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Mr. Cook: First, on the business relating to the national insurance contributions, the right hon. Gentleman asks who will carry the can. I will carry the can if anything is wrong because that is my role as Leader of the House. I am happy to assent to that proposition, but I do not see that there is any can to be carried. It is certainly not for the inconvenience of the House that we will debate national insurance contributions on that date, which I announced a week ago. A Bill will certainly be introduced. In the event that the House carries the resolution, the Bill will be published the next day. The House authorities have informed us that it is necessary to have a founding Ways and Means resolution. It was not possible for us to consult the House authorities in advance of the Budget.

Mr. Forth: Oh!

Mr. Cook: I think that hon. Members would be miffed if we discussed with the House authorities the contents of the Budget before we shared them with the House.

I agree about the importance of the measure. It is enormously important to the national health service because it will enable us to continue our programme of record investment in the health service so that it becomes a world-class service.

As for the European Convention, there are two separate issues of accountability. The first is the accountability of the Minister for Europe, who sits on the convention as a member of the Government. He is, of course, regularly held to account by the House. Indeed, he answered Foreign Office questions only recently.

The second and separate matter of accountability relates to the two people who are there not as representatives of the Government, but as representatives of Parliament.

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That is a novel situation. I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's sentiment that they should report to the House and be held to account by hon. Members. I am exploring with one of those Members how we can best go about that and what mechanisms we could provide. The convention is important, and I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's view that there should be novel mechanisms for those two representatives of the House to report on what they do in our name.

I am not aware of having spoken to The Sun. I detect from the extract that the right hon. Gentleman quoted faint echoes of what I said to the Procedure Committee yesterday. I am happy to say that that is on the record and he can check the full report. My impression from memory, without having the opportunity to check the record, is that The Sun has conflated two separate paragraphs. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stands in no need of protection. Indeed, were I to offer friendly advice to the right hon. Gentleman, it would be that it is on the Conservative side of the Dispatch Box that protection is required.

I have frequently said both in and outside the House that we do not help ourselves when we appear to be interested in scoring party political points rather than in pursuing the public interest. Although it is the case that the public admire the theatre and high drama of party confrontations, it is important to convey that we are carrying out serious business. I have always taken the view that it is much better for Members who ask a question to be open and honest about the subject on which it is based.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of street crime. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to put it on the record that the chance of being a victim of crime in Britain is at its lowest for 20 years. That reflects the fact that when he and his colleagues were in office, crime doubled in Britain. The commitment that the Prime Minister referred to yesterday was first given in February this year, although the right hon. Gentleman appears not to have noticed it at the time.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): He was too busy reading The Sun.

Mr. Cook: Indeed. Too much time spent reading The Sun may distract one from noticing what is being said by the Government.

The commitment given in February was that we will stabilise street crime in London within a six-month period, by September, and will thereafter proceed to reverse the increase. [Interruption.] That is precisely what was said in the February commitment. If we are to be successful in getting on top of crime, stabilising it, reversing street crime and achieving the same cuts in street crime that we have achieved in other offences, we need to ensure both that we continue the record increase in police numbers which the Government have achieved, and that we support police numbers with the community safety officers that we have introduced.

It is bogus of the Opposition to express concern about street crime when only the other day in the House of Lords their Conservative colleagues defeated the proposed detention powers for community safety officers, who have been given a real role to play.

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The right hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He cannot pretend to affront on behalf of victim and at the same time stop the measures that are necessary to catch those carrying out street crime and street violence.

I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that if any tax is introduced on the back of planning gain, that would require legislation, and the matter would have to come before the House.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): As a new Member who has not yet been conditioned by too many years of planet Westminster, it is patently clear to me and most members of the public that the present system of Prime Minister's questions does nothing to improve Government accountability or allow scrutiny of what a Prime Minister is doing.

May I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—if he needs any urging—to ignore the advice of the shadow Leader of the House on Prime Minister's questions, and to talk to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about ways of improving how Prime Minister's Question Time operates? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to consider ways of improving Prime Minister's Question Time to achieve genuine accountability and scrutiny of what the Government are doing?

Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has not raised any proposal with me or, as far as I am aware, with anybody else for any change to the procedure at Prime Minister's Question Time. It is for the House to consider how we proceed.

I am impressed by the seriousness and thoroughness with which the Procedure Committee is addressing the matter. The Committee has adequate representatives from the official Opposition and from the other party that is represented in the Chamber this afternoon. I hope that they will consider seriously ways in which we can improve the way that Prime Minister's Question Time contributes to our task of scrutiny.

For me, as I set out in my memorandum on modernisation, a key task must be to reduce the ridiculously long period of notice for oral questions.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am full of admiration for the adroit way in which the Leader of the House juggles business. However, will he look again at the provisional business for Tuesday 7 May, because it would seem that Second Reading of the Police Reform Bill will clash with consideration in Committee of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill? The right hon. Gentleman will recognise that these are both extremely important Bills that require most careful and diligent scrutiny by Members on both sides of the House. It seems that probably the same Ministers will be involved.

Will the Leader of the House give urgent attention to the possibility of a debate as soon as possible after the local council elections on the encouragement of participation in the political process to reduce current apathy and disconnection—a phrase that he uses?

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May I ask him especially to read an article in the Financial Times of 24 April? It is headlined "An electronic electorate". The article states:

This well-researched article concludes:

I think that that phrase will be familiar to the right hon. Gentleman.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that no gimmicks—not even new technology—will give equal weight and value to equal votes, and that we need to look again at a voting system that gives fair representation to all views? Does he note that Le Pen has had his success in France without a proportional system but with a first-past-the-post system, albeit with two stages? Has he seen early-day motion 1184, and the amendment?

[That this House expresses its concern at the National Front candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen securing a place in the final stages of the French presidential election; rejects the racism, intolerance and isolationism for which he stands; believes that apathy and declining turnout rather than a significant increase in the National Front vote share enabled Monsieur Le Pen to win second place; and calls on all democrats across Europe to stand together and resist these extreme influences on the political process, by offering imaginative policies based on the values of solidarity, compassion and enterprise which inspire and engage the public, and consign Monsieur Le Pen and his ilk to the margins of European politics.]

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that what has happened in France is precisely the result of an inadequate voting system, which the Opposition want to impose upon both Houses of this Parliament?

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