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12 Dec 2002 : Column 396—continued

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): Andrew Neil.

Mr. Forth: At least, I did not realise that it was. As far as I know, it is not one of the usual suspects. If Labour Members are telling us that The Scotsman has now been added to the lengthening list of newspapers that they want to ignore in all circumstances, that is another fact that we should add to this ghastly mix.

If the Prime Minister will not set up an inquiry, will the Leader of the House tell us who will? Otherwise, these matters, which are disturbing the public as well as hon. Members, will go on and on indefinitely, and that does neither the Government nor this country any good.

Mr. Cook: I shall endeavour to restore some sanity and perspective to this matter, although after the last week or two I appreciate the great difficulty of doing so.

Let me deal first with the narrow question of blind trusts. Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously arguing that a Minister is not entitled to use his assets to purchase a flat for his son or daughter to live in while at university? That was the implication of his question. The right hon. Gentleman said that the beneficiaries should not know what was going on. Is he seriously arguing that the trustees should have purchased a flat in Bristol and refused to tell the Blairs where their son was going to live? Is that really what he is trying to tell us?

The right hon. Gentleman is of course right to say that these questions have been answered before. They are answered in a letter from the Cabinet Secretary to one of his colleagues, in which the Cabinet Secretary rightly points out:

As for the allegations in The Scotsman, I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is aware—although he did not mention it—that Carole Caplin made a statement this morning rebutting some of them, and I understand that the others are being rebutted even as we speak. [Interruption.] Of course they are being rebutted. They are being rebutted by respected press officers in the civil service—career civil servants.

After two weeks of poring over this matter, no one has established that Mrs. Blair has done anything improper or illegal. If she stands accused of anything, it is trying

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to provide secure accommodation for her son so that he can attend university, and being a loyal friend. Those are things for which many married women up and down the country will applaud her. They will not join in the cheapjack attempts to make party political capital out of families.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that we can proceed to political matters, and not bring families on to the Floor of the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I want to refer to the much wider issue of the use of civil servants to deal with what are not properly Government matters. I hope the Leader of the House will now be able to tell us when he expects to present legislation relating to the civil service, and when he expects to receive the report from the Wicks committee on the use of political advisers and the way in which some civil servants seem to have been put in a difficult position in the political process.

I also want to refer to an issue that has arisen many times before at this point in the week: the fact that the media seem to be informed about important Government statements before Members of Parliament. Today, the media clearly received the strategy for sustainable farming and food, the Government's response to the Curry report, long before it was available to Members. Indeed, we were given press statements from the National Farmers Union before we saw documents that are extremely important for this afternoon's debate. Will the Leader of the House think about that again?

I hope that the Leader of the House has had time during his busy week to look at the first report of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, signed by 24 Members of both Houses. If he has, I hope that he noted that we have disposed of the argument that a second Chamber with a substantially elected element automatically challenges the pre-eminence of this House. That myth has gone for good.

When does the Leader of the House expect a debate to take place in the two Houses, and when does he expect us to be able to vote on certain options relating to the composition of the second Chamber. When that happens, if the two Houses choose a different option, will the decision of the elected Members of this House—which everyone keeps telling us must be pre-eminent—prevail?

Mr. Cook: The Wicks report is a matter for the Wicks committee, not for me. I have no information on when the committee might be able to report, but we will consider carefully whatever observations it may make about the civil service, and the possible implications for legislation.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about statements coming to the House first. We have tried hard to ensure that that happens, and I think that hon. Members will accept that there have been some improvements. However, it has been common practice for a long time for reports that will become public to be

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available on an embargoed basis to those bodies most likely to be approached for comment. I think that it would have been wrong for the Government to have sought to conceal it from the National Farmers Union, but we will certainly try to ensure that this House is the first place where any document goes public.

On the second Chamber, I welcome the report of the Joint Committee; I congratulate it on having achieved its own deadline and on the effort that has gone into the report's preparation. I particularly welcome the fact that one of the first criteria that the Committee identifies as appropriate to a second Chamber is legitimacy. Legitimacy in the modern world is served by representative character, and one way of securing a representative character is by having an elected element.

We naturally wish to proceed with a debate on the report as soon as is practical; I anticipate such a debate taking place in January. There will, of course, be a free vote in both Houses. It is consistent with our commitment to a free vote that both Houses may come to a different conclusion. However, I do not think that it would help the temper of the debate or be diplomatic of me to suggest which view should prevail in those circumstances.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the mounting concern across the nation created by the operation of some claims management organisations that aggressively tout for business on the so-called no win, no fee basis? During his busy life, has he managed to see any of the excellent exposés by the BBC's XWatchdog" and XThe Money Programme" that demonstrate how the unscrupulous activities of such organisations cost taxpayers and businesses millions of pounds? Is it not time for an urgent debate in the House to examine where we draw the line between giving people with limited resources the opportunity to pursue legitimate claims while curbing the cancer of cynically touted and, in some cases, bogus claims?

Mr. Cook: I hear what my hon. Friend says and am glad that he has been able to put those observations on the record. I share his anxiety at our society's increasing trend to become more litigious. I believe that the people who are most likely to gain are those who make their livelihood from pursuing claims rather than the innocent people on either side of the case.

In some cases, the no win, no fee arrangement may be appropriate. I acknowledge that many people have been enabled to appear in court on the basis of just such arrangements. However, my broad experience of the legal profession is that whoever makes money out of a case, it usually includes the lawyers.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): May we have a statement or a debate on the preparedness of this country for terrorist assault on the basis that we may have to face, unexpectedly, attack by means of chemical or biological weapons? As part of that debate, may we consider what, if anything, remains of the former civil defence arrangements for facing the threat of attack by nuclear weapons, what remains of the doctrine that was then in place and what it is wise to confide to the public, bearing it in mind that despite recent remarks about the

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wish not to create panic, the British public is rather good about not panicking when they are told the facts and the dangers that they have to face?

Mr. Cook: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the calm and stoicism of the British public. I wish that those sterling British qualities were more often demonstrated by the press that sells to the British public. On defence against such an attack, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that several measures have been put in hand to strengthen those protections and make sure that we are up to speed. I am not sure, however, that a sensible way of approaching such a debate would be to go back to the historic arrangements and see whether there should be a natural continuum. The historic arrangements for civil defence were put in place when we anticipated a possible major attack by another major state power armed with substantial nuclear arsenals and other weapons. That threat has receded in the modern era. We are faced with a quite new and, until recently, unanticipated threat of a major attack by a terrorist organisation that is a non-state actor. That certainly puts an obligation on the Government to ensure that they are in a good position to protect the public, but it is a different threat and may require different solutions.

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