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5 Dec 2002 : Column 1060—continued

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Following the question from the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) about the decision by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General and head of the National Audit Office, that the £21 billion loan guarantee to Network Rail should have appeared in the Treasury balance sheets earlier in this Session, will the Leader of the House please find time for a debate on this matter? The amount of off-balance sheet activities that the Chancellor is sanctioning now aggregates to £100 billion or more, which is 10 per cent. of gross

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domestic product. This is more than a concern for sad accountants who ought to get out more; it is a concern for the House. We should demonstrate to the public at large that decisions at the heart of our economic strategy are based on professional decisions and not on political dogma.

Mr. Cook: I am not quite sure what point my hon. Friend was making in his closing remark. [Interruption.] No, I mean that genuinely. I believe that we have immensely handicapped the investment in our public sector by the way in which we have refused to recognise that the economic activity of investment in our transport system has precisely the same economic impact whether it is done by the public or the private sector. If it is right for Network Rail to invest when it is a private company, it must plainly also be right and economically beneficial for it to do so when it is within the public sector. My hon. Friend should not be putting up barriers against sensible investment in our future transport system, which will be good and efficient and will make Britain more competitive.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the subject of increasing violence between next-door neighbours? I understand that, only recently, a married man living in the Westminster area was viciously mugged by his highly aggressive next-door neighbour after a long-running dispute over something called top-up fees. Will the Leader of the House tell us whether there is any truth in the rumour that the Prime Minister has now officially applied for an antisocial behaviour order against his own Chancellor?

Mr. Cook: I—[Hon. Members: XAnswer!"] For a moment there, time stood still for me. I think that the hon. Gentleman was trying to be funny—

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Yes, he was.

Mr. Cook: Ah! I am glad to have that confirmation, because there was some doubt on this side of the House as to whether he was so trying. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, if he waits for the review next year, he will find that all neighbours within the Government are in full support of each other.

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West): Further to the question on asbestos from my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham), if a proposal from a Conservative Front Bencher in the House of Lords on the annulment of regulations that have been debated in the House in Government time and signed into law can be passed, where does that leave us in terms of the process? The regulations on white asbestos are long overdue and we cannot afford a parliamentary ping-pong while people go unprotected.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Get rid of the Lords.

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) expresses a characteristically robust view.

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Clearly, that is an issue of great gravity and of considerable and wide political interest. I am sure that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will take note of our exchanges and whatever outcome there may be next week.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Further to the Leader of the House's disappointing replies on top-up fees to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), may I reiterate the plea for an urgent clarificatory statement of Government policy? Does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise the fact that, for so long as Ministers continue to argue like ferrets in a sack, doubt will continue to persist as to whether he stands by his statement of 24 April 1997 to Leeds university student radio, to wit, XTuition costs must be picked up by the state. We are quite clear about that."?

Mr. Cook: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking me down memory lane. My interview at Leeds university had slipped my mind, but I shall certainly make a point of reinvestigating it.

Again, I must tell the House that if we are to have a review and if that review is then to provide a number of options, there is no point whatever in the House trying to decide which options should be in and which should be out before the first paper has even been published. It is important that the Government should have the capacity to propose options for consultation for debate, and I think it important that the Government should ask hard questions and be willing, occasionally, to ask themselves tough questions. That does not necessarily mean that the specific tough questions may be those that result in the chosen option, but we should not try to close down a debate before it has even begun.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Will the Leader of the House consider scheduling a debate following yesterday's announcement in Germany that unemployment there has risen to 4.16 million, which is 9.7 per cent. of the working population? Only seven constituencies in this country have a greater percentage of unemployed. Given that we are constantly being told that the euro is a great success, can we have a debate on what failure means?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend has strong views on those matters. If I may, I invite him to retain, if it is possible, perhaps not an open mind, but just the chink of a loophole in his mind to accept some new ideas on them when we receive the economic assessment. On the specific question of Germany, if he reviews the matter with German industrialists, he will find that many of them are clearly of the view that the German export industry would have been badly hit had Germany stayed out of the euro.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the future of adult placement schemes? I raised the matter in the summer Adjournment debate, I have written letters to Ministers and tabled written questions, but I have not received a single answer. Is he aware that families who take in vulnerable adults and keep them out of the care

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system are giving up because they are regulated by the National Care Standards Commission and they have to work through 33 policies and a huge bureaucracy? Why cannot they be regulated by local social services departments, just like foster care schemes and as they were for many years?

Mr. Cook: While it is important to have a local dimension to any inspection system, it is also important that schemes are operating to national standards. I would not accept any criticism of the importance of our having national standards to ensure that adults in care are properly cared for. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State responsible, who may wish to write to him, but I see nothing wrong with having national standards to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the case of my constituent, Mr. Sandy Mitchell, who has been sentenced to beheading in Saudi Arabia. The legal process is under way in that country. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that time is found for Ministers to keep the House informed of any developments?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend touches on one of a number of very distressing cases that are of real concern to Her Majesty's Government. We have repeatedly made representations on those cases and our consul in Saudi Arabia is in contact. My hon. Friend rightly refers to what one might describe as the opaque character of the Saudi Arabian judicial system, but we will do all that we can within the limits of operating under that system to ensure that the case is represented and to secure fair treatment of Sandy Mitchell and the others who have been accused.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): May I reiterate the request for a debate made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins)? In January 2002, the Strategic Rail Authority told my constituents that the West Anglia Great Northern modernisation and enhancement would be complete by 2006–07. Now we are told that it may happen in five, 10 or 15 years, if at all. The Leader of the House must recall that the chairman of the SRA, Richard Bowker, said in January that that plan marked a line in the sand. When will the House have an opportunity to find out what happened between January 2002 and today that means that all those potential rail network enhancements have been thrown out of the window?

Mr. Cook: In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, he has taken action to try to ensure that we can achieve greater certainty and a greater sense of priorities among the major projects that

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are necessary to modernise our railway system. The Conservatives, however, suspended virtually all investment during the rail industry privatisation, which resulted in spectacular failures of investment in major lines, so it hardly lies in the mouth of a Conservative Member who supported that privatisation to criticise us as we try to sort out the mess that they left behind.

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