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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1054continued
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The Chancellor of the Exchequer was pleased to pray in aid of his estimates and statistics the endorsement of the National Audit Office. I mention that, because I wish to ask for a debate on Government accounting standards. When it comes to accounting for Network Rail's £21 billion contingent liability, the Chancellor rejected the very source of advice prayed in aid of his Budget assumptions. We should therefore have a debate to ensure that the Government are not indulging in any more Enron-style accounting practices.
Mr. Cook: On reflection, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will feel that he did not find the right way of making his point. Nor does it assist the House to appear to imply that the public accounts are in any way irresponsible or false in the way that Enron's were. Were such an idea to gain currency, the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to admit that it would have a severe effect on his constituents and everybody else's, because it would reduce confidence in those accounts. The accounts are presented professionally on the advice of professional statisticians, and I see no reason to disagree at all with the Chancellor of the Exchequer's judgment on Network Rail.
Mr. Cook: As my right hon. Friend will be aware from his long and distinguished service in the House, the reason why the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill comes back to the Floor of the House is that it is a constitutional measure, and, by convention, we deal with important constitutional issues on the Floor of the House. The Hunting Bill does not necessarily or naturally fall into that category, but I hear what he says and I shall discuss it with my colleagues who represent the Department introducing the Bill. We should not lose sight of the fact that the Government deserve credit for bringing the issue before the House so that it can make a decision. At whatever stage, whether in Committee or Report, there will be an opportunity for the full House to take part in that decision.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Can the right hon. Gentleman find time for a debate on the derisory Government funding of children's hospices and, in particular, of the Little Havens children's hospice in my constituency, which receives less than 2 per cent. of its income in Government support? We could also debate the Conservative manifesto promise of providing 40 per cent. Government support for children's hospices. Does he agree that that is a more appropriate funding level?
Mr. Cook: I shall happily look into the particular case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I fully understand that it must be a matter of immediate concern to his constituents. On the broad issue, however, we are frequently struck by the fact that we are faced outside the Chamber by Conservative demands for reductions in spending and taxation, but inside the Chamber we hear only demands for further spending. At some stage, the Opposition owe it to the rest of us to try to square that circle.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): When does my right hon. Friend anticipate that the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform will report to the House? When will the House have an opportunity to vote on any options that the Committee might propose? Will those options be amendable and is it intended that the issue should be decided on a free vote?
Mr. Cook: We have given an assurance that the issue will be taken on a free vote. That was the basis of my statement last June. Indeed, any motion that we put before the House is, by definition, amendable. My understanding is that plenty of options will be proposed by the Joint Committee, and I am not sure whether it will be necessary to table amendments to provide for any more options than the many with which we will be presented. As to the timing, I said last week that the Chairman of the Committee had given an undertaking that he would report before the winter solstice. The solstice is even nearer than it was last week, but,
Patrick Mercer (Newark): The Leader of the House will be aware that in the days preceding the terrorist atrocities in Bali and last week in Mombasa, certain Governments issued warnings to their travelling public. The British Government did not do so. In the light of the closure of the high commission in Nairobi, will the Foreign Secretary come to the Dispatch Box to explain the situation before more lives are lost?
Mr. Cook: We have taken the decision about the high commission in Nairobiit may be said that we have done so with reluctance, as we do not welcome the closure of business in any important capitalbecause of specific intelligence that we received precisely about a threat to that high commission, so it was right, proper and responsible for us to respond. We have received no information about a specific threat to residents in Kenya generally. That is why no specific warning was given.
If we were to be pushed into a position in which, whenever we received a general warning that was not specific, we urged people to close down business in a wide range of countries, we would be doing exactly what al-Qaeda wants us to do. It wants to disrupt business, normal life and commercial success in such countries, and we should not try to anticipate it by doing that for it.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), does my right hon. Friend agree that Richard Bowker's statement this week is more evidence of the catastrophe of rail privatisation that was inflicted on the country by the Conservative party? Does he therefore agree that we should have a full debate on the Floor of the House on the future of the railways in which we could even discuss the possibility of bringing the whole railway system back into public ownership and operating the state-owned system that works so well on the continent of Europe?
Mr. Cook: I fear that the ambition of my hon. Friend's policy objectives would require more than one day's debate on the Floor of the House, but I would not disagree with his preamble, as what we are trying to do in introducing the additional remit that we have given to the Strategic Rail Authority is to remedy the weak regulation under which privatisation took place. We would not have had to take those steps or have this discussion if privatisation had not proceeded with such haste and been introduced with such incompetence.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): May I get back to the royal butlers and the aftermath of the collapsed royal butler trials? Many people will be deeply concerned about the affect of recent events on the reputations of senior royals. Has my right hon. Friend had an opportunity to read early-day motion 281, which I tabled?
[That this House believes all members of the Royal Family who receive gifts from heads of state or heads of government should be invited to enter these in a register updated annually which would be made public, specifying in each case where the gift is located or how it was disposed of.]
The motion respectfully calls for the establishment of a royal register of gifts, which would specify the gifts' location. If they had been disposed of, it would specify when and where. Will my right hon. Friend use his good offices to draw the motion to the attention of those at the palace?
Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend's concern for the reputation of the royal family does him credit as a staunch monarchist. I read his early-day motion with interest when I studied all the motions this morning and I note the innovative idea that he proposes. I hope that it may be possible for the royal family to consider the proposal in the review that they are currently carrying out. No doubt, it would add some transparency, but it is a matter for the royal family to consider and I am sure that they will do so very carefully.
On the two trials, we should not lose sight of the fact that the questions and lessons that need to be asked and learned perhaps rest more with the public servicesthe police and prosecuting authoritiesthan with the royal family.