§ Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week, please?
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)
It will be a delight.
TUESDAY 2 JULY—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "Crisis in Funded Pensions" on an Opposition motion.
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.
The provisional business for the following week will be:
MONDAY 8 JULY—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Bill. Followed by Opposition Day [17th Allotted day, 1st part]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
TUESDAY 9 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Police Reform Bill [Lords]. The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Police Reform Bill [Lords].
THURSDAY 11 JULY—Debate on intelligence agencies on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
FRIDAY 12 JULY—There will be a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
The House will wish to know that on Monday 8 July 2002, there will be a debate relating to sustainable development and aid for poverty diseases in European Standing Committee B.
The House will also wish to know that on Tuesday 9 July 2002, there will be a debate relating to genetically modified food and feed in European Standing Committee C.
The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 10 July 2002, there will be a debate relating to working conditions for temporary workers in European Standing Committee C.
Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report. [Monday 8 July 2002:
European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union documents: 7727/2/02: World summit on sustainable development; 6863/02: Aid for "poverty diseases". Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 152-xxix and HC 152-xxxi (2001–02).
956 Tuesday 9 July 2002:
European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: 11576/01 and 11496/01: Genetically modified food and feed. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xii (2001–02).
Wednesday 10 July 2002:
European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union document: 7430/02: Working conditions for Temporary workers. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 152-xxviii (2001–02).]
§ Mr. Forth
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for letting us have that business.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us more about the comprehensive spending review? Rumours are circulating that it will be announced on 9 July, but it would be helpful to all concerned, given the importance both of the review and of people being prepared for it, if he were to give us some indication of the date, even if only to say that the rumours are not true. It would be helpful if we could have a more precise date.
The right hon. Gentleman will recall that on Monday evening the House passed, with a large Government majority—sadly, that is not unusual—a motion on the authorisation of human and veterinary medicines. I wonder how many Government Back Benchers were aware of what they were supporting on that occasion. Perhaps the House will want to return to this fairly soon, because I wonder how many of them realise that they were supporting the Government's position of broad agreement to the proposed amendments to the directive and the overall aims of the review. Let us remember that the measure affects medicines, herbs and other things about which I am sure Government Back Benchers have received a large number of letters. They then went on to support the draft directive on medicinal products for human use.
The point that I am making, and why I think the House may want to return to the issue, is that I wonder what the Leader of the House will tell his Back Benchers when they rumble the fact that they were dragooned through the Lobbies on Monday night to support those measures. What on earth will they tell their constituents, who are quite rightly writing to them, as they are to me and my right hon. and hon. Friends, to object to the intrusiveness of those measures and the effects that they will have on people's long-standing habits and use of legitimate herbs? So I hope that the Leader of the House can give his own Back Benchers some reassurance on that matter and perhaps give the House an opportunity to return to the issue, as I suspect some of them are already regretting the decision.
The other thing that we have got to return to is this: following the European Union summit, just about a week ago, the Minister for Europe was widely quoted as having said that the Government had got "exactly what it wanted" from that EU Council meeting, but the Prime Minister said:we did not get everything that we wanted." —[Official Report, 24 June 2002; Vol. 387, c. 624.]Which of them was right?
§ Mr. Cook
It would be imprudent and unwise of me to tell the House anything about the comprehensive spending 957 review until the Chancellor has done so, but the right hon. Gentleman is, of course, fishing for when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will do so. I am very happy to tell the right hon. Gentleman that that will happen in July, and I hope that that gives him the guidance that he is looking for, but no Government can commit themselves to a specific date for the comprehensive spending review statement until that review is completed. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware from his own time in government that such matters are subject to extensive discussion between Departments, but I would anticipate that it will happen some time comfortably before the House rises for the summer recess.
It always fills me with great cheer when the Government have a large majority, such as on Monday. I would reject the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that there are any grounds for sadness in the Government's ever having a large majority in any vote in the House. My hon. Friends are well aware that they will be perfectly well briefed by the Department of Health to ensure that they rebut any allegations on what they have done.
