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Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is correct in that a number of hon. Members have raised that theme in the past hour, and my colleagues and I will obviously need to reflect upon it. As I said earlier, I share those concerns. We must ensure that we do not lose long-term skills because of short-term pressures.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I add my voice to those calling for a full debate in Government time on the recovery of rural businesses? I am sure that the Leader of the House agrees that farming businesses are by far the most numerous such businesses. I should like the debate to cover two aspects. The first is that raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) about the confusion and contradictory advice given by DEFRA about the issuing of livestock licences in the run-up to winter and the distress that that causes to the livestock. The second is the fact that 117 premises were affected by foot and mouth in North Yorkshire but so far only five contracts have been signed to cleanse them, so restocking cannot begin this side of Christmas.

Mr. Cook: The hon. Lady has placed on record the extent of the problem in her constituency. As I said, I am not unsympathetic to the case for a debate on the countryside, but I hope that such a debate would be broad and enable us to deal with the rural economy, other aspects of public service in the countryside and the way forward, and not only the crisis of the past few months.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): May I associate myself entirely with the remarks made by the shadow Leader of the House about the postponement of the debate on drug policy that had been scheduled for this Friday? Will my right hon. Friend find time to read the British crime survey, which was published last month? He will find that not only has our drugs tsar come and gone without making a jot of difference, but our Government have not got a snowball's chance in hell of meeting their targets on reduction of crime. Clearly, the current policy is not working and we need to revise it. May we have an urgent debate?

Mr. Cook: I rather anticipated that my hon. Friend would raise that subject and I commend him for the vigour

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with which he repeatedly does so. He would not expect me to assent to every proposition that he advances, but, as I said, we did have a commitment to a debate on drugs, it remains a commitment and, at an appropriate time, we will try to reschedule the deferred debate that was due this Friday.

Mr. Speaker: Mr. McWalter.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): For a moment, Mr. Speaker, I feared that you were about to call time.

As we are on the edge of the most dramatic improvement in real resources for the health service that has ever been seen, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said at the Labour party conference that some managements in the health service are plainly incompetent, will the Leader of the House try to ensure that the Secretary of State comes to the House to explain what he will do about the problem so that the huge increase in resources is not frittered away? Furthermore, will he treat my request with some urgency? In Hemel Hempstead hospital, massive closures in provision are about to be made by an incompetent manager, so I have a particular interest in ensuring that the matter is dealt with rather quickly.

Mr. Cook: I think that we have just heard a headline in the Hemel Hempstead newspapers. I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stressed earlier this week in his speech on public services the importance of bringing all those services up to national standards. Indeed, he outlined how we intend to go about that task in the health service.

I thank my hon. Friend for enabling us to conclude this session of business questions on a note of consensus by congratulating the Government on the largest building programme ever in the history of the NHS, doubling the increase in investment in the NHS and providing an additional 3,000 nurses since the last general election was declared.

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Points of Order

1.44 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure you will agree that the use of anthrax against the elected representatives of the United States constitutes an attack on the heart of democracy. Do you agree that this House, which is at the centre of our democracy and is widely respected here, in the United States and abroad, should send a message through you to your opposite number in the United States to offer our support at this difficult time? I remind you that it is only 60 years since this House had to be temporarily closed. Afterwards, democracy not only returned but went from strength to strength around the world. I suspect that a suitably worded message of support from you would be very well received in the United States at this difficult time.

Mr. Speaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point. I shall certainly send such a message. It may be helpful for the House to know that, after the terrible events of 11 September, I wrote to Speaker Hastert and Mayor Giuliani. I explained the solidarity that Members of this House feel with their American colleagues and the close bond between this House and democratic institutions in the United States. I have noted that Ambassador Farish has been present in the House to hear our debates. I have invited him to Speaker's House, where he will have an opportunity to meet hon. Members from all parts of the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance and some clarification. Earlier this afternoon the mechanism was used of a written question being extended beyond Question Time to enable us to have a statement from a Minister. My colleagues and I very much welcome that despite the confusion over the lack of information. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for using this mechanism on a number of occasions recently because it enables the House to get a statement from a Minister very rapidly. However, there are two major problems on which I seek your guidance, if not now, then on some future occasion.

