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David Cairns (Greenock and Inverclyde): May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the plight of asbestos sufferers who are still awaiting compensation, including some of my constituents? Despite the great efforts of the Secretary of State for Scotland, among others, it appears that every time that we take one step forward in this matter we take two backwards. Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an urgent statement or debate that would allow all hon. Members the opportunity to get to the bottom, once and for all, of why it is taking so long for much needed and deserved compensation to get into the hands of those who are afflicted by that terrible disease?

Mr. Cook: I am glad that my hon. Friend has had an opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House an issue that is important to him and which he has had diligently pursued for some time. I welcome the fact that that issue has been ventilated in debates in Westminster Hall, which underlines the importance of that Chamber in enabling hon. Members to raise issues of concern to them and their constituents. I will draw my hon. Friend's observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and ensure that my hon. Friend receives a further letter.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am sure that the Leader of the House understands and knows of my deep interest in Zimbabwe, and that he is aware of the affection and respect in which I hold its people. Although I respect the robust position adopted by our Foreign Secretary at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held yesterday, will the Leader of the House please understand that unless a substantial number of observers and monitors are sent to Zimbabwe now, there is not the slightest chance of a free, transparent and fair election? Inevitably, Zimbabwe would thus be breaching the fundamental principles of membership of the Commonwealth. Will the right hon. Gentleman please arrange for a statement to be made to the House as to the precise attitude and position of the Government, and hopefully of the Commonwealth, in respect of Zimbabwe, so that the opposition parties fighting the election can believe that they have some support overseas?

Mr. Cook: I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about his longstanding interest in this matter. Indeed, I remember him asking questions during my previous incarnation at this Dispatch Box. It is tragic that, in Zimbabwe, President Mugabe portrays Britain as the enemy when in fact there are so many people both in the House and throughout Britain who regard themselves as friends of Zimbabwe and want to see the country prosper.

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The hon. Gentleman asks about our position in respect of electoral observers. Let me again make it clear: we robustly and vigorously insist on the right of the international community to observe those elections and on the right of the ordinary public in Zimbabwe to have that international presence in order to curb some of the intimidation and thuggery to which they are subject, and we shall continue to do all that we can to try to deliver that.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East): I have a registered interest in my question, as patron of the Society of Registration Officers. Last week, through the Economic Secretary, the Government published a White Paper entitled "Civil Registration: Vital Change". It certainly will be vital change. I have heard that the changes may be made by delegated legislation. If that is so, there should be a debate on what will be one of the biggest reforms of the registration service in probably a century. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for such a debate in this place?

Mr. Cook: I cannot commit myself on whether the matter will be dealt with by delegated or primary legislation—I am not sighted on that point, although I see no immediate prospect of primary legislation on that important step forward. If it should proceed by delegated legislation, there is provision for the House to debate delegated legislation of importance and substance. My hon. Friend rightly identifies this matter as one of substance and I shall consider his point carefully.

Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): The Leader of the House will have seen the report of the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluding that taxes will have to rise by £7 billion if the Government are to meet their spending commitments, and that the Chancellor is in danger of breaching his so-called golden rule—that he will borrow only in order to invest. As we have not held a debate on the economy since the election and as the Budget is still 11 whole weeks away, does the Leader of the House understand why we feel that the House needs a full opportunity to debate the economy? In the light of the IFS report, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we need an emergency mini-Budget in the time-honoured tradition of Labour Governments?

Mr. Cook: As Leader of the House, I counsel the House not to press for a mini-Budget as well as the real Budget on 17 April—I am not sure that would be an efficient use of the House's time. As for the Institute for Fiscal Studies, in my recollection, it has been predicting that taxes would rise for the past four years and has always been wrong.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on the Geneva convention? There has been much comment and debate in the House during the past few weeks on the subject of the al-Qaeda prisoners in Cuba. There has been much confusion over who is actually a prisoner and who should be subject to criminal trial. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that could put British armed forces personnel in danger, and that a debate would help to inform our future discussions about the prisoners in Cuba?

Mr. Cook: I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend makes about the legal complexities. However, as I have

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told the House previously, the nub of the matter is not whether the Geneva convention applies: it is that the prisoners should be treated according to the humanitarian standards that we all recognise and uphold whether or not the convention applies. I am therefore pleased that the Red Cross has now secured a permanent presence at Guantanamo bay and has been able to confirm that the conditions observed there are consistent with the convention.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): I urge the Leader of the House to listen to his own Back Benchers a little more carefully than I fear he has done hitherto today, and to allow an early opportunity for a debate in the House on the future of postal services. In particular, I refer to the proposals announced this morning by Postcomm to deregulate postal services, the first tranche of which deregulation will take place in the next eight weeks. The Leader of the House may be aware that my constituency includes some of the few communities not covered by the universal service obligation. Frankly, we view with alarm the prospect of a deregulated service, which will not be able to serve the more remote island communities that I represent.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that, if there is to be a decision to deregulate postal services and to end the universal service obligation, it will be made here in the Chamber? We must not be bounced into such a decision by a body such as Postcomm proposing, as it did this morning, a meaningless decision to take the first step within eight weeks.

Mr. Cook: I fully understand the importance of the universal service obligation to the hon. Gentleman's constituency and many others in Scotland—and, indeed, to quite a number of people in the more landward areas in my own constituency. That is why the Government have always made it plain that there is no question of removing the universal service obligation from the Post Office. Postcomm does not make Government policy; nor do we write its documents. Any attempt to undermine the universal service obligation would have to come back to the House and, on the basis of what I have heard this morning—which does not surprise me—I do not anticipate that the House would countenance such a proposal.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not rather strange that the regulator's report should come out just two days after our debate on the Post Office? I was among the Labour MPs who strenuously opposed and voted against the Tories' proposals to privatise the Post Office, and I have not changed my mind in the slightest. I hope that Ministers will seriously reconsider a scheme that would be totally unacceptable to many of us on these Benches.

Mr. Cook: Of course I remember my hon. Friend's opposition to the privatisation of the Post Office, particularly as—if I recall correctly—I occupied the Opposition Dispatch Box in those debates. There has been no proposal from the Government on the privatisation of the Post Office. It is only a year or two since we gave the Post Office the commercial freedom that it wanted, so that

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it could operate in the public sector—with commercial freedom of the kind that it would enjoy in the private sector—and meet the competition. I have listened with interest and care to the points that hon. Members have raised, and I shall certainly draw to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry the deep concern felt in the House.

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