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Mr. Cook: As I said earlier, the common-sense question is whether the Prime Minister should have supported a company with British connections in its bid[Interruption.] The company in question has British connections. Mr. Mittal is a British resident and he employs 100 people in Britain. I do not understand why Opposition Members are so scornful of companies that employ 100 people in Britain. As for small businesses, my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of Trade and Industry regularly meet representatives of the small business sector and I am sure that they will continue to do so.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Could the Leader of the House find time for a debate in the near future in which we could congratulate the Chancellor on his work in beating off efforts by the European Commission to cap public expenditure? Could that debate include an examination of the stability pact and the impact that it would have on public expenditure in Britain, should we be so foolish as to join the euro now?
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I wish to return to the subject of the energy review, which is now available to hon. Members, and to express my regret that we cannot take the opportunity to congratulate the Government on the Cabinet Office's apparently bold position on renewable energy. The review starts with a sentence from the Prime Minister:
Mr. Cook: Of course, the hon. Gentleman will understand the distinction between a debate and a statement. I welcome his support for the conclusions of the report, and I also welcome the emphasis that it places on conservation and the tight targets that it sets for energy conservation in British homes. I certainly would not wish the hon. Gentleman to feel inhibited from expressing his support on any occasion offered to him.
[That this House notes that the principle of funding political parties from public funds has been accepted in the allocation of Short money; and believes that reliance on funding from individuals and companies intent on influencing political decisions could be largely eliminated
That would give us an opportunity to celebrate with some pride the fact that in recent history not one British Government of any political colour has been corrupt. Those who make such accusations do more to demean themselves than they do to demean the standing and reputation of British democracy. As the principle of public funding of parties has been accepted by all the parties in the House, and as the sum of £25 million will be paid in this Parliament to opposition parties, is it not a small step to extend the funding to other party activities so that parties can be absolved from accusations of corruptionsome of which are legitimate but many of which are mischievous?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend makes a contribution to a debate that will continue for some time, both in public and in the House, and he raises an important point for consideration. We do have public funding of the official Opposition, which I have not noticed them resisting. My hon. Friend fairly asks them to consider whether that principle should be confined to them or shared more widely.
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Could the Leader of the House arrange for the teaching of geography in schools, especially Scottish public schools, given the Prime Minister's remarkable assertion that the Dutch Antilles are British? It is easy to see how his confusion has arisen because he travels around the world so much that he does not really know where Britain is, let alone the Dutch Antilles. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has now gathered enough air miles to visit them. Could that debate be tied to a more serious debate about the Government's much-vaunted foreign policy and whether it is ethical to say to a country that is keen to join the EU that its membership could be affected by whether it gives an important contract to a company that supports a British political party or to a French company that does not?
Mr. Cook: I conclude from the hon. Gentleman's final sentence that he would have preferred the French company to receive the contract. I have to say that he will find himself very lonely among the British public. As for his remarks about the Dutch Antilles, I merely ask him why the Conservative party was content to accept Lord Ashcroft as a British treasurer when he was based in Belize. I should be interested to hear from Conservative Members how many people Lord Ashcroft employed in Britain.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): The Leader of the House will have discovered from his careful reading of the newspapers that the Government have published findings and recommendations on flood defences and future expenditure on them. That will have an enormous impact on constituencies such as mine and its neighbour City of York, which experienced severe flooding in November 2000 and face serious flood threats as I speak.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make time for a full debate on a Government motion dealing with the implications of that? I am thinking particularly of the notion of charging householders a levy, thus making them personally responsible for houses that may have been built
Mr. Cook: I am well aware of the importance of this issue in a number of parts of Britain, particularly the hon. Lady's region, and of the concern about rising water levels that has been felt over the past few days. It is because the Government attach so much importance to the matter that we have tried to proceed as rapidly as possible with flood defences, which often constitute a complex and long-term engineering project. I assure the hon. Lady that I will draw her remarks to the attention of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is fully seized of the position.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): The House will have noted the right hon. Gentleman's weasel words. He did not describe LNM Holdings as a British company, as the Prime Minister did yesterday not once, not twice, but three times. It has now been downgraded to "a company with British connections". May we, as a matter of urgency, have a debate in Government time on the interpretation of the English language by the Prime Minister and other Ministers?
May we also have an opportunity to explore the fact that, notwithstanding the disingenuous suggestion by the Leader of the House that no one in Britain could possibly suffer as a result of LNM's takeover of the Romanian steel firm, companiesincluding companies in my constituency in which jobs depend on the success of Coruswill be hugely damaged by the ability of a friend of and donor to the Labour party to undercut Corus worldwide and cost British jobs as a consequence of the Prime Minister's wholly inappropriate intervention on behalf of a company .01 per cent. of whose work force are employed in Britain?
Mr. Cook: Of course British industry faces a growing challenge across the board from the countries of central and eastern Europe, which in many respects provide a lower production base. That challenge would remain constant regardless of who had acquired the privatised steel industry in Romania. I remind the hon. Gentleman that it is supposed to be his party's objective to support countries such as Romania in their preparations for membership of the European Union.
I am bewildered at how far behind the times the Conservative party has fallen. It now discusses whether we should support only companies that are officially registered in Britain. Millions of people in Britain are employed by companies that are not registered in Britain, and are not British in the legal sense. That should not prevent the Government from lobbying on their behalf, and on behalf of the people whom they employ.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Two weeks ago, I asked the Leader of the House whether he could secure an urgently needed statement from his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about the readiness of the Trident refit complex at Devonport. Since then, not only has there been no statement but it has been
May I ask again for that urgently needed statement? Could it be made on our return after the break? I think the Leader of the House said that this was not just a constituency issue but a national issue.