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Business Of The House

Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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2.5 pm

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 24 MARcHߞSecond Reading of the Licensing Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 25 MARCHߞRemaining stages of the Extradition Bill.

WEDNESDAY 26 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 27 MARCHߞConclusion of remaining stages of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 28 MARcHߞPrivate Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 31 MARcHߞSecond Reading of Crime (International Co-operation) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 1 APRILߞOpposition Day [5th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Title to be confirmed.

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

WEDNESDAY 2 APRILߞProgress on remaining stages of the Criminal Justice Bill (Day 1).

Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

THURSDAY 3 APRIL—Commons consideration of Lords Amendments to a Bill.

Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment.

FRIDAY 4 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

May I repeat the tribute that I made during Monday's brief business statement to my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) for his outstanding contribution as Leader of the House? He enjoyed the respect and affection of hon. Members in all parts of the House, and his weekly jousts with the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) were, for many of us, the highlight of the parliamentary week. They will be sorely missed.

How can I not thank the deputy Leader of the House for giving us that statement? I echo his sentiments about the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), who was that increasingly rare phenomenon, a parliamentarian. He understood and loved the Chamber, and brought to it wit and knowledge of a kind that is all too rarely in evidence. He was also principled. In his resignation, which we regret, he showed that principled resignations still have a part to play in politics today. For that, as much as anything else, we will all remember him. Although I disagreed with much of what the right hon. Gentleman did in terms of his modernisation, I can honestly say that I do not envy whoever will be chosen to follow in his footsteps.

I welcome the statement that the Secretary of State for Defence made in the House today, and I welcome even more his undertaking that he would keep the House properly and regularly informed about the hostilities. I hope that we will also be kept informed appropriately about post-war reconstruction and aid. May I ask for a similar undertaking that we will be kept informed about homeland security? I am sure that what may happen here in our own country during and after hostilities is as much on hon. Members' minds as the hostilities themselves. I hope that the deputy Leader of the House will give us an undertaking that we will be kept fully and properly informed on that front, as well as on the other.

I should also like the hon. Gentleman to give an undertaking, although I suspect that this is wishful thinking on my part, that we will not see the regrettable phenomenon of bad news being slipped out under the cover of the hostilities—other than the Budget, of course.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was granted an urgent question by Mr. Speaker. She said that she would
"ask the Secretary of State for International Development if she will make a statement in response to the Select Committee on International Development's report on humanitarian contingency planning for Iraq"ߞ[Official Report, 19 March 2003; Vol. 401, c. 941.]
Mr. Speaker granted that urgent question, which was addressed specifically to the Secretary of State or to the Department for International Development. You can imagine our surprise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when the junior Minister in the Department for International Development, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble), who was in her place on the Front Bench, did not reply on behalf of the Department. Instead, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien)ߞa Minister from another Department altogetherߞtook it upon himself to answer. First, he mumbled some sort of excuse about the Secretary of State being out of the countryߞfor which I do not: particularly blame her, at this time. He then went on to claim that the hon. Member for Northampton, North had lost her voice. I am reliably informed, however, that she was perfectly capable of speaking soon after she left the Chamber.

The urgent question, with its specific reference to a Department and a Select Committee report, having been granted, the Government casually shuffled the people on the Front Bench around. The result was that the Minister from the Department for International Development had to brief the Minister who had been drafted in continually throughout his answering of the question, and, sadly, we therefore got inadequate answers from the Minister at the Dispatch Box. I want an undertaking from the deputy Leader of the House that this will not happen again. When an urgent question is granted, we want proper answers from the proper Minister from the right Department.

I am grateful for the kind remarks of the shadow Leader of the House about my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. I agree with what he said about the way in which my right hon. Friend left the Government. I think that he did it very well, although I—like the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurstߞdo not share his reasons for doing it.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the reason that the Secretary of State for International Development was not here yesterday—which he and his colleagues well knew when they tabled their urgent questionߞwas that she was on her way to the United States to hold discussions at the United Nations and with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the US Administration on an important issue about which hon. Members on both sides of the House are very concerned. I also remind him that, under the Government in which he served, a Department for International Development did not exist. It was part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The two Departments in this Government quite rightly work extremely closely together, and the Secretary of State for International Development has secured a doubling of her Department's budget. I am sure that when she has concluded her discussions across the Atlantic, she will wish to make a statement to the House at the earliest opportunity.