§ Mr. Cook
No, that is not spin; it is a matter of substance. The substance is that we must ensure that we have rigorous and agreed methods in place to ensure that those who take medicines—herbal or otherwise—are fully protected and that we ensure that they are rigorously assessed; and the Department of Health will be very happy to assist Opposition Members, as well as those on the Government Benches, in ensuring that they can respond to their constituents.
On the European summit, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is, of course, absolutely clear in what he said in the statement on Monday, and I refer the right hon. Gentleman to that. Of course it is always the case that those who go to a summit seek to ensure that they get the best possible deal for their country, and we secured the best possible deal. The best possible deal is not necessarily the deal that we would have written had we been in a room by ourselves without people from 14 other nations. It is in the nature of the European Union that we have to reach agreement with what the other 14 nations will sign up to as well. I am bound to say that our process of engagement, providing leadership and setting the EU agenda, has given Britain a much better deal than it ever got in the days when Britain sat at the bottom of the table, heckling everyone else and never getting stuck in to reach agreement.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Can the Leader of the House find an early opportunity for a further debate on parliamentary privilege, so that we can revisit the recommendations on that subject of the Joint Select Committee, on which I was privileged to serve? I salute and very much welcome his statement about the RMT union in his own personal respect, but I also welcome the statement that the Deputy Prime Minister released overnight on resigning from the RMT, in which he said:It is unacceptable that my trade union, the RMT, should dictate how a Member of Parliament should vote.Does the Leader of the House accept that it is not just unacceptable, but a possible contempt of the House for any union or outside organisation to seek to influence the way in which those in this free Parliament vote and speak? 958 He may not recall the particular incident, but perhaps I can draw to his attention to the fact that, in the summer of 1974, when my union sought to influence my vote and my voice in the House, the Speaker took a very dim view and the union had to come to the House to apologise, in effect, for seeking to influence the way in which Parliament operates. Does the Leader of the House accept that this is a very serious issue? He has taken a very robust attitude to it. Can the House as a whole have an opportunity of showing that it does, too?
On a separate matter, may I draw to the attention of the Leader of the House the fact that, in a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday this week, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) found to his dismay that in answer to his concerns about the Tanzanian air traffic control system, the Minister replying, as he was the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions, had no knowledge whatever of the issue. The Minister responsible for export control was apparently visiting a factory somewhere else—he was in the House before and afterwards, but did not attend that debate. Can the Leader of the House at least make sure that Ministers who answer debates in Westminster Hall know what they are talking about?
§ Mr. Cook
First, on the question that the hon. Gentleman raises about the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, I am always happy to revisit areas of privilege, because it is of great importance to the House.
On the issue of the RMT, I am happy to repeat what I said to the House yesterday. I have a long and valued relationship with the RMT, which has been useful to both of us over many years, as a source of dialogue and information—
§ Mr. Cook
I can certainly say to the right hon. Gentleman that elections have to be fought in my constituency, as, I suspect, they do in his constituency, too. Everything that I have received has been openly declared and registered, as the House is well aware. Although I will welcome support in fighting those elections from anybody who broadly supports Labour's values and wishes to work for a Labour victory, I am not to be bought for any particular agenda. On that basis, I decline to sign up to an oath of loyalty. I know that every other RMT MP in the House has also similarly declined.
It is not for me to pronounce on any issue of contempt; the House has well established and well worn channels in which it can establish whether contempt has occurred. First, there must be an offence. No offence has occurred in this case, as all those involved have made it clear that we are not going to sign up to an oath of loyalty to anybody outside the House. It must be a cardinal principle of membership of the House that we come here as free representatives of our constituents with, of course, a political mandate as a party. We are here to exercise our best judgment on behalf of our constituents in line with the mandate that we receive. We are not here to act on behalf of any other specific vested interest or agency.
I note what the hon. Gentleman said about the question of the debate in Westminster Hall. I will look into it. I can surmise that, as the Minister for Employment Relations, 959 Industry and the Regions was replying to the debate, the Government concluded, perhaps without sufficient information, that the Member concerned wished to raise employment issues, and that the appropriate Minister was therefore present. The issues of the Tanzanian deal are well trodden and well understood, and have been vigorously debated in the House previously. I shall make sure, however, that the issue to which the hon. Gentleman refers is investigated, and I shall make sure that I write to him about it.
