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Mr. Cook: First, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question about the Standing Orders debate on 14 May, I can tell him that I will be discussing the draft of the Standing Orders with the Modernisation Committee next Wednesday, and I hope to table them immediately afterwards. I hope therefore that they will be on the Order Paper in the week before the debate so that the whole House can see them.
Do I regret the Modernisation Committee's proposals? No, I do not. Nor for one moment do I imagine that the other members of the Committee from all parties who are with us in the Chamber regret what we are proposing. It represents a major strengthening of the Select Committee system in the House. It will provide a form of independent and transparent nomination to Select Committees; it will provide for greater resources, especially staff, for Select Committees; and it will provide a clear statement of the core tasks, functions and focus of Select Committees.
I fully understand the sensitivity of the right hon. Gentleman's party on increasing the size of Select Committees. The Conservatives have so few Back Benchers that they are now obliged to fill up Select Committee places with Front Benchers, so I do not anticipate that they will vote for a significant increase in the size of Select Committees.
Mr. Cook: On the question of those who missed Monday's meeting, I point out to the House that one of them has been absent from the House for some time because of long-term illness, and we must respect that. Another was attending a funeralthere are times when all Members must carry out such personal tasksand I understand that another was attending to a family illness. We must approach these demands with appropriate respect because we are all human and we all have such demands made of us.
What the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is acknowledging is that the full membership of the Treasury Committee would not have signed up to the preposterous report that finally emerged from an unbalanced, badly attended meeting. However, I should have thought that if he were seriously concerned that occasionally an hon. Member will have a family duty to perform and would therefore be unable to attend a meeting, he would support our proposal for a larger membership, to make sure that when one or two Members went missing it did not result in such a disproportionate outcome. [Hon. Members: "Four."] Opposition Members shout "Four", but I have explained that three of those four had perfectly compelling and understandable reasons for their absence. Had those three attended, we would not have had the result that we did. Nevertheless, I welcome the Conservatives' enthusiastic interest in Select Committees, and I hope that they will support the proposals that we will make on 14 May to strengthen Select Committees and to give hon. Members more opportunity to take part in the work of scrutiny.
I shall convey the right hon. Gentleman's congratulations to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, with an appropriate health warning instructing her to "handle with care", as I am sure she will. I point out to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that if he studies with care the guidelines on what can be announced during local authority elections, he will find that they clearly and specifically state that the business of government must go on. It would be preposterous if central Government ground to a halt for a three-week period. Indeed, I personally warmly support what the Home Secretary announced this week, and if the right hon. Gentleman will permit me I will convey to my right hon. Friend my own congratulations on what he said.
The Conservative party may not like it, but let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that the nation will welcome the announcement of £67 million to tackle street crime, £194 million to create more prison places and £36 million
Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I understand that this morning GMTV again highlighted the insidious pyramid gifting scheme, women empowering women, which results in women being tricked into parting with up to £3,000 of cash in the hope that they will get back £24,000. Like all pyramid schemes, it works on the gullibility of people who believe that they cannot lose. In fact, only those who get into the scheme at the beginning get back any money, and the vast majorityusually those who can afford it leastlose out.
This scheme has been spreading throughout the UK for almost two years, and it was rife in Aberdeen last summer, when I secured an Adjournment debate on the subject. I was therefore dismayed to hear that women are still being suckered into parting with their money. As it would appear that the trading schemes regulations that came into effect in 1997 cannot be used to stop gifting schemes such as women empowering women, will my right hon. Friend find time to legislate to outlaw this pernicious scheme?
Mr. Cook: I fully endorse what my hon. Friend said. I welcome the fact that she has taken the opportunity of exchanges in the House to warn of those dangers and I hope that her remarks will be reported in her local area. When I was Foreign Secretary, I saw the enormous damage done in foreign countries, particularly in the Balkans, by pyramid schemes, and we do not want to allow them through the door here. Frankly, I would be surprised if the blatant fraud involved were within the law, but I shall happily draw the problem to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and consider whether fresh legislation is required.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the House to have an early opportunity to consider the deplorable and depressing situation that has arisen as a result of the collapse of the United Nations' initiative on an investigation in Jenin? It would be preferable to have such an opportunity early next week if the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs can come to the House, as that would be of benefit to all of us.
Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for the House to have an early opportunity to consider the relative merits of different voting systems? Does he accept that the system that allowed the French nation to be put in its present dilemma is not one of proportional representation, but is effectively identical to the system that the Government introduced today for the election of mayors in seven cities in this country? I understand that last night the Leader of the House and his Conservative shadow agreed on the issue of proportional representation, so can the House have an opportunity to discuss that, too?
The debate that we have long been promised on the report published on 14 February by the Select Committee on Public Administration on House of Lords reform must surely take place soon as we have now had the Government response. A number of the right hon. Gentleman's Cabinet colleagues keep going on about the
Finally, we are surprised that there is to be a debate on the report just out on the new code of conduct and guidance on rules. Apparently, it announces a relaxation of disclosure, even though the Wicks committee is still looking at standards of conduct. Is it not premature of the House to take a view on those matters when that important committee has yet to report?
Mr. Cook: On the last point, I have arranged for a debate to be held on the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee at an early opportunity which, to be honest, I believe will be welcomed by the Committee and Members of Parliament. It is important that we should express a view on those matters. I do not readily accept the hon. Gentleman's characterisation of the report as relaxing the rules; on the contrary, it is trying to make sure that we have rules that are easily understood and applied, and therefore more difficult to duck. It is for the House itself to decide, but I can see that there is a case to be made that that will result in more, rather than less, effective regulation.
On the other matters raised by the hon. Gentleman, the Israeli Government's refusal to admit the UN inspection is a grave matter. The investigation was originally suggested by the Israeli Government, who said at the time that they would welcome it. I very much regret that they have changed their mind. I believe that that will rebound badly on them in the world and in international opinion and that it is a mistake according to the test of their own interests. We will of course continue to work through the United Nations to find ways of ensuring a proper audit and account of what happened in Jenin, but ultimately we will require the co-operation of members of the Israeli Government who recognise that it would be better if the investigation went ahead.
On voting systems, I agree with the hon. Gentleman; the system for electing the French President proceeded on the basis of the first two past the post and has run into spectacular difficulty as a result. However, I am encouraged by the dramatic rise in turnout in parts of England conducting a postal ballot for local authority electionsas high as 57 per cent. in Chorley and typically over 50 per cent. in many other areas. It is very encouraging that that change in the system has produced a much higher turnout, and I hope that the other experiments that we are carrying outfor example, electronic votingwill show a similar revival of interest from voters who have found it easier to cast their votes.
I have repeatedly answered questions on the House of Lords. Only this week, I told hon. Members that we anticipate being able to make a statement on the matter before the House rises for the summer recess, and I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the sooner that happens, the better. When we have that discussion, plainly Lord Bingham's observations will be relevant.