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Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Turning to the Prime Minister's pledge to stabilise street crime in London by the end of September and bearing it in mind that his past delivery on public services has not always been very successful, will the Leader of the House give us an absolute assurance today that the House will be recalled if street crime in London has not been stabilised at the end of September, so that the Prime Minister can come to the Dispatch Box to explain again why he has failed to deliver?
Mr. Cook: I am always open to invitations to recall Parliament during the Tory party conference, and we shall reflect on that request as the conference coincides with the turn of the month. [Interruption.] I see that some Opposition Members may support me in that endeavour.
The hon. Gentleman is particularly unfair to the Government with his claim that we have failed to deliver on our commitments, given that in recent months we have spectacularly delivered on our commitments to reduce both waiting lists and waiting times, and we shall continue to make progress on that.
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an issue of real concern to a number of our constituents. I have always been proud that this Government implemented the working time directive, which for the first time gave 2 million working people the right to paid holidays. We shall always consider the best way to advance working conditions, consistent with our commitment to an enterprise and successfully competitive economy. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend has said and draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): Could the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary or the Northern Ireland Secretary come before the House in the near future to clarify the situation that is developing in the battle against international terrorism? The homespun element is very much active. We have heard comments clarifying only from the IRA's point of view what has happened in Washington. Yet it is significant that, since 1998, senior members of the IRA, after signing the Belfast agreement, have been involved in international terrorism and continue to murder Roman Catholics in Tyrone and to target and threaten people in this House.
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman's last point is a weighty and important one: more members of the Catholic community have perished at the hands of nationalist terrorism than by any other means. We fully share his concern about the activity of the IRA in Colombia and elsewhere, and we are concerned about the findings in the report of the committee in Washington. However, that does not have a direct bearing on the present process towards peace within Northern Ireland or the existence of a ceasefire within Northern Ireland and on the mainland, which is warmly supported by the great majority of residents in both places.
Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress of his discussions on the memorandums which he recently published, in particular the roll-over of Bills from one parliamentary Session to another and the rescheduling of business to start earlier in the day?
Mr. Cook: I think that my hon. Friend's question is less about when we might finish at the end of the day than when we might start. It is well known that my view is that if the House wishes to restore itself as the place in which the agenda of public debate for the day is set, we must meet earlier in the day.
Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman asks why. It is self-evident that if we do not start until the early afternoon and do not carry out our main business until the late afternoon, we have missed the morning opportunity to set the agenda for the day. It is in the interests of all Members of Parliament, whatever side we sit on, that Parliament
Mr. Charles Hendry (Wealden): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate in Government time on the Budget's specific implications for local government? I am advised that the national insurance contributions will cost East Sussex county council £1.8 million£1.1 million for education aloneand Wealden district council £100,000. Those both equate to a 1 per cent. increase in council tax, so people are hit not only once by the national insurance changes, but a second time by a hike in council tax.
Mr. Cook: The Government are happy to debate at any time their record on support for local authority expenditure and draw attention to the 20 per cent. increase that we have maintained for five years compared with the almost nil increase of the last five years of the Conservative Government. We are also very happy indeed to discuss relative council tax rates, because the average council tax by area per dwelling for next year will be £738 for Labour authorities, £824 for Liberal Democrat authorities and a whopping £833 for Conservative authorities. In those circumstances, a period of silence from the Opposition would be welcome.
Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): My right hon. Friend mentioned the middle east earlier. He will be aware that the European Parliament recently agreed a resolution calling for an arms embargo on Israel and Palestine and the suspension of the EU-Israel euro-Mediterranean agreement if Israel continues to refuse to comply with recent United Nations resolutions. Will my right hon. Friend introduce a substantive motion in the House to enable hon. Members to express a view on those and other important matters raised in the European Parliament's comprehensive resolution?
Mr. Cook: Any decision on an embargo of the EU-Israel Association Council falls to the European Union's General Affairs Council, not the European Parliament. In fairness to the Government and the House, I remind my hon. Friend that only the other day we provided a full day for debate on the middle east crisis, which is an issue of the gravest concern to the Government. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary continues to be in close contact with people in the region and the international community to make sure that we do all that we can to secure an end to the violence and a return to the negotiating table and, in addition, to ensure that the international community, particularly the UN Commission on Human Rights, has an opportunity to examine the accusations of a breach of human rights during the occupation.
Mr. Cook: The Government and the EU are already doing all that they can to find a resolution to that appalling crisis and the severe conditions that now exist in an important church that is valued by everyone in the Christian community around the world. Javier Solana, the EU High Representative, has been engaged in the area trying to find a way forward and a basis on which the siege can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is fully engaged in those efforts and gives what support he can through diplomatic contact. At the end of the day, we cannot make progress unless the Israeli Government themselves are willing to enter into a spirit of trying to find a way forward and a solution that enables us to relieve the appalling suffering now being experienced by people who represent the Christian community and are in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity.
Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West): Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at the continuing communal violence in Gujarat? While we feel for anybody caught in that violence, whether Hindu or Muslim, we must ask why Indian security forces stood back and allowed Muslims to be massacred. There is a question mark over India's treatment of its minorities, so would my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the issue?
Mr. Cook: I am aware of the serious concern throughout communities in Britain, including the community represented by my hon. Friend, about events in Gujarat. We share that concern and have expressed it to the Indian Government. I hesitate, however, to follow my hon. Friend in his generalisation; the Muslim community in India is one of the largest in the world, and on the whole India has maintained an honourable tradition of equal rights within an open democracy. It is important that it can continue to do so, which means in part that it must co-operate fully in making sure that we learn the lessons of what may have happened in Gujarat.