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Mr. Cook: The precise arrangements for consultation are for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs to determine. I am sure he will want to make proper arrangements so that he hears the full spread of views. As someone who has consistently supported the middle way both times, I can only say to my hon. Friend that I think that I am discernible.
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): The Leader of the House will be familiar with the fourth report of the Science and Technology Committee on developments in human genetics and embryology, which is an important and difficult matter. Can he reassure us that ownership of that important subject still resides with the House? Will he give us an early debate on the important matters raised in the report, especially the question of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's decision to allow tissue typing in conjunction with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis?
Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is right. Such matters can always be brought before Parliament, and the Select Committee's report reasserted the importance of Parliament's view. We have not legislated on that subject
I do not think that the House should get involved in second guessing any individual case. On the particular case in question, I disagree with the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink). The spokesman for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority made it clear this morning that it took a decision on that case simply to ensure that the next child was healthy. That is nothing new.
Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the report issued by the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform yesterday, which says that it will conclude the first part of its work by the autumn and is planning to meet twice in September? Will he endeavour to allow us to vote on the report at the earliest opportunity, possibly in the spill-over Session before the Queen's Speech?
Mr. Cook: I very much welcome the report. It shows that the Joint Committee is going about its work in a brisk and business-like way. I welcome the fact that it will meet during the recess. It has already agreed that there should be two phases to its work: first, to report to the House on the list of options on composition and, secondly, to consider in more detail how it will craft a second Chamber around whatever decision is taken by both Houses. I stand ready to arrange for the first of those to be put before the House, but I need to receive it from the Joint Committee before I can do so.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The Leader of the House said that he hoped that the Modernisation Committee's latest report would be with us before we rose so that we could study it in the recess and debate it when we return. Is that still his hope and expectation? When does he expect this Session to end and the new Session to be opened?
Mr. Cook: I regret to disappoint the right hon. Gentleman, but it is quite possible that we will adopt it. However, I cannot commit all members of the Committee to that, and I need their co-operation to secure that outcome.
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Is my right hon. Friend aware that yesterday the Director-General of the BBC appeared before a Committee of the House and denied vehemently that there are any plans to dumb down political coverage? Yet only hours later we saw Mr. Jeremy Paxman asking questions of the leader of the Liberal Democrats that were highly personal and completely irrelevant to political debate. This is an issue for all of us who are involved in politics, whether covering politics or involved in policy making. Are there to be no limits to questions from interviewers? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that will do nothing to enhance the institutions of Parliament or the BBC?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises a serious issue. Irrespective of political party, many Members must have been taken aback and distressed by the degree of personal questioning that took place yesterday. It does not matter how frank and open the replies Members give in these circumstances arewe all know that in such circumstances, when mud is thrown, there is a tendency for it to stick, and it is difficult to dispose of it.
The BBC needs to reflect on the fact that it is a public service broadcaster. As a result, it uniquely receives a licence fee that is paid by all viewers within the United Kingdom. One of the conditions of retaining that privileged status is that it should not seek to dumb down and compete with the bottom end of the market.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford): Will the Leader of the House arrange next week for a Minister from the Department of Health to make a statement in the light of the crisis in care homes, especially in the Birmingham area, which is causing grave concern to many, including my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) and for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as a result of the Department with responsibility for social services spending 100 per cent. less on fees to private homes compared with its own homes, over the past 18 months it has forced more than 80 homes to close, with terrible problems for the most vulnerable and frail in our society?
Mr. Cook: I repeat what I have said in the House on a number of previous occasions. The Government have provided for a 20 per cent. increase in real terms for social service spending by local authorities. That compares with an increase in the last five years of the previous, Conservative Government of 0.1 per cent. Moreover, the House has just heard my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announce a comprehensive spending review, which provides for a similar increase over the lifetime of the next spending review. It is for local authorities to make their own judgments on priorities in their areas and how best to achieve them. It is not a matter for the Government to instruct local authorities and to try to second-guess how
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Yesterday, thousands of local government employees, many of them low-paid women workers, were involved in action over their pay. Even if there is no time to debate the issue before the recess, will my right hon. Friend ask his ministerial colleagues to consider whether there is any further action that they can take to encourage an early resolution of the dispute through negotiations or the use of the conciliation and arbitration procedures?
Mr. Cook: The House will be aware of the dispute to which my hon. Friend refers. It is a matter for the local authority associations and their staff to resolve it. The offer that is on the table provides for a 3 per cent. increase. That fully matches the average settlement at present within the private sector. Over the past five years, settlements involving local government staff have more than kept pace with inflation.
I understand entirely the point that my hon. Friend makes about lower paid members of the local government sector. They are very much a matter of priority for the Government. That is why, through working families tax credit and through the other tax credits that we have provided, we have tried to make sure that we target and help those who are low paid. That means, for instance, that a school caretaker on £170 a week is now £56 better off than he or she was at the time of the 1997 general election. We shall continue to do all that we can to ensure that the low paid are assisted and get priority. I hope that the unions and employers, too, will find a settlement that does the same.
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the recently published annual report of the president of appeal tribunals on the standard of decisions taken in the name of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions? For the second year running, he adverted to real problems in relation to the way in which medical evidence is collected, assessed and used by decision makers in reaching disability living allowance awards. The Department's own figures suggest that one in five cases is being under-awarded. Will there be an opportunity for the House to discuss that important matter?