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28 Nov 2002 : Column 470—continued

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): My right hon. Friend will be aware that at Prime Minister's questions yesterday the Prime Minister answered a question on hoax calls by saying that 7 per cent. of calls are hoaxes. That figure applies only to the present situation with the fire service; the total proportion, as BT intimated to me today, is 50 per cent., which means that there are about 12.5 million hoax calls a year. Will my right hon. Friend secure a statement or a debate about that practice, which puts people's lives at risk?

Mr. Cook: I do not think that by referring to the figure of 7 per cent. the Prime Minister was in any way trying

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to minimise the scale of the diversion and danger caused by hoax calls. Even 1 per cent. is far too many. I am sure that all hon. Members would join me in deploring those who frivolously and wilfully divert important resources, with what could be life-threatening results. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government and the forces of law and order take a severe view of that practice, but I hope that the community will exert pressure to make sure that people realise that it is in their own interests to behave responsibly and not to wantonly misuse the rare resources available to deal with emergencies.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): First, may I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I am sure that the whole House is pleased to see his Parliamentary Private Secretary in his place, further dispelling press reports that he was a rebel on Iraq?

Secondly, on a much more serious note, the Leader of the House will be aware that the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorates daily. Surely, as we have responsibilities in that country, it is important that Ministers come to the Dispatch Box to make statements and to lead debates in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Cook: First, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that of course I always rise with greater ease of mind knowing that my back is being safely guarded. He also gives me an opportunity to put right the error in the Hansard of the other night: if he consults the Division list he will find that my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) allegedly appeared in both Divisions. I am authorised by my hon. Friend to state that he voted only once, and it was with the Government.

On the serious issue of Zimbabwe, I fully share the right hon. Gentleman's concern. The situation continues to deteriorate. Familiar though I am with the behaviour of the Mugabe regime, even I have great difficulty comprehending a regime that will deny food aid to starving people on the basis of political preference, and I am sure that everyone in the House would condemn that activity. We will continue to do all that we can to exert international pressure for a more responsible attitude on the part of that regime.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Can I return to the subject of employers and public liability insurance? Can the Leader of the House find time for a debate? For some months I have been trying without success to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject. In my constituency, not unlike others, businesses are going out of business simply because of the exorbitant premiums that they are being asked to pay or because they cannot get insurance which they are required by law to have. The opaque reference yesterday from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to a review by the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that that should be informed by the experiences of hon. Members, who I am sure have useful information to impart to the Government.

Mr. Cook: I am relieved to tell the House that I have no influence on the allocation of Adjournment debates and do not seek any, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will persist in the hope of greater success in future. On the issue of substance, he raised a matter that has now

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been raised in business questions in the past two weeks by a number of Members. Plainly, it is a serious constituency issue in many quarters. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will note what has been said. Plainly, the Department for Work and Pensions will wish to consider an appropriate follow-up to the Chancellor's remarks to provide fuller information on the intended review.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Will the Leader of the House consider approaching the Minister for Sport for a statement or preferably a debate on the growing feeling that it is time to consider introducing safe standing areas at Premiership football grounds? That debate has been called for by The Southern Daily Echo, which serves Southampton and the New Forest. Experienced people such as former Southampton manager Lawrie McMenemy, who was present at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, told the Echo's campaign:

This is an occasion where a past tragedy should not be allowed to obscure the advances in technology that enable safe seating to be considered in future.

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the reasoned way in which he made his point. My own experience of attending Livingston football matches is in a modern all-seater stadium—[Interruption.] No, there is a large attendance, and we have sought to foster a family atmosphere, which is important and provides for the future of football audiences. There are divided views on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman. I have long realised that if I wish to maintain a position as a consensual Leader of the House I should avoid expressing too strong an opinion about football, but I will convey his point to the Minister for Sport.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Can we please have a debate on small businesses? The annual staging of such a debate was once an established and welcome feature of the affairs of the House. Given that more than 99 per cent. of companies in the United Kingdom employ fewer than 100 people; that they account for approximately 50 per cent. of the private sector work force; and that they generate roughly two fifths of our national output, does the right hon. Gentleman concede that we need urgently to consider the sea of regulation facing them, as it is deeper and more hazardous than any with which they have previously had to contend?

