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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1009—continued

Matthew Green (Ludlow): Will the Leader of the House arrange either a ministerial statement or a debate on the loss of power that many households in my constituency and many others—such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb)—have suffered following the gales at the weekend? Almost a thousand households in my constituency still had no power yesterday, and some were still being reconnected this morning. I understand that the power companies are saying that they should not pay compensation because this is an act beyond their means. Many homes in my constituency have also been without water for three or four days because there has been no power supply for the generators. The water companies are saying that they should not pay compensation because it was not their fault, but the fault of the electricity companies. Can we debate this matter at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Get rid of privatisation.

Mr. Cook: I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that not even he could blame the recent gales on privatisation. While I share his robust defence of our philosophy, we cannot on this occasion blame these circumstances on capitalism.

I fully sympathise with the distress and difficulty caused to the constituents of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) who have been deprived of their electrical supply. He underlines the extent to which, in modern society, so much of what we rely on depends on power being available. When that power supply is shut down, the effect is much more dramatic than it might have been in previous decades. If he will forgive me, I will not be drawn on the difficult legal question as to who is liable and who might be sued. That is a matter for lawyers, not politicians. I can assure him, however, that we are in close contact with the power authorities seeking to get restoration, and the information that I received this morning is that they anticipate that most of those who were still disconnected yesterday will be reconnected during the course of today.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): On Monday, my right hon. Friend and I took part in a debate on alleged abuses of the House of Commons by those Members who have not yet taken their seats. The charge was led by the shadow Leader of the House. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at media reports this morning that abuses of House facilities—namely, the Members' Tea Room—have indeed been taking place this week, involving none other than the shadow Leader of the House, for nefarious party political purposes?

Mr. Cook: I am shocked to hear that the Tea Room is used for party political purposes. This is a very serious

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allegation, which I shall of course immediately discuss with the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider whether we should pursue it.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Is the Leader of the House aware of the growing problems affecting the Government's consultation on airport policy? Of the documents involved, six remain unavailable to Members and those that have been published contain serious factual errors. On Saturday, a new exhibition will take place in my constituency, because of previous mistakes, and I understand that some of my constituents are seeking a judicial review of the consultation process. Given that, will he look carefully at early-day motion 1792?

[That this House notes with concern the consultation period of four months and that this equates to just seven parliamentary weeks; and calls upon the Government to extend the period of consultation to the end of February 2003 to give more people a chance to respond.]

It seeks a short extension and is supported by Members on both sides of the House.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Transport to come to the House early next week to explain what has gone wrong with the process and whether the Government will extend the consultation? I must tell the Leader of the House that this is a matter of rising concern among Members across the House, and I hope that he deals with it appropriately.

Mr. Cook: I understand the importance of the points that the hon. Gentleman raises, and I shall certainly communicate with the Department for Transport on the importance of making available any documents that remain unavailable to the House. The consultation lasts four months, which, of course, exceeds the normal 12 weeks. The points that he raises underline the importance of consulting widely before moving to a decision, but whether there is room for any further delay would depend on how quickly we needed to reach that decision, and I suggest that it might not necessarily help all the communities affected if uncertainty were prolonged unnecessarily.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): The first Adjournment debate that I was ever granted in the House by Speaker Weatherill was about an underground fire in my constituency. Appropriately, it was granted on 5 November. May we have a debate, perhaps on that date, on the misuse of fireworks? Although we have had a debate in Westminster Hall, the matter is very serious and the arrangements for the manufacture, sale, distribution and use of fireworks have got seriously out of hand. Can the debate be broad enough to allow us to discuss fireworks advertisements, such as one which states:

It ends:

Considerable misuse is taking place and it needs to be squeezed out.

Mr. Cook: On 5 November, the House is committed to debating the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum

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Bill, on which I anticipate there may be some harmless pyrotechnics in the Chamber. My hon. Friend raises a serious issue, however, and hon. Members in many constituencies will have seen its damaging effects on constituents when things go wrong. That is why the Government have launched a major publicity campaign to try to reduce the mischievous and irresponsible use of fireworks, and why we have already committed ourselves to taking the necessary powers next year to ensure that the most harmful fireworks and those that are most misused are not available on general sale. He makes an important point, which I am sure will continue to be at the forefront of the House's deliberations, not just this year, but in future years.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), the airports policy consultation document offers a pro forma reply at the end, but does not Parliament need to be consulted on matters of such crucial significance to our constituents' welfare? As the right hon. Gentleman has rightly announced the outline of the parliamentary year ahead, can he give us any commitment to a full debate on airports policy before the end of the consultation on 29 November?

Mr. Cook: I do not think I can commit myself to a debate on any subject by 29 November. That would be within a week of the Queen's Speech, and as I said, we have a busy year ahead of us. I fully appreciate, however, that airports policy is a major issue, especially for constituencies that are directly affected. It is inconceivable that we could proceed without giving Parliament a full opportunity to question the relevant Minister and express its views.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): Like many other constituencies, South Derbyshire is troubled by the problem of illegal camping on public and private property, and the nuisance and dumping of waste that it often causes. In July the Government announced that they were considering measures to strengthen controls on this antisocial activity. Apparently the matter has been passed to the Home Office. Could my right hon. Friend persuade a Home Office Minister to come here and tell us what progress the Department has made?

Mr. Cook: I realise the enormous distress that is caused to many communities by illegal camping. As my hon. Friend will know, the Government recognise that what often concerns our constituents most is low-level antisocial behaviour which, while it may not necessarily grab the headlines, can have a serious impact on local communities' quality of life. I will draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of my colleagues in the Home Office, and ensure that they contact him about the progress they have made since the announcement.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): According to the published results of a Department of Education household consultation in Northern Ireland, only in the 50 most deprived of a total of 566 wards was there

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agreement that academic selection should end. Will the Leader of the House make time for the Northern Ireland Minister responsible for education to come and explain why, in a written answer given to me this week, she said the predominant view was that academic selection should be done away with? Surely that was misleading the House, and an apology should be made.

Mr. Cook: I confess that I am not familiar with the details, but I will certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's question to the attention of the relevant Minister and invite him to write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Knowing that my right hon. Friend would welcome a question about top-up fees, I thought I might give him one. Does he agree that the universities in the most financial difficulty are those with a high proportion of science and engineering students? It appears that the resources allocated to those courses are insufficient. My local university, the university of Hertfordshire, is about to close its physics department, having already closed its chemistry and civil engineering departments. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the matter is urgent, and that the House should have an opportunity to debate it fully as soon as possible?

Mr. Cook: I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his suggested reply, and look forward to an occasion when an education Minister may be able to respond to his question.

The Government are proud of having provided an extra #1,700 million for higher education. That represents a remarkable change from the policy of retention pursued by the last Government. We want to ensure that we have the best—world-class—higher education, with universities that can hold their own in the face of what is increasingly global competition. The purpose of the review that will be published shortly is to examine how we can ensure that universities have the necessary resources while also ensuring that even the poorest citizen can go to university.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): Will the Leader of the House consider organising a statement by the Deputy Prime Minister early next week on urban policy, following the meeting that he is holding today? I am particularly concerned about the knock-on effects of urban policy on greenbelt issues. We in Sutton Coldfield have been very suspicious of the Deputy Prime Minister's views on the green belt since his outrageous overturning of an independent inspector's report on Peddimore in my constituency, which would have protected the green belt.

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