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24 Oct 2002 : Column 414—continued

Mr. Cook: I would not wish to commit myself on how we might arrange the internal business of the Grand Committee, but I accept fully the hon. Gentleman's point that the cessation of the Northern Ireland Assembly means that we will be required to make sure that adequate opportunity is provided for Northern Ireland Office Ministers to be held to account for the exercise of the functions and duties that we have imposed on them. We will, of course, keep that under review. I very much hope that we will be able to restore the peace process and ensure that the current situation is a temporary interlude and not a new permanent arrangement.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the person charged with running the 2001 census should be able to count and that, to that end, Mr. Len Cook has failed miserably to get his sums his right? To take just one example, there are more people in Manchester who are registered to vote and who are registered to pay council tax and council rents than Mr. Cook counted when he carried out the census. That has profound implications for the planning of public services beyond those that will be considered in the next debate. Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate this important matter?

Mr. Cook: I am always distressed to hear that any namesake of mine has not satisfactorily mastered his arithmetic and mathematics. My hon. Friend has made his point, but I understand that the figures to which he referred relate to an interim stage of the process. I am quite sure that, before the final version comes out, both the points that he has made and others will be fully taken on board.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the situation in Zimbabwe is catastrophic and getting worse. We heard yesterday the tragic news that Learnmore Jongwe, a sitting Member of Parliament and spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change, died in custody at the age of 28. More than 200 MDC officials, including a number of MPs, are still in custody. We heard today that, in order to appease the Mugabe regime, the EU has been bullied into moving a meeting with the Southern African Development Community from Copenhagen to Mozambique. Do the Government care about the tragic situation in Zimbabwe? If so, surely we should have a statement very soon.

Mr. Cook: Of course, the Government are fully seized of the deep gravity of the situation in Zimbabwe, about which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have, on many occasions, addressed the House. We have imposed all the sanctions that we readily can without deepening the suffering of the ordinary people of

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Zimbabwe. Indeed, only last Tuesday, I presided over a meeting of the Privy Council in which we added another 57 names to those from Zimbabwe on the banned travel list. I am not familiar with the EU meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but I do not see anything particularly sinister in a development meeting being held in a region where development is discussed.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does my right hon. Friend consider that the House should debate the growing anti-semitism coming from official Arab publications, some of which are available in this country? I refer to issues such as holocaust denial, the repetition of blood libels and the comparison of recent difficulties in Bethlehem with the crucifixion. Does he consider that this poses great dangers to civil liberties and has implications for our foreign policy?

Mr. Cook: I fully agree with my hon. Friend that we must condemn anti-semitism wherever it occurs and, wherever it occurs within British jurisdiction, we must make sure that the law is upheld and that no group has to witness statements that could inflame racial hatred or that might be an incitement to racial violence. I entirely concur that no such statement—whether it is against the Jewish or any other community—should be tolerated.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North): In view of the suspension of devolution in Northern Ireland, how do the Government see Northern Ireland legislation being dealt with in the House? Such legislation would previously have gone through the Northern Ireland Assembly, so will he undertake that proper time will be given for due and adequate scrutiny and debate of such legislation? On Question Time, will he undertake that the amount of time allowed for questions to the Northern Ireland Office will be reconsidered so that we have more time to call Ministers in that Department to account?

Mr. Cook: If domestic legislation for Northern Ireland of the kind that previously went through the

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Assembly is required, we must make sure that it is fully scrutinised in accordance with the procedures and customs of the House. However, the House cannot pretend that it can fully replicate the length and depth of scrutiny that is available through the Assembly. Therefore, the sooner we get back on track and get the Assembly back into being, the better for all.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the widely trailed suggestion that the Government are proposing to abolish the higher rate tax relief on pensions, which is over and above the annual #4 billion to #5 billion raid on pensions that has been under way for several years? We have heard much in recent days about the way in which the Government have failed young people—school students—at the start of their careers. Perhaps we need to hear more about what they are doing to pensioners at the end of their careers.

Mr. Cook: It is always good to end on the last question asked by the Opposition by trying to make an hon. Member happy, and I think I can relieve the hon. Gentleman of his anxieties. Treasury Ministers have made no decision on, and are not even considering, such a proposal. The hon. Gentleman should not believe all he reads in the Conservative newspapers.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that although the Northern Ireland Assembly is suspended, its Members are being paid #29,000 for not going to work? Does he think that the firefighters should get the money instead?

Mr. Cook: There are serious issues relating to the firefighters' dispute, which is why we have urged them to go to a review that will consider pay and conditions together. As for those who are suspended and being paid, the same rule applies to Assembly Members as to firefighters: we are anxious to get back on track and end the dispute. The Government would not wish to take any action that would inflame either situation.

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Point of Order

1.6 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have heard what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said about the refusal by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make a statement on the Johannesburg world summit in response to my oral question last Thursday. She chose instead to make the statement in a written answer to a planted question on Monday. Is it in order for the Secretary of State to turn down the earliest opportunity to give a statement to the House and to take advantage of a planted opportunity initiated by a Labour Back Bencher? What advice can you give Back Benchers who were in Johannesburg and want to hold the Government to account on what they said and did there, on how we can debate the matter in the House or Westminster Hall?

Mr. Speaker: The Minister was in order. The hon. Gentleman could apply for an Adjournment debate.

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Local Government Finance

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Woolas.]

1.7 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford) : I am pleased that it has been possible to arrange more time to discuss the complex and important subject of grant distribution to local government. I look forward to a lively debate and we will listen carefully to all that is said. I must apologise to the House that in the light of other pressing responsibilities, I will not be present for the entire debate, but the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), will be here throughout.

1.8 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): In the words of Magnus Magnusson, I have started so I will finish. In our earlier debate, I stressed that although we cannot remain with the current local government funding system and some changes are urgently needed, the full-blown changes should be delayed for a year to allow more time for reflection and consultation. I acknowledge that the consultation paper contains some good ideas. The willingness at least to change the area cost adjustment is welcome, as is the idea of minimum entitlement for funding per pupil or per head of the population. The Liberal Democrats have proposed that for a long time and we welcome the fact that the Government have embraced the idea, although they should go further.

We also welcome the greater recognition that is given to sparsity, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) argued strongly and cogently, the sparsity element should be extended to apply to all service areas, not just to district council funding for environmental, protective and cultural services, for example.

The proposals raise many concerns. The options for change in the review paper were as complex as the old system. They were backed by scant information as to how weightings and other figures had been calculated. That was hardly conducive to good consultation. The various proposals have thrown up numerous anomalies in Government thinking, some of which are quite bizarre. For example, it seems that for the first time since Sir Robert Walpole and his excise Bill of 1733, we have a Government who are advocating the redistribution of resources away from the rural poor to the City of London.

There are already huge disparities in funding between one authority and another, yet in many cases the options will widen inequalities, not close the gaps. My local authority, Bath and North East Somerset council, for example, languishes almost at the bottom of the league table of funding for education. It rightly and rather mildly comments in its response:

There are many other examples. Newham currently receives three times the funding of Kingston and more than double the funds given to Richmond or Sutton,

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yet the review options generally leave those low-funded authorities with no extra resources, but will provide Newham with an extra #24 million for education alone.

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