First, unlike when a normal statement is made, Members on the two Opposition Front Benches do not get prior notice of the contents of this kind of statement and that caused some confusion today. Secondly, and more formidably, at the moment it appears that the mechanism can be triggered only by a Government Back Bencher and a planted question. Clearly, Opposition Members should also have that opportunity. Will you reflect on that and see whether we can find some way in which this mechanism can be used more widely?

Mr. Speaker: I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has had to say and come back to the House on the matter.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You often advise hon. Members and Ministers to give rapid or at least brief answers. Today we only got as far as Question 10, and, without mentioning any names, you may be aware that a particular Minister gave excessively long answers. I wonder whether you could write a gentle note or, wherever you meet

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Ministers from time to time, have a gentle word with particular Ministers. I realise that this is becoming a rather long and lengthy point of order; nevertheless long, lengthy answers, although they may be helpful, prevent Back Benchers from asking questions.

Mr. Speaker: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should try to get through the Order Paper, but to get further down the Order Paper I need the co-operation of the House. I would not single out Ministers who give lengthy replies as some Back Benchers ask very lengthy questions. In my opinion, the short, sharp question often gets a short, sharp reply, but I am happy to put it on record that I am very keen to get down the Order Paper.


Proceeds of Crime Bill

Mr. Secretary Blunkett, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Reid, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mrs. Secretary Liddell and Mr. Bob Ainsworth presented a Bill to establish the Assets Recovery Agency and make provision about the appointment of its Director and his functions (including Revenue functions), to provide for confiscation orders in relation to persons who benefit from criminal conduct and for restraint orders to prohibit dealing with property, to allow the recovery of property which is or represents property obtained through unlawful conduct or which is intended to be used in unlawful conduct, to make provision about money laundering, to make provision about investigations relating to benefit from criminal conduct or to property which is or represents property obtained through unlawful conduct or to money laundering, to make provision to give effect to overseas requests and orders made where property is found or believed to be obtained through criminal conduct, and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed [Bill 31].

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Orders of the Day

European Communities (Finance) Bill

Order for Third Reading read.

1.47 pm

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ruth Kelly): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This Bill will enable the United Kingdom to give effect to the new own resources decision which amends the arrangements for financing the Community budget. These financing decisions were agreed at the Berlin European Council in March 1999.

The decisions made at that European Council represent an important step forwards for the European Community and for the United Kingdom. The Council made several important reforms, preparing the EU for the challenges of enlargement, and it was a negotiating triumph for the UK, securing no increase in the own resources ceiling, maintaining the UK abatement and bringing EU spending under control.

The new own resources decision that we are considering is little changed from the 1994 own resources decision, and any changes made to the decision are financially neutral for the United Kingdom. Our net contribution to the EU budget will not change as a direct result of what we are considering today.

It is important that all the issues of concern to hon. Members on this short but significant Bill are properly scrutinised and the further time allowed for Third Reading will enable us to do so.

Some interesting points were raised and addressed on Second Reading and in Committee. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asked several questions about windfall gains and requested additional information and clarification on various detailed points. I wrote to him on 16 July and have recently written to him again on the points that he raised in Committee. Copies of both letters were deposited in the Library of the House but perhaps I could reiterate some of the points that I made in my most recent letter.

First, I should like to clarify the question of whether the cumulative value of the windfall gains forgone might have been greater than the value of the abatement received. I can assure the House that the value of windfalls forgone has been only a small fraction of the value of the abatement. That will continue to be the case.

The average level of windfall gains over the period 1989 to 2001 has been £107 million per annum, whereas the average level of the abatement received over the same period has been £2.2 billion per annum. It is therefore clear that the Government were right to insist on retaining the abatement at Berlin.

It was also right for the United Kingdom to agree to the windfall adjustments, just as earlier Administrations had. We sought a fair agreement at Berlin, and that is what we achieved. I hope that my reassurances have allayed the hon. Gentleman's fears.

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