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21 Nov 2002 : Column 785—continued

Mr. Forth: I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the business. We are all aware that the long-awaited and much-anticipated Wicks report reached the public domain this morning. At this stage, may I put down a marker and ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will guarantee that, at an appropriate time and after deliberations in the House, we will have an opportunity fully to debate the report, which has such a huge impact on the House and the way in which it works, and on its Members?

The Leader of the House may or may not be aware—I do not know how assiduously even he follows the proceedings of the European Parliament—that

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yesterday the European Parliament produced a report on foot and mouth disease, which, in distinction to the rather dismal effort made in this country, was produced on the basis of public hearings. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether he is prepared to give time—probably early in the new year—for a debate on foot and mouth that will allow us to consider not only the findings of the final version of the European Parliament report but all the other investigations into that important subject, so that we can come to a proper conclusion?

Following the pre-Budget report next Wednesday, I hope that we shall have an opportunity soon thereafter for a full debate on the economy because it would appear from all reports that we are receiving that the gloss has gone off the Chancellor in particular. Following what he tells us in his pre-Budget report, we shall want to consider the state of the economy and of the Government's finances very carefully. Perhaps we shall see the Chancellor in an altogether new light. That would be an uplifting experience, certainly for those on the Conservative Benches, and it should happen in any case.

I want to ask the Leader of the House about the crisis in higher education. Is there such a crisis? The Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education has told us that there is, which worries me, as I am sure it does you, Mr. Speaker, because we have all been brought up to believe in the doctrine of Government collective responsibility—a very important part of our constitutional and parliamentary arrangements. This Government, however, do not seem to have any collective responsibility, because the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education are busy flying kites on top-up tuition fees in higher education, while no less a figure than the Secretary of State for International Development has said that they are a bad idea.

Here we have two Cabinet members plus other Ministers all saying completely different things about an important policy area. Will the Leader of the House please arrange a debate on Government collective responsibility so that we can find out once and for all whether the Government have any collective view about anything at all or whether there is a permanent free-for-all in the Cabinet on important areas of responsibility?

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Unite or die!

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Forth: I ask also for an urgent debate entitled XHonesty and Integrity in Government". The key figure in that debate, perhaps to everybody's surprise, would be Admiral Sir Michael Boyce—a man whose honesty and integrity are unimpeachable, a man for whom all of us on the Conservative Benches have the highest possible regard and a man whose word can be accepted without question on our Benches.

It appears, however, that things are rather different on the Government side. Sadly, when the admiral was asked yesterday about the impact on the effectiveness of the armed forces of their preparations for and

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involvement in the firefighters' strike, he said, XI am extremely concerned". He is reported as going on to say that

That is the Chief of the Defence Staff stating his assessment of the impact of our domestic situation on our armed forces. In the light of that, the Secretary of State for Defence is reported as saying:

Rather than have a debate, perhaps we should offer the Secretary of State an analysis of his hearing capability, because for the two to be at such odds is a serious matter.

It gets worse, because at column 639 of yesterday's Hansard, during PMPs—[Interruption.] Yes, Prime Minister's porkies. The Prime Minister was told that

The Prime Minister replied:

The Prime Minister is now challenging the Chief of the Defence Staff on what he said. The Prime Minister went on to say that

But the Chief of the Defence Staff had just said that we did not have the full operational capability.

We must have a debate on this matter, Mr. Speaker. It cannot be left hanging in the air, because it goes to the heart not only of integrity and honesty in government, of which there seems to be precious little these days, but of the relationship between this country's top military man and members of the Cabinet. We must have a debate and we must sort this out once and for all.

Mr. Cook: Before I respond to the right hon. Gentleman's questions, may I allude to a question he asked me last week about the number of written statements and the time when they were released? I am pleased to say that today there will again be 10 written statements, nine of which were laid before the business statement. The one exception is the statement on victims and witnesses, which the Home Office understandably wants to release at the same time as the publication of the Criminal Justice Bill at 2.30 this afternoon. I hope that the House will take some comfort from the fact that we are doing all we can to ensure that written statements are provided timeously, and that the House can benefit from a more transparent and open way of making announcements.

I have not yet had a chance to read all of the Wicks report, but I welcome one of its early conclusions:

I trust that I carry the House with me when I express the hope that tomorrow the press will give adequate coverage to that central conclusion of the Wicks committee.

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The right hon. Gentleman is right—the House must have an opportunity to examine the report—but I would have thought that the appropriate time was when we had had an opportunity to reflect and to digest it. I would particularly like to know the views of the Standards and Privileges Committee before the House discusses it.

I think it would be slightly eccentric to debate a European Parliament report on foot and mouth when we already have a number of reports of our own, in Britain, about what happened. I am conscious of the deep interest in the matter, and we are keeping it in mind for a future debate; but, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, from now until the end of the year we shall have a very busy schedule, especially in dealing with Second Readings of the many excellent Bills in the Queen's Speech.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the state of the economy. I was a little perplexed to be pressed for a debate on that, given that, for the first time in my memory, the Opposition chose not to divide on the economy at the end of our debates on the Queen's Speech. That may of course reflect their recognition that they are not on the strongest ground when it comes to a record on the economy that has given us the lowest inflation and interest rates for a generation—since the time of the Beatles, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said in his speech—and a lower unemployment rate than any other major economy in Europe. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the gloss is still fully on the Chancellor, and that he looks forward with confidence to coming here on Wednesday and robustly defending the Government's economic record.

Let me also say this to my—to the right hon. Gentleman. I nearly called him my right hon. Friend, and would not necessarily resile from that but for its parliamentary connotations. I think it took a bit of brass neck for him to lecture the Government on the principle of collective responsibility. Only in the past week have we seen him restored to his place in the Chamber so that we can see his face again. Let me gently suggest that this may be an instance in which those in glass houses might hesitate before throwing stones.

As the House knows, preparation is currently being made for a review of higher education, which will be published in the new year. I am sure that when it is published the House will want to debate it, and explore the options that it presents.

There will of course be a debate on Iraq next week, when the House, if it wishes, will be able to discuss the military preparedness of the armed forces for any conflict that may arise. Of course everyone, whether in the military or not, would like the fire strike threatened for tomorrow not to take place. That is why my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been working so hard to find a basis on which talks and negotiations can continue. We strongly urge the parties to the dispute to remain at the negotiating table rather than take strike action, but I am confident that if they take such action the armed forces and other personnel will do all that they can to try to provide the best possible alternative cover, and will rise to the task with no complaints.

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