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House of Commons

Thursday 21 June 2001

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business Question

11.34 am

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Will the Leader of the House please give the business for the coming week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): You, Mr. Speaker, informed the House yesterday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business for next week will therefore be:

From Monday 25 June to Wednesday 27 June, continuation and then conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Thursday 28 June--Motions on programming and deferred Divisions.

Friday 29 June--The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 2 July--Second Reading of the Homelessness Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the first business in Westminster Hall, following the conclusion of the Queen's Speech, will be--

Thursday 28 June--Debate on Road Safety

Mrs. Browning: I thank the Leader of the House and welcome him to his new position in the House. I also welcome the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg), who, I understand, is to ride shotgun for him. I welcome the hon. Gentleman to what I found to be an extremely interesting portfolio, and I hope that he finds it as interesting.

Will the Leader of the House give us more information about the business to be conducted next Thursday 28 June--programming and deferred Divisions? He will know the genesis of the changes to the way in which the House conducts its business--the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, which was chaired by his predecessor. The House will be familiar with my grave reservations about the appropriateness of any Minister chairing a Select Committee. It therefore seems opportune, while such decisions are still being made, to ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider transferring responsibility for modernisation and changing the procedures of the House to the Procedure Committee or, at the very least, if the Modernisation Committee is to be reinstated, for it to be chaired by a Back Bencher, not a member of the Government.

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I shall not rehearse what I may wish to share with the House next Thursday, but the debate on programming and deferred Divisions has come about because a member of the Government, using a Whip on matters on which there would normally be a free vote for hon. Members on both sides of the House, has insisted that the House change its procedures. Will next Thursday's business be conducted with a free vote for Labour Back Benchers?

We know that on the previous occasion, which was on the day of the American elections, Government Whips were rounding up Members from the bars of the Savoy to get them back to the House so that the Leader of the House could ensure that the democratic rights of Back Benchers were subjugated to the will of the Executive. If that is to be put before us next Thursday, we will oppose it. I seek the right hon. Gentleman's reassurance about that.

I note that the Leader of the House has not informed the House about any possible statements next week. Is the Prime Minister likely to make a statement next week on the Stockholm conference, not just because of the business that was transacted there, but because of the very worrying matters that surrounded the Stockholm conference, which have a read-across to any west European capital that might host--

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Gothenburg.

Mrs. Browning: It is not often that I am grateful to a Liberal Democrat, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I apologise--I was referring to the Gothenburg conference. Serious incidents of public disorder occurred there, which could have a read-across to all countries. Surely the Prime Minister should make a statement to the House.

I am pleased to see that after business questions we are to have a statement on foot and mouth from the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Before the House rose for the general election, it was my clear understanding that the Prime Minister had taken personal responsibility for the management of the foot and mouth crisis. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether that is still the case? If so, when can we expect the Prime Minister, who I assume is still in charge of the matter, to report to the House and answer questions?

Mr. Cook: In a spirit of trying to build what consensus I can from the hon. Lady's questions--[Interruption.] No, I am not. I assure the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) that on this matter he and I can find full agreement. I welcome the hon. Lady's generous welcome to this post.

On the business for next week, yes, we will renew the programme motion. We will do so because there is a modernising agenda for the House, which must include the right of the House to carry out effective scrutiny and reasonable, modern working methods and hours for Members. There is a large agenda, on which I have been pressed to give a Government lead. Given the pressure to do so, the Leader of the House not taking an interest in the Modernisation Committee would send out a wholly inconsistent message. I hope that it will be set up as soon as possible and, as my predecessor did, I shall play a full

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part on it. I would be subject to criticism from Labour Members and many others in the House if I did not show such leadership and interest.

I was pressed on whether the vote on Thursday will be a free vote. Yes, there will be a free vote on the Labour Benches. Given the hon. Lady's comments, I would welcome clarification of whether there will be a free vote among members of the official Opposition as well.

As the hon. Lady will be aware, the recent summit in Gothenburg took place while the House was not sitting. That is the only reason why there has been no statement on it. The Prime Minister has been assiduous in making statements on summits when the House has been sitting. Indeed, I personally accompanied him in making each of those statements in the previous Parliament.

There will be a statement on foot and mouth immediately after this business question. We were pressed repeatedly in the previous Parliament for more statements. I would have thought that the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that the new Minister responsible for foot and mouth will be making a statement to the House on the first available day. Surely that should be welcome to all those who demanded such a statement.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): May I press the Leader of the House on the question of Select Committees? Will he confirm that it is his intention to get them up and running before the summer recess? Does he realise that, if he is to achieve that, new Standing Orders will need to be brought before the House next week?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is right: we face a very tight timetable to secure meetings of Select Committees before the House rises and to ensure that they have an opportunity to choose Chairs and decide when next to meet. Having said that, I shall endeavour to ensure that we meet that timetable. I share his concern that Select Committees should be set up as soon as possible and that the House should have the ability to use them for effective scrutiny. We will move on that as quickly as we can.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I add my warm welcome to the Leader of the House in his new post? My right hon. and hon. Friends and I look to him to play what we think can be a historic role in the reform of both Houses of Parliament. Both Houses, and their relations to one another, are looking to him for that initiative.

I endorse the view that has just been expressed about the need for urgent action to set up and begin the work of Select Committees. The Leader of the House will recall a long hiatus following the 1997 election before they got back to work, which we all very much regret. Given that it would seem that everybody in the House--from the outgoing leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who referred to the important role that Select Committees play, to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), whose comments on the issue in last night's debate were extremely important--is concerned that Select Committees should get back to work as soon as possible, I press the Leader of the House to use his very best endeavours to ensure that before the summer recess. If,

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as I am sure he will understand, that is delayed until the autumn, they might not be back in action until the end of the year or even the new year.

In connection with the Gothenburg Council, I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to a planted question on today's Order Paper, which will provide only a written answer on the outcome of that Council. Will he use his best endeavours to ensure that the House receives such information by means of a full ministerial statement? We look to him to represent not just the Government but us, to ensure that on such matters the centre of gravity returns from the broadcasting studios to this House.

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