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Mr. Cook: I am delighted that today's announcement pleased at least one Member, and I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Preston. Three criteria were required for success in the bid for city status; Preston fully met the third, which was a forward-looking attitude.
Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Many of my constituents find it weird that at a time when the national health service is in crisis and many of them wait 16 weeks for cancer treatment, when the police service is in turmoil, and when transport is in chaos and deteriorating, the Leader of the House has cleared the decks in order to focus on foxhunting.
Leaving aside that perverse priority, however, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us why the House is to debate foxhunting on Monday, a day that had long been reserved for a reception given by Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham palace to celebrate her golden jubilee, to which I believe all Members had been invited? Why could the debate not have taken place today, on Wednesday, or on any other day? Was this a cock-up? Was it typical of the incompetence that we have come to expect of this Government? Or was it contempt for Her Majesty the Queencontempt that the Government routinely show for the Chamber?
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgently needed debate on channel tunnel security? As he will know, the storm-trooping activities of traffickers and illegal immigrants are causing havoc in Frethun, and bringing English Welsh and Scottish Railway freight services to a standstill. The destruction is threatening lives, jobs and trade.
Mr. Cook: I am aware of the seriousness of the situation. We have repeatedly pressed the French authorities to ensure that there is adequate security at Sangatte and at the rail freight terminal. The measures we have taken on this side of the channel have been quite successful in reducing the number of illegal entries, which has fallen by a quarter in the past year, and the number of people arriving in Britain with improper paperwork, which has fallen by three quarters. Despite that progress, however, I share my hon. Friend's concern about the interruption to the servicewhich I use frequently myselfand we will continue to press the French authorities to produce an outcome that will allow the service to recommence.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): In Westminster Hall on Tuesday, we had an excellent debate about the future of Consignia. Nine Back Benchers were able to contribute, although had time permittedit was only a 90-minute debateat least as many again could have done so. May I ask again whether a subject of such importance could be given some time on the Floor of the House, where it properly belongs? Does not fairness demand that Conservative Members, especially the large number with rural constituencies, should be allowed to place on record why they do not oppose measures that will have a dire impact on rural communities?
Mr. Cook: It is not for me to speak to Conservative Members, but no doubt they heard what the hon. Gentleman said and will seek to rectify the omission before the hour is up. As for the question of our offering them, and the hon. Gentleman, the opportunity of a full debate on Consignia, I fully understand the strength of feeling in the House. Indeed, it was made clear in business questions immediately after the Postcomm statement. Fortunately for the hon. Gentleman, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is present. I am sure we will both reflect on what he said, and consider when it might be appropriate to bring the matter to the House.
[That this House is concerned that whilst consumer debt reaches record levels (£6.8 billion new debt in December according to the Bank of England), around three and a half million adults do not have access to any
The motion deals with financial exclusion. As it says, 3.5 million people have no bank account and 7 million have no current account. For many of those people, the only option is paying very high interest rates on loans. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate so we can discuss how best to deal with the problem of extortionate lending within the wider framework of the Government's anti-poverty strategy?
Mr. Cook: That is a subject of deep concern in many inner-city areas, and many of the most deprived parts of the country. I know from my experience in Scotland how high interest rates can be for vulnerable people. It is one of the great ironies that the poorest people often end up paying the highest rates.
I commend my hon. Friend on his early-day motion, and particularly on his recognition of the role that can be played by the Post Office, which is universally available and will soon be able to provide a universal banking service. We will continue to seek imaginative ways of addressing the problem he has raised.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I believe the right hon. Gentleman underestimates the damage caused to the whole United Kingdom by the closure of the channel tunnel to rail freight. Is he aware of the Government's target of 80 per cent. for freight travelling by rail, and is he aware that that target now cannot be met within the 10-year transport plan? Is he aware that half a million pounds is being lost each day by companies such as EWS and Potters of Melmerby in the Vale of York? Will he invite the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions to make a statement here on precisely what the Government are doing? There is now no freight transport through the channel tunnel, which means that all freight is travelling by road. That is unacceptable.
Mr. Cook: If I appeared not to grasp the gravity of the situation I am justly rebuked by the hon. Lady, but I told my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Prosser) that I fully understood the severity of the situation and its impact not just on Dover but on the country generally. I remind the hon. Lady that the issue at the heart of the problem is security at the freight terminal on the Calais side of the tunnel. We have no direct responsibility and no direct ability to intervene, but we will continue to press the French authorities which are responsible to provide adequate security so that the service can recommence.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the massive and disastrous rise in council tax throughout the country? It is just another Labour stealth tax, and one that hits the most vulnerable the hardest. Perhaps such a debate would allow us to explore the reasons why Labour-controlled Castle Point borough council has increased council tax on a
Mr. Cook: I thought the hon. Gentleman was going to congratulate the Government on the massive rise in Government grants to local authorities. Since 1997 the amount has increased by 20 per cent., whereas during the previous five years under the Conservatives it rose by only 1 per cent. Given the enormous difference between the way in which the two Governments have funded local authorities, I think a period of silence from the hon. Gentleman would be welcome.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Can the Leader of the House look closely at the timetable set for the Government's proposals on regional government? The White Paper has not been published and only today we learn that the CBI in the north-west is withdrawing from participation in the north-west regional assembly because it believes that it is wasting its time. Is not the initiative in danger of floundering and should not the Government be giving some clear direction?
Mr. Cook: The Government have given clear direction and our commitment to produce a White Paper will be fulfilled. I strongly urge all those involved in discussions about regional assemblies and regional government to remain committed to them so that their regions benefit when the White Paper spells out the way forward.
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): The implication of today's comments by the Leader of the House is that the Government will arrange for Whips to reply to Adjournment debates and that a limit could be set on the number of debates to which Ministers reply. Given that, can he explain how we can expect the House to be held in greater esteem when Ministers themselves do not hold it in sufficient esteem to come here to reply to debates? How can we expect members of the public to hold MPs in greater esteem when MPs have been deprived of the opportunity of putting their points across to Ministers in Adjournment debates? That is a significant and bad development. Can the Leader of the House put his hand on his heart and say that if our roles were reversed, he would accept without demur a Whip replying to an Adjournment debate which he had initiated?