Yesterday in answer to a rather loosely worded question, the Prime Minister confirmed at column 964 that he was committed to raising health expenditure to the European Community average by 2005. That leaves us completely in the dark as to what that commitment means. Was it a reference in cash terms? Was it a commitment to a percentage of gross domestic product as it will be in 2005? We need to know these things because there has been a lot of speculation as such large sums are involved. Will the Leader of the House provide time for an urgent statement to clarify what the Prime Minister meant, whether he has the Chancellor's support and agreement, how much money is involved and where it will come from? Before we embark on the great debate on health, which we all welcome, we need to know those key facts.
Hidden away in the Chancellor's pre-Budget report is a reference to the increase in council taxin local taxationwhich suggests yet another alarming increase in the level and amount of council tax. That increase seems to be more every year. I suspect that the increase in local taxation will swallow up entirely what the Chancellor was boasting, the other day, would be an increase in pensions. We need an urgent debate on that, to establishif nothing elsewhether pensioners will be better off as a result of what the Chancellor was claiming, or whether, as I suspect, all the increases will more than disappear in the enormous increases in council tax that we are now getting.
Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for greeting what he described as the joyous news about the recesses. We are approaching the season when joyous news is appropriate, although I ask myself how he and I will pass that time without being able to exchange views every Thursday.
Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman is confused, let me try to elucidate. The commitment that was originally given by the Prime Minister, and to which I understand the leader of the Liberal Democrats was alluding, was that within five years of March 2001 we would be at the average for European spending on the health servicethat is an average expressed as a percentage of gross domestic product. I am pleased to inform the House that, over the past four years, we have been able to approach that average at the rate of 0.1 per cent. of GDP each year, so we are on course to meet the average[Interruption.] No, we are on course to meet the average by the time that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I am entertained that Opposition Members should find that they are not impressed by 0.1 per cent. of GDP as an increase. That may of course reflect the fact that during their period in office they never came remotely near increasing NHS spending by 0.1 per cent.[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman and I can put a date in our diaries for the debate in March 2006 when we see whether we have achieved that target. All I can tell the House at present is that we are on course, and in five years I look forward to receiving the right hon. Gentleman's congratulations on our having succeeded
On council tax, I can inform the House that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions will be making a statement on council allocations on Tuesday next week. I suggest that hon. Members do not get particularly excited about what they may read in the papers before the announcement.
Lastly, I have no strong views on whether the fisheries policy is debated on the Adjournment of the House on a take-note motion. I shall take the right hon. Gentleman's views to heart and consider them, but the House can divide on an Adjournment motion if it wishes, and it has done so frequently.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): I am sure that the Leader of the House heard the exchanges with the Minister for Industry and Energy just before half-past 12, in relation to the payments of equal value for the canteen workers and cleaners. Does my right hon. Friend think that, as the matter has not been fully cleared up, the Minister needs to make a full statement so that we can explain to him that, in the House of Lords judgment in the mid-1990s, when almost every pit in Derbyshire closed and the structure of the National Union of Mineworkers had been completely destroyed, no one was available to tell those canteen workers of their rights, despite the fact that the House of Lords called on Ministers to use a broad-brush approach and make ex gratia payments?
Ex gratia payments have been a feature of every Government since I have been a Member of Parliament. There is no bar to them. If my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy needs a way round this, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) provided it for him a few weeks ago. This is a very important moral issue. The people who worked in the canteens, who saw the industry smashed, the structure of the NUM destroyed and who were unable to make their claims, should be allowed to make them, just like those 400 people in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere who managed to get ex gratia payments.
Mr. Cook: I understand the concerns of those who have not been included in the payments. I remind the House that the Government have fully met their commitment that they would make such payments to all those who were included in the submission that was made to the courts. I understand my hon. Friend's feelings in relation to those who were not included in the several hundred who were submitted to the court. As I entered the Chamber, there was a considerable and vigorous exchange on this matter. I am sure that it will continue to be a matter of debate and that he will, no doubt, look for other opportunities, such as that which he has just taken, to press the point.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): May I ask the Leader of the House to clarify the arrangements for announcing the subjects of Opposition Supply days. The business statement indicated that no subject has yet been allocated for the first half of the debate on Monday, so it seems that many Members will find out what the subject
The exchanges this afternoon, as well as those earlier in the week, show the essential need for a full day's debate on the economy, which we always used to have at this time of year, whenever the Chancellor made a major statement. Indeed, the exchanges that have just taken place reinforce that view.
There are few advantages of sitting on the Opposition Benches compared with sitting on the Government Benches, but the Leader of the House may like to note that one advantage is that we can see the expressions on the faces of his colleagues when the Prime Minister answers questions. The expression on the Chancellor's face when his right hon. Friend replied to a question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) was a picture to behold. It is therefore clear that some questions remain to be answered by the Chancellor and his colleagues, and that that debate on the economy is surely urgent.
Finally, may I ask the Leader of the House to give an undertaking that if, as seems likely, the Lords messages on Wednesday 12 December contain some extremely important views from them on the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, not least from his Labour colleagues in the other place, we will be able to give them precedence over the debate on the international situation? That latter debate is simply on the Adjournment of the House. The issues that relate to that Bill are, of course, matters for votes, and I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will feel that those critical issues should not be rushed through the House, especially after our experiences in recent weeks. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that there will be proper time for debate and Divisions on those extremely important issues and that, if necessary, the debate on the international situation will be moved to the next day, when there need not be a vote?