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21 Nov 2002 : Column 795—continued

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Within the past two hours, some further sad and worrying news has come from Spain—the crash of a pre-production prototype of the Eurofighter. Thankfully, the crew baled out without loss of life and I understand that there were no civilian casualties. However, as the Leader of the House will appreciate, there will be uncertainties and important questions for the tens of thousands of aerospace workers in the north-west of England whose jobs are dependent on the future success of the project. Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for Defence makes a statement on the matter at the earliest opportunity?

Mr. Cook: Eurofighter is an immense project, which is of great importance to the British aviation industry, as well as for Europe's defence strategy. I very much hope that any necessary questions will be pursued to find out what may have gone wrong on this occasion. One incident, however serious and life threatening, does not itself call the project into question, so I counsel the right hon. Gentleman not to demand answers more quickly than it is possible for any sensible investigation to find them.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): I too should like to ask the Leader of the House about the vexed question of top-up fees in universities, not in the context of Cabinet collective responsibility but in relation to when Parliament will have an opportunity to express a view on the matter, rather than being sidelined while we take part in what appears at the moment to be something of a spectator sport. Bearing in mind the fact that more than 100 hon. Members have now signed early-day motion 2, is it not high time that a debate was granted on top-up fees for universities so that the views of our constituents can be properly aired?

[That this House notes with concern that a number of elite universities are making contingency plans for top up fees, which would create a two tier university system; and urges the Government to adhere to its policy of ruling out such extra charges in this and successive future parliaments.]

Mr. Cook: As I have already told the House, the Government will publish a review in the new year.

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From the exchanges today and other occasions, I am certainly well aware of the enormous interest in the matter in the House and the wish that the House will undoubtedly have to debate it, but it seems more appropriate that the House should debate the issue when it has before it a review and a statement of options, rather than in the abstract and in the absence of such a focus for debate. The review will not propose hard-cut single options; it will provide a variety of options, and it will be for the House to express its view on them and it will be fully involved.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his comments about holding a debate on Iraq next Monday. Clearly, that is a deeply important subject, but the public conflict between the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Secretary of State for Defence is equally important and deserves not to be subsumed in another debate. Will the Leader of the House confirm whether the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House to explain the anomalies of view between those two individuals?

Mr. Cook: Of course the Secretary of State for Defence will be here on Monday. The debate will most certainly involve those who handle our affairs, and it will be perfectly plain that we will want to ensure that there is full preparation if the military are required in Iraq, but I would advise the House that we require a certain maturity. There is no suggestion in anything said by the Chief of the Defence Staff that he is opposed to any involvement in Iraq if that is required, no suggestion that the services are not ready for that and no suggestion that they are not willing to undertake the duties that are required to stand in for the firemen if the latter go into dispute. The obvious solution to all those problems is that we avert the dispute, but if we cannot do so I do not believe that the Chief of the Defence Staff is seriously saying that he cannot undertake the necessary duties.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Unscrupulous commercial landlords can buy houses in my constituency for about #8,000, put tenants in them without making those houses decently habitable and then not concern themselves at all about the antisocial behaviour of those tenants. My constituents hope that that major issue will be dealt with in the draft housing Bill, which was proposed in the Queen's Speech. I wonder whether the Leader of the House can give us an idea of when that Bill might be published and when we might therefore be able to start its pre-legislative scrutiny.

Mr. Cook: I fully understand my hon. Friend's concern. The issue that he raises is a repeated concern in many of my hon. Friends' constituencies. Of course what makes it particularly serious is that communities that are already on a knife-edge as to whether they can survive are often destabilised by the actions of such unscrupulous landlords. That is why we propose to provide local authorities with the necessary powers in the forthcoming housing Bill. I anticipate that my hon. Friend will have sight of that draft some time in the new year and with good time for pre-legislative scrutiny to take place in this Session.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): We look forward to the Second Reading of the local

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government Bill in due course, but I would be grateful to the Leader of the House if he clarified whether it is the Government's policy to repeal section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, as I was unable to get a clear answer on that yesterday. Will he also clarify why the Government have asked Back Benchers to propose such amendments usually on Report, rather than putting the provision in the Bill itself so that it can be debated fully in Committee?

Mr. Cook: I recall that the Labour party has a manifesto commitment on section 28, but on the proceedings in relation to the Bill, it is perfectly valid to table amendments on Report. Indeed, that is a good way for the full temper and view of the House to be heard in a way that cannot be done in Committee, which necessarily consist of only 16 hon. Members. I would robustly resist any suggestion that an amendment tabled on Report is in any way a lesser amendment, and in view of the debates that may take place in the other place, I would suggest that it is not in the hon. Gentleman's interest to press that view either.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): Can my right hon. Friend tell the House when it will have an opportunity to debate the Government's proposed tax on plastic carrier bags, the environmental benefits of which are not as clear-cut as some of its supporters might assume? I ask that because a company called Simpac in my constituency may have to consider laying off up to 40 people if the tax is introduced in its current form. I will have an opportunity to debate the matter next week in Westminster Hall, but all Members would welcome knowing when we will have an opportunity to consider the proposed legislation.

Mr. Cook: Any such legislation is a long way away. All we are considering at present is what may be in a performance and innovation unit report that will come out next week. I have read reports in the press that I suspect may be slightly coloured versions of what may be in that review. I invite my hon. Friend to study it with care when it comes out next week, and to vigorously express any view that he feels is appropriate before any legislation is on the horizon.

Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): The Leader of the House will surely recall that the Scottish electorate, prior to their referendum for new strata of government, were promised that the cost of their Parliament would not exceed #40 million. With that price now escalating towards #400 million, and with the prospect of the Scottish Parliament having to meet in a public house from September next year, what opportunities will there be for us to make clear to the English regions the poor experience in Scotland of regional government, and to do what we can to explore the issue with every possible means?

Mr. Cook: It is for the English regions to consider those factors that they think are relevant when they come to judge whether they wish to vote in a referendum for a regional assembly for themselves. They will no doubt consider many factors, including some of the extremely popular, distinctive polices that have been pursued by the Scottish Executive, and the fact that we

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have been successful in passing 10 times as many Scottish Acts in the Scottish Parliament as we ever would have passed at Westminster. The hon. Gentleman should be honest with the Chamber and with his constituents, too. If he is really proposing that his party would abolish the Scottish Parliament and end devolution, he should say so. If he is not saying that, he should stop carping from the sidelines.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I wonder whether you noticed, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how untypical it was of the Leader of the House to fail to look in the eye my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) or my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) when they raised their points about the Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief of the Defence Staff's extreme concern about the state of the armed forces under this Government. May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Defence about whether he still has confidence—as he should have—in the Chief of the Defence Staff, even though the Chief of the Defence Staff evidently has no confidence in him?

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