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Business of the House

12.30 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the Leader of the House please let us have the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 28 January—Remaining stages of the Civil Defence (Grant) Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business, namely the City of London (Ward Elections) Bill, for consideration at 7 o'clock.

Tuesday 29 January—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate entitled "The Government's Mismanagement of the Post Office"—[Interruption.] I have grown accustomed to a cheer at this point in the proceedings, but it is really not necessary.

Wednesday 30 January—Motion on the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2002–3.

Motion on Local Government (Finance) Report 2002–3.

Thursday 31 January—Remaining stages of the Travel Concessions (Eligibility) Bill [Lords].

Motion on the Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-Natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001.

Motion to approve the Administration Committee Report on the reopening of the Line of Route.

Friday 1 February—Debate on implementing the Learning Disability White Paper on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

Monday 4 February—Opposition Day [10th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Tuesday 5 February—Remaining stages of the Education Bill (1st Day).

Wednesday 6 February—Remaining stages of the Education Bill (2nd Day).

Thursday 7 February—Remaining stages of the Tax Credits Bill.

Friday 8 February—Debate on Government measures to regenerate disadvantaged areas on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

The House may wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will rise for the Easter recess at the end of business on Tuesday 26 March, returning on Tuesday 9 April.

In last week's business questions, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) drew attention to the confusion over the precise date of Whit this year; some Members anticipated that, as normal, it would fall in the last week of May. I reflected on the matter and I can inform the House that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Friday 24 May, returning on Tuesday 11 June.

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Mr. Forth: I thank the Leader of the House for announcing not just the business for next week but the recess dates. Is he in a position yet to tell us when Budget day will be this year? We are now perilously close to February and we usually expect to have notice of the Budget at this stage.

May I ask the Leader of the House about proposals floating about in the Modernisation Committee on the House sitting in September? I have been approached, as, no doubt, has the right hon. Gentleman himself, by many Members asking for clarification of the matter. It would be helpful if he could give some indication at this stage of whether the House will be, or may be, sitting in September this year. We are anxious that the House should sit in September, as you know, Mr. Speaker, so that we can harry the Government and hold them to account even more frequently, and would be grateful if the Leader of the House could give us some indication. If for any reason we were unable to sit, I am sure that he would be able to give us a very good reason why not.

The Leader of the House announced a debate next week on mismanagement of the Post Office. It is to be held in our time, on an Opposition day, but it gives rise in my mind to the question why, given the uncertainty surrounding the Post Office, the National Audit Office report and the unease among employees—and, indeed, among all of us as users of the Post Office's excellent services—we have had to force the Government to come to the House and give an explanation by using an Opposition day. They have used their time to tell us about volcanoes in Africa and all sorts of other things recently. Why must we drag them here to tell us about what is going on in the Post Office? I am sad to say that that is an indication of the rather odd priorities that they seem to have these days. I can only hope that we will get some far more convincing answers in our debate next Tuesday than we have received hitherto.

Mr. Cook: First, in response to the question about the Budget date, I say to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that we will ensure that they are advised of the date as soon as it is confirmed. At the present time, I have no reason to suppose that it will be significantly different from those in previous years: either in mid to late March or very early in April.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of returning in September. We on the Labour Benches look forward to returning in September as well, although possibly for different reasons from his. We want to do so in order to put before the nation the way in which we are carrying through our programme to improve public services—[Interruption.] I am very glad that I can take the rest as read. None the less, we will want to talk about the record investment in education and health that we are carrying through. I regret to say that there are several good reasons why it will not be possible to introduce that innovation this year. A number of hon. Members have made their arrangements in good faith—I am impressed by the number of Members who are thinking so far ahead—and Mr. Speaker has arrangements to visit Canada and also to represent Britain on 11 September in New York. I am also advised that there will be roadworks outside the Palace. [Laughter.] While I believe that it would be entirely right for us to meet in September, people have taken it in good faith that we will not be sitting and I want the innovation to be introduced in an

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orderly, satisfactory and successful way. Therefore, I think that it is right to give adequate notice, which means that I would hope that we would introduce this change for next year.

On the issue of Consignia—

Mr. Forth: The Post Office.

Mr. Cook: It is technically and legally constituted as Consignia, but I have no problem with the right hon. Gentleman using phrases that he understands from previous years. With regard to Consignia, the House introduced a Bill only two years ago on this Government's initiative—it was broadly supported by the Opposition during its passage—that created commercial freedom for Consignia. It is absolutely right that we should let the management of Consignia, in consultation with its work force, take forward its plans for the company without constant micromanagement by Government, this House or any external political influence.

I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should take exception to our coming to the House with a statement on our response to the emergency situation caused by a volcano erupting in the Great Lakes area. I welcome the fact that a statement was made to the House on the matter. Many people outside in Britain would expect their Government to respond sympathetically and humanely to that emergency.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East): Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the issues arising from the use of personal cases to illustrate what is happening in the national health service? Is he aware that the shadow Health Minister, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), said in his maiden speech that

was the

He went on to say:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate would give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to explain why he now thinks that it is acceptable for the Leader of the Opposition not only to raise such a case, but to do so without the common courtesy that we would all observe of contacting the hospital first?

Mr. Cook: It is regrettable that the good sense of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has declined since his maiden speech. Every hon. Member would echo some of the sentiments that he expressed in it. From time to time, I have raised personal cases in the House; they probably live in the memory of some hon. Members who were present at the time. However, my hon. Friends and I did that with the full support of the relevant staff, who were appalled at the poor resources with which they had to work. I cannot recall an occasion when I or any Labour Member took up a personal case to attack NHS staff. Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) attacked not simply the health service but those public servants who work in it. That will not be forgotten.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I thank the Leader of the House for clearing up the confusion about the Whit

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recess. It will enable my Liberal Democrat colleagues to stop juggling their constituency commitments during those two weeks. It may also enable them to fix their matrimonial arrangements.

When can we expect a Government response to yesterday's statement from the Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the confusion about what is being investigated in relation to foot and mouth disease cannot continue? Several inquiries are in progress, but they are leaving unresolved and unexamined important matters such as the effects of the disease on rural Britain and the way in which the Government tackled it. A Select Committee, which has a Labour majority, has called for an overarching, comprehensive inquiry. I hope that the Government will take that more seriously than previous requests from us and hon. Members from other parties.

In the past, Mr. Speaker, you have deprecated Ministers' habits of making statements to the media before they make them to the House. It appears that, in an interview on "Today" this morning, the Foreign Secretary signalled a change of policy on the internees at the Cuban base. He suggested that he expects any British citizen there to be brought back here to face justice. Is that now the Government's policy? Is it also their policy that other nationals should return to their home states to face justice rather than facing the perhaps peculiar justice of the United States? What is the Government's position on the use of the death penalty? The Minister of State has signalled a different conclusion on that. Are we trying to insist that our American allies respect the Geneva convention?

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