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Mr. Skinner: There's always somebody away on a junket.

Mr. Cook: I was going to express it with more dignity and respect for the Select Committee than my hon. Friend, but it is open to members of the Select Committee to be here for the debate rather than elsewhere if they choose to do so, and there will be plenty of Members who will wish to take part.

I looked at the possibility of delaying the debate but, as the House will see, the subsequent week is crowded. If I were to delay the debate, I would need to delay it for some time. That would not be welcomed by the majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends who want to proceed with this important debate.

On the question of the Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman will have seen the terms of the reshuffle and he will know that the Deputy Prime Minister has assumed a responsibility which will, I am sure, involve him in more exchanges in the House. If hon. Members wish to question him on any matter, they will have the opportunity to do so. However, I have to say that the key reason why we have seen increased mobility within Britain and the increase in the number of journeys is because of the remarkable success of the Government in running a sound economy with fast growth, for which we make no apology.

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's support for the speech that I made yesterday to the Press Gallery. I shall try to make sure that, on future occasions, he is in the audience in order that he may vocally support and applaud me in the course of what I say. I remind him that one of the passages that he might have found more difficult to applaud had he been there was that in which I expressed pride in the record of the Government, particularly in the way in which we have secured a sharp drop in poverty among children and, at the other end of the age spectrum, produced a sharp rise in the income of the poorest pensioners.

It is perfectly true that I offered the Press Gallery a deal, and the right hon. Gentleman accurately quoted part of it; it was that the Government should cut out the spin and cut down the packaging and that the media should concentrate more on reporting content and substance, rather than the Westminster village gossip. I very much hope that since the right hon. Gentleman is persuaded by one half of the deal, he might buy the package as a whole. Our people out there want to hear about how politics are affecting their lives, not about the lives of spin doctors and press officers.

On Andrew Hood, I should declare an interest—Andrew Hood worked for me for some eight years as a special adviser, in opposition and at the Foreign Office. I would not wish any Member to be mistaken about the interest that I have in his welfare, his future and the success of his career. The approval of his appointment to

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a private sector firm was indeed handled in the normal way. The Cabinet Office was consulted about the procedure—

Mr. Forth indicated dissent.

Mr. Cook: It was consulted. I am not saying that it approved the outcome, but it was consulted about, and approved, the procedure. The decision was taken not by Ministers but by officials, in full agreement with the permanent secretary. It should be stated that Mr. Hood had no dealings of a commercial character with commercial firms, and he was not closely involved with suppliers to the Ministry of Defence. Nor does his appointment at Brunswick involve his working with clients. Having said that, as somebody who wishes Mr. Hood well and who has a very high regard for him, I am not at all surprised at his securing a position of high status in the private sector. However, I am always mildly ambivalent about seeing a good man go into public relations. [Laughter.]

On the numbers involved in the new deal, what the Prime Minister said yesterday reflects entirely accurately the number of long-term young unemployed who have been unemployed for more than 12 months. Whatever definition the right hon. Gentleman chooses to apply— 6 months or 12 months, new deal or otherwise—any figures that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister produces for long-term young unemployed people will be lower than those recorded when the right hon. Gentleman's party were in office. That improvement is another thing of which I am proud.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I suggest to the Leader of the House that we could all have been in his audience if the speech that he made to the Press Gallery had been made in the House? Why did he choose to talk to the media about their role in sleaze, spin and funding of democracy? Surely such a speech should be made only here. Why has he denied on several occasions on Thursday afternoons that the Government have any new proposals on the state funding of democracy? As recently as 23 May, he told me at business questions that there was no such proposal, but he seems now to be saying that there is a new proposal. Can we have an urgent statement and a debate in the House on the funding of democracy?

I also remind the Leader of the House that, on 23 May, he promised me that he would examine the outcome of the war pensions appeal tribunal's decision in the case of Shaun Rusling. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that, according to a tribunal report, the Ministry of Defence changed the terms of the submission to avoid any responsibility for Gulf war syndrome. May I ask him to expedite a statement from the Secretary of State?

The Leader of the House will be aware that, next Tuesday and Wednesday, the US congressional sub-committee on national security, veteran affairs and international relations will hold unprecedented hearings in Parliament—in Portcullis House—on Gulf war veterans and Gulf war syndrome. I ask that we have the Secretary of State's statement on the Rusling case before those hearings take place, given that they are material to it.

In view of the squalid little conspiracy between Conservative and Labour Whips on 16 May, which defeated the right hon. Gentleman's own proposals for

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more transparent and open appointments to Select Committees, has he received appropriate assurances that appointments to the new Transport Select Committee will not be interfered with in that way, and that the appointment of the Chairman will not be subject to such interference?

Mr. Cook: The simple and straightforward answer to the question of why I spoke to members of the Press Gallery is that they invited me to do so. Indeed, I should tell the House that there may well be future occasions when I accept invitations to speak outside this House. I stand entirely by what I said to the hon. Gentleman in our previous exchanges: there are no Government proposals for state funding of political parties, nor did I pretend yesterday that there were. However, as I have said, there is a debate as to whether there should be such funding.

As I observed to the Press Gallery yesterday, its members have put beyond all doubt the fact that business donations are open to innocent misconstruction, and that has certainly been the role of the press in this matter in the past six months. Donations by, and funding from, the electorate as a whole are not open to such misconstruction. It is my personal view—I do not claim to speak for the Government collectively—that the credibility of Parliament is being undermined by the current argument over funding of political parties. We cannot have parliamentary democracy without political parties, and we cannot have political parties unless they are funded. I believe that the best, most secure and most transparent way to fund political parties that is least open to misconstruction is from the public purse. I have no doubt that, in future, we will return to the issue on several occasions in the Chamber.

As I recall, when the hon. Gentleman asked me about the tribunal ruling and Gulf war syndrome before the recess, I said that the Ministry of Defence will want to consider carefully the judgment and respond in due course. I shall certainly draw Ministers' attention to the hon. Gentleman's view that due course has now arrived and that it is time that the MOD expressed its view on the tribunal ruling and gave its response.

Little new can be said about the vote in May. I am pleased that a majority of Labour MPs voted for reform, and I regret that I did not have a majority of the Labour Whips voting with me for reform. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Deputy Chief Whip was a paragon of virtue on that occasion. As for any future appointment to a Select Committee that will arise from the orders that I shall put before the House, I remind the House that the Labour party has already changed its procedures and the decisions will be made by the party, not by just the Whips.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): Within the context of five years of outstanding management of the economy, when will the Government tackle the problem of the two-speed economy, which discriminates against areas such as the north-east that are strong in manufacturing, to the extent that despite continuous growth we have fallen further behind the nation as a whole? May we have a debate on that issue?

Mr. Cook: I would stress to my right hon. Friend that the Government have placed strong emphasis on regional policy. That is why we have introduced the regional

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development agencies and recently published a White Paper on the potential for regional government for those regions that wish it. On economic policy, it is a remarkable and substantial achievement of this Government that unemployment in every region of the UK is now lower than the EU average. I share my right hon. Friend's concern about manufacturing and he will be aware that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made a specific statement on her strategy for manufacturing. The issue is at the front of her concerns and we will continue to do all that we can to ensure that manufacturing shares in the remarkable growth and success of the British economy.

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