It is entirely a matter for the Government which Minister responds to an urgent quest [on, as Mr. Speaker himself made clear when the matter was raised yesterday. Given that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) had just returned from the United States, having held discussions there on these very matters, it seemed perfectly appropriate that he should respond to the urgent question.

I assure the shadow Leader of the House that there will be regular updates on the important issue of homeland security. I believe that the Home Secretary has made a written statement on this matter today, and I am sure that he will come to the House when he feels it necessary to update such statements. They will be regularly updated as the crisis unfolds.

The right hon. Gentleman made a point about bad news coming out at this time. It is a fact that, at times like this, when people's attention is on other things, they will not take so much notice of what is happening elsewhere. The same applies to very good news, such as the fact that the unemployment rate in this country continues to fall, and that yesterday's figures show the highest employment levels since records began.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary accept my apology in advance—and my assurance that this is nothing personal—for saying that we certainly do not welcome his presence at the Dispatch Box today, for two very good reasons? First, while we fully appreciate the entirely honourable, principled and logical reasons for the resignation of the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) as Leader of the House, we very much regret that he no longer holds that position. We do so for good reasons. His commitment to the House and to Parliament was unrivalled, and it set a very good example for his successors. He stated in the House on many occasions that good government required good parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that, we can therefore have an early statement from the Government on whether they maintain the principle that the Government's submission to parliamentary authority has to go before all else, and that that is what gives them their authority.

It appears that there will be a hiatus before we shall have the opportunity of seeing whom the Government propose as the new Leader of the House. May we take that opportunity to have a debate on the role and responsibility of the Leader of the House? It is a different role from that of any other Cabinet Minister. It involves a responsibility to his or her colleagues in Cabinet, but also a responsibility to the House. Such a debate would give the Government an opportunity to reiterate their commitmentߞas the right hon. Member for Livingston frequently didߞto parliamentary sovereignty.

The second reason that I regret that the Parliamentary Secretary is at the Dispatch Box is that it suggests that the Government are in no hurry to appoint a successor. That is extraordinary. Can the House imagine any other circumstances in which it would take 72 hours to appoint a Cabinet Minister? No other Department of State could remain leaderless for that long. That is indicative of the respect that the Government have for the House. Finally, may I say to the Parliamentary Secretary that I, too, will very much miss the hour of the Cook's tour on a Thursday afternoon?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those comments, which he just about managed to deliver with a straight face. I am sorry that he does not welcome my appearance at the Dispatch Box. I do not welcome it either. This is not a jobߞalbeit a temporary one—that I would have chosen. May I reassure him, however, that whoever is chosen to replace my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston will show an equal commitment to Parliament. What the hon. Gentleman said about that was absolutely right.

The Government have proved, by their recent example, that they take parliamentary scrutiny seriously. We have become the first Government in the history of this country, for example, to do what the Liberal Democrats have been demanding for monthsߞnamely, to have a vote on a substantive motion before British forces were deployed in military action. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that. I remind him that the Liberal Democrats, and some Labour Members, constantly suggested that that would not happen, and constantly questioned the Government's commitment to coming to the House on that issue. We have done so not only by making regular statements, but by allowing that unprecedented vote.

I also challenge the hon. Gentleman's assertion that the failure to find a replacement for my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston yet is a sign of the Government not taking this position seriously. I suggest that the Prime Minister has rather more pressing things on his mind at the moment.

Will my hon. Friend try to find time for the House to discuss the accountability of primary care trusts? The trust in Liverpool has kept a severely disabled young man in hospital for more than six weeks, and there does not appear to be any pressure that a Member of Parliament can put on that trust. I believe that that would be a subject worthy of discussion by the House.

I am concerned to hear what my hon. Friend says and grateful to him for drawing the case in his constituency to our attention. He will be aware that the Government are keen on improving public and democratic accountability as we progress our health reforms, and I will ensure that he gets a substantive response from the Secretary of State for Health to the point that he has raised.

With the resignation of the Leader of the House, whose departure I also mourn, would this be the right time to revisit the question of whether the Modernisation Committee should be chaired by a member of the Cabinet? Would it not be better if the ex-Leader of the House stayed on the Committee as a Back Bencher, so that it was more like our other Select Committees?

As I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is a matter for the Committee itself. My understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston remains in his position as Chairman of the Modernisation Committee at the moment, but his future on the Committee, and its chairmanshipߞor chairwomanshipߞwill be a matter for the Committee.

