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Mr. Cook: I am aware of the early-day motion that my hon. Friend has tabled. He raises an issue that must be of great concern to travellers in his constituency and he has highlighted a matter of considerable concern among the wider public: payments to the former chief executive of Railtrack and the question that that raises about the company's relative priorities. I will draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and ensure that it responds to his local concerns.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new position as Leader of the House? I assure him that there are many on the Labour Benches who welcome his wholehearted commitment to modernising the arcane proceedings of this place.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend to consider finding time for a matter that should be debated and be of concern to all democratically elected politicians: the appallingly low turnout at the recent general election? I respectfully suggest to him that reform of our democratic processes is an essential precondition to reconnecting with the swathes of disengaged young voters.

Mr. Cook: I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point about the importance of modernisation and welcome the support that he expresses for it. I am not sure that I necessarily see it as the main response to the question of voter participation in our democracy. The electorate will judge us by the extent to which we deliver on the programme that we set out at the election. If we do that, we can convince the public that democracy works and that the policies for which they voted are those that we

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implemented. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that when our electors look at how we behave, the hours that we sit and the absence of fast, efficient electronic communications, they sometimes wonder whether we are living in the same century as them.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I raised with my right hon. Friend's predecessor the delay in the publication of the report of the review of support for student nurses. Obviously, that was some months ago. Given the need for many more student nurses in our hospitals, I urge my right hon. Friend, following discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, to publish that report at the earliest possible time.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes a point that follows on neatly from a previous question. We have committed ourselves to an increase in the number of nurses over and above the increase achieved during the previous Parliament. My hon. Friend raises an important part of the process to ensure that we are able to provide nurses to match the substantial expansion in the number of beds in our 10-year plan. I shall make sure that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health responds to my hon. Friend's question.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): May we have an early debate on the social value and economic prospects of independent retailers and community shopping parades? Many hon. Members will be aware of the continuous erosion of those community facilities, not least, in recent times, community pharmacies which are being forced to close by the drop in drugs prices. Will urgent consideration be given to council tax concessions for some of those groups, so that we do not end up with the retail deserts created when large retailers such as Tesco withdraw to make ever higher profits and leave various groups in our communities who lack proper transport without adequate retail facilities?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an issue that must be familiar to any hon. Member who represents a constituency containing small towns from which such facilities are disappearing, and I share the deep frustration of Members who represent those towns and their residents when they find that their local pharmacy has disappeared and there is no readily available alternative. We have to be realistic: the secular change in shopping trends is one in which the public have fully participated because they find it attractive in many ways. It is important that local authorities and the supermarkets work together to preserve

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shops in villages and small towns where they can, and, where they cannot do so, to make sure that there is readily available, free transport to the supermarket.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. Members must be in the Chamber for the Leader of the House's statement if they want to ask a question, so I cannot call the hon. Gentleman.

John McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise, but I got stuck in traffic on the way here.

Mr. Speaker: I am sorry to hear that.


Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland)

Mr. Secretary Reid, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Byers and Mr. Desmond Browne, presented a Bill to provide for the supply to the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland of the signatures and dates of birth of electors and persons seeking registration as electors in Northern Ireland; for the use of that information in connection with elections in Northern Ireland; for the issue of electoral identity cards by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland; for the modification in relation to voters with disabilities of certain rules about voting procedure in Northern Ireland; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 2 July, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 6].

Point of Order

1.27 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before we come to the business of the House, will you provide some clarification as to the significance of the business motion? As I understand it, the debate can continue until 7 o'clock or later--that is the effect of the two motions on the Order Paper. Am I right in supposing that, if the debate on the business motions continued until 7 o'clock or later, the votes on the substantive motions would then be taken immediately, without any discussion of the merits of the substantive motions?

Mr. Speaker: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite right. That would be the case.

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Business of the House

1.28 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I beg to move,

It might be helpful if I briefly introduce the motion, which I anticipate will ensure the orderly conduct of business and is for the convenience of hon. Members and of the House. It is a straightforward, simple procedural motion that allows you, Mr. Speaker, to close today's proceedings in a timely fashion, while providing a full day's debate. There is nothing new or controversial about the motion and I hope that the House will now agree to it without lengthy discussion, so as to ensure the maximum time in which to debate the real issues of the day.

1.29 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I am bound to say that, for a complete absence of explanation of the purpose of the business motion, the introduction that we have just heard takes some beating. I do not understand--I hope that the Minister will intervene and explain--why we have the business motion at all. I assume that without it the principal business of the House--the programming of Bills and deferred voting--could be debated until 7 o'clock when, according to your ruling, Mr. Speaker, votes would take place on those two matters there and then. Will the Minister please intervene--we have had no speech--to explain the need to introduce a programme motion to curtail the debate by 30 minutes? I am happy to give way to the Minister.

The situation becomes more astonishing. We have had no explanation of why we should go through the paraphernalia of debating the programming of business for the saving of half an hour. Apparently, that is what we are being asked to do.

I welcome the Parliamentary Secretary to the Dispatch Box, but failing even to try to explain succinctly what is before us and the purpose that the motion is intended to achieve is rather an odd way of starting. I repeat: am I right in saying that the purpose of the motion is to save 30 minutes of debating time this afternoon? If so, why?

Again, the silence is astonishing. The House is being treated with complete contempt. The Leader of the House knows well from past debates the anxiety that has been expressed by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House about trying to achieve sensible programming of business. He knows also that there are considerable anxieties about the way in which the system is exploited. Here we have a system being introduced in an irrational fashion, with absolutely no justification or explanation offered of why we should have to go through this process.

I hope that in the course of my short remarks and a short debate on the motion we might receive an answer from the Minister. I find it astonishing that none has so far been tendered. Does that not call into question the

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entire issue that we shall have to discuss on the substantive motions? If we are to be treated in this fashion over a simple business motion, Lord help us when it comes to the major issues that we must discuss, which involve trying to hold the Government to account and which ask us to make substantial concessions in terms of the normal practice of the House for the sake, apparently, of improving the way in which business is conducted.

If the Minister cannot explain this simple motion in a coherent fashion, how can we have any faith or trust in the explanations that will be given on the substantive motions?

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