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Mr. Cook: I am happy to say that we are in discussions with the Lord Chancellor's Department, which has Ministers in this House. There is no division between us about the fact that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. Whether it needs to be addressed by legislation or by other means is a matter for exploration, but I am fully seized of the Alice in Wonderland results that some Members have experienced when pursuing constituency cases. The problem needs to be resolved.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I was pleased to hear that a response has been published today to the Select Committee report. However, we have been told that it is merely an interim response, so can we have a statement on how the debate on the future of the reformed second Chamber will be conducted and on when we will have some decisions from the Government?
Mr. Cook: I am sure that this issue will be ventilated repeatedly in the Chamber, and I look forward with anticipation and delight to answering my hon. Friend's oral question in 10 days' time. However, I cannot promise a statement until we have carried out our reflection and come to a considered view. In the meantime, we have
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on the issue of a debate on agriculture. We have just received the most damning report from the Countryside Agency about rural proofing across Departments, an initiative that this Government introduced. However, when I put a question about brown tourism signs to the Minister for Rural Affairs during DEFRA questions, he referred me to another Minister altogether. He suggested that I had asked the wrong person and did not seem to appreciate that DEFRA has the lead on this matter. If Ministers do not realise that, a debate on the Floor of the House may help them along the way.
Mr. Cook: I am not sure that that was quite the most convincing case that I have heard for a full day's debate in the House. I do not agree with the hon. Lady's characterisation of the Countryside Agency's report, but it certainly found areas in which further progress needs to be made. It was, of course, a report on the first year of what is a three-year strategy.
I repeat to her and to the House that I understand the real interest in the House in countryside issues. I shall certainly keep in mind the possibility of a debate on such matters should the opportunity arise. I will not disguise from the House, however, the fact that, as the Session progresses, we shall have a lot of business to get through.
John Cryer (Hornchurch): Following the question from the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), may I ask my right hon. Friend to find time for a debate on the future funding of political parties? The idea that state funding of political parties could be introduced is something that some of us oppose on principle. I pay my subs to the Labour party, and I do not want to pay them to any other party. The idea that my taxes could go towards funding that lot over there or even to those nice, cuddly Liberal Democrats is anathema and sticks in my craw. Could we have a debate or perhaps at least a statement on the issue?
Mr. Cook: I assure my hon. Friend that if he were to contemplate paying subscriptions to any other party, he would have severe difficulty receiving the Labour Whip in the House. Of course I understand his reluctance to subsidise other parties, but I put it to him that it is very important that we find a way in which political parties can be fundednot excessively, but appropriatelyand in a way that is accepted as legitimate and proper. My hon. Friend has to ask himself whether he regards the Conservative party's present way of funding as necessarily legitimate and proper and, if not, whether he is prepared to contemplate other ways in which we might go about the possibly distasteful but necessary task of funding the Conservative party.
Mr. Cook: Of course my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was right and the Government's policy is right, and the right hon. Gentleman would not expect me to demur on either of those propositions. However, it is fair to recall that the Division on that occasion was on a private Member's motion, about which other private Members decided on their own way to vote. We can possibly get a little too pi, simultaneously demanding that Governments should be open minded and permit open debates and that they should crack down, like Torquemada, on anyone who steps out of line, even on a private Member's motion. If we could restore a sense of proportion, it would help everyone.
Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the serious allegations in the media regarding Dungavel immigration detention centre? If he is, will he consider, because of the seriousness of the situation there, whether the Home Secretary should make a statement to the House about those conditions to ensure that people understand that they are not as reported in the press, as that would give some comfort to my constituents who have raised the issue with me?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises that issue from a legitimate and proper perspective. I have seen some of the reports in the Scottish press, as he will be aware, and I am interested to hear that they do not necessarily reflect the correct and full picture, as is so often the case. That matter was raised at business questions last Thursday, since when we have approached the Home Secretary to draw his attention to it. I will ensure that my hon. Friend's remarks are also drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): The Leader of the House may be aware of reports emanating from Jenin this morning that survivors are being pulled from the rubble of demolished houses, but will he arrange for an urgent statement on that issue next week and, perhaps in the meantime, consider offering the services of organisations, such as Rapid UK, which are used to going into disaster areas, such as earthquake zones, to assist in bringing out people who have been buried in certain situations?
Mr. Cook: The House had a full day's debate on the middle east only this week, and it was absolutely right and proper that we made that day of debate available to the House. We shall, of course, continue to keep the
On the substantive issue, I am sure that the House will share the hon. Gentleman's concern at the evidence that is emerging of the humanitarian crisis in Jenin. It is vital that the Israeli Government facilitate the access of humanitarian and aid organisations to help those, especially the civilians, who appear to have been involved in the suffering during the military incursion into Jenin. I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman at present on whether Britain could offer more specific aid or help, but I will draw his observations to the relevant Secretary of State's attention.
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I wonder whether my right hon. Friend can find time to debate the working of the NHS Appointments Commissionin particular, the singular, apparent reluctance of the commission to appoint people from our more health-deprived areas to sit on health bodies? When I discussed the appointments to the Warrington primary care trust with the north-west appointments commissioner recently, he was able to tell me that only the best people are appointed, but not why the best people apparently come from a very small geographical area of Warrington. Does my right hon. Friend think that there is something in the water; or is there something wrong with the commission's appointment procedures? Can we have an opportunity to debate that issue?
Mr. Cook: I can assure my hon. Friend that since we came to office, we have made sure that all appointments follow a clear standard procedure[Interruption.] Indeed, as all the evidence shows, people have been appointed on merit. That is quite different from many of the appointments made under the Conservative Government. I recall that the chairman of the Conservative Association in my constituency became the chairman of my health trust. Against that background, I cannot comment on the particular local case to which my hon. Friend referred, but I shall obviously make sure that her concern and comments are brought to the attention of the Department of Health.
Since we introduced the new system, trusts and primary care trusts have on their boards people who are much more broadly representative of their communities than was the case in the system that we inherited. That is important because the NHS belongs to the people, and local NHS trusts must belong to the people as well.