Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The Leader of the House's legendary powers of persuasion persuaded me to vote with him on Tuesday in the Division Lobby.

Mr. Forth: So my hon. Friend was one of them?

Mr. Osborne: Indeed I was. I ignored the advice of the shadow Leader of the House. Has the Leader of the House had the chance to reflect in the last couple of days on why those legendary powers of persuasion failed to persuade a single member of the Cabinet, apart from the Chief Whip, to join him in the Division Lobby?

Mr. Cook: I was about to thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, but I shall put that on hold in the light of his final line. As to the Cabinet, I must admit that, when I was Foreign Secretary, I was rarely present in the House on the occasion of an open vote. I regret that, as one of the things that I enjoy enormously about my current job is the opportunity to be present in the House for all the time that I want. We must be realistic: Cabinet Ministers have a lot of other things to do. Although I was pleased to have the hon. Gentleman's support, I was, if anything, even more pleased to have the support of the majority of the Labour Members who voted that night.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of early-day motion 826, which calls for a committee of Members of Parliament to be set up to provide prior scrutiny of certain contentious arms export licences.

[That this House believes that specified defence export licence applications should be subject to prior scrutiny by a committee comprising honourable Members of Parliament.]

The subject of arms licences has caused considerable dissent at various times in the House. Four Select Committees of the House decided unanimously to support a committee providing prior scrutiny, and both the United States and Sweden have such a committee. Next week, in the other place, there is an opportunity on Third Reading to support an amendment calling for prior scrutiny. The early-day motion has been signed by 304 Members of the House, and my right hon. Friend will agree that that is a strong expression of opinion supporting the setting up of such a committee.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend will be aware that I have spent much time debating this matter with her and other members of the Quadripartite Committee. I welcome the interest that has been shown by the Quadripartite

16 May 2002 : Column 914

Committee in arms exports decisions, and I am modestly pleased that there was only one occasion when there was a substantive difference of opinion between the Quadripartite Committee and the Government on the decision taken by Government.

Prior scrutiny would raise many separate constitutional questions, because the traditional way in which the Government are accountable to this place and to its Committees is to take a decision and to be held to account for it. Involving the House in the decision-making process, particularly in the case of individual decisions and applications by commercial companies, would be a new venture. However, I am proud of the fact that this Government have provided both the Quadripartite Committee and everyone in the House with more opportunity to hold us to account for decisions on arms exports by providing the most transparent, comprehensive and detailed reports on our decisions on such exports of any European country.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does the Leader of the House share my concern about the results of the Dutch elections yesterday? It now looks likely that the third Government in Europe with an extreme right-wing element will be set up, joining the crypto-fascists in Austria and Italy. While I accept that our Government have to have a working relationship with Governments of that political colour, surely it should not be a special relationship such as that advocated by the Prime Minister with Italy. May we have an opportunity to debate in Government time their relationship with emerging right-wing Governments in Europe, so that we can examine how we can work with those Governments and the people of the countries concerned to persuade the European political consciousness to reject that right-wing ideology?

Mr. Cook: My concern about the elections in the Netherlands yesterday is, if anything, even greater than the hon. Gentleman's, since I have a number of good friends and political colleagues who lost their seats, which I deeply regret.

Mr. Forth: Excellent.

Mr. Cook: While I do not expect any sympathy—indeed, I anticipated that reaction—I do not anticipate that the right hon. Gentleman would have supported the election of List Pim Fortuyn, which is what contributed so much to that defeat.

I hear what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is saying. He properly recognises that we will have to have a working relationship with whatever Governments are elected by other European Union member states, but that does not mean to say that we share any of the values or policy objectives of those who were elected from the extreme right. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister never said anything about the special relationship with Italy. If I remember rightly, that language was used by the Prime Minister of Italy, not the Prime Minister of Britain. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will have correct relations with the Netherlands, but he is right that we will want to work with our colleagues throughout Europe to ensure that the poisonous doctrine of the far right is defeated.

16 May 2002 : Column 915

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The Leader of the House has worked seriously to improve and increase the powers of the House of Commons and to modernise them. Is it not a matter of considerable regret, however, that on Tuesday when the House was presented with the opportunity of a truly free vote on giving power back to Back-Bench Members to decide the membership of Select Committees, the Whips Office—the Government Whips Office—made a concerted effort to encourage Members of Parliament into the Aye Lobby. Will he consider that interesting definition of the words "free vote"? We seem to have lost an interpretation of the words that could be clearly understood.

Mr. Cook: Of course, I regret the fact that the motion that I put before the House did not command a majority. If I may put in a good word for the Whips, I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) joined me in the Lobby on Tuesday. That confirms my judgment that he is a man of discretion, wisdom and vision—if only I had had more such Members in the House on Tuesday night I would have been very content. The House has spoken and I have taken careful note of what was said by those who voted against. The next time that they are unhappy about the membership of a Select Committee, I shall remind them of what they said on Tuesday.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): Further to that reply, does the Leader of the House have any plans to revisit the business that the House debated on Tuesday? Does he agree that, whereas last July the House took the view that the Whips had too much patronage, somewhat perversely on Tuesday night the House voted to give them even more? Will he consider with the Modernisation Committee the specific proposition that the House rejected on Tuesday to see whether it might be amended to reflect the concern of the House? Will he then bring a fresh proposition back to the House, so that we can move away from the present position, which is unsatisfactory? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook: I should warn the right hon. Gentleman that he is being heckled vigorously by those on his Front Bench. I thought I should put that on the record in case he failed to observe it.

The proposition that I moved on Tuesday was not plucked out of thin air over a few hours; it was the product of several weeks of painful negotiation and compromise with the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means, and discussion with others in the House. During the debate, I offered to rebalance it further to take account of the concerns of newer Members. It was therefore the product of pretty intensive effort. I have to be honest: I do not think it will be possible to come up with a proposal that will command wider acceptance. The House was given an opportunity on Tuesday to vote for a different system or to stick with the present one; it voted to stick with the present system. It will be some time before I feel able to revisit it and will only do so if I am given more encouragement than I am getting from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Two days ago the Government announced a consultation on energy policy. In an accompanying press release, the Prime Minister said:

16 May 2002 : Column 916

The Minister for Industry and Energy said:

I have asked the Leader of the House this before, and I ask him again: will he organise a full day's debate on energy policy, either in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall, so that Members can participate fully in the consultation process?

Mr. Cook: I hear what my hon. Friend says and am well aware of the wide interest in the House in the future of energy policy, which has been raised a number of times in business questions. At present, as is common at this phase in the parliamentary Session, we have a great deal of legislative business to take on the Floor of the House in order to maintain the legislative programme. I am aware of the interest in debating energy policy, and I take note of my hon. Friend's comments.

Next Section

IndexHome Page