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17 Oct 2002 : Column 464—continued

Mr. Cook: Let me first say what a relief it is to see the architect of the AS-level still in his place. I will not disguise that from him, given the prominent part he played yesterday in the trouncing of his leader—

Mr. Forth: I did not say a word.

Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman did not need to say a word. He played a prominent part nevertheless. There was concern on these Benches about his welfare

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overnight; we are delighted that he did not wake up to find that his appointment was Xnot worth the paper on which it was written."

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Northern Ireland. I congratulate my two colleagues who have been appointed to the Northern Ireland team: I am sure they will pursue their task with great diligence. We will of course look at ways of ensuring that the House can be kept fully aware of decisions they make, and that they are held accountable.

The right hon. Gentleman raised two questions about the questions rota, suggesting that more time should be allowed for questions on Northern Ireland and to the Deputy Prime Minister. I have to say that the time is finite. I am happy to look at ways of providing more time, but I need to hear proposals for less time to be allowed to someone else. Allowing more time for some matters means allowing less for others, and I assume that the right hon. Gentleman would not like time to be taken from the time allowed for the Leader of the House to answer questions. We are happy to consider the suggestion, but these are difficult issues and I have to strike a balance between the different Departments whose representatives must give answers to the House.

I am pleased that we have found additional time for the debate on the formula for local government. The House will recall that it was raised with me during business questions in July, and that I took the initiative by saying that there must be a debate. I regret the fact that Tuesday's debate shrank, although I do not regret the fact that we heard three very important statements which I think we all agree that we had to hear. We have acted to provide for a further debate on the Floor of the House. We will ensure that the time is protected, and that at least three full hours will be allowed.

Mr. Forth: Three hours?

Mr. Cook: Three hours on top of the hour that has already been provided amounts to a substantial wodge of time.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we drop the asbestos debate. I would not want him to get into any more trouble than he is in already with his leader, and I should perhaps draw his attention to the fact that the Leader of the Opposition wrote to us requesting a debate on asbestos on the Floor of the House. He may wish to consult with the Leader of the Opposition about the withdrawal of that letter, but I personally advise him to keep quiet about the matter.

It is, of course, never too late for further discussions about modernisation. I immensely enjoy the discussions I currently have during every hour of my working day about the modernisation proposals; but there comes a time when it is necessary to reach a decision. This matter has been before the House for nearly a year, and I think it is time for a decision. I very much hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to assure us that when we decide on, in particular, sitting hours, there will be a free vote for the Opposition as well as for us.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I suggest that a debate on the funding of democracy would offer the

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right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) another chance to give us the opportunity of hearing his forthright views? There seems to be a curious amount of amnesia on the Conservative Benches in relation to state funding. It appears to have escaped Conservative Members' notice that the Conservative party has received #20 million from the taxpayer since its defeat in 1997.

If we are to preserve and enhance the reputation of politics, Parliament and Government, is it not extremely important for us to face up to the issue of state funding of democracy? Has the Leader of the House had a chance to see the IPPR report, which I understand the chairman of the Labour party, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has already endorsed? Is it not urgent that we look at this? We surely cannot wait for the Electoral Commission to complete its work on this, which I understand may take 12 to 18 months. Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is a widespread perception that politics is being grossly influenced by the way in which large donors of various sorts seek to gain influence and access? In particular, will he look at the report in today's Financial Times, the headline of which is

as a clear example of a way in which this can cause great concern and suspicion among the electorate? Can he be sure that no donor will try to ensure the departure of the Conservative spokesman because his performance is always so enjoyable in the House?

Mr. Cook: On the funding of political parties, I understand the anxieties to make progress, but it would be valuable for us to have the report of the Electoral Commission. After all, the House appointed the Electoral Commission to advise us on such matters. It will have important weight and authority in its contribution to the debate. I saw the report from IPPR and will study it with care. I also heard the director of IPPR being interviewed on the radio, in which he made the telling observation that the first Prime Minister ever elected with help from state funding was Lady Thatcher who benefited from Short money while in opposition, as indeed the Conservative party rightly and properly does today. That money is there to make sure our parliamentary system works better. Since that party already receives state funding I wish that it would adopt a rather more open approach to the debate on other parties.

I saw the article in the Financial Times. I am in no position to verify it since, sadly, I was not invited to attend the meeting between the Tory donor and the leader of the Tory party. I hope I carry with me all members of the shadow Cabinet when I say that if any Tory donor should suggest to the leader that he sack any of them, the appropriate course is to show him the door.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Does The Leader of the House share my view that undemocratic quangos are capable of undermining Government policy? For example, although North Derbyshire tertiary college was due to be closed or have its name changed, the jobs were to remain according to a tin-pot undemocratic quango called the Derbyshire learning and skills council. That promise has not been kept. As a result

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negotiations are already under way about sending people down the road on to the dole queue. It is high time that the Minister responsible for further education dealt with this matter to make sure that promises made by that tin-pot quango are kept.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes his comments in his characteristic trenchant way and they will be heard vigorously in Derbyshire as they have been heard here. I am not in a position to respond in detail to the particular points that he raised, but I shall make sure that the Minister at the Department for Education and Skills has them drawn to his attention.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): May I ask the Leader of the House—as someone who is trenchant in his defence of the rights of Members of Parliament vis-a-vis the Executive, and someone with a modernising agenda—to encourage Ministers to respond far more promptly to letters of inquiry from Members of the House of Commons? In early July I wrote to Health Ministers about a most important public health matter in Sutton Coldfield and this morning, more than three months later, I had a response. I hope that the Leader of the House will bear in mind that a three-month delay is far too long and that civil servants and Ministers must ratchet up their agenda the importance of responding promptly to Members of Parliament when they raise important issues with them.

Mr. Cook: Of course, as Leader of the House I can only concur with the general sentiment that Members should have a reply to a parliamentary question or letter as quickly as possible. However, I invite the House to bear in mind the real pressures, particularly on the Department of Health. Questions to the Department of Health, and indeed many other Departments, have increased by about 50 per cent. in recent times. I know that the Department of Health is increasing staff resources to deal with the problem. We shall certainly endeavour to make sure we give as early advice as we can, but as mature members of the political community we must recognise the real pressures involved.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): If the matter is not fully cleared up this afternoon by the Defence Secretary, could there be a statement next week on the Congressional Budget Office report, which purports to say that Britain has committed 10,000 troops and #5 billion to a war against Iraq? Specifically, the CBO assumes that

The CBO's estimates of the costs

There ought at least to be comment on that, most properly from the Foreign Office or the Prime Minister.

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