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17 Oct 2002 : Column 474—continued

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman is realistic in understanding that we cannot debate the matter before prorogation, but I assure him that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keen for the House to have an opportunity to question her and discuss the matter, and that the issue of a statement was contemplated. The House will always be faced with the problem of catching up after three months in which it has not been sitting. Indeed, we saw that on Monday when we had three statements—[Hon. Members: XTuesday."] Sorry, Tuesday. Those statements could not be moved and necessarily took precedence over any other statement. I would argue that that is a very strong case for the House coming back in September instead of the system whereby we do not meet for three months. Had we come back in September, I am absolutely sure that there would have been a statement on Johannesburg.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West): Would the Leader of the House, in his mission for modernisation, consider investigating the modernisation of the television facilities available in the House to allow hon. Members to receive digital television channels, especially those such as BBC2 Wales or BBC Scotland, which will allow us to monitor the media in our nations and regions? Would that not have the additional merit of allowing people—such as those hon. Members who were lucky enough to be in the Wales Office last night—to watch some top-quality international football?

Mr. Cook: One of the advantages that I have as United Kingdom Leader of the House is the ability to support whichever team is doing best, and I congratulate the Welsh team on its success. I shall convey to the House authorities my hon. Friend's comments in relation to television services.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): First, will the Leader of the House confirm that there will be a Government statement on the Government's response to the Anderson inquiry on 5 November, as leaked today to Plaid Cymru? Secondly, he is no doubt aware of a little local difficulty concerning the proposed change of membership of the Committee of Selection. He is aware that this is due to the increasing frustration felt in the minority parties about lack of access to Committees and

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institutions of the House. Must we continue to oppose that as private business, or will we be given an early opportunity to debate our grievances about the treatment of minority parties at the hands of the House?

Mr. Cook: I am very much aware of the grievance of the minority parties on the question of appointments to Committees. The hon. Gentleman and I have corresponded on the matter on several occasions, and I will continue to look for a solution to it. There will be plenty of procedural opportunities for him to make his point.

On the Anderson report, the Government will, of course, respond to it, and that response will be shared with the House. It is unusual, however, for the Government to respond as soon as the leak is out and before the report has been published.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I return to the story in the The Mirror about the war bill? Although I welcome the Leader of the House's positive comments on the United Nations route, I must point out the importance of this issue to the House. If the document concerned says that President Bush has been guaranteed that Britain will send troops to fight a United States-led war and makes other explicit statements to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) referred—in addition, the Congressional Budget Office report estimates that the cost to this country might be #5 billion—it is imperative that the House has the opportunity to question a Minister or the Prime Minister on the matter. We have been told time and again that no decisions have been taken, but the Americans appear to think that they have been. Five billion pounds is a lot of money, and we have outstanding public sector pay claims, such as those from the firefighters and the nurses, and I am sure that that money would cover much of their claims.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises an issue that has been of deep concern to a number of my hon. Friends. I can only repeat that the Congressional Budget Office is, of course, entitled to come to what assumptions it wishes, but those are its assumptions. They do not reflect any commitment that has been given by Her Majesty's Government, nor could we make any commitment until we take a decision, and no decision has been taken on action. I very much hope that it will be possible for us to succeed in getting the UN to pressurise Iraq successfully to accept its obligations to the UN. Every sane Member would accept that that is the best way forward, but it depends on co-operation from Iraq.

As to opportunities to debate the issue further, I draw the House's attention to the fact that there will be a debate on defence today and that there will be another in two weeks' time. There are plenty of opportunities for Members who wish to do so to press the Ministers responsible for defence for clarity on this matter. However, I think that those Ministers will confirm what I have said to the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on the private finance initiative so that the House can have the benefit of the lively debate that we saw at the Labour party conference? Perhaps the Government could explain the

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motion that was so enthusiastically adopted by that conference. If he finds time for that debate, will he arrange for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to open it, so that we can hear the Government's argument at its best and hear a repeat of the bravura performance at Blackpool?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman's point was rather laboured. I am always happy to listen to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury or, indeed, to any member of the Treasury team. They will also be interested to hear from the hon. Gentleman or any of his colleagues if they wish to nominate which hospital or school projects in their constituencies they would like to have halted because they do not approve of the PFI process.

Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I welcome the modernisation proposals that my right hon. Friend published over the summer, but will he tell the House what progress has been made with respect to the use of Westminster Hall for debates on issues that cut across Government Departments and that a range of Ministers could attend? Would not a good start be a debate on youth policy to which many Ministers could be brought together to answer questions on that important topic?

Mr. Cook: I aware of my hon. Friend's interest in the subject. Indeed, he wrote to me some time ago, and I am pleased that we have been able to respond to the demand from Members—and from Ministers responsible for this issue—by proposing that there should be an opportunity for cross-cutting questions on youth policy, embracing the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills. As more work is done in Whitehall on a cross-departmental basis, it is right that the House should adapt its procedures so that we can also maintain cross-cutting scrutiny. I believe that our proposal for change in Westminster Hall will be helpful. We will work with the Chairman of Ways and Means to try to find an early opportunity in the new Session when we can put into effect that proposal for questions on youth policy in Westminster Hall.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): Is it not unsatisfactory that neither the Chancellor of the Exchequer nor the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry have yet been to the House to explain or justify their decision to put more than #600 million of public funds at risk in the form of emergency loans and guarantees to the virtually bankrupt private nuclear energy company, British Energy? Will the Leader of the House ensure that we have such a statement as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook: As I understand it, we will have a full opportunity to explore these issues next week. Once again I say that, if we had regular September sittings, such questions would not arise, because I am sure that we would have had a statement at the time. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises will be debated next week, but it surely could not be responsible of any Government to allow a major nuclear energy installation to face the possibility of insolvency, with all the consequences that would have for the safety and

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security of our constituents. In those circumstances, it surely was right for the Government to act to make sure that nuclear safety is maintained.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on compensation for the victims—the soldiers and now the families—of the atomic tests in the Pacific in 1950? I am sure that he is aware that the Prime Minister supported a private Member's Bill in 1990 demanding compensation for the victims of those tests. As we are now in government, I am sure that the Government will be eager to ensure that justice is done for those victims.

Mr. Cook: The Government are always eager to make sure that justice is done, and my hon. Friend may want to put those points to my colleagues from the Ministry of Defence who will be taking part in the subsequent debate.

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