Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement.

On Friday 8 March the Adjournment debate in this Chamber was replied to not by the Minister responsible for the subject of the debate, but by a Government Whip. I raised the matter at the time, as you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you were in the Chair. Was that a one-off occurrence or is it to be routine that Ministers will not be here to listen and respond to debates on their ministerial responsibilities, but leave it to Government Whips? The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz), who initiated the debate, said, touchingly naively, that he wanted the Government Whip

the Whip—

So the hon. Gentleman whose debate it was had to make a heart-felt plea that its subject matter would be passed on to the absent Minister, who by that time, like Elvis, had left the building.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1047

That raises an issue of huge importance. Will the Leader of the House assure me, very firmly, that that occurrence will not be repeated and that the Government have not walked away from their responsibilities to such an extent that Ministers are no longer prepared to come to the House to respond to debates and be held to account?

The Leader of the House will be aware of the dreadful and appalling case of corruption that recently arose in Doncaster, where several Labour councillors were convicted of fraud. He should also be aware—if not, I am about to make him so—that yesterday in the House the Deputy Prime Minister said, in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), that

The Deputy Prime Minister was obviously trying to implicate or smear a Conservative councillor to put him in the same disgusting category as the large number of Labour councillors who were convicted.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Conservative councillor was acquitted of all charges, but the Labour councillors were convicted? I will understand if he is reticent about the issue. It must be difficult for Labour leaders who were involved with Ecclestone, Hinduja, Mittal and all the others to condemn their colleagues in local government. However, as the right hon. Gentleman was involved in none of those matters, I am sure that he will have no such inhibitions.

Will the Leader of the House turn his mind to the chaotic and increasingly disordered way in which statements are made in the House? Texts of statements are given to official Opposition spokesmen much later than has traditionally been the case. Whether that is cock-up or conspiracy, I can only guess. Will he find some way of giving the House more notice of statements? Today offers a good example. A very important statement such as that made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer could well have been made after the close of the markets yesterday evening. Attendance in the House is inevitably thin today because we do not have any votes. Consequently, many right hon. and hon. Members who have a legitimate interest in the matter and would have been here had they known that the statement was to be made are, regrettably, absent. Will the Leader of the House get a grip on his colleagues? In most cases it is known at least 48 hours in advance when statements are due to be made, so will Ministers please give the House proper notice so that we can deal with them properly?

Lord Browne, who was one of the Prime Minister's much-vaunted people's peers, earned—I am happy for him—several million pounds over the past year. I know that hairdressers were disqualified from being people's peers, but can the Leader of the House tell us whether there is any limit on the earnings that those peers can enjoy?

Mr. Cook: I did not anticipate that the Conservative party would propose a reverse means test for Members of the second Chamber, but we look forward to that provision featuring in its submission on the reform of that Chamber. I am happy to say that I have no responsibility whatsoever for pay awards made to Sir John Browne.

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1048

[Hon. Members: "Lord Browne."] I certainly have a responsibility not to demote him; I am happy to call him Lord Browne. Having disclaimed the criticism of his pay award, I think that honour is satisfied between us.

I shall deal with the matters for which I have responsibility. On last Friday's Adjournment debate, I assure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that, unlike Elvis, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), is alive and kicking. Indeed, he has shown no difficulty whatsoever about coming before the House. He has responded to 34 Adjournment debates since the last general election—by far the most achieved in a single Session by any Minister in the Government, or, I think, any in the previous Government. That is overwhelmingly because of the innovation of debates in Westminster Hall—which I welcome and support, unlike the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

I have known my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) for many years, including the period when he led the Labour group on Edinburgh district council. His colleagues there and in the House would be surprised by his being described as "touchingly naive". I take it that the right hon. Gentleman was trying to flatter my hon. Friend; I warn him that it will not work. Since the Adjournment debate, the Whip who replied to the debate has fully discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary—

Mr. Forth: Impressive.

Mr. Cook: Indeed; I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of the ministerial level of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions at which the matter was raised. The Whip also wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to draw his attention to those matters that fell within the remit of the Home Office.

I can assure the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that such practice will not be routine. In Westminster Hall, the Government rightly provided a facility that has greatly increased hon. Members' opportunities to raise matters concerning their constituencies. In those circumstances, it is not improper for the Government and the House to look at ways in which we can ensure that Adjournment debates are fully serviced and replied to, without putting on Ministers a burden that interferes with other matters with which they have to deal, such as responding to hon. Members' correspondence. [Interruption.] I assure hon. Members that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary does respond to correspondence.

On the Doncaster councillors, it is important for both parties to ensure that we apply the highest standards of propriety within our parties and make sure that legal requirements are fully observed. It would therefore greatly assist the House if the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst could tell us that he will use his influence with Lady Porter to encourage her to return to Britain to face the court proceedings against her relating to when she was leader of a Conservative council.

Finally, on the issue of the statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I have listened week after week to the right hon. Gentleman complaining that we do not have

14 Mar 2002 : Column 1049

enough statements. Whenever we produce a statement, a complaint is made about it, and that happened again today. Let me remind him that this is the first time that a statement has been made to the House to announce the outcome of a Competition Commission—previously the Monopolies and Mergers Commission—inquiry. In their entire 18 years in office, a Conservative Minister never once came to the House to make a statement on the outcome of a Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, and I genuinely believe that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor deserves to be congratulated on coming to the House, not criticised for it.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My right hon. Friend is a master of procedure, so may I ask him for advice? On Monday, we shall vote on a series of motions on hunting with dogs. If the motion to ban hunting with dogs is carried by the Commons, as I believe it will be, is there any way in which we in this Chamber—or perhaps Labour Members in another forum—can express a view on whether the Hunting Bill, which was carried by the Commons in the last Session, can be brought back and dealt with in this Session before November as an alternative to a new Bill being introduced and the business of hunting with dogs hanging round our necks for the next two and a half years?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend characteristically flatters me; I would describe myself only as a humble student of procedure, and I am constantly surprised at how much more there is to learn.

I remind my hon. Friend that the Minister for Rural Affairs has given a commitment that before we rise for the Easter recess he will respond to Monday's votes and outline how the Government intend to proceed in the light of them. I suggest that my hon. Friend save his question until that opportunity, which I understand may come next week.

Next Section

IndexHome Page