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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe): Will the Leader of the House find an opportunity for an early debate on health so that we can ask the Government whether they support a hypothecated health tax, like the Secretary of State for Health, or whether they oppose such a tax, like his very best friend the Chancellor?
Mr. Cook: I have no doubt that the House will have the ingenuity to ask those questions on many future occasions.
Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central): Will my right hon. Friend find time soon to debate the guidelines currently followed by Customs and Excise on personal imports of tobacco and alcohol? Under the guidelines, my right hon. Friend will be aware, Customs and Excise have not only made large seizures of alcohol and tobacco, but impounded motor vehicles, which are then sold. The European Commission has declared those guidelines unlawful. May we therefore have a debate or statement to clarify the position on the validity of those guidelines?
Mr. Cook: I remind my hon. Friend that everything that Customs and Excise does is done under United Kingdom law, with the authority of the House and, indeed, the elected Government. Of course, I appreciate that the matter is of concern to people who have been stopped by Customs and Excise and had property
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The consultation period on the Government's proposals to reform the House of Lords runs out at the end of January. May we have an assurance that there will be a full day's debate on them before that period expires?
Mr. Cook: I am pleased to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. I anticipate that that debate will be held in the first week after the recess, subject to progress on business.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): After more than 14 years of persistent rebellion in the House, never once have I had any physical or verbal abuse from the Whips. I am wondering whether I do not go to Strangers Bar enough or whether people are not taking me seriously.
My question to my right hon. Friend refers to early-day motion 532, which deals with a mineral planning guidance note:
[That this House welcomes the gains made in the revised version of Mineral Planning Guidance Note 3 (MPG3) which can and should be used by planning authorities to prevent dangerous forms of open cast mining; is disturbed that these gains stand to be lost entirely by favoured changes which are due to take place to MPG ll, which itself is supposed to mitigate the environmental effects of mineral extractions, including open cast mining; notes that the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions is currently placing an entirely unjustified reliance upon a deeply flawed survey from Newcastle University which restricted its examination of the effects of dust particulates to PM 10 size, measured within the limited distance of l km of mineral extraction operations, when the professionals conducting the survey must have been aware that fine particulates travel exceptional distances and that PM 2-5 particulates could easily have been measured at no additional costs to their study; is disturbed to discover that such an inept and incompetent study is being used for the benefit of open cast mining interests, although many reputable alternative surveys have reached different conclusions; and calls upon the Government to commission its own detailed and rigorous research into such matters before the revised MPG 11 is adopted and published, so that environmental, health and communal interests are placed to the fore.]
Improvements proposed by mineral planning guidance note 3 have made it much more difficult for opencast mining applications to be granted. Currently, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is investigating MPG 11, which is supposed to mitigate the environmental effects of mineral extraction. However, from correspondence that I have had with the Department, it appears to be taking too much into account a survey conducted by Newcastle university, which was published in 1999 by the Department of Health and does not take seriously the impact of coal dust on young people. It is clear that, at some point, we shall have a
Mr. Speaker: Order. Far be it from me to bully the hon. Gentleman, but I think that that question went on a bit too long.
Mr. Cook: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) for confirming what I have long supposed: that the Government Whips treat Labour Members with respect to their person if not always with respect to their opinions.
My hon. Friend is correct that the Department is conducting a review of planning guidance on opencast mining. The review can reflect the evidence to which he referred and can also take full account of the early-day motion that he and others have tabled.
Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Can the Leader of the House remember on which day he was quoted referring to the whispering campaign against the current Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? If he cannot remember, it was on 20 August, on page 3 of the Financial Times. The Leader has also told the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) that he wants to have a quality field of candidates for the next term of office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Will he therefore, perhaps in next week's debate, follow up on those remarks by saying whether he remembers his words of 28 June 2001, when he said that the current Parliamentary Commissioner is "zealous . . . extremely zealous"?
Is the Leader trying to ensure that the field is less zealous by associating himself with a cut in the commissioner's days of service per week from four to three, in the mistaken belief that Sir Gordon Downey worked three days rather than four days per week? Will he please also give the House an opportunity as soon as possible to debate and vote on early-day motion 513, which states:
[That this House has confidence in the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and invites Elizabeth Filkin to accept reappointment on the terms of the initial contract working four days a week.]
As I understand it, such a debate and vote are the only way in which the House can offer reappointment to the commissioner on the terms that she is currently on and that Sir Gordon Downey was on.
Mr. Cook: On the hon. Gentleman's last point, I remind him that Mrs. Filkin applied for a job and that the job description said that it would be for three days; that is the basis on which she was chosen. Subsequently, it was negotiated that she should be paid and employed for four days. It has always been open to her to pursue that course, and it has always been open to any candidate who has been appointed to secure an extension of the three days. That is precisely what we did last time.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that Sir Gordon Downey was employed for four days a week. It is also the case that, before he retired, he wrote to the authorities indicating that, in his view, the job merited three days a week, not four. The job description for his successor was drawn up on that basis.
I have of course studied the early-day motion with care; I always pay respect to early-day motions. Quite often, they provide a useful expression of a weight of opinion in the House and often attract a very large number of signatures. I noted with care that the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion has been signed so far by 18 hon. Members, and therefore does not attract the priority for debate that many others do that demonstrate a much larger body of opinion behind them in the House.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): Hon. Members on both sides of the House were very grateful that, yesterday, you, Mr. Speaker, were able to take a private notice question on the middle east from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). However, given the very serious nature of events in the area, will the Leader of the House try to find time as soon as possible for a full debate, in Government time, on the situation in the middle east, particularly in relation to the west bank and Gaza? Although hon. Members have been able to address those issues in debates on international terrorism, I hope that the Leader of the House will agree that we deserve time to debate Palestine and the problems there outside of that context. I do not think that we have had such a debate in the past year.
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an issue that is of deep concern to many hon. Members. He is also quite correct that there is an opportunity to raise those issues in the course of our exchanges on international terrorism. There will be another full day's debate on that subject next week, which will be the sixth such full day's debate since 11 September. There have therefore been many opportunities for hon. Members to raise those issues of concern. I underline the Government's deep anxiety about the present situation in the middle east and our appeal to both sides for restraint and a return to the negotiating table. I know that this is a matter of deep concern and priority for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that he and his team will continue to do all that they can to ensure that Britain and the European Union play their part in trying to bring both parties back from the brink.