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21 Nov 2002 : Column 789—continued

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Did the Leader of the House notice that the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) endorsed the question to the Prime Minister from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) yesterday rather than supporting his own leader? Does that not show where the real opposition is?

On the Wicks committee, I wonder whether the Leader of the House would like to comment on the fact that the report on the standards of conduct of the House of Commons—a report that could not be more relevant to Members of Parliament—was presented to the media at 11 am this morning, but was not available to Members until 11.20 because of Xa technical hitch". Moreover, the written statement from the Prime Minister was not available in the Library until 11.30. Surely on this occasion at least, Members of the House should be given priority. Will the Leader of the House accept that the intention behind the Modernisation Committee's proposal that we should do away with the farcical charade of question planters was to give the whole House such information at the earliest possible opportunity? Does he accept that simply leaving it to the Standards and Privileges Committee to come back to the House with a review of the Wicks committee report will not be sufficient? After all, that Committee is itself under some attack from the recommendations of the Wicks committee.

Has the Leader of the House had time to consider Mr. Speaker's statement of yesterday, in response to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) about the obligation of Ministers and their Departments to give full, honest and accurate answers to parliamentary questions? Has the Leader of the House considered the particular point made by Mr. Speaker that he hoped that steps would be taken

Will the Leader of the House examine, across the whole of Government, examples that my colleagues and I have discovered of the way in which the parliamentary question has been debased by some Departments?

Finally, I ask the Leader of the House whether there could be pre-legislative scrutiny of the civil service legislation that we still hope to see in this Session—even if only in draft form—given that the Wicks committee's work on the politicisation of civil servants is intensely relevant to the reputation of this Government and this Parliament.

Mr. Cook: The decision on the release of the Wicks committee report was in the first instance a matter for that committee—it was in its hands to decide when it chose to publish it. I regret that the report was not simultaneously available in the Vote Office, and we did take steps to make sure that it was made available as quickly as possible. I regret the delay, and I must be frank with the House and say that, at the time of coming to the Chamber, I was unable to get to the bottom of the reason for that delay. I shall pursue the matter when I leave the Chamber, but the report is now available in the Vote Office, and is available to hon. Members.

I should say that I did not imply that a report from the Standards and Privileges Committee would itself be sufficient, but I do think it desirable. I would hope that,

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before we have what will necessarily be a wide-ranging discussion in the House, involving Members who are not necessarily members of that Committee, the Committee and its Chairman should advise us on how we should proceed, and on how we should assess the recommendations.

I vigorously rebut the idea that the parliamentary answer has been in any way debased. Indeed, only in the past month or two, I made a submission to the Procedure Committee, robustly defending the parliamentary answers provided by Government. There are of course occasions when they are not adequate, and for that reason an apology was given this week to Mr. Speaker, and to the hon. Gentleman's colleague, the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb). We shall seek to do all that we can to prevent any further administrative mix-up that results in the wrong information being provided to a Member. However, I ask the House to bear in mind that the volume of parliamentary answers has almost doubled in the course of this Parliament since the last election. We are seeking to cope with the very welcome interest of Members in the work of government and the excellent work that we are doing, but sometimes that is challenging.

I note what the hon. Gentleman says about bringing forward civil service legislation in draft form. I understand why he proposes that—there would be considerable interest in such legislation. Whether we will have such legislation in this Session I am currently not in a position to say, but I shall bear in mind the view that, should such legislation be brought forward, it might be helpful, if circumstances allow, for it to be seen in draft.

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, Maryhill): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the sale of the Herald Newspaper Group by the Scottish Media Group, and of the deep concern of many that one of the bidders is the Barclay brothers, owners of The Scotsman. May I ask my right hon. Friend to provide time in the House to discuss the future of newspaper media in Scotland, and in particular to discuss the developing monopoly situation and how competition policy can seek to broaden the range of the available newspaper media in Scotland?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend raises a matter of considerable interest in Scotland. I am sure that it will be a considerable talking point at next week's dinner organised by The Herald, at which many hon. Members will be present.

Mr. Forth: Oh!

Mr. Cook: I do not think that our independence of judgment on this question will be suborned, but we will wish to seek views, and it is possible that we will even express views in the course of that dinner. My hon. Friend is right that one of the objectives that we should try to achieve in the media is to ensure that there is competition and an alternative point of view. Anyone who knows of the long-standing rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow will be aware of the importance of those two cities having distinct daily newspapers to cover their populations. My hon. Friend has alluded to the fact that there exist well known and well worn

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systems by which we can ensure that any merger in the media industry is subject to adequate competition checks.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I agree with the Leader of the House about the Wicks report, and I understand that neither he nor anyone else has had a chance to reflect fully on its recommendations. However, I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to paragraph 15 of the report, which states:

on Standards and Privileges. To many hon. Members, that seems a good idea. May I urge the Leader of the House to consider it most carefully?

Mr. Cook: I have the highest regard for all those who serve on the Standards and Privileges Committee. They are not on it to follow any party line, and no party line is ever given to them. They serve as hon. Members with independent minds, and often show robust independence. That is to be welcomed. I would hesitate to introduce a party quota system in that Committee, and to place on the official Opposition the burden of providing even more members of Committees, when they plainly have so much difficulty in finding enough Back Benchers to staff present requirements.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): In relation to the question from the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), I believe that all reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee have been unanimous.

My question concerns the launch by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on 23 July of a long consultation on the future of British aviation. The consultation period ends in nine days, on 30 November. Many of my constituents have had great difficulty in obtaining the appropriate documentation for the submission of their views. The Department of Transport has resolutely refused to extend the consultation period. Has my right hon. Friend had any intimation from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that there will be time for a debate between 30 November and the rising of the House four weeks today? Such a debate would allow us to look at some of the issues associated with this very flawed consultation period.

Mr. Cook: I must disabuse the House of the idea that there will be many free days in the period to which my hon. Friend refers. However, I fully understand the enormous importance of this issue to many constituents and to many hon. Members. The consultation period has gone on for four months already, which is significantly longer than the standard period. I can understand why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport should feel that the time may have come to draw that consultation to a close, but that will not and cannot be the end of the debate. I am very much aware that hon. Members will want to continue to contribute to the debate on the options that may be selected, and that from time to time it will be necessary for views to be aired in the Chamber.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Will the Education Secretary come to the House to say why, with our EU

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partners, he has signed up to five very important targets for our education system up to 2010? Those targets will limit our right to fashion education policy in this House. Will he also ask the Transport Secretary to come to the House to comment on rumours that our open skies agreement with the US is now deemed illegal and will have to be denounced by the Government?

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