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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1051—continued

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): The Leader of the House will have read about the latest bullying of the inspectors by the White House yesterday, when it demanded Xmultiple, simultaneous, aggressive inspections". With this weekend's deadline for the Iraqis to produce their list of weapons or weapon materials due, can we have a debate early next week so that the House can vote on whether it wants to support the dangerous warmongers in the White House or to join with the rest of the world in seeking a non-military solution?

Mr. Cook: We have recently debated Iraq and I am perfectly confident that we will have other debates on it. However, it is very important that we proceed with our legislative programme in the remaining two weeks before the Christmas recess.

On the UN inspectors in Iraq, I have full confidence in Hans Blix, whom I had the privilege of meeting when I was Foreign Secretary. I have told the House that I believe he will do the job with great independence of mind and great thoroughness, given the nature of his technical and diplomatic background.

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It is worth recalling that at present barely a quarter of the total complement of the inspectors has arrived in Iraq. I am confident that as the complement builds up, so will the number of inspections.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): The Transport Act 2000 gave local authorities the right to introduce congestion charges. The Secretary of State for Transport appears, with good reason, to be getting cold feet about that. Given the likely public outcry, and the outcry from business that will face additional costs in January in London, will the right hon. Gentleman find time early in the new year for the House to debate the implementation of congestion charging in London under the Government's legislation?

Mr. Cook: The House has provided the legislation under which congestion charges have been brought forward in London. The scheme for London is the responsibility of the Mayor of London. As we have repeatedly stated, it is important that in bringing forward a scheme, he seeks to achieve consensus and consent from the people of London, and ensures that the scheme will result in a better transport system for London. It is the mayor's scheme, not the Government's scheme. I would not wish to give the mayor the satisfaction of debating every proposal that he makes.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): Will the Leader of the House try to find time for a discussion about the plight of British passport holders travelling in the illegally occupied Palestinian territories? My wife—one of those people—has been virtually arrested four times in a week, and told by the Israeli armed forces that the holding of a British passport is worthless for people of Palestinian origin. I have discovered through our excellent diplomats who are working in the area that this is a situation faced by every British citizen of Palestinian origin. My right hon. Friend will accept from me—I know that he knows this—that it is one of the mysteries of the age that important countries like ours allow Israel to get away with things that no other country would conceivably be allowed to do.

Mr. Cook: In fairness, I should say that my colleagues at the Foreign Office complain robustly if there is any example of a British passport holder being harassed by Israeli authorities. As for the general thrust of my hon. Friend's question, I entirely agree with him. All British citizens are entitled to equal respect and equal attention, both by the British Government and by every other Government. British citizenship is blind on the issues of race or ethnic origin. That is absolutely right, and we are proud of our multicultural diversity. We must insist on the same rights of respect for all our citizens, whoever they might be, from foreign Governments.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): As the Leader of the House was in his normal place on the Government Front Bench during question time yesterday, he will have noted the confusion after the Prime Minister's answers to questions about university finance and top-up fees. It was to such an extent that in today's newspapers it is suggested that the Prime Minister has backed down. Yet the Secretary of State for Education and Skills says something that is quite the opposite. There is total confusion.

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May I ask the Leader of the House, on behalf of students and parents in my constituency and elsewhere, to arrange for the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, or better still the Prime Minister, to come to the Government Dispatch Box to clarify the situation, rather than hiding behind a suggestion that some time in February, perhaps, a decision will be reached?

Mr. Cook: Early in the new year—possibly in January—a White Paper on the review of funding of students in higher education will be published. The right hon. Gentleman is asking for someone to come to the Government Dispatch Box to announce the results of that review before we publish the White Paper on the review. I know that this will probably be a vain plea, but I would invite the House to be more mature on this matter. There are a number of options to be debated, and it is right that these options should be put to the House and the country for debate. It is the start of a process. We should not start now to rule out specific options on the basis of closing down the process before it has even begun.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): In view of yesterday's public statement from the chief executive of the Strategic Rail Authority, will my right hon. Friend clarify the role of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and Members of this place in deciding where investment in our railway system should go?

Mr. Cook: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has rightly and properly drawn on the Strategic Rail Authority to try to ensure that the right priorities are set for the railway industry and that we get to grips with some of the major investment projects, such as the west coast main line, which have not been successfully taken forward by those who were in charge of them previously. We are putting a substantial sum into the 10-year programme, of which investment in the railways is a part. Responsibility for that rests entirely with the Secretary of State for Transport, who is accountable to the House. Everyone in the rail industry recognises that it is an advance to make the Strategic Rail Authority more hands-on, so that it can be in the driving seat and provide more leadership in the industry.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I understand the response that the Leader of the House gave the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on Northern Ireland Orders in Council, but may I have an assurance that if faults are found in those orders after they are passed, there will be opportunities, either in a forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly or in the House, to amend them quickly? May I also plead for a debate in the House on Burma, so that its ethnic population and the Burmese rural community can have a sense of peace and provision at Christmas time?

Mr. Cook: I am very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's reference to the situation in Burma. When I was at the Foreign Office, I had the privilege of visiting one of the refugee camps in Thailand for people from Burma. I was deeply moved by the dignity and patience of people who were obliged to flee and by the tales of the very real brutality which had forced them to walk for

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days over the mountains to escape, including that of one man of 83 who was a former veteran with our own forces in the last war. We owe a debt of gratitude to those people for assisting us in the war. We will continue both to remember their plight and, as the Government are doing, to put pressure on the Burmese Government to improve and change their ways.

On the issue of Northern Ireland, I am sure that if there are any faults in the orders, we will hear about them. Indeed, I suspect that I personally may hear about them on a Thursday morning. Should any such problems emerge, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is ready to rectify them.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): My right hon. Friend will be aware that after business questions there will be a statement on the local government settlement, which makes detailed and complex changes to the financing of local government. It will be difficult for Members to make detailed comments without having had the time to study the settlement. Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate in the House so that when Members and their local authorities have had a chance to look at it, we can make studied comments on the changes?

Mr. Cook: It is customary for us to debate the local government settlement some time after the statement, and I fully accept that many hon. Members will wish to express views on it. In fairness to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, who will be making the statement this afternoon, I should tell the House that he asked me last week to provide notice of it during business questions. Having been given advance notice, hon. Members could be here to talk about the impact on their local area. I know that my right hon. Friend is keen to make sure that he maximises communications with the House, for which he should be respected.

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