Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I cannot resist, although this is probably the only time that I can give way.

Sir Peter Tapsell: How can the right hon. Gentleman describe as a modest measure a treaty in which we give up 34 areas of our national veto?

Mr. Cook: For a start, we have already opted out of about 10 of those because we are not part of Schengen. Others relate to matters of such triviality as the pension arrangements for court officials. Some, however, are important, and we fought for those at Nice, including the measure to get rid of the French veto on protectionism and trade. If the hon. Gentleman wants to restore that veto to France, it will be welcomed in Paris and rejected throughout the rest of Europe, including at Westminster.

I cannot help the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton with a referendum on the Nice treaty, but I hope that I can work with her and all hon. Members on the reform of Parliament. There is a big job to be done to complete the reform of the House of Lords to make it a more representative second Chamber. I am grateful for the hon. Lady's helpful advice on the background to that.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) asked for consultation before we proceed. The Queen's Speech promised that there would be further consultation. It must, of course, include both Houses, because any change to the status of the House of Lords plainly has big implications for the House of Commons. However, I assure the hon. Member

27 Jun 2001 : Column 738

for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, who speaks with personal authority on the issue, that we have no intention of allowing consultation to obstruct reform if it does not produce consensus.

I hope that we will be able to build consensus on modernisation of the Commons. As Leader of the House, I shall seek support in all quarters for two important objectives of modernisation. The first is to enable the House to hold the Government to account and to scrutinise their Executive decisions and legislation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) reminded us, good scrutiny makes for good government.

Hon. Members of all parties have urged on me that the highest priority is to get the Select Committees restarted. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) asked during this debate for them to be set up before the House rises for the summer recess. His request carries extra force as he has voluntarily given up a career on the ministerial Bench to return to one of the Select Committees.

Mr. Cash: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Cook: I am afraid that I must make progress.

Mr. Cash rose--

Mr. Cook: I am pleased to say to my hon. Friend, and to the hon. Gentleman if he will allow me to continue, that it is my intention to enable Select Committees to be set up in the week beginning 16 July. That is only four weeks after the Queen's Speech and reflects a faster timetable for setting up Select Committees than in any previous Parliament. I also propose to increase the discretion of Select Committees by enabling them to decide for themselves whether they should appoint sub-Committees rather than having that decision imposed on them.

The second objective of modernisation must be to ensure that the hours and working methods of this House belong to the same century in which most of our constituents live and work. On Monday, the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made an intervention in a new, soft focus, socially inclusive mode. I would not wish to discourage him from the challenging process of reinventing himself as a social Liberal, but I am not sure that I did not prefer him as his former robust and brutal self.

On Monday, the hon. Gentleman made a memorable appeal for more women Tory Members of Parliament. If he really wants more women to come forward as MPs, there are two steps that he and his colleagues can take. [Hon. Members: "Resign."] Well, there is a third step, but I was not going to be that brutal and robust.

First, the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues could support the Bill in the Queen's Speech to permit positive measures for the selection of women as candidates. Secondly, they must support procedures in this House that make it easier for a woman to be both a mother and a Member of Parliament at the same time. If length of sitting hours were a test of scrutiny, this House would pass with an alpha plus, because we sit for longer than any other democratic Parliament. Wasting the time of the House should not be confused with effective scrutiny.

Mrs. Browning: If women in this place are to be taken as professional and serious in the job of Member of

27 Jun 2001 : Column 739

Parliament, why are the Government not proposing that, for example, women serving as officers in the armed forces, women barristers and others also work nine to five so that they can get home to cook the fish fingers? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook: As one of my women colleagues shouted during the hon. Lady's intervention, no Member and no woman Member is suggesting that we should sit from nine to five. However, it does not seem entirely unreasonable that we should allow colleagues to go home at 10 o'clock at night. Members of any other profession would regard that as a very minimum working condition.

Elections put a great obligation on those of us who are victors. We must always remember that we secured the trust of the people because they expected us to deliver what we promised: economic opportunity for working families and their children, quality public services on which they can rely, security in their homes and safety on their streets.

We want to liberate the talents and energy of the British people. We want to widen the opportunities for those who get on by working hard. That is why the Queen's Speech includes an enterprise Bill, which will promote enterprise by sharpening competition and by helping small businesses to come back from bankruptcy. That is why the Queen's Speech widens access to high-quality education.

When the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) opened the debate, she spoke with feeling about the problems of real life on deprived estates. One of the factors that perpetuate such deprivation is the low educational expectation of families in such neighbourhoods. We must not accept that children in areas of social deprivation should put up with poorer standards at their schools and poorer opportunities to gain qualifications and skills. That is why the Queen's Speech commits us to an education Bill that will widen the diversity of schools and push up standards for all our children, whatever their family background and wherever their home.

We are committed to opportunity for all who can take it, but we intend to parallel that with security for all who need it. That is why the Queen's Speech included a pension credit Bill--a Bill that will reward those pensioners who have saved for their old age, rather than penalising them for having done so. During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I have heard that Bill denounced by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman as extending the indignity of means testing. That is a rich piece of effrontery from the party which during more than 18 years in power made the means tests progressively more mean, until they had stripped away housing benefit, council tax benefit and any other benefit from any pensioner with a little bit more than income support. How dare the Conservatives now accuse us of imposing the indignity of the means test on pensioners, when we are giving back to pensioners some of the help of which they robbed them?

In her opening speech, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made a memorable plea to her party to serve not only the god of public spending cuts. That is the sort of line that makes many Labour Members hope that, even at this late stage in the proceedings, her party will be big enough to find a place for her in its

27 Jun 2001 : Column 740

leadership election. If we are to have a world-class health service, we need investment, not spending cuts. That is why the NHS is now benefiting from the biggest hospital building programme it has ever known.

However, investment alone is not enough. We must make sure that the investment is put to best use. That is why the Queen's Speech includes an NHS reform Bill--a Bill that will shift the centre of gravity in the NHS from Whitehall to those in the front line who are closer to patients' needs and patients' wishes.

Mr. Cash: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I hope that it really is a point of order.

Mr. Cash: It is, Mr. Speaker. Twice during the course of this debate the Deputy Speakers have drawn attention to the fact that the subject of public services is not regarded as being within the purview of the debate. I should be grateful if you ruled on that point.

Mr. Speaker: I knew that the hon. Gentleman did not really have a point of order. The Leader of the House is entitled to go over all the debates that have taken place in the past few days. His rights are different from those of Back Benchers in these circumstances.

Mr. Leigh: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker: I have already explained the position.

Next Section

IndexHome Page