Mr. Cook: On the last point, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that for a period I spoke for the Opposition on trade and industry at the Dispatch Box. During that time, I witnessed a flood of regulation from the Conservative Government.

Mr. Bercow: That was not my fault.

Mr. Cook: I am happy to accept that the hon. Gentleman is not responsible for anything done by the previous Government, but we yearn for the day when an Opposition Member stands up and says, XIt was my responsibility."

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On the issue of a debate on small businesses, I am happy to take that on board and consider it against other competing priorities. Yes, we would very much welcome an opportunity to debate initiatives that we have taken on small business, particularly the introduction of the zero tax rate for small businesses, which only yesterday was extended to many more small businesses and has been widely welcomed in today's press.

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Airports Consultation

1.9 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short statement about the Government's consultation on airports capacity.

As I set out in my statement to the House in July, the Government intend to publish a White Paper on air travel. As part of that, we will set out our views on how much additional airport capacity is needed and where it should be sited. In advance of the White Paper, we published seven consultation papers seeking views on a wide number of options throughout the United Kingdom. Part of that consultation included consideration of capacity in the south-east of England. A number of options were canvassed. One of the key questions was the importance of an international hub airport in the south-east and where it should be sited.

As I said in July, one option was to build at Heathrow, a second option was at Stansted, and a third option was a completely new airport at Cliffe. As well as the question of a hub airport, the south-east consultation paper looked at other matters, including where any new capacity should be located. I told the House in July that I had decided to exclude further development at Gatwick because of a legal agreement ruling out the construction of a new runway before 2019. That decision was challenged last month, when Kent county council and Medway council applied for a judicial review of that decision. On Tuesday the court upheld that challenge.

It might be useful to remind the House why the Government took the decision to exclude Gatwick. I also want to set out how the Government intend to proceed in the light of the court's ruling. The facts in relation to the Government's decision were set out in a witness statement put before the court. I have arranged to place a copy of that statement in the Library. I have also sent a copy of it to the principal Opposition spokesmen, along with this statement, in the usual way.

Briefly, the facts are these. The Government, prior to publishing the consultation papers, had to consider whether to include proposals in relation to Gatwick airport. In particular, they had to consider whether they should ask Parliament to overturn an agreement made in 1979 between the then publicly owned British Airports Authority and West Sussex county council.

The Government decided that it would be highly undesirable to do so as a matter of policy. We considered it important that people should be able to continue to rely on such a legally binding agreement. Accordingly, the Government reached the conclusion in respect of the 1979 agreement that although they could ask Parliament to overturn it, they would consider it appropriate to do so only if there was demonstrably no alternative way forward. That was clearly not the case, having regard to the other options before them.

As the House knows, the court took a different view. It held that people ought to have an opportunity to present their case on expansion at Gatwick. As I made clear in my written statement yesterday, although the court granted leave for the Government to appeal against this decision, I have decided not to do so.

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Inevitably, an appeal would be a lengthy and prolonged process and would result in an extensive period of uncertainty for people up and down the country. That is in no one's interest.

I have therefore decided that the consultation, due to end on 30 November, will be kept open until we have consulted on options in relation to Gatwick. It is only two days since we received the judgment and its implications need to be considered further, but I wanted to keep the House informed about how I intend to proceed. I intend to publish a further paper, following the decision to include Gatwick in the consultation. I will publish these further options in the new year. The consultation period will run for four months from then.

It follows, therefore, that all representations received so far will be considered, together with additional representations that follow from the decision to include Gatwick. As I told the House on 19 November, this is an opportunity for anyone in the country to express their views on all the options in the consultation, as well as to put forward reasonable alternatives. Inevitably the White Paper, which I had hoped to publish in the first part of next year, will be delayed, at least until the autumn of next year.

The Government took the decision to exclude Gatwick because they wanted to honour an agreement. The court has taken a different view. Rather than contest that judgment, I have decided that the right thing to do is to accept it and consult, but inevitably and regrettably, it means an extended period of uncertainty for everyone. The important thing now is to get on and reach a conclusion on what is a critical matter for the future of this country.

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