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House of Commons

Thursday 14 November 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business of the House

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): Mr. Speaker, you informed the House yesterday of the subjects for debate on the Queen's Speech. The business thereafter will be as follows:

Monday 18 November to Wednesday 20 November—Continuation and conclusion of the debate on the Queen's Speech.

Thursday 21 November—Motion to take note of various European documents relating to fisheries policy followed by a motion on the membership of the Committee of Selection.

Friday 22 November—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will include:

Monday 25 November—There will be a debate on the UN Security Council resolution on Iraq.

Tuesday 26 November—Second Reading of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill.

Wednesday 27 November—Second Reading of the Health (Wales) Bill.

Thursday 28 November—Second Reading of the Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill.

Friday 29 November—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his pre-Budget report on Wednesday 27 November.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for the next two weeks will be:

Thursday 21 November—Debate on further education.

Thursday 28 November—Debate on the report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee on the 10-year plan for transport.

Mr. Forth: I thank the Leader of the House for letting us have the future business.

Will the Leader of the House clarify an element of one our new procedures that has just started—written ministerial statements? The Order Paper contains a list of 10 such statements. I have checked with both the Table Office and the Vote Office, and also the Library, and I have found that the only place where I can locate

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one of those written statements is the Library, where there is indeed a brief written ministerial reply on bus fuel duty rebate and biodiesel. I have searched in vain for the other statements.

I wonder whether it is a coincidence that 10 written ministerial statements are conveniently to be made on a Thursday and that, as we speak at 11.36 am, only one of them has appeared in the House that I can find. Is there to be a proper procedure for such statements? Will the House be apprised of them at a proper time during the day, so that hon. Members can decide what they wish to do with or to them, or do I detect some sort of jiggery-pokery, in which a flood of statements will appear as late as possible on a Thursday when the House is not sitting on the Friday, so that they cannot be taken up by hon. Members for several days? I hope that we can be assured that that will not happen, that the Leader has a tight grip on this matter and that he can guarantee that the system will be dealt with properly, so that the House can properly deal with such matters.

Has any progress been made on additional time for Northern Ireland matters and questions in particular, as well as for questions to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? Those two Departments cover huge areas of responsibility. The Deputy Prime Minister's portfolio is appropriately broad and Northern Ireland matters are now dealt with directly by five Ministers in this House. Is the Leader of the House aware of any progress in allocating more time to hon. Members to question Northern Ireland Ministers and the Deputy Prime Minister?

Will the Leader of the House also tell us whether we will get a resolution ensuring that the House can approve the proposed dates for private Members' Bills and other matters relating to the workings of the House? I gather that it is difficult to make progress on such matters, including ten-minute Bills and others, until a resolution is passed by the House. I hope that he can give me some encouragement or further information, as everybody is very anxious to get on with things.

I should like to refer to a tantalising phrase in the Gracious Speech:

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, as will all hon. Members, that House of Lords reform was going to be one of the great flagships of this Government. We were told that the Government were outraged by the fact that the House of Lords was undemocratic and unaccountable. We were led to believe that the exciting new Labour Government would reform the upper House. However, five or more years on, we are simply told that they look forward to considering a report from a Joint Committee. That conveys no urgency except in the sense of mañana. I hope that the Leader of the House will tell us what is in the Government's mind. Will the issue be left to drift rudderless between a Joint Committee and both Houses, or will the Government act? We are entitled to know. Has the matter been shelved because the Prime Minister likes an all-appointed House and finds it convenient to continue to deal with it?

Did the Leader of the House watch XThe Project" on television recently? I wonder whether he was disappointed that he did not feature much in the triumph of new Labour. Perhaps he will provide an

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opportunity for screenings in the House, so that Labour Members can ascertain whether they featured in it and gain inspiration from it to assess the way in which to get on in the new Labour party. That programme performed an important public service and could provide a similar service to Labour Members of Parliament.

Mr. Cook: I welcome the fact that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is in his place and asking questions. Given the Conservative party's reduced strength, it is perplexing that it is not fielding one of its best performers in this year's debate on the Queen's Speech. It is the first occasion since I entered the House on which the shadow Leader of the House has been excluded from the Queen's Speech line-up. We enjoy hearing the right hon. Gentleman so much that I hope that it will be not only the first occasion but the last, and that the party will restore him to the Dispatch Box when we discuss the next Queen's Speech.

The right hon. Gentleman was characteristically quick off the mark to condemn the absence of the other nine written statements a mere six minutes into the sitting. I shall make inquiries as soon as we leave the Chamber and try to ensure that the other statements appear at the House's convenience. However, I robustly resist the perhaps unintentional implication that Thursday is somehow a second-class day in the House's proceedings. I thoroughly enjoy my Thursdays; they are one of the highlights of the week. I therefore have no difficulty in defending the practice of putting down a statement on a Thursday. [Hon. Members: XWhere are they?"] We are now 11 minutes into the sitting, and there is a long way to go. We are in a better position than in the old days of the planted question. None would have been answered by now, yet one written statement has already been provided.

On the questions rota, I am conscious of the desire for more time to discuss some subjects. I am acutely aware of the need to provide adequate coverage of Northern Ireland affairs. My difficulty is familiar: although I have demands for more time for some subjects, I am short of demands for less time on others. Unless we can find room, it is difficult to expand the time for some subjects without that being at the expense of others.

On private Members' Bills, I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that the motion is on the Order Paper under XRemaining Orders and Notices". It sets out dates, and I believe that the ballot will be held next Thursday. I am conscious of the importance that hon. Members attach to proceeding on the matter, and we want to make good speed.

I am not a member of the Joint Committee, but I am informed that my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) is writing its interim report even as we sit. We anticipate receiving it before Christmas. It will set out the options for reform and I hope that the House will have an opportunity to choose between them on a free vote. I am bound to say that that is a much better way of proceeding than for the Government to state that they had decided not to wait on the Joint Committee but to go ahead with their proposals. If we had done that, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would have denounced us

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for not waiting for the report. It is a bit rich of him to complain that we have not made enough progress in five years. I remind him that we have broken the hereditary principle in the Second Chamber. That had not been done in the previous 100 years. And the right hon. Gentleman opposed that when we tried to effect it in the previous Parliament.

I regret that my onerous duties and my responsibilities to the House and on the Queen's Speech prevent me from watching television as much I would wish—

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): My right hon. Friend will not buy a TV licence.

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