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Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend has expressed concerns that I hope the statement that I have just made will go some way to addressing. Hon. Members are now perfectly able to say to their constituents that any change in legislation will not alter the basis on which incapacity benefit is received by current claimants.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the Leader of the House assist me? I was lucky enough to secure an Adjournment debate yesterday in which the question was raised as to who has the power to close footpaths outside infected areas in counties such as North Yorkshire.
Mr. Cook: I am no legal expert, but my understanding has always been that it was the primary responsibility of the local authority. Indeed, local authorities across England have been acting on that assumption over the past three or four months. However, if there is any doubt about the matter, I shall arrange for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to write to the hon. Lady to clarify it.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning the shameless way in which the Conservative leadership and some Conservative candidates exploited the sensitive issues of immigration and asylum in the run-up to the general election?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat. I must remind him that these are business questions, and that he should be asking questions about the business for next week. If he has not a question on that, I shall move on.
Mr. Prosser: Will my right hon. Friend make a statement on those issues, so that we can discuss the behaviour at the general election? Will he also take the opportunity to celebrate the fact that, last weekend, we celebrated our first-ever multicultural festival in the town square in Dover, and that a good time was had by one and all?
Mr. Cook: Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suspect that I should be in some trouble if I attempted to make the statement that my hon. Friend tempts me to make. I said what I wished to say on the matter at the time, and it was well reported. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the action being taken in Dover to promote and celebrate the strength of Britain as a multicultural society.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Can we have a debate next week on the constitutional position of the Prime Minister? The Leader of the House will have noticed that, over the past few days, when the Prime Minister has talked about the privatisation of public services, about the star wars project, about taking money away from disabled people or about giving money to Railtrack executives, he has received no support whatsoever from the those on the Government Benches, but an enormous amount of support from the Tory Benches. Would it be constitutionally possible for the Prime Minister to cross the Floor? Could we have a debate about it?
Mr. Cook: More frequently, we are accused of using our record majority in a way that is inconsistent with parliamentary democracy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will notice that, even as I speak, Conservative Members are agreeing with that. They cannot have it both ways: they cannot simultaneously complain about a record majority and a lack of support for the Prime Minister.
Throughout this Parliament, we will carry through the programme on which we were elected. We will ensure that we improve public services in schools, hospitals and transport, and that we carry through a programme of welfare reform that helps those who want to work and can work, and protects those who are unable to work. On that, the Prime Minister has the full support of this side of the House.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the Government's youth policy in general? Too often, we debate youth justice and other matters that paint a negative image of our young people. However, I know from campaigning recently that we need to look at the services that are available to those young people, including recreation and sports provision. I believe that we could devote more time in here to discussing matters that affect young people in general.
Mr. Cook: I very much share my hon. Friend's emphasis on ensuring that we provide properly targeted, sensitive policies for young people, and he will welcome the fact that that is reflected in the changes made to the machinery of government after the election. We now have a new Cabinet Committee on children and young people's services and, for the first time, a Minister with responsibility for young peoplemy right hon. Friend the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugshas been appointed. That will enable us to focus and target our services and policies on young people. Just before the election, we set out a strategy for children and young people on which consultation is taking place, so my hon. Friend and others will have an opportunity to feed in their views.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): The Leader of the House has had a long and distinguished career representing a Scottish constituency in this place. Will he arrange an urgent debate to give us the benefit of that experience and his wisdom, with particular regard to the West Lothian question? In the light of his new responsibilities and in respect of both his long experience and distinguished service here as a great parliamentarian and of any previous pronouncements he may have made on the subject, we would all find it very interesting to hear what he thinks about and what answer he or the Government have to the West Lothian question.
Mr. Cook: I very much appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's observations on my experience, although when he makes such comments I wish that he would make them sound a little less like an obituary. On the question of the participation of Scottish Members in the House, as I said last week and the week before, this is a unitary Chamber. All Members have equal rights. I do not remember respect being paid to the sensitivity of Scottish political preferences when he was in government.
David Wright (Telford): May I ask my right hon. Friend for an early debate on housing and regeneration policy? The quality of some local housing estates was a key issue in the election campaign in my constituency. Many are still in local authority ownership, but some have transferred to other landlords. There is a clear difficulty in co-ordinating services on many such estates and the funding regimes that can regenerate them are often
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will improve his chances of being called more frequently if he keeps his questions brief and concise. He has said enough to enable the Leader of the House to respond.
Mr. Cook: No, in penetrating detail. I shall ensure that my hon. Friend's comments are conveyed to the appropriate Secretary of State. We began this Session with the Homelessness Bill and there will be further opportunities to legislate on housing. He and others will be welcome to express their views in those debates.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Why does the Leader of the House think it appropriate to announce in a written answer the fact that the Transport Commissioner for London finds unacceptable the future of the tube as set out in the policy of Her Majesty's Government? Does not that announcement represent a gross insult to the people of London, who have suffered for four long years and more from the unworkable proposals for London's transport system made by Her Majesty's Government?
Mr. Cook: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the commissioner made his views clear earlier this week. There were exchanges about that at Prime Minister's questions yesterday, and a full statement has been made today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I am bound to say that I think it appropriate that such a response has been made and I am not necessarily persuaded that I should accept the precedent that when the Transport Commissioner for London makes a statement, an oral statement should also be made to the House.
We are the ones who are looking for the way forward; the commissioner has said that he cannot see a way forward. I repeat that £13 billion of investment is available to Londoners to improve the underground, and it is regrettable that the commissioner cannot find a way to access and use the moneys available to him. Most other local authorities in Britain would find a way round the problem.