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Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman began on a happy note, and I welcome his welcome for the Whit recess. If that enables the leader of the Liberal Democrats to achieve his marriage in good order with a good honeymoon, I am all the happier that I have been able to give the dates to hon. Members. For once, perhaps all hon. Members can agree to ask the hon. Gentleman to convey our congratulations to his leader.
The report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee was published only yesterday, and it is premature to expect a Government response. We have established three separate inquiries; one may report soon and the others will do so in the longer term. That panoply of inquiries gives us a good basis for examining what happened and, more important, looking ahead to what we shall do with the countryside and the rural economy. At an appropriate time, the House will have an opportunity to examine that. Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions will take place next week.
As I have said previously about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, whether the Geneva convention applies is not the most important consideration. Even if it does not apply, international humanitarian law does. I believe that it is accepted here and in the United States that it is important to ensure that our humanitarian standards apply to the detainees, and that we thus show our superiority and that of our system to the ruthless terrorist values that they pursued.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): Will the Leader of the House reflect further on the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Jean Corston) for a debate on the national health service, to enable Members of the House to express their full support for all staff, black and white, at the Whittington hospital in my constituency for the very caring way in which they look after all their patients, and for their dedication to the principles of a national health service that is free at the point of use? If allegations are made concerning inadequate care or support for any patient, it is incumbent on us all to listen to both the family and the hospital concerned first, and at all times to try to prevent a public debate about the care of an individual patient. Surely all of us deserve the right to privacy in matters of medical care.
Mr. Cook: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of supporting the principles of the NHS and the staff who work hard to try to deliver on those principles. It is important that the national health service should, as it goes about its business, be a model employer that is blind to any racial discrimination or division, and that it should provide for fair opportunity and an excellent quality of care. I would remind the House that the hospital in my hon. Friend's constituency was only recently praised for the quality of its care for patients.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I agree with the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the importance of having regular debates on the state of the health service. Has the Leader of the House had a chance to see the very worrying reports in the press in the last week that, despite increased expenditure on the health service, the amount of NHS activity in the last quarter has declined? Does he understand why our constituents are enormously concerned about the state of the public services, and the health service in particular, under this Government's stewardship? Will he, therefore, accept the need for regular debates, with the Prime Minister in attendance, so that we can monitor the extent to which the Prime Minister is delivering on his solemn pledge to the British people at the last election that the NHS would improve under his stewardship?
Mr. Cook: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the report of the NHS modernisation board, which, only the other week, confirmed that we now have more nurses, more doctors and more beds in the NHS than ever before. Indeed, last year was the first year for 30 years in which the number of beds in the health service actually increased. As to activity rates, 500,000 more operations are now performed every year than during the Conservative years, which is a 10 per cent. increase. I welcome that increase in activity, and we will continue to put in the investment to ensure that it continues. I would ask the hon. Gentleman, and any other Opposition Member inclined to raise the issue of the NHS, whether they will give a commitment to match our level of
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): Given the statement by the Secretary of State for Health last week that we should privatise the management of the national health service, and the statement by Lord Haskins this morning that corporate business should run the NHS, may we have an urgent debate on the failed privatisationssuch as the privatisation of the railways, and of care for the elderlybrought in by the last Conservative Government, so that we can expose once and for all this neanderthal thinking, and the myth that the private sector can run our public services better than the public sector? All the evidence points to the fact that it simply cannot do so.
Mr. Cook: We have debated the failed privatisation of Railtrack on a number of occasions recently. The net effect of the many attempts by the Opposition to attack us on that matter has been to produce a poll for ITN which showed that more people blame the Conservative Government than the Labour Government for the difficulties on the railways. I welcome the fact that we have now taken Railtrack out of an environment in which it had to struggle between its priority to the travelling public and its priority to its private shareholders.
On the question of the management of the NHS, I say to my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has proposed that we should devolve management within the NHS and provide more discretion for local hospitals to take the initiative, run their affairs and respond to local circumstances. We must strike the right balance between a national health service with national standards and values and local initiative at management level.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Has it not been the House's practice regularly to debate in Government time key issues such as taxation, public expenditure and the performance of the economy? When in this Parliament have the Government provided time for such a debate, and when does the right hon. Gentleman plan to hold one?
Mr. Cook: The whole House understands that the Chancellor is unable to play a full part in our proceedings at present, but, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, there will be a Budget debate shortly and plenty of opportunities to examine the economy in that context.
Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): Did my right hon. Friend see this week's Sunday Herald report of the allegation made by a former corporate lawyer with Arthur Andersen in the UK that the firm's auditors in this country were bullied by Enron in Europe into signing off audited accounts that inflated earnings? Will my right hon. Friend ask his colleagues to investigate that claim and arrange a debate, perhaps in Westminster Hall, on the relationship between external auditors and the businesses they audit?
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the growing problem of antisocial behaviour, such as vandalism, graffiti and loutish behaviour, which affect all our constituencies and make the lives of so many people, especially the elderly, a misery? Often, they live in constant fear. He is aware that in many of our constituencies the police simply do not have the resources to tackle those issues because they are so overstretched elsewhere. May we have an urgent debate in Government time so that the Home Secretary can tell the House what he plans to do about those matters?
Mr. Cook: First, on a point of fact, police numbers are increasing and there is a record increase in the number of those being trained for the police force. Quite properly, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is considering ways to ensure that uniformed police maximise the time spent on patrol and in the community and minimise the time that they have to spend on paperwork at the station.
Every Member of the House has constituency experience of the grave impact on the quality of life that can arise from antisocial behaviour. We have already introduced orders to try to deal with that and we are considering ways in which they might be improved by further legislation.