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24 Oct 2002 : Column 411—continued

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): In the aftermath of the Opposition day debate on sustainable energy, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing time for a specific debate on wind power? I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would like to establish whether there is a single wind power project in the United Kingdom that is not opposed by the Liberal Democrats—[Interruption.]

Mr. Cook: I will sit out this particular contest. The Government are thoroughly committed to developing renewable energy as a component of our energy strategy and that will feature largely in the forthcoming White Paper, which I am sure my hon. Friend will welcome and support. We will certainly look to the response of the Liberal Democrats and other parties to see whether they back the commitment in general that they so often oppose in the particular.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if the firefighters' strike goes ahead—we all hope that it will not—it is important that this House has the opportunity to debate it? Would he, therefore, be prepared to consider rearranging the business set down for next Thursday or even arranging for the House to sit next Friday so that a debate can take place?

Mr. Cook: No; I have only just announced the business for next week. Next Thursday's business is the fifth day that we usually give to a debate on defence and the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, it is warmly welcomed by many of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues. Therefore, I would not propose to disturb the arrangements that I have announced. The Government are fully seized of the gravity and importance of the situation with the firefighters dispute. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will wish to keep the House informed of our response and of developments in relation to it.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): May I refer my right hon. Friend to the recent 20-plus earthquakes in the city of Manchester? While I do not ask him to take direct responsibility for them, there is one issue that I wish to raise with him. I wanted advice and spent considerable time ringing round Ministries, only to be told by each one that it did not consider the matter to have anything to do with it. It may well be that the advice from individual Departments was accurate—that others are better placed to give advice. Indeed, the best advice came from the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, which said that there was little to worry about. Should there not be a one-stop access point for Members of Parliament and the public so that good quality advice on natural disasters can be available without having to chase round the whole system of Government?

Mr. Cook: I am immensely relieved that my hon. Friend does not lay ministerial responsibility for

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earthquakes at my door—[Interruption.] It is very kind of the House, but if hon. Members will forgive me I shall side-step that responsibility. In the first instance, the response to earthquakes rests with the local authority. I understand what has led my hon. Friend to ring round Whitehall and I concede that in the light of recent events we are faced with a development that we have not had to contemplate for many decades. It may be appropriate for the Government machine to consider whether there is any way that it can usefully meet the point that he raises. I will certainly consult my colleagues on it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the right hon. Gentleman arrange for an early debate or statement on the position of the alleged terrorists held by the United States Government in Cuba, especially United Kingdom citizens, of whom there are a number? The House needs to know by what authority they are held, what their legal rights are and to what extent they have been afforded those rights, and what steps the Government have taken to ensure that UK citizens will either be charged soon or rapidly released.

Mr. Cook: The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that the British embassy in Washington has maintained consular interest in this matter and closely followed the case of British subjects at Guatanamo bay. Those who want to see progress will presumably welcome what has been decided in the past 24 hours in relation to the release of some of those there—[Interruption.] They happen not to be British citizens, but it is to miss the point not to recognise that there is movement, which should be welcome to all those concerned about the welfare of any of those in Guatanamo bay. Our position throughout has been and continues to be that if there are valid grounds on which those detained should be charged, they should be charged and brought to trial; if not, we expect them to be released.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North): I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that a very important debate is taking place this afternoon in Westminster Hall on the United Nations charter on the rights of the child. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that six children from Wales will be coming to the debate and will be meeting Welsh MPs to discuss their views on the charter. Does he agree that it is very important that Parliament is as accessible and as relevant to young people as possible? Will he undertake to do all that he can, as part of modernisation progress, to make sure that young people understand and freely come to Parliament?

Mr. Cook: I am very interested to hear of the events taking place in the precincts to which my hon. Friend refers. In the report of the Modernisation Committee, we deliberately put at the front of it our commitment to making Parliament more accessible to the public. In particular, we need to get across the message that this is not simply an interesting, historic building, but the functioning heart of British democracy. It is particularly important that we carry that message to young people at the present time, given the opportunity that is presented to us by citizenship education in schools, and given our

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need as Members of Parliament to make sure that turnout among young people improves at the next general election.

Andrew George (St. Ives): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the Government's proposals for devolution of power to the regions? A written answer to me last week from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which appeared at column 875W of Hansard, clearly demonstrated that there were many more responses to the Government's White Paper in favour of a Cornish regional assembly than there were for the whole of the rest of the country. I am sure that the Leader of the House will understand from his distinguished involvement in devolution issues that it would be wrong for the Government to feel that they can devolve to synthetic places created for bureaucratic convenience rather than to do so with the identity of the people of such regions clearly in mind.

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not step into the minefield of where we draw the boundaries on the map. The whole point of the regional White Paper was to leave it to regions to decide voluntarily whether they wish to proceed down the road of regional government. It sounds from what the hon. Gentleman says as though many of his constituents would wish to respond enthusiastically to the offers that we are making to them, from which they can develop regional government for their area. I am confident—I hope that this pleases him—that there will be opportunities in the next Session to debate this matter at some length.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, since 11 September, one of the consequences of that terrible day has been a sharp increase in insurance premiums across the world. Recently, I have been made aware by several construction firms in my constituency that their insurance premiums—especially for personal injury insurance—have gone through the roof. In the case of one personal injury policy for which a firm applied, the premium per annum increased from #19,000 to more than #100,000. The events of 11 September have been given as an excuse but, to me, this sounds like profiteering by the insurance industry. Can we have a debate on the matter or, failing that, a statement from a Treasury Minister, so that we can examine what the insurance industry is up to and what measures can be taken to make sure that firms are not put out of business by such actions?

Mr. Cook: I understand the concern of the businesses in my hon. Friend's constituency. The Government have always placed great stress on the importance of making sure that there is free and transparent competition as a means of keeping down prices and avoiding excessive profiteering. I am sure that my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry will be very interested in discussing with him the experience in his constituency to consider whether, in this case, the market is operating in a way that protects the consumer.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): When the Leader of the House arranges future business, will he bear in mind the

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fact that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer functioning, and endeavour to arrange more sittings of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee than we have had in the past year, perhaps including a session of questions before the main debate, and allowing provision for an Adjournment debate at the end? I hope, too, that he will arrange at least one sitting in Northern Ireland.

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