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Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): Will the Leader of the House take soundings throughout the House to establish the views of Members on two points: first, whether there is now a consensus, as I suspect, in favour of a wholly or substantially elected second Chamber, on the principle that, in a democracy, the people should decide who sits in our Parliament; and, secondly, whether now is the time for the responsibility for policy on the subject to be located in this Housethe House of the Executiveand specifically in the office of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House?
Mr. Cook: I think that I would be very unwise to respond to the last part of my hon. Friend's question. On the other matter, I invite him to listen attentively to the half hour that I am about to embark upon.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern in the House about the relationship between India and Pakistan. The Prime Minister recently visited those countries, yet we have not had a statement on what happened. Specifically, is it possible to have a statement on whether he made any representation to the President of Pakistan about the person in Pakistan who is agitating for attacks on this country, and whether there is any chance of extradition to enable that person to be brought here to be tried for such activities? Concerns were expressed about London being a centre of international terrorism; now it seems that we can be attacked from abroad, by encouragement. Is it possible that there might be that ambiguity in the Government's viewpoint between home-bred terrorists and international terrorism?
Mr. Cook: I see no such ambiguity in that case. I believe that the hon. Gentleman refers to Mr. Butt, whose inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric we would all deplore. It must be borne in mind that on several occasions in the past he has made wild statements that have turned out to have no substantial basis in fact.
Without referring specifically to the case of Mr. Butt, our security and law enforcement services monitor the situation very carefully and look very hard to see whether there is any evidence of a threat to this country from within or without it. I am pleased to say that, as a result of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, those authorities now have more means with which to conduct that search for any threat to the country and hold to account those who are a threat to this country.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that should a full-scale war break out in Kashmir, it would have a disastrous effect on community relations in many towns and cities in Britain that have a substantial number of citizens of Indian and Pakistani origin? It has been said that the conflict could produce civil unrest on Britain's streets that would make the current disturbances in north Belfast seem like a teddy bears' picnic. Will he find time for the House to be regularly updated on the worrying events in Kashmir, and will he ask our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to redouble his efforts to encourage peaceful dialogue in the region?
Mr. Cook: I would not wish to be alarmist about the consequences of conflict in the sub-continent. We have witnessed such conflict in the past without any sensational developments on our own streets, although we must be careful about the rhetoric that we use. However, having expressed that reservation, I would have no dissent with my hon. Friend's concern about the consequences for the region and the world of any conflict. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put so much effort into speaking to the Prime Minister of India and the President of Pakistan and urging them to return to dialogue. I find it very hard to understand why some have criticised him for going to that very substantial area of partnership for Britain, of community ties with the British people, and of concern about tension for world peace. I believe that he was absolutely right to go and absolutely right to try to ensure that peace continues.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will the Leader of the House take an urgent look at the format of Transport questions, as under the present arrangements we can question only the Secretary of State for Transport Local Government and the Regions and his junior Ministers, none of whom runs the Government's transport policy? Will he find an early parliamentary opportunity for us to question the Government Deputy Chief Whip, who is responsible for negotiating with the striking unions, Lord Birt, who is in charge of long-term Government thinking on transport policy, and the Minister for Europe, who seems to be in charge of telling the truth on transport policy?
Mr. Cook: I have to tell the House that I know of no ministerial team from any Department that has appeared more often in the Chamber or any Cabinet colleague who has come more often to the Dispatch Box since the general election than the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and his team. It was entirely wrong for some in the press to criticise him for taking a holiday over the new year, for heaven's sake, and
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Will my right hon. Friend make a clear commitment to the Government's commitment to mutual and co-operative organisations? Will he have a word with his colleagues in the Governmentprincipally, those at the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industryto ensure that they carefully consider the two Bills that will be debated on 18 and 25 January? Those Bills would make a significant difference to mutual organisations, so anything that could be done would be of major importance all round.
Mr. Cook: The Government are highly supportive of the development of co-operative forms of ownership and partnership in industry and business, and we shall continue that record of support and ensure that there are no legal barriers in the way of such of organisations flourishing and competing successfully. I will pass on to the relevant Department my hon. Friend's comments on the forthcoming private Members' Bills.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The Leader of the House will know that the Government have recently published proposalsalbeit, in consultative documentsseeking to make radical changes to our town and country planning system, including dealing with planning applications of national significance. As those issues are vital to all our constituents, does he agree that a debate on that matter would be very helpful to the Government and, indeed, the House at this time?
Mr. Cook: I am always open to suggestions for debates that would be helpful to the Government and will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman says. He raises a very serious and strategic issue, and he is right to say that we are consulting on it. It is important that that consultation process should enable all those in the country to express their views. I understand that the proposals cannot proceed without legislation, so they are bound to be debated in the House at some stage.
Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): May I tell my right hon. Friend how fearful many families in my constituency with friends and relatives in Kashmir are about the growing tension between India and Pakistan? I endorse the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) to hold a debate on this subject in the near future. May I tell my right hon. Friend that my constituents appreciate the Foreign Secretary's efforts in seeking to mediate between India and Pakistan? Does he agree that this is perhaps now the time for the United Kingdom to play a more proactive role as a mediator in the conflict between those two nations?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is correct. Some 3 million people in Britain have community and family ties with the sub-continent, all of whom will watch, with close interest and apprehension, what may happen to their relatives and back any effort to try to preserve peace. Those efforts are strenuously pursued in the Foreign Office and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I appreciate my hon. Friend's call for more discussion of this issue in the Chamber, and I will retain a watching brief on it and consider what he says.
In the meantime, I should mention that I suggested in my modernisation proposals that we should reduce the period of notice for oral questions to increase topicality. Tuesday's Question Time was a good example of the need to do that, as the Order Paper contained not a single question to the Foreign Secretary on India and Pakistan. That would not have happened if we had a realistic period of notice.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Is the Leader of the House aware that he has singularly failed to explain why the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has not voluntarily come to the Chamber since the House returned on Tuesday, when my constituents and others are suffering from neanderthal industrial action on the railways at the hands of the RMT? Is the real answer that too many Labour Members, starting with the Deputy Prime Minister, are far too close to the RMT?