My hon. Friend will know of the statement made earlier by the Secretary of State for Defence in respect of a future statement regarding compensation payments to the partners of those who might lose their lives in Iraq. May I suggest that, in view of the current conflict, this would be an appropriate time for the House to debate the much wider issue of the whole series of policies, benefits, payments and regulations that apply to the families of those who have served in the armed forces? I draw my hon. Friend's attention particularly to war disability pensions, the poorest war disability pensioners and the earnings disregard, which has not been uprated since 1990. Could he find time in the near future for a complete review of Government policy, and for an opportunity to debate the issue?

I am afraid that, given all the other pressing demands on the House, I cannot promise that we shall have time for a full debate on all the issues raised by my hon. Friend, important though they are. However, I am sure that every hon. Member agrees that those issues should be uppermost in our minds, particularly at a time when our armed servicesߞmen and women—are likely to be going into action on our behalf.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend welcomed the Ministry of Defence's announcement today that benefits previously restricted to the spouses of those involved in potential military action will be extended to partners.

The right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is certainly one of the most pungent, quick-witted and effective parliamentarians of our time, and his departure from the Government's ranks will be as widely regretted as it is widely respected.

Prostate cancer awareness week begins next Monday, so may we have an urgent debate on prostate cancer? Although 21,000 people a year are diagnosed as suffering from it and 10,000 a year die of it, the Government have so far failed to honour their promise to launch a public information campaign.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to a serious health issue affecting men, which the Government do take seriously. We may not be able to afford the time for a debate on the Floor of the House, but it might be an ideal subject on which to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall.

Earlier today we heard a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence, who kindly passed the issue of the House's sitting hours on to my hon. Friend's agenda. Like many other Members, I have taken a hard line on our responsibilities as Members. I expect statements to be made in the House and not outside, and expect us, as MPs who made the decision to go to war, to be the first to hear what happens. Will my hon. Friend review our sitting hours over the impending period? I believe that we should sit from Monday to Friday, and should sit for the hours that are required.

Both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Government as a whole have made it clear that, over the next few weeks, we shall be living in extraordinary times. We have made clear our willingness to be flexible on sitting hours. I am not convinced that any change need be set in stone, but we are prepared to come to the Dispatch Box as the Secretary of State has todayߞand will again, I expect, in days to come. If it becomes necessary for us to sit in the evenings, at weekends and during the Easter recess the Government will take account of the position, which will depend on events on the ground.

We all appreciate the hon. Gentleman's assurance that Ministers will make regular statements as the war progresses, but may I put it to him gently that we must avoid a repetition of yesterday's farce? In future, Ministers from the appropriate Department must appear at the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman's response to the shadow Leader of the House was not up to the standards that we normally expect of him.

I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman takes that view. I will not reiterate the reasons for the absence of the Secretary of State for International Developmentߞreasons that the Opposition knew very well when they tabled their urgent question. As I said, it is for the Government to decide who should answer urgent questions, and it was felt that as the Minister who did answer had been most recently involved in discussions with the bodies involved, it was appropriate for him to do so. I think that, since the Government came to office in 1997, there has been only one other occasion on which a statement has not been made by the most obviously appropriate Minister. We try to avoid such circumstances. The right hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that this Government have a far better record than their predecessor on the number of statements made in the House.

Following the publication of the White Paper on tackling antisocial behaviour, will my hon. Friend try to find out when the Government will publish their antisocial behaviour Bill? Will he give a commitment that when it is published we shall debate its Second Reading on the Floor of the House as soon as possible? Notwithstanding the war, which is obviously the most serious issue facing our country, many of my constituents want the action proposed in the White Paper to become law as early as possible.

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. No doubt he, like many of my colleagues, receives regular representations from his constituents. As people note the improvements being made in public services such as health and education, their main concerns are antisocial behaviour and crime. That is why the Government are legislating to deal with those problems. As soon as the Bill is ready it will be published and will, I am sure, be debated at some length on the Floor of the House.

I too am sorry that the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is no longer Leader of the House. On at least two occasions, I have raised the fact that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee has not met in Northern Ireland once since its formation. That does not apply to the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees. Now that the former Leader of the House is no longer with us, I do not want the issue to be forgotten. May I have an assurance that it will not be forgotten, that it will be addressed, and that if a decision is made one way or the other, it will be made in this Chamber?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for being relatively unsighted on this subject. I am led to believe, however, that the Government have always been open to his suggestion, and that it has been resisted by his own party.

