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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Earlier today, we heard questions about the universal service provision of the Royal Mail, now Consignia. I met members of the east midlands region of the Communications Workers Union in Leicester last week and they are very concerned about the impact of Consignia's management, its clumsy industrial relations and the rate at which it is outsourcing many of its activities. Will my right hon. Friend find time to include in the parliamentary timetable as soon as possible a debate that examines the future of the postal service in the United Kingdom, and Consignia's record so far?
Mr. Cook: I am not sure that we regard it as appropriate for the House to debate the management of Consignia given that that is a matter for the company and that we must maintain an appropriate distance from management decisions. However, I have already said to the HouseI echo it againthat we were surprised at the manner of the announcement of the redundancies by the management of Consignia. We strongly urge them to enter into full consultations and dialogue with the work force about the financial challenges facing the industry.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Can the Leader of the House clear up some confusion about the likely date of the Whitsun recess? He will be aware that the Whit bank holiday has been moved this year to allow it to stand beside the Queen's golden jubilee. [Interruption.] I understand that some Conservative Members have already made holiday plans for the wrong week.
Has the Leader of the House had an opportunity to consider Mr. Speaker's ruling after the 10 o'clock vote last night about the occupancy of the Opposition Front Bench and the use of the Dispatch Box? Is the Leader of the House aware that there are useful precedents for the representatives of the main third party in the House to speak from the Dispatch Box? No less than former Prime Ministers Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Asquith did so long after they ceased to lead the Opposition or Government parties? Would it not be for the convenience of the House, when the Liberal Democrats are leading a debate or are the only Opposition party present, for them to use the Dispatch Box so that there can be a genuine debate across the Floor of the House?
Mr. Cook: I am intrigued to hear that some hon. Members have arranged holidays for the Whit recess. I can only admire them for thinking that far ahead on such arrangements. However, I am not able to announce firm times for the Easter or Whit recesses at present. I hope to have made some progress on that when we meet again next Thursday, and I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's point.
On DEFRA, the House is aware from previous exchanges of the massive increase in correspondence to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Ministers in that Department. Indeed, that correspondence has trebled over the past year. As a result, DEFRA is seeking to improve and increase the number of people working in the correspondence section. It is currently attracting additional staff and I hope that that will lead to an improvement. No one is trying to defend the response rate, which is, of course, a reflection of the very strong increase in interest in DEFRA matters over the past year.
On the subject of last night, far from studying Mr. Speaker's ruling, I was present to hear it, and a very entertaining and enjoyable sight it referred to too. I am sure that a good time was had by all. However, it would be unwise for me to comment on a matter that is within a Speaker's ruling.
Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): Is my right hon. Friend aware that despite the Prime Minister's responses to questions yesterday, there is still sizeable public disquiet over the transportation and incarceration of Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners? Can he arrange for a debate, hopefully based on access by British consular officials to those prisoners who are deemed to be British citizens, because that would help to calm public disquiet? It would also help to ensure that we cease to give comfort to those who want an expansion of international terrorism and who use scenes and statements that seem to bear out their argument that western powers have little respect for,
What will be of importance, although I cannot predict whether it will calm the disquiet, is the visit by the Red Cross to Guantanamo bay, which I understand will take place later today. I hope that that will provide clear, authoritative guidance on the state in which the prisoners are being kept and whether it is consistent with international humanitarian law.
On the general issue, I would only say that we did, of course, fight in Afghanistan to end terrorism and uphold the values of law and order and of decency and the right of everyone to lead a peaceful life. It is important that we treat those whom we capture in the process of that exercise in ways that are consistent with our principles.
Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The Leader of the House will be aware of the joy felt by Conservative Members at the splendid innovation of having a Minister for Women and questions to her. He will also be aware that the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 says that there should be equality of both sexes, of which a significant minority are men. When will we have 10 minutes of questions to a Minister for Men?
Mr. Cook: I would not wish to detract from the hon. Gentleman's joy at the appointment of a Minister for Women. I can assure him that all the Ministers in this Government will be very happy to answer his questions about men.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is nigh on impossible for Ministers to give all new statements of policy? We had evidence of that in Question Time today when the Minister for Industry and Energy was going to announce a new Government policy of paying out lump sums of £2,000 to those miners who finished working way back in 1975. He was not able to deliver that statement because we did not reach question No. 10, which is a pity, so I thought that I had better make the statement on his behalf.
As that lump sum is a decent start in dividing up the pension surplus, I look forward to many more chunks being handed out to other categories of miners in the future. On a similar issue, will my right hon. Friend ask the Minister to come back to the House, when he has time, and ensure that all those colliery cleaners and those who work in the canteens get the money that they are owed from the settlement made by the previous Energy Minister?
Mr. Cook: I shall bear in mind the useful constitutional innovation provided by my hon. Friend in making the statement on behalf of the Minister for Industry and Energy. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about the additional funds that the Minister will make available to those who have the lowest pension from their days in the mines. That is a valuable and useful way in which to use the surplus, and one that I know the mining industry will welcome.
On the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, as he has done vigorously and repeatedly over the past few months, I cannot add to the answers that I have already given, which is that we have honourably settled with and paid all those who made a claim within the time set out in the legislation. It specifies that all claims have to be made within six months of leaving employment, and we have no latitude within the legislation to make payments to others.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): The Leader of the House will have seen the publicity this week surrounding the quashing by the Appeal Court of the verdict on Stephen Downing. Will he give consideration to the way in which Parliament may be informed of the lessons that need to be learned from this vast miscarriage of justice? Inquiries need to take place for the sake not only of Stephen Downing's family but of the surviving family of Wendy Sewell, who have suffered the devastation caused by the case being continually regurgitated in the national media. This is a very sad and moving case. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Government are able to learn all the lessons from this grave miscarriage of justice?
Mr. Cook: I think that the whole House echoes the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman, and we fully recognise that there can be no more appalling injustice than to be imprisoned for as long as Stephen Downing has, knowing throughout that period that one is innocent. There has obviously been a serious miscarriage of justice in this case. I am sure that my colleagues at the Home Office will want to consider what lessons can be learned from it, and when they reach a conclusion they may well want to share it with the House. In the meantime, the urgent question will be that of compensation, and I doubt that they will be in a position to say anything until that is resolved.