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Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The Leader of the House may have heard the news this morning of yet another major Government computerisation project running into serious problems, this time affecting the courts service and the criminal justice system. Given that such difficulties are clearly a cross-departmental problem affecting the whole of government, will the Leader of the House look for an early opportunity for his colleagues from the newly beefed-up Cabinet Office to come to the House to debate the Government's information technology strategy?
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): I welcome the Government's announcement today about family- friendly and flexible employment policies. Concern has been expressed, however, about the way in which employment agencies treat their workers, those workers employment rights and their access to employment tribunals, especially in relation to proposed changes to the award of costs. Does my right hon. Friend intend to make any time available to discuss employment relations policies in the near future?
Mr. Cook: I cannot hold out the prospect of any immediate debate on that issue, but it is one of great importance and my hon. Friend is right to raise it. I hope that the House and its Committees will find opportunities to look into it. There will be regular opportunities to examine the responsible Ministers.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I congratulate the Leader of the House on his well-deserved and long overdue advancement within the ranks of the Government. Can we please have an early debate or a statement on the provision of beta interferon for the treatment of multiple sclerosis? Given the evidence that the drug is likely to be effective only if used early in the course of the disease, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that hundreds of people risk permanent disablement if they are denied access to the drug during the extended National Institute for Clinical Excellence appraisal, especially as that appraisal has been the subject of an enormous amount of cogitation over two years. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the very least that sufferers and their representatives are
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the issue has been aired repeatedly in the House and in the press. He is a knowledgeable Member who does his research well, and he will be aware that the central problem is that NICE, which was set up to advise us on the use of drugs, has not advised the use of this drug in the NHS. Nevertheless, I shall happily convey to my colleagues in the Department of Health the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter again so that they can bear that in mind in their future considerations.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate on safety at sea following the damning report published this morning by the chief inspector of marine accidents? It links the astonishing decline in safety standards at sea with what it describes as
Mr. Cook: I heard about the report this morning and understand my hon. Friend's concern. Transparent reporting and full investigation of what goes wrong is vital to the confidence of those who use our merchant navy and to ensuring that such events are not repeated. I shall happily draw his comments to the attention of the relevant Minister and perhaps also to that of the Deputy Prime Minister who, as my hon. Friend knows, takes a close interest in such matters.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I warmly welcome what the Leader of the House said about VAT on care homes, but does he recognise the accelerating crisis in long-term care? That was demonstrated by the closure of yet another home in my constituency last week, which distressed residents of the home and their relatives. Will the right hon. Gentleman find time to debate the Government's strategy for long-term care, in particular how they propose to ensure that local social services departments have the cash available to house people properly when they most need it?
Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming my response to the tribunal ruling on VAT. He is right: the provision of long-term care is a worry to an increasing number of our constituents, and that problem will continue because of demographic changes. That is why we made the commitment that long-term care will be an important priority for the national health service plan that we are developing and why we have secured the basis on which free nursing care will be provided from October for those who require it in the long term. I will be surprised if this Session proceeds much further without a suitable opportunity for us to examine such matters. Health legislation is proposed in the Queen's Speech and we will introduce that as soon as possible.
Mr. Cook: I am happy to endorse my hon. Friend's concern, which is fully shared by those on the Front Bench. Indeed, in yesterday's debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in strong terms to the recent riots. There was also an exchange in the House when my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) asked a private notice question. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that the only people who gain from violence and destruction are extremists such as those in the BNP, who want to turn racism to their own poisonous political objectives. It is important that we defeat them. I agree that to do that, we must address not only the racism that was demonstrated in the riots, but the social conditions that breed tension.
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Will my right hon. Friend hold a debate in Government time on the need to bring the working practices and hours of the House into this century? Hon. Members on both sides of the House raised that in the debate on the Gracious Speech and it was mentioned again today. Why is it necessary for hon. Members to take 20 minutes going to the Table Office with a question for a Minister when an e-mail takes two minutes? Why do we not start Tuesday's and Wednesday's important work in the House until 2.30 pm? There are big issues to address. I know about today's debate, but I am concerned that we will not be able to represent our constituents and to scrutinise legislation properly if we continue at this pace and do not have a wider debate on the subject. We will need to hit a few more centuries before we make progress.
I would like more rapid progress than my hon. Friend suggests might be made, and her comments are relevant to the debate that we are about to commence. I agree entirely that there are many ways in which we can make our House more efficient and ensure that we use the latest methods of communication in order that we are able to use our time effectively in the task of scrutinising legislation.
[That this House notes that Railtrack purchased their business apparently without a full understanding of their assets and liabilities; notes that railway bridges all over the country are now being closed or having their use restricted as a result; notes that some closures are putting lives at risk, such as that at Green Lane, Bolton, which lies on a main access route to the Royal Bolton Hospital and is expected to be closed for up to three years; requests Railtrack to repair those affected bridges which are causing the most disruption as a matter of urgency; and asks Her Majesty's Government to assess the scale of the problem and enter into a dialogue with Railtrack in order to persuade them to deal with this emerging situation.]
All over the country, local authorities have been given the duty to inspect Railtrack's railway bridges, and they are closing them or severely restricting their use. Of several examples in my constituency, the worst is Green lane railway bridge, which has been closed for up to three years. That bridge lies on a main access route to the Royal Bolton hospital. I hope that my right hon. Friend agrees that the situation is intolerable.
My constituents have of course noticed that Railtrack continues to pay dividends to its shareholders and, more recently, paid £1.3 million to its ex-chief executive. May we please have statement from the Minister for Transport on whether he believes that Railtrack can meet all its financial liabilities in the near future?