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Mr. Cook: I entirely understand the concern of many hon. Members and the genuine deep worry, particularly given the very recent use of the F-16s in the occupied territories. These are matters that both the British and United States Governments have raised with the Israeli Government, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be very interested in any point that my hon. Friend wishes to put to him.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Further to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), is the Leader of the House aware of the widespread anger and disgust in my constituency at the Government announcement that they are going to muck about with local government finance? Is he aware that that is seen as a blatant attempt to channel money from the south-east and into Labour heartlands? Furthermore, is he aware that the leader of East Sussex county council, the poorest county council in England, has calculated that if this plan goes ahead, council tax will have to rise by between 25 and 33 per cent.? Which would he preferthat council tax goes up that much, or that the council slashes public services to the vulnerable?
Mr. Cook: I do not know where the hon. Gentleman has been for the last two general elections but, as it happens, we now have Labour heartlands in every region of Britain and it is simply not possible for us to be politically biased against any one region. I repeat what I have said before: the consultation document contains a series of different optionsoptions for which we have expressed no preferences. It is therefore totally meaningless for any chief executive to try to pretend that he can produce a financial consequence for his local authority until the end of that consultation period. I should have thought that even the hon. Gentleman and his local authority's chief executive might recognise that there is merit in a local government grant distribution system that reflects changes in population, changes in the number of school pupils and degrees of deprivation.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I welcome all that my right hon. Friend has just said, as well as the consultation on local government finance, but may I point out to him that for 10 of the 12 weeks of the consultation period the House will be in recess and that for six of the 12 weeks schools, which are crucially affected by the proposals to change education funding, will be closed for their holidays? May I also impress on him that literally hundreds of right hon. and hon. Members who represent English constituencies have a very keen interest in how that debate will unfold? So may I make a plea that, as soon as we return in October, there will be time to debate that subject before the Government start to settle the provisional settlement for next year? May I make a
Mr. Cook: May I remind the House that we have put out for consultation the draft local government finance Bill, which is currently being considered by the appropriate Select Committee, and that this Government's record in trying to seek consultation on such drafts and proposals for change is very good. The House may well be in recess for the next 10 weeks; I personally think that is at the root of the problem. I have made proposals that we should return in September and should not have such long periods of absence from the British political scene. I very much hope that those proposals will be approved by the House. If they are, it will meet my hon. Friend's and other hon. Members' concern by ensuring that we are not absent for such a long period.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): May I pick up the request made by my hon. Friends the Members for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) and for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) in respect of the Government's consultation document on the resourcing of local government, not least because my own county, Cheshire, has been short-changed under successive Governments, so I do not seek to score a political point? That has a huge impact on education and social service provision, not least on the ability of social services to fund care homes, which are currently in crisis. The Leader of the House, who is a most reasonable man, has said that he wishes to introduce reforms, which many hon. Members support. Will he say whether the consultation period on that proposal, which I agree contains options, can be extended to enable hon. Members to express a view before the Government put any firm proposals to the House?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman makes his point very diplomatically and temptingly, and I will certainly discuss with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions how best we can ensure that the House has an opportunity fully to express its view. The hon. Gentleman was quite frank and blunt in expressing his concerns on behalf of his local authority when he sat on the Government Benches, so, given the honourable role that he played, I exempt him from any criticism, but we should not lose sight of the fact that, of course, the Government have very substantially increased spending on education, social services and all the other aspects of local government spending. As a result, all the local authorities that have been mentioned are doing substantially better than they ever did under the previous Conservative Government.
Kevin Brennan: The Leader of the House will be aware from a parliamentary answer that he gave yesterday to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) has now officially become the half-million-pound man, having asked 4,382 questions at
Mr. Cook: First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tie, and particularly on its admirable politically correct tone? On the point that he raises, it is not for the Leader of the House to discourage Members who believe that they have a bona fide concern from pursuing it through the Order Paper and parliamentary questions. I have answered many questions from the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow)I think that I have answered more questions from him than from the rest of the House added togetherand I am relaxed about the fact that he chooses to table so many. It is perhaps time, however, that he reflected on whether the product, in terms of what he can do with those answers, has justified all the effort that he has put in. Perhaps the time has come for a redirection of his admirable energy into a more productive channel.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement by the Foreign Secretary on United Kingdom-Iran relations? Many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to know what recent representation has been made to the Iranian Government about the continuing abuse of human rights by that regime of repressive, fundamentalist Islamic mullahs, which brutalises its people and uses torture and execution to terrorise its political opponents.
Mr. Cook: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the respect for human rightsor the absence of itin Iran is a matter of high priority in the Foreign Office, on which representations are frequently made. It is also fair to note, however, that there have been movements in the politics of Iran that have resulted in a return to a democratic parliament, and the great majority of the public of Iran have voted for people who want to take Iran forward into the modern era and put behind them the rule of the mullahs to which he referred, which was the product of the revolution. It is in all our interests that we handle our relations with Iran so that we strengthen the role of, and support for, those who want to take Iran forward and enter into a responsible relationship with the rest of the world, and that we marginalise those who would rather take Iran back into the middle ages.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): Can we have a debate on town and country planning, and particularly on the Government's planning policy guidance, which is elegantly known as PPG3? In my constituency, the planning department is under siege as developers put in application after applicationfollowed by appeal after appealin respect of the same site, which causes considerable distress to long-suffering neighbours of the site who are objectors to the proposals. Is there an end in sight to these repeated, excessive and sequential planning applications and appeals?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that changes to planning law and guidelines are very much at the forefront of the Government's mind at present, and I am sure that, in the forthcoming Session, there will be