§ John Cryer (Hornchurch)
My right hon. Friend will have seen early-day motion 1504 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones).
[That this House notes that there is currently no provision for Early Day Motions with a high number of signatories to be debated; further notes that provision for Early Day Motions with the support of more than half the House to be debated automatically would make Early Day Motions a more effective mechanism for ensuring the concerns of the House are addressed; and calls on the Government to consider introducing such a provision.]
The early-day motion calls for a change of rules in the House whereby, if an early-day motion received the support of more than half the Members of the House, a debate would automatically follow. That would be a useful change, as issues arise frequently on which one can only secure an Adjournment debate, if one is lucky, in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber in the evening. An early-day motion on issues such as Post Office job losses would probably attract the support of at least half the Members of the House, and the suggested mechanism would thereby secure a debate on the Floor of House—and, of course, there could be a vote on the Adjournment.
§ Mr. Cook
I of course follow the early-day motion pages with close care and always find them rewarding. I was particularly struck by the early-day motion last week congratulating the No. 10 football team on having thrashed the Parliamentary Press Gallery football team 5:2. I am very grateful to the early-day motion pages for drawing my attention to that, since I have found difficulty in locating a description of this resounding victory for No. 10 over the Press Gallery in any of the press that I read.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) makes a broad point, of which I am well aware, that there is a feeling that there should be more opportunities for private Members to nominate the issues for debate in the House. The Modernisation Committee is considering that challenge, although I would not want to suggest that we will necessarily go down the route to which he points.
§ Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has just made what is generally regarded as a very significant speech on the euro, do the Government not consider it appropriate to have an early debate on their policy on the euro and on the proposed timetable?
§ Mr. Cook
I am very happy to hear the hon. Gentleman congratulate my right hon. Friend the Chancellor on a 960 very significant speech. I look forward to more support from the hon. Gentleman for my right hon. Friend. The hon. Gentleman knows the Government's policy on the euro as well as I do, because he raises the issue even more often than I do.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
May I bring to my right hon. Friend's attention the case of Christopher Walker, a British citizen who is the brother of Anna Walker, a resident of Cambridge and one of my constituents? Christopher disappeared from his home in Stockholm almost three months ago, and nothing has been heard of him since. The family are naturally very keen to get as much publicity for the case as possible, in case anyone has seen Christopher. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could give me advice about the best way of publicising this matter in the House.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend has taken an opportunity to raise the case in the House. I hope to raise the matter and give it a higher profile in the media so that anyone who may be aware of the whereabouts of Christopher Walker can contact the authorities or his family. The whole House will fully sympathise with the suffering and the pain that must be experienced by any family whose relative has disappeared without trace or without contact. I hope that this case will find a satisfactory solution.
I also suggest to my hon. Friend that, if she has not already done so, she might wish to discuss the case with the Foreign Office. I am sure that it will be happy to help in Sweden, where we have an excellent ambassador who was one of my former private secretaries.
§ Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)
Is the Leader of the House aware that his many admirers on both sides of the House felt for him a little yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time, because he was not able to answer as straightforwardly and honestly as he always does from the Dispatch Box during business questions? Will he find time next week to put that right by suggesting to the Prime Minister that, when the Prime Minister comes to the Dispatch Box next Wednesday at Question Time, he apologise for misleading the House by saying that share prices were higher in 1997 than they were on the day the Prime Minister responded to a question about them? That was factually incorrect. It would help occasionally for the Prime Minister to say sorry. He would gain more respect by doing so.
