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Mr. Cook: I am confident that my hon. Friend gave an excellent answer in the Adjournment debate initiated by the hon. Gentleman. I cannot promise an oral statement to the House on that precise topic, but I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's observations to the Secretary of State's attention.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Before we debate the provisions in this year's Budget, can we examine the implementation of some of the measures in the previous one, particularly the aggregates levy? One justification for the sustainability fund was that it would go some way towards mitigating the environmental effects of quarrying. Why, therefore, will the three counties that produce the greatest part of the aggregate in this countrySomerset, Leicestershire and Derbyshirenot receive a commensurate sum from the sustainability fund? In fact, they will end up as losers as a result of the fund's operation. Will we have an opportunity to debate that issue?
Mr. Cook: I regret to say that I have not been briefed this morning on the aggregates levy, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for that oversight. He asks a fascinating question to which I do not have the answer, but I shall ensure that somebody writes to him with it.
Mr. Cook: The timetable for Railtrack's removal from administration was set out long ago. That process will necessarily take some time, given the need for legal and accountancy procedures. In the first instance, it is the administrators, rather than the Government, who must assess the alternatives to Railtrack. That said, it is well known that the Government welcome the fact that a company limited by guarantee is available to take over Railtrack. I simply remind the hon. Gentleman that, if he is in any doubt, he should talk to the travelling public, who greatly welcome seeing the last of Railtrack as a private company. Railtrack constantly struggled with the question whether to put first the interests of the travelling public, or private payments to shareholders. We have removed that conflict from the minds of those who run Railtrack.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): I ask the Leader of the House to respond robustly and positively to calls for a debate on congestion. Is he aware that disruption to freight operation through the channel tunnel is costing freight operators £500,000 a day? By the end of March, the total cost of disruption had reached £15 million. Curiously, however, French operators are still functioning, and it is British operators who are losing out.
In addition to a debate on guilty men, will the Leader of the House also invite the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sporta guilty womanto debate the demise and collapse of ITV Digital, and the resulting awful effect on sport and on football clubs across the country?
Mr. Cook: I fully share the hon. Lady's concern about the impact of the collapse of ITV Digital, but, with the greatest respect, that cannot be laid at the Government's door. I hope that those involved in the discussion are able to find a way forward that does not leave football a casualty of a failure by the commercial television sector.
The hon. Lady has diligently raised freight transport via the channel tunnel at three successive business questions. I again repeat that my colleagues at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions are fully engaged with the matter and continue to make representations on a disruption that of course stems primarily from the French side of the tunnel, not the British.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): May I associate myself with the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for an early debate on the operation of the aggregates tax? The Leader of the House will be aware that it came into effect on 1 April, perhaps appropriately, and it is already threatening to bring the aggregates extraction industry in my constituency to a grinding halt. It is also causing a
Mr. Cook: I am not sure that, since 1 April, we have had sufficient time to make a mature assessment of how the system will work in practice, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I shall draw the attention of the relevant Minister to what has been said in the House.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will the Leader of the House arrange for the weekly parliamentary Labour party meetings to be held in the Chamber, notwithstanding what he said to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) about the dignity of this place? If he does so, we could all see the endemic divisions in the Labour party on Iraq, missile defence, private finance in the public services and so on, instead of having to read about them in the newspapers the next day.
Mr. Cook: Had the hon. Gentleman been present at the PLP meeting, as I was, he would have been impressed, as I was, by the thunderous and warm applause given to the Prime Minister. However, I am pleased to respond to his contribution on bringing serious debate to the House. If we continue at the next general election on the trajectory that we set at the last two, the PLP will occupy this Chamber entirely.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I refer the Leader of the House to the Prime Minister's reply on Sea Harriers at column 16 on Wednesday 10 April. Judging by the Prime Minister's response to a straight question, it is perfectly obvious that he did not have a clue about the answer. Indeed, it is perfectly obvious that he would not know what a Sea Harrier looked like if one landed on the lawn at Chequers. If he is to deploy our armed forces round the world, should he not at least first properly do his homework on our capabilities? Does the Leader of the House agree that, until a credible alternative is in place, withdrawing the Sea Harriers from commission would be an absolute disaster?
Mr. Cook: I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is knowledgeable in military matters, so he is aware that the Sea Harrier is an air-sea defence weapon whereas Harrier GR7s and GR9s are principally weapons to be used to support ground offensives. It is in support of such ground offensives that we have found the carriers most useful. That is what we shall require if we are to intervene to carry through the actions against terrorism and to make sure that we secure the world, which is why we propose to upgrade the Harrier offensive system from GR7 to GR9. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, if he wants to support international action.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a debate at an appropriate time on the possibility of establishing a permanent public memorial to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother? Such a debate would enable the official Opposition to make common cause
Mr. Cook: I would not wish to stand in the way of any rapprochement between those on the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat Benches at a time when we are all concerned to promote world peace. The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting suggestion, on which I am sure both parties may wish to build. I am not sure that I see the case for the House spending a day debating that matter, but plainly, should a consensus gather, the Government would naturally want to be part of it. [Interruption.] This is an issue on which we should proceed with a consensus; it should not be a party political issue.
I sat through the entire debate last week in which the House paid tribute to the Queen Mother, and I thought that the House distinguished itself with a moving and very touching celebration of the Queen Mother's strength, humour and commitment to duty. I am content that the House was able to play its part in celebrating her life.