell the House what support is being provided for those who have given service in the armed forces and contracted serious illnesses since the Gulf war, and to what extent scientists here have co-operated with US scientists to determine the cause of such illnesses and hopefully find a cure? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could also give the Secretary of State for Defence an opportunity to dispel the perception that the Ministry of Defence wants to deny that there is such a thing as Gulf war syndrome.

Mr. Cook

The Ministry of Defence has no wish or incentive to deny as a matter of principle that there is such a thing as Gulf war syndrome. Results of medical investigation remain complex and disputed, however, so there is no clear consensus among medical experts. That is partly why we are putting £7 million into research into the syndrome to see what we can establish for ourselves. Evidence from the United States is obviously important, and will be fully considered and reflected by those in the MOD who advise on the matter. The MOD is considering an outstanding tribunal ruling, and will announce its response in the near future.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government want, through the MOD as much as the Department of Health, to give every support to former service men who are in poor health, regardless of whether it can he attributed to Gulf war syndrome.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

I have been trying for eight weeks to secure a debate on entitlement to bank holiday pay. Given my abject failure so far, and given that British workers have some of the worst employment rights in Europe, will my right hon. Friend consider arranging a debate on this important subject?

Mr. Cook

I strongly urge my hon. Friend not to regard his efforts as abject failure. He should develop more self-esteem, and take the credit to which he is entitled for his persistence and for raising a matter that is important to his constituents and those of many other Members.

I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate—

Mr. Forth


Mr. Cook

I often leave this place regretful about the number of Members I have had to disappoint, but I would be in even greater difficulty if I granted debates to all who asked for them. I fear that the subsequent week's business statement would be extremely crowded. Let me tell my hon. Friend, however, that we can both take pride in the fact that the Government implemented the working time directive despite vigorous opposition from the Conservative party. As a result, 2 million people in Britain have the right to a statutory paid holiday that they were previously denied. As he knows, the working time directive provides the right to four weeks' paid holiday, but not to count bank holidays on top of that. He is right to press the case of those people who see others taking bank holidays with pay but cannot do so themselves.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

The Leader of the House will be aware that a debate on Gibraltar took place in Westminster Hall on Tuesday morning at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). In replying to that debate, the Minister for Europe intimated that he would be prepared for the Foreign Office to make a statement on the fact that an agreement had been reached between the British and Spanish Governments, or on the fact that it had not been possible to reach an agreement. More than a third of a million people in Britain, including many hon. Members, have declared their support for the Gibraltarians and the population of Gibraltar overwhelmingly opposes what the Government are trying to do. That being the case, and as the negotiations may not succeed—the rumours are that they have faltered badly—would it not be appropriate to come to the House to make a statement to bring this whole matter to a close and finally remove sword of Damocles from above the heads of the loyal people of Gibraltar?

Mr. Cook

I would not disagree at all with the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question: if there should come a point at which the talks were disbanded, a statement should be made to the House to announce that fact. All I am saying, as in my earlier responses, is that the talks continue. There is no agreement at the moment, nor is there any agreement that there will be no agreement. In those circumstances, I am not clear that a further statement in the immediate future would help to clarify matters to the House.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Can we have an early debate on further education? I appreciate that the Government are injecting £310 million over the next three years into further education, but the reality is that a huge pay gap is opening between lecturers in FE and teachers in secondary schools. People are simply migrating from the FE sector to schools for better terms and conditions. That problem cannot wait for two or three years, and I hope that it will be addressed quickly and that we can have an early debate on it.

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, which underlines the extent to which we have made very good progress in schools. Indeed, we are investing further in further education. I and my constituents have seen a remarkable improvement in the quality of the buildings and in the number of students attending further education. I will certainly draw his comments to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and I am sure that she will wish to write to him to reflect on the point that he makes.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

The Leader of the House is renowned as a champion of modernisation, so can we debate the use of the royal prerogative? I ask that in the context of his answers to the hon. Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and of the Prime Minister's answer to questions that I asked four weeks ago and before that on whether there should be a debate in the House before British troops are committed abroad, particularly in relation to Iraq. Can we have a debate on the use of the royal prerogative in that regard?

Mr. Cook

First, I tell the hon. Gentleman and the House, yet again, that no decision has been taken. Indeed, no decision is immediately in prospect of being taken about Iraq and no such decision may ever be taken. [Interruption.] I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's question, but I do not want us to proceed on the presumption that such a decision is imminent or will be made.

Secondly, on committing British troops abroad, whatever the legal niceties of the matter, the reality is that this Government—indeed, I suspect no Government—could commit British troops if that were opposed by a majority of the House of Commons. In fairness to those on the Government Front Bench, we were punctilious in consulting the House before, while and after committing British troops to Afghanistan, and we have had six full days of debate, if I remember rightly, and many more statements. Should—I make this very conditional—any action be taken in Iraq. I am confident that it would be accompanied by a similar commitment to ensuring that we carry the House with us.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

First, may I reassure my right hon. Friend that Labour support in Luton is going well? Last week, a by-election in my constituency was won by Labour with a strong majority and for the first time ever the Conservatives were pushed into third place behind the Liberal Democrats.

My question concerns the housing market and housing finance. The Government have been successful in creating a stable economy and we all applaud that. However, the housing market continues to be an unstable component of the economy—indeed, it is starting to look uncomfortable again and one might argue the case for separate interest rates for the housing market and for the rest of the economy. We need a serious debate on the future of housing finance and its organisation. Will my right hon. Friend consider such a debate on the Floor of the House?

Mr. Cook

I am suddenly conscious of the eyes of about 15 million householders observing me as I respond to my hon. Friend's most original proposal for a separate interest rate for mortgage payers from that for the rest of the economy. I would not want to encourage him to think that the Government are likely to contemplate that as a solution.

On the housing market, I understand that the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors issued a report this morning suggesting that the market may be cooling down, so that may provide my hon. Friend with some reassurance. One of the main factors has been the remarkable success of the Government in delivering interest rates that are at a 40-year all-time low. That is a reflection of the sound economy that the Government have created and which we shall not allow anything else to ruin.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

With his mega-memory, the Leader of the House will no doubt recollect that on two occasions at business questions—last January and April—I raised the issue of the Government's consultation papers on proposals to change our town and country planning system, especially changes in our handling of major planning inquiries, such as Heathrow terminal 5. As the issue is of fundamental importance to an increasing number of people, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider holding a debate on the Floor of the House? I understand that the demand for parliamentary time exceeds supply, but as the issue is of such vital importance, it would be helpful to the Government to hold a debate to find out the views of Members before they make hard decisions after the consultation period.

Mr. Cook

I cannot offer a debate between now and the summer recess—time is finite and reducing—but, as I said to the hon. Gentleman on previous occasions, there is no way that we can make progress on the matter without primary legislation and thus no way to make progress without the House having a full opportunity to be involved and to consider it.