§ Mr. Cook
I am very sorry that I disappointed my admirers on the Opposition Benches, but I am rather alarmed to hear that I have them. I hope to put that right over the coming weeks.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman that I have checked the facts about the movements in the stock market. What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said to the House last Wednesday was factually absolutely 961 arithmetically correct. Indeed, as the right hon. Gentleman queries the matter, let me share with him what the market capitalisation was on 1 May 1997. [Interruption.] The first of May happens to be a very important date in the life of this Government; it was our birth. On 1 May 1997, the market capitalisation on the stock market was £762 billion. That rose to a peak of £1.553 trillion in December 1999 and, as at 19 June, the figure stood at £1.121 trillion. That is £400 billion down on the peak, but it is still substantially—£350 billion—more than it was on 1 May 1997. [Interruption.] I am not making that up, but merely reading the facts and the figures for which Conservative Members asked. I hope that we shall hear no more about the Prime Minister misleading Parliament.
§ Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)
Is my right hon. Friend the Leader of House aware that, every week, four to eight apparently fit and healthy young people die of undiagnosed heart problems in the United Kingdom? The charity CRY—Cardiac Risk in the Young—is a self-supporting group that campaigns to increase awareness of this important issue. Will he allow for an early debate on the subject, and will he support the efforts of Doreen Harley of Connah's Quay, who lost her daughter Lisa to sudden death syndrome, and those of the Chronicle newspaper to raise funds to provide screening for hundreds of young people in north Wales?
§ Mr. Cook
I am aware of the organisation CRY, with which I have had contact in my constituency. I congratulate those parents who have discovered that they have offspring with heart failure on their work both to publicise the risks to young children with undiagnosed heart problems and to raise funds to take that cause further. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The more children in such a position who are aware of it, the better able they will be to adjust to life and to ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risk.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
Does the Leader of the House accept that there is a great deal of uncertainty in the farming community about the proposals that are under active consideration in Brussels on the reform of the common agricultural policy? There is a mid-term review in the course of next year and a longer-term review as part of the enlargement process through to 2006. Commissioner Fischler will produce in the next few days proposals that are advertised, if we are to believe reports in the Financial Times earlier this week, as fundamental reforms of the current structural packages of support. Will the Government take the opportunity before the summer recess to organise a debate in Government time to clarify that uncertainty?
§ Mr. Cook
I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are following the issue closely and will of course pay the greatest of heed and care to proposals to change the CAP. I have not the slightest doubt that the matter will be thoroughly ventilated in the Chamber.
I would, however, enter one general observation without necessarily committing myself or the Government to what Commissioner Fischler may propose. Although we are all committed to reform of the CAP in the abstract, we mostly reject proposals for reform when they are made. We have to complete that bridge. Most hon. 962 Members understand that we cannot continue through the 21st century with a system that is basically one of protectionism, which the growing freedom in world trade is bound to challenge and change. The sooner we ensure that it is changed on a basis that suits the farmers of Europe and Britain, the better it will be for us.
§ Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the mounting concern in the House and beyond caused by the delays in obtaining police checks from the Criminal Records Bureau? If so, it will come as no surprise to learn that Leeds social services have not received one single return from the bureau since 1 April. As a result, 60 posts remain unfilled while they await the results of checks. That is 60 caring posts of which my constituents and those of other Leeds Members are deprived. In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early statement to the House on what has gone wrong and what can be done to put it right?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises an important issue: we must ensure that those who apply for jobs with children are properly checked so that anyone who may have a record is identified before securing a post. I am not aware of the delays to which he refers, but if he writes to me I will be happy to ensure that the Home Office provides him with a full response and that we take what action we can to keep that important part of our system of protecting our children intact and expeditious.
§ Bob Spink (Castle Point)
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate so that we can discuss the importance of a new cardiac centre to the people of Essex? That would allow us to show why the facility should be provided at Basildon hospital, where it would greatly benefit those of my constituents who suffer from heart problems. We would also be able to consider ending the rather futile consultation process so that we get on with the job of providing the centre, which is much needed in Essex.
§ Mr. Cook
The hon. Gentleman will be delighted to hear that the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who has a great influence on my life, is solidly in support of his proposal. However, I know enough from long experience not to get involved in the particular siting of a unit. We are fully committed to ensuring that we expand the provision for those who are in need of cardiac surgery, and I am delighted that we have the hon. Gentleman's support on that. Perhaps in return for my offering to look kindly on what he said about the need for a unit in his constituency, he will look kindly on the need to vote for the comprehensive spending review which will provide the money.
§ Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the deteriorating security situation in northern Afghanistan, and the fact that female foreign aid workers are having to be withdrawn because of repeated violent attacks, including the gang rape of a French female aid worker? Given that 60 Afghan and international relief organisations have now called for an extension of ISAF beyond Kabul, will my right hon. Friend discuss this very urgent matter with his Cabinet colleagues and consider how it might be debated in the House?
§ Mr. Cook
The House will be aware that the British Government themselves suggested that ISAF should be 963 more widely deployed than it currently is, and that we were not necessarily satisfied with the outcome that it has been largely confined to Kabul. In order to ensure that we provided that wider coverage we needed the support of others, because it is not a task that Britain alone can, or should, attempt to undertake.
Our current strategy is to do all that we can to build up the police and military authority of the Interim Government rapidly, so that they themselves can provide better policing in the provinces within Afghanistan. In the meantime, I would join my hon. Friend, as will all Members of the House, in deploring the attacks on aid workers, which are not only distressing and horrific for the aid workers concerned, but have the result of denying the poor and the destitute of the region the assistance of aid agencies.
§ Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)
Will the Leader of the House ask Ministers at the Department of Health whether they will adopt my Back-Bencher's Bill, the Vaccination of Children (Parental Choice) Bill, as a Government measure? That would have the effect of allowing parents the right to choose the single measles, mumps and rubella vaccines as opposed to the combined triple vaccine. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would be very concerned by research produced this morning by the Autism Research Unit in Sunderland—by Paul Shattock, the director there—which seems to provide fresh evidence that there may be a link between MMR and autism. It follows in the footsteps of other research that has been produced by Professor Andrew Wakefield and Dr. John O'Leary. If we are to protect the nation's children, is it not time the Government worked on the precautionary principle and allowed parents the right to choose between the single and triple vaccines?
§ Mr. Cook
I heard a very interesting dialogue this morning on the "Today" programme, which I always find a help to my digestion of breakfast, between Mr. Paul Shattock and the representative of the Medical Research Council. I hope that Paul Shattock will now respond to the invitation of the Medical Research Council to submit his research to peer group review and ensure that it is put through the same examination as other research in this area.
The fact is, though, that, as the hon. Lady will be aware, the overwhelming bulk of the medical literature on the subject, and the overwhelming tendency of the investigations that the Medical Research Council has validated, is that there is no link between autism and MMR; indeed, I heard the representative of the MRC say this morning that there is a positive case that there is no such link. It is therefore unlikely that the Department will sponsor a Bill that is contrary to the policy of that Department—a policy which is drawn up in the interests of parents and children to ensure that we provide the best possible protection for the children of the nation.
§ Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)
Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on ways to engage young people in politics, and particularly in the work of the House? Is he aware that when the singer-songwriter Billy Bragg recently appeared before the Select Committee on Public Administration, of which I am a member, he 964 accused the Committee, and Members of Parliament generally, of giving off a be-suited image that is male, pale and stale? In our rather informal proceedings here, would it not therefore be a good idea if we were to institute dress-down Thursdays in the House; and would not that have the additional merit of allowing the shadow Leader of the House to engage more freely in his penchant for colourful retro-clothing?
§ Mr. Cook
I have always wondered what the clothes were that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) wears; I am very grateful that they have now been satisfactorily labelled. This is not a matter for the Government to impose on the House, nor are there any obligatory dress standards on Members.[Interruption.] I am happy to reassure the right hon. Gentleman that I have no intention of bringing in any guidelines or statutes on the ties and shirts that he wears. It is open to Members to come to the Chamber in whatever attire they choose. provided it is seemly and decent and consistent with the Chamber. It is a matter for individual Members.
I shall be watching with the greatest interest to see what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) wears next Thursday.
