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28 Nov 2002 : Column 467—continued

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Could the House have an opportunity to debate the document XAgenda for Change" that appears to have been launched in today's press. It would seem to offer a public sector pay settlement that is based on double-digit pay increases for the lowest-paid public sector workers, increased investment to raise the standards of public services, a modernisation agenda written by the unions themselves, and, crucially, no job losses. In the space that exists in the current firefighters' dispute, will the Prime Minister invite the Fire Brigades Union to No. 10 Downing street to discuss its agenda for change and to help get us out of the hole into which we appear to have been digging ourselves?

Mr. Cook: On my hon. Friend's latter point, we have repeatedly invited the Fire Brigades Union to return to the negotiating table and to discuss proposals for modernisation. Those modernisation proposals must not simply be the agenda of the Fire Brigades Union—which it is welcome to put on the table—but must embrace the interesting proposals in the Bain review on where real efficiency and productivity gains can be

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made. For instance, there could be an end to the current practice by which full-time firefighters decline to get on the same fire engine as part-time firefighters—

Alan Simpson: Not true.

Mr. Cook: I am afraid that that is the case.

On my hon. Friend's other point, I presume from what he says that he welcomes the conclusion of the XAgenda for Change" outcome. I certainly think that there is much to commend it to the House and to the public, particularly in the way that it will address some of those who are lowest paid in the public service. I hope that my hon. Friend will find it in himself wholeheartedly to welcome and support that, without necessarily using it as a ramp for other settlements.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): The Leader of the House will be aware that in a knowledge-based age our best assets are well-trained young people. Could we therefore have a statement from the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland on why, when some young people are told that no discretionary awards are available, education boards are not able to award all the money that has been allocated for discretionary awards? Is there a case to be made for lowering the standard of assessment so that those awards can be effectively used?

Mr. Cook: I know that my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for education in Northern Ireland is active in trying to make sure that we build on the success that has been secured in the Northern Ireland education system. I shall happily draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to her attention, and I am sure that she will want to communicate directly with him.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): I recognise the pressures of the Government's legislative programme, but could consideration sometimes be given to allowing two days for debates on vital issues such as Iraq? Last Monday, despite a stringent time limit on speeches, which tended to restrict interventions, many Members were still waiting to speak at the end of the debate, while others had given up. Surely such momentous matters merit thorough consideration.

Mr. Cook: I do not disagree that the matter requires thorough consideration and I know that there is substantial interest in it throughout the House. There is significant pressure on the available time in the Chamber for business of the House and, in present circumstances, I cannot hold out the promise of a two-day debate on Iraq or any other subject. However, I am mindful of the interest in such matters and will obviously bear in mind how much time we can provide in future.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on procedures for the listing of buildings? It is possible for a building to be listed without the knowledge of the owner and without disclosure of the identity of the applicant. That has happened to a church in my constituency, Cranham All Saints, which wanted to knock down and rebuild a Victorian church hall that had gone beyond the point of

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easy maintenance and repair. It has caused enormous complications in the planning process and there seem to be injustices in the listing procedures.

Mr. Cook: No doubt there are opportunities for ensuring that the process works better and more transparently, and there will be a chance to examine such issues in the forthcoming planning Bill. As a matter of principle, the consent of the owner of a building should not be a condition of the listing of a building. There will be times when the opinion of a building's owners is at variance with that of the general community on the value of the building, its importance to the community and townscape, and the importance of preserving it.

John Cryer (Hornchurch): My right hon. Friend will know that there have been two recent debates on local government finance. Both were curtailed and many hon. Members did not have the chance to put the case for their boroughs or districts. Most importantly, I have not been able to put the case for the London borough of Havering, which has traditionally been caned by the standard spending assessment, although we have done marginally better in the past five years. Will it be possible to debate the statement when it is made on 5 December?

Mr. Cook: It would be wrong to have a debate on 5 December because the figures will have only just been shared with the House. We announced that statement today because we know of the considerable interest among Members, such as my hon. Friend, in what will be allocated to their local authority, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Local Government and the Regions was keen that there should be advance notice of that. I look forward to a well attended statement next Thursday.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the pressing issue of shortages of general practitioners around the United Kingdom, not least in my constituency of Rayleigh, which has the fourth highest ratio of patients to GPs? The debate would allow us to press the Government on their proposals for increasing the supply of domestically trained GPs instead of relying, as they increasingly do, on the sticking-plaster solution of desperately trying to recruit doctors from abroad to plug the gaps.

Mr. Cook: I gently point out to the hon. Gentleman that more GPs are in Britain now than ever before and more people are in training to become GPs than ever before. There are certainly more than there were when the Government he supported were in office. That is a substantial step forward.

Of course we recognise that things are not satisfactory in every part of Britain and we shall continue to address the problem. That is why we have considered a number of solutions, especially providing financial incentives for people to become GPs and to stay GPs. We are looking at where it might be possible to find people with the appropriate training and standards to come to Britain to help us to achieve our objective of ensuring that we serve

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the British public. We will consider all solutions, not just one. Let us not lose sight of the fact that more people are working as GPs than was ever the case under the Conservative Government.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Has my right hon. Friend seen this week's report by Lord Carlile, who was appointed by the Government to oversee the workings of the Terrorism Act 2000? It described the network of small ports and small airstrips in this country as a Xsoft underbelly" that could be exploited by terrorists trying to smuggle in deadly materials. As someone who represents a small port, Lowestoft, which I know my right hon. Friend has visited, may I ask him whether a Minister could come to the House to make a statement about the report, to reassure people and to explain what can be done to minimise the risk identified?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend does his constituency an injustice: Lowestoft is not that small a port, but one of considerable significance. I am aware of Lord Carlile's report, which is the product of the new system that we have put in place. We welcome the general tenor of the report. It makes a number of detailed suggestions, and we will want to consider carefully how we respond to them. I can assure my hon. Friend that the matter is being taken very seriously in government, and we will certainly want to respond positively where we can.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside): As a patriotic Scot, the Leader of the House will know that on Saturday we celebrate St. Andrew's day, so I wonder whether he is open to the suggestion that in future we hold a general debate on Scottish issues on or around St. Andrew's day, similar to that afforded to our Welsh colleagues on St. David's day.

Hon. Members: What about St. George's day?

Mr. Cook: Of course I am well aware that Saturday is St. Andrew's day; indeed, I intend to spend it celebrating in my constituency at a St. Andrew's day dinner in the excellent club of the very successful Livingston football team. I hear the bid for St. George's day too, and I say to hon. Members that not a week goes by in Parliament without our debating issues of considerable interest to Scotland and to England. I will take the hon. Gentleman's suggestion on board. St. Andrew's day will not come round for another full year and we will have to weigh the matter then against the pressure of business. I am confident, however, that it will fall on the same date as it has this year.

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