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Mr. Cook: Before I respond to the right hon. Gentleman, may I congratulate him on the topicality of his Independence day tie? If I remember rightly, the independence of the United States was partly influenced by the Tory Prime Minister of the time, but we shall overlook that in the circumstancesthe time has come to forgive and forget.
On the issues raised by the right hon. Gentleman, first, on the ombudsman, I do not feel that there is anything in the Government's record on which we can be impeached. After all, it is we who passed the Freedom of Information Act 2000. There were many times when I stood at the Opposition Dispatch Box and wished that we had such an Act so that we could find out what the right hon. Gentleman's Government were up to.
On the specific points made by the ombudsman about the Hinduja affair, we accept that the Cabinet Office was wrong not to provide information at the time and we have already apologised for that. I remind the House that the ombudsman came to precisely the same conclusion as the Hammond report. On the Equitable Life affair, which is also raised in the ombudsman's report, since the application for information, we have initiated two separate inquiries, one by the Financial Services Authority and one by ourselves. All matters will be fully investigated and laid before the House and the public.
As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we have already taken steps to amend the code of conduct for Ministers so that, rather than one declaration being made at a given time, a comprehensive declaration of financial interests will be made to the permanent secretary; so that particular issue should not arise again. Against the totality of the greater openness brought in by the Government, those particular exceptions need to be kept in proportion.
We look forward to the foot and mouth reports with great interest. Their publication dates are not within our gift because they are independent reports. [Interruption.] There is nothing strange about the fact that those carrying out an independent report are responsible for its publication date. We have drawn it to their attention that it would be for the convenience of the House if the reports were published while the House was still sitting. I am sure there will be exchanges in the House on that matter and that, at an appropriate point, the House will wish to debate it in full.
I do not quite understand why the right hon. Gentleman should wish to run away from the comments made on the Proceeds of Crime Bill. The fact is that his party, both here and, notably, in the other place, has resisted provisions in that Bill, and he really should not come to the Dispatch Box now and pretend otherwise. Opposition Members presumably knew what they were doing and supported what they were doing, otherwise I do not understand why they were doing it; and it is entirely legitimate for the Prime Minister to point out the totally bogus nature of the constant claims about law and order from a Conservative party which always opposes when we try to tighten up on the criminal.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): The stock market has fallen seriously once again and the speculation is that it will fall a lot further before we see an upturn. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that has serious implications for the interests of ordinary people, their savings and pensions, and that we should have a debate on the Floor of the House to ensure that we fully understand that and to decide what we should do about it? Does he further agree that that is another nail in the coffin of neo-liberalism and demonstrates clearly that Governments must play a greater role in managing and regulating economies?
Mr. Cook: On the last point, my hon. Friend is leaping from an innocent to a wide and general assertion, a move in which it would be extremely unwise of me to follow him. I remind my hon. Friend of the Government's excellent record on state pensions, for which we have provided an additional £6 billion over the sums that we inherited when we came to power, more than double the amount necessary simply to meet a link with earnings. We have honoured our commitment and the need to ensure that state pensioners are justifiably and properly treated.
With regard to the private pensions sector, we have taken two major steps which will help to protect people providing for their retirement. First, the introduction of the pension tax credit means that we shall be rewarding those who saved for their retirement and as a result have a little additional income, whereas the Conservative Government penalised those who had anything extra by means-testing them and clawing back benefit from them. Secondly, through the additional employment that we have created, particularly by means of the new deal for the over-50s, an additional 900,000 people over 50 are at work now compared with 1997. That is good for the economy, but it is also good for them because it gives them longer to prepare for their retirement.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Will the Leader of the House give an explicit answer to the question about data protection to which he did not refer, and will he also give the House an undertaking that if the foot and mouth reports are out in time there will a debate on them in Government time before the recess?
On Wednesday last week, the Leader of the House was frank and robust in giving information to the House in response to my question about the RMT union. At column 872, he referred to an "oath of loyalty". This is an extremely important issue. Can he now tell the House that he is prepared to put all his correspondence with the RMT in the Library, so we can assess its importance?
A most extraordinary statement was made this weekI think that it came from No. 10 Downing streetabout ministerial responsibility for the police. It dealt with the most odd idea that, somehow or other, a London Education Minister can now "oversee" street crime initiatives in South Yorkshire and that an Arts Minister in the Lords can do the same thing for Avon and Somerset. How exactly are they going to report back to this House? What is their ministerial responsibility, and will they answer questions on the matter?
On 25 June, at column 769 of Hansard, the Secretary of State for Health gave an undertaking that the draft mental health Bill could be considered by a Special Standing Committee. Has the Leader of the House been able to make progress on that?
Finally, a consultation is apparently going on at present about arrangements for visitors from our constituencies touring the House along the so-called line of route. Consultants have been appointed, but it is not at all clear whom they are consulting. I challenge any hon. Member to say whether they have been consulted on this matter, which is extremely important to us. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and I took a prominent part in a debate on this subject, but we have not been asked anything about the consultation. Have the House staff been consulted, and when will there be a debate on these very important proposals?
First, I am justly rebuked for not responding to the point about data protection. I am happy to say to the House that it remains our objective to try to lay a statutory instrument on the matter before the House rises. I am not sure whether it will be possible to debate it before that but it will be laid, which will clearly show that we are taking very seriously the important issue of ensuring that Members can discharge their representative functions.
On the foot and mouth reports, I cannot give an undertaking to have a debate before the House rises. Indeed, we have only two and a half weeks left and there is a lot of business to be done in that time, but I am quite sure that the House will wish to return to the matter at an appropriate time. It may find it better to do so once it has had time to digest and consider the reports in full.
I personally have no objection to putting in the Library exchanges with the RMT. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should perhaps say that we as a group acted collectively in responding to the letter from Mr. Crow, the general secretary of the RMT. The collective response was given by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who is with me on the Front Bench and has given me permission to say that his letter may indeed be placed in the Library. I hope that we can address that point, but there is no mystery and nothing sinister is involved. The correspondence will merely confirm what has been said on the record.
On the role of Ministers in relation to a number of police constabularies around the country, the arrangement has been welcomed by the police themselves. Indeed, it stemmed from the recent meeting at No. 10, which one of the police constables in attendance described as the most successful and important meeting that they have had. It is very welcome that each of the major constabularies should have a direct link with Government. Of course, accountability in respect of the police force properly remains with the Home Office, which is well represented both in this House and the other place.
I am not aware of a proposal to put the draft mental health Bill before a Special Standing Committee. Standing Committees usually consider official Bills rather than draft ones, but we are of course very keen to ensure that pre-legislative scrutiny is carried out in respect of draft Bills and we will certainly be willing to consider ways in which that can be secured.
Lastly, on the feasibility investigation into a visitor centre, since the hon. Gentleman asked the question, I should say to the House that I have been consulted by those who are carrying out the feasibility study. I hope that, as Leader of the House, I spoke for many, if not all, in the House in the answers that I gave. The process is being taken forward on a very quick time scale, because we are keen to make progress. The report will, of course, come before the House of Commons Commission, on which all the parties here are represented. Plainly, before any major development could take place, the House would have to be consulted in some shape or form.
I end by asserting what I think many hon. Members already know: my strong view is that this place requires a proper interpretive visitor centre that places stress not on the extraordinary history or wonderful architecture of the building, but on our functioning as the heart of British democracy. Every distillery in Scotland now has a visitor centre; it is high time the House of Commons got one.