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Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the Leader of the House accept that the House of Commons Commission is not an all-party body, as it was described by the Prime Minister yesterdaya number of parties in the House are not represented on it? Will he ask the Prime Minister not to describe it as such in future? As I understand it, the Leader of the House said earlier that we could have a debate on the Floor of the House about the appointment of the next Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Should not we have a debate on what happened to our current commissioner before we have a debate on the next one, either through early-day motion 513 or by some other means? How many signatures does he require that motion to have before he will agree to the democratic aspect of a debate on the Floor of the House?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is correct: his party and the other minority parties do not have direct representation on the House of Commons Commission. However, the Commission embraces representatives of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. The right hon. Member for Bromley
I do not believe that the issue has lacked adequate ventilation in Parliament or the press. There is no question of the matter being dealt with secretly. After all, the advert itself is a public document by definition. I urge everybody now to focus on the important task ahead of us, which is to ensure that we get a person of calibre, ability and commitment to carry out the job properly.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Will my right hon. Friend put paid to the nonsense that is being circulated today to the effect that any people other than hon. Members can come into the Chamber when the House is sitting or into Committees when they are doing business? Should not he be introducing measures that encourage hon. Members to be here more as legislators, instead of encouraging them to be back in their constituencies acting as social workers and parish council mayors? Can he give me an assurance that when these matters come before the House, they will, as House matters, be decided as usual by free vote? Will he put them forward separately and not as a full package?
Mr. Cook: I rather thought that my hon. Friend's earlier observations sounded a little bit like an editorial in The Guardian. I was rather surprised that he should express himself in such terms, as I know how much he values his constituency work, having visited him there. It is important that the House should strike the right balance. We are indeed here to legislate and scrutinise Government, but we are here also to represent our constituents. We cannot carry out that proper job of legislating and scrutinising Government if we do not have adequate contact with our constituents and pay adequate attention to their views. I know that he does that, so I am rather surprised by his comments. As to when and how the House considers the issues to which he refers, we are still some months away and I agree that the matter is one for the Modernisation Committee to resolve. I do not imagine that there will be one composite portmanteau or resolution. Even if we dealt with the matter on one day, I imagine that a number of different issues would have to be addressed.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): Will the Leader of the House provide some Government time to review the progress that they are making on their policy on planning? In particular, are the Government considering the impact on national heritage sites, where planning appears to be confused? In my constituency, between Hampton Court station and Hampton Court palace, there is a site that provides scandalous evidence of the failure of both owners and planners to come to any terms. As a result, the public constantly see the mess that is on the site when they leave the station to visit one of the finest palaces in this country. It would be useful to know what the Government are thinking about how to get proper planning quickly on such sites.
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman raises an important planning issue. I hesitate to express an off-the-cuff
Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I am mindful of my right hon. Friend's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard). However, despite the good progress in shaping an inclusive, post-conflict Government for the people of Afghanistan, does he agree that the prospects for renewing or retrieving the middle east peace process have become very bleak this week? Does he also agree that it is essential for Europe, the United States and the international community to show the same determination as they displayed in Afghanistan in putting pressure on both sides in the middle east conflict to come back to the negotiating table? We are in danger not only of losing the possibility of a long-term settlement, but of not finding a way back to the peace process at all.
Mr. Cook: I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The Government will endeavour to achieve the outcome that he seeks. However, I would take a step back from the suggestion of putting pressure on either side. It is important to lobby, to try to bring both sides together and encourage them to reach agreement. It is also important to recognise that what we ask of them is in their interests. We are not asking them to do something as a favour to world opinion; we are asking them to return to the negotiating table and exercise restraint on violence for the sake of their people. The only way in which to secure a permanent peace in the middle east is through a negotiated agreement. It will not be achieved by helicopter gunships on one side and suicide bombers on the other.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Each time a Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, confusion reigns about when the Government will implement their election pledge to increase national health spending to the European average. Earlier, the Chief Secretary, aided and abetted by a nodding Chancellor of the Exchequer, suggested that we would achieve the European average of 1998 in 2005. Is not it time that the Leader of the House asked the Prime Minister to make a statement on health? The Prime Minister pledged that he would take personal responsibility for the NHS; he should therefore answer questions on it exclusively.
Mr. Cook: I can only remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister answers questions in the House every week and that he has answered that specific question twice in the past two weeks.
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): A few weeks ago, I asked my right hon. Friend whether he would arrange a debate on the Auld report's recommendations for the reform of the criminal justice system. He gave me a sympathetic, but non-committal reply. Has he any firm proposals for such a debate during the consultation period, which ends at the end of January next year?
Mr. Cook: I cannot commit myself to a debate by the end of January. We have already made one commitment
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): When the Leader of the House presents the Modernisation Committee recommendations next week, I hope that he will not use "family friendly" as a smoke screen for changes that the press suggest are geared towards clockwatching earth mothers. He knows that if hon. Members clock off at 5 pm, only very few will go home to the bosom of their family. Most of us live many hours' journey from our families. Will he bear it in mind that many hon. Members would be footloose and fancy free in the city from 5 pm onwards? I cannot believe that that is in the family's interest.
Mr. Cook: Nor do I imagine that London would welcome clockwatching earth mothers being footloose in the city. Let me repeat my comments of last week. The idea that the House can ever agree to hours of 10 am to 5 pm is garbage. I never proposed that, although the newspaper that suggested that I had done so reported last weekend that I had withdrawn the proposal in the face of criticism. I am wearily reconciled to the ways of the press, and I am happy to bear an allegation that I withdrew an idea that I never proposed.
We need to find hours that will enable the House to be effective. Much of the debate about the hours of the House focuses too much on the end of the evening, when we go home. There is a much stronger case for focusing on the earlier part of the day when we do not sit, and for asking why we do not begin our proceedings until 2.30 pm, three days a week.