Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): My right hon. Friend will have seen the reports in the broadsheets saying that the Chancellor is to announce in his forthcoming statement the national roll-out of educational maintenance allowances. Coming from a region that has always had a relatively low staying-on rate beyond the age of 16, I know that such a measure would be widely welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend give us a debate on this in advance of the Chancellor's statement, so that we can show the Chancellor and the Government how widely welcome that policy would be?
Mr. Cook: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his endorsement of that policy and of the commitment that we are making. Indeed, there is already evidence that, where there is financial support for children over 16, there is a higher continuation rate after the school-leaving age. That is entirely welcome, not just for the individuals concerned but for the strength of our future work force and economy. It would be indelicate of me to offer a debate on the matter before the Chancellor makes his statement, but I am sure that he, too, will welcome the support that my right hon. Friend has promised once he has made that statement.
Mr. Cook: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that nothing would ever be further from the mind of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor than a dubious accounting technique. On the date, the right hon. Gentleman quite properly said that he asked this question two weeks ago. I was asked it again last week, and I am happy to say that my answer is consistent: the statement will be made in July. It will not be made next week, but I anticipate that next week the right hon. Gentleman will be made a happy man by hearing the date announced.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): The Leader of the House will be aware that tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary of the closure of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International by the previous Conservative Government. As well as many private investors, organisations such as Channel 4 and councils such as that of the Western Isles lost a considerable amount of money as a result of that closure. Will my right hon. Friend give us a debate on the way in which the Insolvency Service deals with liquidations? A liquidation that has lasted 11 years and cost millions of dollarspossibly $1 billionin fees is a very long liquidation. Will he also welcome the positive steps being taken by the employees and the liquidators to ensure that this liquidation is brought to a speedy conclusion?
Mr. Cook: With the greatest respect, my hon. Friend was not in government at the time. The Government of the time are now, happily, sitting on the Benches opposite us. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the effort that he has put into trying to achieve justice for those who were left as creditors of the bank. It collapsed amid great complexity, which explains, to some extent, the length of time that this has taken. I understand that 60 per cent. of the outstanding debt to creditors has now been met, and that there will be further dividends in the course of the next 12 months. I believe that there has also been progress on the agreement between the former employees and the bank, and I think we would all agree that the former employees should always be at the front of the queue when there is a need to meet the outstanding debts from the collapse. It is a matter of great regret that the process has taken this long, but my hon. Friend knows better than anyone else in the House the complexity of the issues involved.
Mr. Cook: I am delighted to join the hon. Gentleman in wishing all our United States friends a happy and safe Independence day. I fully share his view that there is a strong, strategic partnership between the two countries, based on two fundamental realities: we are each other's biggest trade partner, and each other's closest ally. Those long-term strategic relationships will continue. The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that today is Independence day in the United Statesindependence, of course, from usand in those circumstances we should also recognise that we are two sovereign, independent countries, and we should not be unduly disturbed if, from time to time, we pursue different policies around the world, while in no way undermining the powerful partnership that is so important to both of us.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): Given that the Government have recently published their regional government White Paper, which I warmly welcome, and given that there is a consultation attached to that White Paper, which will finish at the end of August, may I urge my right hon. Friend to give the House an opportunity to debate the issue so that it receives a public airing during this important consultation period?
Mr. Cook: For one moment, I was concerned that my right hon. Friend was going to invite me to recall the House at the end of August for that debate. I cannot promise a debate before the House rises, because there is a very crowded schedule, but we produced the draft local government Bill precisely because we wanted a wide consultation, not just with Members but with the local government movement. That will inform any Bill that is brought before the House, which would, of course, be debatable here. In the meantime, the Local Government and the Regions Committee is carrying out its pre-legislative scrutiny, and I am sure that it would welcome the views of colleagues.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): In taking the Leader of the House back to the question of medical confidentiality and data protection, may I draw his attention to my membership of the British Medical Association medical ethics committee?
In the light of the comments of the BMA this week, which draw attention to the fact that confidential medical information is released by Members on both sides of the Houseon the case of Rose Addis, for example, without it being clear that her explicit consent, and not just that of her family, was granted for that releasewill the Leader of the House give further consideration to the question of guidance for Members to ensure that we stay on the side of not breaching medical confidentiality?
On data protection, does the Leader of the House accept that there will still be duties of medical confidentiality on bodies to which the Data Protection Act 1998 applies and that a very strong case would have to be made for
Mr. Cook: I would not presume to give hon. Members guidance on how they pursue their individual constituency cases. That will always be a matter for the judgment of Members, and it would be wrong to try to impose any other standard on them. The key lesson of the Rose Addis case is that, in the first place, there should be discussions with those who provide the medical treatment in the hospital, because it is those who provided the medical treatment in that case who were outraged by how it was misrepresented in the Chamber.
On data protection, I shall study carefully what the hon. Gentleman said, but I am not sure that I agree with it. If a constituent comes to us to raise a complaint about the local NHS trust, it is entirely proper for the Member to assume that the constituent wants the Member to do something about it. There is clearly an implied consent there.
The statutory instrument will put those NHS trusts and other parts of the public sector back in their pre-Data Protection Act position, so that Act will not be a barrier to them answering honestly and fairly the Member of Parliament's complaint. However, it will not remove any existing considerations on patient confidentiality and it will certainly not give us any licence to pry into matters that have not been raised with us by our constituents.