Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My right hon. Friend will realise that I am touched by the concern of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), but the reality is that it is increasingly difficult for Select Committees to perform their task of scrutiny properly when advisers who take major decisions and give serious advice to the Prime Minister are apparently not available for questioning. I ask my right hon. Friend seriously to consider the problem. Select Committees are told that decisions relating to Government policy are being taken elsewhere than in the specific Departments that they monitor. If that is so, Select Committees must have the right to call such advisers before them.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her observations, and I am happy to say that I will continue to consider those matters. I recognise that temerity is required, but if I may I will correct her on one point. Advisers do not take major decisions. Decisions are taken by Ministers, and they are assisted in that task by senior civil servants. It is right and welcome that the Government occasionally ask others outside government to look further ahead, on an unpaid basis, than we are able to do from day to day. Such activities do not constitute taking decisions. The people whom the Select Committee should hold to account are those who are going to take the decisions.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Is the Leader of the House aware of the great demand for a full debate on Zimbabwe? Such debates have taken place in Westminster Hall, but we surely need a full day's debate in Government time. Every day brings new stories of intimidation, torture and murder of opposition politicians. Draconian laws of the former Zimbabwean Parliament stifle freedom of speech, so how can there be free and fair elections? Why will the Government not act? Is it because they are ashamed that their ethical foreign policy is a shambles?

Mr. Cook: Brushing aside for a second the hon. Gentleman's concluding remark, I agree that it is important that this House sends a clear and united message. The situation in Zimbabwe is alarming and deplorable, and the attacks on opposition politicians are outrageous. I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman that, even if we start now, it will be difficult to ensure that an election held four weeks from now is free and fair. Having said that, we have worked hard through the European Union and the Commonwealth to ensure that external observers are present to try to curb the worst of the intimidation—an approach that the opposition forces in Zimbabwe have warmly welcomed.

31 Jan 2002 : Column 430

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has worked hard to be robust on this issue. He attended yesterday's meeting to seek Zimbabwe's expulsion from the Commonwealth, and secured the support of half of those in attendance. However, we have some way to go before we can achieve the unanimous supported needed to secure expulsion.

Mr. James Wray (Glasgow, Baillieston): I should like to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to early-day motion 690 on asthma and schools.

[That this House recognises that one in seven children has asthma and many children are not getting the support they need at school; believes that children should be able to have immediate access to their inhalers and have a school environment free from dangerous triggers such as tobacco fumes, with members of staff with knowledge to help those in the event of a serious asthma attack; and hopes that more local education authorities will respond to the National Asthma Campaign and implement an asthma policy.]

The National Asthma Campaign is holding a national asthma day in February. It would be nice to debate the matter in the House, because we seem not to have a policy on asthma with regard to schools.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for ventilating an issue that is of considerable concern in many areas—particularly the one that he represents. One matter that puzzled me during the years in which I followed health policy—it is now a pressing issue—was the reason for the significant increase in asthma-related cases, especially among our young people. I shall draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who will doubtless want to respond to them.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): In a week in which beleaguered rail passengers in my constituency have again suffered at the hands of the RMT and its irresponsible industrial action, will the Leader of the House explain why Lord Birt has not appeared before the Select Committee? Is it not true that, according to Standing Orders, a Select Committee can demand that someone appear before it? In an earlier answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), the Leader of the House said that there was no need for such a person to appear if he was not paid, or if he was just an adviser, but can that be right? Lord Birt is a Member of the other place—a parliamentarian—so surely he can be called upon to appear before the Select Committee.

Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman undermines rather than reinforces the case for Lord Birt coming before the Select Committee. Lord Birt has nothing to do with the RMT, South West Trains, or the present strikes. The right hon. Gentleman merely illustrates the danger into which Lord Birt would be sucked if he came before the Select Committee.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the announcements that have postdated this week's debate on the postal services? First, there was a leaked and possibly erroneous rumour that 3,000 of the 9,000 urban sub-post offices were to

31 Jan 2002 : Column 431

close. Secondly, the Post Office watchdog made some remarks today about the privatisation of parts of the postal service. Such rumours and remarks are bound to cause massive concern to the public, who want a universal and nationwide postal service. Can we have an early statement on the matter? Does he accept that, when management is not up to scratch, as on the Titanic, the answer is not to scuttle the boat but to get rid of the captain?

Mr. Cook: First, what Postcomm published today were proposals for consultation about competition. Most certainly, we will be following the competition proposals and the consultation on them with the closest interest. We fully understand their great significance to the public and to those who use the Post Office. The one imperative in any judgment that we reach is that we must preserve the universal service provided by the Post Office.

Secondly, there has been no proposal of the sort that has been leaked to the press. If such a proposal were to be made, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry would wish to keep the House informed.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The Leader of the House will be aware of the imminent arrival of the Boundary Commission proposals for Scotland. I know that the subject is especially close to his heart. Does he agree that the continued stability of this House depends on fair and equitable representation for all parts of the United Kingdom? I know that the right hon. Gentleman moves in lofty circles, so will he play his part in ensuring that the proposals are implemented in time for the next general election? Will he put behind him the electoral interests of the Labour party, and his own search for a seat?

Mr. Cook: I am reassured to learn that I move in lofty circles. The Government have complied fully with a commitment that we made when we brought in the Scotland Act 1998. We are now carrying that commitment forward, and I understand that the Boundary Commission may make its first report shortly. It is then a matter for the commission to make progress on the subsequent representation and appeals process, which is set out in statute. If we receive the commission's report in good time, I see no reason why it should not be implemented in time for the next general election. That is our current plan.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will no doubt recall that, earlier this week, the House decided who would be its two representatives to the convention on the future of Europe. I should declare an interest, in that I have the honour to be one. Has my right hon. Friend given any thought as to how those representatives will be supported by the House? They will be representatives of the House and not of the Government, so the House will need to be informed of progress, and to have the opportunity to take part in the debate and shape the convention's decisions. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will give full support to the delegates? Has he had some preliminary thoughts about the shape that that support might take?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises the important point of principle that those appointed by this House and the other place to represent Parliament in the convention are

31 Jan 2002 : Column 432

representatives of Parliament, and not of the Government. It is therefore important that they receive support from Parliament. I am pleased to say that the Parliament office that we have established in Brussels, in the office of our representative to the European Union, will be happy to support and assist my hon. Friend and her colleague. I know that the Clerks of the House have also invited her to come and see them to discuss how they can make sure that proper resources are available to assist the representatives, in terms of travel arrangements, research and policy briefing. We will be very happy to help in any way that we can.

Next Section

IndexHome Page