§ Pete Wishart (North Tayside)
Today, many schools in Scotland break for the summer holiday. Meanwhile, the House will sit for a further four weeks. I know that the recess is timed to coincide with the English school holiday. That means that English Members get an extended opportunity to spend time with their families; Scottish Members do not. We also have to make sure that we get our complicated child care arrangements put in place for the school holidays; English Members do not have to consider that. Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that fair and right? I know that he is looking at the summer recess for next year. Will he accommodate all parts of the United Kingdom in that review?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I recall one occasion when the House went into recess the week before the Scottish schools went back. At that time, I had two children of school age. The happy consequence was that I was in London all through August, when it turned out that my opposite numbers in the Department of Health for the Conservative Government were absent, and it was a rather useful month for me. That is inadequate compensation for being able to go on holiday with our children.
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Modernisation Committee is examining my memorandum, which suggested that we should rise earlier in July and come back for a period in September, before going off on a conference recess. I hope that we will be in a position to put those proposals to the House some time in the overspill, and that they will take effect next year. That will go some way to easing the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies.
§ Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
My right hon. Friend knows that the Daily Record in Scotland and the Evening Times reported yesterday on the re-emergence of a pyramid selling scam called "Women Empowering Women". That has surfaced in various parts of the UK, 965 most recently in the Isle of Wight. The problem is that none of it is unlawful or illegal. Will my right hon. Friend consider legislative action against such schemes?
§ Mr. Cook
Pyramid selling can be a great menace, and unfortunately too many people—not just in Britain, but elsewhere—have been defrauded by it. Anybody who fraudulently or by misrepresentation obtains money from another is open to a legal charge and to legal remedy, although my hon. Friend draws attention to the question whether there is a need for a specific crime relating to pyramid selling. I shall happily draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Trade and Industry.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement or a debate next week on school admissions? Is he aware of the case of Ecclesbourne school in my constituency, which tried to achieve a more co-ordinated approach to its catchment area? It was supported by Derbyshire county council and Derby city council, the two authorities involved, but the recommendation was overturned by somebody called the adjudication officer, who did not visit the site, but decided that no change could be made. That is a new office and the decision is nonsense. It causes great uncertainty, particularly to parents in Kirk Langley, West Underwood and Muggington, who now fear that they will not be able to get their children into the local comprehensive school. We need a statement and we need to know the Government's position on the matter.
§ Mr. Cook
I hear the hon. Gentleman's support for Derbyshire council, which I hold in high estimation. I will be happy to consider with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills the points that he makes. My own prejudice has always been that such matters and local issues are best determined locally, wherever possible. We obviously have to make sure that national standards are applied and that national guidelines are followed, but I understand the frustration of the hon. Gentleman's constituents if a decision is imposed by people outside their locality.
§ Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
May I ask the Leader of the House when he will consider, along with the Modernisation Committee, the more even distribution of parliamentary sittings? For many months of the year, we cannot table written questions and have them answered. I should have thought that there was overwhelming support in the House for a swift resolution, which would allow that important tool for Back Benchers to be available throughout the year, instead of long periods when the Executive can be let off the hook and not subjected to the probing and scrutiny that are so essential to us.
§ Mr. Cook
I believe that the proposal that we should return in September will address part of the problem of the long recess in which questions cannot be tabled. My hon. Friend may be aware that the Procedure Committee yesterday published its report on questions and Question Time, which contains many interesting ideas that I am sure will repay careful study, and touches on the ability to table written questions during periods when the House 966 may not be sitting. I hope that we can return to that matter when we debate the proposals of the Modernisation Committee in the spillover.
§ Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)
The Leader of the House has always correctly registered his RMT interest, which so sadly ended yesterday, but is he surprised to learn that the Deputy Prime Minister has never registered exactly the same interest? Does he know that the Deputy Prime Minister's flat, which he is keeping on, is a benefit-in-kind of approximately £12,000 a year? Is he aware that the rent has not been reviewed in 10 years? Does he think that that huge benefit-in-kind is compatible with paragraph 122 of the ministerial code of conduct?
§ Mr. Cook
As I recall, that specific issue was examined by the Standards and Privileges Committee, which found that there was no obligation on the Deputy Prime Minister to register it. Nor is he required to register an arrangement that is not a personal sponsorship, but a constituency agreement with his union. As for myself, I have sadly to conclude that my entry in next year's register might be just slightly shorter.
§ Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
My right hon. Friend will remember that, this time last year, we were still in the middle of the foot and mouth outbreak. Following that period, the Prime Minister set up a number of inquiries. The Follett inquiry, which is chaired by Professor Brian Follett and deals with the scientific problems, and the Anderson inquiry, which deals with the lessons learned, are due to report in July. As the argument for those independent inquiries and against a public inquiry was that they would report and be debated quickly, can we have an assurance that the Government will find time to debate the reports before the summer recess?
§ Mr. Cook
I am sure that the House will want to examine the reports, hear about them and express its views. As Leader of the House, I fully understand that the House will want to ensure that these matters are adequately considered by it. Of course, neither I nor the Government can give an assurance on the date of the reports' publication, as that is in the hands of those who are carrying out the investigations, who will properly want to ensure that the reports are published at the time of their choosing rather than ours. None the less, we have made clear to them the great importance that we attach to their being published while the House is still sitting.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
The Leader of the House will be aware of the dips in the Royal College of Nursing and, in particular, the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting in terms of registering nurses. Does he share my concern about people who have come out of business to be retrained, but then discover that there is no employment for them because they are not registered? A greater concern is that, when we recruit people from overseas, should not we ensure that they are registered before they are brought here, instead of allowing them to be left in the lurch to be employed by others in lower paid jobs than those that they are qualified to perform? I understand the problems, but surely we should be doing something to ensure that nurses are not victimised in that way in future.
§ Mr. Cook
The decision about when foreign nationals who wish to come here and practise nursing should do so 967 is essentially a matter for them. It is not for us to tell them not to come until a particular stage has been completed. None the less, we have had exchanges on this matter before in business questions, and I am aware of the delay in registration following the transfer, in which some teething problems occurred. We are working hard to ensure that that period of delay is cut to a minimum, so that those who wish to register can do so expeditiously and without the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
§ Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)
May I urge the Leader of the House to organise an early debate on the draft Local Government Bill? While the Bill contains much that is to be applauded, I am very concerned about the proposal to pool local authority housing capital receipts. In Harlow and throughout much of the south-east, there is an acute shortage of homes for rent and a significant backlog of housing repairs. I would view any proposal to take away the capital receipts on which we are relying to meet the Government's decent homes standard as a very backward step, and I urge an early debate on the issue.
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend raises an issue that is obviously very important to his constituency and others in the south-east. We have published the Bill in draft form precisely so that voices can be raised and concerns and views expressed about what is proposed. I am keen to ensure that the Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions has the opportunity to carry through its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, in which it will address a number of such issues of concern. The more Bills we publish in draft, the better we will be able fully to examine them before the House is faced with debate on an official Bill. I advise him to ensure that his voice is heard by the Department and the Select Committee as these matters are considered.
§ Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)
Is the Leader of the House aware that in the past few weeks Swanley town council in my constituency has had to spend around £16,000 to move on three encampments of so-called travellers and to clear up after them? It is a difficult problem, but could we have an early debate in which the Government can put forward proposals that might make it easier to move on illegal encampments and to reimburse the costs that unfairly fall on very small town and parish councils?
§ Mr. Cook
Many hon. Members, myself included, are familiar with the problem to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and we have made efforts to deal with it in the past. He will know that it is a difficult and complex issue that is not readily amenable to a simple legal solution, but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which now covers local government, is examining it to see whether we can take further steps that would be helpful.
§ Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the world summit on sustainable development that will open in Johannesburg in August is a conference of enormous importance, not least for its potential to bring the United States Government back into the frameworks of international agreement on 968 environment and development policies? Notwithstanding his earlier announcement that there will he a general debate on sustainable development in European Standing Committee C next week, will he provide Government time in the near future for a debate on the Johannesburg summit on the Floor of the House?
§ Mr. Cook
I entirely share my hon. Friend's commitment to the importance of the summit. It is important that we review where we stand 10 years after Rio and that we understand that, if we want to ensure that we preserve the climate and environment of the globe, we must have international decisions that secure that. I particularly welcome the summit's focus on tackling the environmental hazards experienced by the poorest people on the earth. A very simple environmental right will be access to clean water, which could remove the scandal that 2 million children die each year from drinking contaminated water. If we can get progress on that, the summit will have been well worth while. I will consider at what stage it might be appropriate for the House to hear about those matters and to what extent we can provide for that, given that we must balance it with the other commitments of business in the House.
§ Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)
The Leader of the House will recall the very prominent role that he played in relation to the Scott report on the Iraq supergun. Will he suggest the best way of initiating a comparable investigative inquiry into the equally scandalous Tanzania air traffic control deal, and commend it to his colleagues?
§ Mr. Cook
I fully rebut any parallel between those two events. The Scott inquiry flowed from two things—first, the totally secretive basis on which the rules on exports to Iraq were changed without any report to the House or comment in public and, secondly, the subsequent attempt to prosecute and convict business men who had acted fully in connivance with the Government, who denied their own role. There is no parallel with the Tanzanian air traffic control case. Whatever hon. Members may think of that decision, it is in the public domain, it was fully aired in exchanges in this House and in Westminster Hall, and nobody has made any attempt to bring false prosecutions.
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate before the summer recess on new regulations, which come into force next week, governing access to local authority planning registers by those who wish to undertake searches as part of a house purchase? The regulations threaten the livelihoods of several successful private companies that offer a service to clients wishing to search such registers, because they will impede the ability of those companies to carry out searches. The regulations threaten the viability of a number of successful small businesses and threaten to slow up the whole process of carrying out searches on behalf of those who wish to purchase houses. That is an important issue, so can the Government provide time for a debate before the recess?
§ Mr. Cook
I am not sure that I can promise a debate in the Chamber before the recess because we have a crowded schedule. The hon. Gentleman raised some important points and goes some way towards reinforcing the case 969 for a sifting committee to identify secondary legislation that requires debate. In the meantime, I shall draw his comments to the attention of the relevant Department.
§ Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)
Will the Leader of the House use his best endeavours to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be one of the Ministers responding to Tuesday's all-day Opposition day debate on the crisis in the funded pensions industry? The Chancellor could then explain precisely when he realised that his devious scam of raiding pension funds to the tune of £5 billion a year would come home to roost during his Chancellorship, not many years hence, as he obviously intended.
§ Mr. Cook
Decisions about who takes part in Opposition day debates are matters for the Government collectively, and we shall give due weight to the hon. Gentleman's representation. He asks about the precise point at which somebody changed their mind. Last Thursday, he mentioned opinion polls that showed that the Conservatives were on the way up. When precisely did he change his view on opinion polls? Was it possibly on Monday, when he read the latest poll, which put the Conservatives two points down and 10 points behind?
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Does the Leader of the House agree that employees throughout the United Kingdom should be treated equally and have equal rights? Will he read early-day motion 1498, which draws attention to a loophole in the law?
[That this House deplores the behaviour of Argos, who are ruthlessly exploiting a loophole in the law, whereby shop workers in Scotland are not given the protection which 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.]
970 Argos is exploiting that loophole, and employees who, for personal or religious reasons, do not wish to work compulsorily on a Sunday are being sacked. Will the right hon. Gentleman take steps to plug the loophole?
§ Mr. Cook
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) raised that matter in business questions last week on behalf of his constituents who work for Argos.
We are not considering a loophole, but the fact that the legislation in Scotland pre-dates that in England. The legislation in England includes specific safeguards for religious and other principled objections to working on a Sunday. There has not been a problem in Scotland so far. As I said last week, I deeply regret that the company is not following the practice of other Scottish companies, which have worked on Sunday for many years, but managed to do so amicably, with the voluntary agreement of their staff. I hope that, even at such a late stage, the company will consider coming into line with normal practice.
§ Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)
In a debate on social care in January, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), said that there would be an inquiry into why health authorities in the south-west were diverting money from services for the elderly to child care. I raised the matter with the Leader of the House, who promised to write to the Health Minister to ascertain whether there would be a statement and whether I would receive a response. I have written to the Health Minister, but I have not received a response. Does it take the Government six months to make an inquiry? How long does it take a Minister to reply to a letter from a Member of Parliament?