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Mr. Cook: The Conservative party must be more desperate for members than we imagined if the right hon. Gentleman really hopes that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) will defect to it. My hon. Friend is making a personal statement later this afternoon. I shall listen to it with interest, but I do not anticipate that the climax of that will be his joining the tolerant party of the right hon. Gentleman.
As for Mr. Richard Balfe, I am trying to come to terms with his departure with all the equanimity that I can muster, and the right hon. Gentleman will need all the equanimity that he can muster to work with him as a colleague, particularly on the euro.
On the City and the funding of public-private partnerships, may I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, despite the alarmism that he seeks to spread further, since last summer there have been 44 new PPPs signed with City firms without any problem about their coming forward and offering the funding. Indeed, the Chiltern line, which will be known to several of his hon. Friends given that, on the whole, it serves areas that managed to survive their debacles at the last two general elections, has just attracted £370 million of private finance without anyone complaining about additional risk premium or the risk of that funding.
Of course, a fundamental question remains, which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are for ever failing to answer. If they had found themselves in the position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, are they really saying that they would have paid out the money to Railtrack and left it in the hands not just of a private legal company, but one with private shareholders whom it repeatedly put before the travelling public, who are glad to see the back of it?
The right hon. Gentleman will be very pleased to hear that I can help him on Mr. Mittal and the newspaper story. First, the correspondence began with a request from the Belgian authorities, not with any request from Mr. Mittal. Secondly, Mr. Mittal is not under any investigation by the Belgian authorities; on the contrary, they were seeking evidence from him as a witness against one of his competitors. [Hon. Members: "Corus."] [Laughter.] I honestly do not understand what Opposition Members find in any way amusing about our seeking perfectly properly to assist another European country with a legal investigation that it is carrying out.
I heard the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) say this morning that such things never happened during his time at the Home Office. It may therefore help him if I say that the organisation that handles and processes such correspondencethe UK central authority for mutual legal assistancewas set up in 1990 by the Conservative party. Every year, it deals with some 4,000 items of correspondence from other judicial authorities. When the right hon. and learned Member was Home Secretary it undoubtedly processed many thousands of identical requests. I suppose that we should be grateful to him for having made it clear that he had no idea whatever what was being done by the Home Office while he was Home Secretary. If the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would like to debate that further, I would welcome it.
As we are on the topic of Mr. Mittal, I would welcome a debate in which we could explore from where came the £43 million in donations that the Conservative party received in its last year in office. Conservative Members
Mr. Cook: They received £400,000 from Asil Nadir, as my hon. Friend cries out, on the basis of his fraudulent company in northern Cyprus. They promised that they would return that money, but they never did so. I understand that they have just received several million from Lord Ashcroft, who, when he was appointed as a peer, said that he would like to be known as Lord Ashcroft of Belize. If the right hon. Gentleman would like to explore those matters further in a debate, we would be delighted to do so, and we would like to hear some answers.
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, in the "What the Papers Say" script that we have just heard from the shadow Leader of the House, he was certainly right about one thing: the greater tolerance of the current leader of the Conservative party, who showed himself tolerant enough to appoint the right hon. Gentleman as shadow Leader of the House?
May I thank my right hon. Friend for confirming the debate on hunting in the provisional business for 18 March? Will he confirm to meas a Labour Member who, when in government, used the Parliament Act to obtain the enactment of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977that there is no obstacle whatever to using the Parliament Act to enact a new Bill passed by this House in this Parliament? Will he therefore assure me that, if the will of the House makes it very clear that it wishes a complete ban on hunting with hounds, the Government will ensure that such a Bill is passed, using the Parliament Act if necessary?
Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend will be aware that I said in response to questions last week that we will have a vote on hunting on 18 March and, indeed, so will the other place. Thereafter, the Minister for Rural Affairs will be seeking to find a way forward and will make proposals before the Easter recess. That will involve legislation at some stage, but it is a bit premature to speculate about a point which, on that timetable, is not likely to arise for at least another 18 months.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I assure the Leader of the House that we, too, would support a debate on the failed privatisation of Railtrack and its relevance to the part-privatisation of the tube, if only because we could then establish whether the Conservative party was still in favour of privatisation, having botched it the first time around?
May I ask that we have a debate as early as possible on the private purchase of politicians? The Leader of the House may recall that, a few weeks ago, he gave a dismissive reply to my request for such a debate on its relevance to the future funding of democracy in this country. Today it is reported that his right hon. Friend the chairman of the Labour party has been having secret talks with the chairman of the Conservative party on the subject
May I suggest that that debate should take place in this House and not behind the scenes between the representatives of the two dinosaur parties? There is genuine public concern about the extent to which successive Governmentsthe Leader of the House referred to this just nowhave been dependent on private donations. We need to establish once and for all what those poor, benighted creatures were doing in making those contributions and whether they got value for money.
May we have a statement before Easter on the subject of Lords reform? The Leader of the House said that he was seeking a centre of gravity. The excellent and unanimous report by the Select Committee on Public Administration offers him an opportunity to create precisely that consensus and centre of gravity. Can I suggest that now the consultation period is long over, and that his White Paper[Interruption.] Not the Leader of the House's White Paper; the Lord Chancellor's White PaperI am sorry to have maligned the right hon. Gentleman in that way. Now that the Lord Chancellor's White Paper has been thoroughly discussed, it is time for the House to move on.
Mr. Cook: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his characterisation of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and me as members of the dinosaur parties. In fairness to my colleagues, I am entitled to point out that the party of Gladstone is somewhat older than the party that I represent. The hon. Gentleman might wish to reflect on where the tag of "the oldest party" should be attached.
May I deal with the point about political parties by stepping back and looking at it a little more widely than I am afraid the media do? Our parliamentary democracy cannot function without political parties; that is the nature of democracy. We require political parties to be in good health and to have some source of funding. If it is the case that the media and some hon. Members are moving to the view that private donations are unacceptable, there has to be an acceptance of alternative ways in which political parties are funded. That is why it is entirely legitimate for members of both parties to have discussions and to explore and debate whether there should be state funding. There is no commitment to that on the part of the Government and I think that the chairman of the Conservative party might have some difficulty in carrying all the members of the Conservative Front Bench on this question.