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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Did my right hon. Friend see the story in yesterday's edition of the Financial Times, under the headline

The years have mellowed me and I am much more relaxed about these things than I used to be, but will my right hon. Friend be innovative and forward looking and perhaps arrange for regular reports to the House on the nature of the discussions that take place between the Prime Minister and the so-called Leader of the Opposition?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend's closing line was perhaps his most provocative and plainly demonstrated that he has not in any way mellowed with his years in the House. He calls for regular reporting. From my recollection of the previous Parliament that issue was not underventilated or underdebated in the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister looks forward with confidence to being asked about the issue frequently and to exploring it in this Parliament as much as in the last. I would tell my hon. Friend one thing: whatever may pass between the Cabinet and Front-Bench Liberal Democrat Members, it has broadly been my experience that one does not have to wait long to hear it fully reported--often in even greater detail than I remember from the meetings I attended.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Would the Leader of the House look again into the request for a debate on asylum seeker statistics, bearing in mind the fact that the decision to regard a family of six as one unit on arrival and as six on departure is not only a change of policy but a statistical fiddle and the sort of practice that one would not expect from a decent democratic Government?

Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will ensure that a full statement is made to the House--I imagine it would be a written statement setting out the basis for the figures. Let us be clear that in the past year the Government made much rapid progress to ensure that decisions are taken more quickly and that those asylum seekers who are turned down are removed more quickly. If the hon. Gentleman had attended the Chamber yesterday, he would have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary express his commitment to remove 2,500 per month within the near future. At the same time, we are ensuring that genuine asylum seekers get their decision more quickly and have the doubt about their position removed. We have achieved faster decisions,

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quicker removal and quicker acceptance of genuine asylum seekers than was achieved by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. I urge him to welcome that fact rather than to continue to complain about the figures.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): May we have a debate on the vexed question of mixed-sex wards? The Oldchurch and Harold Wood hospitals in the borough that I represent--they are not in my constituency, but they are used by my constituents--still have such wards, which is causing much offence and upset, despite the policy pursued by the Department of Health and the promises that the trust made to me.

On another matter, the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill was the first intended extension of the business vote since 1832 and it was promoted by a right hon. Gentleman who has since retired. It was supported by the Tories in their droves and was brilliantly sabotaged by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that we will never see that Bill again?

Mr. Cook: If I may, I shall respond first to the very serious issue that my hon. Friend raises about mixed-sex wards. As he is aware, the Government's policy is that mixed-sex wards should be eliminated by 2002, and the last report showed that we are 93 per cent. on target to achieve that. I entirely accept that that is cold comfort to those hospitals that my hon. Friend mentioned which have been unable to achieve that progress.

I understand that the difficulty at Oldchurch hospital is that refurbishing the wards to provide single-sex accommodation is regarded as inappropriate pending the very large development that is about to take place. I am informed that the hospital's managers are considering other management practices to secure that objective, and I assure my hon. Friend that the Government will continue to press them to deliver on our commitment.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): On reflection, does the Leader of the House consider that his response to the perfectly sensible request of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in relation to Northern Ireland was adequate? Was it adequate merely to say that he would keep the House aware of developments in the Province? Is he not profoundly concerned by the turn of events there? Is it not the case that the community has been polarised and that there is the potential for a breakdown in democratic institutions, caused by the failure of Her Majesty's Government's policy, especially on the decommissioning of terrorist weapons? Can we have a full day's debate on that grave subject, which is of concern to the whole kingdom?

Mr. Cook: In fairness to myself, I must say that I expressed my concern at the gravity of the situation, and I do not think any hon. Member on either side of the House fairly listening to what I said would accuse me of not recognising that gravity or the deep concern felt on both sides of the House. I said at the time that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is, at this very moment, in Northern Ireland engaged in discussions on such matters.

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It would not be right for the House to jeopardise my right hon. Friend's efforts by anticipating the outcome, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that in the event of the negative outcome that he anticipates, the House will have many opportunities to examine the issues.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Keetch Cottage children's hospice, on the edge of Luton, has recently discovered that it has a £1 million deficit, thus jeopardising the palliative care for children in Luton and the surrounding area? I am sure that he will want to join me in offering thanks both to all those in the hospice movement who do so much for the care of our children in very difficult circumstances and to the community, which contributes the vast majority of resources to keep local hospices going, but will he please agree to hold an early debate on Government funding for hospices? That is necessary, given that hospices are saving the national health service considerable amounts of money and that they are so vital to patient care and medical services.

Mr. Cook: I fully appreciate the enormous value of the hospice movement, which provides particular support not just to the patients for whom it cares, but to all the relatives of those patients at a time of difficult crisis. That is why a commitment to the hospice movement was very strong in the NHS plan that the Government set out two months ago. I am very sorry to hear of the situation that my hon. Friend describes. I assure her that the Government and, I believe, all hon. Members support the work of those in hospices, and I ask her to convey our support to the staff of the hospice that she mentions.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a statement next week from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office about the code of ministerial conduct and, in particular, about which of its provisions allows for the sacking of a competent junior Home Office Minister simply because he insisted on telling the truth about a telephone call from one of the Prime Minister's Cabinet cronies?

Mr. Cook: It would be inappropriate for me to enter into a commentary on why particular decisions were made during the last reshuffle; otherwise, I might detain the House much longer than it would have anticipated. My hon. Friend, to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, did an excellent job at the Home Office. Indeed, that was reflected in many of the statements that were made yesterday, and it is for my hon. Friend to add to that if he wishes, but he made a speech of great dignity and utility in yesterday's debate on home affairs. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion is wide of the mark.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): I, too, warmly welcome what the Leader of the House has had to say about establishing the Select Committees before we rise. I infer that he accepts that both sides of the House want to return to the Liaison Committee report. The House accepts that, in the interests of speed, the Select Committees will be established on the existing basis, and will remain dominated by the Government through the Whips Office. Does my right hon. Friend accept that Select Committees are parliamentary Committees, not Committees of the Government, so it is wholly illogical that their membership should be determined by the

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Government, by whatever means? It is wrong for anyone to appoint their own scrutineers. Does he accept that case in principle?

Mr. Cook: The process by which Labour Members will be chosen to serve on the Select Committees is set out in the rules of the parliamentary Labour party. Decisions will be taken by the PLP, not the Chief Whip. If my hon. Friend wishes to serve on one of the Select Committees that we have nominated on the Order Paper today, he will receive an invitation in the Whip this Thursday. That democratic process through the PLP is to be commended, and I hope that all parties in the House will follow a similar democratic process.

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