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Mr. Cook: I fully understand my hon. Friend's anxiety and I know that there are hardship cases such as those that he mentioned. The original bargain between the Treasury and the miners' pension scheme was that the Treasury would guarantee that pension payments would increase in line with inflation even if there was a deficit in the scheme. As my hon. Friend knows, there is currently a healthy surplus in the scheme, which means a substantial accrual rate to the fund year on year.
The other side of the bargain is that, in return for the guarantee in case of a deficit, the Treasury has the right to take up to 50 per cent. of any annual increase in the surplus. However, I full understand my hon. Friend's point. He knows that the trustees are currently reviewing the scheme. The Government are awaiting the outcome, which we are willing to discuss with trustees when we receive the review.
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East): The Leader of the House knows that the Prime Minister is expected to complete a set of proposals with the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic next week. The House will be in recess, and the right hon. Gentleman may be aware of the rumour that the information will be provided only to selected
Mr. Cook: I am confident that, in the event of the completion of talks with all partiesI hope that they will be successfulthe outcome will be made publicly available. Even if we were minded otherwise, any agreement between all parties would become public knowledge quickly and loudly.
However, I cannot give a commitment that my right hon. Friend will disclose the outcome of talks with any one party, whether the Prime Minister of Ireland or one of the Northern Irish parties. Any such outcome is sensitive to trying to achieve an overall agreement. We all support that.
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Will the Leader of the House make time when we return for a debate on the role of Select Committees? They are Committees of the House and their chairmanship is a matter for hon. Members. It is wrong for Government Whips to insist on a named individual being Chairmen. They may make suggestions but the chairmanship should be up to Select Committee members.
Mr. Cook: I stress to the right hon. Gentleman that there is no point in the House asking for proposals and then objecting to the Committee that is plainly the logical body to introduce them.[Hon. Members: "He wants more."] I am not sure that the right hon. Gentleman wants more Select Committees. However, if he wants Select Committees whose members are chosen transparently and independently, he should welcome the fact that that is the first priority for the Modernisation Committee. I hope that we can present a report shortly after the recess.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): Yesterday, the Prime Minister hid behind the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, and stated that rural people had not demanded a full public inquiry. Does the Leader of the House understand that so many sectors of the rural economy have been devastated by foot and mouth that the countryside will accept nothing less than a full, public inquiry under the independent, impartial chairmanship of a judge?
Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not hide behind the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons[Hon. Members: "He did."] No, he did not. He accurately reflected its statement, in which it made it plain that it favoured an inquiry that resembled the one that followed the last outbreak of foot and mouth, rather than the protracted public inquiry into BSE.
It is worth while reflecting on the reasons for the royal college's view. It wants any lessons to be learned and any conclusions to be drawn as expeditiously as possible through a proper, full inquiry. As the House knows,
David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to his comments of a few moments ago, could my right hon. Friend give an indication of when it is likely that the Modernisation Committee will present proposals on changes in decisions on Select Committees membership? It would be useful to have a debate on that subject later this year. Is he aware that many of us are encouraged by the fact that the Government seem to have learned the lessons from Mondayunlike the last Tory Government, who never learned the lessons from 1992 when they prevented the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) from being reappointed to the Health Committee?
Mr. Cook: I congratulate my hon. Friend on having made the second mention of the Modernisation Committee, thereby obliging the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to leave the Chamber.
On the question of a timetable, I think that the best I can do for my hon. Friend is to give an assurance that we will bring one forward as quickly as possible. How quickly that is depends of course on how quickly we can establish agreement within the Committee. However, we have agreed to meet in September to consider the matter. If we make good progress at that meeting in September, I would hope that we can bring forward a report early in our proceedings after the recess.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): May I reinforce the request by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) for a statement or a debate on the east coast main line? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the dismay at the decision not to grant a long-term franchise? Does he realise that a two-year extension is bound to put back the date when we will see continuing investment of a substantial type, and that only the grant of a long-term franchise will really provide the basis for continuing large investment in an overcrowded line?
Mr. Cook: There is nothing between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the Government on whether there should be a long-term franchise; we would prefer a long-term franchise. The reality is that so much infrastructure work is required post-Hatfield that it was not practical to reach an agreement with bidders on the basis of the current state of the infrastructure and the work that is required to it. That is the reason, and the only reason, for the two-year delay.
GNER is of course one of the operating companies. It is itself, therefore, very much responsible for the rolling stock, but not for the track. A two-year period should not of itself inhibit investment in rolling stock, as any successful bidder thereafter will be obliged to take over that rolling stock.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Did my right hon. Friend hear the exchanges in Treasury questions on the Barnett formula? If he did, he would be aware that there are calls from both sides of the House for the system of
Mr. Cook: I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his offer of help in taking the matter forward. However, he will be aware that the Government have repeatedly said that we have no plans to review the Barnett formula.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will there be an opportunity for the House to discussit would be particularly appropriate now as President Bush is in the countrythe situation of my constituent Mr. Steve Morgan of Frome, an experienced journalist who accompanied the Greenpeace demonstration against the star wars test and is now facing charges in Los Angeles, subject to a minimum five-year prison sentence for photographing a peaceful demonstration? Will there be an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to say what consular support is being given to Mr. Morgan and what representations have been made at the highest level for his immediate release?
Mr. Cook: I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that his constituent is getting full consular support. We have been in contact with him and the other UK nationals involved since the day of their arrest. We have also been in contact with their lawyer. We will continue to do all we can to provide consular support to him. I know from my previous work at the Foreign Office that it would be counter-productive for us to intervene politically in what is a judicial matter, but all possible consular support will be given.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Government's plans to part-privatise air traffic control are rapidly falling apart? It looks as though the income generated from the sale will not even cover the inherited debt of the National Air Traffic Services. Can we have a ministerial statement in our first week back giving us a progress report and looking at the options on how we can dig ourselves out of this fiasco?