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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Did I understand correctly the final sentences of the Leader of the House's reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon)? Did he say that, if any decision on military action was taken, a statement would of course then be made and a debate held in the House? Should not such debate take place before, not after, any final decision? Perhaps Afghanistan is not the most wonderful example
Mr. Cook: The objective of the military action in Afghanistan was to prevent al-Qaeda from being able, with the assistance of the host Governmentthe Talibanto carry out further acts of atrocity such as those committed on 11 September. I hope that I am not tempting providence by observing that we seem to have been successful in securing that objective, and that al-Qaeda has as yet been unable to mount another operation. Of course, we will continue to be vigilant and active in ensuring that it is unable to mount an operation such as that carried out on 11 September.
I gently point out to my hon. Friend that every hon. Member will surely welcome an outcome that has disabled al-Qaeda, and removed the safe haven from which it could reach out and strike at hundreds of totally innocent individuals across many countries, the relatives of whom are still having to deal with enormous disruption and distress, and the loss of association with their loved ones. That was surely worth doing, and we were right to take action in Afghanistan to achieve that aim.
Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): In his answer to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman asserted that the current Prime Minister has cancelled fewer Prime Minister's Question Time appearances than did the previous two Conservative Prime Ministers. However, did he take into account the fact that the current Prime Minister has halved the number of occasions on which he can appear? The statistic is probably not a fair comparison, therefore, and I would be grateful for clarification.
Today's statement by the Secretary of State for Defence was restricted, appropriately, to operations in Afghanistan. However, I draw the House's attention to widely circulating rumoursI have become aware of them through my participation in the excellent armed forces parliamentary schemethat the armoured corps will be reduced. May we have an early statement from the Secretary of State for Defence to allay our deep concerns?
Mr. Cook: Having made a statement, my right hon. Friend has only just left the Chamber, so I am loth to summon him back to make another. I say with respect that my right hon. Friend is one of the most diligent of Ministers in making statements to the House. He has an excellent record, and if a matter needs to be shared with the House, he will doubtless volunteer it.
On the hon. Gentleman's other point, perhaps my arithmetic was not sufficiently clear. I shall go through it carefully, so that he understands what we are saying. It is true that the Prime Minister attends this Chamber on Wednesdays, rather than Tuesdays and Thursdays. However, it may not have escaped the hon. Gentleman's attention that the Prime Minister attends for twice as long on Wednesdays as either of his Conservative predecessors did on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In pointing out that they cancelled more appearances, the fact therefore remains that, at the end of any five-year period, my right hon.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate on National Asylum Support Service supervision of private-sector contracts relating to the provision of services for asylum seekers, with particular reference to the Landmark company in Liverpool? Is he aware that following years of reports of poor accommodation, poor management, and harassment and intimidation of asylum seekers in two Liverpool tower blocks owned by Landmark, NASS agreed to stop using those properties a few weeks ago? Asylum seekers who had been housed there, however, found that having left they were required to go to other properties owned by the same company, many of which had not been inspected by NASS.
Mr. Cook: I am interested by what my hon. Friend has said. I recall that concern has been expressed about Landmark properties following other business statements, and I am rather surprised at the outcome that she has described. I will certainly draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Has the Leader of the House received a briefing yet on yesterday's excellent presentations in the House of Lords by three United States Congressmen, and by Mr. Perot and Dr. Haley, on progress made in the US in identifying the causes of Gulf war illnesses? Will the right hon. Gentleman allow time in the autumn for the Secretary of State for Health to tell the House what support is being provided for those who have given service in the armed forces and contracted serious illnesses since the Gulf war, and to what extent scientists here have co-operated with US scientists to determine the cause of such illnesses and hopefully find a cure? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could also give the Secretary of State for Defence an opportunity to dispel the perception that the Ministry of Defence wants to deny that there is such a thing as Gulf war syndrome.
Mr. Cook: The Ministry of Defence has no wish or incentive to deny as a matter of principle that there is such a thing as Gulf war syndrome. Results of medical investigation remain complex and disputed, however, so there is no clear consensus among medical experts. That is partly why we are putting £7 million into research into the syndrome to see what we can establish for ourselves. Evidence from the United States is obviously important, and will be fully considered and reflected by those in the MOD who advise on the matter. The MOD is considering an outstanding tribunal ruling, and will announce its response in the near future.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government want, through the MOD as much as the Department of Health, to give every support to former service men who are in poor health, regardless of whether it can be attributed to Gulf war syndrome.
Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North): I have been trying for eight weeks to secure a debate on entitlement to bank holiday pay. Given my abject failure so far,
Mr. Cook: I strongly urge my hon. Friend not to regard his efforts as abject failure. He should develop more self-esteem, and take the credit to which he is entitled for his persistence and for raising a matter that is important to his constituents and those of many other Members.
I cannot promise my hon. Friend a debate
Mr. Cook: I often leave this place regretful about the number of Members I have had to disappoint, but I would be in even greater difficulty if I granted debates to all who asked for them. I fear that the subsequent week's business statement would be extremely crowded. Let me tell my hon. Friend, however, that we can both take pride in the fact that the Government implemented the working time directive despite vigorous opposition from the Conservative party. As a result, 2 million people in Britain have the right to a statutory paid holiday that they were previously denied. As he knows, the working time directive provides the right to four weeks' paid holiday, but not to count bank holidays on top of that. He is right to press the case of those people who see others taking bank holidays with pay but cannot do so themselves.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Leader of the House will be aware that a debate on Gibraltar took place in Westminster Hall on Tuesday morning at the instigation of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). In replying to that debate, the Minister for Europe intimated that he would be prepared for the Foreign Office to make a statement on the fact that an agreement had been reached between the British and Spanish Governments, or on the fact that it had not been possible to reach an agreement. More than a third of a million people in Britain, including many hon. Members, have declared their support for the Gibraltarians and the population of Gibraltar overwhelmingly opposes what the Government are trying to do. That being the case, and as the negotiations may not succeedthe rumours are that they have faltered badlywould it not be appropriate to come to the House to make a statement to bring this whole matter to a close and finally remove sword of Damocles from above the heads of the loyal people of Gibraltar?
Mr. Cook: I would not disagree at all with the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question: if there should come a point at which the talks were disbanded, a statement should be made to the House to announce that fact. All I am saying, as in my earlier responses, is that the talks continue. There is no agreement at the moment, nor is there any agreement that there will be no agreement. In those circumstances, I am not clear that a further statement in the immediate future would help to clarify matters to the House.