May I return to the answer that my hon. Friend gave my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (David Hamilton)? In the interests of the staff who work for us and serve the House—some of whom currently face extraordinary difficulties in connection with security, for exampleߞwill my hon. Friend ensure that all the necessary steps are taken to establish proper contingency plans in case we have to sit at weekends, and perhaps during the Easter recess, while hostilities are in progress?

Yes. I should emphasise that we have no plans at this stage for the House to sit through the Easter recess or at weekends, apart from our decision that the House should sit on the first couple of days of the recess to debate the Budget. But I think that most Members would wish us to maintain an element of flexibility, while balancing that with the needߞrightly mentioned by my hon. Friendߞfor not just Members but the staff who serve us so well to be able to plan heir lives.

In contrast to the uncharacteristically churlish welcome given to the hon. Gentleman by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), may I say how pleased we Conservatives are to see him in his place today? It is good to see a fellow cyclist getting on.

May I give the strongest possible endorsement to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about the Modernisation Committee chairmanship? As a member of the Committee, I welcomed what I think was the hon. Gentleman's assurance that the Executive would not interfere with the actions of the Committee if we, as its members, wanted the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to continue as its Chairman.

I think that that is absolutely right. As I said earlier, it is a matter for the Committee.

I was not particularly upset by the churlishness of the contribution of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I know that he did not really mean it. Perhaps he is feeling a little uneasy about the position taken by the Liberal Democrats on some major matters of state in recent days and weeks. I hope that, like me, he welcomes the excellent new facilities on the premises for the locking of bicycles. Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thank Mr. Speaker for his help in that regard.

Will the deputy Leader of the House find time to debate the plight of Mordecai Vanunu, who has been rotting away in an Israeli jail for the past 18 years and has been in solitary confinement for 15 of them becauseߞas the deputy Leader of the House will recognise—he told the truth about Israel's nuclear role when all around him were lying? If the Minister agreed to such a debate, the Government could reiterate their opposition to weapons of mass destruction and inform the House of what they are doing to ensure that Vanunu receives an early release.

I cannot assure my hon. Friend that we will be able to find time to have a debate on the Vanunu case on the Floor of the House, but I am well aware of the issue, having been the Minister responsible for that part of the world for a year before taking my current post. The case concerns the Government greatly and I have personally raised it with the Israeli authorities. However, it is important to draw a distinction between that case and the action that the coalition is now taking in Iraq, which is unique in the world in being in contravention of chapter VII resolutions on its weapons of mass destruction and in having used them against its neighbours and its own people.

I too wish to pay tribute to the qualities of the former Leader of the House, although I should point out to some hon. Members that he is not deadߞthankfullyߞand that we will continue to enjoy his contributions on a range of issues for many years to come. I am sure that Government Front Benchers in particular are looking forward to that. I would support permanency of tenure for the acting Leader of the House, if it were up to me, but will he continue with the Government's valuable consultation on public participation in the political process? Outside the House, today and yesterday, and in Manchester and Edinburgh yesterday, we have seen inspiring examples of young people's interest in politics. The fact that they are demonstrating against the Government rather than for it is the Government's misfortune, but the more important point is that so many young people are concerned about the conduct of their country and the state of the world. Will the acting Leader of the House consult the young people outside to find out what has inspired them to join in the political process?

I am not sure that that endorsement from the hon. Gentleman will stand me in good stead, but I am grateful for it nonetheless. Unusually, I agree with him on this point. My constituency offices in Exeter were invaded by a group of school pupils and college students yesterday. They staged a peaceful protest, and I spoke to one of them on the phone and offered to go and talk to them as a groupߞas I spend much time doing in my constituency. I was pleased that young people feel strongly enough on such issues to seek out their elected representative. I have one caveat, however, which is that I hope that they are not neglecting their studies. As long as young people are protesting peacefullyߞin a way that we cherish in this country but would not be possible in Iraq, as they will be awareߞI welcome that, but I hope that they do it outside school hours.

Given the intense warmth of our present relationship with France, is the Minister aware that some people would like to have a debate and, indeed, an immediate referendum on the euro? Does he agree that that would be opportunist and unprincipled, just as it would be for a referendum to be held—as some have suggested—on the back of what we hope will be a successful war?

