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Mr. Cook: I share the hon. Gentleman's regret. I must say that I was intrigued by the fact that 90 Conservative Members voted against the proposal, thereby reinforcing the existing powers of the Government Whips. No doubt they have their own reasons for having supported the Government Whipsand some day we may be able to fathom them. In the meantime, I repeat that although I regret the outcome, as Leader of the House I have to respect it. The House reached a conclusion. I am not going to concede that I was wrongI still believe that I was rightbut I do concede that the House has made a decision, and it would therefore take a very compelling argument for us to revisit the issue.
We should not lose sight of the fact that last week the House approved all the many other items from the Modernisation Committee report, and as the hon. Gentleman says, those included increased resources and staff for Select Committees. I am pleased to say to the House that, having got the approval of the House last week, we are making all progress on that, and I anticipate that those resources will be put in place over the next Session.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): The Leader of the House will be aware that at the moment President Bush is in Europe and, among other things, is seeking support for possible military action against Iraq. As President Bush has already consulted the Prime Minister on this matter, when will Parliament debate any possible action? When will the Government publish the dossier proving that Iraq has acquired weapons of mass destruction? Will we, as the Foreign Secretary said recently on the Frost programme, first seek a new mandate from the United Nations before we even consider President Bush's request?
Mr. Cook: As I have said to the House on a number of occasions, no decision on that matter has been taken, and a decision may never be taken. Plainly, should a decision be taken, the House would have to be consulted and there would have to be a full debate. With respect, I think that we have proved ourselves very willing to consult the House and debate these matters in the House, as witness the six full days of debate which we gave to the use of military force in Afghanistan. As for the other matter that my hon. Friend raises, it is clear that one of our strengths in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan was the
Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Will the Leader of the House give a progress report on his deliberations with the Lord Chancellor about amending the Data Protection Act 1998 so that Members of Parliament can once again represent their constituents' interests properly?
Mr. Cook: As the House will understand, I share Members' concern that when they are approached by constituents, they cannot take action on their behalf because it might breach the Data Protection Act. Plainly, that is not a suitable way in which to work; when our constituents approach us they expect us to do somethingthat is why they come to us. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that we are making progress on the proposal to introduce a statutory instrument to cater for the position of Members of Parliament and other elected people in public life; I hope that next month we will be able to clear the matter up.
Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the Government's intention to fund the nursing care of residents in care homes, so that they benefit financially. Is he also aware, however, that a significant number of care homes, including Highfield Holdings in my constituency, have raised their residential fees by the amount paid for nursing care? Highfield Holdings has raised fees by about £69 a week, which means that residents are paying exactly the same as they were before, and are not getting the financial benefit that the Government intended. That is unacceptable and morally reprehensible. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for that to be debated in the House so that Members can express their views on that disgraceful action?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an issue of concern to many Members who have been approached by constituents, and I fully understand and share his concern. The problem is known to the Department of Health, which has written to a number of homes that are raising their prices. Ultimately, they are private commercial institutions, and pricing is under their control, but the measure was introduced as public policy to relieve pressure on residents in those homes and their families. I very much hope that the people who run those homes will recognise that residents and their relatives should benefit most from that public money.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Can we have an early debate on the state of the food processing industry, with particular reference to the Albert Fisher group, which went into receivership today, jeopardising 3,000 jobs across the country? As the Leader of the House knows, Fisher Foods is the largest private sector employer in my constituency, with 700 jobs in its Fraserburgh and Peterhead factories, and this is an extremely anxious time for the workers and their families. What role does the Leader of the House envisage for Departments in securing
Mr. Cook: I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about the impact of that development on his constituents. As I understand it, the operations will be run as a going commercial concern by the receiver for another six weeks; I hope that that will provide an interval in which an alternative buyer and operator can be found. The plants in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have received substantial investment in the past decade, and I understand that they are profitable and have a number of high-value prestigious clients, such as Marks and Spencer and Safeway, which is a testimony to their products. In those circumstances, of course we want another buyer to come forward. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government and the Scottish Executive will do anything that they can to help, but ultimately this is a commercial matter.
Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): I welcome the announcement by my right hon. Friend that we will have a debate on energy on 20 June, and I thank him for his good offices in helping to bring that about. Does he agree that Members will have an opportunity to take part in an important debate on the nation's long-term requirements, and will have the chance to talk about things like the new generation clean-coal technology?
Mr. Cook: Given the number of times that my hon. Friend has raised that matter with me over the weeks, I would have been severely disappointed if he, at least, had not thanked me for arranging that debate. Its title implies that we will be looking at energy until 2050, which is a long perspective but a necessary one. Looking at the future of our energy needs and their impact on the environment, the issues to which my hon. Friend referred are plainly relevant and are important to our investment in an efficient, effective and reliable energy supply in Britain.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire): Will the Leader of the House please find time for an early debate on the way Ministers handle their correspondence? I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health on 11 April. It may seem to some peoplenot to mereasonable to wait six weeks for an answer to a letter, but that letter was dated 11 April 2001. I have written time and again to ask for an answer and nothing seems to have happened. What has become of the ministerial targets for dealing with correspondence?
Mr. Cook: I am advised to write to the right hon. Gentleman. I am not aware that there is any letter from April 2001 outstanding with me. I obviously cannot respond to the right hon. Gentleman on the detail of his case, but I will happily take it up with the Department of Health. Plainly, I would like hon. Members to receive replies on time, and by and large Government Departments provide replies timeously. There will be the occasional bad case and I will certainly pursue it.