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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Can the Leader of the House give some thought as to how best we can deal with the important issue of public disengagement with Parliament and politics? I think that he will accept that it is not just a matter of scepticism and cynicism about corruption, to which early-day motion 1003 relates, and to which reference has already been made.
[That this House condemns the behaviour of the former Doncaster councillor jailed on 12th March for accepting a bribe to change planning rules; congratulates former Doncaster councillor Ron Rose and the Yorkshire Post for their persistence in bringing the worst local government corruption case since the 1970s to light; congratulates South Yorkshire Police on its successful Operation Danum which has brought 21 councillors to justice; regrets the culture of institutionalised corruption which was allowed to develop unchecked by the national Labour Party; calls on the Government to introduce proposals for proportional representation to end one-party states in local government; and further calls on all parties to promote the highest standards of probity and public service in local government.]
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that this is not just a matter of low turnout at elections, which is perhaps a symptom of the disease, but that there are basic diseases behind that symptom? Low turnout is bad enough on average, but it is even worse in cases of safe seats when electors feel that they have no impact on the eventual result. This issue should concern every single Member of both Houses of Parliament, and should not simply be left to a Labour party document and the Labour party chairman.
Mr. Cook: I have not yet read the article to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I shall certainly savour it. I always enjoy reading articles by Margaret Thatcher's former Ministers criticising her; it is difficult to keep up with the scale of those articles.
The issue of substance raised by the hon. Gentleman presents a profound challenge for all of us. This is not a party political point; it should exercise hon. Members in all corners of the House. There is clear evidence of a decline in esteem for this place. That is why it is so important that we modernise this place so that we appear relevant and part of the same century as our electors. However, there are much wider and deeper problems of disengagement from the democratic process, particularly among young people. That troubles me because if young people continue to be disengaged we shall face declining turnouts as that cohort of the population grows older. This is a matter to which we should all address our minds.
I am particularly concerned that, too often, publicity about the House centres on the high point of party political contests and the mud wrestling that goes with it. We are not portrayed often enough as a place of serious business carrying out a serious job of work, and until we achieve that image of ourselves, we shall continue to have a problem in gaining respect.
[That this House is aware of the deep unease among honourable Members on all sides of the House at the prospect that Her Majesty's Government might support United States military action against Iraq; agrees with Kofi Annan that a further military attack on Iraq would be unwise at this time; believes that such a course of action would disrupt support for the anti-terrorism coalition among the Arab states; and instead urges the Prime Minister to use Britain's influence with Iraq to gain agreement that United Nations weapons inspections will resume.]
So far, the Government have failed miserably to make a case for supporting the unilateral action proposed by President Bush. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Prime Minister will not announce support for that action, either in this country or on a ranch in Texas, before the House has had time fully to debate the issues based on facts, not belief? May we have a debate on that subject before the Easter recess?
Mr. Cook: I cannot promise a debate on that issue before the recess, as I have just announced business for every day before the recess. [Interruption.] As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst does not appear entirely persuaded of that, he might like to consider pulling the Opposition day to make room for such a debate.
If such action were to proceed, of course it should be debated in the House. In fairness to the Government, we demonstrated a willingness to listen to the House and gave the House an opportunity to debate the issues before and during the military action in Afghanistan, when we had five full debates on the threat of international terrorism. I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that, should there be any proposal for action, the matter would of course have to be debated in the House. However, I remind her that, as the Prime Minister keeps saying, no decision has been taken and, as I said last Thursday, no decision may ever be taken.
Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): Notwithstanding the right hon. Gentleman's earlier reply, will he reflect for a moment on what his reaction would have been when he was a leading light on the Opposition Benches had he been told that the then hon. Member for Peterborough, as a Under-Secretary or a Minister, was too busyor too importantto respond to a debate in the Chamber? The right hon. Gentleman said that that will not be a routine occurrence. May I tempt him to go a little further and say that it will not happen again?
Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman is always tempting, but on this occasion I find it possible to resist. I welcome the fact that there are now more opportunities than there were in his time for hon. Members to vent constituency issues. That is why Westminster Hall was created, and it is fulfilling that role adequately and properly. It is right that, in response to that additional opportunity for Members, we should consider the acceptable convention in respect to replying to debates, particularly in the case of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, who has now responded to 34 Adjournment debates.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the apocryphal saying, the first will be last and the last will be first. I am normally last when it comes to oral Question Time, with the exception
If my hon. Friend advises me next time she is drawn first, I shall certainly intervene with the relevant Department and make sure that her question is treated with the dignity and seriousness that it requires. To respond to the issue of substance, I am well aware of the deep frustration to Members of finding that their questions have been transferred. Indeed, if my hon. Friend consults the submission that I have made on behalf of the Government to the Procedure Committee's inquiry into questions, she will find that one of the points that I highlight is the need to try to reduce the number of times when questions are transferred. I hope that we can work with the Table Office to ensure that questions are tabled to the appropriate Department in the first place. In the meantime, I shall certainly draw her remarks to the attention of the Cabinet Office.