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21 Nov 2002 : Column 792—continued

Mr. Cook: I welcome any opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills to come to the House and remind hon. Members of the Government's success in attaining the targets for education in the UK that the Government set. For example, we inherited a situation where many infant school classes had more than 30 children, and we have resolved that problem. We have also achieved the best ever literacy and numeracy levels in primary schools, and the best ever GCSE results. In addition, we have the largest ever number of students going into higher education. All those targets were made in Britain and delivered in Britain by this Government.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East): Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on competition policy following the decision by Tesco to merge with T and S stores, which will have a serious effect on local convenience stores in my constituency and in those of other right hon. and hon. Members? This is a matter for the Office of Fair Trading, which has extended the time to consider a referral for a competition inquiry, but surely the House can debate these matters in the meantime.

Mr. Cook: It is of course entirely open to hon. Members to express their views and my hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of putting his view on the record. He is correct that the matter is before the director general of fair trading, who will consider whether to make a report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. In the meantime, it would be inappropriate for any Minister to go further than that or for the House to debate it. However, I fully understand the importance to our constituents of convenience stores as well as supermarkets, as my hon. Friend reminds us.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) raised with the Leader of the House the press conference yesterday in which the Chief of the Defence Staff effectively contradicted the Secretary of State for Defence about the readiness of the armed forces. This is not a light matter. In the past there have been disagreements between senior military officers and the Government in power and sometimes those have leaked out, but this matter is of fundamental constitutional importance. I should like to know whether the Leader of the House has had any indication that the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House and say that he is wrong, in which case I suppose that he would have to resign, or that he has no confidence in the Chief of the Defence Staff, in which case he would have to resign.

Mr. Cook: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not working for one of the tabloids because he has

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managed to over-polarise and over-sensationalise yesterday's exchange. [Hon. Members: XNo."] Of course he has. The Chief of the Defence Staff has certainly not expressed any lack of confidence in the Secretary of State, nor argued with him. It is a statement of the blindingly obvious—which the press always find particularly sensational—that if 19,000 troops are engaged in firefighting duties, they are not available for other purposes. Nobody would seek to deny that. I very much hope that we are successful in averting a firefighters' dispute so that those 19,000 troops are free for their military duties. However, I have not heard any reluctance from anybody in the military on the part of those 19,000 troops and their officers to undertake what they are tasked with by the Government in making sure that they provide for public safety. I am sure that many will willingly do it, perhaps with rather greater commitment than the hon. Gentleman has shown.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): May we have an early statement on the unfolding environmental catastrophe off the coast of Galicia in Spain? Is my right hon. Friend aware that since 1997 more than 80 oil tankers have gone to the bottom, polluting the seas, and that single-hull tankers such as the Prestige will not be banned until 2015? Given that the UK is a leading maritime nation, why can we not join President Chirac in calling for an immediate ban on single-hull tankers?

Mr. Cook: I would not wish to misrepresent the position of President Chirac, but I was Foreign Secretary at the time—I am prompted on this by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), who was the shipping Minister at the time—and in fact President Chirac agreed to the joint effort of the UK and the Netherlands in achieving agreement within the International Maritime Organisation. If I may put the record right, we will not have to wait until 2015 to ban ships such as the Prestige —they will be banned from 2007 under the agreement that was taken with the IMO and reflected in European Union directives.

Having said that, I fully share my hon. Friend's sense of gravity about the environmental disaster that has occurred to a coastline that I know well, which is renowned for its fishing industry and the excellence of its fish diet. This is a grave tragedy, and I hope that the investigation will provide clear pointers as to who is responsible for the disaster.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim): Is the Leader of the House yet in a position to tell us when he will publish new legislation on policing for Northern Ireland? Given the recent suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the discovery of a republican spy ring at Stormont, does he agree that such a Bill should not include further concessions to Sinn Fein-IRA as that would further damage the morale of the police in Northern Ireland, which is already at an all-time low?

Mr. Cook: I am not able to respond at present to the hon. Gentleman's question as to when such a Bill might be published, but I take note of what he says and I fully

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understand that whenever such a measure is brought before the House the debate will inevitably be coloured by recent events in Northern Ireland.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): My right hon. Friend will know that since 1997 the Government have given unrivalled support to public transport and that subsidy for bus services, especially in rural areas, is available as never before. However, does he know that in urban constituencies such as mine there is high car use and traffic congestion, and that no bus service is available to the people of Caversham in my constituency in the evenings or on Sundays? Will he find time for a debate on this issue, which is urgent for all of us, especially in the south-east of England?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend is correct to point out that substantial additional resources are going into public transport in the rural areas—from memory, I think that the extra amount of such support is more than #200 million. The system is working extremely well but we are not, of course, the bus operator. In many places, as a result of the actions of the previous Administration, companies are overwhelmingly in private hands. I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern about the impact on her constituents and I assure her that we shall continue to do all that we can to ensure that the quality of life in rural areas is maintained.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I believe that it is the objective of the Leader of the House that the activities of Parliament, especially the House of Commons, should be more relevant and transparent to those whom we represent. Bearing in mind the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has announced debates for the next fortnight on referendums, which affect local government, on the future of Europe and on Iraq, does he not believe that the House should spend more time debating rather than legislating? Would it be possible for two days to be allocated for some of the bigger and more important debates, as has been historically the case, so that more Members can express their view and the Government can be made aware of the views of the people we represent about the critical issues that will be before the House?

Mr. Cook: I take the hon. Gentleman's point: we have to get the right balance between legislation and debates, between scrutiny and issues of general concern to our constituents. At this stage of the Session it is important for the House that the scrutiny of legislation announced in the Queen's Speech is under way. Indeed, it is in the interests of every Member that adequate time is available for the scrutiny of Bills, which is why it is important to get the process started. From now until Christmas there will be a high proportion of Second Reading debates, but the more of them we can get out of the way at an early date, the more room there will be for general debates after Christmas.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): Is the Leader of the House aware of an early-day motion that I tabled late in the previous Session, commemorating the election, 80 years ago last Friday, of the only prohibitionist Member to serve in the House, Mr. Edwin Scrymgeour? Given the proposals in the Queen's Speech to extend

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licensing hours in England, will my right hon. Friend agree to hold a debate on the financial and social costs for the UK taxpayer of alcohol abuse?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: After Christmas.

Mr. Cook: Possibly it would be timely for Christmas.

The fact that only one prohibitionist has been elected to the House in 80 years may say something about the general views of our constituents, to whom I think the new licensing laws will be broadly welcome. However, there are other social factors to which my hon. Friend referred and we must vigorously continue to tackle them, as we are doing through the provisions of the national health service. The House will have an opportunity to debate the issues when the Bill is introduced, which will, I anticipate, be in good time.

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