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Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has done very well indeed.

Ms Hewitt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I agree that it would have been better had we understood 30 years ago the scale of the problems and the challenges that were building up. Our knowledge of the liabilities and the technical possibilities that are available to manage them change with each generation. The board has delivered the best available current estimate of the liabilities, which we have put before the House today. No doubt the estimates will continue to change, especially in the light of new technical expertise.

My hon. Friend is right that the liabilities that I propose to transfer to the LMA represent only part of the total liabilities of the industry. I readily confirm, as I said earlier, that there is no proposal whatsoever to transfer the liabilities of British Energy, which were dealt with when the company was privatised, to the public sector.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): May I also express my support for my right hon. Friend's excellent

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announcement? In response to the few voices raised against it, will she make it clear that the nuclear power industry, alone among energy producers, has to take account of its lifetime costs, including the cost of decommissioning, in working out its figures? We have a legacy liability today because that industry alone contains and manages its environmental waste while other energy producers are allowed simply to throw it into the atmosphere and ignore it.

On a point of clarification, if the new authority is to contract for services from BNFL, how will the prices for those services be set, given that there is no market at present to set them?

Ms Hewitt: My hon. Friend raises two extremely important points. I hope that one of the outcomes of the performance and innovation unit energy review will be an analytical base for a better understanding of the real costs of different energy sources, so that future decisions between energy sources can be made on a true comparison of those costs.

My hon. Friend's second point, on the non-existence of a market in the management of nuclear liabilities, is very important. Part of the remit of the LMA, and of my Department before the LMA is established, will be to try to encourage the development of a growing market in the management of nuclear liabilities so that we get a wider choice of operators and a better sense of what the price would be.

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British Remand Prisoners (Greece)

5.32 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that they have been accused of espionage although it seems that some of those accused are not certain whether any charges have been laid against them. Yesterday they were remanded in custody for at least a further week. Bail was refused. My constituent, Mr. Peter Norris, is one of those held, but many hon. Members have been expressing strong concerns about their constituents. I am particularly grateful for the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), my hon. Friends the Members for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and the hon. Members for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins).

Mr. Norris has told me, through his daughter Estelle, that the charges are ludicrous. All 12 tourists are bona fide aviation enthusiasts who have followed their hobby in many places around the world without problems for many years. As a fellow resident of Uxbridge, I know that Mr. Norris is a locally known expert on that subject and has written articles in the Uxbridge Gazette for over 20 years.

At the three air bases that the tourists visited they were officially signed in. They were told not to bring cameras, so they left them in their vehicle. There has been mention of a secret air base. Apparently, this is where a soap opera is filmed, with episodes shown weekly on Greek television. The tourists have even seen episodes showing the air base while they have been in prison. In fact they never even entered the base, but were at an adjacent go-kart track, which had a view over the film-set air base. It is hardly the stuff of John le Carré. These are ordinary people pursuing their hobby.

This incident is fast becoming a real problem in relations between our two countries, and many people now thinking about holidaying in Greece may well want to reconsider any decision in light of what is going on. This over-reaction is frankly not the behaviour that we expect from a democracy and a fellow European Union state. I know that members of Her Majesty's Government have been talking to their counterparts in Greece, and that the consular department of the British embassy in Athens has been active in trying to look after the welfare of those in prison. However, I ask for this debate now so that we in the House have the opportunity to express our views, and in my case my extreme displeasure, at this unnecessarily harsh and unwarranted treatment of British subjects by one of our European Union partners.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that he has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24. I cannot therefore submit his application to the House.

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Point of Order

5.35 pm

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. First, may I thank you for the clarification that you have given the House with regard to the resolution of March 1997. I would very much appreciate your guidance on two points.

The first is this: you will know that, as a general proposition, the Table Office will not accept questions when an answer to it has been given in the recent past. You will appreciate that a number of right hon. and hon. Members, myself included, have recently tabled questions in respect of which they have not received satisfactory answers, and in their view have not received an answer that corresponds and complies with the guidance that you have given today. Given that, would you consider expressing the view for the guidance of the Table Office that it should be generous in the interpretation and acceptance of questions tabled, with a view to getting further and more satisfactory replies?

The second point on which I would welcome your guidance is as follows: will you confirm that any practice of burying bad news by Ministers—clipping out bits of information at times most propitious to them—does not comply with the guidance and interpretation that you have given this day on the resolution of March 1997?

Mr. Speaker: I have nothing to add to the statement that I made today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should submit these problems to the Public Administration Committee. That is the best advice that I can give him.


Tax Credits

Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer presented a Bill to make provision for tax credits; to amend the law about child benefit and guardian's allowance; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 59].

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Prime Minister (Office, Role and Functions)

5.37 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I beg to move,

Thomas Paine argued in "The Rights of Man" that

Power unacknowledged is power unaccountable. Power unbounded is power uncontrolled. The time has come for this Parliament to acknowledge and define the true extent of the power of the United Kingdom prime ministership.

