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Mr. Cook: This seems a good opportunity for mutual appreciation and congratulations, so may I congratulate my hon. Friend on the indefatigable way in which he has pursued the case for online scrutiny of legislation? The system started today in respect of the draft Communications Bill, and I am glad to hear from my hon. Friend that it is proving popular and receiving much public interest. The point of pre-legislative scrutiny is to allow the public and lobby groups to join in, so that legislation is not simply a matter for debate within Westminster. As to the future, as I have said before, my ambition is to secure an outcome in which pre-legislative scrutiny will become the norm, not the exception. Because of the capacity constraints, including in relation to the parliamentary draftsmen, it will take us some years to get there, but I am convinced that that is the right way to go. If Parliament seriously wants to shape the future of Government Bills, it must see them early and in draft.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): Will the Leader of the House make time available for an early statement by the relevant Minister from the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the figures for deaths at sea published recently by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency? The right hon. Gentleman should know that the number of deaths at sea in Scotland last year rose to 84, as opposed to 54 the previous year. He will also be aware that that is a matter of great concern in my constituency, as last year saw the closure of Pentland coastguard station in my constituency and the Oban coastguard station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). There may or may not be a link between those facts, but may we have a statement so that the issue is given a proper airing?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that, which I understand must be a matter of deep concern to his constituents and to other constituencies that have sea-going fleets and constituents. I believe that I am right in saying that the closure to which he refers took place following a public inquiry, and that a tug has been deployed full-time within the area. However, the figures that the hon. Gentleman quotes are disturbing and we will look closely at the recent report to see whether there is any contribution that we can make to ensure that we bring down those figures in future years.

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): My right hon. Friend may have read the report in Monday's Daily Mirror

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concerning the condition of the railway line from London to Colchester. That line runs through the heart of my constituency, and thousands, if not tens of thousands of people use it to commute into London every day. In the light of the serious allegations that have been raised, and the concerns that there will obviously be in the public mind, will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate or statement on the condition of the nation's railway tracks?

Mr. Cook: I am aware of the report to which my hon. Friend refers, and I think that I am right in saying that the information was taken unofficially over a 10-mile stretch of rail. The DTLR and Railtrack are seeking to obtain more details on what the filming involved and what it shows, and they will study it with great care. In the meantime, I shall ensure that the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions writes to him giving the Department's views on the study and the extent to which it may be valid.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): This morning, yet another story emerged about the technical problems at the air traffic control centre in Swanwick in my constituency. The story follows reports that the Civil Aviation Authority has rejected the increase in fees proposed by National Air Traffic Services. Will the Leader of the House ensure that when the House returns from recess next month, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions comes to the Chamber to make a statement on the technical reliability and financial position of NATS?

Mr. Cook: First, with regard to this morning's claims about NATS operators misreading heights of planes and being unable to read their new displays, NATS completely rejects those allegations. It remains put out that the integrity and competence of its staff have been questioned in such a manner and it is confident that nothing has happened to put the safety of passengers at risk.

On the new displays, when a new system is installed, it is plainly right to monitor it closely to ensure that it can be improved. That is happening at the present time.

The financial integrity of NATS was fully considered by the regulator when deciding whether prices and charges should be increased; he concluded that the increase was not justified in full knowledge of the financial background.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): May I refer my right hon. Friend to the situation between India and Pakistan? I hope that he agrees that it threatens not only our nationals, as the Foreign Secretary's correct decision to downgrade staffing at our posts in Pakistan shows, but huge numbers of dual nationals. Does he agree that if any situation in the world is genuinely globally threatening it is that between India and Pakistan, which are both now nuclear powers? One of them at least has made no commitment on no first use of the weapons. The possibility of war on an horrendous scale between the two countries is a global tragedy, and the prospect of such conflict being a nuclear war can hardly be contemplated. What facilities exist in this moment of near crisis to allow Parliament to be kept in touch and to give us the opportunity to monitor the situation and have an input as it unwinds?

Mr. Cook: I am glad that my hon. Friend has raised this issue, which is of grave concern. It must be

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of especially acute concern to hon. Members whose constituencies contain large communities that have community and family ties with the Indian subcontinent. The Government deeply regret that we have had to curtail some of our diplomatic operations and services in Pakistan. The reason for that is the growing terrorist threat in Pakistan; the decision was taken solely in the light of the safety and future of our nationals who are working for the British Government inside the country. That must quite properly be one of our first concerns. We have, however, maintained our consular provision, so we can still maintain, although possibly on a reduced basis, contact with British nationals and citizens in Pakistan.

On the wider issue that my hon. Friend raises, I am sure that the whole House will share his apprehension about the possibility of armed conflict between the two countries, which cannot be in the interests of either of them. In the event of any such conflict, there would be no winner: both would be losers. That is why all of us who are friends of both Pakistan and India and wish them well must do all we can to try to avoid such an outcome, and why the Foreign Secretary will visit the region next week to try to achieve the understanding that the world outside and the international community want on the avoidance of armed conflict.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Can I take the Leader of the House back to the obstruction of the parliamentary ombudsman by the Cabinet Office to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred? Will he ensure that there is an early debate on the relationship between this Government and the ombudsman? I refer him to the ombudsman's fourth report of November last year, in which he said:

Is it not time, some seven months later, for the Government to give a response to that report and not continue to ignore it?

Mr. Cook: I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government fully accept the conclusions of the ombudsman in today's report, which are entirely consistent with what we have said in the past. It is indeed regrettable that over a period of three months the ombudsman's request for access to files was not granted, and the Cabinet Office secretariat has apologised for that delay. I see no policy issue here, and I certainly see no reason to turn the matter into a party political dispute.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): Several churches in my constituency have written to me about Malawi. My right hon. Friend will have heard Malawi mentioned in the House yesterday, and the subject is raised again today in early-day motion 1375:

[That this House notes the current plight of Malawi which faces its worst food crisis in nearly 20 years; acknowledges that the country is facing an immediate shortfall of thousands of tonnes of food; recognises that warnings of this crisis appeared three months ago; and calls on the international community to act with speed and generosity to avert disaster.]

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Malawi is facing a desperate situation—probably the worst for 20 years—as regards food shortages. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to give the House some time to discuss how we can help Malawi?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is right to draw hon. Members' attention to the grave situation in Malawi, which is life-threatening to many of its residents. That is why in the course of this year we have provided additional support for humanitarian aid and for food assistance in Malawi. Indeed, only last month we announced another £1 million for that purpose. We are keen to work with the Government of Malawi to resolve this, and we hope that they will be able to work with us on acceptable terms of transparency to ensure that our assistance is getting through to the people whom we want to assist. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are fully aware of the crisis in Malawi, understand the British public's compassion and concern about it, and will do all that we can to be of assistance.

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