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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1005—continued

Mr. Cook: As the hon. Lady knows, we are about to reconvene for the Queen's Speech and hear a full list of

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the primary legislation that may be introduced. I can assure the House that we are in for a very full and busy Session. On the specific point that she raises, I would be happy to draw her comments to the attention of the colleague to whom she referred and ensure that it is discussed directly with her.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Is the Leader of the House aware that I am deeply disturbed—[Laughter.] Is he aware that I am deeply concerned about the reports to which he referred, in today's Daily Mail and in The Daily Telegraph, about a right hon. Member who looks like a Victorian undertaker? In view of that concern, will he consider arranging a debate, preferably next week, which he and his shadow would lead, on the importance to parliamentary democracy of effective opposition?

Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend is being mischievous, albeit very entertainingly so. Of course, it is for the Opposition to decide on proceedings in the days for debate on the Queen's Speech—we will have six days' full debate—and it would be immensely welcome if they were to have the courage to initiate a debate along the lines that he suggests.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): Is it by design that the Government have announced that on 17 February next year, when congestion charging is introduced in London, Members of Parliament will not be here to experience the suffering?

Will the Leader of the House deal with the serious anxieties of those who have fleet vehicles and are subject to the fourth EU insurance directive? Regulations under that directive have to come into effect on 20 January next year, which has enormous implications. I understand that they have not yet been drafted. When will they be laid before the House? Will there be an opportunity for proper debate and consultation with the people affected before 20 January?

Mr. Cook: I assure hon. Members that congestion charges were not uppermost in our minds when we chose the dates for the recess. Hon. Members will, of course, return afterwards when they are in place. I shall take up the other matter that the hon. Gentleman raised with the relevant Department and ensure that we try to get the text deposited with the House as soon as possible. We have always tried to make sure that we have the text of European documents and legislation as early as possible. Sometimes the reason for the delay does not lie on this side of the channel, but I will pursue the matter so that hon. Members can consider the directive as soon as possible.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Will the Leader of the House get the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement on national health service consultants' rejection this morning of the wicked Government's terrible offer? It would have required them to work a 40-hour week and sometimes to work at weekends. It would have stuffed their mouths with gold by expecting them to accept a 20 per cent. increase in their pay. Is not that shocking treatment of NHS workers? What other group of workers would be expected to accept such an offer?

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Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Secretary of State comes to the House today to defend his treatment of NHS consultants?

Mr. Cook: I am happy to remind hon. Members that consultants in Scotland voted for the contract. I share my hon. Friend's regret that consultants in Wales did not. He is right that the offer constituted an increase of 15 per cent. over consultants' careers. They have rejected a fair deal, which offered more time for NHS patients in return for more money. It had been negotiated with consultants' representatives and was recommended to them by the consultants' committee that negotiated the agreement. I regret that the profession has rejected it. The Government will look to work with consultants who want to work with us to improve patient care.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made clear, there can be no renegotiation of the package, there will be no more resources beyond the 15 per cent. already on the table, and we must not allow any veto on NHS reform in the interests of patients.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): When will a statement be made on the crisis in the fishing industry, given the overwhelming interest in the coastal communities and the thousands of jobs that are at stake? Perhaps the Leader of the House knows that the Scottish Minister in the Scots Parliament made a statement yesterday. As we speak, an SNP debate is taking place in the Scots Parliament.

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall signing a document in 1998 that provided that the Scots Minister should lead UK delegations to Europe and the Council of Ministers when appropriate? When could that be more appropriate than when 80 per cent. of the jobs at stake are in Scotland? Yet we are met with obvious indifference; the UK Government will not even make a statement.

Mr. Cook: I acquit the Government of indifference about the matter. The concordat to which the hon. Gentleman referred has worked well—

Mr. Salmond: Answer.

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman asked me a question; he must bear with the answer even if he does not agree with it. The Scottish Executive would make no complaint of their involvement in work in Brussels. Their representatives work closely with the British embassy there.

I understand the importance of the issue to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and other fishing communities in Scotland. However, we must take account of scientific reality. In 30 years, cod landing has reduced from 741 tonnes to 41 tonnes a year. The scientific community tells us that we are in danger of the cod stocks disappearing. The issue is not whether we have some restraint or no restraint, but whether we have it now, when we can save the cod, or total restraint when we have finished off the cod for ever.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): My right hon. Friend will be aware that 14 million people in

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southern Africa face an acute food shortage. Will he arrange for the Secretary of State for International Development to make a statement to update the House on what action she is taking to assist those people? Will he also arrange for the House to be told what preparations are in hand in relation to Eritrea and Ethiopia, where I am told that a similar crisis is looming?

Mr. Cook: I am pleased to remind my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will be answering questions on Wednesday, and I am sure that we shall have an opportunity to discuss those points, among others, then. I remind the House that the Government have an excellent record on providing aid and assistance to Africa. Over the lifetime of this Government, we are increasing that aid by 50 per cent. That is a substantial help to many rural communities there, and is well ahead of the performance of any other major donor nation.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Can the Leader of the House say anything about the likely business when the House returns? Given that there is to be no business statement next week and that we have just voted for more certainty in our affairs, is it not perverse that, when we return, we shall not know the business for the second week back? Will he also confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not exempt from this new regime for certainty, and that there will be an early announcement of the date of the pre-Budget statement?

Mr. Cook: I am happy to remove any doubt that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues may have about the week after the Queen's Speech. That week will be dominated by the Queen's Speech. I have just referred to the fact that there will be six days of full debate on that matter, which takes us up to and includes the Wednesday of the next week. The topics for those debates are a matter on which he can address his Front-Bench colleagues, because the topics will be their call.

I have said already that I anticipate that the pre-Budget report will be given at broadly the same time this year as last year. Should it require any approach other than by me, I am sure that that will be made. We would not want such an important statement of the Government's success in having a sound economy to take place without adequate warning to the House.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): The Leader of the Opposition should be left alone. He has a very difficult job.

Following the decision taken on Tuesday, will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that the House of Commons section of the Palace of Westminster will remain open in the late evenings for meetings? It would be totally unacceptable if those facilities, which are used by many outside organisations—some in the Labour movement, obviously, and many outside it—were closed when the House is no longer sitting. I hope that all those facilities for meetings will remain open as they do at present.

Mr. Cook: I am pleased to be able to give my hon. Friend that assurance. Indeed, I have stressed throughout that facilities in the House will continue to

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remain open even though the House may not be sitting. That includes the Library, refreshment facilities and, certainly, rooms for meetings. Indeed, if we adjust our hours in the way for which we voted on Tuesday, there may be even greater convenience and ease for meetings to take place on the premises when we do not require them ourselves.

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