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24 Oct 2002 : Column 407—continued

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On behalf of my colleagues, may I endorse the representations made both about the foot and mouth investigations—there is not just one investigation but a whole series, including one by the European Parliament—and about proper scrutiny of the considerable number of outstanding matters on the Animal Health Bill?

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Had the Leader of the House been with us during the whole of the previous hour, he would have been aware that there is considerable concern about the implications for education policy of the resignation of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. Members on both sides of the House are concerned that important issues may be at stake, not least the frustration that the right hon. Lady appeared to express in interviews last night at intervention from both No. 10 and No. 11 in education policy. Given that the new Secretary of State was not able to contribute, for understandable reasons, this afternoon, will the Leader of the House give us an assurance that there will be an early opportunity for a full debate on education policy, if not before the Queen's Speech at least on one of the full days of debate on the Speech?

Both you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House have expressed concern in the past about the arrangements for making statements to the House and for choosing which subjects deserve statements. May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to a remarkable occurrence earlier this week, when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was apparently prevented from making a proper statement on the outcome of the Johannesburg summit and instead produced an extraordinarily long answer to a planted written question? I refer to column 898W in Monday's Hansard, where the answer runs to three and a half columns. Is that not an abuse of the written answers system, because the House was unable to cross-examine the Secretary of State on what was clearly a statement? It was not really an answer to a written question.

May I also draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that a similar question about Johannesburg, put earlier by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), was not answered by the Secretary of State? There was only a brief answer from the Minister of State. Is that not another abuse of the system? Will the Leader of the House look carefully at those arrangements, and may I have his assurance that the proposals from the Modernisation Committee will address that problem?

Mr. Cook: First, I shall take the hon. Gentleman's question about the resignation of the former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris).

My right hon. Friend is a decent, straight Member of the House and was a decent, straight and committed Minister. She was committed to the improvement of an education system in which she had a lot of professional experience. Many parents and teachers will regret the fact that such a sincere Education Minister was hounded out of office. I think that Members on the Opposition Benches will go quiet about their part in hounding her from office.

There was no reference whatever to No. 10 in my right hon. Friend's resignation letter. On the contrary, in the final paragraph she paid tribute to the support that she had received from the Prime Minister throughout. The hon. Gentleman asked for a debate. I have full confidence that my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) will want to address the House on his stewardship of education at an early date. Indeed, given my confidence in my right hon. Friend,

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I am sure that I would be unable to keep him from coming to the Dispatch Box to do so even were I so minded. However, I am keen that the House should hear from him fully as soon as possible.

We discussed Johannesburg last Thursday. That issue takes us back to the long absence of the House during the prolonged summer and autumn recess. Had we met in September, as we shall be proposing when the House meets on Tuesday, there would definitely have been an oral statement on Johannesburg. In the event, we met a long time after Johannesburg. There were three very full and urgent statements on our first day back—indeed, there were complaints about the consequences of that for other business on that day. It was simply not feasible to contemplate yet another oral statement on a major matter.

I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point about the rather odd device answering the planted question. As he is aware, part of the package that we shall be putting to the House next Tuesday is that we do away with the curious requirement that somebody has to ask a question before a statement can be made. After Tuesday, I hope that we will print such written answers in a separate section of Hansard, clearly labelled XWritten Statements from Ministers"—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may vote against that if they want to do so, but it would be in the interests of everybody else that we should clearly identify what is a written statement; that we should be open and transparent about it; and that we should not pretend that it was an answer to a question asked by a Member.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Will the Leader of the House confirm that one of Parliament's key roles is to defend the rule of law and ensure that legality is adhered to by the House and the Executive? In that context, will he look again at the Attorney-General's habit—it is not even a convention—of giving advice to Her Majesty's Government and not allowing that advice to be published? I am obviously referring to the advice given on the legality or otherwise of declaring war on Iraq or any other country. Will my right hon. Friend discuss that matter with the Attorney-General and, in this instance, allow that advice to be put on the public record, so that the House can debate the matter in the full knowledge of the legal advice available to the Government?

Mr. Cook: No, I will not. It is very important that the Government's Law Officers should be free to give frank, open advice without weighing every sentence against the consequences of that advice entering the public domain. It is very important that the Government should be able to function with frank, open advice from our Law Officers, and I would not wish to do anything to inhibit that. However, I find it inconceivable that a democratic British Government would go to war in any circumstances if their Law Officers advised them that they would be acting illegally.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Further to the right hon. Gentleman's wish to bring more certainty to the parliamentary calendar, will he tell us

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when the Chancellor will make his pre-Budget statement? Will he also tell us what statements Ministers are planning now for next week?

Mr. Cook: On the question of the pre-Budget report, no date has been finalised, but I would broadly expect this year's statement to be made at a similar time of year to last year's statement. At present, I do not have a final list of statements for next week, but I do not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman that it would be helpful to the House if statements, where planned, could be announced in advance. Of course, there will always be statements that necessarily respond to events and, therefore, are not planned.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): The Government have announced their intention to publish an energy White Paper early in the new year, but they did so before the recent crisis at British Energy, which has enormous implications for future energy policy. Notwithstanding the fact that the Liberal Democrats chose British energy as the topic for their Opposition day debate earlier this week, does my right hon. Friend accept that, as we are considering energy policy over the next 50 years, it is essential that there is the widest possible discussion in the House about all aspects of energy policy before the publication of the White Paper?

Mr. Cook: I fully understand that there is great interest in the House in energy matters. The issue has been raised several times at business questions during the past year. Indeed, we arranged for a debate on energy precisely because it might inform the preparation of the White Paper. I would be reluctant, therefore, to agree to a further debate before the White Paper is published, but intense discussions on the White Paper continue apace, and I am sure that the House will wish to consider it fully and that my hon. Friend will wish to support it entirely.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Will the Leader of the House provide time next week for a statement by the Fisheries Minister? As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the advisory committee to the European Commission is proposing the closure of the North sea, west of Scotland and the Irish sea to the total white fishery. Such a move would cost thousands of jobs in Scotland and dismantle the fabric of entire communities. As the Fisheries Minister knows a great deal about the subject, I am confident that he would think that such an approach—closing an entire fishery in pursuit of saving a single species, however important—was lunacy. Will the Leader of the House give him the opportunity to spell out the Government's policy next week?

Mr. Cook: I fully understand the importance of that issue to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and to many other fishing communities around the country. I am sure that he will accept that we respect the scientific community's advice about the very dangerous level of stocks, particularly cod, in those areas. Nothing is more important to the long-term health of the fishing industry than that we conserve the fishing stocks so that they are there in the long term. The present position is that we are waiting for a Commission decision in response to that

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scientific advice, and I am sure that my colleague, in whom I have much confidence—even more confidence than the hon. Gentleman—will wish to keep the House fully informed of our response.

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