I am well aware of my hon. Friend's antipathy to UK membership of the euro at this stage. I can reassure him that whatever has happened in recent days and weeks to our relationship with our French friends, and what may happen after what we hope will be a successful outcome to the military campaign, the Government's decision on whether to recommend a referendum on the euro will always be based on our economic interest and the five tests.

May we have a statement from the Home Secretary on the curious case of Mr. Andrew Murray, a former worker for the Soviet Novosti news agency, currently a member of the Communist party of Britain—it still exists, believe it or notߞand an avowed supporter of nuclear North Korea, who has promised, in a report to the Communist party of Britain, that next weekend's great anti-war demonstration will have two slogans: not just "stop the war" but also "Blair must go"? Curiously, Mr. Murray is able to make that promise because he, of all men, is the chair of the Stop the War Coalition, which organises the huge demonstrations to which so many people, perhaps unwittingly, subscribe.

Those of us who have taken part in demonstrations or been involved in protest organisationsߞand, yes, even I have—will have sometimes had strange bedfellows. However, I am sure that the Home Secretary, and those who are involved in the anti-war movementߞmost of them for good reasons—will be very interested in what the hon. Gentleman has told the House.

May I break with precedent and ask the acting Leader of the House a question on the business information that he has actually given us? I am disturbed to see that on Thursday 3 April it is the Government's intention to hold the Easter Adjournment debate and also to consider Lords amendments, on a day that already suffers from reduced hours. Any Adjournment debate is valued by Back Benchers, and I ask him to consider having only the Adjournment debate on that day.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but it has been traditional for the Easter Adjournment debate to run for three hours. It was only when I did it the time before last [hat it went on for what seemed like 12 hours, although it was not quite that long. We want to protect the time For the Easter Adjournment debate and the hon. Gentleman should not assume that we will spend as much time as he thinks considering the Lords amendments.

Having the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) acting as the Leader of the House is a positive advantage, because I am able to read, through the columns of the excellent Express & Echo and Western Morning Newsߞpapers that we shareߞhis views on modernisation of the House. Does the acting deputy Leader agree [HON. MEMBERS: "Acting Leader."] Indeed, I mean the acting Leader of the House. Does he agree that the jeers and "hear, hears" in this House are viewed dimly by the public, and that the polite applause given to his former boss, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), on Monday night is a better way for the House to show its views?

A s the shadow Leader of the House made clear, opinions on that point differ strongly. I have some sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says, because sometimes hon. Members do not give enough consideration to how our behaviour affects people's views of Parliament. Certainly when I talk to young people in my constituency, they tell me that they find some of our customs and procedures rather strange. I am not a member of the Modernisation Committee, but I understand that it is investigating the matter.

Can we find time for an early debate on the competence of this Government? I acknowledge the principled resignation from the Cabinet of the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook)ߞand we must respect that—but what happened yesterday was farcical. It would have been one thing if a Foreign Office Minister had replied to an urgent question on international development because no Minister from DFID was available. The House could have understood and accepted that. However, a Minister from the Department for International Development was available and she sat on the Front Bench throughout, but was not allowed to say anything. Furthermore, is not the Secretary of State for International Development now the living embodiment of Churchill's dictumߞthat the problem with committing political suicide is that one lives to regret it?

No; the Secretary of State for International Development made her position clear in the statement that she issued on Monday. To be fair to her—and I hope that hon. Members will be—the situation changed after the interview that she gave to the BBC. The President of France said that he would veto any ultimatum given to the Iraqi regime, agreement was reached on the administration of a post-Saddam Iraq, which is something that my right hon. Friend takes very seriously, andߞeven more importantlyߞthe road map was published for a middle east peace process. People should be allowed to change their minds in the light of events. That is the sign of a mature democracy and hon. Members on both sides of the House should welcome it.

May I welcome the Deputy Leader's assurance that the Home Secretary will come to the House to make a statement on homeland security? I urge that that should happen as soon as possible at the start of next week. The statement should take account of all the measures that have been takenߞor should have been takenߞby the relevant Departments. They include, in particular, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Transport.

I am afraid that I cannot guarantee that such a statement will be possible early next week, as other Ministers may need to make more pressing statements. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has issued today a comprehensive written statement on the subject. I notice that Home Office questions will be held on Monday, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members interested in the subject will be in the Chamber to put questions to my right hon. Friend and his colleagues then.

I thought that it might interest the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) to know that, with regard to the earlier request from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), there is a debate scheduled for next week on prostate cancer. That may be one of the most remarkable cases ever of instant gratification.