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Business of the House

12.32 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week, please?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 26 November—Conclusion of consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.

Tuesday 27 November—Second Reading of the Employment Bill.

Wednesday 28 November—Second Reading of the Civil Defence (Grants) Bill.

Thursday 29 November—Consideration of an allocation of time motion followed by all stages on the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill [Lords].

Friday 30 November—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

Monday 3 December—Opposition Day [6th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 4 December—Second Reading of the Education Bill.

Wednesday 5 December—A debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Thursday 6 December—A debate on the common fisheries policy reform and sustainable fisheries on a motion for the Adjournment of theHouse.

Friday 7 December—The House will not be sitting.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Leader for giving us the business. Can he tell us what has happened to the debate that we always used to have—just before Christmas, I think—on public expenditure? We are having the Chancellor's pre-Budget report next week, on 27 November. I should have thought that if the economy is such an astonishing success, as the Government like to claim it is, they would be eager to have a full day's debate on public expenditure so that that confidence may be fully expressed. Opposition Members certainly look forward to such a debate. Can the Leader of the House say when it will be and whether the Government are ducking and evading as usual, or whether such a debate would reflect their confidence?

May we also have an urgent debate on the role and powers of Select Committees? The Leader of the House will know very well that Standing Order 152 says that Sub-Committees of Select Committees

He will also know that this is one of the most cherished powers of our Select Committee system; and many people believe that the entrenchment of that power is one of the most important aspects of the Government's accountability to Parliament. I would have thought that all that was uncontroversial.

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Is the Leader of the House aware of the recent press notice from the Transport Sub-Committee which says:

It continues:

I would have thought that you are astonished, too, Mr. Speaker. I certainly am, because it seems to me to challenge the entire relationship that we thought existed between Select Committees and Ministers. This is the second such occasion in a fairly short time, is it not?

Will the Leader of the House please grant us a debate on the matter? In the meantime, perhaps he will clarify what he thinks is the relationship between Ministers and Select Committees, because his Modernisation Committee is busy claiming that Select Committees are very important and central to parliamentary activities. Given that, I hope that the Chairman of the Modernisation Committee may have something to say about this latest scandal.

As I suspect that the Leader of the House is a regular reader of The Guardian, which I happily am not, perhaps he has read it today? I emphasise that these are not my words, but the words of the paper's correspondent. Under the headline:

the Westminster correspondent writes:

Ministers in the other place regularly have to appear before their Lordships to apologise and to retract and correct what they have said. However, manners are much better in the other place and Ministers there obviously regard it as important to their integrity that they apologise, if necessary. Can I ask the Leader of the House for a regular slot—it may not be daily, but at least weekly—when Ministers can come to the House and apologise for what they have said?

Mr. Cook: I welcome the Opposition's interest in debating the Government's record on the economy.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): We'd love to!

Mr. Cook: I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman confirm that. We are very happy to take any opportunity that comes our way to remind the House that Britain currently has the fastest growth rate in the G7, the lowest inflation in Europe and the lowest unemployment for a generation. We are proud of that record and we approach it with confidence.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be coming to the House next week to present the pre-Budget report. I recall that the right hon. Gentleman wanted that. It is right that the Chancellor and the House should focus on that next week. I shall, however, draw the attention of

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my right hon. Friend to the Opposition's enthusiasm for debating our record, and I hope that any amendments that they table to the motion relating to that debate will reflect their pleasure at what the Government have achieved and the contrast between that and their own lack of achievement when they were in office.

On the Transport Sub-Committee, I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has given me the opportunity to clarify some of what was said in the press statement from the Select Committee. It is not the case that Treasury Ministers have declined to appear before the Select Committee.

Mr. Forth: Oh?

Mr. Cook: It is true. In the previous Parliament, the Financial Secretary and the Economic Secretary appeared before the Transport Sub-Committee, and in doing so, they reported on their proposals for taxes that affected the transport industries. It is also the case that, in this Parliament recently, Treasury Ministers have appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee to report on the impact of the aggregates levy and on excise duty. Those matters are firmly within the ministerial responsibility of Treasury Ministers. Rail franchising is firmly within the ministerial responsibility of Ministers at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. Frankly, I cannot imagine anything that will do more to undermine the system of ministerial accountability to the House and its Committees if the Ministers with responsibility are not held to account by the Committees and if other Ministers are held to account for decisions for which they are not responsible.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): Very clever.

Mr. Cook: The hon. Lady should also take pride in the fact that the Conservative party showed the same cleverness when in office. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) also refused to appear in front of the Transport Committee, when he was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) should explain why he believes that this Government should follow practices that Conservative Members never dreamt of following themselves when they were in office.

Lastly, on the report in The Guardian today, I must confess that I did not see that part of the paper—perhaps my yoghurt splashed on it before I turned to that page—but my right hon. Friend has already written to the two hon. Members involved to put the record straight.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the reports in this morning's Financial Times about a very major restructuring of the Department of Trade and Industry and the introduction to the DTI of a significant component from private business? In terms of parliamentary accountability, to whom does the DTI account if those business leaders will be significant in the decision-making mode? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the concept of genuine social partnership will exist in the DTI; or can we perhaps expect a statement from the Secretary of State?

Mr. Cook: I am advised that the DTI will answer a parliamentary question today, setting out the new

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arrangements for the strategy committee. Under Governments of whatever colour, the DTI has endlessly consulted business men and had committees on which they served. It is absolutely right and proper that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should rationalise that system and provide a strategic focus for it by setting up that committee. That will be fully explained in the written answer to be published this afternoon.

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