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Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): May we have a debate on the coal industry that will be wide ranging enough to deal with the problem of equal pay for the female cleaners and catering staff who have missed out on equal pay provisions? It should be broad enough to deal with the continuing compensation problems that exist for those with vibration white finger, bronchitis and emphysema and to take into account the miners' pension fund. The 50:50 arrangement on surpluses is in an unfortunate position and needs renegotiating so that those pension rights can be extended and developed.

Mr. Cook: I am well aware of both the points that my hon. Friend raises; the deep personal concern of the individuals involved has been articulated in the House on a number of occasions.

I remind my hon. Friend that the Government were anxious to find a solution to the problem of the cleaners and other domestic staff who were caught in the position to which he refers. Indeed, we settled with all those who were nominated by the union. We very much regret that it appears that people were not included in that initial nomination, but there comes a point at which we have to draw a line under the settlement. Although I understand why the individuals concerned may feel aggrieved, we took a step that no previous Government had taken to try to resolve the issue, and we did resolve it with all those known to us at the time.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): When can we expect the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the Dispatch Box and give us a full explanation of what is going on in the rail industry? The crisis is reaching desperate proportions but we have had no full statement from the Secretary of State. Does the Leader of the House really believe it to be desirable or satisfactory for a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister, in the columns of The Spectator, to produce the first analysis of the chaos that the Government have added to by failing to undo the disasters of rail privatisation in their first four years? Does the right hon. Gentleman really think it satisfactory that the Liberal Democrats have to provide the Secretary of State with an opportunity to explain to the House the chaos that has been caused in the rail industry and the confusion that is increasing every day, to the disadvantage of rail passengers?

In the light of what will obviously happen as a result of the Lord Chancellor's duffing up at yesterday's meeting of the parliamentary Labour party, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether it is true that Labour Members are being invited, by questionnaire, to tell the Government what proportion of elected Members of the second Chamber they are prepared to accept? Why,

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as Leader of the whole House, is the right hon. Gentleman not inviting all members of all parties to tell him how the Government have got it wrong?

Mr. Cook: On the last matter, I am happy to put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. No questionnaire from the Government Whips is going round the PLP.

Mr. Forth: Why not?

Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to send a questionnaire to all Labour Members, I can predict some of the answers that he will get. However, he is welcome to do so.

We are about to have a debate on the House of Lords in which I will address the matter at greater length—indeed, perhaps at great length. I hope that the process of the debate will help take us forward to find a point of consensus on the plans for reform of the House of Lords.

On the rail industry, a speech will be made by the Minister with responsibility for the railways in the debate next week. In addition, Monday sees the publication of the new four-year plan from the Strategic Rail Authority under its new direction. I anticipate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will have things to say on that occasion.

David Wright (Telford): My right hon. Friend will be aware that a review of English Partnerships' activity is under way. English Partnerships is a major landholder in Telford and is key to the regeneration of the town. When will there be a statement to the House on the progress of the review?

Mr. Cook: I am advised that the review is already under way. It was announced in October 2000, and there will shortly be an announcement on its progress.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The Leader of the House said that he was not prepared to listen to Conservative Members. I remind him that most of the signatories to early-day motion 513 on the parliamentary commissioner are Labour Members:

[That this House has confidence in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and invites Elizabeth Filkin to accept reappointment on the terms of the initial contract working four days a week.]

Is the announcement that Mr. John Stonborough has been appointed as the crisis manager for the House of Commons Commission a sign that we are likely to have that debate? What progress is being made in making a nomination to the House? Is it open to the House to say that the present commissioner should be invited to carry on with her work on her present terms?

Mr. Cook: The last sentence is a statement of the facts at the present time. The commissioner remains in post and must continue with her job; indeed, we would be distressed if she did not do so. The offer remains open to her to include herself on the shortlist, on which we guaranteed her a place. I have repeatedly urged her to accept that invitation. We want to ensure that we get the best possible candidate for the House to occupy the role of parliamentary commissioner. That is why we have

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tested the market. I am pleased to say that we have received a number of excellent applications, on which we will reach a judgment in the next month or two.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will my right hon. Friend secure a statement on Iran's refusal to accept the Government's choice of ambassador to Iran, Mr. David Reddaway, on the grounds that he is Jewish, or that they believe him to be so? Does my right hon. Friend accept that that is plain anti-semitism, that it should not be accepted and that Iran should not be in a position to dictate to the Government who should be our rightful ambassador?

Mr. Cook: As I understand the situation, the friction to which my hon. Friend refers does not exist. Mr. Reddaway is an excellent diplomat. I knew and worked with him when I was at the Foreign Office and have full confidence in him. It is not unusual for there to be a short delay between one ambassador leaving and another arriving. There is no friction of the sort to which she refers.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Will the Leader of the House find time soon to debate an issue that I first raised on 5 November—namely, European Union regulations on the disposal of refrigerators? Are the Government aware that this is entirely a matter of their creation, because they failed to seek a derogation from those regulations, thus making it impossible for refrigerators to be disposed of, which is leading to fly tipping and all sorts of problems? Does he recognise that it is a problem that must be rectified, and soon?

Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I share his view that that is a serious and pressing problem. It is having a serious impact in a number of areas. The Government are fully seized of the issue and are looking for a way to deal with it as quickly as possible.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Following the question about English Partnerships, which often used to get rid of land in new towns without consulting the local community, is my right hon. Friend aware that Defence Estates is also engaging in that practice? For instance, it has given the local Royal Air Force benevolent club in my constituency notice to quit. I hope that he will urge Defence Ministers to explain to the House that Defence Estates will act in the interests of communities, not against them, when they take such decisions.

Mr. Cook: I cannot say that I am familiar with the case that my hon. Friend draws to the House's attention, but I am glad that he has been given the opportunity to ventilate what is obviously a serious issue for his constituency. I will happily draw his comments to the attention of the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): As the Government grapple extraordinarily ineffectively with the winter of discontent that has descended on public services in many parts of the country, is the right hon. Gentleman, who was on the Government Benches in 1978, suffering from a sense of deja vu? Will he reconsider the suggestion

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that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) and I made, which is that we should have regular debates—say, every month—that are attended by the Prime Minister so that we can monitor on behalf of our constituents how he is getting on with his solemn pledge to the British people at the general election that he would deliver world-class public health services?

Mr. Cook: I am refreshed to see that Conservative rhetoric has not changed in 30 years. It is helpful in this world of change to have such a reassuring statement of stasis and paralysis. Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities for the House to debate the state of the public services during this Parliament. Indeed, the Prime Minister has shown a refreshing and welcome interest in those matters. In December, he took part in discussions on health policy, and he will continue to do so. The hon. Gentleman should not run down the improvement that has been secured through the increase in the number of doctors and nurses in the health service and the first increase for more than a generation in the number of beds in our hospitals. That is why this winter has passed so far without the sort of crisis that we saw in the closing years of the Conservative Government. They did not increase the number of beds in our hospitals; they dramatically cut the number.


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