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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): The right hon. Gentleman appeared before the Procedure Committee yesterday as part of its inquiry into parliamentary questions and gave valuable and excellent evidence. I suspect that it could well be as a result of that evidence that some publicity has appeared in The Sun newspaper today. Indeed, the comment was made that Prime Minister's questions created theatre, but the overall impression was very negative. The Leader of the House will appreciate that his memorandum on modernisation has an impact on Committees, Select and Standing, that are part of this House. Would he therefore be prepared to meet the Liaison Committee to discuss its concerns about the impact of his proposals on changing sitting times of the House? He can then be fully apprised of the concerns that are currently felt.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that I was speaking to a Committee of the House and not to The Sun newspaper yesterday. On the modernisation paper, I would be very happy to meet the Liaison Committee if I am invited to do so to discuss

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this or any other matter. Indeed, I can see merit in our having such a discussion before we debate the forthcoming proposals on Select Committees.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the restructuring plans that the ferry companies announced this week, which could undermine the Government's integrated transport policy? Will he consider finding time for a debate on P&O's announcements, which could threaten seafarers' jobs, slow down the movement of freight off the roads and on to rail, and cause all sorts of traffic congestion in Dover?

Mr. Cook: I totally understand the importance of that issue to my hon. Friend's constituency and constituents. I would not wish to comment on the proposals of a commercial organisation that is making its own judgment, but I am happy to take this opportunity to restate the Government's political priority, which is to ensure that we provide maximum opportunity for freight to travel by rail rather than road. Of course, we want to work with the private sector to secure that objective.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): On that very point, will the Leader of the House now invite the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to come to the House to debate the lack of freight movement through the channel tunnel, as the 72 trains a week that he promised would be passing through the tunnel by 15 April are not yet doing so? Does the right hon. Gentleman share my concern that, as of yesterday, illegal immigrants are jumping off moving trains, which puts their own lives at risk and makes it impossible for the police to apprehend them in this country? Will he take the opportunity to debate that issue with regard to reinstating the bilateral agreement with France and getting a commitment from the French Government to improve security in France, as well as a commitment from the British Government that they will take the French Government to court for breach of free movement provisions under the treaty of Rome?

Mr. Cook: In the event of a legal move of the sort to which the hon. Lady refers, it would in the first instance be a matter for the Commission rather than necessarily for ourselves, although we remain in discussion with it on the issue. In terms of clandestine entry into Britain, we have made good progress in reducing the number of people who arrive clandestinely and, indeed, of those who arrive without proper paperwork. Those matters are in our control, but provision for freight movement on the other side of the channel is not. We have considerable and continuing dialogue on the matter with the French authorities. We have a joint commission that will meet again shortly and we continue to put every possible pressure on the French authorities to ensure that security is improved to enable freight movements to achieve the capacity of the tunnel. After all, that is in the interests of the French economy and the British economy. Those matters are not, however, within our direct responsibility.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): In common with many Members of Parliament from London and the south-east, I represent a borough that has a severe housing shortage.

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The obvious consequence is the fuelling of house price inflation, coupled with the fact that many council properties—especially houses—have been sold off as a result of the right-to-buy scheme. Like many hon. Members, I see the consequences in my advice surgery week after week. I have also been extensively lobbied by public sector workers, as have many MPs from Greater London. Can we have a debate or at least a statement on housing policy?

Mr. Cook: I understand the problems to which my hon. Friend refers. In particular, we all fully understand their importance to the provision of decent public services throughout the south-east, which requires housing whose cost is within the income of people working in the public service. I assure him that the matter is very actively under consideration in the Government. I am sure that my colleagues will report to Parliament whenever it is appropriate to do so.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the Leader of the House have a word with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about an error that the Prime Minister appeared to make at Prime Minister's questions yesterday, when he told the House that police numbers were now at record levels? He neglected to say anything about special constables, who are also police officers, and who are leaving in alarming numbers. In the Essex force, for instance, there were more than 1,000 specials when this Government came to power; sadly, there are now only about 400. They play a vital role in reinforcing the regular police, particularly at weekends, and we cannot afford to do without them. Would not one way to improve Prime Minister's questions be to ensure that the Prime Minister gets his figures right?

Mr. Cook: Let me say to the House that the Prime Minister got his figures absolutely right when he said yesterday that the police establishment was at record numbers. That is true, and the number of those in training is also at a record level. Had the Conservatives paid the same attention to increasing the police establishment when they were in office, instead of presiding over a decline in the number of police officers, we might not have the problems that we now have on our streets.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sunderland association football club gives a great deal of assistance to charity? It is not just that it keeps giving points away to other teams; its manager, Peter Reid, is involved with a charity event run by Emmanuel college, Gateshead, which raises money to send mercy ships to Africa. The team's striker, Niall Quinn, is involved in a testimonial game on 14 May, the proceeds of which will go to charities in the north-east of England and in Dublin. Might it not be a good idea for us to have an easy load that day, to allow those of us with tickets to go to the game and to encourage people to buy non-attendance tickets, which are available for this charitable purpose?

Mr. Cook: I shall, of course, take careful note of my hon. Friend's request when I plan the business for 14 May, although I shall have other factors to consider when I make those decisions. In the meantime, I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Sunderland

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club and its members on the work that they do for charity. I recognise that many local football clubs provide an important focus for community identity and community pride.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Will the Leader of the House assure us that, after the local elections next week, there will be a thorough assessment of the security and confidentiality of the experimental postal voting system that is to be used in the London borough of Havering and elsewhere? Will he arrange for a debate on the Floor of the House to allow my colleagues and me to raise the real concerns of our constituents on this matter? Those concerns are deterring them from voting, which is the opposite of the intention of that experiment.

Mr. Cook: I would certainly welcome a longer opportunity for the hon. Lady to explain why her constituents are being deterred from voting by the wider use of postal voting, which is the basis of the pilot scheme in her borough. I can assure her that the Government will be looking very closely at the results of those experiments. The pilots and experiments have been set up precisely so that we can consider the lessons to be learned from them and evaluate what happens on those occasions. As Chairman of the Cabinet Committee on e-democracy, I hope to spend polling day in the London borough of Newham, studying the borough's use of the internet to see whether it has facilitated voting and contributed to more people voting than might otherwise have been the case. I very much welcome the innovative way in which it is taking the facility, in advance of polling day, to old folk's homes and hospitals, to enable people there to vote using the internet in a way that they would not have been able to do on polling day.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): May I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 1171?

[That this House congratulates the staff of further education and sixth form colleges on their outstanding service to over four million students; welcomes the increased capital and revenue funding now available to the sector; notes, however, that colleges' core funding remains at 90 per cent. of 1995–96 levels and that the funding gap between schools and sixth form colleges for the same three A-level package remains at £1,000 per pupil; further notes the current recruitment crisis caused by low pay throughout the sector; welcomes the campaign led by the Association of Colleges, NATFHE and NUS, and supported by all the sector's recognised trade unions including UNISON, TGWU, GMB, ATL and ACM, for increased financial support for further education students, an improvement in the core funding allocated to colleges and a recognition of the recruitment crisis caused by growing salary differentials between schools and colleges; and calls on the Government to provide a fair allocation to the further education sector in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.]

It deals with the funding of the further education sector—an issue that attracted considerable attention at education questions earlier this morning—and focuses on the differentials between funding for colleges and sixth forms in schools. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is unique in the public services to have such a large differential in salaries and per capita funding between two

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areas doing essentially the same job? Will he find time for an early debate on the subject? [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]

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