We will all be stronger for recognising the central truth of British politics: the office of Prime Minister towers over our democracy. This mighty oak casts a long and chilling shadow over all of us who are drawn close to it—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—regardless of which party is in office. We all know that there is no political office like it in the democratic world—the concentration of power, the scope of decision making, the span of patronage, the control of both Executive and legislature, plus the informal abilities to set the agenda and dominate access to the media.

I and my sponsors—all departmental Select Committee Chairs and of all parties—make no partisan or personal points. The development of the office under all incumbents over the past century has made a myth of the notion of parliamentary sovereignty, a lie of collective Cabinet government and a near terminal hollowing-out of our political parties. Our politics, once a rich and varied diet of interaction and competition, has given way to McPolitics—a dumbed-down, one-dimensional relationship between a prime ministership and an insatiable media, with the rest of us reduced to spectators, bit players and cheer-leaders.

All of us in this House should be anxious that at some point in future—in different hands; in less wholesome hands—such awesome prime ministerial power could overwhelm and threaten our democratic culture. We cannot rely for ever on prime ministerial benevolence and self-discipline. Stronger institutional bulwarks are needed to keep vigil over our democracy. It is our duty in this House, and one that Downing street can no longer neglect, to think on those issues and propose some practical answers. Before then, a more routine and obvious obligation falls on us as parliamentarians: to define the office that is so central to our politics to give it statutory life and legalise the existing institution of the prime ministership. That is the intent of the Bill.

So much of the office still lies in a shadow, a mystery, much of it veiled in the royal prerogative, the Crown at No. 10 Downing street—all of it outwith parliamentary consent. A handful of our statutes make passing reference to the office, all on minor matters such as the appointment of bishops and so on. None define it. None consolidate it in one place so that all can see the magnificent spread, the frightening reach, of prime ministerial supremacy. After almost 300 years that oversight should be put right, for without definition there can be no limits, and without limits the office itself will become a threat to representative democracy.

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I recently asked the current Prime Minister to define the prime ministership. He replied:

Parliament can and should help the Prime Minister. If it walks like a prime ministership and if it talks like a prime ministership, let us ensure, on the hard countenance of a parliamentary Bill, that it is a prime ministership. The House has many precedents on which to draw: every other liberal democracy is meticulous in describing its key political office; in addition, the House itself has recently delineated the role of the First Ministers in Scotland and in Wales. Our will may be suspect, but our competence is not.

Of course, the office has changed since the time of Walpole, who became the first Prime Minister in 1721 and who spent his day eating Norfolk apples on the Treasury Bench. Each incumbent has added something and the office inexorably continues the trend of accumulating power—but that is no force of nature; it is not beyond our control. I propose that we in Parliament stop spectating and make a conscious decision that the evolution has gone far enough—that we define the prime ministership as it is now in law, and that the Executive power should not grow further without the clear consent of this Parliament or a future Parliament. If Parliament does not have the responsibility to draw that line in the sand, it has no real purpose at all and our transition to the dignified part of the constitution is complete.

Defining the prime ministership does not weaken it and it is not my intention to do that, but neither does my acceptance of a strong Executive imply acceptance of a feeble Parliament. We do not have to choose between the lyrics and the music of our democracy. Indeed, being clear about what the prime ministership can do will only help Parliament to rediscover and redefine its own destiny as we are squeezed between devolution, Europe and globalism. It will give us a sustainable role for the future.

A healthier Parliament will be a help to the prime ministership. We in this place can add value through accountability, scrutiny, value for money and even delivery of policies. All those are reasons why the current Prime Minister and those to come should welcome—indeed, initiate—a new relationship with Parliament, rather than stand in its way.

My unambitious Bill is designed merely to consolidate in one statute all the prime ministerial powers that already exist. The one modest innovation is to suggest that Parliament takes its part in the process of choosing our Prime Minister. Parliament has become the electoral college that briefly flickers into life on general election night, with the media left to acclaim the prime ministerial winner.

The Bill proposes that the day after the election the House meets, just as the Bundestag in Germany meets, and elects the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister would then go to the palace in the normal way. Symbolically at least, that would acknowledge the House as the ultimate

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source of Executive power. It would be some riposte to those who say that Parliament is just bypassed and is a rubber stamp, or that the elective dictatorship is not even elective.

As the new century begins, knee deep in political cynicism and failing participation, we have a clear and present duty to prepare ourselves for the future and to examine our institutions without exception, however exalted, to ascertain whether they and we measure up. We cannot examine a shadow behind a veil, a Prime Minister with unacknowledged powers who is shrouded in the mysteries of an unwritten constitution. Let us now bring our mightiest office out of the darkness into the dawn of democracy, and into the light of the law.

The contract that our society has with government must be written down. I ask, therefore, that the House consents to allow my Bill to be printed, and that an open, non-partisan debate can begin on the future of the Executive and the legislature.

As the prime ministership approaches its 300th birthday, we might dare to assume that Walpole's experiment is here to stay. Now, our mature democracy deserves to see the office revealed honestly for what it truly is. If it chooses, this Parliament can start to bring the prime ministership, and with it itself, into the new millennium.

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